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Retracing a tribe's past

Professor believes site in Swanzey, N.H., may hold remnants of centuries-old fort built by Abenakis

SWANZEY, N.H. -- The scraping tool was lying in plain sight in a sandy hollow. But no one had noticed the quarter-sized bit of stone, which Native Americans may have used to scrape animal hides 11,000 years ago.

Enter Bob Goodby, an associate professor of anthropology at Franklin Pierce University. Minutes after he walked into the woods on a sun-splashed day last week, he spotted the tool, bent down, and scooped it up.

It was not the archeologist's first stroke of luck.

In recent months, largely by chance, Goodby may have recovered a part of history that was on the verge of vanishing forever: the site of a fort built by Abenaki Indians in the last, doomed phase of their struggle to preserve their way of life here.

Goodby still needs permission from landowners to begin excavating the site to prove his theory. If his hypothesis turns out to be correct, it will show how easily history slips into oblivion and how small-town oral traditions can prevent local knowledge from disappearing.

Goodby learned the fort's possible location from a former Swanzey resident, Fred Rawlings.

Last Christmas, Rawlings, 81, received a copy of a new local history anthology as a gift. The book included an essay by Goodby about the Abenaki. When Rawlings read the essay, which mentioned the fort, he remembered stories he had heard from an older neighbor 50 years ago, and artifacts he had found when he lived near the river. Rawlings contacted Goodby and described where he believed the fort once stood.

Before he got the call from Rawlings, Goodby had believed the fort's location was lost for good. "It really has faded from memory," he said in an interview.

Native Americans had a long, rich history in the southwestern corner of New Hampshire. As far back as 11,000 years ago, native people cooked, camped, and worked with tools on the sandy shores of the Ashuelot River near Mount Monadnock, according to radiocarbon dating of burnt wood in the area. But the history of these people, called Paleoindians by archeologists, has been obscured by more recent civilizations.

By the time the fort was built, probably in the 1700s, the natives' way of life was ending, Goodby said. The Indians had been ravaged by disease and warfare, and conflict between natives and white settlers was escalating. Soon the natives would be conquered by the Europeans.

To uncover the Indians' history, Goodby has depended on the knowledge of longtime residents such as Swanzey native Art Whipple, 73, a retired machine tool worker who is credited with discovering more than a dozen important Indian sites in the area.

Whipple began looking for native artifacts in the 1970s, as he hiked and fished in the countryside around Swanzey. After he told researchers from the University of Massachusetts what he had found in one location, their resulting excavation established the spot as one of the oldest Paleoindian sites in New England, dating back 11,000 years.

Goodby became interested in the area after he joined the faculty at Franklin Pierce, in nearby Rindge, seven years ago. He proceeded to excavate other sites Whipple had located. Five years ago, Goodby concluded that a V-shaped fish dam built of boulders in the river, long attributed to white settlers, had instead been constructed by native people.

"Unfortunately, most communities don't have someone like Art who looks out for these places," Goodby said.

The development of towns such as Swanzey makes it harder to find ancient settlements. Swanzey's population has grown by more than 1,000 people since 1990, to 7,300, according to the US Census Bureau. New houses have been built on land that was once woods and fields, and there are fewer lifelong residents. As a result, fewer people know local history.

"The older people who have been here know about it, but the new people don't," said Lori Belletete, deputy town clerk.

Rawlings, who moved to Swanzey in the 1950s, said he heard the story of the Indian fort from Ernest Dunham, who described the fort that once stood near his property.

"He pointed to an area across the street and said there were the remains of an Indian fort, a palisade, that he had seen when he was a boy," Rawlings recalled.

Last week, Goodby and Rawlings met for the first time at the location. They stood in the middle of the quiet street as Rawlings pointed out the spot where he was told the fort had stood. (At Goodby's request, the Globe is not publishing the exact location, to decrease the risk that looters will disturb it.)

The land was undeveloped and covered with yellow lady's slippers and pine trees when Rawlings lived in the neighborhood, he said. Now, a house sits on it.

A woman who lives in the house said she was unaware that her house may stand atop a former Indian settlement. She said she had never found any artifacts.

A member of the Dunham family who still lives in Swanzey, Lee Dunham, said Ernest Dunham was his grandfather's brother, who lived from 1898 to 1961. Dunham said he does not recall family talk of the fort.

Goodby said Rawlings's recollections of what his neighbor told him match the account of the fort in a local history book from the early 1900s. At that time, according to the book, the outlines of the fort were still visible.

Goodby acknowledges that he could be wrong. Nonetheless, he plans to seek permission from the property owners to dig there.

"There could be nothing left there, or there could be some little piece that turns out to be significant," he said.

Rawlings has given Goodby a stone gouge, a shaping tool that might have been used to hollow out wooden canoes, and other artifacts he found in the neighborhood decades ago.

Rawlings said it was rewarding to help guide the archeologist. "To pick up something nobody's touched for 11,000 years is pretty exciting," Rawlings said. "He's doing what I should have done instead of going into business."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

Pop-up GRAPHIC: People of the dawn

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