Putney Mountain Association Annual Meeting 01-13-2019

putney mountain association presentation poster

I was asked to speak at this event last Sunday, Feb. 13, 2019, at the Putney Community Center on Christian Square (slight irony) in Putney, VT. Super turnout – maybe 80-100 people? There may be video coverage on BCTV at some point soon; my friend Russ was there filming…

Link to a pdf of the poster here: putney mt association 2019 poster

Benjamin Gleason and Those Bothersome Canadian Indians

benjamin-gleason-headstone-bennett-cemetery-dummerston-vt

The headstone of Mr. Benjamin Gleason, early settler of Dummerston (then Fulham). In the Bennett Cemetery on Schoolhouse Rd, E. Dummerston, VT.

Benjamin Gleason was an early settler of Fulham/Fullum (now known as Dummerston), Vermont. He was born in 1745 in Framingham, MA – the same year that Nehemiah Howe was captured by Abenaki raiders on Putney Great Meadows just a few miles north of Dummerston. These were the early days of what is often called King George’s War (1744-1748), part of the European War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), and the third of the four so-called French and Indian Wars. Benjamin was one of the four sons of Sgt. Isaac and Thankful (Wilson) Gleason, later of Petersham, MA. He came to Westmoreland, NH, just across the Connecticut River, with his brothers when he was a young man and lived between both there and Dummerston for the rest of his life.

He married Mary Cole (circa 1775), who was born directly across the Connecticut River, on Canoe Meadow in Westmoreland, NH, eldest daughter of Jonathan and Edith (Davis) Cole. Her birth was sometime before 1764, in the blockhouse her father, Deacon Jonathan built as protection for the family and neighbors because, the record states, “in the early days of the settlement he was often annoyed by the Indians.”  Benjamin and Mary Gleason eventually had nine or ten children, depending on your sources. Benjamin was present in Westmoreland in March of 1776, when the roll call was taken of “all males above twenty-one years of age (lunatics, idiots, and negroes excepted)” and the Association Test of loyalty to the Revolutionary cause was administered. Benjamin ended up serving in the American Rebellion and his gravesite bears a veteran’s marker; his father Sgt. Isaac had served many years in the last French and Indian War, at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Fort Duquesne.

In the History of Dummerston is this striking anecdote:

Benjamin Gleason, a pensioner, served in the army 7 years. He was born in 1745, lived in this town many years, and died Oct.23, 1823, aged 78. Nothing can be ascertained about his long experience in war; but we met with one old gentleman, who told us the following story of his killing an Indian:

The Indians had come down the Connecticut valley, from Canada for the purpose of destroying the property of the whites and taking them prisoners. Gleason was an object of their search; but he was vigilant, and managed to escape into the forest, on the approach of the savages. His place of retreat was soon discovered; and with the intention of capturing him alive, an Indian came toward him looking very good-natured, and for the purpose of deception, came toward him pretended that he was going to shake hands, saying, as he walked along, “Sagah?” “Sagah?” in English how are you? how are you? “I’ll Sagah you,” said Ben and instantly shot him dead. The Indians were greatly enraged, on finding their comrade dead; but Gleason was too cunning for the red men, and was never made their prisoner.

I bounced this apocryphal story – the only reference I have ever found to the Abenaki language in the local settler’s history record, other than names – over to one of my language coaches and a fluent speaker of Western Abenaki, Jesse Bruchac. Jesse’s insightful reading is as follows: Very cool! Could be two things, saagat means “I’m sorry” and sagiljandi means “shake hands”.

It almost goes without saying that this strange tale, passed down in the community and originally related, no doubt, by the protagonist himself – Benjamin Gleason – may have more than one truth behind it. Dead men tell no tales and history is written by the victor. Without witnesses a story is simply hearsay, or perhaps better described as “I will say what I want you to hear.”

Sources:

  • History of Cheshire and Sullivan Counties, New Hampshire, J.W. Lewis & Co., 1886.
  • Gazetteer of Cheshire County, NH, 1736-1885, Hamilton Child, 1885.
  • History of the Town of Dummerston: the First Town Settled by Anglo-Saxon Descendants, David Lufkin Mansfield, 1884.
  • Western Abenaki Facebook discussion group.

