On the Mouth of the Piscataqua: Unearthing the Rich History of Odiorne Point, Part 1
This post is the first installment in a series of articles on the history of Odiorne Point and the surrounding region, beginning with the Indigenous peoples who first inhabited the seacoast region 13,000 years ago. Future articles will deal with the fatal first contact with European colonial settlers, fishing and farming, the resort era and the complex history of the point in the 1900s. The catalyst for this series is Rye’s recognition of the 400th anniversary of David Thomson’s 1623 first European settlement at the point, but going forward this series also marks a commitment of SSC to going deeper into the rich human history of the area in the coming years. Please select the tag “OPSP History” to follow this story in our blog.
Hunter Stetz | History Naturalist, Seacoast Science Center
While we don’t have detailed information on Indigenous occupation in what is now Odiorne Point State Park and Rye, we do know that the New Hampshire Seacoast has been home to ancestors of various Wabanaki groups (the broader cultural sphere that includes Pennacook and Abenaki) and other Indigenous peoples for at least 10,000 years. Back then, the coastline was located roughly where the Isles of Shoals are and the environment was tundra-like. The people who resided here were highly mobile hunter-gatherers who foraged plants and hunted mastodon, caribou, black bears, hares, beaver, and moose. We know more about their hunting practices than clothing, gender roles, and social organization because stone tools are all that is left in the archaeological record.
By 9,000 years before the present, archaeological findings suggest regionally distinct cultures were developing. Over the millennia, a warming climate facilitated a growing population that made seasonal rounds within a circumscribed region in accordance with food availability. A wide variety of flora and fauna were hunted, foraged, and fished. It is believed that coastal communities began utilizing marine resources like shellfish by 7,500 years ago.
Around 3,000 years ago, pottery was developed and more Indigenous peoples coalesced in semi-sedentary villages. Familiar environments like our salt marshes also emerged around this time. Communities were relatively egalitarian when compared to other Indigenous cultures. Due to the extent of autonomy and intermarriage between different extended families, cultural boundaries were very fluid.
The mouth of the Piscataqua River was a particularly favorable location for residence because three major environmental zones (interior forest, estuarine, and coastal) are easily accessible, offering a wide variety of food and other resources. Crops such as corn, beans, and squash (known as “the Three Sisters”) were cultivated in favorable areas, such as the coast, by about 1,000 AD. Trade also grew more and more extensive, reaching across much of what is now the American northeast and Canadian southeast.
Though evidence isn’t as strong as in other parts of southern New Hampshire, Northshore Massachusetts and southern Maine, Indigenous presence in Rye (including the Isles of Shoals) has been documented in the archaeological record, documentary records, and oral tradition. It is believed that this general area constituted the Piscataquak community at the time of contact with Europeans. Samuel de Champlain noted dwellings, extensive farming, and upwards of 200 individuals living where we know of as Rye Harbor in the early 1600s. Natives of the area were already very familiar with Europeans by the time David Thomson made his home at what later became known as Odiorne Point in 1623. Prior to his arrival, however, rapid population loss was already underway due to the spread of various pathogens introduced by contact with Europeans. It is estimated that upwards of 90% of coastal Indigenous communities died from these epidemics.
Increasing numbers of settler-colonists throughout the 17th century led to intense struggles over resources. Though Native societies verged on collapse in coastal regions, they quickly adapted to the new world theater, acquiring firearms, iron tools, and sometimes European ships! Various Indigenous groups from Nova Scotia to Vermont (primarily the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Abenaki) formed the Wabanaki Confederacy in the 1680s to more effectively maintain their sovereignty and access to resources. Ultimately, the Abenaki-Pennacook lost their foothold as a unified entity in southern New Hampshire. However, some families quietly integrated into the fledgling American society while privately maintaining many of their cultural practices.
Much of New Hampshire, including Rye, was also part of modified seasonal rounds well into the 20th century, selling woven baskets and other goods to locals. By the 21st century, changing attitudes regarding Indigenous peoples empowered individuals and families in our communities to be more vocal about their Native identity. This has facilitated greater advocacy for Indigenous recognition and a general “seat at the table” in the State of New Hampshire moving forward.
Indigenous history was never as simple as most of us learned in school. There is so much more for all of us to learn!