Franklin Pierce student, professor determine canoes appear to have been made by Native Americans

  • Michaela Topham, a senior studying anthropology at Franklin Pierce, poses for a portrait next to a pair of canoes that were recently carbon dated thanks to a grant from her senior thesis. —HANNAH SCHROEDER/SENTINEL STAFF

  • A pair of canoes, recently carbon dated thanks to a grant for Michaela Topham’s senior thesis, on display in the hallway in Marcucella Hall at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. —HANNAH SCHROEDER/SENTINEL STAFF

  • Professor of Anthropology Robert Goodby holds up a form with the carbon dating for a pair of canoes, outside Marcucella Hall at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. —HANNAH SCHROEDER/SENTINEL STAFF

Keene Sentinel 
Published: 4/19/2022 1:11:25 PM

Blame it on Indiana Jones, but talk of archaeology often conjures images of dry, dusty dig sites. Important finds, though, can also be found in the lakes and ponds right here in the Monadnock Region.

Robert Goodby, an archaeology professor at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, and anthropology student Michaela Topham recently found that a pair of dugout canoes on display at the university — which likely sat at the bottom of Laurel Lake in Fitzwilliam for hundreds of years — appear to have been made by Native Americans.

Goodby estimates that about 15 similar canoes have been recovered in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, mostly found at the bottom of lakes and ponds. Of those, he knows of only one canoe found in Maine about five years ago that clearly predates European contact, meaning it was likely made by Native Americans, he said. 

These kinds of canoes were so effective and well made by Abenaki people that once Europeans arrived, they copied the style, Goodby said. When they’re found today, it can be difficult to determine who made them.

"The Abenaki were the people who were here at the time of (European) contact, they are the people who today call this region their homeland, and from everything I've seen, the people who were here thousands of years ago were their ancestors," he said. "We have a record of pretty much continuous Native occupation here."

In the late 1960s, the two canoes were found at the bottom of Laurel Lake in Fitzwilliam, Goodby said, and are of the same style, length and wood. They may have been attached at one point, and were likely used for fishing and traveling. 

Laurel Lake is part of the Miller River drainage, which empties into the Connecticut River, Goodby said. From there, the Abenaki would have been able to travel across much of New England. 

Abenaki people and their ancestors lived in the vicinity of the lake, Goodby said. There's a recorded Native American site at nearby Sportsman Pond, and artifacts have been found throughout the region.

It was once common to weigh canoes down so they sat at the bottom of lakes to preserve them through the winter, Goodby explained. It was a better option than leaving them on shore, where getting wet and drying out again led to faster deterioration. Today, these canoes are sometimes found in the fall when water levels in lakes are reduced to protect people’s docks, or they might be found by snorkelers and divers, Goodby said.

One of the people who helped recover the canoes from Laurel Lake in the 1960s was Clifford Coles, who was Franklin Pierce's dean of students at the time. The university, even then, had an archaeology and anthropology department, so it was decided to bring the canoes to campus. That's where they've remained for more than 50 years, on display in the university's science building — until Topham, of Pepperell, Mass., came along for her senior thesis.

For her thesis, Topham has been studying archaeological sites and artifacts in the immediate area. In the fall, she led site digs near campus, and she’s now working with the Jaffrey Public Library to study artifacts in its collection to determine if they have ties to the site near the university, she wrote in an email.

As Topham dove into local archeology around the campus and researched how the Laurel Lake canoes were made and used, it seemed like a great time to get a better sense of when the canoes were built, Goodby said. 

Earlier this spring, Goodby applied for a grant from the university to send a small sample of the canoes' wood to Florida for radiocarbon dating. The results came back last month, revealing that the canoes were likely made between 1516 and 1674, strongly suggesting that they were indeed made by Native Americans. European settlements in the Monadnock Region began in the 1730s, according to Goodby.

Topham said that after four years of walking by the canoes at Franklin Pierce, it was very satisfying to get a better understanding of where they likely came from.

“It also helps us know the historical significance and value of what we have so the university can appreciate the history that they possess in their collections,” she said.

It’s far from the first archeological finding in the Monadnock Region that provides a glimpse at Native American life.

In late 2009, Goodby was an archaeological consultant for the Keene School District before construction began for the middle school on Maple Avenue. It’s a project he’s called “the best, most significant, most interesting site I’ve worked on,” where he discovered the oldest evidence of life in New England, dating back nearly 13,000 years ago.

The Laurel Lake canoes fall at the other end of the historical spectrum as they're relatively new, Goodby said, and there’s plenty of exciting work to do to fill in the story in between.

A private landowner and the towns of Jaffrey and Rindge have given the university permission to examine four locations around Contoocook Lake near campus, Goodby said. Even with minimal work so far, all four sites have been identified as Native American sites, he said, and the anthropology program has found artifacts dating back as far as 5,000 years ago.

“There really is a very, very rich history in this region … that’s just starting to come into focus,” he said.

Molly Bolan can be reached at 603-352-1234, Ext. 1436, or mbolan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly. These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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