Correcting the Corrections

Editor of the Reformer,

This note is in reference to a letter to the editor of the Reformer published Friday, June 28, 2020, headlined “Historically inaccurate attack on Ethan Allen.” The missive purported to address perceived inaccuracies in a previous letter of June 18, “The Allen brothers are symbols of wrong done to Abenaki.” Without belaboring the politics, I must cry foul on a few of the respondent’s assertions, made to bolster the tarnished reputation of a justifiably-deflated folk hero. The response is rife with its own inaccuracies. It is indeed good to “learn abut history” and then work toward positive change.

1. Allen’s sending of Capt. Daniel Nimham, Stockbridge Mohican, to the Seven Nations in May 1775, wasn’t as much to recruit the Abenaki to the American side as it was to assure their neutrality. Further, the emissaries never made it to Caughnawaga; they were captured, convicted as spies, and nearly hung. Ethan Allen never was a true friend of the Abenaki; when members of the Missisquoi band returned to Swanton after the war, Allen ran them off, claiming it belonged to him.

2. The writer continues to work the Stockbridge Mohican angle – for some reason – claiming their territory ran up Lake Champlain to Missisquoi and east to Middlebury Center. Rather, it is widely understood – including by the Native nations themselves – that Mohican homelands meet those of the Abenaki near the juncture of lakes George and Champlain – nearly 100 miles further south.

3. The Stockbridge Mohican brigade never fought at the Battle of Bennington. They set off for the engagement late, and upon receiving word, turned back to their homes to (sadly) fight another day elsewhere.

4. Vermont’s granting in 1781 of what became Marshfield, Vermont to the Stockbridge for war services rendered was no solace or gain; they immediately were forced to trade it for debt payment to Capt. Isaac Marsh, tavern-keeper back in Stockbridge. For their troubles, most of the tribe eventually found themselves displaced 750 miles to the west.

5. Ethan Allen went before the Continental Congress in person more than once. Examples are easily documented: On June 23, 1775, Allen with Seth Warner appeared in Philadelphia to ask that the Green Mountain Boys be recognized as a regiment.

6. The Green Mountain Boys, in their several iterations, cannot be conflated with Roger’s Rangers, but there certainly was significant overlap. Members of Allen’s original Boys as well as former Rangers served together in Warner’s Extra-Continental Regiment in the Revolution.

Rich Holschuh,

Wantastegok/Brattleboro, June 29, 2020

>>This letter ran in the Brattleboro Reformer on July 7, 2020.

Change, and the Lack Thereof

Deed_1661_signed_at_Rehoboth_Massachusetts_Indian_land_sale

…Thinking again about the repetition of parallel patterns in contemporary America (as a political construct) and its direct predecessors in Colonial policy right here in the mid-Kwenitekw valley. The link is the continuance of colonization as policy.

The dogmatic appeals to “Law and Order”, rather than justice, equity, and human decency distinctly echo the dispossession of Native land and the commodification of life here through the imposed structure of English (now, American) law. Social interactions between Indigenous people and Settler society were subject to English legal standards, heard in colonial courts, with self-affirming repercussions. Even more overtly, concepts of land usage and entitlement were built upon the same imposition of invasive legal/religious/social values and the reinforcing structural systems that backed them up.

When “might makes right” rather than “respect recognizes rights”, there is a self-serving abuse of power and domination. An exploitive system needs constant “taking.” It happened then, it is happening now. For Indigenous people, it is always about the Land. Right here, in this place – that fact has never changed. While we clearly recognize and oppose the injustices so clearly on broad display around us, and rightly so, do we see that continuing under our own feet? Does “charity begin at home” or not? The system is still protecting what it has taken.

Something to Think About

Here’s a basic general juxtaposition, upon which I will expand at some further point. It concerns intentionally-built earth structures: what is their original purpose/premise and how are they understood (or, more typically, not) by those who come after?

silbury hill neolithic mound wiltshire

First, a well-known example at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, England near “the stone circles of Avebury and a few miles from Stonehenge.” You can read a basic overview here, from which I extract the following (evolving) observations:

“Dr Jim Leary, English Heritage archaeologist, said the creators were building the mound as part of a ‘continuous story telling ritual’ – and that the final shape of the mound may have been unimportant… the final form of the Hill did not matter – it was the construction process that was important. …It was a place that was heavily inscribed with folk memories that recalled ancestors and their origins.

‘What is emerging is a picture of Neolithic people having the same need to anchor and share ideas and stories as we do now, and that built structures like Silbury Hill may not be conceived as grand monuments of worship but intimate gestures of communication.’ “

*****

And, continuing in a comparable morphology and much closer to home in Sokoki country, a somewhat similar circumstance and response, is this item from Brattleboro’s Vermont Phoenix newspaper of August 6, 1897:

“The Guilford mound, which has long been supposed to contain Indian relics and which was to have been opened by some Brattleboro men, was opened by some Guilford men last Saturday. The mound was about 50 feet square and 15 feet high and was covered with a thick growth of trees, some of which were four inches through, with roots large enough to impede somewhat the progress of the shovels, nevertheless the men were undaunted and set to work energetically, determined that if within the sides of the mound there were any articles which would interest the world in general they would have the credit of discovering them. They began at the side of the mound, digging a hole large enough for them to stand up in, and penetrated the mound ten feet. No relics were unearthed and six more feet of excavation were made, but still no relics. Then the men began digging on top of the mound and descended 10 feet. At this point the sides of the last excavation caved in and the relic hunters shouldered their shovels and concluded that the secret of that pile of dirt would forever remain unknown so long as they were depended upon to reveal it.”

Not too surprising… you find what you’re looking for – or you miss it completely.

Can You Hear It?

first harris hill ski jump

From Brattleboro Historical Society’s Facebook Page today, the caption: Feb. 4, 1922 the ski jump on Cedar Street officially opened for the first time. This was the contraption you needed to climb in order to ski down the jump and fly 150 feet in the air to the landing area. Later this became known as Harris Hill.

Unfamiliar things in the woods. These forests have been here a long time, thousands of years. As have the People – thousands of years. They know these woods.

They are still here, those things and the People. The land remains.

This hill had a different name before Harris.

Can you hear it?

 

Shad Above Kchi Pontekw

w8bimagw shad 1939 illustration

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:

history of lebanon downs pg 189 shad reference

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.

 

 

Indigenous Peoples’ Day Bill Passes in Vermont April 17, 2019

Rich Holschuh VY Sale Mike Faher

On Wednesday, April 17, 2019, the Vermont House passed S.68 in concurrence with the Senate. Governor Phil Scott indicated in a press conference the next day (4/18) that he expects to add his signature and sign it into law shortly (at about 30:20 into the video).  With much support and assistance from members of the community, this definitive step has been taken. Its significance is demonstrated by the continued opposition by some to the basic underlying premise: a celebration of the individual Christopher Columbus subverts the millions that were (and are) systematically subjugated following his lead. We know better, and to know and not do, is more than hypocritical, it is duplicitous.

Vermont State Rep. Brian Cina, a major legislative supporter and booster of this action, celebrates the passage of S.68 on April 17, 2019. (via Rep. Cina on Facebook)

S.68’s text can be read here.

The news story was picked up initially by the Vermont media at Burlington Free Press and VTDigger, and since then by others, including USA Today, WCAX, The Hill, and Fox News, among others.

 

Testimony for VT S.68, An Act Regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Video links for ORCA Media/CCTV coverage of Committee hearings – testimony and debate – for S.68  of the 2019-2020 Session.

1. Senate Committee on Government Operations. S.68 – Indigenous People’s Day. Recorded February 28, 2019.

2. House Committee on General, Military, and Civil Affairs. S.68 Indigenous Peoples’ Day recorded April 10, 2019.

 

Brattleboro, William Brattle, and the Art of Colonization; Yes, He Was Here

william brattle jr portrait brattleboro

John Singleton Copley, William Brattle, oil on canvas, 128 x 102.5 cm (50 3/8 x 40 3/8 in.), 1756, Harvard Art Museums, Harvard University, Massachusetts. Image in public domain, via Wikipedia

From the Brattleboro Historical Society, posted March 30, 2019:

This Week in Brattleboro History. We are happy to release our 200th podcast episode. BAMS students interviewed local historian Rich Holschuh about his research into William Brattle, our town’s namesake. Rich explains how Brattleboro gained its unique name, and also shares insightful background information about early relations between the English and Native Americans. Click below to hear the story…

BHS Soundcloud Podcast here (listen).

rich holschuh bams interview

Interview underway at BAMS with Amani and Priya. Photo by teacher Joe Rivers.

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.

Mark Bushnell at VTDigger: Uncovering Vermont’s Stone Carvings

Bellows Falls Petroglyphs 1866

Note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.” Mark called me for comments as he was putting this VTDigger column together.

When Rev. David McClure of Dartmouth College ventured down the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls in 1789, he was on a scientific mission. As a natural philosopher – what we might today call a scientist – McClure was interested in stone carvings he had heard about from a local man. The carvings, cut into an outcropping on the Vermont side of the river, depicted a series of faces.

“The figures have the appearance of great antiquity,” McClure wrote, noting that the British colonists who first settled the area a half-century earlier had observed them. The faces were life-sized images consisting of a simple oval with markings for eyes, nose, mouth and perhaps ears, McClure wrote. Some had lines sticking out of their heads that various observers have taken to be feathers, horns or rays.

McClure’s was apparently the first written account of the carved rocks, which have been described as the oldest pieces of art in Vermont. How old? Though experts agree the carvings were made by Native Americans, they are unwilling to ascribe a specific date, or even era, to the petroglyphs, which literally means “stone carvings.” They could be anywhere from 300 to 3,000 years old.

The written observations of McClure and subsequent visitors during the 19th and early 20th centuries are invaluable because they offer a snapshot of these artifacts, which have been changing over time. If descriptions of the petroglyphs have varied since McClure’s visit, so too have the interpretations of their meaning.

Read the full article in VTDigger here.