New England History


When most of us think of history, especially American History, the mind automatically recalls all the facts and stories learned and taught in our schools and museums. Most every city and town in the North East has some kind of monument or other landmark dedicated to some historic battle or famous person, and veterans that were in some way connected to that particular location. All the important dates, 1492, 1776, 1812 and a slew of others that educators deem important are instilled into our brains at an early age, soon to be either forgotten or tucked away into faint memories in hopes of being recalled at some mid-term test or other future reference. Thank God there are some historians out there that dedicate their lives and work to maintain some kind of factual link to our tumultuous beginnings and lives throughout the past centuries here in the “New World”, and it’s a sin that so few know or could care less about the long struggle it has taken to build the world we now live here in the former “Colonies”, or those that dwelled here long before the folk across the “Big Pond” got frisky and sailed over here.

A small percentage of the population that have a distinct advantage over most of observing first hand the lives of our ancestors, Native Americans and past settlements are those that take to the woods. Hunting, fishing, or hiking the woodlands and other undeveloped areas can be as much or more of a history lesson then taught in any school or read in any book as we have the advantage of seeing first hand the foot print left behind by those that walked the same land over the passage of time.

Sadly there is also a small percentage of outdoors people that could care less about what they trod upon as they roam the woodlands, fields, and streams left behind for us by the end of the glacial period some 12,000 years ago. Happily there are as well many that can appreciate the nature and historical wealth that enhance a hunt or hike even if they don’t harvest an animal or are only taking a short leisurely walk in back of the house after dinner.

The lands of New England are a result of what was lest behind by the glaciers after they melted thousands of years ago. The hills, ponds, lakes, and fertile river valleys were formed and left behind for we humans by those huge moving ice formations as they melted and either created lakes and other small bodies of water, or ran off into the ocean.

Walking the woods there are many levels of history left around less obvious than the hills and ponds. Central New Hampshire is a virtual rock garden, a result of the passage of the ice path. Most anywhere you can walk are huge boulders of granite seemingly laying around. They weren’t always there, but were scraped off some mountain top and carried along in the ice until they reached the bottom of the flow and were left behind. Next time you are having a picnic lunch or on a deer stand while sitting on one of these huge pieces of granite keep in mind it may have been part of Montreal at one time.

Soon after the passage of the ice age came the humans and animals. The first New England Native Americans were the Wobanakiak, which is a term that means “people of the east, or “dawnland people, and actually covers all the culturally related groups of early Americans of New England such as Abenaki, Pennacook, and Pequawket. Our modern day culture would have us believe that New England was an untouched wilderness inhabited by savages. This is far from the truth, the Native Americans had a handle on things long before the colonists decided to plant their roots here. The most prominent evidence of this still visible today are their trails and routs. New England is covered with woodland trails. Many hunters mistakenly take many of these as “deer runs”, when in fact they probably were man made either by Native Americans or early settlers. Deer do have their own trails usually leading from cover areas such as swamps and heavy undergrowth, to general feeding areas but usually peter out as they spread out to meander along looking for food. If you find a well defined trail that leads for miles offering the path of least resistance such as along river bottoms and over hills through low passes it may well have been a human route of travel for many years . Yes, deer will also travel these trails as they are the same as us in looking for the easy rout between points A and B especially if they are in a hurry to get out of Dodge for whatever reason. A good example of this is a trail we used as kids to go blackberry picking. We lived in the North River valley in western Massachusetts and a range of hills separated us from the Green River valley where the best berries grew because of the Southern exposure to the sun. we would follow a path that led us for a couple miles through a low point in the line of steep hills connecting the two valleys. Being kids we never gave it a thought as to how the trail got there, but logic would lean to it as an old passage used hundreds of years ago for humans to go from one river to the other. Western Mass if full of history and in fact during the French Indian raid on Old Deerfield in 1704 the raiders took part of the “Great Trail” rout down the Connecticut River Valley from Canada crossing over in Vermont to the Green River Valley and on down to Massachusetts. After the raid, sometimes referred to as the “Deerfield Massacre,” captives were force marched back up this route the 300 miles to Quebec. Many of these were New England trails were originally mapped out by the indigenous Americans for reasons of trade and moving with the migration of animals as well as war parties. Upon the arrival of the colonists they were adapted and further developed into wagon and horse trails. Some even exist today as major interstate highways, Rt. 91 from Connecticut to Canada, and Rt. 2 from Boston to Albany New York, (aptly named the Mohawk Trail) were both part of the Great Trail system.

Some of the final level of New England history are the remains of the early settlers that eventually came from Europe and found the living good here. Stone walls are the most evident to the casual observer as they are literally everywhere you look in all three states of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. These granite structures served as fences, boundary markers, and defensive shielding for the pioneers as they began to spread out and clear the lands for farming. Once again the readily availability of hard stone was a result of the glaciers having left the landscape littered with it’s lower contents as it melted and made it’s way South. As the farmers cleared their land for crops and buildings the stone would be made into walls to keep cows and horses in, mark the boundary of the fields, make foundations for their houses and barns, enclose their community or family cemetery and set up defensive parameters around house lots in hope of giving themselves a little extra time to reload “Ole Betsy” in case of attack. There was no shortage of building material either because even though the fields would be cleared each spring for planting, Mother Nature would freeze the ground in winter and “heave” up a fresh crop of stone each spring as the soil would thaw. Search around the edges of many of the old fields in New England and you will find huge piles of stone that were piled up as excess because the farmer had built as many walls as he needed and simply discarded the new “crop”.

The old graveyards are another link to the past and there as many of them as there are stone walls in our woods. Sometimes they are community plots and many are simply family cemeteries used as many generations passed away. Life a couple century’s ago was much different than today because the family home was just that, a home that passed down for many generations instead of the modern real estate house swap we have today. I like those old family ways better.

Sadly the shadows of the past are slowly being erased forever. As time passes nature reclaims much of the landscape she loaned humans for periods of history, but even worse and most sad of all development is slowly but surely expanding out from the cities and more populated areas and destroying the trails, walls, woods and old homesteads forever. I am experiencing first hand the loss of one of my favorite hunting areas up in Strafford to development. The old township of Johnsonboro has existed as a home to the wildlife for the last 100 years since it had dried up around 1901 judging by the dates on the old cemetery grave stones. A few years ago the surveyors started showing up to mark the boundaries of different owners, then the loggers showed up and are still in the process of removing the valuable timber and doing it in a manner that is clearly leaving a blueprint for housing development, more than likely fancy new homes for the rich to buy their own little piece of nature. All that is left for me to do is gather my tree stands, say goodbye to the area as I remember it and move on to other places up north. I would suggest to all that enjoy the outdoors to enjoy it while it’s still around before it is gone forever.

Keep your powder dry,

Captain Don