Shad Traps

It’s April, the month that ushers in our annual Connecticut River American shad-spawning run, a natural phenomenon that has for millennia pulled valley people – be they ancient, indigenous villagers, colonial families and commercial fishermen, or contemporary sportfishermen and women – to advantageous May fishing sites.

So, what better for a longtime observer of this spring migration to do during this vexing Coronavirus scare and personal distancing than focus on these anadromous fish, which have by now started their long, exhausting, upriver journey through our valley? Why not revisit what seems like a never-ending effort to accurately reconstruct indigenous, colonial Contact Period fishing camps. What did these busy, festive, riverside camps look like to the first European eyes? Finding the answer involves book-reading, Googling, talking on the phone and exchanging emails with experts in a cooperative effort to fine-tune details and expand upon previous reconstructions.

Not an easy chore. In fact, a somewhat daunting task. Why? Because the earliest New England chroniclers, primarily Puritan ministers and governmental leaders, were blinded by an arrogant, biased Puritan fog and had little or no interest in Indian culture. Sure, sources like Bradford and Wood, Winslow and Winthrop, Morton and Smith and Elliott did report some cultural observations about New England’s indigenous people. But try to find detailed descriptions and illustrations of the complex, spring, Connecticut Valley Indian fishing camps and be prepared for an exercise in frustration. I myself have found no such source – just bits and pieces, dribs and drabs, leaving a difficult jigsaw-puzzle to assemble.

The impetus for my most recent foray into this topic was not the spring shad season. Instead, it was a simple email query from friend Peter A. Thomas, a committed scholar who’s always probing something new on our local-history scene. On this occasion, around the start of March, the author of In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut River Valley, 1635-1665 wondered if by chance I was familiar with Indian fish traps on New England rivers. Yes, I responded, it rang a bell, but I needed a little time to chase down the references.

I had a good idea where to start. The first source I pulled from the bookcase was anthropologist Hilary Stewart’s Indian Fishing: Early Methods on the Northwest Coast (1977). I remember buying the book from a long-ago shuttered Amherst bookstore in the early 1990s, after Deerfield historian and artist Al Dray had introduced me to a site a stone’s throw above Montague City’s Rock Dam that he believed to be the remains of an ancient, stone, Connecticut River fishing weir. After exploring the intriguing site, writing about it and discussing it for weeks and months, I set out to learn more about weirs and indigenous fishing methods. That’s how I found Stewart’s book, still a go-to North American source on the subject that’s valid in the Northeast despite its focus on the Northwest.

Why study coastal indigenous fishing methods so far away, you ask, when trying to understand inland fishing practices of New England tribes? Well, because primitive people worldwide over the ages have consistently displayed an uncanny ability to develop remarkably similar hunting and gathering strategies and contraptions. In fact, it’s almost a given that Indians harvesting migratory fish on rivers and bays on the East Coast used the same types of fish-gathering apparatuses as their distant West Coast cousins. For that matter, fish weirs and traps across the globe tend to share remarkable design similarities, be they in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

“Primitive people learned by trial and error,” explained Thomas, a card-carrying anthropologist/archaeologist, during a telephone conversation, “and they thus developed quite similar technologies.”

Most helpful in a rereading of Stewart’s Indian Fishing were her detailed sketches of various weirs, traps, nets and fish-processing stations, with wooden racks constructed to air- and sun-dry and smoke their catch for storage preservation. I suspected that the illustrations were not much different from what would have been found at temporary spring fishing camps along the Connecticut River and its tributaries. The most productive local indigenous sites would have been Chicopee Falls and South Hadley Falls in what is now Hampden County, Hadley Falls (today underwater and silt-covered) between North Hadley and Hatfield’s Bashin in Hampshire County, and Rock Dam, Peskeompskut Falls and Salmon Falls (Deerfield River) in our Franklin County.

Glaringly obvious from Stewart’s illustrations is the fact that many different fish-gathering methods were employed within the same weirs and traps, which funneled great numbers of migrating fish into tight constrictions where they could be easily speared, scoop-netted, seined and trapped in splint baskets. Some weirs and traps were built of stone. Others were made of wooden poles intertwined with saplings and brush to keep fish contained. It was not unusual to catch random sturgeon and salmon in weirs constructed to harvest shad. Fishers working the station were on the ready for such large, tasty bonuses, which were speared or arrowed for festive riverside feasts of fresh baked salmon and sturgeon.

Indians were also experts at reading rivers and using natural features like Rock Dam or the old, pre-dam flume at Riverside/Gill to catch great numbers of migrating fish following channels through tight spots, often congregating to build energy in settling pools at the base of waterfalls. At such sites, many fish could be seined and dip-netted quickly, and even speared or arrowed for a sporting change of pace.

In an effort to support the hypothesis that indigenous migratory-fish-harvesting methods differed little between Eastern and Western North American tribes, I went to University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank G. Speck’s Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine. Speck’s nine-page narrative within on Maine’s indigenous fishing activities pretty-much mirrored that of Stewart’s West Coast fishers, right down to natural materials used for net cordage, poles and handles, the style of tools and weapons, and the design elements of man-made weirs and traps. From the same bolt of cloth, so to speak – amazing human ingenuity employed to exploit a natural resource. Photos of conical Penobscot splint basket-traps shaped like megaphones in Speck’s book are identical to those of the great Northwest drawn by Stewart. Amazing.

To complete my little investigative adventure, I reread John McPhee’s The Founding Fish, which I first read soon after its 2002 publishing date. About American shad and shad fishing along the Eastern Seaboard, McPhee’s book buttresses the argument that shad were every bit as important to European colonials as they had been to the East Coast’s First People all the way from Nova Scotia to Florida. Shad filets, be they barreled or jarred, salted or smoked, pickled or planked, broiled or baked, were a valuable food source prepared and sold by urban merchants in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, not to mention our Connecticut Valley all the wat from Saybrook and Lyme to Hartford and Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton, Greenfield and Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. Yes, shad was a hot commodity in the marketplace.

Back in colonial days and then during the Federal Period, shad fishing was not a sport. Shad were market fish that kept families and merchants fed. The same can be said for salmon, though it was caught in far fewer numbers. Still, salmon held higher status and was thus more expensive due to the old supply-and-demand principle. Nineteenth-century historians like Sylvester Judd of Northampton (and others) reported that commercial seines working their magic between Holyoke and Turners Falls would on a good day retrieve a few thousand shad and maybe a dozen salmon from one haul. After dams obstructed upstream fish passage above Holyoke on the Connecticut, and also on many large tributaries that supported grist and lumber mills, salmon runs diminished before totally disappearing from our valley before 1850.

So, did I learn anything new from my little spin through Stewart, Speck and McPhee? Well, yes. I discovered that fish traps of many designs – some associated with weirs that were in their own right traps – were widely used on our Connecticut and other Northeastern rivers. Like hunting traps used to funnel deer to constricted ravine kill sites, fish traps were built to increase the harvest at advantageous river sites created by Mother Nature. Constructed to maximize the catch and minimize the effort, the traps were a formula for success.

I wonder how many still exist in various degrees of preservation along our rivers and streams? My guess is that they’re there for the inquisitive.

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