White Mountain National Forest and Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective explores past Abenaki fire use on the land

by John Neely

The White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) is a part of the cultural patrimony of Abenaki Penacook and other Wabanaki peoples, who continue stewarding this land and waterways for over 12,000 years.  While there are no federally recognized tribes in New Hampshire, WMNF wants to honor the indigenous story of this landscape by partnering with the Abenakis and incorporating their demonstrated traditions and local knowledge.  

The WMNF contains stands of native red pine that show a history of frequent fire.  To learn more about these areas, WMNF fire staff contacted the Indigenous New Hampshire Collaborative Collective (INHCC) to get their perspective on what may have occurred here in the past.  The stands are situated above broad river valleys that provide good vantage points (often former volcanoes).  These stands also contain important foods like blueberry, huckleberry, and other plant species as well as lichens and mosses.  The stands are adjacent to Abenaki villages and/or trails. The stands are in areas inaccessible to logging and development and have thus been preserved.  It is probable that these stands were larger at one time.

Fire scarred red pine on Mt. Stanton, Bartlett.  These trees burned in 1793, 1811, 1816, 1839, 1854, 1886, and 1903. Photo courtesy of Adele Fenwick.

For her Doctoral dissertation Maria Adele Fenwick documented fire history back to the late 1700’s in these stands. This captured a fire record at the outset of colonial settlement, yet the age of some of the trees indicates that the fire-adapted natural communities were already present and healthy prior to the colonial settlers arrival. 

WMNF Fire managers are interested in exploring how and where Indigenous People used fire to benefit their environments.  Was fire used by the Abenaki to promote blueberry and huckleberry growth?  Was it used to keep areas open for mineral/lithic material collection?  Was sap from these red pines used as a sealant for canoe repair or as adhesive for tools?  Were these areas used as lookouts for migrating caribou or for preventing attacks by other tribes’ warriors?  Or were these stands maintained by fires that traveled from the river bottoms into the hills? The Abenaki frequently burned the river valleys to facilitate travel and hunting; later, colonial settlers burned to clear land for crops and pasture.  Historic paintings and photos of the Saco river valley show a grassland/savannah ecosystem, often with evidence of fire in the paintings:

Benjamin Champney (1817–1907) Picnic on “Artist’s Ledge” Overlooking Conway Meadows, New Hampshire, 1874                                 Courtesy of Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N. H. https://www.incollect.com/articles/painters-of-new-hampshire-s-white-mountains_1

A preliminary field visit to one of the sites occurred in Sept 2021.  Members of the INHCC and WMNF fire and botany staff visited South Moat mountain to look at some representative stands.  Members included Paul Pouliot, Sag8mo and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People; Denise Pouliot, Sag8moskwa and Artist, Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People; Dr. Meghan C.L. Howey, Professor, Anthropology & Earth Systems Research Center UNH and her former student Emily Mierswa; Jeffrey Baron and Hunter Stetz, Independent Archaeological Consulting Field Technicians; Erica Duda WMNF Botany Technician, and John Neely WMNF Zone Assistant Fire Management Officer.  The morning began with introductions and a brief description of the known history of the area by John Neely.  Then Jeff Baron showed some examples of stone tools he has created from different representative lithic materials.

The group traveled to the pine area and looked at potential lithic material.  Jeff Baron took a small sample of rock to test as a lithic source.  Some red pine sap was obtained to test its qualities as a sealant.  The group discussed the potential to find and carbon date charcoal fragments in nearby bogs and vernal pools to obtain a further record of fire in the area. 

At the top of the ridge, by a good lookout spot, an old campfire with fire affected rock was uncovered.    

This field trip ended with excitement about future collaboration between INHCC and WMNF.  As a result, an INHCC ecology/land use working group has been formed to continue exploring these questions.