History of the Indigenous People in the Lower Merrimack River

According to archeological sites around New England, the period of from 10,000 years to 5,000 years, the furthest north of any early peoples seemed to border the Merrimack Valley.     Called by archeologists, the “Atlantic People”, these people seem to have migrated from North America’s southeast up into New England but could not sustain permanent settlements in Maine or points further north in present day New Hampshire.     It could be that climate and/or glaciers prevented them from venturing north.     A major Indian settlement at Neville (outside Manchester, NH) has been dated as far back as roughly 10,000 years.      

Somewhere in 4100 to 3600 years, major disruption occurred in artifacts and it was theorized that peoples migrating from Europe (probably a combination of Celtic and Phoenician [present-day Portugal]) had begun to press in against the Atlantic People.     Though traditional theories challenge this concept, more and more ancient Caucasian burial sites have been located as deep inland as Minnesota.      The site in North Salem, NH possibly could have been a ceremonial site for these people from the east. 

Though these people may have been long absorbed into the native population, the language of Gaelic seems to have lingered in the Algonquin people.      In fact the Algonquin name harkens back to a similar sounding Celtic name.      The Merrimack River probably came from the Gaelic words, “mor-riomach” which means “of great depth”.     The Algonquin actually translated the word Merrimack to mean “deep fishing”.       The other word for Merrimack River is Kaskaashadi which sounds like the Gaelic phrase ‘g-uisge-siadi” which means, ‘slow-flowing waters’. 

Continuous Indian settlements have been recorded as far back as 2,500 years from the present day. 

About 600 years ago, the populations of Native Americans had settled into stable confederacies in parts of New England.      The region itself which included southern present-day Canada was called Dawnland or Wobanaki.     Those who lived here were called the Abenaki or the People of the Dawn.      Three major very loosely held political groups were active in the area.      The Eastern Abenaki lived east of the White Mountains in present day Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.    The Western Abenaki lived west of the White Mountains into present-day Vermont and Western Massachusetts and up into Quebec.      The middle areas, dominated by the Merrimack Valley were the Benokoiak which mans “Falling Hill People” referring to their main village along the Merrimack River which was located in present-day Concord, NH.     They are also known by the name Penacook.    The boundary of this people stretched from southern Maine, southeast New Hampshire and all the way to near present-day Boston.      

The Penacook Confederacy often would fight with other confederacies usually over highly-prized hunting territories or they would ally with the other Abenaki against more warrior-like hostile tribes such as the Mohawk or the Iroquois Federation.       Before the English settlements began in 1620, there were as many as 12,000 Penacook living in the Merrimack Valley, scattered throughout 30 different villages. 

The Penacook also broke down into smaller regions.    The Indians near Manchester, NH and north were called the Amoskeag.      In the lower Merrimack Valley, there were known as the Pawtucket or Pentucket.    In other areas, they would be known as the Merrimac.     This name assignment often was due to the Indians being associated by a village or a prominent landmark. 

The habits of the Indians were a bit of a mystery to the European settlers.    In winter time, entire villages would be found empty and often thinking the communities had been abandoned, the colonists would raid their food stores or loot their goods.     Indians were hunter gatherers and supplemented their food stores with limited farming.     After the food was harvested together, as winter encroached, the Indians would break up into small family units in separate winter-secured shelters.     It is easier to control food distribution and survival in smaller family units.    When food ran shorter than the season, the small group could supplement by ice fishing or hunting. 

Settlement in Newburyport was also seasonal.    Most Indians lived inland for most of the year and then migrated to the mouth of the Merrimack to harvest the fish and dry them on the river beds.    Newburyport and Newbury were called Wessacusous and Quascaquancon.    The tribe that lived here as part of the Penacook Confederacy were called the Agawam.     The word itself means a fishing station or fish-curing place and they had small villages ranging from Newburyport to Ipswich. 

Between 1564 and 1570, an unknown epidemic struck the Northeast followed by an outbreak of typhus in 1586.     As fishing boats visiting briefly visiting the coast Indians, European diseases began to spread causing great deaths.   Around 1614, English slave traders visited the area and promptly another great plaque hit the area.   The disease started in the Cape and spread to the north leaving a 75% mortality rate in its wake.     

By 1616-1617, Captain John Smith, an earlier explorer of the area noted that the Indians were decimated by pestilence.    He noted that where he would see hundreds, later there would be scarcely any left numbering in small bands of 30 or less. 

One of the key reasons that the Plymouth Plantation survived was because they settled in an area that was once a great Indian village and the land was cleared and pre-prepared for their settlement. 

The same happened to the Newbury settlers, finding areas pre-cleared for farming and devoid of human habitation.      

By 1620, the Penacook population for the entire region was down to 2,500 persons.    Smallpox struck in 1631 and 1639, deadly influenza in 1647.    Smallpox again in 1649 and diphtheria in 1659.     By 1675, the entire confederacy was down to 1,200 people.       

At this time, the Penacook began to have raids against the settlers hoping to drive them from the Merrimack Valley and atrocities began to occur in the region.      Failing these efforts, the Penacook moved out of the Valley area and were either absorbed by other Algonquins or by the European settlers.     Sagamores (sub-chiefs) ruled the area and by 1634, four sagamores including the one that controlled Newburyport and who lived in present-day Ipswich, Masconomo or Masconomshet, voluntarily submitted to the rule of the government of Massachusetts.   His name is noted in Volume I of the Colony Records. 

Indian Hill just southwest of Turkey Hill recorded some of the last residents in the area. 


“A Time Before New Hampshire” by Michael Caduto, University Press of New England, 2003. 

Documents, Legends, and Archaeology: unraveling the mysteries of Newburyport’s Past by Elizabeth J. Harris, Historical Survey Associates, Inc., Newburyport, MA, 1977. 

“Indian New England Before the Mayflower” by Howard Russell, University Press of New England, 1980. 

Mashantucket Pequot Museum, Mashantucket, CT  06339. 

 “The People of the Merrimack Valley”, by Dana Bener, Merrimack Valley Magazine, Methuen, MA, May 2010 

  “The Voice of the Dawn” by Frederick Matthew Wiseman, University Press of New England, 2001. 

“The Western Abernakis of Vermont, 1600-1800” by Colin G. Calloway, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.