Who We Are

A Short History of the Missisquoi Abenaki Community, Northwestern Vermont

by Frederick Matthew Wiseman
Chair, Department of Humanities
Johnson State College
Johnson, VT 05488


Figure 1.  Two late 19th century ancestral Missisquoi girls in minimally decorated cut-cloth fringe dresses.
Photo originally in the Abenakis Research Project files.
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


Introduction

Missisquoi is a distinct Native “town-resident” community historically associated with portions of modern Swanton, Alburgh and Highgate towns in Franklin County, VT. Specifically, Missisquoi is a historically well-known Abenaki village located about a mile to the northwest of Swanton, Vermont; which figures prominently in the many ethnohistories of early and mid 18th century Nothern New England such as Gordon Day’s 1981 Identity of the St. Francis Indians or Colin Calloway’s 1990 The Western Abenakis of Vermont.  In addition, its specific location has been known and mapped as a Euroamerican determination of Indigenous ethnicity (i.e. the “Indian Castle” of the 1762 Brassier and 1763 Collins and Murray maps; Figures 2 and 3).


Figure 2. Missisquoi Island and “Indian Castle.”.
Detail of “A Survey of Lake Champlain” William Brassier, 1762
Wôbanakik Heritage Center Collections

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Figure 3. Missisquoi Castle
Collins and Murray 1763 lake Champlain VT Map.
Wôbanakik Heritage Center Collections


This was the period when several Missisquoi families leased sections of their land in the Missisquoi River valley to an Englishman in “Robertson‘s lease,” a document confirming an Abenaki presence at the “Indian castle” area in the period slightly before our narrative begins.  Haviland and Power’s The Original Vermonters and my Voice of the Dawn, both published by University Press of New England, and Against the Darkness, a DVD from Title VII Indian Education (Swanton, VT), deal with 19th and 20th century Missisquoi Abenaki culture in detail.  However, a few salient, and mostly unpublished, historical references from the post-1780 era are presented below.



The Early Historical Period

The origin of the word Missiquoi is “Masipskoik” a word that means place where there are boulders, more specifically “boulders point.”  We have enquired among the old Abenaquis and they all agree about this interpretation as a thing known among them for a long time.

Father de Gonzague, Missionary to the Odanak Abenakis: In A study of the etymology of the place name Missisquoi.
G. McAleer 1906:p. 8  


Old records existing in Swanton, VT reveal that in 1790, there were “fifty Abenaki Lodges near Swanton Village…,” probably downriver a mile or so, where their burial ground was discovered in 2000, and where their “Indian Castle’ or palisaded village was located thirty years before that.  The fact that they were described as “lodges” rather than houses provides evidence of the typical conical, single-family wigwam, although the possibility of “Quonset-hut” style multi-family longhouses cannot be ruled out.  This figure also implies a Missisquoi Village population over 250 persons.  The Abenakis seemed to be in a defensive mode at the time, for they were accused of burning a barn that same year in Sheldon, twelve miles upriver from their village.  Twenty years later produced the only known painting of Missisquoi Native people.  A War of 1812-era oil painting on canvas “Tyler’s Farm near Highgate” by a Benson (given name unknown) in the Shelburne Museum collection forms the cover of John Duffy’s 1985 book Vermont, an Illustrated History (City Reports).  The painting clearly depicts a birchbark canoe on Missisquoi Bay, with two women and a child in the canoe.  This is an important archival painting, in that it is the only known illustration of the traditional beadwork and ribbon-work decorated native clothing from Vermont.  There are few distinctive Native American artifacts from the area to confirm the identity of the people in the painting.  One artifact is a beaded wool panel edged with silk ribbon found inside of the wall of a house in Swanton.


 

Figure 4. Red trade wool panel (epaulet or cuff) decorated with 10/0, and 15/0 beads.
Swanton, ca. 1800-1830.
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


The Green Mountain Democrat of April 3, 1835 explained that there was a “tribe of the Missisques, who live a wandering life on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain.”  That this “wandering life” was an accommodation to European economics is documented in the coeval Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania (Oct. 3, 1835), which reports “… Indians from … Lake Champlain have taken up residence in the city (Philadelphia, PA), dwelling in two birch bark tents, they propose to carry on the basket-making business.”  

