Valley Fishing Calendar Has Changed Little Since Colonial Days

Friend Peter Thomas is back at it, nose to the grindstone.

The good doctor of anthropology and archaeology is at his core an historian. These days the retired author of In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut River Valley, 1635-1665 is photographically digitizing the Sylvester Judd Manuscripts at Northampton’s Forbes Library when not performing the same chore on Deerfield town records. Prior to this latest venture, I helped him photograph the earliest records of the Sunderland and Whately Congregational Churches. These were preceded by those of the South Deerfield Congregational Church and early Conway town records. All of this information is important to any historical or genealogical researcher toiling to piece together colonial settlement patterns and the introduction of new families to our slice of the Connecticut Valley.

From time to time, when Thomas comes across a subject that he knows will be of interest to me or about which he thinks I may have insight, he emails me a comment or query accompanied by attached documents he’s referencing. The topics can vary widely, from roads and trails to fish and wildlife to rivers and streams to people and places, to maps and deeds and Indian place names and other topics.

Before Christmas, Thomas paid a visit at my Greenfield home on his way home from South Deerfield to Richmond, Vt. He wanted to share an Indian calendar recorded in fur-trader John Pynchon’s own handwriting at some point inside the first 10 years of Springfield, established in 1636 as Agawam Plantation, a market town focused on monopolizing Connecticut Valley fur trade. I knew the calendar from reading Northeastern Native American linguistics scholar Gordon Day’s An Agawam Fragment, first published in the International Journal of American Linguistics (1967), then republished 21 years later in the more widely read In Search of New England’s Native Past: Selected Essays by Gordon M. Day.

It never ceases to amaze me how perceptions change during rereads of material first read decades ago. It makes perfect sense. Years of reading and writing expands your knowledge base. The first thing that jumped out at me when re-evaluating the Pynchon calendar – following years of studying Native American prehistory, spirituality and literature (oral history) – was that it was obviously a “modern” adaptation rooted in the horticultural epic that began with maize agriculture about 700 years before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth.

I immediately remarked to Thomas that I’d prefer to see the hunter-gatherer calendar digging 11,000 years deeper into our Valley Indians’ culture even though I knew such a document will never come to light. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that.

“But from a cultural point of view, we would expect nothing different,” said Thomas. “Human culture is adaptive and corn/bean/squash horticulture almost certainly arrived with far more than just seeds – origin stories, prayers, hoes, growing techniques, etc. No cultures are static.”

Of course, the World Wide Web offers many calendars of Indian moons, which seem to make a lot of sense no matter where you live. But still, wouldn’t it be much better if our ancient Connecticut Valley moons were known, especially those of the Pocumtuck and Norwottuck villages in what we now know as Franklin and Hampshire counties? Also, the moons of immediate upriver and downriver villages, which would have differed slightly based on climate and length of growing season. Prime examples are the absence of a maple syrup moon south of Hampshire County and slightly earlier planting and fishing dates in the lower valley, where sprouts and leaves appear sooner.

Unfortunately, we must instead settle for this Colonial Contact Period calendar, translated by an Englishman with little understanding of the Algonquian language or its Connecticut Valley dialects, and based on a “Three-Sisters” maize-horticultural lifestyle backboned by corn, squash and beans. Amazingly, the Pynchon calendar mentions not a word about bird or animal prey, nut- and berry-gathering or marsh collection of roots, tubers and medicinal plants. There is, however, one lonely exception: a March-April start of the spring fishing season. Otherwise we get the setting, weeding, hilling, harvesting and eating of corn, the ripening of squash and beans, and no mention of deer, moose, rabbits, beavers, bobcats and bears, not a peep about wild turkeys or migratory ducks and geese, all of which would have been important to a hunting culture.

Don’t be misled. This doesn’t mean hunting was not important to the Indians encountered by the first colonists to settle our valley. We know idt to be a fact that our indigenous people were indeed hunters and gatherers who depended on Nature’s bounty. However, by the 1600s, agricultural fields produced the foundational element of Valley Indians’ diet, at least south of what is now Vermont, and the Pynchon calendar demonstrates just that.

