While we laud John Putnam as ‘the first settler in Bennington,’ there have been indigenous people here in New Hampshire since the glaciers melted 13000 years ago. At the Tenant Swamp Site near Keene, the PaleoIndians had an encampment, leaving evidence of the oldest dwelling in North America. Professor Robert Goodby, who has studied indigenous people extensively, spoke about that dig to the Historical Society in 2017. In more modern times, the Abenaki were here before the 1600s, when Europeans arrived, and they are still here today. These are the people whom the Pilgrims met when they disembarked in Massachusetts [an Algonquian word] in 1620. These are also the people who sided with the French in the ‘French and Indian War’ of the mid-1700s.
The Abenaki, called the Dawnland People due to their lands in the far East of the continent, are the indigenous people of New England and maritime Canada. There were many sub-sets to the group, but they were related in their Algonquian language and culture.
Although at odds with the powerful Iroquois, the Abenaki learned from them their agricultural practice of planting the “3 Sisters” as crops. Primarily a hunter-gatherer-fisher folk, each family within the tribe would travel a singular route throughout the year, reuniting at the sea coast or a river for fishing in the summer.
Their dwellings were constructed of saplings, covered with woven mats and bark. Extended families lived in domed “wigwams,“ easy to build from found materials. The door of a wigwam always faced East, toward the rising sun. Smaller teepee-shaped wigwams were used on hunting trips, to sleep up to three. In the winter, an oval longhouse, large enough to house more people, was lined with blankets and furs for insulation. Their villages always had a longhouse for council meetings and tribal gatherings to arrive at decisions by consensus. To avoid depleting resources, villages were moved a few times a year — inland for the winter, near a water body for fishing in the summer.
Their cuisine was based on fish as the principle source of protein, along with game. Agriculture centered on the growing of squash, corn, and beans for eating fresh and for drying. Summers were spent preparing foods for the winter.
There is anecdotal evidence that there was an Abenaki or pre-Abenaki village site in Bennington, on the banks of the Contoocook River. One can imagine the families fishing for salmon, and smoking it for future consumption. Was this a temporary encampment, used only during the salmon run? Or was it the location of a Winter village? Until the site has been studied by professionals, we will not know. Wouldn’t it be exciting to find the remains of a PaleoIndian site here?
A Bennington resident named Lee Collins was an actor and model. Around 1940, he was hired for a photo shoot. The advertisement called for an image of a Native American with a bow and arrow. Did Mr. Collins have native blood? Was he the go-to model for the “Noble Savage”? In those untutored times, anybody could act as a person of another ethnic group in a film or photo, so no one would have been bothered if Mr. Collins were not an ethnic native. Local lore holds that this picture was posed at “Indian Rocks” on the old Balch Family Farm in Bennington, not far from the location seen on the map above.
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