It’s official. Native Americans did inhabit the rocky Isles of Shoals six miles off the Maine and New Hampshire coast. Historians have long assumed that Indians visited and hunted there, but without scientific evidence, no one could say for sure. (continued below)
I was standing a few yards away on Smuttynose Island last month when the first few flakes of prehistoric stone debris were uncovered from a deep test pit near the ancient Haley House. Someone, based on the depth of the sediment layer, crafted or repaired a stone tool here centuries ago, exactly where other Smuttynose Stewards and I have been mowing the lawn and picnicking. The proof was here all along, but without precise scientific methods of extraction, there is no proof at all.
EXCLUSIVE: Smuttynose Archeology Dig 2009 photos
Prof. Nathan Hamilton and a half dozen of his archeology students from the Shoals Marine Lab summer field school went into a quick huddle over one of the perfectly square holes sliced into the sloping lawn just above Haley’s Cove. Suddenly there was a polite, but rousing cheer, followed by a burst of high-five hand slaps. Then the students returned to their assigned quadrants and the silent dig resumed.
YOU CAN DIG ON SMUTTYNOSE NEXT SUMMER (click here for details)
Compared to the infamous ax murder here in 1873, this discovery may not look like an historic moment. But over the next few years, the enormous body of data gathered on Smuttynose will forever change the way we talk about the Isles of Shoals.
The first Shoalers
"I will speculate that they [Indians] were likely out there for birds and for seal," Hamilton told me from his Southern Maine University archeology lab In Gorham, Maine last week. "They may also have been out there doing some fishing."
Hamilton isn’t afraid to offer an educated guess. The evidence is abundant. After finding a few stone flakes the team discovered a number of stone tools including arrow points, knives, and scrapers. I held two of the arrowheads as they surfaced for the first time in perhaps a thousand years under the soil. Hamilton estimates they are from the Late Woodland period, and says early evidence suggests a "substantial activity" by Natives on Smuttynose around AD 800 – 1200.
"I’ll tell you what is really nice about what we’ve got so far," Hamilton says. And without pausing for air, he describes seven prehistoric tools and the seven raw materials from which the tools were crafted, then names seven locations where those materials are found in North America.
"What this shows us," he explains, "is that there is a very broad social network here, with interaction among people from the Sub Arctic to the Chesapeake."
In other words, Indians got around. What our ancestors called "savage" and we call the "prehistoric" era was a vast and complete cultural system. For New Englanders, "prehistoric" applies to any time before European contact around 1600. Other seacoast excavations on the mainland indicate that Natives populated this area for 10,000 years or more. With doctoral candidate Ingrid Brack (whose cell phone ring tone is the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme) and Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley of the Shoals Marine Lab, Hamilton expects to crack open more Shoals mysteries in years to come.
Folklore vs fact
While historians often dig for facts in books, archeologists must dig into the earth for fresh tangible evidence. When it comes to the topic of Indians on the Shoals, local writers, myself included, often quote English explorer Christopher Levett. Following his 1623 visit he wrote definitively, "Upon these islands are no savages at all."
Most tales of Native Americans here come to us through folklore, vague accounts, and accidental discoveries. In her classic book Among the Isles of Shoals (1873), Celia Thaxter mentions "Indian arrowheads of jasper and flint" found in the rocky cove on Star Island.
Thaxter also wrote at length about a fragile human skeleton discovered by 19th century campers on the south end of Appledore. She took the skull home and, studying it by lamplight, noticed three sharp indentations that she imagined might indicate foul play. "An Indian tomahawk might have made those marks," she says, "or a pirate cutlass. Who can say?"
No Shoals tour guide fails to mention the legend of Betty Moody’s Cave, a rock formation on the southeastern side of Star Island. As the story goes, Native American warriors raided the Isles during King Philip’s War (1675-76) and carried off a number of women. In one version of the story, Betty Moody hid in the cave, and while trying to prevent her baby from crying, smothered her own child. In another version of the story, she is drowned.
In his 1965 history of the Isles, Lyman Ruttledge contends that there is only one "authentic" account of an Indian attack on the Shoals. In 1724, during what is sometimes called the 4th Indian War, a flotilla of Native Americans in 50 canoes terrorized the southern coast of Maine. The raiding party reportedly visited the Shoals, but simply stole two boats.
