Prehistoric Poultney (8,500 BC- 1761 AD)

by Jacob Musial

Before the Governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, approved the land grant that established the township of Poultney on September 21, 1761, the town of Poultney did not exist.  The land that now makes up Poultney, however, has likely been inhabited for more than 12, 500 years.  The indigenous people who lived here before the arrival of Europeans did not recognize the arbitrary boundaries that separate Poultney from neighboring townships, Vermont from New York, or the United States from Canada.  They did not leave written records, construct monumental architecture, or establish complex political institutions, but since the end of the last ice age thousands of people have crafted tools, hunted, fished, gathered, gave birth, slept, and died in the place we now call Poultney.

There has been a persistent myth that the land that now makes up the state of Vermont was largely uninhabited before English-speaking colonists settled here in the second half of the 18th century.  Poultney has been no exception to this myth, and references to Indians in local history and folklore are few and far between.  When ingenious people are acknowledged at all, they are depicted as being long gone, remote, and unknowable.  In the 1875 History of Poultney, the authors lament that, “The Indian passed away, and with him perished the story of his race.”  Considering the lack of written records mentioning indigenous people living in the area, the authors’ belief that nothing could be known about the area’s original inhabitants is perfectly understandable.

The only pieces of Poultney history that directly mention indigenous people were inspired by the discovery of the corpse of an Indian in the early 19th century.  A manuscript in the possession of the Poultney Historical Society, written by Charles Ripley in 1913, mentions the discovery of the corpse of an Indian under evergreen boughs in a wigwam sometime in the 1830s.   A well-known piece of local folklore, “The Last Indian in Poultney,” appears to have been inspired by this same discovery.

Over the past century and a half, many prehistoric artifacts have been found in the region surrounding Poultney, and a number have been found in Poultney itself.  Professional archaeologists have uncovered a few prehistoric sites in the area during cultural resource management investigations, which are conducted to mitigate any damage done to archaeological remains during government-sponsored construction projects.  Archaeologists excavated one prehistoric site in 1993 before the expansion of Route 30 in Castleton and Poultney, and another was discovered before the construction of the Carver Falls Hydroelectric Dam in West Haven.

The great majority of the known archaeological sites in the area, however, were discovered by local residents.   Some discoveries have almost certainly gone unrecorded, but archaeologists have inspected the collections of a handful of local collectors, most notably Ryland Benford, who collected around Lake Bomoseen, and Levi Pratt, who collected two hundred and fourteen artifacts around Little Lake and Lake St. Catherine.  When looked at within the context of what is known about the prehistoric Northeast, the artifacts discovered in the region surrounding Poultney reveal a surprisingly rich picture of the area’s prehistory.

The prehistory of Poultney is outlined according to the three major periods of North American prehistory as they occurred in Vermont: the Paleoindian period (10,500-7000 BC), the Archaic period (7000-1000 BC), and the Woodland Period (1000 BC-1600 AD).

Prehistoric Vermonters were not sedentary and the boundaries they recognized were not arbitrary.  To prehistoric people Poultney was a place between two large lakes and a hunting ground within the watershed of the river now bearing its name.

It is impossible to describe prehistoric Poultney using the town’s present boundaries, so instead the “Poultney area” is discussed.  Because some boundaries need to be set, the Poultney area is defined here as the land between and around Lake St. Catherine and Lake Bomoseen, and the watersheds of the Poultney and Mettawee Rivers.