Abenakis lived near major rivers of northern New England and southern Quebec in the early seventeenth century. There were perhaps 10,000 eastern and 5,000 western Abenakis at that time. They spoke dialects of eastern Algonquin languages.
Western groups tended to believe in a supreme creator, and both eastern and Western Abenakis enjoyed a rich mythology. Many ceremonies were based on crops or the hunt as well as on greeting visitors, weddings, and funerals. At least among the western group, boys might seek the help of supernatural beings by obtaining a guardian spirit through a vision quest around the time of puberty. Dances were often associated with the spirit power. Shamans, often employing drums, foretold the future, located game, and cured illness.
Authority was gained as a result of leadership qualities, although there was also an element of patrilineal descent. Eastern chiefs of extended families were also sometimes shamans and after the seventeenth century were known as sagamores. Western groups recognized lifelong civil and war chiefs as well as a council of elders. The chiefs' powers were relatively limited.
Several related nuclear families living together made up a household, which was the basic social and economic unit. Descent was patrilineal. Social status was somewhat hierarchical, especially in the east, where chiefs might have more than one wife. In general, men provided animal foods, fought, and made tools and houses; women grew crops, gathered foods, prepared and cooked food, made clothing, and took care of children. Men engaged in frequent races and archery contests.
The use of stories and gentle group pressure was sufficient to discipline children. Marriage, considered official after gifts were given to the bride's family, was celebrated by feasting and dancing (as were many occasions). The dead were buried as soon as possible with weapons and/or tools for use in the afterlife.
Villages were located along streams and, among the western group, near meadows. Easterners lived in dome-shaped and square houses with pyramid roofs shingled with bark. There were smoke holes at the top, and deerskins covered the two doors. Westerners tended to live in birchbark longhouses with arched roofs. Several families lived in each house. They also built dome-shaped sweat lodges.
A shorter growing season and poorer soil meant that Abenakis depended less on crops than did southern Algonquins. In small family groups they hunted caribou, deer, and bear and trapped beaver and other small game as well as birds. Western groups called and ran down moose.
Women gathered berries, nuts, potatoes, and wild cherries and other fruits. They also boiled maple and birch sap for syrup and sugar. In spring, the eastern group fished along the coast for salmon, shad, eel, sturgeon, smelt, and other fish. They also gathered shellfish and other marine foods and hunted sea mammals. Fish were also important to the western group, who grew more corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.
Men made birchbark and dugout canoes, snowshoes, and toboggans. Many items, including pottery and bark containers, were carefully decorated. From the early seventeenth century on, wampum beads were used to record treaties and major council decisions. Abenakis generally traded with neighboring groups until the beginning of the fur trade period, when they traded furs for corn from southern New England. At that time, wampum became a medium of exchange and political status.
Women tanned skins to make most clothing. Men wore beaver pelt breechclouts and belts. Western women wore skirts and blouses in addition to cold weather gear. Both wore moccasins, leggings, moose hide coats, and fur robes and caps. Tunics were also common. Both sexes painted their faces and bodies and wore their hair long.
Abenakis originally came from the Southwest, according to their legends. They may have met early explorers such as Giovanni da Verrazano in the sixteenth century. They were definitely visited by Samuel de Champlain and others, including missionaries, early in the seventeenth century, shortly after which time the Abenakis became heavily involved in the fur trade. Western groups traded with the Dutch and entered the fur trade later than the eastern groups.
Almost immediately, many eastern villages disappeared as a result of war (mostly Micmac attacks) and disease. Among the survivors, material culture and subsistence economy changed rapidly with the availability of non-Native items. Indians and the French regularly intermarried. Western groups came into conflict with the Iroquois from the mid- to late seventeenth century. Abenakis first arrived in Quebec from Maine in the late seventeenth century. They lived on the banks of the Chaudière River before moving to their present territory in the early eighteenth century.
Abenakis were staunch allies of the French in the colonial wars, although eastern groups needed to cover their bases with the British in the interest of preserving trade. Fierce Abenaki fighters sacked many British settlements throughout New England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Western Abenakis, in particular, played a significant role in much of the history of New France, including fur trading, exploring, and fighting the Senecas and Mohawks.
The Indians steadily lost land during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Penob-scots slowly emerged as the strongest eastern tribe. When the town of Norridgewalk fell to the British in 1724, many Eastern Abenakis withdrew to Quebec. Although the Penobscots urged Abenaki neutrality in the French and Indian War, other Eastern Abenakis, now living in Quebec, fought with the French. The Penobscots were eventually drawn in: The treaty of 1763 marked the British victory and the Penobscot defeat. Meanwhile, after the fighting ended in 1763, Western Abenakis returned to their territory to find British squatters. They abandoned most of these lands after 1783, settling near a reserve on the Ste. Francois River in Quebec.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Western Abenakis sought to avoid anti-Indian sentiment by speaking French, selling ash splint baskets to tourists, and keeping to themselves. Some hunted in a large territory north of the Saint Lawrence River, and some returned to northern New England for seasonal cash work and subsistence activities. Many Western Abenakis attended Dartmouth College in the nineteenth century.
In 1941, the establishment of a wildlife refuge by the state of Vermont ended the people's ancient hunting and fishing rights. A postwar resurgence of the western group was based on controversies over fishing and hunting rights and a lack of official recognition. These groups held fish-ins to dramatize their situation. State recognition in 1976 was withdrawn the following year.