Indigenous Heritage of Southern New Hampshire: From the Past to the Present

By Elizabeth Dion

In some cases, indigenous heritage of Southern New Hampshire has been explored in terms of separate themes (e.g., indigenous foodways) but lacks in-depth analysis and comparison to contemporary times. The history of indigenous peoples in New Hampshire shows a level of innovation and cultural exchange that is unique and should be rightfully respected and appreciated. The European settler colonialism and the subsequent dispossession of the land and cultural knowledge (through, for example, acculturation and re-education campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries) precluded such recognition. Hence, such recognition toward reconciliation is long overdue.

            I grew up in the city of Nashua, New Hampshire, located 40 miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I have lived there my whole life and have learned about the town’s most recent history. Nashua was a former mill town focused on textile manufacturing. Main Street was the first major street built up during industrial times and the rest of the city expanded from that center. Many places I know today reside on former farmlands, from the Market Basket in the “North End” to the Pheasant Lane Mall in the “South End.” When it comes to that specific terminology, Nashua is termed in slang for its geographical North and South End, as the Nashua River splits the city in half. I always wondered why the city simply deemed its two distinct regions, and how there is such differing lives between people in the same town, only separated by a shallow river that is likely bound to dry up at some point in the future.

            The word “Nashua,” or “Niswa-ok” in the Abenaki language, means “place of two (rivers)” (personal conversation, Paul Pouliot: 2020) likely referring to the major rivers that line the borders of the city: the Nashua River, flowing horizontally, and the Merrimack River, creating the eastern border of the city. It’s interesting to see, coincidence or not, how the city’s meaning applies to so much, even today. Two rivers, two major neighborhoods, two high schools, two distinct experiences. However, it also makes me wonder how the term came to be, or how the city came to be in its history beyond the Industrial Age. There is a deep history aside from that narrow scope, and the past of indigenous communities is significant to look at in practice towards the future of the treatment of indigenous peoples and the preservation of their heritage.

              To begin discussing the history of indigenous peoples in Southern New Hampshire, it is important to note the context of groups and subgroups of tribes that live in the New England area and how they settled the lands around them. Indigenous peoples of New England “are now classified as Algonquian, a large family consisting of over 20 languages spoken by the Indians of North America” (Piotrowski 2003, 7). There are many subtribes of Algonquian-speaking peoples, so their ties remain significant in language, but the values of tribes have differed at such local levels that indigenous heritage shine value. I have found it interesting to sense that identifying tribes, who may be so near each other geographically and in spoken language, can have such a differing cultural history that yearns discovery into the present. In the Southern New Hampshire, there were many groups of Algonquian-speaking peoples, split into many different tribes. One of the most influential tribes was and continues to be the Penacook, as their influence reached great bounds even if they weren’t the definitive tribe located in the area. Their influence grew from the reputation of the leader Passaconaway and his “paternal rule” (Piotrowski 2003, 96). Along with that influence, traditions by the Penacook tribe remained strong with evidence of wigwams along the Merrimack River, showing a powerful rule throughout Southern New Hampshire with a great influence of culture heritage (Piotrowski 2003, 96). The influence that the Penacook tribe has here shows that there needs to be a greater recognition of indigenous culture and how there needs to be ways to better preserve and respect the past.

            The differentiation of the Penacook tribe splits into many subtribes/subgroups, each with their own values of influence from this overarching group. Another overarching group with influences in Southern New Hampshire is the Abenaki tribe. This tribe is split into two subgroups, Western and Eastern. Eastern Abenaki are those that reside in Maine, while Western Abenaki are those that reside in New Hampshire (Piotrowski 2003, 7). From the Abenaki tribe there are several various subgroups that are differentiated throughout Southern New Hampshire. The Nashua, or sometimes referred as Nashaway, are an indigenous group of Western Abenaki peoples (Piotrowski 2003, 10). Nashaway means “river with a pebbled bottom” (Native American Heritage 2014).

            The Western Abenaki tribe has roots throughout Southern New Hampshire and there are many pathways to creating unique culture throughout the region. With the split of many different tribes there are many stories to be told, and so many that surround the place that I grew up. I am focusing on the perspective of the Western Abenaki and Nashua tribe because of their close proximity to where I am from and how it impacted the stories of my hometown today. One of the major regions for settlement in Nashua area was the convenient location of the Merrimack River valley. The river, flowing from New Hampshire’s “Great North Woods” down into Northern Massachusetts, offered a vast area for settlement in river intervals, which provided “great fertility and…such ready productiveness…to afford an abundant harvest to the scanty husbandry of the Indian” (Piotrowski 2003, 87). In addition to great water sources for harvesting, the Merrimack River offered great rapids for fishing and woods alongside banks for hunting (87). This settlement strategy offered a great place for Western Abenaki to grow their control over the lands and expand their culture.

