Waushakum Pond: Lamprey-Eel Fishing Place?

Finally, a breakthrough concerning a longstanding, personal and vexing lamprey question – that is, did Northeastern indigenous populations utilize anadromous sea lampreys as a food source during the eel-like creatures’ annual, upriver, spring spawning runs among millions of American shad, Atlantic salmon, striped bass and river herring?

This mystery I explored at length and was unable to solve coming down the stretch of my four-decade run as sports editor/outdoor columnist for the local daily newspaper. More recently, in retirement over the winter of COVID isolation, I was queried out of the blue on the topic by a third party, passing on the question from a Happy Valley author who occasional writes guest columns in the Northampton paper.

I had no answer, other than admitting that my search had come up empty despite a strong suspicion that our Native populations had indeed valued lampreys as an abundant and valuable spring food. Why not in a culture that valued rattlesnake as part of its diet? Nonetheless, no written proof that I could uncover.

Oh yes, I found many online lamprey recipes, and even a website featuring a Merrimack Valley vendor in New Hampshire who offered deep-fried, crosscut lamprey steaks. I also knew that our familial, freshwater, American eel was a Native American delicacy. Still, nary a word about lampreys as Native food. Just one more case, I suppose, of not so “benign neglect” by colonial chroniclers more interested in removing “pagan savages” from the landscape than understanding their lifeways.

Now, let’s fast-forward a few months to a more recent, unrelated, personal search that led me to a quick rereading of a book I store upstairs in the Gov. Winthrop desk and bookcase formerly owned by my maternal grandmother. Be it irony or just simple coincidence, this tale will bring us back to Winthrop. But I won’t go there yet. First, the book, written by Harral Ayres, published in 1940 and now pricey. Titled The Great Trail of New England: The Old Connecticut Path, it’s probably the best available source for anyone trying to understand the makeup of Native footpaths that traversed the land during North America’s 16th– and 17th-century colonial Contact Period. Readers gain insight into Native paths that can be applied to others, such as our own Mohawk Trail.

I was probing Ayres’ book in what seems like a never-ending study of the August 25, 1675 Hopewell Swamp Fight, a skirmish at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf between colonial soldiers and Indians that kicked off King Philip’s War in the Connecticut Valley. My goal was to get a better feel for the so-called Pocumtuck Path, which was the most-traveled Contact Period route from Hatfield to Deerfield – and the trail upon which the Swamp Fight unfolded.

Ayres’ fine book traces the deeply trodden footpath that led the first Massachusetts Bay Colony explorers to the Connecticut River at a location that later became the town of Windsor, Connecticut. That’s where the path crossed the river and continued south to Hartford, Wethersfield, New Haven, and beyond.

At its eastern beginnings, the trail had two legs that merged into one trail in South Framingham. One leg began in Cambridge, the other in Boston. From South Framingham, the path led to Hopkinton, where it again split before reconverging into one at the Chaubunagungamaug Crossing across the narrows of a body of water now known as Webster Lake. From there, the path split again. The southern leg led through northern Connecticut to Windsor. The north fork, which came to be known as the Bay Path, went to Springfield, Westfield, and the Hudson River.

Enough about the Great Trail, though. That discussion that could go on indefinitely, and Ayres’ book covers nearly 450 pages. Our focus is the question of whether lampreys were a traditional spring food of our indigenous people, which brings us back to South Framingham and a body of water straddling the Ashland border in the Sudbury River Valley, not to mention Gov. Winthrop.

Today known as Waushakum Pond, Indians knew it as Ouschankamaug, which Ayres translates as “lamprey-eel fishing place” in the Eastern Algonquian, or more specifically Nipmuck, tongue. His reference to the site describes a lamprey feast stumbled upon and joined by three important Connecticut Valley Indians journeying from Windsor to Boston on a diplomatic mission in the spring of 1631. They intended to meet Gov. John Winthrop the elder and pitch their fertile valley to pioneer English settlers.

So, according the Ayres, our indigenous populations did indeed savor lampreys as food. Or did they? Could not Ayres have been mistaken due to incorrect translation or some other form of misunderstanding? After all, has there not always been and will there not always be great disagreement among “experts” regarding the pronunciation and meaning of New England Indian words?

