Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Historic Abenaki Images

     Since about the seventeenth century, the sale of small, decorative items had been a limited source of revenue for Abenaki women but as interaction with European settlers increased, they, along with their Wabanaki relatives to the east, developed a new line of arts and crafts that became a significant source of income for many Indian households.  Baskets comprised the greatest percentage of this trade.
     Resort areas in Vermont and New Hampshire were frequent destinations for these Algonquian speakers seeking outlets for their baskets and other souvenir items.  This next group of images is a sampling of early photographs and old postcards from the Made of Thunder collection that features Abenaki people. (Note: you should be able to click on any of the images to get an more detailed view).
     The two printed postcards below are of Abenaki craftspeople with a display of  their handicrafts in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. The first postcard has a 1908 postmark. The second image, also taken in Bethlehem, NH, circa 1915, was of the following: Robert Wawanolett, Florence Lagrave (later Florence Benedict), Hermine (Wawanolett) Msadoques, Walter Lagrave, Mary Jane Lagrave (later Mary Jane Sioui), Maud Msadoques (later Maud Hannis), Georgina Roy (French Canadian with an Abenaki step-father), and Louise Msadoques. My thanks to Christopher Roy for identifying the individuals in the second postcard.

One panel from a stereo view depicting a family of Abenaki basketmakers with their display of fancy baskets at Echo Lake, in New Hampshire. Photographed by the Kilburn Brothers of Littelton, New Hampshire. This image dates from the last quarter of the 19th century.

Three detailed views of the baskets on the table in the previous stereo view.

By the end of the nineteenth century,

[a] few families among the Abenakis of St. Francis still hunted at this time, though game was becoming increasingly scarce. Their principal industry was basket-making and fancy work. They worked at handicrafts all winter and in June most of the families went to sell their wares at various summer resorts in the United States, especially along the Atlantic coast and in the White Mountains. Around the turn of the century they lost the long standing privilege of carrying their wares to the United States duty-free and this removed their most profitable market. Around the same time the establishment of a National Park in their area brought about restrictions of hunting and fishing and the Indians had to turn more attention to agriculture (Source: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development – Indians of Quebec and the Maritime Provinces (An Historical Review). Published by the DIA, Indian Affairs Branch, Ottawa , Canada 1967).

This old handbill was found on the inside cover of a book that was published on the Abenaki language in 1893 by Chief Joseph Laurent of the St. Francis Abenaki.


The 1907 History of Rockingham, Vermont records an account of the travels of a group of Abenaki who annually set up summer camp on the banks of the Connecticut River. It gives a rare glimpse into the life of one family of Indians who earned their living by selling their arts and crafts during the early nineteenth century. I quote from it here.

     "During the first half of the last century small parties of more civilized and peaceable Abenaqui Indians used to visit Bellows Falls [a village in the town of Rockingham, Vermont] nearly every summer, coming from their homes in Canada and New York state.  They came down the Connecticut in their canoes, usually bringing supplies of baskets and other trinkets which they had manufactured during the previous winters, which they sold to citizens of Bellows Falls and the then large number of summer visitors. They usually encamped on Pine Hill, which was then north of the village and extended as far north as the residence of the late F. E. Proctor at the extreme north end of Green Street.  Sometimes they built their wigwams on the beach south of the falls, at times on the Vermont side, at others on the New Hampshire side. The men spent much time fishing in the river and hunting on the hills on both sides of the river, while the squaws carried on the mercantile branch of their business.

     The last remnant of this tribe came to Bellows Falls early in the summer, about 1856, in their birchbark canoes. The party consisted of a chief who was very old and infirm, a young wife and their sons, one about twenty and the other about nine years old, and others... They built their wigwams in true Indian fashion, of poles, covering them with bark and the skins of wild animals, and during the whole summer the place was of much interest to all in this vicinity….

     The older son spoke good English and was a manly appearing youth. He was an expert in the use of his rifle and shot gun and collected considerable money from visitors by giving exhibitions of his marksmanship …The chief himself was very intelligent and conversed interestingly with his visitors. He had fought with the English in different wars and gave many startling incidents connected with his early life and wild mode of living. He had been to England three times and he wore a large silver medal presented to him by King George III, in acknowledgement of his services. He was very proud of this, and lost no opportunity to exhibit it to his callers. It bore the king’s profile in relief and an appropriate inscription….

     Late in the season the weather grew cold and the party prepared to return to Canada before the river was frozen over, but the old chief wished to die beside the “Great Falls,” and be buried with his fathers. After long continued discussion, his wife left him in his wigwam with his two sons, and went north with others of the party. The wigwam was removed to the higher ground near River Street about opposite the present location of Taylor’s livery stable….
     In his last hour he called his elder son to his side and with his finger on his wrist showed how his pulse beat slowly and unsteadily. 'I’m going to the Great Spirit,'" he said, feebly. "He gave to his son the medal and the old rifle he had carried in the wars and charged him to wear the one and keep the other as long as he should live... and this last local representative of the original tribe of Abenaqui Indians was buried in what was then the Rockingham burying-grounds, and now known as the old Catholic cemetery, on the terraces in the west part of the village of Bellows Falls. No stone was erected to mark the spot, and the old representative of the proud tribe of Abenaquis rest in a grave, the location of which cannot be pointed out" (Source:  History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont including the villages of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, Rockingham – Cambridgeport and Bartonsville. 1753-1907 with family genealogies. By Lyman Simpson Hayes.  Published by the town of Bellows Falls in 1907, pages 48-51).

A contemporary image of the petroglyphs in Bellows Falls, Vermont near the site where the family of Abenaki described above would have their annual encampment.

It’s unclear if the western Abenaki were involved in making and selling souvenir beadwork during the nineteenth century. Baskets, birch bark canoe models, bark containers and other wood derived items appear to have been the mainstay of their commoditized crafts. In this rare circa 1860 carte-de-visite titled: Indian Camp at Franconia (New Hampshire) a group of what were likely Abenakis can be seen with a display of their baskets but there appears to be no beadwork. There is a detail view of the table below this image.

In this 1860s tintype are two individuals who are possibly Abenaki. I've seen another example of that pedestal style basket that was attributed to the Abenaki. It's also possible that these individuals are  Mohawks. There is a series of stereoviews of what were likely Mohawks selling baskets in the Thousand Island region of the Saint Lawrence River and several of these pedestal baskets are depicted in those views. This is an intriguing image non-the-less. There appears to be short lengths of tree branches in the larger baskets that the subjects are holding.  

This circa 1900 image is identified as Caroline (Tahamont) Masta by Christopher Roy. No other information is available.

This Real Photo postcard is of Sipsis (Bird) who often set up her display of baskets in the Franconia section of the White Mountains, in New Hampshire. c1934.

This circa 1910 postcard is of Lewis Watso, his wife Katherine and two of their three daughters, Abenaki's from Claremont, New Hampshire. They had a basket shop at Blodgetts Landing on Lake Sunapee. Louis was known for his full size canoes and Katherine was a basketmaker.

Another circa 1910 postcard of Lewis and one of his daughters. 

This early 1900s real photo postcard is of the Watso's basket shop at Blodgett's Landing.

An unidentified real photo postcard of a young Abenaki from Odanak. 

A real photo postcard of  Abenaki chief Nicolas Panadis. The caption on the card reads: Chief Nicholas of the Wabanacus, Highgate Springs, Vermont. Circa 1910. My thanks to Christopher Roy for identifying him.

Two individuals identified as Abenakis on the back of this circa 1910 real photo postcard.

A real photo postcard of an individual identified as an Abenaki on the back. (1920s).