Contrary to what you have been led to believe, New Hampshire’s history did NOT begin
with the arrival of the European settlers, and all of New Hampshire’s Native People were not killed by disease and war.
Before most of our ancestors arrived, New Hampshire’s indigenous people, sometimes called the American Indian, had lived here for about 10,000 years, or 400 generations.
In the short span of one hundred seventy-six years (from 1500 to 1676) following the arrival of European explorers, the number of New Hampshire’s native people decreased by approximately seventy-five percent. By the mid-1700s, 90% of the original native inhabitants were no longer in New Hampshire. Many died from European host-delivered diseases and wars, some were enslaved, and some moved on to other places. Still others “disappeared” by marrying into local non-native families. By the time of the American Revolution, less than 1,000 Abenaki remained. The Native People of New Hampshire persisted, despite great adversity. [A more detailed history can be found here].
Two Native American bands, originally living in the New Hampshire region, were the Abenaki and the Western Pennacook. Words such as Amoskeag, Coos, Kangamagus, Merrimack, Nashua (Nashaway), Piscataqua, Souhegan, Winipesaukee — have a familiar ring to most New Hampshirites. They are all names bestowed on our landmarks by these native groups, who knew them first.
During the 1700s they became caught in a political vise between English and French interests. They never ceded or sold any of their territory, but they were still pushed aside, and forced to assimilate (hide), or to move (such as to Vermont and Canada). In Vermont, where many of the Abenaki and Western Pennacook band members had settled, they became victims of a horrifying “eugenics program” during the 1920s and 1930s.
New Hampshire’s older history books are full of stories about “Indians.” Did you ever notice that these stories fall into one of two scenarios? In the first, the “bad” Indians are on the rampage, killing or capturing the “good” European colonists. In the second, the “good” Indian helps the local European colonists in some way, but usually ends up dying as a result (by leaping off a cliff, or drowning, or being killed by rival Indians). The stories of history through the native people’s eyes are rarely told.
–ABENAKI & PENNACOOK OF TODAY–
The Abenaki (meaning “people of the dawn”), resided in what is now a portion of Coos, and Grafton counties, in New Hampshire, and the Western Pennacook (“place of falling rock”) villages were located in the southern and central Merrimack River Valley of New Hampshire.
One source states that the Abenaki population has currently recovered to almost 12,000. Although at least 800 known families reside in New Hampshire, it is impossible to determine their actual number. The 2000 U.S. Census shows about 2620 New Hampshire residents who stated that they were of American Indian or Alaskan native origin. That is 0.2% of New Hampshire’s population. In comparison, foreign born (outside of the United States) residents in New Hampshire make up 4.4% of the population.
Ask some of the band about their genealogy, and they are apt to say, “I am an American.” The Abenaki and Western Pennacook groups are not a federally recognized “tribe,” nor do they appear to be seeking this status. “We know who we are, we don’t need governments to tell us who we are,” stated Charlie True, on an episode of NPR [Editor’s note: the original link to the NPR show was http://www.nhpr.org/node/5469 however the content of this has changed]. On the other hand, other closely related groups have filed for, and received recognition as a tribe. The Abenaki and Western Pennacook today, as they did thousands of years ago, form independent bands, and take different approaches to the same issue.
The land of New Hampshire is rich in fragile archaeological sites that often contain Native People’s artifacts and remains. Knowledge of these sites help members of the Abenaki-Pennacook groups to recapture an important part of their story. At the “Eddy Site,” at Amoskeag Falls in Manchester NH, some of the earliest dated ceramics in the eastern part of the United States have been found. If you believe you have “Indian bones” in your possession, or know of someone who does, the New Hampshire Archeology Society would like to hear from you. Notify a state archaeologist, who has a procedure to follow if it is discovered that they are human remains, so the origin can be determined.
Currently organized bands of American Indians with a presence in New Hampshire include the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, Abenaki Nation of New Hampshire and First Nation of New Hampshire (they are all non-federally recognized Indian groups).
*Addendum, Sept. 4, 2006* and 1 February 2021: To the list of currently organized bands, I’ve added the Koasek (Cowasuck) Traditional Band Council Of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation. SEE THIS LIST for Native American Organizations in New Hampshire.
I am grateful to Paul Pouliot, Speaker for the People and Denise Mehigan of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, in New Hampshire, who agreed to speak with me and answer some questions. I highly recommend that you visit their band’s web site to learn more. Their public statement of goals says it all. “There is a growing effort to bring history back into focus and to correct many misconceptions about the relationship of Native People, such as us, and the founding of the United States. We were not all killed off by disease or warfare and did not disappear with the colonization of this country. Many of us became the individual fibers of the weave that made the cloth of the United States and Canada. We are among you, working beside you in all walks of life. Unless we told you who we were, you would probably never know us. Any other ethnic or religious group in the world need only declare their existence. Only the American Indian is required to document genealogy to the beginning of time and blood quantum to show how much real “Indian” they are.”
Knowing the history of New Hampshire’s native people, is integral to understanding ourselves. For many, they may be us.
**Links of Interest**
NHMagazine.com: Paths to New Hampshire’s Native Past
New Hampshire’s First Leader: Sagamore of the Penacook, Diplomat and Peacemaker: Passaconaway (c1580-c1673)