by Chief Nancy Millette Doucet
THE IDENTITY OF THE SAINT FRANCIS INDIANS
by Gordon Day
National Museums of Canada
Paper No. 71
14. THE COWASSUCKS
Odanak seems to have maintained a steady state after its reorganization, and there was a considerable number of Indians on the headwaters of the Saint Francis, Connecticut and Androscoggin Rivers. According to Tufts, a contemporary observer, there were some 700 Indians inhabiting small settlements between Lake Mempremagog and Lake Umbagog.
The Indians of this region have been mentioned only incidentally in this account, but at this point they commence to play a larger role. Their identity has hardly been considered seriously, and it will be useful to review the little that is known of their history. In 1628 the Mahicans were defeated by the Mohawks, and one band left their home on the Hudson River. Historians have commonly thought that they fled to the Connecticut River and resettled there. Crockett speculated that these fugitives may have settled in the Cowas country around Newbury, Vermont. Re-examination of the original Dutch account, however, makes it doubtful that they settled on the Connecticut River at all, so there is no reason to assume that the Cowassucks were Mahicans.
We have noted that the Indians of Cowas made their first definite appearance in history in the year 1704, and in this year there were three separate statements regarding them. In early June of that year a delegation from Cowas appeared before Governor Vaudreuil at Quebec. They had participated in the attack on Deerfield the preceding February and had come to Quebec at Vaudreuil’s invitation to explain why they preferred to remain at Cowas rather than accept Vaudreuil’s invitation to take up lands in Canada.
The English had heard of their fort at Cowassuck and in May dispatched a party from Northampton under Caleb Lyman. Almost while the delegates were talking at Quebec, Lyman’s party surprised an outlying band some twenty miles south of Cowas, possibly in the vicinity of present day Thetford, Vermont, and killed most of them. Lyman thought that this brought about the permanent abandonment of the Cowassuck fort. Shortly afterwards, Stephen Williams, who had been captured at Deerfield and who had spent the winter with his captors hunting in the hills on the Vermont side of the Connecticut, met some Indians from Cowas who told his captors that the village was being abandoned because of Lyman’s attack. This must have been in late June or early July, because William’s party stayed where they were for four to six weeks and arrived at Chambly in August. Stephen was given to a Pentacook, one Sagamore George who was mentioned also by John Williams, because his captor would not comply with the Catholic rites. Stephen’s first captor went to “Albany,” presumably Schaghticoke, and Sagamore George and his family also left Odanak in the spring of 1705 because of small-pox there.
These early notices do not clearly identify the Cowassuck tribe for us nor enlighten us about their movements after 1704. Were they a distinct tribe or were they a band of upriver Sokwakis? Although they might well have had their own tribal organization, I incline toward the view that they were closely related to the Sokwakis by reason of John Pynchon’s statement that the Sokwakis lived at the head of the Connecticut River. The “hoaz” who condoled with the Sokwakis after the desperate Iroquois siege in 1663 and, together with the Penacooks, sent them warriors to strengthen their defenses must have been a closely related tribe, and the name resembles Cowas more than that of any other neighboring tribe. Was Coassuck an ancient location or was it a village created after King Philip’s War by refugees, perhaps Penacooks as has been suggested? If my identification of the “hoaz” is correct, Cowassuck was occupied at least by 1663. Was the 1704 abandonment of Cowassuck followed by a withdrawal to Canada or merely to a location farther upriver? Vaudreuil had repeated his invitation, suggesting the Riviere Nicholas. Possibly the Riviere Nicolet was meant, but no settlement was recorded on it. It may be doubted that they withdrew to Odanak because a serious epidemic of smallpox had broken out there in the winter of 1704-1705, and outside Indians were shunning the place.
A French map of 1713 showed a village on the west side of the upper Connecticut River labeled”Koes, ancien village des loups”. This tells us that Cowas had been abandoned at some time and probably was empty in 1713, since this map was made with the advice of Father Aubery who was well posted on the shifting whereabouts of the tribes.
After the Treaty of Utrecht in the spring of 1713, many of the Indian allies of the French desired to return to their former homes in northern New England, and some did return to Pigwacket. It is likely that Cowassuck was reoccupied in spite of previous land sales when the English returned to resettle Northfield in 1714.
The records do not seem to give the Cowassucks any overt part in Dummer’s War, but we have an indication of their location in a recommendation of Colonel John Stoddard to Governor Dummer in 1725. “Parties should be raised to go to the upper part of Saint Francis river where these Indians [that is, the hostile Indians] plant their corn, or twards the head of Connecticut river where they hunt, or to Ammonoosuck which is the common road from St. Francis to Ammeriscoggan, and so to the Eastern country, or to Gray Lock’s fort, or possibly to all of these.” This shows that the English at least, were not aware of any occupied village on the upper Connecticut River. This is not sufficient grounds for assuming that the Cowassucks were then at Odanak. They may have been cultivating the Upper Cowas Intervales about Lancaster, New Hampshire, or the smaller intervales still farther upriver.
