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Sunrise at the Sanbar, Lake Champlain at Milton, Vermont

The Secrets of Crab Island: Part II

Habitation: The arrival of the People of the Dawn

by James P. Millard

We do not know when the first human set foot on Crab Island. We do know the first people to inhabit the region arrived around 8,000-11,000 years ago, right about the time the Champlain Sea was giving way to what would become Lake Champlain1. We also know the region was very different from what we see today.

When the first humans arrived here- hunter/gatherers we now know as Paleo-Indians - Crab Island and the surrounding region was probably composed largely of tundra, with some areas of encroaching forest. Animals long-since vanished from the Earth walked the same ground as these early inhabitants. Mastodon, Wooly Mammoths and Caribou were plentiful and served as food to these early hunters2. We know Paleo-Indians inhabited the islands because traces of their existence have been found on the shores of Grand Isle, just across the water from Crab Island. Other sites have been located in the Ticonderoga region and near Highgate, Vermont.

By 7,000 B.C., the large mammals were extinct. The Caribou herds had moved north, where they remain today. Forests increasingly predominated- the inhabitants of the lake region were entering what is now called the Archaic period. Subsistence was still largely from hunting and gathering, but fishing took on an increasingly important role3. Dugout canoes were used for fishing and traveling up and down the lakes and streams4. Places occupied included the Otter Creek, Lamoille and Winooski River valleys, and an ever-increasing number of inhabitants lived in the northern reaches- along the Missisquoi and on the Isle la Motte. Along the western shore, humans also resided, but evidently not in as large a number as those in the east. The lake eventually came to be known as a boundary line between different tribal groups.

By the start of the Woodland period, some 1,000-2,000 years ago, agriculture had taken hold. Thriving settlements were established at places like East Creek near present day Orwell, Winooski, near Burlington, and Missisquoi, near Swanton. Pottery was in use. Remnants have been found at all of these locations. The inhabitants became more clearly distinct in their tribal affiliations. The western shore was the home of the Iroquoian tribes, and the Abenaki (Algonquian) peoples resided to the east of the great lake.  We can be fairly sure that natives from each group would have stopped off at Crab Island in their travels, perhaps having to take refuge from a storm. Abenaki tribal legend tells of Odzihozo, a much smaller island to the south, where the great "Transformer" took his rest after creating the lakes.

The tribes engaged in conflicts among themselves. The Iroquois and Abenaki, especially, at times harbored great enmity for each other. Populations along the lake waned and increased largely due to these wars among the early inhabitants. The suffering that the native people experienced at the hands of each other, however, was nothing compared to what they were to know at the hands of the white man.

Click here to go back to Part I   Click here to return to the Introduction to The Secrets of Crab Island   Click here to continue on to Part III


1 William A. Haviland, Marjory W. Power, "The Original Vermonters: Native Inhabitants, Past and Present" (University of Vermont: Published by University Press of New England, Hanover, NH: 1994) 14-19
Ibid., 25-28
Ibid., 38
Ibid., 83

On November 11, 2002, Crab Island was featured in a WPTZ/Lake Champlain Basin Program Champlain 2000 story. Unfortunately, the video and feature article are no longer available online.


Visiting Crab Island...
Crab Island is publicly owned land- the property of the people of New York. It is also a very special, unique place that merits respect and consideration. Keep in mind the island is covered with Poison Ivy. It is also the home of protected fauna and flora. Look, but do not touch. Metal detectors and digging are strictly prohibited on the island.

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