Red Pine II

red pine bark

A (long-promised) follow-up to the inaugural post “Red Pine I” of March 2015, all of 5 years ago…

Pasaakw, the red pine. At first glance, this is a very straightforward tree, a simple tree; it rises uniformly from the ground, self-pruned of its dead branches, clean-trunked, to a compact and symmetrical crown.  Often in groves of its fellows, it stands very tall and perfectly straight, the ground beneath carpeted in needles and clear of understory. But “what lies beneath” can tell a much more interesting and meaningful story: in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Western Abenaki language, it signifies the “swollen tree” or, more closely, “tree full of…” A closer look at this fullness – this internalized richness of self –  may help us to relate to this particular one a little closer.

Red pine (referred to idiomatically as yellow pine at the time) was reported as being predominant and of exceptionally superior growth, at the meadows in Sokwakik where two colonial forts were built: Fort Dummer in the southeast corner of what became Brattleboro, and at Fort Number 2 on the Great Meadows of Putney. These fortifications on the west side of the Kwenitekw were built of the selfsame arrow-straight pine that grew on the the sandy plains where they were situated: Fort Dummer in 1724, and two successive forts on the Great Meadow, in 1740 and 1755.

t dummer 1724 brattleboro equivalent lands

Benjamin Homer Hall, in his classic 1858 work History of Eastern Vermont: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, states of Fort Dummer that “The fort was built of yellow pine timber, which then grew in great abundance on the meadow lands.” Upriver on Putney’s Great Meadow, Hall describes how, in 1755, area settlers built a fort that “…was in shape oblong, about one hundred twenty by eighty feet, and was built with yellow pine timber about six inches thick, and laid up about ten feet high.”

Fort Dummer 1724 governor's academy

A relic section of timber from Fort Dummer, in the collections at The Governor [Dummer]’s Academy, Byfield, MA. The appearance of the straight, wide grain in the photograph does evoke the growth habit of  red pine timber.

It was no mere coincidence that these spectacular pine groves were found in these specific places. Today, in Vermont, we tend to think of red pine as naturally occurring on dry mountaintops and ridges, and, in a more deliberate manner, found in large, regimented plantations that date from popular soil conservation efforts in the last century. But the species prevalence and distribution of today’s landscapes can be deceiving; it wasn’t always like this. Before Vermont’s vast forests were nearly completely clearcut by the rapacious demands of “civilization”, the red pine flourished along the rivers. There are reasons for this.

Abenaki people, in common with many other indigenous groups, traditionally deploy fire as a landscape management tool, primarily in the river bottomlands. Maintaining open edge habitat encourages the diverse plant and animal communities that flourish there. Controlled burning is also used to clear the fertile alluvial floodplains for agriculture, in the form of both plantings of adapted crops such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, as well as permaculture of naturally occurring species including groundnut, Jerusalem artichoke, and berries. These fine sandy, alluvial depositions provide a receptive, readily-worked seedbed, and a more temperate, extended, low-elevation growing season. Controlled burns help to keep the land accessible and sunny, returning minerals to the soil, and provided a level, readily-utilized settlement space adjacent to n’sibo, the home river. European settlers made ample note of this practice when they came on the scene – a quote from a narrative by the Hon. Charles K. Field:

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.

Here’s an interesting thing about red pine: it actually likes fire. It has several adaptations that dispose it toward success with regard to surface burning. Its seeds require a mineral soil surface to germinate, that is, one in which the duff has been removed/burnt and the bare surface exposed. This also removes competing shade-cover, even if not very tall, another prerequisite for successful red pine sprouting and growth. Trees that reach seed-bearing (thus regenerative) age tend to survive fires that might damage a younger stand. The higher crowns and self-limbing trunks also lend themselves to higher fire survival rates.  Finally, the thick, platy bark of red pine is one of the most fire-resistant in the northern temperate forest; it ranks third, after pitch pine and chestnut oak. The right fire at the right time is exactly what a red pine appreciates.

In general, red pine prefers the sandy, well-drained soils of outwash plains, along with a good dose of moisture. These locations also tend to be open and sunny. The raised alluvial river meadows of the mid-Kwenitekw easily meet those characteristics – at least historically; nowadays, many of them are flooded by hydroelectric impoundments, or developed, or farmed intensively. It is not a surprise, then, that the wolhanak, the intervales, sustained impressive stands of red pine, one hundred feet tall and three feet thick. No wonder the merchants of New Haven, CT sent a party all the way up to Great Meadow in 1732 to harvest that legendary grove.

putney-vt-great-meadow-november-2014

Kchi Mskodak (the Great Meadow) in Putney, today.

