A New Salmon Twist To Stir The Imagination

Call it a new twist to a crusty old topic: history of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon … approached from a roundabout route.

It starts noontime Friday in South Deerfield, high, bright sun illuminating a large, round, wooden kitchen table and lending warmth to the conversation. Two of us were seated comfortably, discussing new thoughts about ancient trails while looking out diagonally across North Main Street at the closed St. James Roman Catholic Church and its glittering gilt dome, not a half-mile down the road from the Bloody Brook Monument. How appropriate, as we tried to connect the dots from information gathered in Historic Deerfield’s recently acquired Hoyt journals, which devote a lot of space detailing early 19th-century South Deerfield, the path walked by colonial soldiers known as the “Flower of Essex” killed that fateful day of Sept. 18, 1675, and the location of their graves and maybe even those of the Indians who died.

Who better to engage in such discussion about 17th-century trails and pathways than anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Peter A. Thomas — dean of Pioneer Valley contact-period scholars with deep knowledge about Pioneer Valley founders like father-and-son entrepreneurs William and John Pynchon and trusted underlings Joseph Parsons and David Wilton. All four men were prominent indeed in opening our valley’s first wilderness settlements while attempting to monopolize the fur trade from the natal Pynchon depot of Agawam, which became Springfield?

Having scoured the primary records for decades to hone the public record’s sharpest interpretations, Dr. Thomas — author of the highly respected and often footnoted “In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian River Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut Valley, 1635-65,” his 1990 UMass doctoral dissertation — may understand the early players and their motives better than anyone. But also peerless is his vast knowledge of the so-called “River Indians” with whom our earliest English merchants and their agents cut deals to control the lucrative, untapped Connecticut Valley fur trade. Among Thomas’ archaeological excavations are important sites like Riverside/Gill, Fort Hill/Hinsdale, N.H., Wills Hill/Montague and the WMECO Site in West Springfield — all treasure troves of indigenous Pioneer Valley prehistory.

What a stroke of good fortune for local historians that family responsibilities pulled Thomas temporarily back to his boyhood home right in the midst of the ongoing National Parks Service Battlefield Protection Program grant given to Montague, where a research team is now focused on reconstructing the famous Falls Fight of May 19, 1676, a turning point in King Philip’s War. The study promises to apply for and receive additional future grants that could reconstruct not only the Falls Fight but the entire Connecticut Valley campaign, beginning in August 1675 and continuing until briefly after the Falls Fight led by infamous Capt. William Turner. A better human resource than Thomas at a more opportune time could not have been delivered from heaven’s golden gates.

It was during a brief pause in our Friday discussion aimed at retracing the most-traveled 17th-century trail between Hatfield and Deerfield that Thomas — the archaeologist who discovered archaeological remains of shad, bullhead and other fish, but not salmon, while overseeing three 1970s Riverside digs — abruptly changed the subject to something that has appeared many times in this space over the past 25 years.

“Oh, before I forget,” he interjected, “I wanted to tell you that I was reading what you wrote about Catherine Carlson’s dissertation citing the absence of salmon remains at dozens of New England archaeological sites known to be used for pre-contact fishing and had a thought you may want to ponder. Suppose salmon were sacred to Indians, and for that reason they did not bury their remains but instead threw them back into the water. I’m not saying it happened, just throwing it out there as a possibility, because had they thrown the remains back into the water, archaeological evidence would be rare.”

Thomas was comfortable with the speculation because he was familiar with similar Northeastern indigenous practices regarding disposal of beaver bones as well as a spiritual practice of propping in trees the skulls of sacred black bears killed for food and hides commonly used as blankets in winter wigwams. It could have been that the bones of Atlantic salmon were treated with similar respect and dignity in New England prehistory.

So, there you have it. Chalk it up as a little more food for thought pertaining to a question that may never be satisfactorily answered. Thomas’ hypothesis can’t be ignored or dismissed when trying to solve the mystery of why salmon remains are nearly nonexistent at known prehistoric indigenous New England fishing sites. We know salmon were here during colonial times and remained here until after the first Connecticut River dams were constructed (at South Hadley Falls, then Turners Falls) just prior to the turn of the 19th century. It is also clear they existed here before that.

Anadromous-fisheries historians have estimated annual Connecticut River Basin salmon runs of up to 50,000, possibly even more during the best years of the Little Ice Age (1500-1850), when they were a tasty bonus among netfuls of American shad pulled ashore for riverside filleting and processing chores on sun- and wind-splashed drying racks. If so, where are the bones? Where are the scales? They’re mysteries that may never be solved.

Still, it never hurts to ponder such questions, offer potential answers and float additional ideas.

Thomas did just that on Friday to set the wheels of curiosity spinning.

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