80-year-old Granby resident walking 400 miles in honor of ancestor

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George Gill Ducharme, Pat Beeman, Jeanne Grass, and John Moody on an old Indian trail near Websterville and Orange, Vt. on Aug. 31, 2022, while journeying toward Odanak

In the summer of 1993, 51-year-old George Gill Ducharme received a letter from his aunt, Lauretta, that changed his identity, his understanding of family, and the course of his life. The letter confirmed rumors centering around George’s 5th great-grandfather, Samuel Joseph Gill, that had swirled around family reunions since his boyhood.

Attached to the letter was a newspaper article from the late 1600s describing the abduction of 10-year-old Samuel Gill while he was picking strawberries in the Puritan colony of Salisbury, Massachusetts. The boy had been taken by the Abenaki tribe to Saint-François-du-Lac in the First Nations reserve of Odanak, Quebec, Canada, as a captive. Despite repeated requests and visits from his family, Samuel decided to stay with the Abenaki, and his descendants became enmeshed with those of his Abenaki captors.

After reading the letter and realizing that he was a descendant of Abenakis, George embarked on a journey to investigate and understand his genealogy. “It was absolutely invigorating,” says George. “It added a richness that I had no knowledge of. But also, it was very, very sad and frustrating that this part of my experience had to be and was hidden.”

Through his research, George discovered his Abenaki heritage was obscured to protect him. George’s great-grandparents immigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts, from Canadian First Nations reservations in the 1890s in search of work in the mills. Just a few decades later, a eugenics movement “specifically aimed at French-Canadian Abenakis, which meant us,” George says, took root in New England. “The word from the nuns and the priests and the family members was, ‘Do not tell the kids. Do not tell the kids that there’s any Indian here.’” Nearly a century later, George set about to uncover the truth about his family.

George connected with John Moody of the Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions at a powwow in Littleton, New Hampshire. John Moody is an ethnohistorian and, along with his wife Donna Moody (who passed away in April 2022), has worked tirelessly to serve the less privileged of society and advocate for the Abenaki people. With John’s guidance, George dived into the literature on captives and the French and Indian Wars. “In each step of the way,” George remembers, “it became a little more exciting.”

George uncovered historical accounts describing how Samuel, born on September 16, 1687, was abducted on June 10, 1697. His father, Sargent Samuel Gill, wrote several petitions asking for his son’s release, and went to visit him a few times, but Samuel decided to stay with the Abenaki. In learning about the Abenaki, George began to understand why Samuel decided to stay. The native approach to raising young boys was completely opposite to that of the strict Puritan community Samuel was born into. Their approach was to “develop the gifts that the Great Spirit had given and put in this cherished child,” and as for his ancestor, George adds, “Samuel, along with others, felt, ‘hey, this is a pretty good life up here. I get to, as a 10-year-old boy, ride around on horses. I’m having a lot of fun.’ ” Samuel Gill’s children became important members and leaders of the Abenaki tribe in Odanak.

Feeling empowered by the historical record that not only confirmed the story of Samuel Gill but described his children and grandchildren, George applied for membership with the Abenaki tribe and was accepted in 1996. He now holds a Certificate of Indian Status and Citizenship from the Sovereign Abenaki Nation, Republic of Missiquoi.

George Gill Ducharme and John Moody with a totem pole in Swanton, Vt., Sept. 20, 2022. Submitted photos

George’s research led him to pursue a Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies degree at Dartmouth College, with Dr. Colin Gordon Calloway as his advisor. Dr. Calloway is the John Kimball, Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Professor of Native American Studies and has published numerous books on the history of Dartmouth College, its ties to Native Americans, as well as Native American history including the Gill family. From 1998 to 2003, George attended Dartmouth College. George and his wife, Joan, would commute from Granby to Hanover, New Hampshire, every Tuesday during the summer so that George could attend classes until Thursday, when they would return to Granby. To George, who holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education, pursuing this new degree represented a labor of love. “I went up there and just began to have a fantastic time,” George recalls, “I loved every moment of it.” His 310-page thesis, titled “Gill: A Chronicle of a White Indian Family,” tells the story of George’s pilgrimage into his family’s past.

To honor his 5th great-grandfather and the Abenaki people, George dreamed of recreating the over-400 mile walk Samuel Gill and the Abenaki would have taken from Salisbury, Massachusetts, to Odanak, Quebec, Canada. In 2022, George saw his dream come true. To celebrate his 80th year of life and the 325th anniversary of Samuel Gill’s capture, George and several friends began the Gill Walk. Their plan was to traverse the countryside from Salisbury to Odanak, travelling along the rivers as the Abenaki would have, all while learning local indigenous history on the way.

The mission of the Gill Walk is to quietly honor indigenous people such as the Abenaki, who have inhabited what is now New England and Canada for 12,000 years. Preserving Abenaki traditions and promoting reconciliation and understanding are key to each step George and his companions Jeanne Grass and Pat Beeman take. Along the way, they stop to recognize historical markers, hear indigenous stories, and honor the homeland. Their walk has already raised nearly $90,000 to benefit the Winter Center for Indigenous Traditions, which uses the money to pay expenses related to their new Winter Center Offices and Winter Archives, Library, and Research Center.

In July 2023, George, Pat, and Jeanne –—with John Moody in their chase vehicle dubbed the “Silver Canoe” —will pick up the walk where they left off in Colchester, Vermont, and cross into Canada, finally concluding their trek in Odanak, Quebec, Canada. At a rate of 15 miles per day, they walk the history that George Gill Ducharme has been reading and writing about for the past 30 years of his life since he learned the story of Samuel Gill. Anyone interested in following their journey and supporting the Winter Center can write to George: George Gill Ducharme, Communitas, Box 358, Manchester, CT 06045.