So, what about the name pasaakw? What causes this tree to be so “swollen”… what is it “full of”, after all? The simple and obvious answer is: pitch. The binomial, Western botanical name is Pinus resinosa, in acknowledgement of that very fact. The resin can be gathered on the bark surface, where there has been an injury or a parasitic insect has drilled a hole, as is similar with many other conifers. Why would one gather resin? It is used as a waterproof sealant, for bark canoes and containers (try removing it from tools or your hands with water – it requires an alcohol solvent) or as an adhesive/glue, for adhering materials together, such as a stone point on a wooden arrow shaft. Red pine will produce copious amounts of pitch to seal and heal a wound, whether from fire or penetration.

There is good evidence that red pine groves were intentionally, culturally-modified by Algonquian peoples on a regular basis, to provide a ready source of pitch for sealing bark canoes. A stand along a regularly-travelled watercourse may have been maintained and adapted through modification (wounding the trunks to produce more pitch), in order to keep a dependable supply of this raw material handy for bark canoe construction and maintenance. It may be no coincidence that the broad meadow on the east side of the Kwenitekw (in today’s town of Westmoreland, NH) – and between both Ft. Dummer and Fort No. 2 – is called Canoe Meadow. That’s another story for another night.

Red Pine I

A mature grove of red pine, pasaakw, thriving atop Black Mountain in Dummerston, Vermont.

Written history tells us that when the British first ventured up the Kwanitekw in the early 1700s, they found a glorious stand of yellow pine covering Kchi Mskodak, the Great Meadows of Putney, Vermont. George Sheldon’s History of Northfield (MA) recounts “The Indians had not burnt over the country above West River; and the meadows in Putney and vicinity were covered with a magnificent growth of yellow pines.”  This fertile floodplain, encompassing 500 acres of well-drained sandy loam, projects eastward toward New Hampshire nearly a mile, with the Connecticut River sweeping in a broad arc around its fertile expanse. Today, we think of yellow pine as a group of North American species found from the mid-Atlantic states southward. Consequently, this description seems completely incongruous – until we recognize the intricate and evolving bond between a language and a people.

red pine bark pinus resinosa pasaakw

Red pine derives its common name from the more or less reddish cast to its loose, flaky bark, often with more color toward the top or crown.

It turns out that “yellow pine” was the eighteenth-century British settler’s vernacular for the red pine, Pinus resinosa; a web search turns up the fact that Northern Yellow Pine is, in fact, a term still used for salvaged, antique red pine which had been harvested back in those days. Red pine is notably denser and thus harder than its more common cousin white pine, and was used for flooring and shipbuilding extensively; early on, it was eagerly sought out by the European settlers and then, in keeping with colonial attitudes, clearcut. The stand at Kchi Mskodak certainly caught the attention of the merchants in New London, Connecticut, already a well-established center for shipbuilding. In 1732, a party of seventy men was sent upriver to cut the tall, arrow-straight pines for the use of the King’s Navy – it was British law that all such trees were Royal property. Accounts indicate that the trees were cut and floated down the river continuing into the following year. Save for Massachusetts’ frontier outpost 16 miles downriver at Fort Dummer (at the south edge of what is now Brattleboro, Vermont), this was an exceedingly rare venture into the northern unknown by the English interlopers.

As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?

Alexis de Tocqueville 1831

On the other hand, the native people, the Abenakiak,  knew this place and its grove of trees well. In the Western Abenaki language, this stalwart of the forest was called “pasaakw” – PAH-sah-ahk-wah – with two morphemes, pasa + akw combining in prototypical Algonquian polysynthetic style. The suffix -akw is seen often in the naming of trees, meaning a rigid object, or perhaps more specifically in this instance, a “woody stem.” The prefix pasa- is a bit trickier: it seems to translate loosely as “swollen.” To bolster that approximation, the more common descriptive prefix psa- means “to be full of.” This generates a compounded word that means “swollen tree” or “tree full of” and conjures the meaning behind the naming. My thanks – wliwni! – to Jesse Bruchac for his help in extracting the origins of this word; I will be citing his insight often.

In Red Pine II, we will look at the relationship between these two original inhabitants of N’dakinna, the land of the Sokoki, the southernmost band of Abenakiak. Whence the name pasaakw? How did these two relate to one another? How did the coming of the new people impact this affinity? What was the nature of this divide?