Indian Weir Dynamics: A New Twist

A long, winding path sat me in this bow-back Windsor chair this morning – seasoned-oak oozing warmth from the woodstove to stimulate thought about Indian weirs.

My introduction to these manmade fish-catching structures occurred more than 30 years ago. Deerfield artist/illustrator Al Dray had been following my columns on salmon, shad, and ancient spring fishing camps situated around the Great Falls between Turners Falls and Riverside, Gill, and wanted to take me on a little field trip.

He’d been poking around the Connecticut River’s eastern shore down by Rock Dam in Montague City and was convinced he’d found vestiges of a weir above the “fishing falls” there. We went to the site, he pointed out the open mouth of a V-shaped stone column facing us, and suggested it was the handiwork of Native fishermen. The object was to funnel migrating fish into a shoreline trap. Though I was looking at my first, his argument was convincing.

The concept of fish weirs and traps fit snugly into my interests at the time. I was then passionately fishing for shad, studying waters I frequented, publishing weekly migration numbers during the upstream spring spawning migration, and taking the unpopular opinion that Connecticut River salmon-restoration was doomed.

With little helpful information about Indian fishing camps and practices available in the standard Connecticut Valley town histories, I hunted additional sources and found thin picking. Then came Hilary Stewart’s richly-illustrated Indian Fishing (1982 paperback), focusing on Washington State and British Columbia. Though the camps she sketched were faraway, I believed the tools and practices would differ little from those used by our own indigenous people. Subsequent research supported that opinion.

The rule of thumb linking all stream-fishing camps I reviewed was that upstream-pointing weirs were the rule for catching upstream-migrating fish.

Then, in recent weeks, I happened to read something in Rev. J.H. Temple’s History of Palmer (1889) that sang a different tune about Native fishing on the upper Chicopee River and its headwaters. Repeating an assertion made two years earlier in his History of North Brookfield (1887), Temple reported that Indians fishing the spring Atlantic salmon run there employed nets, spears, and arrows to catch ascending fish, and weirs to catch survivors returning to sea.

I knew nothing about the Chicopee River before exploring this topic, but have since learned that it starts at the confluence of the Ware, Quaboag, and Swift rivers in Palmer’s Three Rivers village and flows some 18 miles to the Connecticut River.

This was the first mention I ever found of fishing for spawning-run survivors returning to the sea. The new paradigm raised my interest after nearly 50 years of carefully tracking and extensively reporting our valley’s spring, anadromous-fish spawning runs of shad, salmon, striped bass, herring, alewife, and eels. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, live as adults in saltwater, and return in their reproductive prime to spawn in natal streams.

Why, I pondered in print and then in email correspondence with a reader, would anyone exert time and energy catching an exhausted, depleted resource? Less than 10% of the annual Atlantic salmon run survives for out-migration, and those fish descend in weakened condition. Certainly not optimal specimens for human consumption.

Having witnessed as an angler the behavior of migrating fish on their upstream journey, I felt like I had insight and understanding about spawning-run dynamics. I learned to catch shad swimming in their preferred interior river channels, discovered how water flow and temperature governed runs’ ebbs and flows, and could easily identify their last dance in the sluggish shallows – a circling spawning ritual signaling the end of fishing season. About 50% of the shad run dies, leaving in its wake pungent, bloated reminders for scavengers.

Although I have never observed Atlantic salmon runs, they must have been similar to shad runs, despite fewer numbers and a higher mortality rate. Of course, if Temple can be believed – he offers no sources, and likely was not an outdoorsman – that was a moot point in the Chicopee River watershed above insurmountable Chicopee Falls. Only strong, agile salmon could clear that barrier, eliminating all other Connecticut River fish migrations above there.

I soon pushed to the backburner my impulsive inquiry into weirs designed to catch out-migrating salmon. The place was slightly out of my comfort zone. I could always revisit the topic if the spirit moved me.

That plan soon changed, however, when quite by chance a retired archaeologist friend reached out to me by email, then telephone, to discuss the ancient Indian fishing grounds bordering Montague’s Turners Falls village. Little did he know he was hitting on a hot topic.

His impetus was recent examination of a private, previously unknown, Riverside/Gill Indian artifact collection brought to his attention. When this find stirred his inquisitive juices, he dug out an archaeological “WMECo Site” report he wrote nearly 50 years ago about that Riverside excavation he led. He wanted to compare notes, so to speak.

We have often discussed Connecticut River anadromous fisheries over the years because he knows it’s in my wheelhouse and not his bailiwick. He just wanted to chat about run dynamics. Plus, he was eager to share maps and aerial photos he had found showing two extant Native weirs in the valley: one on the Westfield River, and the other on the – you guessed it! – Chicopee River in Palmer.

The photos showed two manmade, stonewall-like structures spanning the entire width of the streambeds. Both knee-high structures point downstream. The Westfield River example is a wide V. The one in Palmer is a shallow arc. Both of them point downstream and would have held back water under normal flows, forming a pool and presenting a clearable obstacle.

I told my friend I was not familiar with that type of weir. The ones I was familiar with from sketches and photos pointed upstream with mouths inviting fish into tight enclosures and traps for easy harvest with nets, spears, arrows. His downstream-pointing examples made no sense to me as weirs targeting upstream swimmers. Maybe Temple was right.

My friend suggested that such weirs extending across a river and pointed downstream could have forced upstream travelers toward narrow, manmade shoreline channels at both ends, where they could be easily harvested from shore. Other local historians have surmised that Indian fishers stood atop the weirs to take fish with dip-nets, spears and arrows. Perhaps, but smaller, tighter weirs would have been more efficient with higher yields.


Time to search for answers.

The first source I pulled from my bookcase was Stewart’s aforementioned Indian Fishing, which displayed a variety of stonewall-like, V-shaped, stream-fishing obstacles, some equipped with wooden cages, pens, fence posts and lattices positioned beyond the apex to delay fish. I could decipher none pointing downstream.

Next stop was Frank Speck’s classic Penobscot Man, about the lifeways of Maine Indians. There I found information about an important fall American eel fishery that relied on downstream-pointing weirs and traps to intercept out-migration to Bermuda Triangle spawning grounds and death.

Other than that, Harral Ayres’ The Great New England Trail mentioned springtime lamprey-eel fishing by eastern Massachusetts Natives. Then Gordon Day’s classic In Search of New England’s Native Past confirmed the importance of fall eel fishing but didn’t go into detail.

I believe it’s safe to assume that migrating spring lampreys and fall American eels were sought after by indigenous Connecticut Valley inhabitants – even after Three-Sisters, corn-squash-bean farming was adopted around 1,000 AD.

So, what to make of all this confusing information? Was the downstream-pointed weir on the Westfield River constructed to harvest fall, out-migrating American eels? How about the Palmer weir? It couldn’t have been built for fall eels, because Chicopee Falls blocked their way.

Questions remain. Food for thought. More grist for the thought mill.

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