Growing up in central Vermont, the clear message was that ‘Indian Country’ (the name used in many Native communities and organizations for Native places in the U.S.) was far away. Stranger yet, the narrative went, when the first settlers arrived in the late 1700s, central Vermont was empty land, devoid of indigenous people.
That narrative remained, even as the Abenaki asserted their presence in the 1970s. They lived in the Champlain and Connecticut River valleys, folks said, not here. At most, central Vermont was temporary hunting grounds. Most likely, this land held footpaths that merely linked important places.
When you read the histories, such as Hamilton Child’s “Washington County Gazetteer” and D.P. Thompson’s “History of the Town of Montpelier,” an odd picture emerges. On the one hand, from the arrival of the first European in 1609, Samuel de Champlain, central Vermont has a native population as much as anywhere else. Thompson quotes a native guide who pointed to the Winooski Valley and told Champlain that a “Big river come that way — plenty of Indians there, and raise much corn.”
These local historians gave layers of matter-of-fact details that portray clear occupation. Large shell middens — piles of shells from the freshwater clams that once thrived in the river — dotted the Winooski. The area now called East Montpelier showed obvious evidence of an “Indian village,” “Indian corn fields,” even an “Indian mound” and a “fortification.”
On the other hand there is, in these histories, a constant insistence that this land was not possessed by anyone, since it could not have been as populated as other indigenous places. We hear echoes of these strange claims today in the dismissive comments we’ve all heard tourists from New York City or Boston make. “Wow,” they say while looking out at the contemporary Vermont landscape, “There’s nothing here.”
Strangest of all is that the histories provide glimpses of continued Abenaki presence. The family of the first European settler, Colonel Davis, planted almost 20 acres “with Indian corn which they had found” (according to “Montpelier: The Capital City’s History, 1780–1976” by Perry H. Merrill). That’s something like a tourist “finding” the unoccupied seasonal cabins of Joe’s Pond and declaring the land unoccupied.
More dramatic is the story of murder hiding in plain sight. Jacob Fowler, one of the first settlers in Berlin, seems to have been a larger-than-life Daniel Boone character. He told a lot of fantastic stories that many questioned, such as the story of the epic battle between a bear and a mountain lion on a sandbar in the North Branch of the Winooski River. Thompson, who recorded the story, expresses his doubts and then does some work sorting it out.
Fowler also seemed to have a shady underside; an article from the “Argus and Patriot” on July 17, 1867 described it as “some mystery hanging over his former life which he was not inclined to dispose.” Part of it was his Tory background; the same article disclosed that Fowler fought with the British in the Battle of Bennington.
In 1780, he happened to be in what we now call central Vermont when a war party of 300 Mohawks, Abenaki, and British traveled up the Winooski. Fowler said he was up the Waterbury River hunting moose. Others said he met them at the confluence of the Dog and Winooski rivers and said their primary target, his hometown of Newbury, had been alerted to the danger, causing them to attack Royalton instead.
That takes us to possible murder. Fowler bragged about killing an indigenous person in about 1790. He trapped the land next to George Davis’s field of “found” Abenaki corn, in a “well defined Indian clearing.” According to Fowler, someone had been for some time “plundering” his furs. One day he went to check his traps and found a Native American in the act. Hamilton Child relates the story this way:
“They discovered each other simultaneously, and each took shelter behind a huge pine tree; the situation resolved into a case of the death of one of the parties. Suffice it to say, Fowler was the victor.”
This story begs to be parsed out. We all know the victor writes the history. What did Fowler leave out? Invent? Almost certain is that Fowler, known for a huge voice and “off-hand, graphic language,” didn’t use this tone. I suspect that the passive voice is the author of the written text (Hamilton) attempting to separate our community from a threatening legacy.
Even if Fowler made up this story, as he may have made up his mountain lion story, people accepted it. Fowler’s mountain lion story is only believable because they were present at that time and people regularly encountered them.
The same is true of the Abenaki. The “Indian” was probably one of the many Abenakis who hid in plain sight and filled our history books. Like Joe and Molly Sussap, the Mi’kmaq and Abenaki couple, from whom the Joe’s ponds and Molly’s ponds in Morristown and Danville get their names. And people believed Fowler’s story of murder because it tells the story of the displacement occurring in all of Vermont at that time.
Certainly, there’s a lot more to say about the story of the unnamed Abenaki and Fowler. It has the ring of truth. But the bigger point is clear. We can once and for all say that central Vermont was — and is — ‘Indian Country.’
Damian Costello is the Director of Postgraduate Studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community and a speaker with the Vermont Humanities Council.