Some indigenous villages were developed by the Nashua tribe. They occupied lands along the Nashua and Merrimack rivers, and as defined before, the area’s name meant “river with a pebbly bottom” which was appropriate in its time period (Piotrowski 2003, 88). The Nashua tribe had similar lifestyles compared to other Western Abenaki tribes, living along the Merrimack and developing villages successful out of hunting, fishing, and farming. Like other tribes such as the Winnipesaukee, Souhegan, and Amoskeag, they were “subservient to the Penacook’s” (89). This proves the point that the Penacook tribe had a major overarching influence over the Southern New Hampshire region. With leaders such as Passaconaway being powerful and yet respectful rulers in the region, it allowed for significant cultural heritage from both large and local groups to take hold throughout Southern New Hampshire.

I find that in today’s times in Southern New Hampshire, there is a mix of both references in the Nashua area. The city itself is the namesake for the smaller tribal group that resided in the area of Southern New Hampshire as well as Northern Massachusetts. The Nashua River and the Merrimack River also are namesakes for more local tribes. However, the modern city of Nashua also contains indigenous namesakes around town. There is even a whole neighborhood dedicated to street names of Native American tribes. The ethics around those namesakes are questionable but the context of larger tribal names along with more local ones sticks to the general heritage of Nashua. The question today of whether there is any appreciation left in the city for Native American heritage, or if it is just appropriated, are a note of further discussion.

            The Western Abenaki tribe thrived in their society surrounded by agricultural self-dependence. Most settlements were in river valleys and thrived on natural treatments for wounds and sickness with the crops around them, including a sap used as a band-aid for deep wounds (Manore 2011, 179). However, with the combination of warfare and disease brought on by colonists, the perception on indigenous peoples began to change. Religious influence also began to bring a negative connotation in combination with other adverse examples. An example of a case like this involves “King Philip’s War” in 1675, where the Abenaki tribe began to drive Puritans out from their lands only to later “present themselves” for a Jesuit mission afterwards (Manore 2011, 179-180). This conflict among many others of war, illness, and religious conversion, brought indigenous heritage into a negative scope of recognition. The culture of the Abenaki people and of the many indigenous peoples of the Northeast region should be something much more respected. In centuries since then, cultural heritage has continued to be neglected for indigenous peoples. I will look at how struggles transpire today in a modern scope, caused by the colonial conflicts some centuries ago.

            The Abenaki tribe today faces some serious issues including a struggle for state recognition. I had the opportunity to experience the story of the Abenaki tribe first-hand in a presentation by Paul Pouliot, Sagamo (a male speaker) of the Cowasuck Band of the Penacook-Abenaki people. Learning about Abenaki peoples in this capacity was a great opportunity, and I appreciated the perspective on this both for my own personal knowledge and my greater exploration for this research topic. Paul Pouliot discussed many of the core values of the Abenaki people kept today from history. He also explained the “Seven Paradigms that Shaped Abenaki Life” which included technology, religion, ethics, warfare, disease, trade and colonial land use (Pouliot 2019). Many of the practices of the Abenaki people’s, past and present, show an extreme refinement in taste and a sense of sophistication. One of the most valued attributes is known as consensus decision making when it comes to tribal rule, and three guidelines for this effective system include peace, righteousness and power (2019). The Abenaki culture has been described as “a nobility of character remarkable in savage people” and art forms were both explicit and subtle, with hints of sophistication as well (2019). These cultural, political, and socials values of this tribe show an aim of respect that is needed for the future of today’s tribes, and it questions the case of why there is lack of recognition where there is clearly evidence of respect for indigenous groups.

            While there was much value from learning the respectable culture of the Abenaki tribe, Pouliot brought question to the lack of recognition that his tribe has in the United States when it comes to citizenship. They are currently not recognized as a U.S. Native American tribe because they are considered to be “Canadian Indians.” In the United States, Abenaki peoples are seen as “illegal aliens” (Pouliot 2019). The laws and precedents for the Abenaki tribe also differ as explained by Pouliot, as there are other rules that they need to follow along with United States Constitutional laws. There are many issues of cultural and federal identification and as described by Pouliot, is like hiding in plain sight. Complex issues arise from this, where the overarching theme is “being Indian is easy…recognition is difficult” (2019). The conflicts of recognition bring a question into better solutions for indigenous peoples in the Northeast and especially Southern New Hampshire. The fact that I live in a city with such rich history of indigenous peoples and that the culture is so overlooked is something I personally feel ashamed of. However, as Pouliot stated, not all hope is lost, and in concluding thoughts, I propose comparisons and solutions to this problem.

