The Burning Evidence

Again from Sokoki Abenaki country, a line of observations drawing from the statement in the previous post, quoting Hon. Charles K. Field (who married Julia Ann Kellogg, a descended cousin of Capt. Joseph Kellogg, second commander at Fort Dummer) in The Vermont Phoenix of July 7, 1876:

The intervales and meadows at Fort Dummer, upon West River, and at the Asylum farm, were found entirely bare of forest trees. Such was the fact with all the meadows on the Connecticut River at the time of the first settlement of New England. The Indians burned them over every year, and used them for planting grounds.

Much has been stated about this practice, in general, and I need not belabor it. One quote via William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land” (1983) is probably enough to stage the subject, and is appropriate here: “Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different stages of ecological succession. In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the ‘edge effect.’ By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species.”

More specific and with a connection to Wantastegok is another quote, from the letters of Timothy Dwight IV (1822), eighth President of Yale, and grandson of his namesake, the first commander at Fort Dummer (1724) established in what would later become Brattleboro:

timothy dwight letters 1822 burning

A good overview of the Eastern Algonquian practice in general can be found here, in a USDA publication entitled “Wildland Burning by American Indians in Virginia” by Hutch Brown (2000).

Grounding this locally, we can now take a look at Walter Needham’s “A Book of Country Things” (1965). Walter was a lifelong Guilford, VT resident, who wrote (with co-author Barrows Mussey) a rather popular little book recounting the things he learned from his grandfather Leroy L. Bond, born in 1833. Among them was a familiarity with locating the signs of indigenous presence in the local landscape, a skill that Walter modestly claimed was the only thing at which he had become more adept than “Gramp”. In fact, he is known as one of the more active “relic hunters” in the immediate area (present-day Dummerston south to Vernon, Vermont); regrettably, his collections, for the most part, seem to have disappeared leaving only loose, vague accounts. The memories that remain, however, bear out a story of widespread, active settlement and extensive usage of the Kwenitekw and its landscape, counter to the prevailing Euro-American narrative that held (and often still holds) otherwise.

Speaking of the land management practices of the area’s original inhabitants, Needham relates: “Instead of plowing the cornfields like we do, the Indians burned them over every year. In most of the flat places where I find Indian relics, there’s a black line at one level of the soil, and under a [magnifying] glass you see it’s tiny pieces of charcoal.” Needham refers several times to this thin black line in the riverside stratigraphy.

Finally, we can pull another quote from a legacy account in the immediate area, the voluminous “A History of the Town of Northfield, MassachusettsFor 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags” by Josiah Howard Temple and George Sheldon (1875). This compilation (which must be read critically, as is the case with many period accounts) is the single best historical source for an admittedly colonized perspective on the Sokwakiak, the indigenous people who preceded the European incursion. Temple and Sheldon implicitly acknowledge the provenance of the land the settlers eagerly apportioned to themselves:

temple sheldon northfield history burning

And yet, “There Are No Evidences of Indian Settlements in This Town.”




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7 thoughts on “The Burning Evidence”

  1. Very interesting references and now when read in relation to indigenous agricultural practices, it jumps out as “logical” from work among indigenous and as well as descendants of Europeans and Africans in Central and South America. The effort that goes into clearing forests is tremendous and takes years from the first ringing of trees onward. It would be interesting to know if in this temperate zone if they used fallow years, or even if it was necessary to restore organic matter on those alluvial soils compared with tropical forest regimes on non-alluvial soils. When one looks at the bottom lands that have been abandoned along the CT River it is clear that they are naturally forest lands. Hence the observations, especially that one of a charcoal layer establish the occupation and use of the lands by indigenous people. The colonists in their burst of population, and the grazing animals that they brought, plus the demand for wool, all led the probably the same practices that deforested all of New England and more in the 1800s.

    Yes, I can see the border lands, and the crops, attracting all sorts of edible wildlife. Thank you Rich, very insightful and a way to envision indigenous agriculture and hunting and gathering centered on these bottom lands. Just think of it, a blind close to home waiting for turkey, rabbits, deer, and even bear to come into the clearing looking for tasty corn. (Is squash a good bait for wildlife, how about beans?)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A very interesting account comparing different cultures, the ancient one that had a system designed to “last forever” and the new that showed little respect for the environment and was moved purely by greed: success and endless expansion for profit.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The more I read of New England from indigenous sources the clearer and real the picture becomes, and tougher to see as well. My grandmother Abigail Johnson/ Leclair was born and raised in Dummerston, died when my mother was born, trying to find her story even now

    Liked by 2 people

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