This article includes a classic example of the minimization of a 10,000 year-long (or longer) indigenous presence in the landscape, exemplified by characterizing cultural usage patterns as ephemeral and insubstantial. This biased historical trope is deployed typically in comparison to later European land settlement practices such as fence- and wall-bounded properties, permanent structures, commoditized agriculture, and extractive industry.
The narrative device is used so often it has become de rigueur and may not even raise an eyebrow in notice. In this case, the statement is made: “There’s no evidence that Native Americans lived on the mountain, but they may have used it as a strategic lookout.” This, in spite of the fact that the subsequent post-Contact history (to draw a fuzzy gray line) was and is exactly that as well.
Given that the Champlain Sea is estimated to have been about 450 feet above current Lake levels, Mt. Philo and a few other nearby elevations would have been islands at the time, projecting only a fraction of their mass above the surrounding brackish water. They would have been heavily utilized by the region’s first inhabitants for occupation, food processing, resource gathering, and reconnaissance. With a broad prospect over the water- and landscape, the eminence would play a significant and lasting role for the Native descendants of these first peoples. It is not hard to find evidence for this supposition. The Abenaki have their own name for the landmark: Mategwasaden – Rabbit Mountain. Immediately west, Thompson’s Point remained a significant Abenaki community well into recent times. The Point and the surrounding Lake are well-documented for archaeological significance.
With a twist of irony, the State of Vermont’s management plan for Mount Philo State Park states: “In the late 1800s, William Higbee, a Charlotte resident and journalist, wrote that Mt. Philo was named for an “Indian fighter and famous hunter” named Philo who camped on the mountain. One of the first written references to the “Devil’s Chair” [a slopeside feature] was in an 1896 article that describes a natural rock outcrop by that name.” People who are able to “read between the lines” will recognize here another common displacement trope masquerading as quaint local history: the Devil epithet is often attached to Native sacred landscape features, and a description of “chair” or “seat” will often refer to an elevated ceremonial site, used in recognition of its prominent exposure to the sweep of landscape and sky.
DUMMERSTON [VT] — Jess Robinson, PhD, state archaeologist for the Vermont State Division for Historic Preservation, will present a follow-up to his 2017 presentation on Vermont’s pre-contact past. This year he will be focusing on the woodland and early contact periods, ca. 3,000 – 300 years ago. The presentation will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23,  at the Dummerston Grange, 1008 East-West Road. Robinson will answer questions following the presentation.
This free event is being sponsored by the Dummerston Conservation Commission and the Dummerston Historical Society. Refreshments will be served. Donations are appreciated. For information and directions contact 802-257-00012, email@example.com.
I was invited by Green Mountain Mornings host Olga Peters to join her for the show on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, for a discussion of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We had an enjoyable 20-minute conversation about the who, what, why, where, and “now what” aspects of this symbolic yet significant change of observance from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. A link to the podcast resulting from the airtime dialogue is here on SoundCloud.
Happy note: Our time ended with Olga asking me if I would be interested in putting together a regular monthly show devoted to a place-based indigenous perspective, with guests and a wide variety of Abenaki-centric topics. Of course I said “Yes!” Centering on n’siboal – our rivers – and Wantastegok, we will explore local history, linguistics, politics, relationship to place and all of our relations, ways of being in the world, traditional skills, arts, music – you name it… culture is complex.
Photo by Kristopher Radder of the Brattleboro Reformer.
A historical plaque at Bellows Falls claims “Here first canal in United States was built in 1802”; more accurately, it may hold the title of “the oldest canal in the US still used industrially.” A British-owned company, the Bellows Falls Canal Company, was chartered to make the Connecticut River navigable in 1791. It spent 10 years building nine locks and a dam to bypass the 52 foot high Great Falls; the canal was completed in 1802. The first bridge across the Connecticut River anywhere on its course was constructed by Col. Enoch Hale in 1785, crossing exactly at this narrow, deep chasm, from Bellows Falls, VT to Walpole, NH.
The book quoted above was published in 1807, as a compilation by D. R. Preston of scenic descriptions by a number of well-traveled contributors. It is quite possible the above entries describing the Great Falls were written previous to the opening of the canal in 1802, which would have drastically impacted the water volume and dramatic impact of the cascade in the gorge.