Stark Park in the Time Before America, Part 3: First Contact
The first Europeans to visit North America were the Vikings. Around the year 1000, they set up camp at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland after discovering the coast accidently 15 years prior. When the site was excavated in the 1960s, archaeologists found the remains of several homes and workshops that housed anywhere from 30-150 settlers. It is currently the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America, but several other promising sites have been found in recent years.
The Norse traded with at least two tribes of local Native Americans, whom they called Skraelings. We know they traded because Norse artifacts have been found on Native American sites far outside the area they explored. A Norwegian coin from the reign of Olaf Kyrre (1067-1093) was found on a Native American archaeological site in Brooklin Maine that yielded several other exotic artifacts including pieces of copper, stone from around the region, and pottery of a style found in Nova Scotia. This suggests materials exchanged through trade, but others have suggested that the coin was planted as a hoax. Either way, no Viking settlements have yet been found in Maine, but it was certainly feasible for them to have reached it.
Once the Vikings abandoned their Canadian outpost, Vinland was recorded in the Viking sagas and eventually forgotten. Europeans had no further contact with North America until the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and even he only set foot on islands. It was Venetian sailor John Cabot who discovered the mainland somewhere between Maine and Newfoundland in 1497. They did not encounter any native people, but did find a foot trail, the remains of a fire, nets, and a wooden tool. Never moving farther than “the shooting distance of a crossbow,” they departed as soon as their water stores were full.
Europeans were starting to see this was an entirely new landmass, and the race was on to see which country could mount expeditions to exploit its natural resources. By 1504, French and Portuguese sailors were fishing off the Grand Banks and contacting several different tribes of local natives. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano explored the east coast from the Carolinas to the southern side of Cape Cod. In 1534, Jacques Cartier explored and mapped the Gulf of St. Laurence. The Europeans gained an understanding of the coast and turned their eyes to settlement.
The earliest settlements were abject failures. Several 16th century French settlements in Canada failed. The English settlers of Roanoake North Caroline vanished mysteriously in 1587. Most likely, they ran out of food and went to live with the local Croatoan tribe. Yet there were other settlements closer to home. There was the short lived English Popham colony founded at Phippsburg Maine in 1607. It failed due to food shortages and fire the first winter. A French colony was founded on St. Croix Island in Maine in 1604, but half of the settlers died of scurvy the same year. The following year, they relocated across the Bay of Fundy to Port-Royal Nova Scotia, the first permanent European settlement in New France.
The local Indians told the founder of St. Croix, about a beautiful river to the south called the Merremack. Samuel de Champlain, one of the settlers, wanted to verify the rumors and sailed south until he reached Cape Cod in 1605. Among the natural features he charted were the Piscataqua River, the Isles of Shoals, Rye Beach where he landed briefly, and the outlet of the Merrimack River at Newburyport.
The repeated contact between Europeans and Native Americans had serious unintended consequences. The Indians had been separated from the European and Asian populations for at least 10,000 years if not longer. The development of domesticated animals in the Old World led to the evolution of several diseases to which Native American populations were never exposed. When Europeans came here, they unintentionally exposed the natives to these diseases. The Indians had no immunity and 90% of the population along the eastern seaboard died between 1617 and 1619.
When the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod and later Plymouth, they found the abandoned native villages that had been flourishing just a few years earlier strewn with bones. They took tools and food where they could, sometimes from still living tribes. When they chose their site at Plymouth, they found land ready for cultivation and attributed the “departure” of the natives to divine providence. Squanto, the Indian who helped them overcome their first hard winter, was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had escaped the plagues because he had been kidnapped and brought to England in 1614. Some tribes tried to form a tentative peace with the English as an ally against their native enemies. As the Puritans set about establishing their new town, other English settlements started popping up around Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, the land around Stark Park, still inhabited by Native Americans, was being divvied up among the Europeans. In 1622, Fernando Gorges and Capt. John Mason were given a large land grant. Gorges took the eastern part and named it Maine. Mason took the western part and named it New Hampshire after the county of Hampshire, England. The following year, the first settlement in the state was established at Portsmouth.
The Puritans had strict rules for social and religious life, and anyone who did not comply was banished. This is how the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island were formed. New Hampshire was home to banished people as well. In 1638, Rev. John Wheelwright founded Exeter after being shunned for religious dissent. This became a problem later when Wheelwrights grant, endorsed by chief Passaconaway, came into conflict with the Mason/Gorges grant. Border disputes continued for a century due to politics and a poor understanding of the landscape before the discovery of longitude.
Passaconaway, meaning “child of the bear,” was the chief of several bands of Pennacook people who lived at Amoskeag and the surrounding area. He was semi-nomadic, moving seasonally between the interior river valley and the mouth of the Merrimack River. Passaconaway was said to be a powerful magician and warrior. Legend has it that he was summoned to Massachusetts by another chief to use his magic to drive off the pilgrims. When it failed, he saw it as a sign that he was to make peace with the Europeans and would not let his sons or tribes fight them.
Missionaries like Rev. John Eliot began traveling the region to “civilize” the Indians by establishing religious schools for them. In 1648, Eliot encountered Passaconaway at a gathering in Pawtucket. He was rebuffed several times before gaining an audience, but the sagamore finally relented and afterwards converted to Christianity. The following year, Passaconaway invited Eliot to visit him at Amoskeag and continue his teachings. Whether this meeting took place is unclear, but several 17th century guides list an Indian school at Amoskeag, making the visit seem likely. The Penacook assuredly had trade with the colonists by this time; a sheet metal bird and European style beads were found on the Smyth site at Amoskeag falls.
Passaconaway gave a farewell address in 1660 pleading with his people to make peace with the English. He passed political control to his son Wonalancet, and passed his remaining years traveling. Several legends arose about his end years owing to his magical reputation, but little about his death and burial is known with certainty. Wonalancet honored his father’s wish for peace, but he did so by relocating the remaining members of the tribe to Penacook and later Canada. Some undoubtedly remained behind to be led by Wonalancet’s nephew, Kancamagus, but the Indian presence in what would become Manchester was effectively ended by the move.
By the mid-1600s, the English had started settlements all over southern New England, straining relations with the native population. The hostilities culminated in King Phillips War in 1675. The war was the last stand for the remaining area tribes. Wonalancet declared that the tribes from Manchester would not join the conflict, but there are reports of Indians from Amoskeag being captured and sold into slavery in the Caribbean during the war. By the end of the war, more than half of all European settlements had been attacked. At least 12 towns were destroyed, the colonial economy was ruined, and Europeans lost 10% of their able-bodied fighters. The situation among the natives was even worse. The remaining population was reduced 40-80% yet again, many tribes disbanded for lack of members, and those that survived were pushed north away from European settlement.
By the start of the 18th century, the general safety of the landscape led more European settlers into New Hampshire to establish towns. By this time, most of the towns in the eastern part of the state had been founded, but the Merrimack Valley had yet to be successfully colonized. This would change in 1718 when a group of Scots-Irish settlers who landed in Boston made their way north to start a town on the old Wheewright grant. They called the town Nutfield because of the nut producing trees in the area. In 1722, Nutfield was chartered as Londonderry. The settlers of Londonderry were culturally different from the early English settlers, and they two groups often came into conflict as a result. For a century, even intermarriage between them was discouraged. Despite the problems, Londonderry achieved success through linen weaving and potato farming, attracting Ulster Scots who would go on to found the surrounding towns like Chester, Derry, and Manchester.