First Putney Road Bridge at Wantastegok

Three Bridges West River 1911

The famous Three Bridges at the mouth of Wantastekw/West River, looking southeast from the north bank of the River. The confluence with Kwenitekw/Connecticut River can be seen under the bridge to the left, which carries the Vermont & Massachusets Railroad, later the Boston & Maine. The covered bridge in the center carries Putney Road; the steel truss structure farthest to the right carries the West River Railroad. Note the high water, following the construction of the Vernon Dam ten miles downstream in 1909.

Two stories, like two rivers, converge at the south approach of the original trestle bridge built to carry Brattleboro, Vermont’s Putney Road over the mouth of Wantastekw/West River, just above its confluence with Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. This was not the town’s first ever bridge to span the River; the initial structure  was up the West less than  a mile away, and was constructed sometime in the 1770s. That is another story for another post. A succession of covered bridges followed that early trestle bridge at the mouth, until the last one was replaced by a steel truss slightly upstream in the twentieth century.

 

Three Bridges West River

A direct view at the north entrance of the  covered bridge that succeeded the original trestle bridge of 1796 – “Walk Your Horses.”

Thomas St. John mentions in his Brattleboro History compendium  – under the entertaining “Pike Fishing 1848” entry – the fact that:

“During the Civil War and later, a popular summer evening stroll was taken out the Asylum Street, then down the path leading through the meadows of Holland Pettis to a view of Indian Rock, then along by the old covered bridge, and the return to the Common by the Putney road. William Cabot had purchased a cigar store Indian, and for years it could be seen, propped up before the south entrance to the covered bridge.”

I have not yet been able to locate the original source for this Cabot-Cigar Store Indian anecdote; the full explanation of why William Brooks Cabot may have chosen to place such a carved wooden likeness in that location is, again, another account unto itself. But suffice it to say that Mr. Cabot, scion of one of Brattleboro’s prominent banking families, had a lifelong fascination and familiarity with northeastern Indigenous Peoples. Coupled with local historical knowledge, it is not surprising that he took this particular action at this specific place. And that leads to another, earlier account centered on the building of the trestle bridge itself in 1796, at the behest of John Blake, Esq.

“An examination of the files of the “Rising Sun,” one of the earliest newspapers published in Keene, N. H., between 1795 and 1798, shows definite information of the dates of opening [of] the bridge over the West River in Brattleboro…”

Dateline: Keene, N. H., Nov. 15, 1796.

“Last week, as the workmen at West River Bridge, Brattleboro were leveling the land adjoining the southward abutment, they dug up the bones of an Indian with some Indian implements. From the figures cut on the adjacent rocks, it appears that the place has been no mean rendezvous of the savages.”

Not only did the paper’s editors make note of the juxtaposition, but it would seem that – in recalling the incident many decades later – William Cabot was aware on a certain level that the presence of burials in the vicinity was closely linked to the nearby petroglyphs, only a few hundred feet to the west. Although it is the first such exhumation on record (that I have located thus far), this would not be the last time the ancestors of the Sokoki Abenakiak  were taken from their resting places in the name of progress.

Centered on this place of great power, Wantastegok, these Old Ones are witness to the understanding that in death, as in life, the People and the Land are one and the same. N’mikwaldam – we remember.

Wanascatok: Wanaskatekw

wanasquatok wanaskwatekw

A deep, green pool at Broad Brook, toward the top of the main gradient, near the site of one of the first mills in Guilford, Vermont. 

Wanascatok (sometimes, later, as Wanasquatok) is the name historically attached to Broad Brook, which flows from the heart of today’s Town of Guilford, Vermont into the Kwenitekw just below the Brattleboro/Vernon line. It is recorded thus in the 1687 colonial land deed, the last of several that together constituted the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts. The deed covered an area of about 65,000 acres identified as Nawelet’s land, and was signed by that person, identified as a chief of the Squakheags, along with Gongequa, Aspiabemet, Haddarawansett, and Meganichcha (as recorded). The legality of these deeds will be discussed elsewhere; suffice it to say this document is a good primary source on several counts.

1687 nawelet wanascatok northfield deed

A transcription of the 1687 Northfield land deed by Nawelet with four others, from Temple and Sheldon’s “A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts: for 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags.”

A contemporary Abenaki spelling would be Wanaskatekw, which roughly translates as “end of the river” or even “the rivers meet.” Wanask- signifies ‘an end’ or ‘a meeting’ and -tekw is ‘river’, as in ‘flowing, moving water.’ The reason for applying this name to this particular place requires a little exploration, informed by some familiarity with the lay of the land. Broad Brook is a medium-sized tributary of the Connecticut, with a watershed of 23.8 square miles. Since it is obviously not at the end of the Connecticut, the reference is likely to the end of Broad Brook itself – in other words, the point of its confluence with the larger river, the place where they meet. This, in turn, indicates that Wanaskatekw is not the name of the brook after all, but indicates the specific location at its mouth, as a landmark. This fits with its use in the 1687 Northfield deed to denote the northernmost bound of the land running up the west side of the Connecticut. For some reason,  later historians (not Native speakers) presumptively chose to spell the word as ‘Wanasquatok’, adding the ‘qua’ or kwa’ sound, but this is not the original form.

