A detail from the Stephen Belaski mural at the Bellows Falls Middle School of the Abenaki salmon fishing in the Great Falls at the site of the petroglyphs. The mural was painted in the 1930s as part of the Work Progress Administration Federal Art Project.
Mary Lou Massucco/Courtesy photo
A detail from the Stephen Belaski mural at the Bellows Falls Middle School of the Abenaki salmon fishing in the Great Falls at the site of the petroglyphs. The mural was painted in the 1930s as part of the Work Progress Administration Federal Art Project.

Unearthing history

After years of work, the Kchi Pôntegok Project concludes and offers a deeper understanding of the story of Native peoples of the Connecticut River Valley

BELLOWS FALLS-In May, a community group will begin unveiling its work on a $37,000 study of the Native rock carvings next to the Vilas Bridge on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River.

The Kchi Pôntegok Project (kit-see pohn-tuh-guk), named after the Abenaki expression for "at the Great Falls," which refers to the location of the petroglyphs. The group is at the point of wrapping up the project and members are planning public presentations of their findings.

The group will also present on Wednesday, June 5, when Bellows Falls hosts the state's annual Downtown and Historic Preservation Conference.

Those responsible for fulfilling the grant included archaeologist Gail Golec as project coordinator; master scuba diver Annette Spaulding, who was responsible for all underwater research with help from diver Tom Martell; Walter Wallace, the coordinator of the Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission; and Diana Jones, Rich Holschuh, and Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the area's Elnu Abenaki band.

Partway into the project, a newcomer to the area, a forester named Hale Morrell, offered her computer expertise to create maps and a database for the information collected, which Golec described as an invaluable tool.

The original grant wasn't sufficient to cover the cost of the mapping work. Holschuh received a small Vermont Humanities Grant through the Atowi Project to fund a database of maps, images, and text.

The database will soon be available to the public in a form that will redact culturally sensitive information such as specific burial and ceremonial sites.

The grant proposal, "Revisiting the Historic Landscape of the Bellows Falls Petroglyphs," was developed as an amendment and update to studies done in the area of the petroglyphs in the 1980s and 1990s. Those studies were used to nominate the area around the carvings to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as the Bellows Falls Island Multiple Resource Area.

The "historic landscape" includes the petroglyphs' connections with other First People sites surrounding the carvings in the Connecticut's watershed, from the Massachusetts border north to the White River Junction region.

The amendment will include the work of the past two years, plus all the findings and research done in the 30 years since the original NRHP nomination application was completed.

Two years of work

Golec said that the group members quickly realized that they "wanted to expand on the work of the original researchers. There's been a lot of archaeological work in the Connecticut River Valley since then."

The group began by collating and combining all that research into the database.

They visited, photographed, mapped, and catalogued archaeological and historic sites in the study region, as well as local libraries in towns up and down the Valley. Local libraries will often have unique documents found only at that location, which can provide important historic information.

For example, libraries may have documents from local citizens who interviewed early settlers and collected oral stories and traditions.

These were found in libraries up and down the valley in both Vermont and New Hampshire, and were included in the database.

"This is where Hale's work was so important," Golec said. "She made a big database to tie this all together. It was so great to find her."

Golec said that the group created "two spheres of research," the first comprising a 2-mile radius around the petroglyphs.

The second sphere is much larger, incorporating the Connecticut River watershed from Massachusetts to the uplands of northern Vermont and New Hampshire.

Modern political boundaries very often use rivers as borders - for example, the Connecticut River forms the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire. But Indigenous people tended to occupy the entire watershed of a large river, with the main river as the center of their territory.

The Abenaki homeland included the tributaries on both sides of the Connecticut, so this project focused on sites and resources in both Vermont and New Hampshire.

Spaulding said that she was intensely occupied with creating an underwater inventory of the Great Falls themselves. That portion of the river was mapped into five sections, from just below the Bellows Falls hydroelectric dam to just south of the petroglyphs.

Spaulding logged 77 dives in that part of the river over the two years. She said she would have done more, but diving in 2023 was cut short by the July flooding, which roiled the waters for some time and made them unsafe.

Her dives uncovered numerous artifacts from the river's long use in logging and other industries, from tools to large stone wheels that were used to grind pulpwood for papermaking.

Spaulding said she also located numerous underwater potholes, including an extraordinarily large one measuring 16 feet deep.

Golec said that sometimes the Connecticut River has "a reputation that very little is available here" with regard to archaeology. She believes the data collected will help to change that perception.

"Here we have two important petroglyph sites within 20 miles of each other," she said, and one of them is "one of the largest in this part of the country."

"We have archeological evidence of long-term Abenaki settlements all up and down the Connecticut River here," Golec added. "In Springfield, in Walpole, and especially up the Ashuelot River to Keene. That's what makes this area so special."

The data also includes a 3D scan of the Great Falls petroglyphs was completed by anthropologist Jonathan Alperstein, a graduate student in archeology at Dartmouth College.

A long history

The approximately 28 rock carvings on the two panels now visible at the site make up one of the largest collections of such artifacts in the eastern U.S., and scholars believe they were likely part of a much more extensive group.

The site itself is quite significant to Abenaki culture. The falls drop 52 feet over about a quarter of a mile.

