Sharon Lawrence McDonald
Fifteen thousand years ago, glaciers covered the northern regions of the continent. Bedford would have been under a mile of ice. But then, it began to melt. By 12,000 years ago, the glaciers had retreated up past the St. Lawrence River. There was land here, but it was tundra. Mammoths, mastodons, huge bears and other large mammals roamed. (Mastodons??? In New England?? Yes! A six and a half foot long mastodon tusk was found in Arlington’s Spy Pond just a few years ago!)
Over many hundreds of years, the weather warmed further, and the icy tundra melted. The large mammals went extinct or retreated north. And then, about 11,000 years ago, pushing northward and eastward from the Ohio Valley into the newly habitable land of the northeast, came the Earliest Peoples.
The Beginnings: Turtle Island
Long ago, before anyone now alive can remember, there was no dry land. All was water, and the animals swam in the water. There were no people there.
The Sky People lived above. In one place, there was a great tree growing. One night, the leader had a dream that the tree must be chopped down.
“This is a terrible dream!” he said. But such a dream must be followed, and so they cut down the tree. It left a large hole in the sky.
One day, one of the Sky People fell through the hole. She could not swim for long in the water, and all of the animals were very concerned.
“Down at the bottom of the water, there is mud,” said one. “We must bring some up to make land for her to stand on.”
They decided among them who must go. First Loon tried, but it was too deep. Then Duck tried. No. Beaver tried, too, but it was just too deep. At last, Muskrat took a huge breath and dived down.
He was gone a long time, and the animals were worried. “He has drowned,” they said. At last, Muskrat appeared. He was unconscious, and they had to hold him up. But in one paw, he held a little bit of mud.
“Where shall we put it?” the animals asked each other. Turtle swam up. “You must spread it on my shell,” he said. This they did, and it spread and thickened and at last made this land we live on today. It stretches from sea to sea, and we call it, “Turtle Island.”
The Paleoindian Period – 11,000-10,000 BP
The first people were pioneers and explorers. They did not found villages, but lived nomadically in small family groups. This is not to say they wandered aimlessly. They knew the movements of the animals – when and where the caribou migrated, where the bear went to den, the location of the moose’s favorite marsh. They followed the game, pausing only for a few days now and then to repair their tools, butcher and dress their kill, and prepare the hides for blankets and clothing. Agriculture, in modern terms of farming, was un-thought of. Most of the vegetation was pine forest – no nuts, few berries. Plant food was scarce. It was vital that the people know exactly what grew where at each season. Their way of “agriculture” included not over-picking, so plants would continue to grow in definable areas. In order to know which foods were edible, the behavior of animals was closely observed. When Bear had an ache, the People noticed that she would eat willow bark. By and by, the People leaned that the “aspirin” in willow helped with pain. Slowly, animal guides passed on their knowledge of plant medicines and foods from the earth to humans.
One spot large numbers of these Early People came together to visit time and time again was at the mouth of the Ipswich River, a place we now call “Bull Brook.” They left behind remnants of their life: hearths, stone tools, shell heaps and even caribou bones. (Although now you will have to go to museums to see these, for in 1960, bulldozers and steam shovels destroyed the site to dig the Bull Brook Reservoir.)
Archaeologists call this period of history the Paleoindian Period, and it lasted about a thousand years. There were not many people in the northeast, but they traveled extensively, even up into Canada. They must have established trade, too, for some of the stone that made the Bull Brook tools are traceable to northern Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. Not much from these First Peoples has survived. Their houses and clothing, probably made from animal skins, have gone to dust. While they also used wood and bone for tools, only the ones made of stone can be found now, 10 – 11,000 years later. But the stone projectile points they made are unique and unmistakably from the Paleoindian Period. (You say they all look alike? Not if you are a professional archaeologist! Now I will make you students of early stone tools. Only Paleo points, are fluted. This means that, down the center, stone is knapped away to make a little valley – a flute.)
