The First Inhabitants Before the Time Barre was Barre

by Will Kyle

BARRE — With the Barre Heritage Festival around the corner, it’s a good time to look back and celebrate Barre’s history. For many people, that means looking back over 200 years to when the town was officially founded. How about looking back over 10,000 years?

The people native to the area, the Abenaki, are a community that has lived in the central Vermont area ever since their ancestors first migrated here several thousands of years ago.

Thirty people, give or take, are “American Indian and Alaska Native alone” in Barre (City and Town) taken together according to the Vermont Census. More Abenaki people might identify as being of “two or more races,” and they aren’t included in that number.

I spoke to Josh Jerome, the executive director of the Barre Heritage Festival. He had not heard of any Abenaki involvement with the festival this year, nor was he aware of any Abenaki presence being associated with the festival since it began.

However, Jerome was eager to encourage Abenaki people to get involved. Part of his job is to help groups to “raise money and awareness for themselves.”

The festival invites vendors from around Vermont as well as musicians and groups who want to take part in the parade and more. A handful of restaurants in the community will be doing a special for the week focusing on the culinary traditions of a specific ethnicity.

Jerome said that he welcomes the Abenaki community and any ethnic community to participate because the festival is “a celebration of diversity” as well as “an opportunity for us as Vermonters to look back at our heritage and honor our traditions” and to “create a sense of community.”

If you’re talking about the heritage of Central Vermont, you’re talking about the heritage of the Abenaki people. The community lives within the area of Wabanaki, which translates to the Dawn Land. Wabanaki is an area ranging from the Canadian Maritimes and part of Quebec Province south to Massachusetts. Wabanaki, the Dawn Land, is bordered to the East by the Atlantic Ocean, known as Sobagw in the Abenaki language, and to the West by Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.

The homeland of Western Abenaki tribes, which includes the Missisquoi, the Koasek, the Nulhegan, and the Elnu tribes, largely corresponds to the area of Vermont, New Hampshire and part of the Quebec province South of the St. Lawrence.

The Missisquoi tribe, located mostly in the Missisquoi Valley near lake Champlain, is the largest tribe today. Archaeological records show that large communities of Abenaki people also lived in the valley before European contact. The Koasek tribe is the second most populated tribe in Vermont, and it is located in the Connecticut River valley.

Since Barre is located relatively high in the Green Mountains and far from a major source of water, it is unlikely that people built large permanent settlements there before Barre. However, people had almost certainly lived there in smaller numbers.

I spoke with Roger Longtoe Sheehan, chief of the Elnu Tribe of the Abenaki, to find out more about the heritage of the Abenaki, and how people would have lived in Barre before European-Americans settled down.

“The rivers were your main highways,” Sheehan said. People passed through the area of Barre often because of the Winooski River, one of the largest rivers in Vermont.

Not only was the Winooski a good source of water both for the bands of people hunting and for the animals they were hunting, but it was a major artery of travel for crossing the Green Mountains.

Winooski means “onion land” — for the wild onions growing on the banks of the river.

Large numbers of people lived in settlements at the base of Winooski watershed on the shore of Lake Champlain, in the Chittenden County area. Archaeological evidence also shows that people had large settlements in Middlesex and Montpelier. Barre is less than a day’s walk from both Montpelier and the Connecticut River.

Some villages were permanent, while in other cases people might move their settlements based on the time of year and their specific situation.

Anyone travelling between the Connecticut River Valley and Lake Champlain for festivities, trade, family visits or any other reason would likely either use paths established by the river, or travel on the river with a canoe.

People of different areas traded with one another for varieties of seeds, foods, raw materials, tools, pottery, clothing, jewelry and more.

Sheehan says that before and after European contact, people were “all over the place trading, and making war.” People also moved around a lot because of their lifestyles, which were adapted to the seasons and more mobile than most lifestyles are today.

Much of Abenaki history has been passed down through oral traditions. “We’re kind of lucky,” Sheehan said, “because a lot of it was being written down 200 years ago. That’s how we’ve kept things for ourselves, through traditional stories.” Also lucky because “people have been trying for 500 years to colonize us.”

A major problem in Vermont today is that people barely know anything about the Abenaki and their history. Abenaki history is just starting to be taught in schools since state recognition was won for the Elnu and three other major tribes in 2011 and 2012.

Sheehan has also noticed these days that more Abenaki people are teaching Abenaki culture to their children and within their community. Ten years ago, there were only about six fluent speakers of the Abenaki language in Vermont, but that number has now grown.

The artistic traditions of the Abenaki, such as motifs in pottery, have been one of the better preserved aspects of pre-contact Abenaki culture, and have developed in interesting ways in later centuries.

Artistic traditions like storytelling, singing and dance are “major components of our culture and our education,” Sheehan told me.

Sheehan is glad to see the culture constantly developing, but along with others, he worries about some traditions being lost with time unless care is taken to preserve them. Modern powwows come from older festival traditions, but have become more representative of a Pan-Indian culture.

Each tribe is mostly independent, each with their own constitution. A chief and a tribal council are elected by the people to guide the tribe.

I talked to George Larrabee, a member of the Clan of the Hawk tribal council and a historian who Longtoe called a “granddaddy of the Native living tradition” to learn more about the daily Abenaki lifestyle in historical and prehistoric times.

In the spring, people would plant crops in fertile floodplains at their villages. Unlike the large monocrops of today, farms were planted with what are known as “the three sisters,” — corn, beans and squash. The three plants together provide for a very nutritious plant-based diet. Corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, beans offer nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use, and the squash acts as a barrier to block potential weeds from the sun as well as deterring pests with its prickly hairs and acting as a “living mulch” to keep the earth moist.

Abenaki people counted 13 months, one for each moon in a year. Sogalikas, the sugar maker moon, occurring in April, was when people would boil the maple sap they had tapped in March.

Summer and spring were a good time for fishing. When fish were moving into shallow waters or upriver to spawn in the early spring, people would follow them upriver. People living near the coast or near large lakes would go to the edge of the water to hunt fish and the water mammals who were there for the same reason.

Many people would hunt migrating birds in the fall and spring. Fall was also a good time to hunt freshwater eels.

Leaving some old people, young people, and some others in villages, many people would break up into familial bands to hunt in the winter.

They pursued deer, moose, beaver, bear, elk and the now uncommon eastern caribou and bison. Once they hunted enough animals in one area, they would move on to where more animals could be found, leaving behind enough animals that the animal populations were able to reproduce and recover.

An Abenaki father’s hunting grounds would be passed on to his son.

Many Abenaki people had well-developed skills in bird calls and animal calls, Larrabee said. The skill of listening was also very important to them, because they had to be far more sensitive to the natural environment.

Barre has a long and rich Abenaki heritage. Abenaki people have lived in Barre for thousands of years before it was called Barre and continue to live there today.