By Andy O’Brien
People from many different backgrounds call Maine their home. In “Maine People: A History,” a new column, I will tell the story of some of these groups of people. My subjects will range from the colonists, who took land from the Indigenous people whose footprints can be traced to the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, to more recent immigrants seeking asylum from war, poverty, and famine. Many Mainers have faced hardships over the years because of their backgrounds, and continue to do so – language barriers, low wages, poverty, cramped and unhealthy living conditions, discrimination, and religious persecution. At the same time, many have sent their children to college, built successful businesses, become community and state leaders, and thrived. Stay tuned to this column for these stories.
The People of the Dawn
In the year 1624, English merchant Christopher Levett sailed into what would later become known as Portland Harbor, seeking a spot to build his colony. Levett was a member of the Plymouth Council for New England, a joint stock company led by English proprietor Sir Fernando Gorges that was granted a royal charter to create colonial settlements in New England. King James I of England granted Levett 6,000 acres of land in what would become Maine, even though people had already been living here for thousands of years.
Levett arrived in Casco Bay a few years after the Great Dying, when European diseases had claimed the lives of a great majority of the Indigenous people living along the Maine coast, so he didn’t see many people at first. In his book The Pioneer Colonist in Casco Bay, he later described the area as perfect for fishing, bird hunting, and farming.
About three miles up the Presumpscot River at the falls, Levett wrote that he came upon a small Abenaki village of about 50 men, women, and children. The sagamores (leaders) welcomed the Englishman, fed him, shared their tobacco and liquor, and presented him with a beaver skin as a token of their hospitality. Cogawesco, “the Sagamore of Casco and Quack,” told Levett that he “should be very welcome” to settle the area and invited him to come out for a tour in his canoe with his wife, “the Queene,” to scope out potential spots for his settlement.
Levett was impressed that the tribal leaders gave him their blessing to establish his colony, because he knew the Abenaki culture “[had] a [natural] right of inheritance.” Therefore, he reasoned, it was necessary to be fair with the Abenaki people without using force or treachery to establish his colony. The sagamores talked about bringing him into their family, and he joked that he “was not a little proud … to be adopted cousin to so many great kings at one instant.” Soon after, Levett took the Abenaki leaders down to his ship to meet the rest of the crew, and they dined and drank together.
“The woman or reputed Queene, asked me if those men were my friends,” wrote Levett. “I told her they were; then she dranke to them, and told them they were welcome to her [country], and so should all my friends be at any time, she dranke also to her husband, and bid him welcome to her [country] too, for you must understand that her father was the Sagamore of this place, and left it to her at his death having no more Children.”
Amherst College Professor Lisa Brooks, who is of Abenaki and Polish descent, wrote in her book, Our Beloved Kin, that when the queen welcomed Levett and his men, she was inviting them into her kinship network, with its diplomatic practices and reciprocal relations. “It was up to [Levett], and those that followed,” according to Brooks, “to reveal whether they would ‘abide with’ them and ‘share’ in the first mother’s power and strength, or fall among the ‘brutes,’ who would ‘steal’ her ‘body’ and refuse to ‘share in it’ as she had intended.”
The Abenaki sagamores proposed a diplomatic arrangement that allowed the white men to share in the earth’s bounty, but not to take it all for themselves. The Abenaki locals liked Levett because he respected them as more or less equals. But he died a few years later and other English settlers did not respect this arrangement. They had no interest in sharing land with people they regarded as beneath them.
When Europeans first arrived, an estimated 100,000 Indigenous people lived in New England. Archeological evidence shows they had been here since at least 11,000 years ago, after a mile of glacial ice over the region began to recede at the end of the Ice Age. These early residents likely hunted prehistoric animals like wooly mammoths, mastodon, horses, muskox, bison, and caribou. When those animals went extinct and the climate warmed, other game animals like birds, bear, deer, and beaver migrated here from the south.
In addition to land mammals, coastal shell mounds* show there was a bounty of berries, bird eggs, nuts, and roots in the woodlands; eel, trout, alewives, and salmon in the rivers and lakes and quahog, oysters, swordfish, and other fish in the sea. While the climate was cool and the glacial soil was poor, in Southern Maine – where the climate was a little warmer – some Indigenous farmers even grew corn, squash, and beans.
Prior to European contact, several Indigenous nations lived and thrived throughout the region. There were the Penacook to the far south; Abenaki in the south, west, and along the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers; Penobscot on the river of its name; Wawenoc in the midcoast; and Micmac, Maliseet, Pasamaquoddy in the north and downeast Maine. These speakers of Algonquian languages are known as the “Wabanaki,” meaning “People of the Dawn.” Although European diseases and an attempted genocide nearly wiped them out, there are still four federally recognized tribal nations in Maine, including the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe, Houlton Band of Maliseet, and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.
These days, many Wabanaki people live on fragments of what was once a vast expanse of land and are fighting to be treated as the sovereign nations they were before European colonization. According to the last census, 758 out of 2,278 members of the Penobscot Nation live on Indian Island in the Penobscot River, 760 Passamaquoddy members live on Indian Township Reservation and 692 reside at the Pleasant Point Reservation in Washington County. In total, an estimated 8,700 Wabanaki people live in Maine.
Currently, the Maine Legislature is considering a proposed law that would give Maine’s Tribal Nations this recognition which they have long sought that would allow them to regulate hunting, fishing, natural resource management, and land use on tribal lands, among many other rights. As tribal sovereignty activists sometimes say, “When the Wabanaki Thrive, We All Thrive!” To learn more about the history, culture, and politics of Indigenous people of Maine, see resources provided by the Abbe Museum (www.abbemuseum.org), Upstander Project (upstanderproject.org), and Wabanaki Alliance (wabanakialliance.com).
*Correction: In this column I misrepresented the significance of Maine’s coastal shell mounds. Archeologists have historically viewed them as “trash heaps” of discarded sea shells, but as writer Catherine Schmitt writes, the current Wabanaki interpretation of these mounds is that they were significant cultural gathering places for local tribes and highly visible monuments on the landscape.
Andy O’Brien is a writer, amateur historian, labor activist, and lifelong Mainer. He lives in Rockland.