Now what are the chances that 10,000 ago, a Paleo hunter would lose one of his stone projectile points down by the Concord River? And what are the chances that it would be found by a friend of mine out walking his dog? But, yes. His name was Larry Mansur, and he was to become Bedford’s Town Historian. He presented this Paleo point to the Bedford Historical Society, and there you can see it, if you like.
A Moment of Orientation
Now I am going to pause a minute to orient you. I’ve been talking about the Paleoindian Period in the Northeast, but the Northeast is a very large place, and the environments – say, comparing Nova Scotia and Rhode Island — are not at all the same. This morning, we are most interested in talking about this land here at latitude 42° 29′ 26″ North / longitude 71° 16′ 36″ West that we call Bedford, but that’s a bit specific. To get a little more information, let’s widen the lens. We’ll learn that it is most helpful to talk not of states or counties but of river valleys. So let’s include in our sights the nearby river drainages – the Concord, the Shawsheen, the Merrimack, the Assabet, and the Sudbury Rivers are all within a ten mile radius of Bedford. This is pretty much one climate and ecology: inland southern New England. So from now on in this talk, when I speak about the “Earliest Peoples”, the “First Peoples,” the “Native Americans,” most often it is the indigenous people living in this small area that I refer to.
Why can’t I just say “the Wampanoag” or “the Nipmuc,” naming a particular Native American Nation that lived in what was to become Bedford? In the first place, we can’t know when the indigenous peoples in the Northeast formed the Nations that we are familiar with now. And in the second place, we don’t know which Nation the people who lived in here even 400 years ago belonged to. On one map I have, it shows that the Massachuset lived to the south of us, around the Mystic and the Charles Rivers and down to Blue Hill; the Nipmuc to the west of us toward the Nashoba River and on to Worcester and down to Connecticut; and the Pawtucket to the north into lower New Hampshire. (Don’t get confused with the modern city of Pawtucket in Rhode Island.) But there is a white space right where Bedford sits on the map! The mapmaker didn’t know, either! Click here to see a map of the river valleys surrounding Bedford.
Studies of language have not made the answer clearer. All of the inhabitants of the Northeast spoke Algonquian. But Algonquian was spoken in Canada, out in the Midwest, and as far south as North Carolina, with Iroquois an island in the middle! Actually, Algonquian is a family of languages, and these are divided into dialects. While the different Nations here could probably understand each other quite well, three different dialects, Pawtucket, Massachuset, and Loup A were spoken in the different areas. Again, Bedford is right on the cultural dividing line.
Dr. Shirley Blancke, Associate Curator of Archaeology and Native American Studies at the Concord Museum, concludes from forty years of research that the Native Americans in Concord and Bedford were of the Pawtucket Nation. She has my respect! We’ll adopt her hypothesis, and get back to the main topic.
The Archaic Period – 9,000-3,000 BP
Gradually, life here in these river valleys changed. Eventually, it changed enough to be called a new period, the Archaic Period. This was a terribly long time ago: the stones hadn’t yet been set up on their ends at Stonehenge, nor piled on top of each other to make pyramids in Egypt. There was no written language anywhere. But in southern New England, it was getting warmer, so that the vast pine forest was being replaced with broadleaf trees: hickory, walnut, chestnut and oak. Now in the fall and winter, there were nuts to collect. In the spring, alewives and shad came up the rivers, and the people began to gather in large numbers to fish – a wonderful place to cast nets and spear them was the falls near the spot where the Concord River empties into the Merrimack. In some places along the rivers the People erected fish weirs to trap the fish – construction workers on Boylston Street in Boston uncovered the wooden remains of a very large one that many people must have cooperated to build. There were river mussels and turtles to catch in the summer – some of the local People left the shells behind at a place called “Clam Shell Bank,” where today the Sudbury River passes Emerson Hospital. Autumn again, and there were migrating geese and ducks in the Great Meadows. The herds of elk and caribou were gone, but there were still deer, and the whole year around, there were turkeys and quail to hunt, and more small game – rabbits, squirrels, beavers, skunks, lynx, and fox. The human population increased.
