One of the things the Dover 400 project is doing is raising an awareness of the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the region for millennia before European colonists arrived.
The tribes were far more varied than the generic “Indian” label conveys. Sometimes they were in open conflict with each other, and there were many differences in language, culture, and lifestyles. There were also alliances with other tribes, creating subtle but significant relations across the region.
Some lived in permanent villages, often along streams. Others ranged from ancestral site to site through the year in a cycle of fruit, vegetable, and animal fare.
As hunters and fisherfolk who often traveled by water and lived in villages along the shores, many of their names for places are often translated as some variation of “water,” with distinctive nuances that are lost to Western ears but still hint of sharp observation of the character and advantages of each site.
Their name for Hilton Point, for example, is something along of the lines of “place encircled by water,” while Cochecho is more like “foaming falls,” each one, however, unlike other points or coves or waterfalls.
As for our own names applied to these places? I doubt we give them a second thought other than perhaps their spelling.
And, to our loss, we have none of their mythopoetic stories in their original richness – narratives rooted in their unique environment. At least we can begin to listen to those told by surviving tribes in neighboring Maine.
WHEN THE ENGLISH ARRIVED in New England, most of the tribes had been decimated by pandemics, many of the illnesses resulting from contact with earlier explorers and traders. The sharp loss of population gave the Pilgrims an opening in their settlement at Plymouth.
The first traders brought items the Natives appreciated as useful – metal pots, knives, blankets – that could be obtained in exchange for furs.
As we know, the dynamic changed. We’ve rarely heard the Indigenous voices tell their side of the struggles. The English, French, and Dutch all have barbaric actions to atone for.
The marker at Ambush Rock on Route 101 in Eliot, Maine, for example, makes it sound like the victims were an innocent party on its way home from church one Sunday in 1697. There’s no mention that the prime target, Major Charles Frost, was Richard Waldron’s cohort in the notorious “games” of 1676 that ended up in the arrest of nearly 400 Natives who were then executed or sold into slavery. The Natives waited 21 years for revenge. Frost was the highest-ranking militia officer in Maine.
For me, the missing details change my view of the event entirely. It’s not an isolated instance.
DOVER WAS IN PENNACOOK COUNTRY, a tribe closely related to the Abenaki – the identities are sometimes merged, suggesting change over time. The Pennacook spanned over much of New Hampshire, neighboring Maine, and parts of Massachusetts. The English jurisdictions didn’t match theirs.
Another consideration is how many of the English settlements occurred at earlier Indigenous villages, as seems to be the case both at the falls in today’s downtown Dover or neighboring Exeter, Newmarket, Durham, Rollinsford, Somersworth, and South Berwick.
ONE THING THAT WAS OBVIOUS TO ME in a visit to the Plimoth living history museum in Massachusetts was how superior the Wampanoag’s communal wigwams were for living through winter compared to the Pilgrim’s drafty cottages of 1630.
I’m sure the same can be said of the shores of the Piscataqua.
Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.