Smile of the Great Spirit: Lake Winnipesaukee’s Native American Roots

Lake Winnipesaukee, NH
This landmark eight-foot tall replica of “Chief Chocorua” currently graces Indian Island in Meredith Bay, Lake Winnipesaukee.

On the northern shore of the big lake, dwelt the chieftain of the woodlands, Ahanton. He was renowned for his courage, but even more so for the beauty of his daughter, Ellacoya. Many warriors pursued her. Yet all were rejected until one day, Kona, a young chief from a rival tribe to the south, appeared in the village. In response to the legend of Ellacoya’s beauty, he had traveled across the lake in his canoe to win her hand.

Leading an expedition to expel invaders, Chief Ahanton was away when Kona walked into the village arrayed in an eagle-feathered headdress denoting him as chief of the enemy tribe. His fearlessness immediately gained the respect and affection of Ellacoya. It was not long before the entire village was won over by the bravery of the young chief. Before many days passed, Ellacoya and Kona were deeply in love. But their courtship was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Ahanton, back from his expedition. He recognized his enemy and was infuriated that Kona had taken advantage of his absence to pursue Ellacoya. Ahanton rushed at Kona with his tomahawk. Ellacoya leaped in front of her father to plead for the life of her beloved.

Now stand on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, look over the Broads, and hear the end of the story. An assembly of bark canoes made its way across the lake from the north. The canoes reached the middle of the lake. One canoe broke from the cluster. It continued crossing while the others stopped. The lone canoe carried the bride Ellacoya and her husband Chief Kona. Ellacoya had successfully pleaded for his life. Chief Ahantan, impressed by Kona’s bravery, had consented to their marriage. As the couple journeyed to Kona’s tribal territory, Ahantan and his tribe had escorted them to the mid-point of the Broads. Hundreds of eyes watched as threatening storm clouds gathered. Suddenly, the dark clouds parted and a single ray of sunlight shot across the sky illuminating the newlywed’s canoe. “This is a good omen,” shouted Chief Ahantan. “From this time on, these waters will be called Winnipesaukee for the great spirit has smiled upon my daughter’s marriage.”

Who wouldn’t want to live in such a romantic place as the Lakes Region? Part of its beauty is the richness of its history going back hundreds of years. In other places, gray skyscrapers and dark pavement obscure the past. But here, the sites of legends are still discernible.

The heritage of the Native American presence in this area is strongly reflected in the names. Even the legendary figures of our story are immortalized. Ellacoya Beach in Gilford stretches over 600 feet and looks out towards the Sandwich and Ossipee Mountains. In Moultonborough, what is now part of the national award winning community of Windward Harbor was previously a portion of the land that Herbert Dumaresq bought in the early 1900s. Dumaresq named his estate Kona Farm after the hero from the romantic story. The Ossipee Mountains stretching along the northern shore of Winnipesaukee derived their name from the Abenaki language. The Pemigewasset River which runs through many Lakes Region towns including Holderness, Ashland, New Hampton, Bristol, and Sanbornton, got its name from the Abenaki “Pemijijoasek,” which translates to “where side entering current is.” Squam Lake was originally known as Keeseenunknipee, meaning “the goose lake in the highlands.” It was later called another Abenaki name, Asquam, before being shortened to its present version. Lake Winona was named after a Native American princess who could understand the voices of birds. Lake Winnisquam, Opechee, Waukewan, Kanasatka, and Wicwas all derive their names from the Abenaki.

The Weirs is of particular historic interest. It was a gathering site for many New Hampshire tribes. The Abenaki called the spot Aquedoctan, which means “place of good fishing.” Every year tribes would arrive to capture the shad that migrated through the Weirs Channel. This passageway between Winnipesaukee and Paugus Bay provided a shallow natural sluiceway to net fish in baskets called “weirs.” Other major villages in the Lakes Region included Plymouth, Moultonborough (called K’chi-Nayok), and Ossipee. Smaller campsites were known to have existed at Meredith Neck; Bald Peak Colony Club in Melvin Village; Tuftonboro Neck; Clay Point in Alton; and Quannippi (Alton Bay).

A 1956 map entitled “Indian Trails by Chester B. Price” prepared by the State Planning and Development Commission shows many of our main roads were once major trails whose beautiful names have been replaced by the utilitarian. For instance, Route 3 from Lakeport to Northfield and continuing south was once called the Namaskik Trail. Route 11 and 11B from Alton Bay to Weirs Beach was the Winnebisagua Trail. The Co-Joss (Coos) Trail was a major route from southeast NH that passed through what is now Lakeport, along the west side of Paugus Bay through South Down Shores to the Weirs, continued along the west side of Meredith Bay through Grouse Point to Meredith, and north along what is now Route 25. In Center Harbor, the trail diverged due north and continued to Littleton. Route 109 from Wolfeboro to Moultonborough was part of another major trail from the seacoast called the Abenaki Trail. Route 132 from Ashland to Concord was once the Pemigewasset Trail.

When you drive around the Lakes Region, remember the story of Ellacoya and Kona hidden in time. These are the same waters, the same shores, the same trails where the events took place. Scientists say we live in a time-space continuum; that the events in the past are still taking place but we cannot see them as they now exist in another dimension; that time is like a train ride – you only see the scenery you are passing and not what you passed earlier or that which is to come. History calls Ellacoya and Kona’s story a legend. But somehow as you look out over the Broads of Winnipesaukee, you know it is true. Someday you may be able to breach the time-space continuum. The clouds concealing the past will part. A single ray of the sun will illuminate the lake and you will hear the gruff voice of Chief Ahantan shout in his unknown tongue, “Winnipesaukee!” – the smile of the great spirit.

The story of Ellacoya and Kona was recorded in a 1932 book by the New Hampshire Federation of Women’s Clubs entitled New Hampshire Folk Tales

This post was written by Mary O’Neill. 

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