The Pennacook Indians dwelled in
the area we now refer to as New England. They could be found in the
Merrimack river valley, encompassing the lower 2/3 of New Hampshire,
southern Maine, and northeastern Massachusetts. As many as 12,000
Pennacook lived in this area prior to European migration; by 1647,
more than 90% of these had succumbed to disease. They spoke
Algonquin, officially, but their language (and most of their
culture) was closer to western Abenaki than to the traditional
Algonquin common in southern New England. The word Pennacook derives
from an Abenaki term meaning "at the bottom of the hill".
The Pennacook are often identified so closely with the Abenaki that
they are sometimes classified as the southernmost group of that
tribe. In 1620, however, the Pennacook were seen as an independent
confederacy, and indeed apparently viewed the Abenaki as enemies. By
the turn of the 18th century, the encroachment of and subsequent
wars with European colonists in Massachusetts drove the Pennacook
and Abenaki together.
Disease and war, as they did most Indian nations of the northeast,
plagued the Pennacook in the late 1500's - early 1600's. Typhus and
other, unknown diseases struck them as contact with Europeans grew,
and the ongoing conflicts between the neighboring nations of
Penobscot and Micmac spilled over into Pennacook lands, bringing
significant losses of people and property.
Despite the prevalence of European borne diseases, the early
interactions between the Pennacook and Colonists were evidently
largely friendly. But the Powhatan-led near destruction of Jamestown
in Virginia had eroded the English trust of the natives, and
relations between the two groups became increasingly tenuous.
The introduction of firearms into the Pennacook culture drove
another wedge into an already widening gulf, and Colonist paranoia
drove the English to capture the leaders of the tribe. The son of
the chief was among these taken, and his release was granted only
after a treaty of Pennacook submission to the Massachusetts
colonists was signed.
Meanwhile, the balance of power in North America was shifting, as
the Iroquois in the Great Lakes region overcame the Huron. This
convinced the French to form a new alliance with the Algonquin in
New England, and a more precarious one with the Pennacook. But
English refusal to help the French fight the Iroquois Mohawk
eventually led to a strengthening by the Mohawk, and the Pennacook
and a few other tribes now faced them without a broad power base.
Due to the large amount of land given to the Massachusetts
colonists, the Pennacook were in a particularly vulnerable position
in these battles, and were obliged to petition the Massachusetts
legislature to give them back some land. As the Mohawk continued to
overrun the remaining tribes aligned against them, the Pennacook
absorbed some of the defeated nations. But were themselves hard-put
to repel the Iroquois onslaught, as they had signed a treaty and
trade agreement with the English, allowing the Mohawk to devote more
resources to their battles.
This agreement evolved into a formal military alliance when French
reinforcements hurt the Iroquois. By the mid 1660's, the Pennacook
had been betrayed by the English, who had switched sides, as far as
the natives were concerned. Even the French had agreed to a general
peace with the Iroquois by 1667. With this newfound power base, the
Mohawk were able to drive the Pennacook across New Hampshire and
into southern Maine.
By this time the once-captured-and-now-released son of the Pennacook
chief had succeeded his father, but not before converting to
Christianity. This change in spirituality may have been a factor in
Wanalancet's drive to keep his nation neutral in King Philip's war,
a drive which, remarkably, worked.
In an effort to preserve the neutrality of his people, Wanalancet
sent a portion of them north, as far away as Lake Huron. He and most
of the remainder of his people followed, and returned south only at
the end of the war. Unfortunately the English were not even close to
being ready to sign peace accords with any Indian tribe; even after
King Philip had been raised in effigy, their continuing hatred and
distrust of the natives served to continue the war on another front.
As the Pennacook accepted refugees from neighboring tribes, the
English were outraged, and renewed their attacks on them. These
attacks, soon assisted by the Iroquois, drove Wanalancet and his
people into fleeing again, this time to Canada, and ultimately to
These retreats, the ongoing war between the English and the Abenaki,
and Wanalancet's death served to splinter the Pennacook into
villages along the upper Merrimack, Lake Champlain, and St.
Francois, in Canada. This splintering and forced abandonment turned
the Pennacook decidedly anti-English, and they became staunch French
allies. By the advent of King William's war in the 1690's the
Pennacook were sending war parties to defend Quebec.
Some Pennacook groups along the Merrimack tried hard to remain
neutral, but they too either joined with the French or withdrew
further. After his family was taken hostage, a new leader of
Pennacook war raids finally made peace with the English, though
battles between the Abenaki and the colonists continued until 1699.
This conflict, the Pennacook were mightily opposed to neutrality.
Queen Anne's War loomed on the horizon, and some Abenaki joined with
the still seething Pennacook. The English and the French both tried
to lure this group to their respective sides, but the French won.
By the end of this war, the Pennacook were widely considered to be
largely absorbed into the Abenaki, but this is not entirely
accurate. More likely, they survived in small villages along the
upper Merrimack, and almost certainly preserved their identities in
these new tribes. It is even said that the members of the last
extant group of Pennacook saved some colonists from starving one