Native Americans hunted, fished, and traveled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire about 12,000 years ago. Through the courtesy of Dr. Richard Boisvert, New Hampshire State Archeologist, and the Mt. Washington Observatory, we are able to present some of the recent research on the subject. Dr. Peter Crane has written this introduction, providing the context for the articles, which appeared in “Windswept”, the quarterly journal of the Observatory.
Introduction by Dr. Peter Crane
For many, the notion of the history of the White Mountains focuses on such things as grand hotels, logging railroads, and hiking paths. If pressed, some may commence the period of historical interest with the early sightings of the White Hills from the sea, such as noted by Verrazano in 1524, or perhaps the first recorded ascent of what would be Mount Washington in 1642 by Darby Field and his guides.
Those who limit historical consideration of the White Mountains to such topics and such recent periods, though, ignore evidence of much earlier human presence in the area, and of lengthy human interaction with the White Mountains environment. We know that Native Americans have been in the area for many, many years, as suggested by oral tradition and as indicated by archaeological evidence. Recent investigation suggests that the story of humans in the White Mountains goes back to a period about 12,000 years ago, to a time when people called Paleoindians inhabited the area.
The articles which follow take a look at Paleoindians in the White Mountains, and their involvement with the environment that then existed in the region. The scholars whose investigations are reflected in their writings have each concentrated on different aspects of the Paleoindian story, and especially the relation of these pioneers with their surroundings.
The physical environment is a critical element in human history. Past schools of thought, long discredited, claimed a directly deterministic aspect of such factors as geography and climate. Today, scholars do not discount the impact of landscape, weather, and other environmental features on human affairs, but ascribe to them broadly enabling or limiting characteristics. Our environment shapes our activities, but perhaps never obligates them, and prevents them less than one might expect.
In the articles, Woodrow Thompson takes a look at some of the topographic factors which set the stage for Paleoindians in the White Mountains. The Paleoindians were present at a fascinating time geologically, when a glacial ice sheet was waning and when features such as ice-dammed glacial lakes had a prominence in the landscape. The characteristics of this transitional period were critical in allowing human survival. Christopher Dorion considers the vegetation which physical evidence tells us existed in this “tundra-steppe landscape”; he also clarifies some of the technical issues involved in identifying and dating evidence from this ancient period. Richard Boisvert writes more directly of those who lived on the grassy margins of these glacial lakes, and shares insights, and reasoned speculation, on their ways of life. Finally, Thompson and Dorion offer additional comments on their continued investigations in the area.
Throughout, it’s worthwhile to remember that these earliest White Mountain residents had a generally similar relationship with their environment as did the 18th century colonists, and as we do today. Geological factors and area climate help set the stage for the area’s basic ecosystems, including vegetation and wildlife; together these factors influence human activities. Humans in the White Mountains no longer hunt caribou, nor do they fashion stone tools. Residents generally are not directly and immediately dependent on natural systems for their survival on a day-by-day basis. However, we still depend on the local land and landscape for our economic well-being. Whether it’s a matter of moose hunting or moose viewing, or harvesting timber or of mining silver (from visitors’ pockets), our ways of life still depend on our relationship with the land and what it can provide.
And that story started many thousands of years ago….
E.C. Pielou. After the Ice Age. The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Howard S. Russell. Indian New England Before the Mayflower. Hanover; University Press of New England, 1980.