Forgotten Fish Weir

As we cross a large, local, free-flowing stream such as the Deerfield River and look down toward the water on a pleasant spring day, we are apt to notice a stationary angler wading to his waist and performing any number of tasks.

Perhaps he’s tying a tippet to a leader, or a fly to a tippet. Maybe he’s dressing a dry fly with floating salve. You may catch him making a long, slow, artful cast — a flick of the wrist back, a flick forward, and colorful line glistening as it shoots through a backdrop of water, hardwoods and bright blue sky. The angler could have a fish on, rod high and bent in a shallow U, tip bouncing with each furious tug from beneath the water’s surface. If you wait out the battle, you’ll see the angler skillfully tire the trout and gently work it to within reach before slowly reaching forward with a wooden-framed net into which he’ll guide the exhausted trout. Then he’s apt to carefully unhook the fish and release it back into the river, laving it for another day.

That’s fishing as we know it today a way to wind down after a stressful week. But it’s an image we must purge from our imagination when trying to picture the fishing activity of the Connecticut Valley’s River Indians during the fist days of European contact. Then the purpose of the seasonal fishing that took place annually at strategic locations along New England’s largest rivers was to fill the stomachs of a native population that had endured a long, difficult winter. And so it was each spring that the native tribesmen of the Connecticut Valley gathered to harvest large numbers of migratory fish at the natural falls located in Turners Falls and  South Hadley in the Pioneer Valley, Bellows Falls in Vermont, and the Enfield falls in Connecticut. Another historic fishing site of indigenous Pioneer Valley people sits along the Deerfield River in Shelburne at a location known today as Salmon Falls, where tourists flock to view the glacial potholes that have attracted so much media attention over the past decade.

For the purpose of this discussion, however, let us focus on the Pioneer Valley’s grandest, ancient, spring fishing site, one made famous by Capt. William Turner. There, at a dangerous cataract known to Native Americans as Peskeompskut, or Great Falls, river tribes congregated each spring for intensified labor and playful interaction while gathering thousands of American shad and blueback herring, and perhaps hundreds of large Atlantic salmon. It was during one of these festive gatherings, on May 18, 1676, that Captain Turner and his assembled troops from valley towns turned the tide of King Philip’s War by ambushing and slaughtering hundreds of weary, sleeping native people in the dark of night. The tribes were congregated there to feast and replenish their barren food stores after a difficult winter on the run from English troops.

Although the precise location of the famous “Falls Fight” is unknown, it is generally believed to be hidden under the bed of the impoundment behind the Turners Falls Dam. An exhaustive underwater study is currently being conducted at that site by a team of University of Massachusetts researchers. Sifting through the sediment, the researchers are searching for artifacts that would pinpoint the location as the famous English ambush. Also submerged behind the dam is Burnham’s Rock, regarded by colonial fishermen as the most productive site at Great Falls. Could it be that the English were simply following the lead of River Indians who preceded them? There is no question.

Although Great Falls was clearly the focal point of the River Indians’ annual fish-gathering operation in Turners Falls, there was another site, located about a mile downstream that was nearly as important. Referred to as a fishing camp below the falls in early accounts, this work station surrounded a natural fish weir that has come to be known to Montague City swimmers as Rock Dam. The site was first dubbed by colonial residents as “Indian Dam,” a name more fitting than today’s.

At this site just west of Cabot Station, the Connecticut River splits around an island identified on contemporary maps as Rawson’s Island. Where the Rawson’s moniker came from is anyone’s guess, but the fact is that this island, the northernmost of a cluster of three islands located upstream from the General Pierce Bridge, is Smead’s Island.

Smead’s island was first granted to Rev. John Williams by the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Great and General Court for services rendered to Deerfield and the colony. It then passed into the hands of another Deerfield man named James Corse, whose family retained ownership until 1761. Then Samuel Smead of Greenfield purchased the northernmost island from Gad Corse and it became Smead’s Island forevermore. During the 65-year period between 1761 and 1826, 10 transactions involving this piece of property are recorded in the Registry of Deeds of Hampshire and later Franklin County, and all 10 refer to it as Smead’s Island.

Before and after Smead’s purchase of the island, it had great value as a fishing site as noted in the 1783 transaction between Samuel Smead and James Ewers, who purchased a one-third interest on the southeastern side for “managing the fishing.” Fifteen years later, David Smead sold the island and fishing rights to Jonathan Bissell, who referred to it as “the great fishing island.”

The Pocumtuck and other River Indian trbes who frequented the site before and during the early European contact period wouldn’t have disputed Bissell’s description. In fact, “the great fishing island” may have been an English interpretation of a native description.

Unknown is the Englishman who first laid eyes on the network of spring fishing camps at Peskeomskut, including Smead’s Island and the ancient weir, but it was surely either Springfield founder William Pynchon and/or his scouts, who established a series of profitable fur-trading posts along the Connecticut River beginning around 1635. Well-worn paths from all directions would have led explorers through the primeval forest to this site of great importance to native tribes. Although no written accounts of the discovery exist, springtime explorers would have found hundreds if not thousands of industrious natives celebrating the annual shad, herring and salmon migration into the valley at temporary fishing camps. It would have been a concerted effort, with some natives dip-netting, others seining fish from the water, others hauling baskets to streamside processing stations and drying racks, and others picking up guts and trash fish to use as fertilizer during the annual planting of their fields.

At the fish weir — today located between the eastern shore of the Connecticut River and the island inaccurately called Rawson’s — there would have been much harvesting activity above and below Indian Dam. Below was the settling pool, where hundreds of fish would congregate to build enough strength to climb the falls. Some would make the leap, others would try several times, give up and backtrack to the easier route through the shoal around the other side of the island. But natives would have been stationed on both sides, dip- and seine-netting passing fish. At the impoundment above the Indian Dam, native fishermen would net fish from large logs protruding over the calm, narrow impoundment.

Although the activity described above was not recorded by primary Connecticut Valley historians, Western Native American fishing camps were observed and similarly described during the 18th and 19th centuries. Anthropologists assume the prehistoric New England fish-gathering process was similar if not exactly the same, because many other customs associated with Western tribes were identical to those of their Eastern cousins.

Although the fish-gathering process of Eastern and Western tribes was probably almost identical, there was a significant biological difference between Eastern and Western migratory fish, and a correlating difference in the way natives utilized the resource. Pacific salmon embark on their spawning runs in the fall, after the crops have been harvested, and were thus an important winter food for Western tribes that could easily store fish through the cold winter months. On the other hand, Eastern tribes used annual fish migrations to replenish their energy after a long winter, but could not store the fish through the hot summer months and thus could not depend on them as the staple of their winter diet. Presumably, the Eastern tribes capitalized on the fall spawning runs of freshwater species like brook trout for their winter food reserves, but such runs would not compare in volumn to the anadromous fish runs of spring. Thus the Eastern tribes had to rely more on preserved crops and natural plant foods, such as roots, nuts and dried fruits and berries, to survive winter.

Like many other important Native American archaeological sites in New England, the fish weir at Indian Dam has been buried by more than three centuries of  European dominance. The few native people who remain among us have to view the 17th century European invasion as a great volcanic eruption that buried a proud culture deep. Perhaps archaeologists of the new millennium will uncover long-buried native treasures like the fish weir in Montague City and bring them to light for future generations to enjoy and study.

Let’s hope so.

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