The physical nature of these mysterious early 19th century “Missisques” people was revealed at the Bushey Site, uncovered in 2000 adjacent to the old mapped Missisquoi “Indian castle.”  It consisted of a historic graveyard, and, according to archaeologist James Petersen of the University of Vermont; was complete with the remains of softwood coffins nailed with forged and cut nails.  But the oils in the cedar coffins also preserved within them an additional important historical detail.  In a December 08, 2002 e-mail, Dr. Petersen said “I looked at the (distinctive cut coffin nails) nails and…they are not the single cut type, but the double cut style.  I think that they are definitely a mid 19th century type.”  These “cross-cut” nails were produced by a machine patented in the 1840’s; thereby bringing the Missisquoi burial ground into the mid-19th century.  Deborah Blom, the University of Vermont’s physical anthropologist, studied the human remains dated by Dr. Petersen’s technical analysis of the coffin nails.  In her March 3, 2002 technical report Human Remains from Monument Road, Highgate, Vermont Professor Blom noted that the Bushy Site burials’ teeth showed “the presence of shovel-shaped incisors and evidence of an edge-to-edge bite on the anterior teeth.  None of the incisors were of a blade-form (i.e. non-Native form).  These observations are consistent with Native American ancestry.”  In the 2006 video Against the Darkness (Title VII Indian Education), Prof. Blom also noted that the spatial distribution, burial density and relatively large estimated number of burials (approximately 30 as determined by bone analysis) indicate that that they were interred in a burial ground considered by anthropologists as evidence of a collective level of control over land resources.  This archaeological and physical anthropological information is probably the best independent scientific evidence that we have for an early and mid 19th century Indigenous population in VT -- distinct in geography and genetics -- from their white settler neighbors.

 

Thirty years after Hazard’s Register reported Indian Basket makers in Northwestern VT, these craftspeople continued to work in the area; as reported in the St Albans (VT) Messenger, Aug. 4, 1874: “Last Saturday, Josh Spooner saw a man in his woods… who proved to be an old Indian quietly pursuing his avocation of making baskets.”  An example Indigenous style clothing from this period (dated by the temporally distinctive brass buttons) consists of a beaded brown velvet vest (Figure 5) with added leather-fringe details, a harbinger of the “cut-cloth fringe” clothing style (---).  It was the custom for many Native people in the last third of the 19th century to craft colorful clothing to reinforce an “Indian” identity for their craft-selling, and perhaps Franklin Co.’s “Indian Basket makers” used this particular vest for such a purpose.


Figure 5.  Velvet Man’s vest with beadwork floral designs and appended animal-tanned leather fringe.
Swanton, VT.   Mid 19th century
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, Missisquoi-area people owned more exotic types of specially-made garments in the so-called “cut- cloth fringe” style.  Scholars are most familiar with this regionally and temporally distinctive Native American clothing from late 19th and early 20th century archival photographs of Maine Indians at “Indian Pageants” or crafts enclaves such as the “Indian Village” at Bar Harbor.  Although made from locally obtained materials such as tan cotton twill, duck or canvas, it has a distinctive detail at the hems made by repeatedly cutting or slitting cloth panels to produce a fringed effect.  The desired effect was to replicate fringed buckskin clothing in a more available medium.  Decoration was typically appliqué or embroidery.  Jewelry often consisted of long “flapper length” strands of glass or ceramic beads of various sizes and colors.  Occasionally older decorative accessories such as beaded panels are included.  Overall the effect was striking and certainly helped craftspeople express their ethnic identity.  Vera Longtoe Sheehan recounts a family story from her grandmother (d. 2003) of the use of such “Indian clothes” at Missisquoi during this time period by “an old Indian woman,” Ms. Sheehan’s 3rd great grandmother (d. 1932).  Ms. Sheehan said “I asked my grandmother how did she know she (the 3rd great grandmother) was Indian?”  Ms. Sheehan’s grandmother described her as having "long braided hair and wearing Indian clothes…She wore old coins in her ears, many beads and a skirt with lots of ribbons.  No white women would dress like that."  Apparently these articles of clothing were locally made, because Ms. Sheehan’s grandmother went on to talk about "the beautiful ribbon and beads that the old women would sew, as they all sat around."  A Missisquoi outfit of “Indian Clothes” is illustrated in Figure 6.  It was found in Highgate Falls, VT in the 1970’s by Swanton antique dealer Gordon Winters.  It consists of a distinctive trilobate velvet “Indian Princess” crown, decorated with expedient hand-cut glass tube beads; a tan cotton dress with red cut cloth fringe and embroidered panels recycled from a Victorian lambrequin (shelf decoration).  Accessories include a red cotton cloth sash and an alternating blue and white ceramic bead necklace (the other necklaces in the illustration are not original to the ensemble).  These handmade, often charmingly idiosyncratic clothes are structurally and technologically unlike “Campfire Girl” and “Degree (or Daughters) of Pocahontas” manufactured costume that occasionally turns up in VT.  


