The Native Americans of the Merrimack Valley
Each and every day we live and travel in a place filled with Native American names, and never think about the people who bequeathed us their heritage.
From the late 1500’s though the arrival of the Europeans in 1620, the Merrimack Valley was a type of Eden to various Native American tribes. It all came to an end, because of inter tribal warfare, European plagues that killed upwards of 80-90% of the native population and the overwhelming numbers of European settlers. During this time “the most powerful tribes of the interior, and probably of New England, north of the Pequots, had their residence in the valley of the Merrimack, upon the productive falls and fertile meadows of that beautiful river.” The Merrimack afforded superior advantages for Indian settlements the most prominent being the rapids and falls that provided abundant fishing grounds. Spears, dip-nets, seines and weirs allowed the Native Americans to easily catch myriads of alewives, shad, and salmon. The woods along the banks were filled with moose, deer, and bears and the ponds, lakes and sources or its tributaries were teeming with water fowl.
“In this beautiful ‘Valley of the Merrimack,’ with all these attractions of fertile planting grounds, and abundance of fish, and hunting grounds of unlimited extent…It was the very paradise of Indian imagination.” The tribes along the Merrimack were the Agawam, Wamesit, or Pawtucket, Nashua, Souhegan, Namaoskeag, Pennacook, and Winnepesaukee. One of the largest settlements was located near the current city of Lowell, Massachusetts. “Wamesit, is derived from Wame (all of whole) and Auke (a place) with the letter “s” thrown in betwixt the two syllables for the sake of sound. The Indian village at this place, undoubtedly received this name from the fact that is was a large village where the Indians collected together. This was literally true in the spring and summer, as the Pawtucket falls, near by, were one of the most noted fishing places in New England, where the Indians from far and near, gathered together in April and May, to catch and dry their year’s stock of shad and salmon. Wamesit was embraced nearly in the present limits of the city of Lowell…The Indians in this neighborhood were sometimes called Pawtuckets, from the falls in the Merrimack, of that name. Pawtucket, means the forks, being derived from the Indian word Pohchatuk (a branch.) Pawtucket seems, however, to have been applied by the English, to all the Indians north of the Merrimack, rather than a particular tribe at the falls of that name.” “The Nashuas occupied the lands upon the Nashua and the intervals upon the Merrimack, opposite and below the mouth of that river. Nashua means the river with the pebbly bottom—” “The Souhegans lived lived upon the Souhegan River, occupying the rich intervals upon both banks of the Merrimack, above and below the mouth of the Souhegan. Souhegan is a contraction of Souheganash, and Indian noun in the plural number meaning worn out lands. These Indians were often called Natacooks or Nacooks, from their occupying ground that was free from trees, or cleared land—Netecook meaning clearing. The Namaoskeags resided at the falls of the Merrimack known by the present name of Amoskeag, in Manchester.” Namaske, Namaoskeag, Naumkeag, and Maimkeak, means the fishing place from Namaos (a fish) and Auke (a place.)
The Pennacooks occupied the rich intervals at Pennacook, now embraced by the towns of Bow, Concord, and Boscawen. “They were thus called, from Pennaqui (crooked) and Auke, (place,) the intervals at Concord, which are extensive, being embraced within the fold of the Merrimack, which winds its way along, in a very crooked manner.” The Winnepesaukies occupied the lands in the vicinity of the lake of that name, one of their noted fishing places being at the outlet, now known as the Weirs, the parts of the permanent Indian weirs having remained long after the advent of the whites. “Winnepesaukee is derived from Winne (beautiful) nipe (water) kees (high) and Auke (a place) meaning literally, the beautiful water of the high place.”
“Of these several tribes, the Pennacooks were the most powerful; and either from their superiority, arising from a long residence upon a fertile soil. And hence more civilized; or from having been for a long period under the rule of a wise chief,—and perhaps from both causes united,—had become the head, as it were of a powerful confederacy. It is well known that the Winnepesaukee, Amoskeag, Souhegan, and Nashua tribes, were completely subservient to the Pennacooks; while the Wamesits were so intermarried with them, as to be mainly under their control, acknowledge fealty to Passaconaway, and finally, with the other tribes upon the Merrimack, became merged with the Pennacooks, and ceased to be distinct tribes, in fact or name.”
After the demise of the Native Americans, the rich fishing grounds of the Merrimack fell to the Scotch-Irish and other Europeans until industrial pollution and dams destroyed them.
Source: Historian C.E. Potter, History of Manchester formerly Derryfield