Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Native Americans – Conclusion

The Kennebec tribe, also known as Norridgewock and Kennebis, was an early Abenaki band who lived in the Kennebec Valley of Maine. Their name comes from the Kennebec River, which was named after the bay it emptied into — kinipek meaning “bay” in the Abenaki language.

by Mary Grow

No historian your writer has found says how many Native Americans lived in the Kennebec River Valley before the Europeans arrived. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission has a document on its website estimating 25,000. Another on-line estimate for Maine and Maritime Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) says 32,000.

Diseases brought by Europeans in the 1600s reduced the number by at least 70 percent and perhaps by as much as 90 percent. If 25,000 is accurate, a 90 percent reduction would have left only about 2,500 Native Americans in all of Maine.

A later figure comes from Old Fort Western Director Linda Novak’s bicentennial lecture. She said that by 1726, about 40 members of the Kennebec tribe were among an estimated “289 warriors remaining along the Kennebec.”

Beginning early in the 1600s, Europeans extended their clearings and buildings along the river from the coast to, eventually, Moosehead Lake. Because the settlers were moving into land already occupied by Native Americans, and because in general they had no respect for the earlier inhabitants, their advance was intermittently resisted by force. During the series of wars between 1675 and 1763, frontier settlements were repeatedly attacked and wiped out. In intervals of peace, the settlements would be reclaimed and new ones started, always farther up-river.

The story of this European conquest is told by European historians, writing from Samuel de Champlain in the 1600s to the present day. Their histories abound with stories of “savages” behaving savagely, torturing and killing men, women, children and domestic animals indiscriminately.

Nonetheless, most of the historians this writer has read expressed some sympathy for Native Americans. Many, while deploring attacks on European settlers, implied or said that the Europeans started it. The Native Americans were initially friendly, but European arrogance, indifference to indigenous values and occasional acts of violence turned them against the newcomers.

One example widely cited is a story from 1675. British sailors encountered a woman and child in a canoe on the Saco River and deliberately tipped over the canoe, to see whether it was true that Native American children were natural swimmers. The boy drowned; the father, a chief named Squando, not unsurprisingly retaliated against the British.

(In February of this year, the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation gave the Biddeford Culture and Heritage Center [BCHC] a $40,000 grant to help put up a statue of Squando. Peter Scontras, chairman of the BCHC’s Indigenous Peoples Awareness Initiative, said in an email that the statue “acknowledges the correct relationship between Indigenous people and English colonists.”

Total cost is estimated at $150,000. The BCHC is seeking additional funding and an appropriate site in the Biddeford-Saco area. Scontras described preliminary design plans, which he hopes will be final later this summer.

The Portland Press Herald’s and other local newspapers’ February 2022 stories about the statue were picked up by U.S. News and World Report and by The Navajo Times, published in Window Rock, Arizona.)

William D. Williamson, completing his history of Maine in 1832, talked a lot about relations with Native Americans in the first 13 chapters, covering the years from 1691 to 1763.

By 1703, he wrote, the Native Americans realized that the newcomers were overpowering them. “Every hope of enjoying their native land, freed of white men, was full of despondency.”

But his sympathy was definitely mixed. A few lines later, he wrote of the Native Americans, “They made no advancements in mental culture, moral sense, honest industry, or manly enterprize.” Blaming French influence, he referred to depravity, breach of treaties and “a keener appetite…for ardent spirits, for rapine, and for blood.”

Summarizing the situation around 1750, Williamson wrote about the “best and bravest of [British] men” who had died in the wars that had “nearly exterminated” the “savage tribes.” He described the settlers as resolute patriots who, after peace was (temporarily) agreed, “cheerfully returned to their habitations,” beginning a period of piety, harmony and union.

The French, continuing their rivalry with Britain, quickly stirred up more trouble for Maine settlers, and Williamson’s next chapters talked about “barbarians” and their “depredations,” including taking settlers prisoner and killing them.

While lamenting Europeans’ sufferings, Williamson added that 1756 was not a happy year for the Native Americans, either. Describing Maine tribes generally, presumably including the Kennebecs, he referred to their “state of despondency. The French neglected them, and they were wasted by the war, and more by the smallpox, which was destructive among them, as it was in the American camp.”

As British settlement expanded after the 1759 defeat of the French, Williamson implied that the Massachusetts government developed a sense of responsibility for the Native Americans, without considering whether it was welcomed. A new governor, Francis Bernard, was installed in 1760, and Williamson wrote that one of his ideas was to make Fort Halifax one of two “truck houses” to monopolize trade (the other was at Fort Pownal in what is now Stockton Springs, at the mouth of the Penobscot).

Each trading center would have 25 or 30 soldiers, “two chaplains and armorers.” The centers would supply everything the tribes needed, and Bernard expected “favor, presents, and honorable traffic” would win their permanent friendship.

The result Williamson described does not sound friendly. Before the year ended, he wrote, Governor Bernard proposed changing “the laws concerning the Indians” to prevent them from contracting such large debts that they could repay them only by selling themselves or their children; and further, when a Native American violated British rules, to replace fines, “which they can seldom pay” with “corporeal punishment.”

In 1919 Louis Clinton Hatch published a history of Maine that included a chapter on Native Americans, mostly spent delineating the different tribal groups. He gave wars with settlers relatively little attention, preferring to emphasize wars with the Iroquois tribes to the west.

“There is a sentimental tendency to bewail the hard fate of the Indian and to blame the English for exterminating his race,” Hatch wrote. But, he continued, the Abenakis were relocated, not exterminated; and had it not been for the French influence, they would have remained friends with the British, for protection against other tribes and for European goods.