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Figure 6. Missisquoi woman modeling complete woman’s cut cloth fringe outfit.
Highgate Falls, VT.   Late 19th century/early 20th century
Image, Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


The 20th Century

Elaborate handcrafted Indian fashion costuming was often used to help Indigenous people to sell baskets and other crafts at the turn of the 20th century.  Figure 7 illustrates an important fancy “Cowiss style” Missisquoi basket.  From the extant collection of baskets with a solid Missisquoi provenance, it seems that Missisquoi basket makers never practiced the ubiquitous “sweetgrass” basket style sold by the Gypsies and the Odanak (Quebec)-based Panadis family -- evidence of a distinctive local “Native” technological tradition.  They seemed to focus instead on the distinctive “overlay weave” or “cowiss” basketry style into the 1940’s (Figure 8), long after it became obsolete in other indigenous basket making centers.  Missisquois never seemed to adopt the more simple woven sweet grass technique except perhaps for reinforcing basket rims such as that seen on the example in Figure 7.


Figure 7.  “Crossed Standard diamond” cowiss style Missisquoi Abenaki ash-splint basket.
Bundled sweetgrass reinforced rim.
Ca. 1890-1920.  Made by Lapan Family or a close relative
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


The fact that the Missisquoi region had a remarkably large community of basket makers was described by the June 19, 1893 St. Albans Messenger, “Twenty four Indians have encamped at Kingfisher Bay near Swanton, and are busy plying their trade of basket making to catch the stray nickel.”  This shoreline encampment was a significant Indigenous seasonal settlement, probably around five families, who would have erected several tents or wigwams, and built fire pits.  The Kingfisher Bay occupation was independent of the Panadis family bi-national basket sellers who were headquartered at Highgate Springs, VT.  Odanak elder Cecile Wawanolet, who came to Highgate Springs with the Panadis family in the second quarter of the 20th century, said that their temporary camp and display tent was located at Shipyard Bay, where the tour ships and summer camps gave them a good livelihood.  During this period, the Lapan family was widely known as the premiere Indian basket making family in the Swanton/Highgate/Sheldon area.  Their late 19th and early 20th century utility and fancy baskets (probably Figure 7 and definitely Figure 8.) as well as articles of their “Indian Costume” (a Niagara-style “princess crown”) and tools (a pine “basket mold”) are curated at the Wôbanakik Heritage Center, having been donated by descendent Jesse Lapan and other Swantonians.  The latest documented Lapan basket in the Center’s collection is of a decadent style unlike those made in elsewhere, and dated 1943 (Figure 8).  The old Abenaki basket makers have not been forgotten.  My Swanton, VT resident Ms. Polly Parre, still has ash splint materials (woven chair seats) made for her by the Lapans in the 1950’s.  In addition, Swanton’s elderly still remember the local Indians with a measure of fondness.  Ms. Lucille Bell said, in the January 7, 1996 Burlington Free Press, “I remember we had an Indian family here (Swanton, VT), and the woman made baskets and used to come around door to door to sell them.  We didn’t make a big thing of it and neither did they.”

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Figure 8.  “Standard diamond” style Basket, Missisquoi, VT, dated “1943,” in ink on bottom.
The latest well-documented Lapan ash-splint basket
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


As an allied alternative to the almost ubiquitous ash-splint basket crafting, local Native people collected and/or marketed medicinal herbs.  The River Rats (for discussion of their Indigenous ethnicity see Wiseman 2001, Voice of the Dawn: 120-132) used to collect local plants as a source of income at least into the 1960’s.  As a child I helped my adult “River Rat” friend Monkey Drew gather skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) in the marshes of the Missisquoi River delta.  There was a man who would show up in the parking lot across from Swanton’s “Merchant’s Row” and would pay for skullcap and other herbs.  I remember making a dollar as my cut of the profits.


The earliest local evidence of this Indigenous medicinal herbal collecting and processing activity is an artifact from John Colson, the “Indian Nurse” who lived between Swanton and St. Albans.  He sold “Indian medicines” in well printed glass bottles, some of which still remain (Figure 9).  It is interesting that the label is bilingual, indicating sales to local francophone Vermonters. This is a 19th century “anchor” documentation of an active, long-term herbal collecting activity by people of Native heritage in Franklin Co. VT.  

