Williston has a long and rich history of human settlement far predating the last several centuries of European influence. Though the clues are not so easily found and interpreted as those of European settlement, the Williston landscape abounds with evidence of its prehistoric past. To date, almost 100 archeological sites have been documented in Williston spanning the time period from about 9500BC-1600AD.
Somewhat ironically, most of these sites have been discovered through the intensification of our current land use. Many were discovered during the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Circumferential Highway project and many more have been found through surveys of proposed development sites under Act 250. The wealth of archeological sites in Williston and diversity of their ages has contributed significantly to the knowledge of Vermont’s prehistory and that of New England in general. This also makes Williston a great place to explore how prehistoric people saw and used their landscape.
The distribution of Williston’s archeological sites reveal a lot about what landscape elements were important to early people; most of the sites were clustered along rivers, streams and other water sources. Proximity to water was extremely important when early people sited their settlements and it’s easy to imagine why. They consumed the water directly, of course, but water sources also often concentrate game and the moist, rich lands nearby often foster productive edible plants such as butternuts, ostrich ferns (fiddleheads), and wild leeks. Waterways would have been used for transportation both on foot and by boat as well, just as they were by early European explorers and settlers. Early peoples also seemed to prefer relatively flat topography for their settlements; this often coincides with areas near water, but interestingly also coincides with much modern development activity.
It’s hard to imagine Williston without people, but just 12,000 years ago humans had never set foot on any piece of Vermont and the landscape looked quite different (Haviland and Power 1994). Glaciers had retreated about 13,000 years ago and a mosaic of tundra and woodland replaced them (figure 2), hosting a variety of wildlife including mastodons, wooly mammoths, and caribou. The Champlain Valley attracted game birds like the migrating snow geese we see today, and the Champlain Sea (see substrate section) fostered whales, seals, fish and shellfish. This abundance of food as well as water, warming climate, and gentle terrain probably attracted early North Americans to the Champlain Valley much as these features attracted European settlers more recently. But where exactly did these first inhabitants of Vermont choose to live?
Imagine yourself as part of a Paleoindian hunter/gatherer group in the tundra and woodland mosaic of the Champlain Valley 10,500 years ago. What parts of the landscape would attract you, where would you want to live? A small hill in the midst of a large expanse of tundra might seem attractive for a base camp, especially if it was near a supply of fresh water. The hill would provide a good view of approaching game and if you camped on the south side of the hill you would even get a slightly warmer microclimate in the none too warm post-glacial environment. This is precisely the scenario found at the so-called Mahan site near Allen Brook in Williston. This is one of the largest Paleoindian sites in the Northeast, dating to about 10,500 years ago, and containing over 5,000 stone artifacts including projectile points, scrapers, knives, a drill, and many stone flakes (Thomas 2001). This site is interpreted as a summertime base camp occupied for an extended period by 25-40 people, perhaps representing a sort of staging area for the early explorations that populated the region. These early people were hunter-gatherers lacking even the technologies of bow and arrow, pottery, agriculture that would not develop in the Northeast for many millennia, but that is not to say they were isolated in the world. The stone artifacts at the site indicate both an awareness and use of local resources and a widespread trade or travel network. Most of the artifacts are locally sourced quartzite and chert, but others are of chert and jasper from as far away as north-central Maine and Pennsylvania were also found suggesting trade networks spanning over 500 miles. Williston is known as a center of commerce today, but this site and others shows us we are just the latest incarnation of a long history of trade in Williston.
The Mahan site gives us a glimpse of the earliest cultures in Williston, but prehistoric cultures changed over the millennia as their environment continued to change and as new technologies, such as the bow and arrow, pottery and agriculture, were developed. The archeological sites in Williston document these changing technologies and cultures and suggest a nearly continuous human occupation from the earliest inhabitants of Vermont to the time of European settlement. While settlement locations and daily activities surely changed with these cultural shifts, the location of archeological sites reveals common threads in their use of the landscape over time. Recognizing these threads ties our own landuse patterns to many of the same features of Williston’s landscape.
Haviland, W. A., and M. W. Power. 1994. The Original Vermonters: Native Inhabitants, Past and Present. University Press of New England, Hanover.
Thomas, P. A. 2001. Contributions to Understanding Vermont Prehistory: The Chittenden County Circumferential Highway Archaeological Studies, 1983-2000. #204, Consulting Archaeology Program, University of Vermont.