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.

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).

The Burning Evidence

Again from Sokoki Abenaki country, a line of observations drawing from the statement in the previous post, quoting Hon. Charles K. Field (who married Julia Ann Kellogg, a descended cousin of Capt. Joseph Kellogg, second commander at Fort Dummer) in The Vermont Phoenix of July 7, 1876:

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.

Much has been stated about this practice, in general, and I need not belabor it. One quote via William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land” (1983) is probably enough to stage the subject, and is appropriate here: “Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different stages of ecological succession. In particular, regular fires promoted what ecologists call the ‘edge effect.’ By encouraging the growth of extensive regions which resembled the boundary areas between forests and grasslands, Indians created ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species.”

More specific and with a connection to Wantastegok is another quote, from the letters of Timothy Dwight IV (1822), eighth President of Yale, and grandson of his namesake, the first commander at Fort Dummer (1724) established in what would later become Brattleboro:

timothy dwight letters 1822 burning

A good overview of the Eastern Algonquian practice in general can be found here, in a USDA publication entitled “Wildland Burning by American Indians in Virginia” by Hutch Brown (2000).

Grounding this locally, we can now take a look at Walter Needham’s “A Book of Country Things” (1965). Walter was a lifelong Guilford, VT resident, who wrote (with co-author Barrows Mussey) a rather popular little book recounting the things he learned from his grandfather Leroy L. Bond, born in 1833. Among them was a familiarity with locating the signs of indigenous presence in the local landscape, a skill that Walter modestly claimed was the only thing at which he had become more adept than “Gramp”. In fact, he is known as one of the more active “relic hunters” in the immediate area (present-day Dummerston south to Vernon, Vermont); regrettably, his collections, for the most part, seem to have disappeared leaving only loose, vague accounts. The memories that remain, however, bear out a story of widespread, active settlement and extensive usage of the Kwenitekw and its landscape, counter to the prevailing Euro-American narrative that held (and often still holds) otherwise.

Speaking of the land management practices of the area’s original inhabitants, Needham relates: “Instead of plowing the cornfields like we do, the Indians burned them over every year. In most of the flat places where I find Indian relics, there’s a black line at one level of the soil, and under a [magnifying] glass you see it’s tiny pieces of charcoal.” Needham refers several times to this thin black line in the riverside stratigraphy.

Finally, we can pull another quote from a legacy account in the immediate area, the voluminous “A History of the Town of Northfield, MassachusettsFor 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags” by Josiah Howard Temple and George Sheldon (1875). This compilation (which must be read critically, as is the case with many period accounts) is the single best historical source for an admittedly colonized perspective on the Sokwakiak, the indigenous people who preceded the European incursion. Temple and Sheldon implicitly acknowledge the provenance of the land the settlers eagerly apportioned to themselves:

temple sheldon northfield history burning

And yet, “There Are No Evidences of Indian Settlements in This Town.”

 

 

 

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.