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The Champlain Valley’s cultural history began nearly 11,300 years ago before present (BP), when Paleoindian hunter-gatherer groups moved into the region, which was coincident with the end of the last ice age as the Laurentian ice sheet retreated north. Native Americans have been living in the Champlain Valley continuously from that time to the present. The lake has served as a resource for food, water, tools, spiritual guidance, and transportation. Throughout prehistory, Native Americans lived in small campsites and villages along the lake’s shoreline, and employed specific techniques and tools to extract the lake’s resources. Vestiges of their occupation sites and lakeside workshops have been discovered throughout the Champlain Valley.
An unknown number of prehistoric sites now lie submerged as a result of changing lake levels and isostatic rebound in the Champlain Valley. These sites have not been documented, and this lack of information has greatly affected modern understanding of Native Americans’ utilization of the lake’s resources. There is no doubt that Lake Champlain and its preceding water bodies have played a significant role in the lives of all Native Americans living in the Champlain Valley.
Paleoindians were probably the first to use watercraft on Lake Champlain, then part of the Champlain Sea, while hunting and fishing along the lakeshore and presumably built small skin craft to harvest the lake’s food resources. Generations of their descendents, the Archaic and subsequently the Woodland peoples, built small craft from tree bark, skins, or hollowed-out logs. Unfortunately, few examples of prehistoric craft have been found, and little is known about their design, appearance, or use. Evidence of bark and skin boats has not been found in the archaeological record, since the organic materials from which they were made are not preserved well in the climate of this area. At least a dozen dugout canoes made of wood, however, have been found in lakes and ponds throughout the Champlain Valley. These simple boats probably date between the Late Woodland period (2900-400 BP) and the nineteenth century .
Paleoindian Period (11,300-9000 BP)
The first Native Americans, called Paleoindians, probably moved into the Champlain Valley from the Hudson Valley after the last continental glacier began to retreat from the region about 11,300 years BP. Marine waters had already flooded the Champlain and St. Lawrence Lowlands, creating the Champlain Sea before the Paleoindians arrived in the area. The movement of these early hunter-gatherer groups seems to have been gradual, brought about by both population growth and the northward migration of animals and plants in the wake of the receding Laurentian ice sheet. The tundra environment of the Champlain Valley at this time supported a lush growth of tundra vegetation, attracting a wide variety of animals including mastodons, woolly mammoths, and large herds of caribou. The first Paleoindian settlers in the region were likely hunters of these large herd animals.
Paleoindian groups exploited large resource areas, including upland and lowland regions, and likely followed the seasonal migration routes of the tundra’s herd animals. These animals moved back and forth between the upland and lowland regions along major watercourses. Isolated Paleoindian projectile points are most frequently found near these drainages and along remnants of the Champlain Sea shoreline. Paleoindian campsites, however, are never found in the bottoms of river valleys, but rather on well-drained sand, including old marine beaches, deltas, and outwash terraces along the valley’s margins. Sites with a good view of the surrounding territory and sometimes in close proximity to a wetland also seem to have been preferred by early hunter-gatherer groups in the Champlain Valley. Some Paleoindian sites at the southern end of the lake may be submerged under the present Lake Champlain, due to subsequent changes in the basin’s water level. Additionally, stone tools at the Reagen site in Highgate demonstrate that Paleoindian groups covered large areas in their seasonal rounds since they either traded or sought out lithic sources from New York, New Hampshire and Maine.
During the Paleoindian Period, Native American populations in the Champlain Valley seem to have been small, and densities were probably less than ten people per 62 mi2 (100 km2). Based on recent studies of northern hunters, these populations were probably broken up into small family groups, such as single families or small bands consisting of a few related families. Perhaps most of the people lived near the Champlain Sea, with its rich marine resources. No direct evidence has been found to suggest how Paleoindians used the marine resources of the Champlain Sea, but it is unlikely that they ignored the large populations of seabirds, fish, and marine mammals.
Though very few Paleoindian sites have been discovered throughout the Champlain Valley new discoveries are constantly modifying what is know about these early groups of people. It was not until 2004 that the first Late Paleoindian site, the Mazza site, was identified in the Lake Champlain area and indeed, this period remains a mystery for much of the Northeast. Much of the speculation about Paleoindian diet, technology, settlement patterns, site types, and religion is based on a small number of sites and the ethnographic records of modern arctic and tundra hunters. It is unknown at this point if any cultural resources from this period exist submerged in Lake Champlain or on its present day shoreline.