“There may be a more deep-seated concern,” said Thomas. “If we look at the Indians north of the St. Lawrence who followed a non-horticultural, hunting-gathering lifestyle, the one looming feature of the winter months was starvation times. The storage of a reliable, if labor-intensive food for the winter (corn) was critical for a secure population and one that allowed these communities to grow and prosper. So, old is not always best.”

In the final assessment, the calendar is what it is, yet still important – most likely following the month-to-month routine of the Agawam (Springfield) or Woronoco (Westfield) Indian villages the Pynchons knew best; perhaps even the downriver Podunk (Windsor, Conn.) Indian villagers. Why lament what’s lacking? There is plenty of interesting local information to glean, with some of its tendrils even reaching the “Falls Fight” of King Philip’s War fame. That data centers around the calendar month “Namassack kesos,” which signaled the start of fishing season in “part of March, part of April.” Remarkably, despite the warmer winters and earlier springs in contemporary times of global warming, our fishing season still lines up quite favorably with that old calendar. Remember the old April 15 “Opening Day” of trout season? Well, it still fits into the Pynchon calendar spawned during the Little Ice Age (LIA, 1300-1850), when average temperatures across the board were five to seven degrees cooler than today; this despite the fact that the old-style English calendar in Pynchon’s time was approximately 10 days earlier than today. That means May 19 then is May 29 today, which still fits the timing of our contemporary anadromous fish runs. The annual two-weekend, Holyoke Water Power Shad Derby always coincides with Memorial Day Weekend.

Which brings us to that fateful, predawn, “Falls Fight” sneak-attack by colonial militia on a sleeping Indian fishing village at Peskeompskut Falls in what is today known as Riverside/Gill. The date was May 19, 1676, still to this day, “right on the money for the peak of our shad run,” according to Dr. Caleb Slater, Mass Wildlife’s Anadromous Fisheries Project Leader. Still, doesn’t that claim beg many questions, especially if we assume that the fishing activity we’re discussing was focused on migratory shad, salmon, herring, sturgeon and lamprey eels, all valued by Indians as essential post-winter food. These anadromous species all begin their upriver spawning runs after river temperatures climb to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which would not have been achieved by late March and early April during the LIA. Even mid-April would be stretching it. Then again, ecological changes and manmade river and tributary obstructions may confuse our perception of the annual spring Connecticut River water-temperature formula based on runoff and river flow. Could it not be that the many dams now found in the river basin, not to mention the different makeup of contemporary upland forests framing the valleys, have changed the flow dynamic and skewed our perception of the pre-dam, old-growth valley?

The old, mature forests of the Contact Period would have absorbed much more spring runoff and rain than out modern forests, and thus would have kept river volume down. Then, 18th- and 19th-century clearcutting would have dramatically increased runoff and river volume, which is inversely proportionate to river temperature. When the river rises, its temperature drops and vise-versa. However, Slater says he’s confident that despite all the changes, the Connecticut River’s hydrology has not changed much, a belief buttressed by the facts we know about the Falls Fight. That is: No. 1, the Indians’ multi-station fishing villages were set up in full force on May 19; No. 2, Indians would not have been there unless the time was right; and No. 3, though incredibly unlikely given the fact that our climate has warmed dramatically, if a contemporary angler was today booking an advance Franklin County shad-fishing trip to Franklin County, he or she would target mid- to late-May.

It doesn’t matter that the shad run as we know it doesn’t line up with the start of fishing season on the Pynchon calendar. Likely the start of the Indians’ fishing season had nothing to do with anadromous runs. They would have started by fishing for Eastern brook trout in streams, beaver ponds and at the inflow and outflow of natural lakes and ponds, which always open up before “ice-out” and are among the most productive early-season fishing sites. That type of fishing would have supplied a much-needed early-spring food source before the anadromous herring runs closed the season with a grand, celebratory crescendo. And remember, anadromous fish runs would have started and peaked earlier in the lower valley. Likely the peak at Enfield Falls would have occurred up to a week before the peak at South Hadley Falls and up to two weeks before the peak at Turners Falls. The Bellows Falls run would have been even later.

So, in the end, little has changed over the centuries, despite dams and the warming climate. Anglers start chasing spring trout in April, shad in May. The Indians’ supplemental summer catch would have included trout and American eels, a sweet, savory river delicacy.

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