PALEO-INDIAN ERA 12,000-9,000 B.P:
As the overall global climate warmed and the glaciers continued their retreat, the vegetative and animal species continued their reconquest of the denuded landscape. The visits of the first humans were not far off.
Understandably, little is known of the Valley's earliest Paleo-Indian visitors since few archaeological sites from this era have been identified. Also, we may never know how many sites have been eradicated simply by 350 years of human activity.
If these early explorers did find their way into our region before Lake Hitchcock drained there has been no evidence yet found of sites along the Lake's old shoreline. There is no evidence that the Lake itself could have been much of a food resource in what must have been an inhospitable environment. No evidence of any fish species has ever been discovered in the ancient lake sediments. Those archeological sites that have been identified tend to be along the old erosion terraces that the Connecticut River cut into the old Lake Hitchcock lakebed. This must be considered another indication that human habitation only occurred after the draining of the lake about 13,000 years ago.
ARCHAIC ERA (9000-3000 B.P.) and WOODLAND ERA (3000-500 B.P.):
Because there are more archeological sites to study, more is known about the Valley's inhabitants of the Archaic era. Current research suggests that about 1000 years ago the cultivation of crops began in the Valley. Archaeological evidence is inconclusive here in this region, but from research done in other areas of the state it seems clear organized cultivation had been a positive effect on population growth. A further consequence of cultivation may have been that more permanent settlements were established in the Valley, especially near productive fishing grounds.
As for even more recent historical periods, there is more surviving evidence as well as the written records of the "contact" period.
NATIVE TRAILS DURING THE CONTACT PERIOD:
One thing known for certain is that the Natives developed an extensive network of trails (See Map 4), which connected their main population cores in the Valley. Those cores were the Agawam settlement at current day Springfield, the Norwottuck settlements at today's Northampton and Hadley, the Pocomtuck settlement at today's Deerfield, and the Woronoco settlement at Westfield. See MAP 3.
This elaborate trail system also connected these Valley settlements with settlements in other parts of Massachusetts and adjacent states. This network probably existed for thousands of years and some historians maintain that this trail system was the greatest asset the Natives bequeathed to the European settlers. These carefully designed trails were created with an intimate knowledge of the local terrain in mind. They incorporated the shortest routes, most efficient ways over ridges, and the best places to ford rivers.
Two primary north/south trails ran through the Valley. Today's US-5 may have had much of its origins in some sections of the eastern trail that ran through Longmeadow and Springfield as well the trail on the west side of the Connecticut River. Here in Massachusetts the western trail ran from the Connecticut line through Agawam. It crossed the Westfield River near the Big E and ran north through West Springfield to Holyoke. There it skirted the eastern slopes of Mt.Tom, then cut west to circle the Oxbow. One must remember that until the Connecticut River broke through the Oxbow's narrow neck, all land travel on this trail, and the roads that followed, had to go along the Oxbow's western bank through today's Easthampton. The trail then proceeded to Northampton and the flood plains of Hatfield and Whately into Deerfield. In Greenfield the trail branched. One trail followed the Falls River north into Vermont, the other went east towards Gill.
THE PLANTATION PERIOD: 1630-1675:
New England historians generally refer to the period from 1630-1675 as the "plantation period". In western Massachusetts, the single most important event during that was the establishment of the Agawam settlement (later renamed Springfield) in 1636. It was the first permanent European settlement in what is now the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley. By mid-century Springfield, had become a commercial and political and commercial hub with outlying settlements.
One factor in the European expansion in New England was the dramatic decrease in the Native population caused by the accidental introduction of European diseases for which the Natives had no immunity. The epidemics that were sweeping the rest of the region did not seem to play much of a factor in the expansion of settlements in the Valley.
In 1656 the town of Northampton was established. It then encompassed all the land that now makes up the four "Hamptons". The settlements of Hadley and Hatfield were not far behind. The abundance of fertile land in the mid-Valley allowed this area to quickly become a major agricultural producer in the state. The settlements of Pocomtuck (Deerfield) and Northfield occurred about 10 years later. See MAP 5.
The viability of these northern settlements, literally on the edge of what was known to be a potentially hostile wilderness, was uncertain. It could never be far from the minds of especially those in Pocomtuck that their settlement was built on land left vacant by the Native tribe that had lived there just a few years before. The Pocumtuck tribe, after which the Deerfield settlement was originally named, had been nearly obliterated during a recent war with the Mohawks. See MAP 7.
Given the importance of trade and defense, especially during the King Philip's war when the Valley's settlements were attacked, roads were essential for their survival. These roads were almost invariably built on the existing network of Native trails. The first key road in the Valley ran along the west bank of the Connecticut River first linking Hartford to West Springfield where there was a ferry crossing to Springfield. Eventually this road ran on to Northampton and then Deerfield. See MAP 6.
"US-5: A Highway to History" © Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
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