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Figure 9.  John Colson “Indian Nurse” bottle, ca 1860 with “St. Albans, VT” label.
Image, Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Euroamerican ethnic signifier of Swanton-area Indigenous people had evolved from the Green Mountain Democrat’s “Missisques” to Abbe Hemmingway’s 1883 “St. Francis Indians” in the VT Historical Gazetteer (Vol. IV:945).  Documentation that this ambiguous “St. Francis Indians” ethnic signifier was geographically tied to the Missisquoi region (rather than referring to Quebec Mission villages such as Odanak) is literally “engraved in stone” on the 1909 Monument to the Catholic Missisquoi mission.  This inscription, still standing today on Monument Road, Highgate, VT, names local Christianized Indians as “St. Francis Indians.”  In the second quarter of the 20th century, the State of Vermont’s Eugenics Survey records (as recently published by the VT Attorney General) listed a mixed French/Indian sub-community called today “the Back Bay” in Swanton, VT, and census-listed residents of this geographically restricted community are the grandparents of a local population of living people who consider themselves Native American.  In the first half of the 20th century, the Back Bay (as well as a few isolated families elsewhere in Swanton/Highgate) was composed of a set of “core” family bands.  There may have been some form of more formal leadership of these core bands, as hinted at in a mid 20th century quote by Swanton collector and historian Ben Gravel.


I remember when I was a kid (in the late 19th century), we had a chief in (Swanton) town.  
Ben Gravel, June 1968. (Wiseman, 2001, Voice of the Dawn p. 144)


There is evidence that the Abenaki Language was used widely by Missisquoi elders at this time.  The Elnu Tribe’s genealogist, Vera Longtoe Sheehan, recounts a family story from her Missisquoi descendant grandmother (d. 2003) of the use of the Abenaki language at the Missisquoi Indian community in the late 19th or early 20th century.  Sheehan’s grandmother said “The older folks did the talking… in those days you were quiet, unless spoken to.  The older folks would talk to me, but I couldn't understand them…Because they didn't speak English."  What did they speak," Sheehan asked her grandmother.  "The old language," she answered.  


According to former Chief Homer St. Francis, when he was a child, “the older folks,” the heads of these family bands used to meet around his father’s, and other kitchen tables, to discuss issues of mutual concern.  Although the young St. Francis was not privy to the intricacies of the (1940’s-early 1950’s?) discussions, he remembered that decision-making seemed to be informal, respectful (usually) and by consensus.  In addition, each core family band had, and in some cases maintains, its own distinguishing subsistence grounds along the Missisquoi River Valley; and protocols for admitting others into these subsistence grounds.  Fredeerick William Wiseman, the author's grandfather, used to visit Mr. Hakey, a Missisquoi patriarch, back in the 1950’s, whenever he wished to fish an “above the dam” section of the Missisquoi River with my father and me.  My grandfather (and my father after him) used to bring Mr. Hakey a present of a fishing lure, or some equivalent item of value as a sign of respect.  My family’s traditional fishing territory was “the reef” a linear, north trending ledge and boulder ridge on the bottom of Missisquoi Bay.  It was our responsibility to mark the north end of the reef for other fishermen with a red-painted wooden buoy (?-1979), or later (1979-1985) a plastic gallon milk-jug.  This “buoying the reef” tradition was maintained by my father every May until his death.  This history in my own family is evidence of resource partitioning and protocols for gaining permission from community leaders to use the resource zones -- persisting into living memory (mine!).  


In addition, family bands hunted and collected in partitioned floodplain and upland zones of the Missisquoi Valley.  These subsistence zones were long-term, spatially consistent and bounded within themselves, yet cut across existing property and town lines, and even the more fluid hunting and fishing areas of our Franco VT and Anglo VT neighbors.  These use areas often had seasonally occupied “cottages” or deer camps signing the core of the area -- from the “Grandma Lampman” territory (marked with an historical plaque) at Maquam on the shores of Lake Champlain, through the uplands between Swanton and Highgate (my grandmother’s family [the Ouimets’] area was Woods Hill/Marble Quarry Hill on the south shore of the Missisquoi River), and at least as far upriver as the St. Francis’ well-known Berkshire camp.  This distinctive, family band-based subsistence pattern is similar to that described by anthropologist Frank Speck in pp. 203 – 212 of Penobscot Man; a persistent Indigenous land use and tenure pattern that is repeated, and amplified in the other VT cultural regions.  In addition, there remain enduring nuances of hunting and fishing practice that signal Native heritage.  On Missisquoi Bay (Highgate, VT), Abenaki ice fishermen warm their fish-eye bait under their tongues, a practice considered “gross” by their Anglo and Franco-VT neighbors.  Every ice fisherman has strong personal feelings, positive or negative of this practice—and these feelings are repeatedly correlated with other familial traces of Native ancestry/tradition.  In addition, a unique subsistence tool also remains as evidence of local Native identity.

