Windham Life and Times – May 22, 2015

Indian Meadows

An Indian Settlement

An Indian Settlement

At right, is a late 17th century representation of an East Coast Algonquian village. A description of the semi-abandoned Pigwacket village made in 1703 by an English scouting party led by Major Winthrop Hilton states: “When we came to the fort, we found about an acre of ground, taken in with timber [palisaded], set in the ground in a circular form with ports [gates], and about one hundred wigwams therein; but had been deserted about six weekes, as we judged by the opening of their barnes [storage pits] where their corn was lodged.”  The bark-covered wigwams or longhouses in this view are typical of Abenaki dwellings used in this region.  By tradition, “Pigwacket” is said to mean “at the cleared place.”

One of the interesting items found in Joseph Howe’s Historical Sketch of the Town of Methuen, was the references to “Indian meadows.” In 1642, a large area along the Merrimack River, into southern New Hampshire, was purchased from the Native Americans. In the deed is states that, “We, Passaquo and Saggahew, with ye consent of Passaconnaway: have sold unto ye inhabitants of Pentuckett all ye lands we have in Pentuckett…in consideration of ye same three pounds & ten shillings.” Before the Europeans came, this area was heavily populated by Native Americans.
From the Bethel, Maine historical society we learn that, “…the Abenaki, an eastern Algonquian sub-group, maintained their historic homeland over an area stretching from the Iroquoian tribal lands in southern Québec to the northern Massachusetts border and from the Passamaquoddy territory in eastern Maine to the shore of Lake Champlain in western Vermont.  Translated as “people of the Dawnland” or “eastern people,” the Abenaki were composed of numerous bands of Native Americans historically identified by the names of the river valleys, or principal villages, in which they lived at the time of European contact.”

“Data is lacking for a reliable estimate of Abenaki populations before 1600, but it is reasonable to state that in that year several thousand individuals inhabited the White Mountain region of Maine and New Hampshire, with a total population in New England as a whole of well over 100,000 native people.  Interrelated through marriage, and sharing a common dialect, the Abenaki participated in an annual cycle of migration that took them southward to seashore camps for the summer, northward to deep woods hunting camps in the winter, and back to their riverside villages for late fall feasting and spring fishing and planting.”

“By the middle of the 17th century, the traditional Indian way of life in this region was undergoing drastic change.  An attitude of friendly curiosity turned to distrust and hostility as the native population watched their numbers rapidly dwindle due to virulent epidemics introduced by Europeans.  Indian intertribal relationships disintegrated due to the burgeoning fur trade and the introduction of firearms.  The demand for furs, especially, strained the native economy by using up time previously spent in search of large game for food and skins; the fur trade also made natives much more aware of the importance of territorial boundaries, a concept foreign to the Abenaki before European notions of private land use and ownership were imposed on the region.  The intermingling of cultures was further strained by the effects of the liquor trade, a significant component in English and French efforts to maintain Abenaki allegiances as the century wore on.”

Now, with that brief synopsis of Native American history in New England, we return to Indian meadows. It seems that in the early settlement of Haverhill, the most desirable tracts, was land that had been cleared by the Indians. Howe states, “….It is said that the uplands at the time were mostly covered by a heavy growth of timber, except and occasional spot burned over by fires set by the Indians. The meadows were, many of them, cleared and covered with a tall and dense growth of grass. The Indians were accustomed to burn the grass in the fall, that they might more easily capture the deer resorting to them to feed on the young grass in the spring. These meadows appear to have been much sought after by the early settlers, who obtained from them he principle subsistence for their cattle. They cut and stacked the hay in summer and in the winter drew it home on sleds. An early writer says of Haverhill: ‘keeping of cattle…encourages them to spend their days in those remote parts… being an overwhelming desire in most men after meadow land.’ ”

Native Americans were not the “live in harmony with the land” types we’ve been lead to believe. “The most significant type of environmental change brought about by Pre-Columbian human activity was the modification of vegetation. … Vegetation was primarily altered by the clearing of forest and by intentional burning. Natural fires certainly occurred but varied in frequency and strength in different habitats. Anthropogenic fires, for which there is ample documentation, tended to be more frequent but weaker, with a different seasonality than natural fires, and thus had a different type of influence on vegetation. The result of clearing and burning was, in many regions, the conversion of forest to grassland, savanna, scrub, open woodland, and forest with grassy openings.”(William M. Denevan) In Windham, the “Range” between Cobbett’s Pond and Canobie Lake was once a large, Indian settlement, which was abandoned. This may have been one of the “remote parts” of Haverhill that attracted first English and then Scotch-Irish settlers.

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