Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Since long before Europeans began building permanent settlements in the Northeast over 400 years ago, Vermont, New Hampshire, Quebec, and the lands bordering this broad region have been inhabited by an indigenous culture who once called themselves Alnôbak, “The People.” Today their descendants, the Abenaki, or “People of the Dawn,” still refer to their homeland as Kedakina, “Our Land.”
In popular misconception, the Alnôbak of lore lived in an unbroken wilderness, hunting and gathering and making use of whatever abundance they could find. The reality, as evidenced from archeological digs, historical records, and cultural memory, is far more complex and interesting.
At this time of year, during Penibagos kisos, the “leaf-falling moon,” hunters left their homesites near summer gardens and traveled to the uplands and northern parts of the home range to seasonal hunting lodges. Using intimate knowledge of deer and other game, the hunters baited trap lines and strung them for several miles. Hunters used knives, bows and arrows, spears, snares, pitfall traps, and the kelahigan – or deadfall trap – a heavy log that dropped and crushed an animal’s skull when it tried to snatch the bait underneath.
Deer, bear, and moose were the greatest sources of winter protein among the Alnôbak, but the catch included beaver, raccoon, bobcat, woodchuck, porcupine, cottontail, gray and red fox, skunk, rabbit, red and gray squirrel, muskrat, chipmunk, mouse, and even shrew. Other wild prey were taken when and where they could be found, such as elk, turkey, otter, wolf, marten, lynx, partridge (grouse), spruce grouse, snapping turtle, and migrating birds such as the passenger pigeon, Canada goose, hooded and common merganser, and a variety of ducks. Meat was cut into strips, dried, and smoked by hanging on lodgepoles or draping over racks by the fire.
In the northern and middle regions of Kedakina, hunters and their dogs commonly stalked white-tailed deer individually. To the south, up the river valleys and along the coast, hunters sometimes lit a fire and burned brush to drive deer and other game animals into funnel-shaped enclosures where hunters lay in wait. Animals were snared or shot with arrows as they pressed through the narrow opening.
The Alnôbak also purposefully cleared land close to villages to enhance wildlife habitat. Hunters noticed that deer, elk, cottontail, and other prey frequented the openings formed when a forest was felled by a blowdown, burned by a lightning fire, or transformed into a wet meadow above a beaver dam. Animals were drawn to the fresh growth that sprouted when the understory was exposed to sunlight – grasses, greens, berries, and the buds of shrubs and young trees.
Sections of forest were killed by girdling tree bark using stone knives and axes. Dead trees were then burned on the stump. This land-use pattern created an expansive mosaic of habitats in various stages of growth, ranging from fresh clearings to mature forest – a landscape of diverse food and cover that attracted many game animals. Families moved when the habitat and animal populations needed time to recover and replenish.
In fire, the Alnôbak employed an immensely powerful ally. In addition to creating garden sites and improving wildlife habitat, fires were lit in the spring and autumn to encourage berries and other foods. Fires increased the size of grasslands to improve visibility and make it easier to see who, friend or foe, was approaching a village. Burned areas freed of underbrush were easier to travel through and harbored fewer biting insects, reptiles and, other animals that were unwanted near the villages. Regular burning also prevented larger fires from spreading into the village or reaching the tree crowns and causing an intense conflagration. Signal fires and smoke were used to communicate across long distances.
In time, burning formed large intervales along the riverbanks. The once-abundant (now extinct) heath hen lived in the expansive, prairie-like grasslands of up to a few hundred acres that were created along the coast as far north as southern Maine. Park-like forests and wide grasslands also attracted woodland bison into Massachusetts and, likely, southern New Hampshire, sometime after they crossed the Mississippi about 1,000 years ago.
Each Alnôbak family had a specific territory under its care and protection where they closely observed the plants and animals. Hunters could tell which animals were weak or healthy, which were young or old, and even whether or not a doe was pregnant. The number of animals was carefully watched, and hunting was conducted so as to maintain strong breeding populations. Archaeologists have even discovered that some families hunted mostly male deer: the remains of white-tailed deer at some ancient homesites are nearly devoid of bones from females. Wasteful killing was not condoned among the Alnôbak, nor is it considered acceptable among Abenakis today.
With the leaf-falling moon now upon us, hunters across the region are heading to their seasonal game camps in the uplands, as they have for millennia here in Kedakina.
Michael J. Caduto is the author of A Time Before New Hampshire: The Story of a Land and Native Peoples.