It follows that this location was familiar to the Sokwakiak inhabitants, and, by extension, the earliest Euro-colonizers (more on this elsewhere); amateur collectors, known to include Jason Bushnell, and probably Walter Needham and John Gale, were active in this immediate vicinity in the last century. The topography has all the hallmarks of a good site: fresh water, a confluence, good visibility, well-drained, sheltering hills to the west, and readily defensible. There are substantial wolhanak (rich alluvial planting lands) immediately adjacent, much of which are now submerged since the 1909 construction of the Vernon hydroelectric dam four miles downstream.

Bushnell Old Red Mill Vernon VT

A postcard for Jason Bushnell’s museum at the Old Red Mill in Vernon, VT, where he displayed his life’s collection of “Indian relics” and oddities. It burned down in 1962.

There was a convergence of trails here also. The primary north-south path on the west side of the Kwenitekw – the Great River Road – ran parallel to the Connecticut, hugging the bottom of the closely encroaching hills. And there was a path running west from here up the narrow ravine of Broad Brook itself, which rises in a steep gradient of about 200 feet in a mile and a half, to a lush valley nestled in the uplands. It is recorded that the earliest British settlers of what is now Guilford Town took this trail to stake their claims, first among them being Micah Rice at Weatherhead Hollow in 1761; it is the only ready access point to the uplands from the Long River and became the first road.

It should be kept in mind that place-name references in Algonquian language usages are nearly always directly descriptive, referring to observable natural attributes. Any place that matches a set of general descriptives may carry a similar toponym, in its own context. The name Wanascatok, or a variant, appears in several other places in New England. It fits here, once one is familiar with the circumstances.

Quinneh Tuk Camp

quinneh tuk camp northfield kwenitekw

An advertisement in Arthur Percy Fitt’s “All About Northfield” (Northfield, MA, Northfield Press, 1910), found on page 108.

The Quinneh Tuk Camp for Boys, Northfield, MA:

A remarkable (rare) near-perfect phonetic transcription of Kwenitekw (kweni- + -tekw = “the long river”), the original name of the Connecticut River in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Western Abenaki language.

The colonial name for Northfield, of course, was Squakheag (various spellings) which is itself a fairly faithful phonetic iteration of Sokwakik, the Abenaki name for the mid-Kwenitekw valley, viz. sokwa- + -ki + -k = “at the separated land.” We use this word today in the form “Sokoki.”

The Fort Dummer Ford and Ferry Crossing

fort dummer meadow flood 1909

Photo from Brattleboro Historical Society: looking south on April 16, 1909, from a point on the abandoned road that climbs the bank from Chase’s Cascade on Venter’s Brook, below the “Cotton Mill”.

In this vintage photo, the Connecticut River is flooding the Hunt Farm (upper right) and Meadows, due to the construction of the Vernon Hydroelectric Dam, completed in 1909. On the far upper left you can see the ferry road (red arrow) that came down the bank on the Hinsdale (east) side of the river. The path is overgrown, but it is still there; as the leaves begin to fall you can find the trail and walk down to the now-abandoned Boston & Maine Railroad bed. The barn marked with the blue arrow still stands at the intersection of NH Rt. 119 and Old Brattleboro Road. The relocated Vernon Road (now VT Rt. 142)  – moved to accommodate the rising water level – is obvious in the mid ground with its parallel guard rails.

The ferry mentioned here (red arrow again) has, of course, much older stories attached to it. It crossed the Kwenitekw to the site of Fort Dummer on the west bank (later, the Brooks farm) near where the short trees can barely be seen (green arrow) projecting from the floodwaters, just beyond the railroad’s telegraph poles (yellow arrow). Fort Dummer (built in 1724 and pre-dating the ferry by decades) was strategically built here because it was a traditional fording place for Abenaki travellers and later by the soldiers and first settlers – of course, that’s why the trails led to this point. Those foot paths later became the first colonial roads – thus Old Brattleboro Road (blue arrow again). The cemetery used by the Fort Dummer garrison and early settlers lies just east of this intersection on a knoll to the north side of the road. The current NH Rt. 119 from this point south to the NH State Liquor Store is a relatively recent replacement route (this is the point where the Old Brattleboro Road rejoins its new counterpart).

A Bit Part in CRC’s Source-to-Sea Journey Video

Elnu Abenaki Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan and I have an appearance in this newly released documentary from the Connecticut River Conservancy. At 8:40 into the video, we share some indigenous perspectives on the essential role the Kwenitekw plays in the landscape of life here.

Rev. Ezra Stiles Visits Wantastegok, 1763

ezra stiles diary excerpt

From Rev. Ezra Stiles’ travel diary, circa 1764, recounting a visit to the confluence of the Wantastekw/West River and Kwenitekw/Connecticut River. He traveled widely and recorded faithfully. This excerpt is from a trip up from his home base in Connecticut state, to scout what became the chartered town of Wilmington, VT. Note his references to particulars: There is no underbrush. White Ash trees 100 feet to the limbs and 4-5 feet in diameter at the base.

How did this happen? Indigenous people practiced a sophisticated permaculture. A nuanced, sustainable forest management regimen – working with water, fire, topography, seasonal changes, succession. This was and is not happenstance, circumstantial, or the divine gift of god. This is demonstrable evidence of reciprocal relationship in motion, the give and take of constant creation.