Archaic Period (9000-2900 BP)
As the climate became warmer in the Champlain Valley, the Paleoindian way of life adapted to the changes in the wildlife and plants of the region. Over 100 species of large mammals, such as the mammoth, mastodon, and moose-elk, became extinct throughout the Paleoindian period. Other animals, including the caribou and musk ox, moved north with the tundra as the Champlain Valley became densely forested. The animals upon which Paleoindians depended for food, clothing, and shelter were no longer available to them, and Paleoindian groups had to adapt to the forested environment that was developing in the region. The animals that remained in the forest were generally smaller, more solitary in their habits, and not as easy to hunt. By 9,000 years BP, Paleoindians had developed a new way of life that is today called the Archaic culture, which characterizes the period from 9000 to 2900 BP. This period is further divided into the Early Archaic Period (9000-7500 years BP), the Middle Archaic Period (7500-600 years BP), and the Late Archaic Period (6000-2900 years BP). These subdivisions are largely a reflection of changes that archaeologists have noted in artifact assemblages and subsistence strategies.
The Archaic people in the Champlain Valley subsisted by hunting, gathering, and fishing for a wide variety of wild foods. The equipment employed for the procurement and processing of food included a variety of stone, native copper, shell, antler, and bone implements, some of which were introduced from outside sources or traded. Much of the equipment associated with procuring and processing land-based foods seems to have come from peoples from the south and west of the Champlain Valley, and techniques used for processing river and lake foodstuffs may have come in part from the Maritime people to the north and east. The presence of a large variety of woodworking tools in Archaic assemblages suggest that watercrafts were used for travel, fishing, and probably other animal procurement activities. The form of these boats is unknown, but it is assumed that dugout and possibly skin and bark canoes were constructed and used.
The archaeological record suggests that Archaic people did not range over large areas as did the Paleoindians before them. Instead, these people carried out most of their activities in specific watersheds, utilizing the available watercourses as transportation highways. Lake Champlain, no doubt, played a very important role as a transportation route between watersheds. The lake also served as a source of food, water, and as a highway for the transport of ideas, people, and materials. The people of the Champlain Basin were highly influenced by groups in the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Valley, the Maritime Provinces, the Connecticut River Valley, and the Hudson Valley. The quick movement of ideas and technologies was possible through the use of watercraft, since the geomorphology of the Champlain Valley allowed for easy access by water to these surrounding geographic regions. Cultural ties between Native American groups strengthened throughout the Archaic Period. The cultural boundary between the Archaic people of the Champlain Valley and those to the west appears to have been the Adirondack Mountains, as evidenced by differences in their material culture.
During the Archaic Period, the Champlain Basin experienced its lowest water levels since the last ice age. No doubt numerous prehistoric sites lie submerged in Lake Champlain today, but no effort has yet been undertaken to determine their location or condition. If buried under the right conditions, any organic material may be extremely well preserved. Such a situation would allow archaeologists a glimpse of the perishable objects involved in the lives of Archaic people of the Champlain Valley and may yield an enormous amount of data about Archaic peoples and their interactions with Lake Champlain.
Woodland Period (2,900-400 years BP)
The Woodland Period is considered the most complex prehistoric period in the Champlain Valley. By this time, Native Americans in the region had developed a culture based on the selective borrowing of ideas and innovations from other people with whom they had come in contact over the past 9000 years. The people of the Woodland Period were becoming more sedentary in their living habits, and established substantial settlements on the floodplains of major rivers, such as the Winooski and Otter Creek. The subsistence patterns of prehistoric Champlain Valley residents gradually changed from mobile hunting and fishing parties to a dependence upon horticulture and the gathering of a greater diversity and quantity of wild plant foods. Long-distance trade decreased dramatically, which suggests an apparent isolation of Champlain Valley residents at this time. This period is further divided into the Early Woodland Period (2900-2100 years BP), the Middle Woodland Period (2100-950 years BP), and the Late Woodland Period (950-400 years BP), based upon changes in artifact assemblages and subsistence strategies.
Native American dugout canoe, circa 1450 AD, found in Shelburne Pond, Shelburne, VT.
At the beginning of the Woodland Period, the Iroquois seem to have moved in and asserted their dominance over the Brewerton people living west of the Champlain Valley. By Middle Woodland times, Lake Champlain had become the boundary between two cultural groups, the Iroquois to the west and the Western Abenaki, another distinct group, to the east. By the Late Woodland or Contact Period, the Champlain Valley was home to the St. Lawrence Iroquois, the Western Abenaki, the Mahican, and the Mohawk. Currently archaeologists do not understand when, where, or why the different groups moved into the Champlain Valley, since boundaries between the Champlain Valley’s native groups are impossible to define with the current archaeological data. Further analysis of the archaeological data collected throughout the valley must be completed in order to better understand each of these groups and how they utilized Lake Champlain and its natural resources.
Read more about the history of Lake Champlain by visiting the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s website.