Ayres knew the problem. Thus, a detailed footnote I may have missed during my first reading of his book. This is what that footnote has to say about twisted translations, pronunciations, and phonetic spellings of Indian words from now-extinct dialects:

 

Indian names become corrupted into so many forms it is hard in this day to trace many of them back to their Indian form and meaning. Ouschankamaugs, “lamprey eel fishing places,” were common. Lampreys were among the first freshwater fish in spring. At all seasons they appear to have been a favorite food.

Near that beaver dam, the word prevailed for a time as Washakamaug, and finally degenerated into Shakum Pond. The word is in the records at Lancaster, Mass., as Weshakin. Hubbard gave the name of the Dorchester tract at Windsor, Conn., as Cufchankamaug. Trumbull located it indefinitely as somewhere in ancient Windsor.

There was such a fishing place on the Hockanum River in East Hartford. Roger Williams (1643) rendered the word Qunnamaugsuck – apparently “place of the long fish.”

 

In my mind, that’s pretty convincing evidence that Indians ate lampreys. It has always made sense that they would have taken advantage of such an easy spring food source after long, cold, barren winters. And although freshwater American eels were also harvested, lampreys would have easy picking for a couple of months each spring when Indians built seasonal riverside camps to catch and process anadromous fish by seine, dip-net, trap, weir, bow and arrow, and spear. Would they ignore lampreys, discarding any caught by accident? That’s very unlikely, even preposterous, considering that they still find their way onto dinner plates in the modern world and are easy to prepare.

Today lampreys are even sold from mobile, roadside restaurants of the “clam-shack” genre.

Huden’s Indian Place Names of New England and Bright’s Native American Placenames of the United States both translate close variations of Ayres’ ouschankamaug as “eel-fishing places,” which is helpful but leaves open for conjecture exactly what type eel they’re seeking. Plus, lampreys are not eels – a scientific fact that would have been unknown to Indians and early New England settlers alike. They sure do look like eels, and are ubiquitously still referred to as such by laymen who call them “lamprey eels.”

Of course, there was another key element of Ayres’ story that had to be confirmed. Was Waushakum Pond accessible to anadromous fish before dams and development blocked their path? Well, a step in the right direction are the online profiles identifying the pond as a Sudbury River tributary. If so, migratory fish had access.

Nonetheless, curiously, not one state or federal fishery biologist queried could confirm that yes, absolutely, anadromous fish had access to Waushakum Pond before 19th– and 20th-century obstructions. Even a source from the watchdog conservation outfit OARS – the acronym for what started as the Organization for the Assabet River but now covers the Sudbury and Concord rivers as well – did not know if anadromous fish ever had access to the pond.

The Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord rivers are all tributaries of the Merrimack, and thus would have supported the same spring anadromous-fish runs as the Connecticut River. The outflow from Waushakum Pond trickles out along the mid-east side and runs into Beaverpond Brook, which empties into Lake Cochituate, a manmade reservoir that provided Boston with drinking water for some 100 years until 1951. The reservoir was created by damming Cochituate Brook, an important Sudbury River tributary fed by Beaverpond Brook, which accepted Wausakum Pond outflow. The Indian word cochituate meant “swift river,” so the flow would have been right for migratory fish runs.

The most likely site of the trailside, 1631 Indian eel feast noted by Ayres seems to be somewhere near the ancient wetland confluence of the Waushakum Pond outflow and Beaverpond Brook. Ayres describes the site as, “By the beaver dam and the little primitive lakes nearby,” where “the eel season was at hand.”

Although the old migratory-fish passageway from the Sudbury River to Waushakum Pond has been sealed off by the Lake Cochituate dam, you can take it to the bank that it once existed, and Indians did indeed harvest lampreys there. Regardless of the river system, Indians did their fish-gathering where the fishing was most productive, and narrow, tributaries with beaver dams would have been ideal. And while we’re at it, you can bet similar fishing stations for lampreys existed at suitable tributaries up and down the lower Connecticut Valley, likely as far upstream as Bellows Falls, Vermont.

It has for many years been my opinion that Indians harvested lampreys for food. Now, finally, after years of searching, the first trace of confirmation appears in an obscure, scholarly book. Not about Indian diet or fishing technique, it describes an important New England trail that passed or crossed many lakes, ponds, and streams where fish were gathered and celebrated.

Did it not have to be?

 

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