Migrating salmon and shad as well as a large eel population made the site a major food source for Native people. It is pockmarked with numerous potholes, which are important in Abenaki culture as places where underwater spirits reside.

The area west of the petroglyphs is known to have been a large Native burial site. Native village sites have been identified and excavated both north and south of the Great Falls.

Across from the petroglyphs, Fall Mountain rises steeply from the New Hampshire bank of the river several hundred feet above the river valley and falls.

All of these factors - the site's history as a major food source, the turbulent waterfall, the potholes, the burial sites, the mountain, the nearby villages on excellent open farmland, the confluence of other nearby rivers in the watershed, and the petroglyphs - give this site huge cultural significance for the Abenaki people and their predecessors, the group asserts.

As the researchers stated, this "historic landscape" was a large part of the reason the NPS elected to fund an updated study of the region.

The history of the petroglyphs goes back at least several centuries. A written record from 1789 by Rev. David McClure records that English visitors to the Great Falls and settlers in the area 50 years before his writing had found and commented on the carvings.

Reliable sources indicate that the carvings are 300 years old at the very least, and some estimate that they may be 10 times older than that.

Nearly two dozen archaeological digs and carbon-dating examinations of campsites in a 20- to 30-mile radius of the Great Falls have confirmed a the presence of Native people in the region for more than 10,000 years.

In his book A Deep Presence: 13,000 Years of Native American History, archaeologist Robert Goodby of Franklin Pierce University in southern New Hampshire writes of the things he discovered during his 30 years of fieldwork in the southern New Hampshire area - tools, pottery, fire pits, campsites, stone implements, and structures - that provide details of Native culture here going back through those millennia.

The Bellows Falls carvings have been written about, sketched, and eventually photographed, and they have been considered authentic since they were first seen by European settlers.

In 2015, while searching underwater at the mouth of the West River, 20 miles downstream in Brattleboro, Spaulding discovered a single carved face similar to the Bellows Falls petroglyphs, as well as another larger panel near it.

This is the second set of notable petroglyphs in the region that Golec commented on.

One concern is that some of the earliest drawings of the carvings in Bellows Falls are quite different from the ones visible now, creating the theory that once many more carvings graced the rocks along the Great Falls.

There is strong evidence for this. In Lyman Hayes 1907 History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont, he writes that when the railroad came to town in the mid-1800s, a branch rail line was built from the depot to the mills at the south end of the falls.

The roadbed for that line is still there, right above the remaining carvings, and Hayes writes that the construction "covered a portion" of other petroglyphs that were there.

He also wrote that cinders from the boilers at the nearby mills were dumped on top of the carvings, which could still be buried near the current panels.

Another reason stems from the area's logging history.

From 1860 to 1915, every spring three-month long log drives sent wood from northern Vermont and New Hampshire down the Connecticut River to the lumber mills in Bellows Falls and into Massachusetts.

The ledges that form the gorge at the Great Falls were dynamited to widen the channel, and local historians state that doing so also destroyed carvings.

The narrow falls also was the site of frequent logjams, which were also dynamited apart, causing further damage to the gorge.

It is known that the two panels of carvings in Bellows Falls have been altered.

For many years, winter snow from the plowed streets of the village - containing gravel, ash, and sand - was disposed of in the river, on top of the carvings.

By 1928, the carvings were in poor shape from this abuse and normal erosion and were in danger of disappearing. The Daughters of the American Revolution hired a local stonecutter to recut them in the early 1930s; what liberties he may have taken in the process are unknown.

The Kchi Pôntegok Project has been in touch with the DAR to see if the project members can find out more about this event from the records of the fraternal organization.

The historic landscape: Graves and artifacts near the carvings

In his history, Hayes interviewed Dr. S.M. Blake, who told him that "the whole distance across the island had, in a much earlier period, been used for an Indian burial-ground."

According to Blake, the grave sites were mostly discovered as streets were being built on the Island and the bodies inside were sitting upright, "the knees drawn up to the chin, in a circular hole dug deep enough so that the top of the heads came within a foot or two of the surface of the ground," Hayes wrote.

There were reportedly artifacts in the graves as well, and one skeleton was supposedly displayed for some time in one of the stores in the town square.

"Dozens of skeletons were found," Hayes wrote.

Members of the Chapin, Nims, and Bolles families were among the earliest settlers of North Walpole and Bellows Falls. They were known to have an extensive collection of mostly local Native artifacts.

Descendants of both the Blake and Bolles families have been contacted in recent years, including during this project. While they confirmed there had been an extensive collection of Native artifacts at one time, they were not passed down, and it is unclear where the artifacts and the disinterred skeletons ended up.

Golec said that, after a pretty intense two years with the project, "I'm getting excited about it again as you see it come together. We found out some very cool things."

Morrell said that putting all the data - burial sites, petroglyphs, habitations, forts, natural features, rivers, mineral deposits, springs, and more - into text, maps, and pictures in one database, gave her a real appreciation for the region.

She added that she feels it will do the same for others.

"I hope this draws attention and makes people more aware that this is such a special place," she said.

"People have been seeing and using Fall Mountain and the Great Falls for thousands of years," Morrell said. "This helps make the landscape part of the story. And these are just the sites we've found. With more time and more resources, there is so much more to find here."

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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