The Pennacook Indians dwelled in the area we now refer to as New England. They could be found in the Merrimack river valley, encompassing the lower 2/3 of New Hampshire, southern Maine, and northeastern Massachusetts.
As many as 12,000 Pennacook lived in this area prior to European migration; by 1647, more than 90% of these had succumbed to disease. They spoke Algonquin, officially, but their language (and most of their culture) was closer to western Abenaki than to the traditional Algonquin common in southern New England.
The word Pennacook derives from an Abenaki term meaning "at the bottom of the hill."
The Pennacook are often identified so closely with the Abenaki that they are sometimes classified as the southernmost group of that tribe. In 1620, however, the Pennacook were seen as an independent confederacy, and indeed apparently viewed the Abenaki as enemies. By the turn of the 18'th century, the encroachment of and subsequent wars with European colonists in Massachusetts drove the Pennacook and Abenaki together.
Disease and war, as they did most indian nations of the northeast, plagued the Pennacook in the late 1500's-early 1600's. Typhus and other, unknown diseases struck them as contact with Europeans grew, and the ongoing conflicts between the neighboring nations of Penobscot and Micmac spilled over into Pennacook lands, bringing significant losses of people and property.
Despite the prevalence of European borne diseases, the early interactions between the Pennacook and Colonists were evidently largely friendly. But the Powhatan-led near destruction of Jamestown in Virginia had eroded the English trust of the natives, and relations between the two groups became increasingly tenuous.
The introduction of firearms into the Pennacook culture drove another wedge into an already widening gulf, and Colonist paranoia drove the English to capture the leaders of the tribe. The son of the chief was among these taken, and his release was granted only after a treaty of Pennacook submission to the Massachusetts colonists was signed.
Meanwhile, the balance of power in North America was shifting, as the Iroquois in the Great Lakes region overcame the Huron. This convinced the French to form a new alliance with the Algonquin in New England, and a more precarious one with the Pennacook. But English refusal to help the French fight the Iroquois Mohawk eventually led to a strengthening by the Mohawk, and the Pennacook and a few other tribes now faced them without a broad power base.
Due to the large amount of land given to the Massachusetts colonists, the Pennacook were in a particularly vulnerable position in these battles, and were obliged to petition the Massachusetts legislature to give them back some land. As the Mohawk continued to overrun the remaining tribes aligned against them, the Pennacook absorbed some of the defeated nations. But were themselves hard-put to repel the Iroquois onslaught, as they had signed a treaty and trade agreement with the English, allowing the Mohawk to devote more resources to their battles.
This agreement evolved into a formal military alliance when French reinforcements hurt the Iroquois. By the mid 1660's, the Pennacook had been betrayed by the English, who had switched sides, as far as the natives were concerned. Even the French had agreed to a general peace with the Iroquois by 1667. With this newfound power base, the Mohawk were able to drive the Pennacook across New Hampshire and into southern Maine.
By this time the once-captured-and-now-released son of the Pennacook chief had succeeded his father, but not before converting to Christianity. This change in spirituality may have been a factor in Wanalancet's drive to keep his nation neutral in King Philip's war, a drive which, remarkably, worked.
In an effort to preserve the neutrality of his people, Wanalancet sent a portion of them north, as far away as Lake Huron. He and most of the remainder of his people followed, and returned south only at the end of the war. Unfortunately the English were not even close to being ready to sign peace accords with any Indian tribe; even after King Philip had been raised in effigy, their continuing hatred and distrust of the natives served to continue the war on another front. As the Pennacook accepted refugees from neighboring tribes, the English were outraged, and renewed their attacks on them. These attacks, soon assisted by the Iroquois, drove Wanalancet and his people into fleeing again, this time to Canada, and ultimately to the Abenaki.
These retreats, the ongoing war between the English and the Abenaki, and Wanalancet's death served to splinter the Pennacook into villages along the upper Merrimack, Lake Champlain, and St. Francois, in Canada. This splintering and forced abandonment turned the Pennacook decidedly anti-English, and they became staunch French allies.By the advent of King William's war in the 1690's the Pennacook were sending war parties to defend Quebec.
Some Pennacook groups along the Merrimack tried hard to remain neutral, but they too either joined with the French or withdrew further. After his family was taken hostage, a new leader of Pennacook war raids finally made peace with the English, though battles between the Abenaki and the colonists continued until 1699.
This conflict, the Pennacook were mightily opposed to neutrality. Queen Anne's War loomed on the horizon, and some Abenaki joined with the still seething Pennacook. The English and the French both tried to lure this group to their respective sides, but the french won.
By the end of this war, the Pennacook were widely considered to be largely absorbed into the Abenaki, but this is not entirely accurate. More likely, they survived in small villages along the upper Merrimack, and almost certainly preserved their identities in these new tribes. It is even said that the members of the last extant group of Pennacook saved some colonists from starving one harsh winter.