Did Native Americans *really* not climb the White Mountains?
September 7, 2017 9:02 AM   Subscribe

So I'm reading Forest and Crag, Laura and Guy Waterman's excellent history of hiking in the hills and mountains of New England. I'm mostly really liking it, but at the beginning the book makes an assertion that I found unsatisfyingly dismissive: that pre-contact Native Americans did not climb in the mountains of New England. I would like to dig deeper into that and try to figure out how true that claim really is. Can you help me?

Any kind of information is helpful. I'm certainly interested in books and other accounts that describe the history of native people in the mountains of New England (especially the Whites), as well as any personal knowledge that MeFites might have. I definitely am on the side of thinking that the authors are making a pretty dubious assertion, but I'm prepared to be convinced either way.

It just seems bizarre to me that a people could live in and among the mountains for many thousands of years and not go up them, especially since these are people who lived very close to the land and knew it well. The Watermans claim that native people were superstitious and fearful of the mountaintops, which sounds like basically an unexamined stereotype to me—after all, European colonists were fearful of the mountains as well, but they started climbing them less than a hundred years after settling in the area. Also the authors point to a lack of archaeological evidence on New England mountaintops (compared to what is found on some of the mountains out West) which, while possibly true, doesn't strike me as particularly conclusive.

But maybe they're right! Maybe I'm projecting my own values and aesthetics onto pre-contact Native Americans, maybe I'm buying into the "noble savage" stereotype which would incline me to think of native people as seeking out the same kind of spiritual fulfillment that I myself go to the mountaintops to find. Maybe to native people the mountains were just inconveniently large lumps in the landscape, dangerous to go into and the abode of terrible and frightening spirits. I suppose it's possible.

Can anybody help to either confirm or deny any of this? It's been in the back of my mind for the last week or so and I'd love to get some resolution on this matter. Thanks very much in advance!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Passaconaway in the White Mountains has something on this, attributing religious significance to the summit of Mt. Washington with the caveat that folks "seldom" or "seldom, if ever" visited it. It references page 319 in The White Hills; Their Legends, Landscape, and Poetry, which makes the claim that there was a religious/cultural prohibition about going above the tree line. Both sources seem dubious. To widen your hypotheses a little, I'd guess the prohibition could be made up (either by settlers for reasons you've articulated or by a Pennacook storyteller embellishing in a way that appealed to settlers or via some misunderstanding), it could have been overgeneralized from a prohibition specific to Mt. Washington, it might not really have been a big deal even if there was a cultural prohibition, it could have just been a reasonable/practical thing to tell your kids to avoid doing, or it could have been true but unproblematic since all religions have comparable prohibitions. Perhaps someone here would know more.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:19 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]

While I'm not going to claim any specific knowledge or expertise on New England history, this looks like a case where looking critically at the facts is helpful, and I do have some expertise in that. Now, as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And it appears you think this is an extraordinary claim.

So the first step is to decide exactly what is being claimed. Is the claim that as a general rule, most native Americans did not visit the mountaintops? Because that is probably true of modern New Englanders as well. Very few New Englanders actually climb mountains as a percent of the population.

Or is it that no one ever went up to the mountains for thousands of years before European settlers arrived? Which is a much more extraordinary claim.

So if you think they're implying the latter, what evidence would be necessary to prove that? Is it even possible for such evidence to exist?

I think that, given what you've presented, the strongest claim that can be made from evidence is that people in New England brought less stuff into the mountains than people further West. And that's even assuming that the items they would bring leaves the same archaeological record, and the White Mountains have equally good conditions for preserving the items left.

Whether that can be attributed to a cultural reason would depend on whether there's a credible source for specific legends or stories that would show a cultural reason for avoiding the mountains. I think you are right to be suspicious of accounts from settlers in the area of Native Americans being "superstitious." And you would also want to know that similar stories didn't exist in cultures that we do know visited mountains, because if lots of people have stories about bad things that happen in the mountains, but visit them anyway, it's harder to say that these people didn't.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:35 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]

It just seems bizarre to me that a people could live in and among the mountains for many thousands of years and not go up them, especially since these are people who lived very close to the land and knew it well. The Watermans claim that native people were superstitious and fearful of the mountaintops, which sounds like basically an unexamined stereotype to me—after all, European colonists were fearful of the mountains as well, but they started climbing them less than a hundred years after settling in the area.

But Europeans did not climb their own mountains until the eighteenth century; the discovery of the joys of mountain-climbing was part of the whole invention of the "sublime" that kicked off Romanticism. Until then, mountains were just seen as unpleasant, unfarmable parts of the landscape. You are indeed projecting your own values and aesthetics onto pre-contact Native Americans, but that's perfectly understandable, because we all take those values and aesthetics for granted after several centuries of being awash in them.
posted by languagehat at 11:02 AM on September 7 [23 favorites]

Certainly Paleo-Indians used the mountains. The White Mountains National Forest site says this:
Systematic archaeological testing has located 21 prehistoric Native American sites on the WMNF. A complex of Paleo-Indian sites on private land at the base of the northern slopes of the White Mountains indicates people were in the area 10,000 years ago.
Perhaps there is lore about more recent usage. I'd look into archaeological papers if possible. I do know that the Whites were the main boundary between Eastern and Western Abenaki communities, and that Eastern people spent most of their time in the river valleys and at the coast, not for woo-woo reasons but because they were better places to live and that's where the food was.

Mount Washington has a very strong presence and people still feel awe around it today. Peaking mountains is a European thing in the first place. I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a whole lot of going up to the peaks, for reasons both practical and spiritual. But I'd be hesitant about white people making too much of it.

You might like to try reaching out to the Abenaki communities of today for some perspective. It can be difficult to locate tribal cultural monitors but you could start following links:

posted by Miko at 11:03 AM on September 7 [13 favorites]

The first contacts with Native Americans in New England all happened in the 1600s, with little or no documentation. However, in the Western US and Canada there is better documentation of the early contacts that happened into the 1800s there. So for example, we have relatively detailed accounts of how the tribes in the Pacific Northwest regarded their mountains. Those are bigger mountains, but it seems plausible that the New England tribes had similar beliefs.

Also, Europeans held similar beliefs about some of their mountains, such as the Alps, many of which were not climbed until the 1800s or later.
posted by beagle at 11:08 AM on September 7

We should note that the White Mountains and the Appalachians in general are a comparatively old, low, eroded mountain range, and so are a completely different category from the Alps. If you look at the list by prominence of all peaks in New England only the top five even break 1 km in prominence; compare with this list of "Ultras" for the Alps, which gets up to 44 peaks of greater than 1500m of prominence. In the White Mountains only the very tallest peak, Mount Washington, even qualifies as an ultra-prominent peak.

And actually, from the first link, speaking in relation to Mount Washington: None of the other peaks of the Presidential Range are on this list because, while several have elevations above 5,000 ft (1,520 m), none has a prominence of even 1,000 ft (300 m), because they are connected to Washington by ridge lines that are nowhere below 4,900 ft (1,490 m).

(My point being that comparisons with the development of the Alpinist sport/hobby in Europe as a threshhold is probably not a useful one. On some sunny summer days here in the 21st century in New Hampshire the more easily-climbed peaks will become too crowded at the top because it's an easy spur-of-the-moment hike even for a completely unprepared person.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:44 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]

I did field work in a part of Guatemala where indigenous people have this sort of taboo on some caves — they're considered sacred, dangerous, and off-limits. There were definitely stories of the form "Once, when I was a kid, someone went into this cave and X bad thing happened to them." So it's not like literally nobody ever set foot in them. But traditional communities there definitely didn't have a tradition of spelunking or taking tours of caves or anything like that, and the fact that gringos sometimes wanted to hang out in a cave just Because It's There struck them as weird and perverse.

I imagine there are easily-spelunkable parts of caves in Guatemala that literally no human has ever been inside, just because all the humans who live nearby think that would be a really weird thing to invest your time and energy in.

