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Abenaki History

Published with permission from the Brattleboro Historical Society.

Image of historic French depiction of Abenaki Couple from the 18th Century.
Historic French depiction of Abenaki Couple from the 18th Century

In 1828 the Brattleboro publishing company of Holbrook and Fessenden produced “A History of Vermont: From Its First Settlement to the Present Time.” It was one of the first books published in town that wrote about the Abenaki.
     When writing about the “native inhabitants” the author, Francis Eastman, wrote “not a vestige of them now remains-gradually the encroachments of the whites have pushed them farther and farther on” to the west and north of the United States and Canada.
     In many early histories of Vermont, Native Americans were hardly mentioned. A Vermont school book used from 1890 to 1925 starts this way, “Very few Indians lived in Vermont when white men first came here, though hunting parties and war parties often passed through, and sometimes a party would camp all summer in a good place.” You can see that early history books did not give Native Americans much claim to Vermont.
     However, in a current history book called “The Original Vermonters,” the University of Vermont authors state that there were thousands of Abenaki living in Vermont before Europeans arrived. The authors say Abenaki, and their ancestors, have lived in Vermont for 12,000 years. So, why the discrepancy between early history books and the books of today?
     Unfortunately, many Abenaki were killed by European disease. Many of those who survived the numerous illnesses were killed in warfare with the English. Those that survived warfare were forced to leave their land by the European settlers who desired the Abenaki land that had already been cleared and farmed by them for centuries. Some Abenaki chose to adopt European ways so they could remain in the newly forming towns in what was to become Vermont. Some Abenaki were forced to move to the remote corners of the state, away from European encroachment, in order to maintain their culture.
     European fishermen landed on the coast of New England 200 years before Fort Dummer was built and, at that time, death by foreign disease began to ravage the native population. When Fort Dummer was built in 1724 the Abenaki population in the Brattleboro area had already been reduced by 200 years of illness.
     Evidence of previous Abenaki presence in Brattleboro has been found everywhere. Native American burial grounds at the Retreat Meadows, along the Connecticut River near Cersosimos and in Downtown Brattleboro between High and Grove Streets…Abenaki village settlements along the West River in Dummerston, in Vernon along the Connecticut River, and in Guilford along Broad Brook…”Indian Rock” and the petroglyphs at the confluence of the Connecticut and West Rivers and the many Abenaki artifacts found in our region since the beginning of Brattleboro’s written history…all of this evidence points to a large Abenaki presence in Brattleboro’s past.
     History books of the last 50 years have said the Abenaki who lived in our area were known as the Sokoki. In the years leading up to the building of Fort Dummer many of the surviving Sokoki moved to the northeast shores of Lake Champlain in order to join with Abenaki from other parts of Vermont. Previously separate groups of Abenaki joined together in an effort to maintain their way of life as their settlements had been devastated by disease, trade pressures and war. The St. Francis-Sokoki band of Abenaki was formed in the early 1700’s from remnants of Brattleboro area Abenaki and the Abenaki of the Lake Champlain region.
     Unfortunately, beginning in the 1760’s, Vermont governments and courts systematically denied Abenaki claims to land they had occupied for thousands of years. It was not until 2006 that the Vermont government began the process of legally recognizing the Abenaki as the First People of Vermont. In 2012 Vermont formally recognized the four existing bands of Vermont Abenaki. In 2012, 3,200 Abenaki were in the four tribes, including descendants from the Brattleboro area Sokoki.