Editor’s note: The Mountain Ear was founded by Jane Golden Reilly and Steve Eastman in May 1976. The award-winning news weekly and lifestyle journal of Mount Washington Valley was sold by Eastman to Salmon Press in March 2005. Its last issue was in December 2014. Eastman — who died at age 58 from a brain tumor in April 2008 — always wanted to publish an annual book, hoping to call it “White Mountain Chronicles.” In collaboration with Eastman’s wife, Sarah W. Eastman, brother Tom Eastman (who worked at The Ear from 1979 before coming to The Sun in 2007) and former staff writer Karen Cummings, The Conway Daily Sun is publishing some of those stories relating to local history and is also posting stories on a website, mtearchronicles.com. The following story originally was published in The Mountain Ear in November 1983.
ALBANY — When you drive west from Conway on the Kancamagus Highway, Route 112, alongside the Swift River, in time you'll reach an area now woods but once clear, known as the Albany or Passaconaway Intervale.
The U.S. Forest Service is celebrating the history of the once-teeming valley Sept. 30 with its second Passaconaway Valley Heritage Day, with a full lineup of activities at the Russell Colbath Historic Site including artisans, talks and a Civil War encampment.
Reigning over the once farming and logging community and the other mountains of the Sandwich Range is Passaconaway (elevation: 4,043 feet). The symmetrically grand peak bears fitting testimony to the mighty Pennacook Native American chief for which it is named.
Who was this great chief?
"The Son of the Bear," as his name symbolizes, was a fierce and powerful leader in his youth, yet he also was known for his moderation, insight and sagacity.
Lauded as the most influential sachem in New England and probably in the East, Passaconaway was born sometime between 1555-1573 and ruled until 1668-69. He died at a seasoned age in the 1680s.
But the story of the father of Pennacook chief Wonalancet and grandfather of the more warlike Kancamagus, after whom other peaks in the Sandwich Range are named, is a sad one, as told in C.E. Beals Jr.'s book, "Passaconaway in the White Mountains," a great resource for learning about the history of the Passaconaway Valley.
At the height of his power in the early 17th century, Beals writes that Passaconaway governed a confederacy of 3,000 people comprising 13 tribes, capable of throwing an army of over 500 men into the field.
But 18 years after he submitted to the provincial government of the English, his once industrious and prosperous tribe was reduced to a group of miserable paupers, cheated out of their lands by the settlers.
Following a pestilence that swept across New England in the early 1600s, the native population was decimated. In many cases, powerful tribes were reduced to handfuls of survivors, with so many dying no one was left to bury the dead. After such devastation, new tribal relations were formed.
Passaconaway rose to the occasion.
At the time, the Pennacooks, based along the Merrimack River in Manchester and Concord, were the strongest and most highly developed of the New England tribes. Surviving the battle against the pestilence, the Pennacooks next faced an equally threatening danger: the rise of the Mohawks of New York against other native nations.
The Mohawks went to war against the Pennacooks about 20 years before the Pilgrims landed, just before Passaconaway's confederacy formed.
The war climaxed with one great battle at the Pennacooks' fort on Sugar Ball Hill in what is now Concord.
According to Beals' book, both sides were almost literally cut to pieces. The last few remaining Mohawks, "baffled and wounded," took to the woods, leaving their dead and dying in the hands of the victors.
Under his guidance, the Pennacooks, through marriage and sometimes war, allied with over a dozen tribes in what is now New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine. Called Pennacook after Passaconaway's tribe, the federation was, with the exception of the Five Nations of New York, the largest in the East.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, Passaconaway was there. Summoned by his fellow medicine men to Plymouth to conjure against the English, he met with them for three days in a dark swamp, attempting to "call down lightning to burn the ships," as well as to bring plague and pestilence upon the newcomers.
Despite their curses, not a single ship burned.
Passaconaway learned a lesson he never forgot: The Great Spirit, he said, whispered to him that they should make peace with the whites since they were "powerless" against them.
Rather than waste his young men before that firepower, he chose a policy of "peace with the English." It eventually cost him dearly.
The early colonists found the chief's peace policy almost providential. Even when smarting from wrongs by those he befriended, the powerful chief restrained his braves. Had he combined his powerful army with the inferior band led by the more militant King Philip, the residents of Strawbery Banke, Newburyport and Saugus probably would have been swept out to sea.
The great chief was more on the mark with his premonitions about the future expansion of the white man's settlements than he was with his policy decision. The Great Spirit, he related, had whispered to him that although the palefaces were few in number in the beginning, they would eventually be as numerous as the leaves in the forest. The tribal hunting ground would be stripped of its timber and furrowed with the white man's plow, he continued, and the rivers and fishing places would be choked with dams and whirring mills. In these cases, his foresight proved to be accurate.
Although the Penacooks under Passaconaway remained peaceful, there were frequent false alarms among the settlers about impending attacks. Considering their often fraudulent treatment of the Native Americans, there's little wonder why the settlers were so fearful of retaliation.
In 1644, Passaconaway signed the articles of submissions to the English on behalf of his confederated peoples, finally bowing down to the British flag. But at the same time the government was offering the New England Native Americans protection, they also were paying off the Mohawks, Beals writes, essentially hiring New Yorkers to exterminate the New England tribes.
Beals notes that little was heard of Passaconaway between 1648 and 1660. He was seen at the latter date by Englishmen as a wrinkled old man of about 110 years old. Believing the end was near, he summoned all his tribes to Pawtucket (Lowell) in the fishing season of 1660. The once all-conquering Bashaba, now bent and trembling, rose before them to give his farewell speech.
The aged sachem told his people their only hope of survival against the more powerful white man was peace. "We must bend before the storm! The wind blows hard! The old oak trembles! It falls! Peace, peace with white men is the command of the Great Spirit — and the wish — the last wish of Passaconaway."
The message struck home to the extent that those present never deviated from his counsel until Passaconaway's warlike grandson Kancamagus became chief years later.
The "Son of the Bear" held on as chief for several more years, as his son Wonalancet was not recognized as head of the confederacy until about 1669.
Passaconaway's last years weren't happy ones, as his lands were taken from him to the extent that he had to petition the government for a plot large enough to stake his wigwam on. The petition to the aged Merrimack was granted, with two small islands and an intervale included. However, he was ordered to pay for the surveying cost entailed by adding the islands to his original request.
Some say the great chief died as late as 1682, at the age of 120. According to the legend held by the Pennacooks, a sled pulled by 24 gigantic wolves sped him away in a flaming cloud. Reeling and cutting the sled team with his lash, the old Bashaba, once more in his element, screamed in joy as he sped across valleys, hills and frozen Lake Winnepesaukee, until the sled roared up the sides of Mount Washington, the earthly dwelling place of the Great Spirit.
Gaining the summit with unabated speed, Passaconaway rode up into the clouds and was lost to view.
Now, from his place at the divine Council Fire, he looks down from Mount Washington's summit, out across the valley, to the peak that bears his name.
For more on Passaconway Valley Heritage Day Sept. 30, contact the Saco District at (603) 447-5448 or visit wmiaofnh.org/passaconaway.