Here in Vermont we’ve been through a couple of cold spells and last Friday night it was 20 below. We woke up Saturday morning to find our pipes had frozen. It prompted me to wonder how people in the 1600’s coped with New England winters. We know the Pilgrims survived their first winter thanks to the help of the natives. But while the Massachusetts Bay Puritan settlers were shivering by open hearths in their drafty frame houses, what were the natives doing?
For centuries, the Algonquian people of New England had moved with the seasons. In winter, they moved away from the open valleys with their icy winds and drifting snow and sought the protection of inland mountains and deep forests. Their wetus were dismantled and the insulating mats and hides were backpacked to their new location.
Their winter dwellings were sometimes larger, especially ceremonial houses, and designed to shelter several families, equipped with two or more smoke holes. Two or more entrances, covered with deerskins, provided access. The outside was covered with tree bark and the inside lined with woven reed mats. They wore capes, leggings and moccasins of animal hides, with the fur-side turned toward the body.
Winter was hunting season. The men built snowshoes and toboggans for stalking and hauling game. They tracked rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, deer, moose, and bear. They also shot or snared turkeys, quails, partridges, ducks and geese. Carnivores such as fox, wildcats, and wolves, were not eaten, though their skins were valued. Every part of killed animals were used, from the meat to the sinews, bladders, and bones.
When the weather became severe, the people stayed in their villages and relied on stored food they’d harvested from their summer gardens. It was a leisurely season during which they socialized, told stories, repaired their tools, prepared hides, wove baskets and decorated their clothing with dyed quills.
Although there are people who relish winter and its outdoor sports, many of us think of winter as a time of hardship, when snow and ice make it often difficult to pursue our normal activities. Maybe the problem isn’t winter, but our own reluctance to adjust our habits to the season. Maybe we could learn something from the Algonquians and appreciate winter as an opportunity to spend leisurely time together, relaxing, socializing and telling stories.