Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: 'Good fishing place' at Amoskeag Falls for The Pennacooks
Even the most casual visitor to Manchester will notice the word "Amoskeag" spelled out on signs and on the sides of commercial vehicles. Today there are at least 32 local businesses and organizations that are called "Amoskeag."
In Manchester's history, the most well-known corporation with this name was the mighty Amoskeag Manufacturing Company which existed from 1831 to 1936.
Amoskeag Falls is a prominent geographical feature of the natural landscape in Manchester. This is a section of the Merrimack River where the rapidly moving stream drops 50 feet over a distance of about 1/2 mile.
Here the river widens around a cluster of islands, commonly known as the Fishing Islands. The water tumbles over rocks and boulders creating a series of rapids.
Some of the large boulders that once existed at the head of the falls (just north of the islands) were blasted away during dam construction in 1921. In one of these could be found distinctive "pot-holes." These were smoothed out areas that had been carved by "pit balls" - rocks trapped in cracks in the stone. As historian Grace Holbrook Blood described in her 1948 history of Manchester, "Whirled around year after year by the endless rush of water, they cut their way gradually into their resting places until these cavities were worn smooth by friction." One of these "pit balls," perfectly round and the size of a small cannonball, is on display in the Millyard Museum in Manchester.
"Amoskeag" means "place of many fish" or "good fishing place" in the Algonquian language of the native Pennacook people who inhabited the Merrimack River Valley for many hundreds of years. In early writings by European explorers and settlers, the name was spelled several ways, reflecting different pronunciations, including Namaske, Namaokeag, Naumkeag, Naamkeke, and Naimkeak.
Amoskeag Falls was a favored fishing place for the Pennacooks. During the spring season Atlantic salmon, river herring (alewife), sea lamprey (commonly called eel), and American shad were plentiful. These fish live in the Atlantic Ocean, but must migrate upstream to spawn in fresh water. There were several good fishing spots along the Merrimack, but by far the best one was Amoskeag Falls. Here the fish were easy to catch as they struggled to make their way north through the turbulent water.
Each spring the native men would set up weirs (called "ahquedaukee") at the Falls. These were fences or enclosures made of sapling stakes with nets or brush tied between them, and arranged in ingenious formations designed to trap large numbers of fish. The men would spear the fish or scoop them up with nets. The women would clean and split the fish, and lay them out in the sun to dry, or smoke them over campfires. This light-weight food was an important source of protein for the native families during the following months.
There is no way to know exactly where the Pennacooks built their weirs at Amoskeag Falls. Historian C. E. Potter, author of the 1856 history of Manchester, surmised that they had established a permanent weir at the foot of the Falls, on the west side of the Fishing Islands, in an area of the river where there was an eddy (or whirlpool). According to Potter, the weir was "...made by placing boulders of stone at convenient distances across the outlet of the basin." He described how the fish would pass by the side of the weir and swim upstream until they encountered the rapids. They were forced back downstream, got caught up in the whirlpool and were trapped against the weir. He imagined the scene, "Thus, in a little time, the capacious basin above the weir would be filled, and black with fish - the strong and athletic salmon throwing himself out of the water in his affright and rage."
As European settlers moved into the area, the Pennacook people were pushed north and eventually into Canada. At least one native man stayed behind and maintained a friendship with the newcomers. This was Christi (also called Christoe). In the 1720s he lived at Amoskeag Falls at the foot of a small brook that ran approximately where Brook Street is today. The stream would be called Christi's Brook in his memory.
Next week: Fighting for the fishing holes.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org