Hatch went on to describe the Maine Native Americans’ way of life, emphasizing how much hard work it required. “The ‘lazy Indian’ is a figment of the white man’s prejudice,” he wrote.

More than 50 years later, Vassalboro local historian Alma Pierce Robbins expressed sympathy for the Kennebecs. In her 1971 bicentennial history, Robbins cited numerous earlier sources on local Native Americans as she summarized the roles of the British and French in stirring animosity in Maine.

One of her sources described the Kennebecs as “sincere and faithful devotees of the Catholic Church.”

Another of her chosen quotations, from Thomas Hutchinson’s 1764 History of Massachusetts, is from a 1688 letter from “Randolph” to William Penn: “These barbarous people, the Indians, were never civilly treated by the late Government, who made it their business to encroach upon their lands, and by degrees to drive them out of it all.”

(The quotation is also found on line on page 574 of Massachusetts clergyman Cotton Mather’s 1702 Magnalia Christi Americana [The Glorious Works of Christ in America], attributed to “our late secretary Randolph.” Edward Randolph held the title of secretary in the Massachusetts colonial administration in the 1680s; Wikipedia says he died in April 1703, but perhaps Mather’s “late” meant only that he was no longer secretary.)

Robbins stated her own view: “There is no doubt that Vassalborough was homeland for Indian tribes from earliest times and they struggled to hold it until they were nearly destroyed. Who can blame them; they knew it for the beautiful land it is.”

Early chapters in the history of Maine edited by Richard W. Judd and others and published in 1995 include Native Americans’ perspectives. Harald E. L. Prins wrote about Europeans dividing tribes against each other and introducing devastating diseases. By the 1670s, he said, tribes in the northeast, including Maine, were tired of British clearing forests, providing liquor and especially allowing their free-roaming cattle to destroy Native American agricultural fields.

David L. Ghere gave a more detailed indictment of British actions, as when he accused British interpreters of deliberately mis-explaining Dummer’s Treaty, signed in July 1727 with Maine and Canadian Wabanaki leaders.

One example: “Wabanaki submission to English rule, for instance, was translated simply as a salute to the Massachusetts governor. Since the governor responded by saluting the Wabanaki leaders, the Indians assumed this indicated equal status and not subjugation.”

After 1727, Ghere wrote, Kennebec Valley Native Americans lost their leading role in wars against the Europeans, as they consolidated farther up the river. In the fighting between 1744 and 1763, Wabanakis from Canada attacked settlers along the Kennebec. Some Kennebecs joined them; other tribal members warned the British of pending attacks.

The building of Forts Halifax and Western in 1754 created “an untenable situation” for the Kennebecs, Ghere wrote, “which resulted in a gradual disintegration of the tribe.” Families deserted the valley to join other bands in Canada or elsewhere in Maine.

After the 1760s, the Kennebecs as a group almost entirely disappear from European historical records. One exception is in Kingsbury’s history, which mentions a French priest named Juniper Berthune who held Catholic services “among the Indians” after the Revolutionary War at a “mass house” on the Sebasticook.

Individual Native Americans associated with the Kennebec Valley get occasional notice, like Natanis, probably a Norridgewock, and Sabatis, perhaps a Passamaquoddy, who were among local guides for General Benedict Arnold’s 1775 expedition to attack Québec.

* * * * * *

Last week’s article ended with the explanation of the heart shape carved into a boulder on the shore of China Lake. In Rufus Jones’ The Romance of the Indian Heart, the carving was attributed to a Kennebec chief named Keriberba, who settled his small band on the west shore of the lake’s east basin after the British destroyed the French mission and Indian settlement at Norridgewock in 1724.

Jones wrote that after the group’s sacred symbol was restored, they lived in peace for a few more years. The British fort at Ticonic, built in 1754, cut off their annual trips back to Norridgewock to raise corn in the cleared fields, but they could still hunt and fish.

Then one day “when Keriberba was now an old chief of seventy-five years,” they saw settlers felling trees on the east shore, in an area where they habitually fished in a brook that ran – and still runs – into the lake. Not long afterward, another family started clearing just north of their village, “and they saw a cow where they had usually looked for deer or for bear.”

According to the China bicentennial history, these settlers were members of the Clark family, from Nantucket via Gardiner, Maine. In Gardiner the Clarks met surveyor John “Black” Jones, who had surveyed around China Lake in 1773; they came to claim lots in the spring and summer of 1774.

The Kennebecs met with the settlers and, despite no common language, enjoyed their popcorn and molasses candy, Jones wrote. But they doubted coexistence was possible.

On Keriberba’s advice, they joined other Abenakis who had migrated to Passamaquoddy Bay.

Jones concluded his story by writing that Quakers from China and Vassalboro used to visit the Passamaquoddies; “one wonders whether any of them then remembered that they too had sprung from the shore of the same lake as their visitors.”

Jones never claimed his story was all true, calling it part history and part imagination; and the China bicentennial history says the explanation of the carved heart in the granite boulder falls into the imagination category. But if the right part is true, this small band from China Lake may have been the last organized group of Kennebecs to leave the central Kennebec Valley.

Main sources

Grow, Mary M., China Maine Bicentennial History including 1984 revisions (1984).
Hatch, Louis Clinton, ed., Maine: A History 1919 ((facsimile, 1974).
Judd, Richard W., Churchill, Edwin A. and Eastman, Joel W., edd., Maine The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present (1995).
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
Maine Writers Research Club, Maine Indians in History and Legends (1952).
Robbins, Alma Pierce, History of Vassalborough Maine 1771 1971 n.d. (1971).
Williamson, William D., The History of the State of Maine from its First Discovery, A.D. 1602, to the Separation, A.D. 1820, Inclusive (1832).


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