The People here in the inland set up camps near water – rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Their homelands seemed to conform to the river valleys. They would go off seasonally for a few days or a few weeks to hunt, and then return to their base camp. And are there sites from the Archaic Period in Bedford? Yes! On the northeast side of town, on a rise overlooking the Vine Brook near where it joins the Shawsheen River, remains from an ancient campfire and two rock lined hearths have been found, along with projectile points and stone chips left from knapping. At Crosby Drive Industrial Park, atop the hill formerly known as Indian Hill, there was also a scattering of chips. And in West Bedford, on the Davis/Fitch farm that stood near the Concord River, many stone implements have been found – not only projectile points, but also plummets for fishing, scrapers for preparing animal skins, pestles for grinding plant foods, and woodworking tools like axes and gouges to make things like wooden bowls and dugout canoes. Some of these were made from a form of stone – chert – that comes from New York State.
How do we read these three Bedford sites? When archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst carbon dated charcoal from the Vinebrook site, they got an age of 5,200 years and 2,500 years BP. From this and the sparse artifacts that were found, they concluded that it was a camp that hunters used briefly only twice. The Crosby Drive/Indian Hill site, too, was also most likely not a settlement, but the temporary camping place of a small group.
The variety and kind of artifacts that come from the West Bedford site, on the other hand, are things you would expect to find in a long-term settlement. It also seems that the People came back to live there repeatedly over a period of many thousands of years. How do we know that? Well, from the variety of types of spear points that have been collected there. These [Click to see photo] are all in Grace Cole’s collection from the old Davis/Fitch Farm in West Bedford that she donated to the Bedford Historical Society before she died. They are just about all from the Archaic Period. But when you get a chance to look at them closer, you will see they are very different from each other – skinny, fat, triangular, split-stemmed… A specialist like Shirley Blancke at the Concord Museum can identify the types and their ages. For instance, one West Bedford spear point in her museum collection is clearly derived from the Adena culture, the moundbuilders centered in Ohio. These are treasures, but they would reveal so much more of their story if the exact places they were found could have been recorded and investigated by archaeologists!
Frustratingly, there are not any other clear archaeological sites in the 14 square mile area that makes up Bedford today. But individual finds have been made. Two tiny projectile points have been found along the Shawsheen River near the Wilson Mill site, but there is no accompanying material to indicate that they were anything more than points lost by a hunter. Two other projectile points were found about a hundred years ago by the father of a friend of mine. When he was a boy, she told me, her father used to come up to Bedford on the streetcar to hunt for muskrats along the Shawsheen River. Where exactly? She doesn’t know. But with amazing luck, he found these two points. When I took them to Shirley Blancke at the Concord Museum, she dated one as Early Archaic, about 9,000 years old, and the other one Late Archaic, more like 3,000 years old. My friend gave them to me when I became Town Historian, and I passed them on to the Bedford Historical Society, with the caveat that I may visit them whenever I want! And so I show them to you today.
The Woodland Period – 3000-500 BP
From sites dating from about a thousand years ago, broken bits of ceramics appear, evidence that the People had learned to make pottery. It marks the beginning of a new period, the Woodland Period. At first the clay pots were clumsy and heavy and not heat resistant enough to withstand cooking on a fire. To heat the food within, rocks would be heated in the fire and then put gently in the pot. But, over time, the pots were made larger, stronger, and with thinner walls. They do not seem to have been painted, but shells, twine and woven materials were pressed into the wet clay to form patterns.
Besides ceramic technology, another innovation that came with the Woodland Period was the construction of food caches. Pits would be dug, perhaps 3’ – 4’ in diameter and 4’ deep. They would be lined with grass or bark. Then large baskets of berries, nuts, dried fish or other foods would be packed inside, and the pit would be covered over. This, along with meat from hunting expeditions, would see them through the thin times of late winter and early spring. Agriculture and food storage were incentives for the People to stay in villages and not move around, although about every decade, the settlement would be moved to a place with new soils that agriculture had not depleted, and fresh forest for firewood.