Life before history
The problem with all these accounts is that they occur after white occupation, first by seasonal fishermen, then by permanent settlers, and eventually by hordes of summer tourists. Until now, our picture of life on the Shoals has been trapped within our spotty, romanticized, and often downright inaccurate view of the last 400 years. I have even heard people say, without a shred of evidence, that the Isles of Shoals was so sacred to Native Americans, that they never went there.
Others have misinterpreted Levett’s assertion that he saw no Natives on the Shoals in 1623 to mean that Natives never occupied the Shoals at all. But there were few Indians anywhere in this region during Levett’s time. The great smallpox pandemic of the early 1600s, many historians now believe, killed four out of five Indians from Cape Cod to the Kennebec, and set the stage for the European invasion. It was only when Natives struck back in the latter half of the 17th century – after 50 years of peace – that they found their way into white history texts.
Scientists have looked for proof of the obvious, that Indians used the resources on the Shoals, but until now without luck. A shard of Late Woodland pottery discovered in an eroding seabed on Appledore in 1982 was not enough to launch an official prehistoric site designation with the state of Maine. A major archeological study of the Shoals in the 1990s conducted by Faith Harrington, still unpublished, could not confirm the presence of prehistoric life.
Down in a hole
Students in Hamilton’s "Island Archeology" class unearthed roughly 40,000 artifacts from 10 square meters of earth during a two week dig in June. It is a laborious process. As stewards of Smuttynose Island, my wife Maryellen and I watched the diggers arrive in a rubber zephyr each morning from their home base on Appledore Island. The project is sponsored through the Shoals Marine Laboratory by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.
Students spent long hours lying on the bare ground or squatting in deep holes scraping off layers of dirt with trowels and brushes. They took turns sifting every ounce of soil through wire mesh nets. Each artifact recovered was bagged in plastic according to its location and depth. Each pit was charted onto a clearly defined pattern, photographed, and its global satellite position recorded. Back in the lab, each bit of animal bone, clay pipe stem, chip of ceramic, nail, or shell will be washed, cataloged and stored. It is this methodical scientific process that brings value to even the tiniest fragment.
I’ve been saying for years that the soil on Smuttynose, the most verdant island on the Shoals, is barely a few inches deep. Not true. Although much of the original topsoil was likely removed by early settlers and burned like peat for fuel, archeologists were able to find undisturbed spots nearly three feet deep. Since roads, electricity and plumbing have never come to Smuttynose, it is the perfect site for exploration. In some spots, students could delineate layers of time almost decade by decade. The was the discovery of artifacts within an "intact soil horizon" dating back before colonization, that confirms – once and for all -- the presence of Native Americans.
On beyond Indians
Although finding prehistoric artifacts is ground breaking, it represents only a tiny portion of the Shoals archeology project. We watched as one student uncovered a huge vertebra from the mid-1600s and identified it as a codfish weighing up to 150 pounds. It was the giant cod, now extinct, that first attracted European investors to these waters.
Fragments of clay pipe stems and bowls in the hundreds went into plastic bags. Those with the widest core diameter, a student told me, are the oldest. Hamilton estimated the oldest to be from 1620-1640, a time when Smuttynose was reported overrun by fisherman drying their catch on wooden flakes. The perpetual breezes and summer sun made the Isles a perfect fish factory. Another digger turned up a stamped metal name tag in a layer of soil estimated to be between 1700 and 1740. When he turned the item over it was stamped with the date 1729. Ceramics, likely from the Haley family and the Mid-Ocean House hotel are in abundance, as well as bones from a wide variety of fish, birds and mammals.
"All of the major time periods are represented," Nate Hamilton says, making the island a living textbook for students.
When catalogued, data from the Shoals can tell us what people ate here, how they lived and what they did. Shoals information can finally be plugged into the grid of historic information from other sites in Canada, New England, Europe and beyond. It may even be possible from shellfish remains, for example, to tell when certain ships from certain nations first sailed to the Shoals.
But none of this even touches what Hamilton says will be the greatest and most immediate value of archeology here. By precisely documenting the history of fishing on the Shoals, he says, this region can help scientists reconstruct the marine ecology of the Gulf of Maine. From high quality data, they can make more accurate predictions about our future food supply, about global warming and climate change.
Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved.