top of page
  • Margaret Laurent

An Intervale Centennial

Standing high atop Cathedral Ledge where he could gaze out across Mt. Washington Valley, an Abenaki Indian visiting the region in the 1950s commented to friend Stephen Laurent, "It must have been very hard for our people to leave such a beautiful place."

Pushed out by the encroachment of the British colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries and resettled in Quebec, the Abenaki Indians returned to the area now known as Mt. Washington Valley in the summer of 1884 under the leadership of Chief Joseph Laurent. Setting up camp in Intervale near the site of the old post office just across the railroad tracks, the Abenakis became a familiar sight every summer, selling their wares to resort hotel guests.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Chief Joseph's arrival in the Valley, the following article was written by Margaret Laurent, wife of the chief's son, Stephen. Together, Stephen and Margaret operate the Abenaki Gift Shop at the site of the village. A year-round resident of the Valley since 1940, Stephen, 75, devotes his spare time to the translation of a French Abenaki dictionary into English.

The year 1984 marks the centennial of an event in local Indian history commemorated on the bronze plaque in Intervale: In the summer of 1884, Abenaki Chief Joseph Laurent led back to their ancestral homelands a group of his people from the St. Francis Reservation in Quebec. In Intervale, N.H., they established a woodland encampment on the outskirts of what then was called the Cathedral Woods. There the little colony practiced traditional handicrafts and opened a small shop for their wares, to which they henceforth made an annual pilgrimage. The shop is still sought out every summer, almost as a monument of the past.

The site of this settlement recalls the origin and long habitation of the Abenakis in upper New England. Few of the visitors to the little colony gave a thought to those forgotten pages of history, or guessed that 300 years earlier the Saco Valley sheltered populous Indian communities -- scattered in villages through the intervales of the Saco and Swift Rivers, where fields were cultivated, rivers fished, the woods hunted, and streams trapped for beaver.

The Indians had their own names for Mt. Kearsarge and Moat Mountain, and the much-photographed cascades at the foot of the latter were known to them as Managmassak wigit, "the home of the water elves." We of today, who are under the necessity of spelling names, ease our problems with the simpler term Diana's Baths.

Joseph Laurent, Abenaki Chief, was himself a descendant of those bands of Indians whose hunting grounds had once been our familiar Saco Valley and the upper New England States. But in the 17th and 18th centuries the Abenakis and the Sokokis, augmented by the Penacooks, had been driven under pressure of the English colonists to seek harborage in Canada among the French, who welcomed them as allies against the British in the century-long struggle for dominance that we know as the French and Indian Wars. The French granted a reservation to the Abenakis and Sokokis jointly on the banks of the St. Francis River near its confluence with the St. Lawrence.

Other refugee groups joined these two, but the Abenakis and Sokokis predominated and at first maintained a separate identity -- as the Turtles (Sokokis) and the Bears (Abenakis) -- in council hall. They gradually merged and intermarried and the French government referred to them collectively as "the Abenakis of St. Francis" -- as history has tarred them similarly with one brush as the source of raids from St. Francis upon the English colonies. In adopting French guardianship and a common home, the two groups united in becoming staunch allies of their benefactors and foes of the despoilers of their old hunting grounds.

History chronicles a bloody course of reprisal and counter-reprisal between the colonists, now become homesteaders, and the despoiled Indians, staunch allies of their French friends. The culmination, celebrated by Kenneth Roberts in his historical romance Northwest Passage, was the raid upon the St. Francis Indian village by Major Rogers and his Rangers. That much acclaimed victory of the White Men sounds somewhat less glorious as recorded by Indian descendants of the event: an assault upon a small cluster of shacks defended only by women and children, and the infirm and aged left behind in what Rogers shrewdly knew to be the hunting season.

But old times, idyllic or bloody, fade from memory. We find the grass grown green over vanished battle fields and smoking villages. Outworn animosities become matter of historical curiosity or even romance, read through time's bifocals in a new perspective. Small boys collect arrowheads, and dream. Many a blue-blooded dowager is proud today to attribute her handsome facial structure of high cheek bones and nose to an ancestor among the once despised "savages."

So when the Abenakis of a later day returned to their lost valley, they found history pleasantly reversed and a friendly welcome awaiting them among the descendants of their ancestral foes. The small woodland band was greeted as a picturesque adjunct to what had by then become a fashionable summer resort region. Chief Joseph Laurent in his horse and buggy became a familiar and even sentimentalized figure as he peddled his sweetgrass products up and down the Mt. Washington Valley and beyond, to such high-toned resorts as the Balsams, the Fabyan House, the old Crawford House, as well as around the Conways, Jackson, and Kearsarge. With a ready market for their fine handicrafts, the Indians in Intervale opened a small gift shop on the edge of Cathedral Woods for local sale of their handsomely wrought baskets and moccasins, where the fragrance of sweetgrass and the soft murmur of the dark-eyed moccasined maidens who tended the shop had an exotic appeal.

Gifted musically to a surprising degree, the Abenakis from St. Francis distinguished themselves as the first choir of the North Conway "Our Lady of the Mountains" Church in the year of its opening and for several years thereafter.

And what of the leader and center of the group, their Chief? Born in St. Francis, Quebec, in 1839, too late to leave a bloody mark on history's page, though still of the generation of Indians whose winter occupation was hunting and trapping in the Canadian wilds, Joseph Laurent gained recognition among his people for leadership and wise counsel, and was schoolmaster and elected chief on the reservation for many years. Largely self-taught but scholarly by nature, he became an accomplished linguist, fluent in English, French, and Abenaki.

In 1884 he published his Abenaki and English Dialogues, a grammar, vocabulary, and conversation-practice book of his language, written for English-speaking people and now become a collector's item, a primary source and authority for the Abenaki language. In the Cathedral Woods of Intervale he was sought out by Indianologists of note. Dr. Frank Speck, of the University of Pennsylvania, spent several summers in the little Abenaki settlement, living among the Indians and studying their language and traditions at first hand. Others who visited the Indians in Intervale were Dr. A. Irving Hallowell of the University of Chicago, and Dr. Montague Chamberlain of Harvard University. The Chief had letters from Prime Ministers Sir John Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier of Canada, and one from President Theodore Roosevelt on the subject of Article III of the Jay Treaty, which recognized the rights of the American Indians to travel unmolested and duty-free across the international boundary between the United States and Canada.

Recognition came to the old Chief in his own day and since. In 1901 he was guest of honor at the dedication of a bronze tablet commemorating Wonalancet, son of Passaconaway, near Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, where Wonalancet had ended his days in 1696. In an old photograph we see chief Joseph, a man of some 60-odd years, stolid in the sober dignity of tail-coat, flanked by a group of other worthies, bewhiskered or beplumed, according to their sex, and all very weighty and grave of mien.

Though the members of the original group of 1884 have all passed away, there are a few who remember them still, and it is in Intervale that the esteemed chief's memory is honored by the lasting tribute of a bronze plaque mounted on a boulder adjacent to the little Indian shop. It was unveiled in 1959, in a ceremony attended by the surviving members of his family and other aged Indians who came down to Intervale from St. Francis and participated in the program. The significance of the occasion was honored by speakers from Dartmouth College and the New Hampshire Archaeological and Historical Societies. Professor J. Frederic Burtt of the Lowell Institute in Massachusetts potted a bowl of earth from the foot of the Wonalancet boulder and buried it in the ground at the base of the Laurent tablet: a fitting arid moving gesture. Most stirring, however, was the closing choral chant by aged Indian voices in their own language, of the melancholy hymn Wigondamoda, followed by the Lord's Prayer in Abenaki.

By strange coincidence, the same year and month (August, 1959) marked the opening of the great new scenic highway in New Hampshire named for another Indian: Chief Kancamagus, nephew of Wonalancet.

But Chief Joseph Laurent is also acclaimed not only in his lost tribal lands but on this side of the border; this summer the St. Francis Reservation in Canada is honoring his memory with special attention to another of his achievements. By another coincidence, the year 1984 marks the centennial both of Chief Joseph's return "as a native" to his ancestral lands in Intervale and also of the publication of his noted book. In the very fine museum maintained in Odanak (Indian name now for the St. Francis Reservation) the principal feature this summer is the celebration of Chief Laurent's life and achievements, centering on his grammar, and illustrated by other memorabilia of his life.

So in this centennial year we hail Chief Joseph Laurent and celebrate the memory of a gifted native American, who played an honored part among both his own people and the descendants of his ancestral foe.

The little handicrafts shop that he opened in Intervale is still operated in the summer by Chief Joseph's youngest son Stephen (himself no longer young), in honor of his father's memory. Run by members of the same Indian family since its opening in 1884, it is proud of its heritage, of its genuine Indian handicrafts, of the old lore and tradition it encompasses -- of its being, in more than one sense, "off the beaten track." It is sought out by old friends, and by Indianologists and romantics, for historical background and information as a kind of repository of the past.


bottom of page