American Indians: Northern New England

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American Indians: Northern New England

Two distinct Wabanaki (or Abenaki; "people of the dawnland") groups lived in northern New England. Western Wabanakis, including the Penacooks, Sokokis, and Missisquois, lived along the Upper Merrimac and Connecticut Rivers and Lake Champlain watersheds. Eastern Wabanakis lived near the coast; they consisted of interrelated tribes usually identified by the rivers along which they lived, particularly the Sacos (also Pigwackets), Kennebecs (or Norridgewocks), and Penobscots. Further northeast lived the related Maliseet-Passamaquoddies and Mi'kmaqs. The Wabanakis' economies were primarily based on seasonal rounds of fishing, hunting, and gathering, and settlements were small and temporary; people lived in small kinship bands. They quickly became involved in the fur trade, which resulted in larger, semi-permanent villages along rivers and near trading posts. Beginning in late 1675, war with English colonists frequently flared, largely because Massachusetts sought to establish settlements and imperial conflict between France and England intensified, with Wabanakis responding by developing closer connections to the French. They abandoned vulnerable villages when threatened and moved to the Bécancour and Odanak-St. Francis mission towns near Montreal and Quebec. While some went back when peace returned, others remained, creating permanent kinship ties spanning the region.

By 1760 only a few villages remained along with families and seasonal camps scattered throughout the region. Western Wabanakis remained centered at St. Francis, although they never surrendered their claims to ancestral homelands and village sites, and members often traveled to those areas to visit, fish, hunt, and sell crafts. Most Eastern Wabanakis lived in settlements along the St. John's River, Passamaquoddy Bay, and the Penobscot River. The Penobscots, with about eight hundred people, served as the "representatives" for most of the remaining Wabanakis between Quebec and the coast; all were also part of an emerging Algonquian Confederacy that met at Kahnawake near Montreal. The expansion of English settlements kept tensions high, and the occasional murder of Indians triggered alarms of war. But the Penobscots were able to make a place for themselves and sought a protected reservation. In the summer of 1775 as the Revolution erupted, Penobscot chiefs obtained, from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a trading post and protection for their lands against encroachment in exchange for their support for the colonial cause. One year later, two Maliseet chiefs signed a similar agreement, supposedly on behalf of the Mi'kmaqs as well, although these tribes were divided over the war and some signed a nonaggression treaty with the English. By the end of the war, between forty and fifty men from the three tribes and the Passamaquoddies served with U.S. forces. After the war Massachusetts manipulated ambiguities in the agreement and by 1790 had taken everything but two islands along the coast and the islands in the river northward from the main Penobscot village at Old Town. Maliseets at Passamaquoddy Bay also received a reservation, and groups of Mi'kmaqs obtained similar protection from Canada.

In the new Republic, Wabanakis continued their subsistence rounds of hunting and fishing, living in wigwams and wood huts and occasionally traveling and camping in family bands. In 1822 Jedidiah Morse found about 300 Mi'kmaqs, 379 Passamaquoddies, and 277 Penobscots; this count missed Wabanakis traveling or living outside the reserves. The three tribes retained deep connections through the Wabanaki confederation, and members attended each other's celebrations, including the installation of a new sachem. Each tribe also retained considerable political and cultural autonomy: they elected their sachems; combined Catholicism and belief in traditional spirit beings; lived in wigwams; and spurned state schools. The men continued to trap and sell furs; they also worked for farmers and lumbermen, while women and families peddled baskets. This ancillary income became more important as Anglo-Americans settled and "developed" the region, destroying or taking fishing and hunting habitat. The changes in the environment and white racism demoralized natives, which only increased the rising problem of alcohol addiction. After 1830 the Penobscots would face more tribulations as the booming lumber industry destroyed hillsides and rivers, and tribal conflicts intensified as the older sachems sold timber and more land. But they and the other two Wabanaki communities survived, and in the early twenty-first century remain semi-sovereign tribes.

See alsoDiplomatic and Military Relations, American Indian .


Day, Gordon M. In Search of New England's Native Past: Selected Essays. Edited by Michael K. Foster and William Cowan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

McBride, Bunny. Women of the Dawn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Prins, Harald. The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Daniel R. Mandell

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American Indians: Northern New England

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American Indians: Northern New England