The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 14, 2000


Native Americans Set Standard for the Art of Living

This is the second in a series of articles featuring the sites that will be part of the Art of Living in Carlisle Tour on September 23.

According to Y2K census data, Carlisle has 4,923 inhabitants. Only one person is a Native American Indian. Over 500 years ago, however, American Indians were the first and only people to populate this area.

The Carlisle Cultural Council will pay homage to the town's early history at the Art of Living extravaganza scheduled for Saturday, September 23. That day, Great Brook Farm State Park will feature some of the earliest evidence of civilization in Carlisle. The American Indian sites include a large ceremonial slab and a rock formation. The colonial sites consist of old cellar holes and the foundation of a garrison house. The earliest portion of the current headquarters of the State Park at 984 Lowell Road originally served as the North School House.

Rebecca Markey, park interpretive ranger and resident expert on American Indian civilization, will be on hand for scheduled tours of the sites on the Woodchuck Trail and the Garrison Loop. Most artifacts found in Carlisle, such as spears and arrowheads, relate to hunting, but did American Indians actually live in Carlisle?

"I think native people were probably living here," said Markey. "There's all sorts of artifacts showing inhabitation collected from the Lowell/Tyngsboro/Dracut State Forest which is not so far from here. It's only six or seven miles. Probably this area would have sustained a small community because the soil is good, the terrain is pretty level, and the hunting was good. What we call Tophet Swamp here at the park could have very well been an area where they resided. There are islands, and they often resided in swampy areas for protection."

Markey, well read on the topic, first became involved with American Indians by leading an educational program in Chelmsford with an elder in the Mohawk nation. She conducted a funded study for Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife on the Merrimack River and the Indian tribes that settled around it. Her contacts have grown considerably, and she hopes to have an American Indian present at the scheduled tours to share cultural points, lore, and respond to questions.

Dating before recorded history

An archeological survey conducted at the Great Brook Farm State Park by Timelines, Inc. in 1995 identified numerous intact archeological sites and verified two important American Indian ones that lie within the park boundaries. The study dated these sites to the Woodland Period (3,000-450 years before present).

The American Indians in Carlisle would have belonged to the Pennacook Nation. This included all of New Hampshire, northeastern Massachusetts, eastern Vermont, and southern and western Maine. The nation encompassed at least 15 tribes with 50-100 people each. Some regional tribes included the Nashaway (along the Nashua River), Pawtucket (north side of Merrimack up to the Nashua River), and the Wamesit (Concord and Merrimack River confluence in Lowell). The tribes spoke an Algonquin dialect and did not have a written language.

In the year 1600, the Pennacook Nation numbered about 18,000 members. By the year 1612, just 1,800 remained. Only one in ten natives survived the exposure to disease, primarily smallpox, carried by the colonial settlers.

The first of the American Indian landmarks on the tour is the ceremonial stone, located off the Garrison Loop trail. Some town residents have referred to the slab as an ancient corn grinding stone, but no one could explain how the huge rock cracked into three pieces. Archeologists and local historians dispute this belief as mistaken, and contend that the American Indians used the stone for ceremonies, offerings, and perhaps animal sacrifice. They believe that settlers deliberately destroyed the site in fear.

"The archeological report really shows that the likelihood of its being a grinding stone are very slim," said Markey. "It's probably, in my opinion, more likely to have been used for offerings...maybe incense burnt to the Great Spirit. There's an indentation at the top of rock. It makes perfect sense that the colonials would have tried to destroy it to destroy [the Indians'] religious worship."

The second site is commonly known as Turtle Rock, located off the Woodchuck Trail. The stones resemble the shape of the amphibian, but this is not by mere chance. Due to the positioning of the figure toward the summer sunrise solstice and the regard for the turtle by the Indians, historians recognize this as a man-made structure. Nonetheless, the settlers appear to have been unaware of it.

"Turtle Rock is not that obvious," said Markey. "It was not noticed here until the '80s." Due to their own closely held traditions and the early limitations of sign language, the American Indians did not share all their culture with the settlers.

Making way for colonial mills

Near the native landmarks are remnants of colonial civilization. There are five cellar holes known as "The City." These colonial foundations date back to the late seventeenth century.

While it may seem counter-intuitive today that the settlers would have built housing near a recognized American Indian ceremonial area, they were probably more concerned at the time with finding a good waterway site for a mill. Then the colonials built homes near it. Not surprisingly, the local natives showed some hostility. There are also the remains of a garrison house where the settlers sought refuge during attacks. These structures had rather small windows and walls reinforced with brick.

The area belonged to Chelmsford until the formation of Carlisle in 1805. The early settlers lived by developing small-scale farms and mills. The first mill, a fulling mill, washed new cloth to remove the remaining lanolin and dirt. It also shrank the weave of the cloth tighter.

Once the area was established as a viable location for milling, the settlers built other mills. These included hoop, corn, grist, and saw mills. The main families involved in the milling industry were the Barretts, the Robbins, and the Adams (not to be confused with earlier settler James Adams who built a mill near Spencer Brook off Concord Street in the mid-seventeenth century and then sold it to the Heald family). The last mills in Carlisle closed in the late nineteenth century.

Educating the young folk

With Carlisle established as a town, the inhabitants began to think like a community. The mill families recognized the importance of educating their children. They built the North School House in 1828. Although the town had constructed a rudimentary school house in the center in 1818, it rebuilt a more imposing brick edifice in 1848. The older North School House became commonly known as the oldest school in town. In fact, it is the only nineteenth century school still standing in town.

By 1888, Carlisle had closed the North School House. Modern machinery had made the mills obsolete, and many were abandoned. The North School House had just 11 students. After the closing, ten students went on to attend Billerica schools, and only one went to the Carlisle Red Brick Center School House.

Today the North School House serves as a visitor information room of the Great Brook Farm State Park. As with similar older sites in town, the owners of the building have expanded and remodeled the edifice many times. Nonetheless, one can still identify the original single-room brick school.

Spirit of nature lives on

Where are Carlisle's first inhabitants?

"We probably have more American Indian ancestry than we are aware of," said Markey. "At one point they did start intermarrying." She related that American Indians are matriarchal with family lines passed by the mother. Her own two great uncles, settling in Iowa, had a choice of marrying squaws when they took possession of land. One did, and thrived. The other refused and was killed.

"Although we don't view them in clusters on tribal compounds any more, there are a lot of native people that are still here and that still associate with each other," she continued. "Although a lot of the culture was lost, some of it is still intact. They still go through different ceremonies and rituals. In this particular area, there were whole tribes that were decimated and that were completely lost so there are probably not a lot of pure bloods."

"We have so much to learn from the native people," concluded Markey. "They are so in touch with nature, with the seasons, and with astronomy."

Carlisle inhabitants do love and respect nature. Ten percent of the town's area is protected as land. No other town in Massachusetts can make that claim.

The native spirit lives on.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito