About Keene and its Native Inhabitants

The City of Keene is located in the south west corner of New Hampshire, just 16 miles from the Connecticut River and Vermont border. Keene’s geography is shaped by three surrounding hills and a glacial lake that drained nearly 10,000 years ago. The main body of water in Keene is the Ashuelot River. The river runs 64 miles through the south west corner of New Hampshire starting in Washington, New Hampshire and emptying into the Connecticut River in Hindsdale, New Hampshire. The river provides plenty of nutrients to the valley in Keene, making it’s interior placement an ideal location for farming.

The city was a named Upper Ashuelot under a Massachusetts Land Grant to the English Colonists.

Half a century later, New Hampshire granted a charter and renamed the city Keene.

We’ve discovered that Sokoki inhabited the land before English Colonists. In one historical document of Keene, these people are referred to as “Ashuelot Indians.” These Sokoki left Keene in response to 18-century English Colonists.

[Use this Google map to explore Keene and it’s surrounding rivers, roads, and towns]

Map of South-West New Hampshire, Highlighting the Ashuelot River and Connecticut River

Ashuelot River connecting to the Connecticut River. Screenshot from GoogleMaps Styling Wizard. Edited with ScreenShot.net

Town Myth of the Keene, New Hampshire

One of our class assignments was to take a look into the town’s myth on the disappearance of the Western Abenaki and Sokoki which unveiled an incredible finding on the age old question: Where are they now?

To understand the history of the land that Keene State College sits on, we first have to understand the land from Native Americans point of view. We do this by looking at the misinterpretation of who, what, when, where, and why and seek how these concepts affected the Native Americans of this area. We mention the misinterpretation first and foremost because it is this precise misunderstanding that has caused the demise of the Abenaki to become forgotten and all but missing in New Hampshire’s history books. We also take in oral history, gather reading references and documents that reflect the Native and colonist’s viewpoint, and collectively combine what we have learned of the local Native Americans with that of what we’ve amassed throughout the semester thus far.

Below we mention two local myths and then provide our rebuttal, or a reply if you would, to that myth in the hopes of shedding light on a more accurate account of the events that happened during that time.

A fictional novel written by author Ernest Hebert

Myth: Colonial and Native American conflicts started in 1746 with the kidnap of Nathan Blake.

Reply: The reality is that this is soundly unfounded as there is documented proof of numerous conflicts and exchanges between the English colonists and Native Americans prior to 1746. In a book inspired by the dramatic history of Nathan Blake, the first frame house builder in Keene, New Hampshire, who was abducted and held as a slave in Canada, author Ernest Hebert writes a fictional novel recreating those years of captivity in the voice of Caucus Meteor, the fictional son of King Philip. Nathan Blake’s connection to Keene State College is such that the current Blake House on Keene States campus pays homage to the founder of Keene.

The Blake House on Keene State campus houses the Management majors.
Photo credit and courtesy of Jeniffer Afualo-Robinson.

What we’ve discovered is that the first Native Americans in the area were known locally as the Ashuelot Indians. The Ashuelot Indians are better known as the Abenaki who belong to the Wabanaki Confederacy. This group did not leave collectively, however, upon or before the arrival of the colonists. Author Gordon Day, points out that the Abenaki often traveled to numerous locales based on the changes in the season. Warmer, summer days would bring them closer to the coast and while colder, winter months would push them inland as they sought shelter from the cold.

Although it may seem to the colonists that the Abenaki fled before initial contact, there are more documents to prove otherwise. Yet these documents are not readily known or discussed.

Myth: The Native Americans never returned to this land after the arrival of the colonists.

Reply: Also false. Keene’s Native American community didn’t vanish, as myth would have you believe. Many died from colonist-host diseases and wars, some unfortunately enslaved, and others hid in plain sight. The Abenaki “disappeared” by marrying into colonists families. Even having done so, they were faced with extreme adversity of their cultural background and forced to hide or move. By hiding in plain sight, the Abenaki had to neglect who they were as a people and assimilate to the colonist life style. They couldn’t practice their Native American traditions or speak their native language. It is believed that eugenics was practiced at this time, as well, in order to rid the colonist population of Native American bloodline as a result of these inter-racial marriages.

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