Poof Tardiff: Exploring the history of Mount Jasper

Hello, fellow Berlinites. Many people who come to the Berlin area for the first time in their lives are taken aback by the mountains that surround this Upper Androscoggin Valley city. Not only that, they can’t believe the amount of hills that we have.
Cates Hill, Enman Hill, Mount Forist, Jericho Mountain, Mount Carberry and Mount Jasper are some of the high points of interest that surround this city. These smaller rises are then surrounded by larger ones such as a Presidential Range of the White Mountains, the Kilkenny Range out toward Route 110 and the Mahoosic Range on our Maine border.
Our Native Americans were probably all over these mountains at one time or another gathering supplies, hunting and fishing, but our most famous mountain for these earliest inhabitants was the one down the street from me and where I spent many days of my childhood roaming. It is called Mount Jasper.
The cave on the side of this mountain was always the object of our climb and we spent many hours playing in it, on top of it, below it and around it. We called it the old “Indian Cave” and we knew that at one time it had something to do with these archaic natives. We did not know, however, the whole story, and in the last 40 years there have been many answers to why it is here.
There were a couple of tribes of Native Americans that were mentioned as being in this area. They were the Penobscot, who had possession of all the country watered by the Penobscot, Kennebago and Androscoggin rivers. There was also another tribe called the St. Francis who lived in Canada and were friendly with the Penobscot.
The St. Francis tribe’s great thoroughfare was here on the Androscoggin River, and their camping places whenever possible were located on its islands. Often, the curiosity seeker would find many things that richly rewarded their search on these islands. Maybe they were not very valuable as far as dollars and cents were concerned, but valuable relics, such as spear points, arrowheads tomahawks and even bullets after the white man arrived were found.
Now these arrowheads and other things were made of what was then called Jasper (rhyolite today). This stone was very hard, and most of these old camping places had some, which were evidently chipped from larger pieces.
It had been a source of wonder where these natives had obtained this stone. This was settled in the year 1859, when William Sanborn found that what then became locally known as Jasper Cave on Cave Mountain. Mr. Sanborrn was a great outdoors-man, hunter and fisherman. It was said that he knew this area like the back of his hand. Certainly this is why the name was changed form Cave Mountain to Mount Jasper.
When Sanborn found and went inside this cave, he was convinced that this was where the natives mined for their weapons and equipment, some of which have been found four hundred miles away, many years ago.
Mr. Sanborn was the original owner of the Sanborn Place, where the Body Line is today in Berlin on Route 16. At one time in 1857, Sanborn lived on the old Murray Place on Upper Main Street. This was almost opposite where Bean Brook enters the Androscoggin River.
When it was first discovered by white man, the cave was about 14 feet long, 9 feet high and 6 feet wide. In all probability this entire cave was made by early Native Americans to obtain material for the purpose previously mentioned. There was no place on the three rivers previously referenced that had this special material.
It was in 1978 that an archaeologist named Richard Gramley decided to undertake a thorough excavation of what he called a mine and related sites on Mount Jasper and the valley below. This was to start in the spring of 1979.
In November of 1978, Gramley sought permission from the city of Berlin on behalf of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Harvard University to do some excavations. The city of Berlin held the title to this mountain and gave this man the OK.
Gramley found out through library research that archaeologists had come to this area in 1882 and 1961, but a thorough investigation did not take place. His excavation would be exhaustive.
Gramley’s findings in the 1979 survey put Mount Jasper on the map as a famous spot. The earliest inhabitants of the White Mountains were hunters who knew nothing about raising crops, making pottery, or using metal.
Several hundred years after the ice sheets retreated from what now is New England and 11,000 years ago, small bands of native hunters camped periodically in their favorite places along the headwaters of the Androscoggin River.
They left evidence of their presence in the form of skillfully made flaked tools of chert (flint). As sources of chert were rare in Northern New England and not accessible, hunters constantly searched for other stones in good supply that could be substituted for chert
Mount Jasper and it’s outcrops of excellent raw material for making flaked tools passed unnoticed until about 7,000 years ago or 4,000 years after the Native American’s pioneering exploration of the North Country.
The stone sought back then on Mount Jasper is called rhyolite, a variety of igneous rock. It outcrops as thin seam or dikes in metamorphic rocks perched nearly 400 feet above the Androscoggin River Valley.
This seam is inconspicuous and archaeologist Gramley believed that it might have been discovered accidentally. Once the natives found it, the location was never forgot until the white man brought firearms and iron tools, to replace the stone weapons of the Native Americans.
In its heyday, of Indian mining, Mount Jasper was visited regularly by the early inhabitants of this area, at least every two years and perhaps every season.
How did this igneous rock help our native Americans? Well, first and foremost they lived off the animals and fish that existed in this area and they grew very little crops. The rhyolite on Mount Jasper is tough and would fracture yielding a tough edge. With this tough edge, they were able to make such stone implements as knives, scrapers, drills and projectile points.
Being curious about this stone, I asked a geologist that I had met one day why it was sought of so many years ago by the local Native Americans. He told me that if I had a piece of rhyolite in my hands and snapped it into two pieces, the edges would be very, very sharp. That is why it was used to hunt or fish and for many other things.
Let us put it this way: Our Indians were great hunters, but I do not think that they could catch a trout by hand or outrun a deer. Getting your hands on a running or flying roughed grouse is also impossible. Once they found Mount Jasper, their lives must have changed with the use of better weapons.
There was no evidence that the earliest Americans remained for long periods of time on Mount Jasper. There were at the site only a few days and as soon as fresh tools had been manufactured, these hunters departed for their camps to the North along the Upper Androsscoggin River and mountain lakes. They moved on foot or by canoe, carrying only enough rhyolite to meet their immediate needs.
There are a lot more facts about this stone that people can find. On that point, we now have a great trail to the top of Mount Jasper and some artifacts on display at the public library here in Berlin. The hike takes about 25 minutes. If people talk about local mountains, tell them that Mount Jasper is the most historical in this area and is accessible to almost everybody.
Poof Tardiff writes a weekly column for The Berlin Sun. Questions or comments e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Also, join the many fans of the “Once Upon a Berlin Time” on Facebook and guess at the previously posted weekly mystery pictures.
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