I don't know if this is a perfect analogy, or even a good one. But imagine if suddenly North America started getting a bunch of tourists from this one particular country who were really, really eager to camp out overnight in graveyards. Well, it's not like nobody ever does that here. Sometimes someone does it on a dare (though damn, that's a pretty heavy dare), or because they're homeless. And it's not like most North Americans literally believe there's anything supernatural about graveyards, or anything bad that will happen to someone who sleeps in one. But encountering a culture that was actively excited about doing it — and doing it in our graveyards — would probably weird a lot of us out, and we'd probably think they were being strange and morbid and disrespectful.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:52 AM on September 7 [13 favorites]

Wobbuffet touches on a good point that I didn't articulate well in my original question. One of the problems I have with the Watermans' thesis is that the sources they use (some of which are the same ones that Wobbuffet mentions in their answer) are colonialist sources, generally a couple of degrees of separation away from actual Native American interlocutors, and frequently with an obvious bias toward painting Europeans as brave and rational, and natives as cowardly and superstitious. That kind of bias even appears in Darby Field's personal account of his expedition to the summit of Mt Washington in 1642; he clearly wants to portray himself as the hero and leader and his native guides as cowardly followers, which find pretty damn dubious. I haven't run into any accounts that directly reference native voices or oral histories, just the accounts and chronicles of European explorers and promoters who definitely had some pretty serious biases on full display in their writing.

Basically (sorry for the long update) I would be particularly interested in any native sources, accounts or records or archaeological finds coming from Native American communities, rather than ones filtered through the lens of Eurocentrism circa the 17th-19th centuries. That lens is precisely what is obscuring my ability to decide if I believe this claim or not, and the Watermans' lack of interest in pushing through that is what I found most unsatisfying about their thesis.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:03 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]

Oh and yes, the claim that the Watermans make (and which seems to be the same claim made by the likes of Darby Field and Thomas Starr King before them) is a pretty flat "Indians did not do this, period." That is a pretty bold, almost naive claim to make and is part of what contributes to my ongoing skepticism.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:05 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

Not sure if this is helpful, but the story of Chocorua ends with him climbing the mountain that bears his name, and dying at the summit.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:17 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

Some random Googlings got me the catalog entry for an article with a promising-sounding title: "Beyond the Village: Assessing Upland Contexts during the Late Woodland Period" from the Newsletter of the New York Archaeological Council; maybe if you have academic access to libraries you could find the full article somewhere.
posted by XMLicious at 12:21 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

If it were me with these questions, I'd try to contact actual Abenaki people at the links that Miko helpfully posted.

You might also want to search "indigenous archaeology," plus location search terms ("New Hampshire," or "mountains" or whatever). Looking those up turned up the following:

1. a book called Cross-Cultural Collaboration: Native Peoples and Archaeology in the Northeastern United States, which includes the chapter "Green Mountain Stewardship: One Landscape, Multiple Histories," about "The traditional Western Abenaki homeland [which] encompasses a large geographical area consisting of what is now the entire state of New Hampshire, all of Vermont . . . "

and googling "Green Mountain Stewardship: One Landscape, Multiple Histories" brought me to

2. the Green Mountain & Finger Lakes National Forests page, which states, "The following account was written in conjunction with members of the Abenaki. . . . In the spirtual realm, mountain regions (particularly summits) have been used for religious purposes since time immemorial. The Abenaki people were no exception and recognize sacred places as part of the experience in the mountains. . . . " The page lists articles that might give more details or leads.

Also, Zac Robinson is a professor of mountain history and culture who, this fall, is also teaching a course on indigenous-settler relations in the Canadian context. I think Canadian is his specialty, but he's a climber, so odds are he's hiked and climbed in the White Mountains himself and may have knowledge about indigenous peoples' mountain pursuits here, too.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:39 AM on September 8 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if Darby Field was one of the sources claiming that the summit of Mount Washington had religious significance but in this brief tour of a "Discovering New Hampshire Exhibit" at the museum of the New Hampshire Historical Society, the presenter relating the story states that his Abenaki guides objected to going to the summit because it was dangerous.
posted by XMLicious at 9:27 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

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