A Mill River History Part 3: The First People

 John Sinton © November 2014

Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  — Jeremy Denk

3. The First People

a. The Arrival of the First People

            By the time the first people migrated into the Mill River watershed about 11,000 years ago, Lakes Hitchcock and Hadley had already drained, so it is unlikely the first people ever saw a lake.  However, they arrived during a period when the vegetation was startlingly different – a mix of tundra and spruce forest such as the landscapes of Labrador. The archeological record suggests that caribou was a primary food source, along other mammals including mammoth, mastodon, beaver, and small game such as hare, rabbit, and squirrel. 

            Clues to these first peoples are scarce – only four sites are currently known in the middle Connecticut River Valley from this period.  We do, however, have an enticing Pocumtuck origin myth for the Pioneer Valley’s landscape in Deerfield and Sunderland:

The great beaver preyed upon the fish of the Long River. And when other food became scarce, he took to eating men out of the river villages. Hobomock, a benevolent spirit giant, at last was invoked to relieve the distressed people. Hobomock came and chased the great beaver far into the immense lake that then covered the meadows, flinging, as he ran, great handfuls of dirt and rock at the beaver. Finally he threw a bunch of dirt so great upon the beaver’s head that it sank him in the middle of the lake. Hobomock, arriving a few minutes later, dispatched the monster by a blow with his club on the back of the beaver’s neck. And there he lies to this day. The upturned head covered with dirt is the sandstone cliff of Wequamps (Mt. Sugar Loaf), and the body is the northward range. The hollow between is where Hobomock’s cudgel smote down his neck.

            Over the course of the next 5,000 years, as unknown numbers of new peoples immigrated to the region, the climate warmed dramatically, and by 8,000 years ago, oak and other hardwoods had largely replaced the spruce/fir forests.  Over those millenia, natives shifted their subsistence patterns to whitetail deer and other mammals, as well as game birds, waterfowl, and a wide array of plants and nuts, such as hickory, chestnut, beech, and butternut.  By 5,000 years ago, the forests of the Mill River watershed looked substantially as they appear today. Native American settlements increased dramatically, and we know that large base camps or villages were common along the river, while ancillary sites and winter encampments existed in the hills.  The many styles of ceramic items that archeologists have found, attest to changes in Native American culture over time for these hunters and gatherers.

b. Native American Life At the Point of European Contact

            The Algonkian-speaking people, whom the Europeans first contacted, had migrated into the region during or prior to the advent of horticulture, and numbered between 90,000 and 150,000 in New England by the time the Europeans arrived.[i]  Starting about 1,000 years ago, horticulture became widespread along the river meadows with burning practices and no-till cultivation of maize, beans, and squash, which had been imported from the Southern United States.  Slash-and-burn practices as seen in the rain forests around the world today is quite a different practice from what the Natives did here in Pre-Columbian times.  They had no tools for slashing and cutting trees, but had set fire to certain hunting areas for many years.  Treeless sections could then be planted, and it was those fields that the English found ready for the English plough in the mid-17th century.[ii]

            At European contact in the early 17th century, small groups of Algonkian people had long occupied various sites in the Pioneer Valley – Agawam (the “landing place,” now called Springfield), Woronoco (the “winding land,” now Wesfield),  Pocumtuck (the “shallow, sandy river,” now Deerfield), and Nonotuck (“in the midst of the river,” now Northampton).  The Indians of the Middle Connecticut Valley, such as the Nonotuck of the Mill River watershed, were autonomous groups, living in villages composed of family units, not members of more centralized “tribes,” such as Mohawks or Pequots.  They had no political “center,” but rather sachems, or group heads, mostly men, but occasionally women, who held high status, although power was held principally by councils of elders of both sexes. They traveled extensively throughout New England and southern Canada, participating in a shifting pattern of alliances and war with Abenakis in the north, Mohegan/Pequots to the south, and Nipmuks to the east, as well as Mahicans of the Hudson Valley and Iroquoian Mohawks to the west.

            The historian Peter Thomas pointed out that the idea of “tribe,” as a centralized unit of people in a particular geographic place, did not fit the Nonotucks or any of the Middle Connecticut River settlements.  “The ‘tribe,’ as such, was a fleeting reality.  It was episodic.”[iii]  At any one time there would have been Native Americans from other locales, who were living as part of the Nonotuck settlement – Abenakis (People of the Dawn Land), Nipmucs (the Freshwater People), Mahicans (People of the waters that are never still), or Pequots (the meaning of Pequot is still in dispute).  The inhabitants of the settlement moved in and out of the Mill River watershed seasonally or in times of war.  Presumably, Nonotuck Indians could be found in other regions of the Northeast, as well, since Indian alliances and groups were highly fluid.

            Nonotuck, “in the midst of the river,” was an excellent spot for a large Native American settlement, sited above the meadows where the Mill River emptied into an ancient oxbow of the Connecticut, now called Hulburt’s Pond.  A hand-drawn map of Northampton by the geographer G. Cestre shows the river in 1600 running from Paradise Pond, near the base of the cliff below the Academy of Music, then curving around the south side of Fort Hill, a post-glacial feature, flowing westward into Hulburt’s Pond.  

1700 Northampton according to Cestre. Courtesy of Forbes Library

1700 Northampton according to Cestre. Courtesy of Forbes Library

            The Nonotuck Indians had carefully managed the landscapes of the lower Mill River Valley for several hundred years prior to the arrival of Europeans, whose early town records describe the Natives’ efficient burning of Northampton’s meadows for agriculture and some woodland areas for hunting.  Cestre supposed the horticultural fields to be where the current Smith College athletic fields are situated and down along West Street at the northwest corner of Fort Hill to the east and south of the Mill River.

              Nonotucks had an extraordinary variety of food available to them.  For meat there were the big three: deer, bear, and moose, plus rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, beaver, muskrat, otter, porcupine, woodchuck, skunk, and wolf, along with birds, such as turkey, pigeon, cormorants, and waterfowl.  For fish they had brook trout, perch, suckers, catfish, pickerel, sturgeon, lamprey, shad, and salmon.  In fields by the Mill River, they grew white, yellow, and multicolored 8-row flint corn, kidney beans, gourds, pumpkin, summer squash, Jerusalem artichoke, and tobacco.  They gathered from the woods fruit from Solomon’s seal, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, ground nut, elderberry, sumac, along with acorns, chestnuts, hickory and butternuts.[iv]

Next: Contact: The Nonotuck and the English


[i] Thomas, Peter A.  1979.  “In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut River Valley: 1635-1665.”  Ph.D dissertation in anthropology.  University of Massachusetts, Amherst, p. 28.

[ii] Contemporary DNA research suggest the local Algonkian maize at least may have evolved from Caribbean, not Mayan strains.  Thomas, 93

[iii] Thomas, 34

[iv] Thomas, 105

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