Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Swanzey Fish Dam

A Large, Precontact Native American Stone Structure in SW New Hampshire 
by Robert G. Goodby, Sarah Tremblay, Edward Bouras (2014)
"The Swanzey Fish Dam is a large V-shaped stone structure in the Ashuelot River of southwestern New Hampshire. One of the few substantial stone sites in New England with clear archaeological evidence for a Native American origin, it is assumed to have been used for the harvesting of anadromous and/or catadromous fish. Archaeological data demonstrate that the dam became a focus of Native American activity by the Terminal Archaic Period and continued in use into the Contact Period. While one of the first such dams to be documented in New England, the Swanzey Dam is shown to be part of a larger pattern of stone dam construction across eastern North America.
The Swanzey Fish Dam was known to the earliest Euroamerican settlers of Swanzey. The most detailed description comes from an 1888 account by Keene resident and respected naturalist George Wheelock (cited in Griffin 1904:140): “The low water in the Ashuelot, occasioned by the repairs at the Swanzey mill, has exposed the old traditional Indian dam two miles above. Indians were lazy, and this work of theirs is the more surprising on this account...the river at this point is now almost a rapid and strewn with boulders for thirty rods or so. It is less than a hundred feet wide, but the dam being in the shape of a harrow pointing downstream is more than that distance. By skillful stepping it is possible to pass the point of the harrow, the apex of the dam, and somewhat farther. It is made of stones such as a man could lift, picked up in the stream above. It varies from six to twelve feet in thickness, according to the depth of the water. It looks like a tumble down wall mixed with gravel, but it must have caused weeks of labor....Below the dam is a flat boulder reached by stepping-stones....Near by the old dam lives Jonas L. Moore. Here lived his father and grandfather before him. For one hundred and thirty years this has been called the Indian dam...The elder Moore dug up a half peck of arrow and spearheads, all in one pocket....Some twenty Indian fire-places have been ploughed up here. These were simply circles in the middle of the wigwam, paved with stones from the river.”

Racist stereotyping aside, this account is significant in a number of respects, most notably in dating the recognition of the dam as a Native American creation to the earliest Euroamerican settlement of Swanzey in the mid-18th century...
Only a handful of wooden fish weirs have been documented in New England, and prior to this study, no stone dam has been conclusively shown to be Native American in origin…
… Research at the Swanzey Fish Dam site has resulted in a detailed description of the dam feature, has shown that the dam was a focus of Native American activity, and has definitively dated this activity to the Late/Terminal Archaic and Contact periods. This research has also ruled out a Euroamerican origin for the dam, and has shown that, as in much of the eastern United States, substantial stone structures were constructed by Native Americans in New England."

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