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  • Illustration courtesy of ANDREW KNEZ JR. This illustration is of a Pennacook man ice fishing.
  • Photo by DANA BENNER A birch bark container is shown at the Amoskeag Fish Ladder in Manchester.
  • Photo by DANA BENNER An Abenaki Fish Trap is shown at Echo in Burlington, Vt.
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Original Nashuans

Sometime between 1665 and 1670, the first white settlers made their way into the area that would come to be known first as Dunstable and then as the city of Nashua and the towns of Hollis and Hudson.

These people, who had made their way north from the colonies in southern New England, were by no means the first inhabitants of the area. New Hampshire was the territory of the Pennacook. A great deal has been written about the conflicts that arose between the settlers and the Pennacook.

The Pennacook ranged from the Connecticut River in the west to southern Maine in the east and from the Canadian border south to northern Massachusetts. They were part of a much larger Native “family” known as the Alnobak or Abenaki. The different groups of Abenaki made their homes in the northern three New England states and into present-day Canada.

Because of their location, the Pennacook became the buffer and, in some cases, the liaison between the Abenaki and the native groups of southern New England.

The Pennacook were the perfect combination of the two groups of people. Like their Abenaki relatives, the Pennacook, especially those of the northern areas, were hunter/gathers. The Pennacook of the southern areas – Nashua, Lowell, Mass., etc. – also practiced agriculture, a task more common in southern New England.

In their gardens were planted maize, squash and beans, also known among the native people as the Three Sisters. Fishing, both freshwater and ocean, was also a major part of the Pennacook life.

Native “tribes” in the Nashua area were known by different names such as Pawtucket, Nashaway and Souhegan, and, in fact, all three were subgroups of the Pennacook.

The Pawtucket were located from the modern city of Lowell to where the Merrimack River enters the Atlantic Ocean near Newburyport, Mass. The Souhegan were found in the area of present-day Merrimack and the Nashaway lived along the Nashua River.

The main villages were often located near major waterways because of the availability of food. The Merrimack, Souhegan and Nashua rivers provided access to fish such as salmon, trout, shad and eels, which were caught by the thousands during the annual spawning runs.

These annual fishing events were affairs in which entire villages took part. Women and children would run nets across the shallows or set woven fish traps in protected weirs, while the men, using long-handled dip nets and pronged spears, would secure the fish that made it past the nets.

Elders and young children would clean the fish and prepare them for drying and smoking. The processed fish would then be stored for later use.

The soil would be prepared and gardens planted in the fertile flood plains as soon as the soil could be worked and the danger of spring floods had passed. Once the gardens had been planted, they were left to the will of nature.

At this point the village would probably move toward the coast, where the men, in large dugout canoes, would ply the waters for striped bass and bluefish.

While this was happening, the women and children would gather lobsters and shellfish, which would then be smoked, and these, too, were stored for later use.

Autumn found the Pennacook heading back to their villages to harvest the bounty of their gardens. It was also the time for the men to head out in search of game. While hunting was an ongoing process, fall was the time of year that food had to be gathered and stored away in preparation of the long winter that was sure to come.

As winter approached, the larger villages would break into smaller family groups. These groups headed to different areas to tough out the winter.

The Pennacook figured out it was much easier to sustain a smaller group than a larger one in winter. These smaller groups often relied on the food that had been prepared and stored away during the time when it was more plentiful.

Winter was usually the time when stories were told and tools repaired. As the Pennacook had no written language, these stories often taught valuable lessons that had been learned over time.

When winter began to ease, the men would head out to the maple groves and prepare the items the women needed to begin the process of maple sugaring. When this task was complete, the men would head out and hunt for much needed fresh meat. Spring was also when the family groups would come together and the whole process would begin again.

Because the Pennacook were a mobile people, moving with the seasons to different areas, their housing had to be either portable or made of something that could be easily duplicated when they arrived at the new area.

Shelters were usually wigwams, which were structures made with willow saplings bent and secured at the top to form a dome. On the ribs created by the willow saplings would be woven sheets of bark, either birch or elm, which acted like siding on a modern home. In some cases, especially when close to the coast, mats of woven reeds would replace the sheets of bark for the shelter walls.

Cooking vessels and storage containers were often made from bark and decorated with porcupine quills and small shells. If the container needed to be watertight, the seams would be sealed with pine pitch.

The contributions that these Native people made to our area are still felt today. Despite the encroachment and the underhanded treatment of the white settlers, the Pennacook tried very hard to remain on good terms with these newcomers. History has shown that they weren’t always successful in this area, but the important thing to remember is that they were here before us.

Dana Benner, who grew up in Hudson and lives in Bedford, is of Penobscot/Micmac descent and is a member of the New Hampshire Inter-tribal Council. She has been studying and researching Native American history and culture for more than 25 years. Her research has taken her throughout the Northeast, Alaska, the Plains and Hawaii. She has given seminars to schools and civic groups on the Native history of New Hampshire. She is also working toward a Bachelor of Arts in U.S. History and Native Culture from Granite State College.