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.
“Where there is fishing”
At the Rock Dam on the Connecticut River, below the Great Falls at Montague/Greenfield.
Twilight in Mzatanos/Freezing Current Maker Moon (November16, 2019).
“This year is the fifth year, and third phase, of the grant, which has studied the event of May 19, 1676, the Battle of Great Falls/Wissantinnewag-Peskeomskut that took place during King Philip’s War.
The Battlefield Grant Advisory Board — composed of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, the Chaubunagungamaug Band of Nipmuck Indians, the Elnu Abenaki and the Narragansett Indian Tribe, as well as historical commissioners from Montague, Greenfield, Gill, Northfield and Deerfield — have been meeting monthly over the past five years, coordinating this battlefield study of the complex massacre and counter-attack in 1676 that has marked the region over the subsequent centuries.
“Montague Town Planner Walter Ramsey said one of the unique aspects of this study is the involvement of Native Americans. “We have a balanced approach to our research. We are working with different tribes of Native Americans that can inform history,” Ramsey said. “Because previously, all we had was the history written by the colonists.”
Brule added that by working with many people on the study, it’s enriched with more perspectives. “We’ve had one perspective for so long. Now this study is overseen and monitored by tribes that have a voice,” Brule said. “They are also being compensated for their expertise.”
Read the full article by Melina Bordeau at The [Greenfield] Recorder here.
Found on page 140:
And again, on page 146:
From “The Wonders of Creation; Natural and Artificial: Being an Account of the Most Remarkable Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Cataracts, Mineral Springs, Miscellaneous Curiosities, and Antiquities in the World”
Compiled from Geographers, Historians, and Travellers of the Greatest Celebrity, in Two Volumes, by D. R. Preston, author of The Juvenile Instructor, &c. Pub. by John M. Dunham, Boston, 1807.
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.
As many of you know, David Brule, president of the Nolumbeka Project, is also the coordinator of the National Park Service Battlefield Protection Program Study here in the Wissatinnewag-Peskeompskut area and helped organize this informational presentation. The session is hosted by the Battlefield Grant Advisory Board which is composed of five towns and four tribes.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag, the Chaubunagungamaug Band of Nipmuck Indians, the Elnu Abenaki, and the Narragansett Indian Tribe, as well as Historical Commissioners from Montague, Greenfield, Gill, Northfield and Deerfield have been meeting monthly over the past five years, coordinating this battlefield study of the complex massacre and counter-attack in 1676 that has marked our region over the subsequent centuries.
6:30 — 7:15 P.M. A power point presentation will focus on the final Phase II archaeological report of the Research Team of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. The Team did extensive field research on the battlefield terrain stretching from Riverside through Factory Hollow and into the Nash’s Mills area of Greenfield. Their discoveries and new interpretations of the event add to the growing body of knowledge, fueling high local and regional interest in the event of May 19, 1676.
7:15 — 8:30 P.M. The second part of the program will feature a panel of four Tribal Historical Preservation Officers and Christine De Lucia, noted author and assistant professor of History at Mt Holyoke College. They will address the topic of “Unearthing the New Narratives of 1676” and will welcome questions and opinions from the public. preseThis Public Information Session is sponsored by the Montague Planning Department, and the National Park Service Battlefield Protection Program. For more information call 413-863-3200×207 or www.kpwar.org .
A discussion with Lisa Brooks, PhD, “Our Beloved Kin”, and Christine Delucia, PhD, “Memory Lands”.