Evidence for the presence of Indians at Cowas after Dummer’s War is also lacking, and the War of the Austrian Succession (1745-1748) probably caused any Indians who may have been at the Lower Cowas to retreat northward to the Upper Cowas or to the headwater streams. The Lower Cowas could hardly have been secure, since scouts from the Boscawen and Canterbury, New Hampshire, garrisons on the Merrimack River were patrolling as far northward as the headwaters of the Pemigewasset River.
After 1750 both the Indians and the English became anxious about rumors that the other side was going to settle the Cowas region. English concern centered around rumors in 1751 and 1754 that the French were going to build a fort at “Coas”, said to be only ninety miles from Fort Dummer, the northern-most English fort. Similar rumors about English intentions drifted north, and the Sokwakis reasserted their claim to the Connecticut valley from Saint Francis.
Two subsequent events strongly suggest that the lower Cowas at least was unoccupied at that time. In a conference held in Montreal in 1752, Atiwaneto [Jerome Atecouando] spoke for the Saint Francis.
Indians, stated the Abenaki claim in no uncertain terms and threatened that English occupation would be followed by war. The same year, Indians attacked a beaver trapping party on the Baker River and carried John Stark prisoner to Odanak. Stark’s observations during his captivity provided much of the information for the subsequent cartography of the upper Connecticut region, and his report on the fertile intervales of the Cowas country was probably instrumental in attracting settlers to it after the Seven Years War. Whatever their temporary location the Cowassucks had no idea that they had surrendered their lands, and six delegates from Saint Francois went to Charleston, New Hampshire (Fort No. 4), and warned that they would view any attempt at settlement as a declaration of war. They added that there were then four hundred Indians hunting south of the Riviere Saint Francois and that the following spring all the Cowassucks would be at Cowas to see whether settlement had commenced. This shows clearly that the Cowassucks retained their identity and, wherever they were, knew Cowas as their own place.
In 1954 just before the outbreak of the Seven Years War, Captain Peter Powers led an expedition which ascended the Connecticut beyond Lancaster, New Hampshire, without seeing any Indian village. In 1759 Rogers led the main body of his Rangers returning from Saint Francis back by the Connecticut. They traveled the River from the mouth of the Ammonoosuc down to Fort No. 4 without seeing a village, so it seems likely that the upper Connecticut River was deserted for the duration of this war, and the population may have been at Odanak. During the Seven Years War, known to the English colonists as the last French and Indian War, the tribes generally withdrew from locations which were too exposed to English attacks. One group which favored the English cause, however, retired no farther than the Clyde River in East Charleston, Vermont, where they spent the nine years between the outbreak of hostilities and the treaty of Paris in 1763 in a state on neutrality. They moved to Canada, however, rather than moving at that time to Cowas. This may have been the first Cowassuck contingent into Odanak.
After the cessation of hostilities, the Indians returned as usual to reoccupy their lands, but this time they encountered the first wave of English settlers pushing northward into the Indians’ old territory. Believing that the conquest of New France had put an end once and for all to the French threat, New Englanders felt safe in settling the lands of the Indian allies of the French, and before the turn of the century, advance settlements had pushed as far northward as the present international boundary between Quebec and Vermont. For the next decade or so, returning Indians and advancing English mingled in frontier communities from Lake Champlain to the upper Androscoggin River. This was the period which furnished the Indian traditions and anecdotes for the local histories of the northern townships such as Shelburne, Swanton, Newbury and Troy in Vermont and Freyburg and Rumford in Maine. These traditions are scanty for most communities, and sometimes that of one community has been presented by local historians suspended inn a historical vacuum, as though it represented the entire Indian legacy of the region. Assembled and interpreted against the historical background just sketched, however, they form a valuable contribution to our understanding of the last phase of Indian occupation in northern New England.
We have seen that the Cowassucks were among those who returned to their proper homes on the Lower Cowas between Newbury, Vermont, and Haverhill, New Hampshire. Powers seems to say that when the Lower Cowas was settled by the English in 1761 Indians were already in residence. The Indians dwelt at this time on these meadows, east and west of the river, and were amicable. The loss of their strong ally, the French, and the chastisement which Rogers inflicted upon their brethren at St. Francis, had cooled their ardor, and rendered the idea of our men taking possession of those meadows far more acceptable to them than it was in 1752.” Elsewhere Powers stated, “But after the old French war, there were some of the St. Francis tribe returned to the Coos, and lived until a more recent date, when they became entirely extinct.” In 1763 there were “about 30 Indians, some with families, who came in with Hunts, chiefly to trade with Taplin according to Bayley. This suggests some 150 Indians trading into Newbury, Vermont, and therefore probably residing somewhere on the upper Connecticut. Farther south, the town of Thetford, Vermont, was settled in 1764, and the settlers “found abundant evidence that this section of country had been inhabited by a numerous tribe of Indians, previous to the war between Great Britain and France, in 1756.” A camp site was found in southern part of town, but no Indians returned there.
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