Return to the River Part 1: Franklin's First Inhabitants
Concord Monitor | Elodie Reed | May 6, 2017
Beneath cool, overcast skies, Paul Pouliot took in the land, the river, the trees – all the geophysical features – of Franklin’s Odell Park.
The chief of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People looked past the empty baseball field, the dilapidated mill buildings and the developed river banks. Eyeing the U-shaped bend where the river slowed, Pouliot knew – that’s where his Native American ancestors would have fished.
He pointed to the spot just in front of the historic Riverbend Mill, under renovation for an affordable housing project. It was downstream from the river’s rapids, where local community partners are suggesting a whitewater play park can be installed to attract eco-adventure tourists and help revitalize New Hampshire’s second poorest city.
The natural resource Franklin is turning to for its new lifeblood, Pouliot pointed out, is why people came to the area in the first place.
Before it was known as the “Three Rivers City,” Stevenstown, or, informally, “the Crotch,” the land at the intersection of the Pemigewasset, Winnipesaukee and Merrimack rivers was frequented by its indigenous people.
The History of Franklin by Alice Shepard notes that “the Crotch” is how Native Americans described the headwaters of the Merrimack River to Lt. William Miles, a 17th century scout from Canterbury.
Present-day Franklin is just one spot in an expansive area inhabited by the Abenaki. It stretches across the province of Quebec, Canada, as well as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts.
That was, and is still, called N’dakina – “our land.”
“The Native tradition – Abenaki tradition – is that native people have been here since the snows,” Stephen Berwick, a Concord author with indigenous heritage, said. The last glacial period ended 11,500 years ago, which is when other historians have the first humans inhabiting New Hampshire, too.
Native American artifacts – tools, tomahawk weapons – have been found in several parts of Franklin, including Odell Park. Many of them are now kept at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.
“This was just one more of a connected line of villages because of the food source,” Pouliot said, scanning the tongue-shaped piece of land occupied by the park today and hugged by the river. “I think the fish would have flown up that way like crazy.”
There is evidence of that. In the “Indian Mortar Lot,” a small patch of grass along Route 3 in Franklin, a rock found along the Winnipesaukee River sits with a giant carving of a fish, thought to be a shad.
According to a sign on the lot, the other boulder that sits there has a large mortar “first hollowed out by water, then by many years of apparent use of (Abenaki) Indians.” Fish like shad and salmon stopped coming up the Winnipesaukee River after dams were put in.
Pouliot said in addition to abundant fishing, nut-bearing trees and berry bushes would have grown nearby, and the flat land along the riverbanks would have been perfect for agriculture – corn, beans, squash.
“The early reports of what New England was like – it was like a garden,” Berwick said. Amid all the pine trees and growth, he said, trails following the rivers would be cleared by wildfire for hunting deer, moose and, in lean times, bear.
Historical accounts and present day interpretations differ slightly on where exactly indigenous people would have pitched their wigwams, buried their dead and grown their crops. But all agree that on a consistent, seasonal basis, the rivers brought the early inhabitants to what is now Franklin.
Around the time fish began spawning in spring, Pouliot said, “This village would probably be hopping.”
River as a resource
Pouliot said the Winnipesaukee River would have provided not only shad but salmon, alewife and eel. Standing on the present-day fishing pier off Odell Park, he was just a stone’s throw from where an old fishing weir made of sticks and stones was found in the water below Franklin Public Library.
While Pouliot said indigenous people “over-fished the hell out of everything,” he added that none of their activities would have dramatically altered the landscape, or riverscape. They needed the rivers for fishing, bathing, medicine and transportation by boat.
“Earth was sacred because they had to use it,” Denise Pouliot, a council member for the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, said.
The Abenaki descriptions for these rivers – Pemigewasset, “swift current,” Merrimack, “deep river,” Winnipesaukee, “land around the lake” – have outlasted history. Their use, however, shifted dramatically when European settlers came to New Hampshire.
Without immunities to diseases introduced by colonists, combined with conflicts with both Europeans and the Mohawk indigenous people, Abenaki in New Hampshire began to decline in the late 1600s. Those who survived either left for Canada, retreated to rural parts of the state or integrated with the new settlers.
Indigenous people moved around based on seasonal resources for millennia, but colonists suddenly introduced the western idea of a fixed place and land ownership. What was once referred to by its geophysical description – “the Crotch” – gave way to Stevenstown, a land grant incorporated in 1768.
That spot is now Daniel Webster Farm, which sits in present-day Franklin along Route 3A.
Centuries of development and industry have altered the land, but one very basic element has always remained. Flying above Franklin, or looking at a basic geophysical map, the three rivers branching across the landscape still stand out.
As one of the 1,000 or so people still living in New Hampshire with Abenaki heritage, Chief Pouliot still reads the water as his ancestors did. The Alton resident said he wasn’t familiar with Franklin, but as soon as he stepped out of his van in Odell Park, he could see the value of those rivers.
“Just looking at this area – this is a major indigenous community,” he said.