New Weir Information

I spoke too soon about ancient Indian weirs in the neighborhood. So, with new information in hand about the stone fishing structures, a follow-up’s in order.

My last column questioned the curious (to me) design, and thus the functionality, of two extant, manmade, downstream-pointed weirs on the lower Westfield and uppermost Chicopee rivers. Little did I know that recent research has been done to analyze fishing practices on a similar structure closer to my doorstep.

Reader Michael Bosworth alerted me to this fact in a March 30 email query wondering if “the Indian dam on the Ashuelot River in Swanzey, New Hampshire was another example?” Accompanying his question was a reference to Page 50 of Robert G. Goodby’s 2021 book, A Deep Presence: 13,000 Years of Native American History, which I had not previously heard of.

I immediately went online, learned that Goodby is a respected Franklin Pierce College anthropology professor and contract archaeologist, and ordered his book, which had not arrived in the mail before deadline. It’s based on more than 30 years of New England archaeological fieldwork – at least 10 of them (2002-12) on the Swanzey site. After an exchange of emails Goodby sent me his 2014 site report, co-authored by Sarah Tremblay and Edward Bouras: The Swanzey Fish Dam: A Large Precontact Native American Stone Structure in Southeastern New Hampshire.

This 19-page report and its three-page bibliography shed new light on Indian weirs and fishing practices of Eastern Woodlands people. Finally, important information that was at best elusive the last I explored the topic some 35 years ago. Back then, the most helpful source I could find was Hilary Stewart’s liberally illustrated Indian Fishing: Early Methods of the Northwest Coast. Although the Native people she featured lived on the other side of the continent and fished for different but related species, I presumed their practices couldn’t have differed greatly from their Northeastern kin, and still believe that to be true.

One significant difference on this side of the continent, however, seems to have been common use of downstream-pointed weirs to harvest upstream-migrating anadromous fish on their spring spawning runs back to their natal streams.

“Huh?” I pondered. “Upstream-swimming fish on spawning runs confronted first by an abrupt point rather than the inviting, wide-open mouth of a V guiding them into a narrow trap?”

It made no sense based on what I had previously learned about Indian weirs pointing in the same direction as fish migrations and sketched in Stewart’s book. So, I questioned late-19th-century historian and former Whately pastor J.H. Temple, who, in his comprehensive histories of North Brookfield and Palmer, described slightly different fishing practices on downstream-pointed weirs.

That is not to say Eastern Woodlands Native people never built the upstream-pointed weirs preferred by their West Coast cousins. Just that on Connecticut River tributaries and other streams up and down eastern North America on this side of the mighty Mississippi, upstream-pointing weirs or dams spanning the entire width of streams were widely used to harvest migrating fish. These stone structures built across streams forced fish toward narrow manmade shoreline channels in which they were easily harvested by net, spear and arrow.

The Swanzey Fish Dam was such a structure, as were the previously mentioned shore-to-shore weirs or dams on the lower Westfield and uppermost Chicopee rivers. Recent research accelerating during the final quarter of the 20th century has uncovered similar structures begging for additional study. The closest sites to us are in Connecticut, on the Housatonic River and the Bashan Lake outflow in East Haddam, while others are known to exist in Maine’s Kennebec River watershed.

Who knows where else similar structures will turn up now that they are on archaeologists’ radar?

Let’s hope future research uncovers footprints of complementary, wooden, weir-associated apparatuses. Indians knew the value of durable, water-resistant woods like chestnut, cedar, and locust for companion pieces, and would have used them to build fences, lattices, and platforms to aid fish-gathering procedures. Because such woods have shown remarkable survival capabilities in submerged archaeological environments, the outline of such structures could likely still be mapped by field researchers.

Sadly, one important fact now out of reach is quantification of the various pre-colonial fish runs up and down the Connecticut River, and tributaries like the Ashuelot. There is just no way to attach accurate numbers to those prehistoric anadromous and catadromous fish runs. But take it to the bank: they dwarfed the largest modern runs on record. The volume of ancient runs matters in any assessments of pre-European Contact Period Native fishing practices and related structures.

The Swanzey Fish Dam is shaped like a checkmark. It rests approximately eight straight-line miles –perhaps 12 meandering river miles – from the Ashuelot River’s Hinsdale, New Hampshire mouth. Radiocarbon dating brings the structure back to the Terminal Archaic Period, some 4,000 B.P. (years before present). It was still in use by Squakheag or Sokoki Indians into the second half of the 17th-century – likely one of many fish-gathering constructions of various styles built along the Ashuelot’s 65-mile reach.

The most important fish migrations targeted by our indigenous fishers were the upstream anadromous spring runs of shad, salmon, lampreys, sturgeon, and herrings. Then came the downstream fall runs of valued catadromous American eels. The Indians would have known what type of adaptations were best for each species, and most of the adjustments would have involved wooden embellishments.

Although the Swanzey Fish Dam was known to colonial settlers at an early date and became local tradition, little effort was taken to understand the indigenous fishing operation. Goodby first showed interest in the site at the dawning of the 21st century. He ramped up his investigative efforts after the August 2010 removal of West Swanzey’s 1860s Homestead Woolen Mill dam. As had previously been the case during a 1950 dam-repair project that drew down the upstream impoundment, the Indian stonework was exposed, setting the wheels of discovery into motion.

The rest is history. Goodby’s site report appeared in 2014. Seven years later, A Deep Presence hit the street. Now, following local press coverage, scholarly articles in academic journals, a dissertation, and random book reviews, the Swanzey site is in the public eye… sort of.

Although there’s still plenty to learn about the social and economic activities at ancient indigenous fishing camps situated along large and small Connecticut Valley streams, at least new discovery is underway. New information will hopefully continue to surface, starting with radiocarbon dating of the other aforementioned New England sites.

As archaeologists continue poking and probing, they may yet open a clear window into what ancient indigenous fishing operations looked like in our fertile valley before the post-King Philip’s War (1775-76) diaspora took hold.

Buried in the floodplain meadows and river sediments are the answers we seek.

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