T he history of Algonquian-speaking people is intertwined with the Merrimack River as it flows from Franklin to the Gulf of Maine.
As the head speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People describe, the indigenous inhabitants of the region were the first caretakers of the waterway, and stewards of a way of life that lasted for thousands of years.
“We were true conservationists,” said Paul Pouliot, sagamo (head male speaker/grand chief) of The Cowasuck Band, of the history of the band in the region. “It was a rich, diverse, nut-tree prominent area here.”
But that environmental legacy isn’t only in the past tense.
“We try to expand the education being taught to show that we had a sustainable lifestyle and it’s possible to go back to that today,” said Denise Pouliot, the sagamoskwa (head female speaker) of The Cowasuck Band, based in Alton.
As part of the Indigenous NH Collaborative Collective, The Cowasuck Band makes a digital StoryMap available to the public of points of interest across “a land called N’Dakinna” — “the traditional ancestral homeland of the Abenaki, Pennacook and Wabanaki Peoples, past and present,” which encompasses New Hampshire’s current state boundaries.
Five of the historical points and markers on the Indigenous NH map are in the Merrimack watershed, including the Hannah Duston Memorial in Boscawen. The Cowasuck Band is partnering with NH State Parks, Duston descendants, historians, and local officials to “reconstruct the park into a space that highlights a deeper understanding of place and New Hampshire history” — to be called Unity Park N’Dakinna.
A rich history
Originating at the confluence of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers in Franklin, the Merrimack River flows 117 miles to Newburyport, Mass. Today, the river winds through some of New Hampshire’s largest cities and is a source of drinking water for around 600,000 people.
Four centuries ago, villages flourished along the river, “probably at the outflow of each of the waterways,” Paul said.
“Picture seeing wigwams and longhouses,” Denise said. “Envision a different kind of environment.”
Near Lowell and Haverhill, Mass., the population may have numbered 10,000 to 20,000 indigenous people.
“These were the first impacted and forced out,” Paul said.
Prior to Colonial contact, “fishing was our main staple,” Denise said. “When the colonials moved in and built dams ... they stopped our food source and they starved us.”
Conflict was a direct result of those actions, she added.
“The waterways mean a lot to our people — not just in a cultural manner ...” Denise said. “Waterways were our highways and foodways.”
Restoring the river
Over the last decade, the Merrimack became nationally known as a river at risk. The U.S. Forest Service and American Rivers identified it as one of the most threatened waterways in the country because of polluted runoff and disappearing forests.
The designations led a group of environmental organizations and public agencies to form the Merrimack Conservation Partnership and develop a science-driven plan to accelerate land conservation in the watershed. Since 2012, the partnership has protected nearly 5,500 acres.
Meanwhile, Indigenous NH has been advocating for the removal of dams from some of the region’s rivers and lakes.
“We’re looking at bringing (the waterways) back as a food source,” Denise said.
Without dams, the sediment that has built up will get washed out, she explained, adding that more fish will spawn as a result and other life forms will flourish.
The Pouliots successfully advocated for the removal of a dam on the Exeter River and currently support the removal of Mill Pond Dam in Durham. The issue can be controversial in communities where dams provide hydropower or flood control, but they point out that public safety, maintenance expenses, ecological damage and restoration of fishways should be considered more carefully and favorably.
The Pouliots said they hope there is a way to remove unnecessary dams — affirming both the indigenous community and the needs of modern society.
One way to better understand the river is to paddle it. That’s why a group of conservation organizations recently launched the Merrimack Paddle Challenge.
Presented by the Forest Society, Five Rivers Conservation Trust, Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust and the Merrimack River Watershed Council, the challenge includes five excursions, from 4 to 9 miles long, on the river and its tributaries.
“The river ties us to the past and helps us envision it,” said Dave Anderson, the Forest Society’s senior director of education.
The program also connects paddlers with educational resources such as “The Merrimack: River at Risk” documentary film and the Indigenous NH StoryMap.
“By encouraging paddlers to get outside and float the Merrimack River this summer, we aim to advance an important dialogue about what communities can do to restore this vital waterway,” said Carrie Deegan, Forest Society reservation stewardship & engagement director.
“With gratitude to the Abenaki, Pennacook and Wabanaki Peoples who have stewarded the land and waterways of the N’Dakinna for centuries, we hope participants in the Merrimack Paddle Challenge will gain a renewed appreciation for those who have worked to protect the watershed for generations and motivation to do their part.”