Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Evidence of Native American Brush (and stone) Fish Weirs

Above: Fishing weir near Eastport, Maine. A weir is a traditional American Indian fishing device, consisting of a trap made of sticks or brush with a large basket in the middle. Weir designs vary according to the location and waters being fished. Typically, setting up a weir involved creating a fence-like structure of reeds, stretching it across a stream, and anchoring it to the bottom by sticking poles into the ground below the water. The reeds were tied together tightly so that fish could swim in, but couldn’t swim out (

Evidence of Native American Brush Fish Weirs
In South Cove, Old Saybrook, CT
Archaeological Society of Connecticut
Research Summary and PowerPoint Presentation
Timothy C. Visel
Abigail C. Visel
PowerPoint Presentation by Abigail C. Visel

This paper was presented at the fall meeting of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, October 18, 2008.
What is left today?
Unfortunately, little remains of these weirs today. The netting would quickly rot and marine worms could destroy a four-inch hickory pole in one summer. What remain are the stones, walls and enclosures that survived in protected areas along Connecticut’s coast. According to Mr. Clark of Old Saybrook, the brush weirs (he mentioned at least two connected to each other resembling a “double hook”) were “recycled” to build the long haul seine piers along the east edge of the Connecticut River. These rock piles still exist today; these “piers” have claimed more than one unfortunate boater. They are not piers at all, but a built up point from which to set long haul seines. They basically were large enough to hold an anchor capstan and boat tie offs. Mr. Clark states that to construct them, stones from the brush weirs were thrown to barges
at low water. Adjacent to the headland, clumps of rocks are still present according to local fishermen. This June, Mr. Jim Hoffman of Cove Road was talking about the cove. I mentioned the Indian brush weir, and Mr. Hoffman led me down with my son Will to show me the same headland and long stonewall that Mr. Clark showed me some three decades earlier. Mr. Hoffman knew about it; it was an oral story of the Old Saybrook small boat shad fishermen. He cautioned me that clumps of rocks were still present and make crossing under power dangerous. He also described what was on the Indian fish camp on the property. He said the trap was built to eat shad. Indians, he claimed, roasted them on the shore and artifacts over time have been washed from the edge. [Old Saybrook still has a number of shad gillnet fisheries that gillnet shad for roe and fillet (boned) for use in planking roasts each spring. These local roasts, to my knowledge, are the last remaining traditional fish planking roasts on the East Coast.]

One may ask how much of the 18th, 19th and 20th century fisheries fishing practices were learned from Native Americans. I contend quite a bit. In almost every fishery, I see evidence of earlier technology. Not that European settlers were not familiar with them, it is just style and design often reflected what preceded. I have that great print in my office of a 17th century Quinnipiac dug out oyster canoe next to a 18th century New Haven sharpie. The similar size and shape of these vessels are uncanny. The modern bull rake is almost identical to the ash/hickory push pull rake of Niantic Bay. The flounder and eel spears of Stonington, CT, are exactly the same as fishing depicted on Chesapeake Bay in 1587 by sketches of John White, Governor of Raleigh Colony (along North Carolina)...

Stones to Hold The Trap
Almost every feature of brush fykes and even the larger full tide traps used stones to help anchor the trap or its leader. They could be dragged to the shore and raft deployed to set them in place. I do not feel they were carried into place; having built fish pools for trout walking on soft mucky bottom, carrying rocks is less than rewarding under such conditions. Considering the amount of stones often used, it could represent decades of building or re-building. The leader would be placed first and rocks dumped on either side. If this were the case, leaders would need to move as driving stakes through last year’s stone piles would not work that well. At low tide, these submersed stonewalls would function more as a fence or barrier, assisting the final capture of fish on the ebbing tide. Several references shed information on the type of materials used to construct these weirs. The primary materials were stone and wood, secondary vines and rocks and twines mesh.

Therefore, only stones remain today as evidence of these early fisheries. Chaffinch Island, a public park in Guilford, CT, shares a similar feature – a stonefish weir from a headland. Here a similar bowl coastal feature directed fish much in the same way. In South Cove, in Old Saybrook, at the northeast corner of this bowl, a pronounced stonewall protrudes to create a Vtrap.
The amount of stones used was tremendous, and some assemblage is clearly visible on satellite imaging in the areas of the headland. Marine worms feasted (and continue to do so) on wood, especially in the warm months. Little of the wood or natural fibrous twine would survive to the following season...

One feature of our coastal traps in shallow areas is the use of small stones to support what is termed the leader. Here, stones would be piled into a crude wall, both to support the brush weir and to trap fish as the tide receded. In northern areas, where brush traps were set upon mud flats, no stones were used; currents were too strong. However, in coastal coves, I feel the stones at low tide formed a reef, which tended to keep fish concentrated against an “artificial shore.”
Tim Visel
The Sound School
October, 2008

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