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Native American Heritage

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.

mount kearsarge summit

Ancient glacier movement formed
Mount 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 Androsoggin 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.

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.

contoocook river

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

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:

  • Amonoosuc River ('manosek) – Western Abenaki for "fishing place."
  • Amoskeag Falls (namaskik) – Western Abenaki for "at the fish land."
  • Contoocook River (nikn tekw ok) – Abenaki for "to or from the head or first branch of the river."
  • Grand Monadnock (minoria denak) – Abenaki for "the bare or smooth mountain."
  • Kearsarge (g'wizawajo) – Western Abenaki for "rough mountain."
  • Massabesic Lake (massa nbes ek) – Abenaki for "to the great pond."
  • Merrimack River (mol dema) – Abenaki for "deep water or river."
  • Mount Pisgah (pisga) – Abenaki for "dark."
  • Nashua (niswa) – Abenaki for "two."
  • Newichwannock River (n'wijonoanek) also known today as Salmon River – Abenaki for the "long rapids and falls."
  • Piscataqua River (pesgatak was) – Abenaki for "the water looks dark."
  • Pemigewasset River (pamijoassek) – Abenaki for "the river having its course through here."
  • Saco (soko) is Abenaki for "towards the south" – (msoakwtegw) Western Abenaki for "dry wood river."
  • Sunapee Lake (seninebi) – Abenaki for "rock or mountain water."
  • Suncook River (seni kok) – Abenaki for "to the rocks."
  • Umbagog Lake (w'mbagwog) – Abenaki for "to the clear water lake."
  • Winichahanat (wiwnijoanek) also known as Dover – Abenaki for "the place where the water flows around it."
  • Lake Winnipesaukee (wiwninbesaki) – Abenaki for "the lake between or around land or islands."
  • Souhegan River (zawhigen) is Western Abenaki for "a coming out place."

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

Resources on Native American culture, activities, and services

Social service resources provided by the State of New Hampshire

National resources

Photo credits: Lynn Martin Graton (Mount Kearsarge); Julie Mento (Contoocook River)

New Hampshire State Council on the Arts
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