Dave Anderson's Forest Journal: Relic, site reveal Native American history

December 07. 2013 11:49PM

MY COLLEAGUE Tom Howe had a twinkle in his eye after an already-too-long reconnaissance day. We had been bushwhacking in the rugged interior of the Belknap mountains, and I was tired and thirsty.

"There's something else I found nearby I want to show you," he said. "See what you think."

Before sunset, we climbed a little hill from a flat stretch of gravel road onto a tract of private property for which he'd obtained prior permission to visit. I could see the shining surface of a nearby lake through the threadbare autumn oak canopy. I watched Tom triangulate, meandering to a very specific spot.

"There," he said while pointing to a wheel of gray granite.

The stone features an unnatural basin worn into its top surface. It sits perched on a flat, open terrace below a dry, west-facing hillside cloaked in a red oak forest. The basin is tilted uphill and would hold rainwater that could not drain via its downhill lip. An angular chip of stone is missing from the underside. A vessel might have been placed beneath it to collect the stone's contents.

What was it used for? Who used it last, and when?

New Hampshire's rivers and lakes provided the most important travel corridors for the Pennacook and Pigwacket Native American tribes - Abenaki inhabitants of the central Merrimack River Valley and White Mountains regions. Abenakis left artifacts that lie hidden and preserved in place.

A unique proto-marina with evidence of stone basins used to cook hot conifer pitch as caulking for Abenaki canoe repair is located on the rocky shore of Stonedam Island at Lake Winnipesaukee. Sticky hot pitch from pine, spruce or fir trees provided a unique resource with which to fasten birch bark to bent wood frames of ash or alder or willow saplings. Pitch-cooking stones of the canoe works feature diagnostic grooves, carved striations to channel hot pitch to a narrow stream at the lip of each basin.

No grooves mark the lip of this stone. It was more likely a basin for grinding corn or nuts using a hand-held pestle of wood or stone.

State archeologist Dick Boisvert of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources says that corn was never cultivated extensively in the interior Lakes Region by Native Americans. Soils more suitable for growing field crops such as corn, beans and squash are located on the flat, rich alluvial floodplain terraces of the state's major rivers - the main stems of the Merrimack and Connecticut. These same places are where corn is still raised today.

Boisvert suggests the stone was most likely used for grinding nuts. Walnuts and butternuts are rich in fats and oils that were rare in the Native American diet. The large, nutritious tree nuts along with those of shagbark hickory or American chestnut or beaked hazelnuts were harvested as an important autumn source of fat calories.

Today, the Native American grindstone basin rests in an oak forest, where white oak and bitter red oak acorns were once processed to become more palatable by Eastern woodland Native American tribes. Acorns contain bitter tannic acid that makes them unpalatable until soaked in water or boiled to leach out water-soluble tannin and then dried before grinding them to produce acorn flour.

Exactly which kind of nuts were ground on this stone? That likely varied with how long ago it was used. Five hundred years? One thousand? Four thousand? The forest composition continued to change over time with changing climate. Boisvert suggests the grindstone may have been put to multiple uses but believes nuts were most likely the food processed on the grindstone.

It likely took several generations of repeated hand-held tool use to carve a useful basin in the granite boulder. Grinding pestles were of shaped stone or rot-resistant hardwood.

The stone throws open the door of antiquity. Time lies heavy on any landscape that miraculously has been spared from redevelopment, including repeated cutting of forests for fuel, the clearing of stumps for tilled fields, hay meadows or pastures, and the collection of stones for the building of walls.

Countless hundreds of thousands of acres of former upland farms and forestlands were subsequently redeveloped as sites of residential and commercial developments and roads.

What can quiet, overlooked places teach us with their power of history and intact sense of place? Native American predecessors left little in the way of written historical records and did not reshape the contours of the land to any extent. We inhabit the same hills, rivers, lakes and valleys. Forests have come and gone with hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and ice storms. Native Americans burned the forest understory to facilitate hunting and cleared small patches to grow small gardens. Their artifacts are limited to chipped stone fragments of spear or arrow points, buried charring at the locations of campfires in seasonal villages and rare occasional stone tools such as the grindstone.

How many other sites remain undisturbed and undiscovered? State archaeologist Boisvert says more sites tend to be found in southern New Hampshire because that is where the Native American population densities were highest.

European settlement of New Hampshire began in approximately 1620. It's remarkable to see the stone still sitting on a site that has seen so many changes around it over the past 400 years.

Once stones are moved or sites disturbed, artifacts and locations lose their important historical context. The best way to appreciate Native American artifacts and cultural sites is to photograph them to provide documentation without disturbing or modifying them. They are best appreciated in their original context and locations.

The Division of Historical Resources is interested in documenting previously unknown sites to increase information and appreciation of the state's Native American cultural heritage.

Said Boisvert: "They're out there, and they're rare. It's best to leave the sites alone. It would be helpful to contact the state archaeologist."

The grindstone tells the story of a place and a people who seasonally gathered to process food for the winter. You might feel a tangible connection to our predecessors when holding a hand-held pestle stone and imagine grinding it inside a shallow granite basin. Imagine what the Belknap Mountains and surrounding Lakes Region were like when Native Americans last ground autumn nuts in this same location!


"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society Web site:forestsociety.org.

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