by Jacob Musial
Early Woodland Period (1,000 – 100 BC)
Between 1500 BC and 800 AD there may have been a substantial decline in human population in the Poultney area. In other parts of Vermont, however, changes were taking place during the Early and Middle Woodland periods that had dramatic effects on all of the people of Vermont.
There are only a handful of Early Woodland sites in Vermont. It is not clear if there was a decrease in population during this period, or if many Early Woodland sites have simply not been identified. Considering the apparent continuity of Late Archaic technology at Early Woodland sites, the later seems to be more likely. Besides adopting pottery, during the Early Woodland period it appears that people in Vermont continued follow the same basic way of life that developed during the Late Archaic.
It is possible that people never left the Poultney area in 1500 BC, and that some sites believed to have been Late Archaic had Early Woodland components, but until more discoveries are made, the Early Woodland period in the Poultney area will remain mysterious.
Middle Woodland Period (100 BC – 1,000 AD)
Far more is known about the Middle Woodland period in Vermont than the Early Woodland period. Many of the basic ways of life remained the same as they had been in the Late Archaic, but the Middle Woodland was also a time of radical change for people living in Vermont. During this period people began to rely more heavily on a greater variety of edible botanicals and pottery is far more common at Middle Woodland sites than at Early Woodland sites.
Fewer woodworking tools are found at Middle Woodland sites than sites from earlier periods, so it is seems that the dugout canoes (which had been at the center of life in Vermont since the Early Archaic) were beginning to be replaced by canoes made of bark.
Also during the Middle Woodland period, the atlatl, which had been a primary weapon of people in Vermont since Paleoindian times, was eventually replaced by the bow and arrow. Finally, during the Middle Woodland there is evidence that people began to gather at large base camps or villages in certain seasons, which would suggest the beginning of some sort of tribal structures.
Towards the end of the Middle Woodland period it is clear that people were again inhabiting the Poultney area in significant numbers.
As is evident from the continued use of Middle Woodland technology during the Late Woodland period, people in Vermont largely continued to live in a way quite similar to their Middle Woodland ancestors—or their Late Archaic ancestors, for that matter. r.
Late Woodland Period (1,000 – 1761 BC)
During the Late Woodland period, however, the people of Vermont adapted horticulture and began to cultivate corn, beans, and squash. The introduction of horticulture made it possible for tribal structures, which had begun to form during the Middle Woodland period, to become more complex and organized.
For part of the year people would break up into smaller groups and exploit various seasonal resources, but they would return to the permanent village sites of their tribes in the spring and fall to plant and harvest crops. During the Late Woodland period came the formation of the Western Abenaki and Mahican tribes that inhabited Vermont when Europeans first arrived in the 17th century.
Mahican tribes traditionally lived in the upper Hudson Valley, and Western Abenaki tribes were centered in the Champlain and Connecticut Valleys, with their chief villages at the mouths of major rivers like the Missisiquoi and Winooski.
The Poultney area is located between the traditional homelands of the Mahicans and Western Abenakis, so it is not clear if the region was Mahican or Abenaki territory before the arrival of Europeans. It is possible that it was shared hunting ground between the two, but it is also possible that the area might have been vacated as the later Iroquoian arrivals, who were more highly organized and warlike than either the Abenaki or the Mahicans, began to travel down around the southern edge of Lake Champlain in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was an Abenaki village at the mouth of Otter Creek in Vergennes, 47 miles north of Poultney, and people from this village may have hunted here, or at least traveled through the area.
By the time that the first Europeans came to Vermont, however, the traditional tribal structures and territorial boundaries of both the Mahican and Western Abenaki had been greatly disrupted.
Before the first Europeans set foot in Vermont, they were preceded by the diseases they had brought across the Atlantic. Smallpox spread along the same exchange networks that had connected Vermont to the rest of native North America, and indigenous populations (which had no immunity European diseases) were decimated.
Emigrants from southern New England and New York, fleeing the advance of English colonists, bolstered Abenaki and Mahican populations, as did refugees from the St. Lawrence Iroquois, who had largely been exterminated by the expanding Iroquois Confederacy. However, the influx of these populations may have confused tribal structures as much as preserved them.
As the 17th and 18th centuries progressed, Abenaki and Mahicans became embroiled in a succession of European conflicts, and new tribal structures formed, such as the St. Francis Abenaki. Based out of the Abenaki village of Odanak, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River above Quebec (where the Jesuit Mission of St. Francis had been constructed in 1683), the St. Francis Abenaki were a hodgepodge of Indians from various tribes.
The Pawlet town historian, Dorothy Backus Offensend, recorded that the people who hunted and fished along the banks of the Mettawee River were St. Francis, but since most Vermont Abenaki spent time at Odanak at some point or another during the year, all Vermont Abenaki could essentially be described as St. Francis.
Regardless of the exact cultural affiliation of the people who lived in the Poultney area, it is very possible, that there was a native presence through the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is now clear that many Western Abenakis continued to live in Vermont until the present day, and in the 1970s Abenakis living in Swanton emerged to reclaim their identity, which they had largely concealed and downplayed for generations. In 2006, the State of Vermont formally acknowledged Native Americans living in Vermont and in 2011, two Abenaki tribes were granted recognition. The real the story of “The Last Indian in Poultney” will probably always remain obscure, but the presence of indigenous people in Poultney before 1761 is no mystery. For 12,500 years, thousands of indigenous people lived here—and they should not be forgotten.