Native Americans managed the land near their villages, thinning the underbrush twice a year by burning over swaths of forest in early spring and late fall. This would not harm the root foods or nuts or berries, which ripened between the burning times, but would clear the woods of bracken, making it easier to pass through when hunting the deer who were attracted to the fresh shoots bursting from the pruned branches.
And then, about 700 years ago, the people reached a huge turning point. They learned – perhaps from the Adena culture in the Ohio River valley – how to grow corn, a skill that had actually been developed in Mexico 10,000 years ago and spread slowly over North and South America. Some Native Americans describe it this way:
You will remember the Sky Woman who fell through a hole in the sky. She was pregnant when she fell. As she landed, she gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter became a young woman, the West Wind came to her and wrapped himself around her, and she became pregnant with twins; two boys, Matahdou and Maushop. But the two boys fought in the womb over who was to be born first. Matahdou refused to be second, and forced his way out of his mother’s side, killing her.
Sky Woman sadly buried her daughter, and from her grave grew three sacred plants: the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash. They provided food for the twins, and then for all humanity.
For millennia, the Three Sisters have been planted together. The tall corn provides a ladder for the beans to grow on. The beans enrich the soil. The leaves of the low-growing squash spread over the earth and keep the moisture in and weeds out. Here is the Wampanoag way to plant them, first explained to the English at Plymouth by Tisquantum, a Patuxet man whom we now know as Squanto:
Make a mound of earth, and insert a fish carcass for fertilizer. Then press four fingers into it to make four holes. Put a corn seed into each hole, and cover it up. The next mound should be a step away. Plant your field this way. As the corn grows, return to make the mounds larger and larger. After two weeks, plant four beans in each mound, one at the north, south, east and west of the corn stalk. Plant the squash, too, between the mounds. These three foods will be staples of your diet.
At about the same time, the adoption of the bow and arrow occurred. It was an invention passed on from Native Americans to the southwest (from whence so many good ideas came). From Paleo times, indigenous New Englanders had used spears and atlatls – spear throwing sticks – for the hunt. Now they began to make stone arrowheads in addition to spear points. Very few, however, have been found in Bedford. It seems that the people who had lived in West Bedford for so long had moved on to other settlements.
And where were these settlements? As the Woodland Period came to a close, there is almost no archaeological record of any Native American village in what was to become Bedford. But there were villages nearby: In Burlington, there was a village called Shawshinok, and another, larger village nearby at what is now Burlington’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery. There are rock piles in the woods – especially in Burlington’s “Landlocked Forest” by Route 3 – that may have been ceremonial sites. At Musketaquid, now Concord, fish weirs along the Mill Dam and near the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers were maintained by the residents. There was a village on the north shore of Nutting Lake in Billerica, and another in North Billerica at the old ford where the dam is now. Also in Billerica, at a sharp bend in the Concord River, the burials of at least four individuals have been found. (Recently, these have been returned to the Wampanoag Nation for reburial.) Click here to see a map showing sites where Native American artifacts have been found.
Paddling along the waterways by dugout canoe was a very efficient way to travel. One could paddle up the Concord River to reach the Sudbury and Assabet, which led deeper into the interior. Downstream, it was just 16 miles to the Merrimack River, and then on to the ocean. The Shawsheen, too, was a route to the sea via the Merrimack. The headwaters of the Ipswich, Mystic and Charles Rivers are all within a dozen miles of Bedford.
But the Bedford area also had important foot trails leading through it. One led east along the Concord River from Musketaquid onto what is now Davis Road in West Bedford, passed northeast along the edge of the wetlands, followed the present Old Causeway Road, and ended up near the two big riverside boulders we call the “Two Brothers Rocks.” There, there was a ford across the river, and further trails leading west, or one could continue north along the present Dudley Road to the village at Nutting Lake and beyond.
