The Indians of Winnacunnet
"Our Town" by James W. Tucker
Hampton Union -- Thursday, September 10, 1959
Have you ever wondered about the Indians who lived, or who had lived around here when our town was settled in 1638? Where was their settlement called Winnacunnet? To what tribe or family did they belong? What were their habits and customs? Did they leave traces of their habitation in this area?
Indian Arrow Heads
The good "Squire of North Beach," the late Frank Leavitt, seemed to have a wider knowledge of and a greater interest in the aborigines who lived here before the white man than any resident of our town with whom we have been privileged to talk. He told us of the piles of clam shells he had discovered and showed us the arrow heads he had picked up on his ancestral acres in the North Beach section of Hampton. We have the idea that Mr. Leavitt believed the Indian settlement of Winnacunnet was located north of High Street. A friend of ours has recently discovered a few mounds and several unusual piles of stones in that general locality which perhaps will bear out this theory. The stone piles may have been Indian peace monuments.
Location of Winnacunnet
As far as we know, members of the N.H. Archeological Society have never conducted research in this area to find exactly where Winnacunnet was located. In an attempt to determine the definite location of the Pemigewasset village of Asquamchumauke, excavations were made at two sites on the Baker River in Plymouth within the past five years. While many artifacts and sherds were unearthed, the results which it had been hoped would be achieved were inconclusive.
Frank Glynn, the president of the Connecticut Archeological Association, who is still hard at work in an effort to solve the mystery of the North Salem caves, was in Hampton a few months ago to investigate Norseman's Rock in Surfside Park. While looking around in our town, this eminent archeologist came to the conclusion that he might like to dig test pits in the vicinity of the site of the ancient Tide Mill. What he expects to find, we do not know; maybe traces of an Indian village; perhaps evidence that some of our founding fathers lived on the site.
An Ancient Jar
We have often wondered about the origin of an ancient earthenware jar and cover which we found about eighteen inches underground while digging a hole for a mail-box post on Church Street at the Beach several years ago. We had intended to discuss this interesting find with Kenneth Ross but the entire matter had slipped our mind until we began to write about archeology and test pits.
To get back to our Indians. They undoubtedly were Abenakis, a type of one of the four main divisions of the Algonkins. Originally the Algonkins were a tribe, group and family of American Indians which lived east of Ottowa on the Gatineau River in Canada. The name came gradually to include tribes or bands in Quebec and Ontario. Finally the name was applied to the whole of the linguistic family of which these tribes were a part.
They occupied a vast territory, extending roughly from the Atlantic to the Rockies around latitude 55 -- the natural region of the northern woodland. The southern boundary of Algonkin country extended from Cape Hatteras to the Ohio River. In general, southern tribes farmed while northern tribes were non-agricultural. Three divisions of Algonkins; Arapho, Blackfeet and Cheyenne became the gypsy-like buffalo hunters of the northern plains.
The fourth division was divided into Central and Eastern tribes. There were two divisions of the Eastern group -- (1) the Abenaki type, divided into Micmac, Abenaki and Pennacook; (2) the Massachuset type, divided into Massachuset, Wampanaog, Narraganset, Montauk and Nipmuk. the big chief of the local Indians in colonial times may have been Passaconway, who was succeeded by Wonolancet and later by Kancamagus.
So-called experts on all matters relating to the American Indians are by no means in general agreement concerning their divisions, tribes, clans, groups and families. Neither is there complete accord with relation to their dress, customs, government and religion. However, it is probably safe to say that the Abenakis were found North of High Street -- south of within that area now included in the states of New Hampshire and Maine. They came first to the coastal section, then gradually spread inland among the rivers.
Their fixed habitations were wigwams, conical in shape and constructed of small trees, covered with skins, bark or hand-woven mats. An opening in the top permitted the passage of smoke from a fire which warmed the crude structure in winter. Skins or mats placed on the ground served as beds. There was no furniture.
Canoes and Snowshoes
Like the wigwam, the canoe and snowshoe were Indian inventions and mainstays of transportation. Winnacunnet Indians used their canoes on the open ocean and upon the local tidewater rivers and creeks. They used them for transportation and for fishing, although the most of their fish were caught in wiers, usually constructed some distance up-stream on tidal waters. Snowshoes permitted winter hunting and travel.
Although the Indians engaged in agriculture of a primitive kind, most of their food was obtained by hunting and fishing. The squaws raised corn and beans in small gardens, also some squash and pumpkins. They may have raised another vegetable, remnants of which were found in our town 60 or 70 years ago near the site of the old Tide Mill -- a vegetable which was called Indian sweet potatoe. Food was cooked over open fires and baked on hot stones or in hot ashes. Clam shells served as spoons -- fingers as knives and forks.
Clothes and Weapons
For the most part, clothes were made from skins by the squaws. Tools, such as hoes and axes, were made of wood, shells and stone. Mortars, pestles, chisels and even knives were fashioned from stone. Bows were made of wood with bowstrings of sinew. Wooden arrows were tipped with heads of stone and occasionally with the horn of a deer or the claw of an eagle. Tomahawks were stout sticks, topped with ax head of stone.
Dances and Feasts
Men, women and children took part in games, feasts and festivals. There were dances to commemorate the seasons; the planting dance, the strawberry feast, the green corn festival and when eels came up river from the sea, an eel dance was held. Indians carried charms, believed their medicine man could cure disease and held to a religious belief in disembodied spirits that was filled with traditions and legend. While intensely superstitious, they were essentially a moral people -- not hostile by nature.
There is good reason to believe that it was the custom of Indians in the colonial days to erect a conical pile of stones near their settlements to indicate that they were at peace with their neighbors. There also is evidence that they have been known to bury a stone ax in the center of these unique peace monuments, which they inevitably tore down whenever they started on the war path.
The Tide Mill Site
Willard Emery remembers, as a boy, seeing banks of clam shells, peculiar mounds, piles of stones and finding Indian sweet potatoes in the area close to the site of the old Tide Mill and south of Tide Mill Road. This is in the locality where Frank Glynn would like to dig a few archeological test pits and it may well have been the site of the original Indian settlement of Winnacunnet. There is evidence that this section was once forested with pine and no handier place could be found from which to gain direct access to tidal waters leading both to inland forests and to harbor and ocean -- direct sources of food supply. Tide Mill Road? We don't know where the Indian settlement was located, but we are sure there was one, called Winnacunnet.
More on the Indians of Hampton