The great lake now called “Champlain” was home to indigenous peoples for many thousands of years before Europeans ever set foot on its shores. The oldest surviving archaeological evidence dates to about 11,000 years ago, when the seawater filled the valley at the end of the last Ice Age. Nomadic people followed big game called paleofauna, hunting mastodon, wooly mammoth, caribou and giant beavers across a landscape resembling arctic tundra where edible and medicinal plants grew in abundance. The salty waters of the Champlain Sea supported both large sea-going mammals and smaller fish.
As the climate warmed, the landscape changed. Temperate northern woodland species replaced larger mammals and cold-weather plants. Rising land cut the Lake off from the north Atlantic and the waters slowly lost their salinity. Indigenous Native people traveled seasonally along the lake to hunt, fish, harvest plants, and gather building materials for homes, canoes, and sleds. Stone tools made from exotic stone indicate that the lake’s Native residents maintained social contact and inter-tribal trade networks with Native groups in the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Valley, the Maritime Provinces, the Connecticut River Valley, and the Hudson River Valley.
During the Woodland Period, about 2900 – 400 years ago, people began to supplement their ancient ways of hunting and fishing with the cultivation of corn. As new groups of Native people migrated to the region, the great lake became the boundary between Iroquoian people who called themselves Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”) to the west and Algonkian people who called themselves Wôbanakiak or Abenaki (“people of the dawn”) to the east. Abenaki people trace their origins to the great lake they call Bitawbakw, “The Waters Between.” The easternmost tribe of Iroquoian people--the Kanienkehaka Mohawk---call the lake Caniaderiguarunte, “The Door of the Country.”
The Champlain Valley remained an important travel corridor for Native people long after the so-called “French and Indian” wars ended. By the 19thcentury, much of the lakeshore had been claimed by white settlers, but small enclaves of Mohawk and Abenaki families persisted, doing subsistence hunting and fishing, and peddling wild game, medicinal herbs, and ash-splint baskets to their non-native neighbors. Native knowledges and lifeways have settled into north country culture---maple sugaring, herbal medicines, hunting techniques, snowshoeing, and many other woods crafts. Today, Mohawk families with ties to the Lake Champlain area can be found living at Kahanawake, near Montreal, Canada, at Akwesasne in Hogansburg, NY, at Kanatsiohareke in Fonda, NY, and elsewhere in the northeast. Abenaki families with ties to Lake Champlain can be found living at Missisquoi (Swanton, VT), Odanak (Saint Francis, Quebec), Lake George, Saratoga Springs, and other places around New England. The history of these Native peoples is inextricably woven into the cultural landscape of Lake Champlain.