Indian Fishing Rights

The first business of any kind with which Bellows Falls is credited was that of fishing, for which it was widely known during the occupancy of the red man, and for many years by his successor, the white man. When the first settlers came, the Indians were making a yearly pilgrimage to the falls of the Connecticut River here, at the season when the salmon and shad were running up the stream. The traditions of their race indicated this had been done. The white men followed the same business at first, as an important part of the work of a few weeks in the spring of the year.

Because of the rush of the water through the rocky gorge here, the shad were never known to go above the falls, but both the shad and the salmon gathered in the eddy below the falls in great numbers, the water being literally alive with them. The salmon were able, with great effort, to get through into stiller water above. The building of the dam across the river in 1792, created a barrier for fish, and no fish-way was provided. Since then, these varieties of fish have been practically unknown north of here.

In recent years, pike have been the largest and best fish in this vicinity. There were no pike in the Connecticut until about 1840, when they are supposed to have come here from “Plymouth Ponds”, as then known, now known as Lakes Echo, Amherst and Rescue, they being a part of the Black River, emptying into the Connecticut in the town of Springfield. Some years earlier, these ponds had been liberally stocked with them and protected by the state. A flood broke down the barriers and washed many of them down into the Connecticut.

Some of the best records of pike caught here are as follows: Dennis Mackesy of North Walpole caught one January 19, 1921, weighing just 20 lbs., about half way between the dam and the mouth of Williams River, near what is known as rock number three, near the New Hampshire shore. He caught it through the ice, using a sucker about 5 inches long as bait. It was of the variety known as a “gray pike” and measured 47 inches in length. In September 1841, one was caught at the foot of the locks just below the present unoccupied five-story coating mill, which weighed 18 3/4 pounds. The lucky fisherman was Henry Hills, then a local writing teacher here. Several years ago, an elderly man gave the writer a graphic account of the capture that he witnessed. It could not be landed with the line and was shot with a pistol. A banquet of 20 businessmen of the village was held at the old Stage House, the hotel then standing where Hotel Windham now does, and the fish was served up in great style. About 1844, Hon. William Henry, then cashier of the Bellows Falls Bank, later a member of Congress from this district, caught one in the eddy below the mills weighing 17 pounds. He was one of the most noted fishermen of his day. Business at the bank was not then quite as extensive as now, and, although he was the sole employee of the bank, he would often of a summer day close the bank for an hour or two, posting on the door the information, “Down at the eddy, fishing.”

Reliable record is available, with dates, of the catching here at various times of pike weighing all the way from 10, to the 20-pounder mentioned above, and it is probable “that there are as good ones now here as have ever been caught.”

Before the dam was built across the river here, the operations of the Indians were confined mostly to a space of about two miles up the river. At that distance north, the water began to be swift, and had great velocity down as far as opposite the stone house now occupied by the family of James Hennessey on the Walpole side, where there is now a small eddy. These rapids were difficult of navigation before the dam was built, but two Indians would carry their light bark canoe to the head of these rapids, and launch it. One, with his light paddle, would sit in the stern and guide it through the devious channel in the current, while the other stood in the prow, and drove his spear firmly into the backs of the great salmon, which, having worked hard in coming up thus far through the swift water below, were naturally somewhat spent, and, thus, not as wary as they would have been below the falls. The fishermen, in this way, went down the current as far as the Hennessey house, then pulled the canoe out, and toted it back up stream to repeat the action hour after hour. In this way, salmon weighing from 20 to 30 lbs. are said to have been secured.

An early picture of the toll bridge here, shows a rope ladder let down from the bridge with an Indian in a rude chair spearing passing salmon.

The first settlers held what was termed “fishing rights” in different advantageous places in the river, as far north as here, and suits at law have been, in some instances, successful within a few years at different points in Massachusetts, based upon the old fishing rights held by families since the very earliest residence of the white man. In the eddy below Bellows Falls, a number of old residents remember the remains of the old. “cheval de frieze” as it was termed, erected by those who claimed the first rights here, to assist in the drawing of the large shad nets. The structure was located about two-thirds of the distance from the mouth of Saxtons River, to the lower end of the falls, a little east of the center of the river, almost directly opposite the north end of the Liberty Paper Company’s manufactory. It was built up of logs about thirty feet square, and, at ordinary water, arose about four feet above the surface. It was filled with heavy stones, and, in general appearance, looked like the log cribs above the dam, except that it had a large post set strongly in the center rising about six or eight feet into the air. This was used for windlass, upon which to wind the ropes of the large shad nets. The stones of this structure have been seen within a few years, when the water was extremely low, but it is said that the logs were drawn away one year upon the ice after the disappearance of the shad in this vicinity rendered the contrivance of no further value.

The most abundant fish here, in early times, were the salmon and the shad. The former could pass the rapid waters of the falls, while it is said the shad were never seen above them. Annually, in the months of April and May, these two species set out from their ocean winter home for the headwaters of the Connecticut and its tributaries. They came as far as these falls in great numbers, and as even the salmon could not ascend higher except with the water at a medium height, they gathered in great numbers below the falls, extend- ing some distance below the eddy so plentifully, that it was said : “It seemed as though a person could almost walk across upon their backs, at least the water was perfectly black with them.”

The shad nets were often nearly half a mile long, and from 8 to 20 feet deep. To each end of the net was attached a long rope, as long, or longer, than the net itself. The net would be taken up the river upon one side, the length of the rope, then, striking out into the stream, the fishermen would row across, paying out the net, then return to the cheval-de-frieze with the other end of the rope, and wind up the long ropes by means of the windlass, as rapidly as possible, drawing the net over a large space of the “Great Eddy,” which, in those days, was much larger than in recent years. Shad in great numbers were caught in this way. Drawing nets in this manner, was continued later, farther south than this point, and one record in the river shows over 2,000 shad taken at a single drawing of the net.

On the top of the large rock in the river at the lower end of the falls, known as “The Nine Holes”, was a drill hole, put there by an owner of fishing rights to draw the nets from, and an early deed refers to “the rock with a drill hole used by the shad fishermen.” This is the large rock out in the river that now divides the main channel of the river from the raceway of the power plant.

The traditions of the red men, when first the pale-faced settlers came here, were to the effect that the reputation of the “Great Falls” had been known to them generations earlier, and that, at certain seasons of the year, pilgrimages were made from distant points by parties of red men to secure generous supplies of a necessary article of food. The first settlers also depended largely upon the river to supply their food a portion of the year, one of the earliest historians stating that fishing was one of the principal industries of the first settlers of Rockingham.


Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.

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