 

Figure 10. Wabanaki-style fish spear.
Maple wood with iron wire skewer, wrapping is new.
Ed (“Ned”) Hakey Swanton, VT, early 20th century.
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection

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Almost every museum in the Northeast has at least one of the distinctive Wabanaki-style three pronged fish spears used by the Micmacs, Maliseets, Passamaquoddy Native People of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.  Mr. Hakey of Swanton had a wooden example that he “used before the war (WWII) below the dam in Swanton” to spear eels. This example is completely different than Euroamerican eel or fish spears, which have all-metal heads with several barbed prongs, and lack the distinctive “guides”.  



Post 1960's


Figure 11.  1950’s-60’s Hand loomed beaded leather brow-band.  
The earliest known artifact of the Missisquoi Abenaki renaissance.
Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


It was in Swanton’s Back Bay where the family band leaders met around the kitchen tables that began Missisquoi’s well documented cultural revival in the 1960’s (Figure 11) and then expanded into larger community wide events in the 1970's and 1980's.  Research done for the St. Francis/Sokoki Band recognition petition to the federal government, showed a statistically significant rate of endogamy (in-marriage) in the Back Bay community at this time – evidence of mid-century ethnic/cultural distinctness and a communal separation from the larger Franklin County, VT "Anglo" community.  

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Figure 11.  Mid 1970’s Harvest Supper, Missisquoi
Image, Wôbanakik Heritage Center collection


For ease of communication, this indigenous community abandoned the “St. Francis Indian” appellation (except for political purposes), and adopted the Euroamerican term “Abenaki” with the English (Á­ben­aki) rather than Quebequois (A­ben'­aki) pronunciation.  The “Á­ben­aki” accenting became a cultural code for VT polity, and so has been a functional political/geographic separator of local Indigenous people, lineages and polities from their Quebec brethren and their supporters.  As the early focus of the VT Abenaki renaissance, Missisquoi became a cultural magnet for other Vermont families and communities that retained a Native identity or memory of antecedent familial Native identity.  Before the 1990’s, it was the sole externally recognized Abenaki political entity in Vermont, and so attracted citizenship throughout the state and beyond its borders.  It was a huge influence on other VT Indigenous regional leadership such as Nulhegan’s Nancy Coté, or Koasek’s Nancy Millette, as they repeatedly told me over the years.  Since the 1970’s there have been political splinter groups and schisms at Missisquoi caused by inter-personal rivalries and philosophical differences.  These sub-groups either disintegrated (such as the Traditional Bands of Mazipskoik) or are family-based, and were therefore not a “tribe.”  As the only 21st century “tribal” polity at Missisquoi; the St. Francis/Sokoki Band, with a proud history, a well established tribal census roll, headquarters and museum, as well as cultural and economic programs, and well represents its legacy.  


Conclusion

In this section of the website, I have provided rich and layered evidence of a community that was seen as Native by European observers over the years.  It has left internally consistent archaeological and physical anthropological evidence of a corporate entity that had enough collective control over land resources to maintain a multi-generation 19th century burial ground.  Missisquoi exhibits an extended riverine land use and tenure system that mirrors that of other regional native peoples.  Missisquois were specifically described as Indian craftspeople throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, confirmed by remaining ethnically-distinctive baskets and tools.  There remains abundant anecdotal memory in the community of distinctive “Indian” artifacts and language.  The modern “St. Francis/Sokoki Band” polity is composed of tribal rolls of community members whose ancestry descends from these 19th and 20th century “Indians;” exercises internal political power, and represents its citizens in local and state Euroamerican politics.



( Copyright © 2012, The content of this page, text and images are the property of Frederick Matthew Wiseman. Missisquoi Abenaki Tribal Council has been given authorization to use this article, text and images in full, on their website.)