There was also a Native American trail leading from the Two Brothers Rocks along what is now Dudley Road, south down a bit of North Road, east along Pine Hill Road and Page Road to the Shawsheen River. (Somewhere near there, in 1642, there was a trading post.) The trail led on up the hill, and at its crown forked. The left fork led to Shawshinock.
After the Europeans came, they used these trails as well, widening them into roads some of which still exist today.
The Europeans. I knew this subject was going to come up. Archaeologists call it the “Contact Period.” It starts about 1500 AD with the arrival on the Atlantic coast of fishermen, traders and explorers, and continues through 150 years of greed, betrayal, enslavement, warfare, and deculturalization. The Native American way of life was shattered to make way for those very Europeans. This is often referred to as the “Native American Genocide.”
And what of the Pawtucket Nation? Many who weren’t killed in the epidemics of smallpox and other diseases that accompanied the Europeans to New England, were settled into what were called “Praying Villages” and compelled to learn Christianity and English ways. One of these Praying Towns was Wamesit, a village of about 75 people at the juncture of the Concord and Merrimack in what would become the city of Lowell. Eventually, that land was “acquired” as well by the colonial settlers, and the Pawtucket Nation, or most of those who were able bodied, traveled north to Canada to join other displaced Native Americans. Their descendants live at Odanak, Quebec, where the St. Francois River flows into the St. Lawrence, and identify as the St. Francois Nation.
And such has been the early history of the first people who lived on this beautiful, wondrous Turtle Island; in and near the place we call Bedford.
Archaeological Periods in Southern New England:
Paleoindian Period (11,000 – 10,000 Before Present)
Hunting with spears
Gathering roots and plants
Archaic Period (10,000 – 3,000 years BP)
Hunting with spear, atlatl
Woodworking Tools eg Axe, Adze
Gathering roots, plants, nuts, berries
Fishing with nets and spears, (later, hooks, lines, weirs)
Woodland Period (3,000 – 500 years BP)
Hunting with bow and arrow
Contact with Europeans (500 years BP, or about 1500 AD)
Milestones in the rest of the world:
Cave Paintings at Lascaux (17,300 BP)
Earliest Known Pottery, Japan (14,500 BP)
Humans Reach Southern Tip of S. America (14,000 BP?)
Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent (13,000 BP)
Potato cultivated in Peru (8,300 BP)
First cultivation of maize, Mexico (7,000 BP)
First Written Language, Sumeria (5,250 BP)
Silk Weaving in China (4,700 BP)
Egyptian Pyramids (4,600 BP)
Stonehenge (4,000 BP)
Rome is founded (2,850 BP)
Classical Maya Civilization (2,300 BP)
Viking Settlement in Newfoundland (1,000 BP)
Tenochtitlan, Aztec Capitol City, Founded (650 BP)
Incas Build Machu Picchu (500 BP)
Pilgrims Land at Plymouth (400 BP)
Archaeological Services of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). “Ancient Life
at Vine Brook in Bedford,” nd.
Blancke, Shirley. “Squaw Sachem Talk” Concord Historical Collective, October, 2015.
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Hill Press, Lincoln, MA, 1994.
Corey, Donald. “Native Americans in Bedford”: Bedford Historical Society, March
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Tales,” Macmillan, New York, 1994.
“Native American Trail in the Greater Merrimack Valley”
“Native Residents of Burlington” Resource Guide #2, Burlington Municipal Archives.
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Archaeology.” Federal Register, Volume 80, Issue 38, Feb. 26, 2015, pp.
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England, 1500-1643,” Oxford University Press, 1982.
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With gratitude to
Shirley Blancke, PhD., Associate Curator of Archaeology and Native American
Studies, Concord (Ma.) Museum
Donald L Corey, Bedford (MA) Historical Society
Claudia Fox Tree, M.Ed., Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness