It is conventional historical knowledge that, when the American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) made its prodigious late-spring spawning runs up the Kwenitekw, the silver flood of fish was stopped at Kchi Pontekw (the Great Falls), between today’s Bellows Falls,VT and North Walpole, NH. This was said to be the northernmost point on the Connecticut River for the annual migration. The 49-foot drop of the River there (over a short stretch of rapids and falls) was said to be an effective block to the passage of the shad, but not to the accompanying Atlantic Salmon who were also seeking their natal tributaries. This claim can be found in 99.9% of the sources, over a long period of time. Here’s just one recent example, from the NH Fish & Game Department:
Fish passage has been provided at the first three dams on the Merrimack River, although shad have difficulty navigating the fish passage facility at the Pawtucket Dam in Lowell, MA. On the Connecticut River, fish passage for shad is available at the three mainstream dams up to the historic limit of upstream shad migration at Bellows Falls.
There is much that can be related about this particular and significant ancient place, with respect to the seasonal gifts of sustenance and the intersections of spirit there, but those many stories will be explored elsewhere. In this post, I would like to simply document differing statements about the extent of the anadromous shad run, drawing from a local history 40 miles upstream at Lebanon, NH. In the 1908 “History of Lebanon, N.H., 1761-1887 by Charles Algernon Downs“, we find the following statement on page 189:
We can make a few observations in reflection upon this contradiction to the accepted notions about the travels of w8bimakok, the shad…
- First of all, Charles Algernon Downs may have been mistaken. But given his long and early presence in Lebanon, and his character, this seems unlikely. Indeed, the Rev. Mr. Downs may well have personally known people who had fished for shad in the Mascoma, as he stipulated. This knowledge would have been well-engrained in the local lore at the time. There may very well be other such obscure references in other historical literature north of the Great Falls.
- It would seem that, if his assertion is true, although the great rocky impediment to passage at Kchi Pontekw did indeed block the great majority of shad from traveling further upstream, a small amount found success. The many stories of the sheer number of shad that would congregate at the Great Eddy below the tumult are testimony to its effectiveness as a blockage – and its fame as a favored indigenous fishing place for millennia. Yet if vast numbers of salmon were quite successful in climbing the cataract, perhaps a percentage of shad accompanied them. The number who passed successfully may have paled in comparison to the total and thus been of lesser note to historians.
- The complex process of shad migration is informed extrinsically and intrinsically by many factors. Some are environmental and fluctuating, such as flow velocity, temperature, salinity, light levels, and competition, among others. Others are innate: the strong homing instinct of the individual fish to the original river of its birth. The fish migrate to their respective spawning streams using genetic memory informed by chemical and magnetic guidance. Recent studies have demonstrated the incredible accuracy of this instinct. Why would there be so many shad below the falls? The migration is not a race to set an indeterminate record. It might follow that shad seeking to pass Kchi Pontekw would be following the pull of their birthplaces upstream.
- It is no accident that Downs documented the appointment of fish inspectors Buck and Bailey in the years 1795-1797. Lebanon, NH (chartered July 4th, 1761) had only begun to be an organized colonial town a few years beforehand. It took awhile to get town business thoroughly refined, but immediately after these appointees were chosen, the dam across the Connecticut River downstream at Turners Falls, MA (now-called) was completed in 1798. It is a universally-acknowledged fact that all anadromous fish migrations dropped off drastically in that year, their journey effectively cut short at that point.
- As a curious side note, the name of the Mascoma River, singled out by Rev. Downs as the objective of the spawning shad in his locale, is derived from the Abenaki name for the salmon. No doubt the river was, in actual use, a shared goal by both species. That word in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan is “mskwamakw’ – pronounced muh-SKWAH-mahk-uh, nearly the same as its English variant – and means, literally, “red fish.”
- And, in an odd coincidence, the American Shad’s Latin generic name “Alosa” is identical to the Abenaki word for “to go”, which is exactly what the fish prefer to do. The Latin root, however, derives from “alausa” – a fish.