            A case study to compare the lives of the Abenaki peoples is that of Wabanaki tribes/groups residing in the state of Maine. This indigenous community faced terrible treatment. The documentary Dawnland discusses this ill-treatment, focusing on the Native American Child Welfare Act and its impacts across the state. The film follows several indigenous peoples on their paths to growing up in the state, many of those taken from their parents into white families and forced to assimilate into a white society (Mazo). Indigenous child removal was a real problem in the United States and truly hit close to him throughout Dawnland as it brings questions of reconciliation towards those terrible acts. This comparison brings questions to the concluding thoughts I have on the path towards indigenous heritage throughout New England. Assimilation grew to be a major problem throughout the United States, as there was a compulsion to take indigenous children from their families to have them grow up practically white. Why was this notion necessary? How was this going to benefit the child’s life after the trauma they endured in being stripped away from their families? How would this benefit the rest of the country, anyway? I find it to be quite a shock in a culture and a disappointment to greater society today. The fact that there is great backlash today towards a group of people who live in the United States and cannot comfortably call it home is something to seriously relook. While the connection is grave, this case also makes me look at the rights of the Abenaki peoples today, and how, despite being here for centuries, are currently described as “illegal aliens” in the United States. The roles of indigenous peoples today in the United States is a cause of concern for national image and respect. Attitudes need to change for the acceptance of indigenous peoples and the appreciation for their culture.

            I find it interesting to compare the lack of recognition of indigenous peoples in New Hampshire and ongoing preservation-efforts of African American heritage (e.g., the Black Heritage Tour in Portsmouth, NH). I went on this tour in the Fall 2019. It was full of many stories behind various spots throughout Downtown Portsmouth, from Prescott Park to the Library Restaurant, and at the final spot at the African-American burial ground. This spot was discovered a few years back during a digging project, and a burial ground for African-American slaves was found under city streets. For the next decade a project emerged to shut down the street for driving and create a site to preserve the heritage of the burial ground. What can we learn from this case, exactly? It is interesting to see such a transition in appreciation in this case for African-American heritage especially in a place like New Hampshire which can seemingly appear to lack such cultural heritage for African-Americans. The fact that a site was designated for a group, and is seemingly appreciated by the community, is something that should be paid attention to. A whole community has created the power of appreciation for African-American heritage, and even sites throughout the city that seemingly did not hold image to a story of African-Americans, display placards of the stories that lie beneath them, good or bad. In this case, it is important to see that efforts can be made and respected for indigenous culture as well. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown museum, or a commercialized space. It can be something as simple as a heritage trail or a placard to denote a historical or geographically significant space for indigenous peoples. That, however, is just one step in the direction to appreciating cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and leading them on the road to recognition.

            The probable solutions to preserving and protecting indigenous heritage are twofold. It first begins with the respect and preservation of indigenous heritage itself. As discussed previously, there are many aspects of indigenous culture to look in-depth about and appreciate as a society today. I have found it interesting to discover where my city – Nashua – truly came from in its past. It wasn’t just a mill town, and it wasn’t just a haven for colonialism. There was a time before that history, and as a resident of Nashua, New Hampshire, I would love to take the time to learn more about where I came from and how this city came to be on the indigenous side. It is important to recognize that because there is so much out there that can be discovered and analyzed but at the same time be preserved and respected. Like in Portsmouth, there could be a heritage trail or a preserved heritage site of sorts to see more to indigenous peoples in New Hampshire because it is more than just looking at something in a museum in today’s world.

The second part to respecting the indigenous culture of New Hampshire regards recognition and acceptance. Indigenous groups have been in North America centuries before the colonial era and have built a greater foundation for the lands we reside on today. There needs to be recognition of the people that were here before us, whether that may be adjusted laws of citizenship, a special denotation of Native American background in identification, or simply in improving the image of indigenous peoples. There is a notion of savagery and primitive behavior that indigenous peoples display but that is false. Like the Abenaki tribe discussed, their level of sophistication and shared culture is something that needs to be recognized and respected, not just preserved. From the past to the present, indigenous heritage is something that has been scraped and has a tainted perception towards many. It is now the time to recognize indigenous heritage and act in a way towards better preservation and recognition methods to change the scope of culture today. I come from a large city in New Hampshire, and I wish there was a better way to sense where the city really came from in its past, aside from the glorified industrial stories. It is time to make a change and pave the way to appreciate the people that protected the city I call home.

Image Source: Mark Lotterhand 2019


Manore, Jean L. 2011. The Historical Erasure of an Indigenous Identity in the Borderlands: The

Western Abenaki of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Quebec. Journal of Borderland Studies 26: 179-196.

Mazo, Adam & Ben Pender-Cudlip, 2018. Dawnland. 2018; Independent Lens, DVD.

“Native American Heritage.” 2014. New Hampshire Folk Life, State of New Hampshire

Piotrowski, Thaddeus. 2002. The Indian Heritage of New Hampshire and Northern New England. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Pouliot, Paul. 2019. “Who or What, When and Where? And Some Why’s of the Abenaki People,” October 10, 2019, Lecture. University of New Hampshire, 80:00.

One comment

Comments are closed.