New Hampshire
Learning Center

New Hampshire's Native American Heritage

  Back to Traditions Resources for Native Americans in NH

We will never know the names or the languages of the first people who came to what is now New Hampshire. They arrived about 11,000 years ago and the passage of time and movements of people have obscured their origins. The descendents of these people divided into bands-often called tribes. Among them were the Penacook, Winnipesaukee, Pigwacket, Sokoki, Cowasuck and Ossipee. All spoke related dialects of the Abenaki language.

Ancient glacier movement formed Mt Kearsarge's rugged summit across the region.

Ancient glacier movement formed Mt Kearsarge's rugged summit across the region.

Today these people are known collectively as the Abenaki, which is often translated as "People of the Dawnland." (woban means day-break and ski means earth or land).

Abenaki life was observed and recorded by European explorers of the early 1500s. Land was not owned, but used according to custom, season, and need. Abenaki set up villages along rivers and lakes where they had access to water and could hunt, farm and fish using traps called weirs. Favorite fishing spots were near waterfalls along the Merrimack, Connecticut, Saco, and Androseoggin Rivers. Places like Amoskeag Falls in Manchester and the Weirs at the mouth of Lake Winnepausakee drew thousands of people for the yearly spawning of shad, salmon and alewife.

The Cootoocook River was a favored fishing spot for the Abenaki.

The Cootoocook River was a favored fishing spot for the Abenaki.

By the late 1600s the Native American population in New Hampshire was declining. They had no natural immunities against diseases such as small pox and influenza that were introduced by European settlers and major epidemics broke out between 1615-1620 that decimated populations. Conflicts with invading Mohawks and tensions with European settlers claiming ownership of Abenaki ancestral lands made the situation even worse. By the end of the century many of the remaining Abenaki had either married Europeans, melted into the rural population, or decided to leave and settle in Canada. Many settled in the village of St. Francis in Quebec, also known as Odanak.

The native Americans of the northeast all spoke related dialects of a language known as Aglonquian. Today there are less than a 1,000 Abenaki in New Hampshire and only a few who speak the language. In 1995 Joseph Laurent, an Abenaki born in Odanak and then moved to ancestral lands in Intervale NH, completed a 30-year project to translate "Father Aubery's French Abenaki Dictionary." This important work will help ensure an understanding of the beauty of the language.

Native American Place Names

The Native Americans of this region loved the land and were close observers of nature. They gave names to the mountains, rivers, streams, and other natural features and for the most part early European settlers kept them. Today, many places we love in New Hampshire bear the names first given to them by Native Americans. Here are just a few:

Note: The references for Abenaki place names are from the following publications:

Abenaki Indian Legends, Grammar, and Place Names by Henry Lorne Masta, 1932. A Western Abenaki Dictionary by Gordon M. Day, 1994. For more on Joseph Laurent and Abenaki languages.

Resources on Native American culture, activities, and services:

Social service resources provided by the State of New Hampshire:

National resources:

Photo credits
Right: Photographer - Lynn Martin Graton
Left: Photographer - Julie Mento