Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Abenaki Indians and Language




The present spirit of inquiry into the early history of New England is bringing forth additional facts and evolving new light, by which we are every day seeing more clearly the true motive and incentives for its colonization. But whenever the student turns to investigate the history of the aboriginal tribes, who once inhabited this part of the country, he is struck, not so much with the paucity of materials, as with the complication and difficulties which our earlier and later writers have thrown around the subject, as well as the very different light with which they have viewed it.

The first explorers of our coast, whose intercourse with the Indians was limited to trading for furs and skins, seem to have had a much better opinion of them than Mather, Hubbard, and some still later writers. It is not to be supposed that while a large part of the population were smarting from the distress of almost continued Indian wars, that even the most candid could coolly investigate and impartially record the history, character, and wants of such a people. But the time has arrived, when, divesting ourselves of all prejudice, we can examine carefully their true situation, and making allowance for their condition, write their history with fairness and candor.

The present sketch is confined to a brief notice of the tribes who inhabited the territory now constituting the States of Maine and New Hampshire, all of which may be considered as embraced under the name of Abenakis, or more properly Wanbanakkie. It has often been supposed that this name was given them by the French, but it is undoubtedly their original appellation, being derived from Wanbanban, which may be defined the people of aurora borealis or northern light.

It is only now intended to sketch their earlier history, and to trace the various emigrations to the present residence of the Abenakis proper, in Canada; and viewing this tribe as the living representative of our extinct ones, to consider its interesting history, so clearly connected with New England frontier life, although most of that history is but a record of war and wretchedness.

The celebrated discoverer, Capt. John Smith, in his general history, furnishes the earliest and most reliable description of the Indians on the coast of Maine, as they were in 1614; other writers give accounts of tribes there, some of which it is difficult to distinguish or locate; but it may be best to consider all that were residing in the two States above-mentioned as embraced in about eight distinct tribes, namely: Penobscots or Tarrentines, Passamaquodies or Sybayks, Wawenocks, Norridgewoks or Canibas, Assagunticooks, Sokokis or Pequakets, Pennacooks, Malacites or St. Johns.

The Penobscots[1] were probably the most numerous and influential tribe. Their chief or bashaba was said to have been acknowledged as a superior as far as Massachusetts Bay. They occupied the country on both sides of the Penobscot Bay and River; their summer resort being near the sea, but during the winter and spring they inhabited lands near the falls, where they still reside. It is somewhat strange to find a tribe numbering about five hundred still remaining in their ancient abode, and, though surrounded by whites, retaining their language, religion, and many of the habits and customs of centuries past, with a probability of perpetuating them for ages to come. Their name is from penobsq, rock, and utoret, a place, literally, rocky-place,—which no doubt refers to the rocky falls in the river near their residence. It is not supposed that many of this tribe emigrated to Canada, although they had constant intercourse with that country.

The Passamaquodies were found occupying the northeastern corner of Maine, if, as it is generally supposed, they are the descendants of those seen and described by De Monts, who spent the winter of 1604 near their present head-quarters. Their subsequent history for more than a century was but a blank, as in all that time they are not mentioned by any writer, or named in any of the treaties, till after the conquest of Canada. This omission is certainly strange, as in the ones of 1713 and 1717 now published in this volume, mere fragments of tribes are named and represented.

Still, if any reliance can be placed on their own traditions, they had resided for generations previous to the Revolution around the lower Schoodic Lake, where the recent discovery of stone hatchets and other implements of an ancient make would seem to verify their assertions. They also point out the place of a fight with the Mohawks, who two centuries ago carried terror into all the Indian villages from Carolina to the Bay of Fundy. It is probable that from their distant inland and secluded position, as well as their limited numbers, they were in no way connected with the various wars which the other tribes waged against the colonists, and so were unnoticed. As their residence on the lake was nearer Machias than any other available point on the sea coast, it may be that to trade with this people the trading house was established there by the Plymouth Colony, in 1630, and they were often called the Machias Indians. Although their intercourse has long continued with Canada, up to this time they have sent no emigrants there. They number at present between four and five hundred souls, and still adhere to the religious forms taught them by the Jesuits. This tribe designate themselves by the name of Sybayk.[2]

The Wawenocks were located on the sea-coast, and inhabited the country from the Sheepscot to the St. George; they are quite fully described by Capt. John Smith, who had much intercourse with them. From their situation on the rivers and harbors, they were much sooner disturbed by the settlements than any other of the tribes in Maine. In 1747 there were but a few families remaining. At the treaty at Falmouth, in 1749, they were associated with the Assagunticooks, among whom they were then settled, and with whom they soon after removed to Canada. The Canibas or Norridgewoks occupied the valley of the Kennebec, from the tide water to its sources; their principal residence was at Norridgewock. Here the Jesuit missionaries, at an early period, taught them their religious faith, and by sharing with them their privations and hardships, obtained a controlling influence over them.

As they inhabited fertile intervale land, they gave more attention to agriculture than any of the neighboring tribes, and appear to have been originally more peaceably inclined towards the whites than some of their neighbors. Residing so far inland, they were but little acquainted with the prowess of the whites, and sent out their war parties to commit murders and depredations on the unprotected settlers, without expecting a retribution on their own heads. After a long succession of murders and captures in the English settlements, by this tribe, instigated, as was believed, by their priest, Sebastian Rasle, an expedition was sent against them, consisting of about two hundred men, who killed about thirty Indians, including Rasle, and destroyed the place, without the loss of a man. This broke their power, but they continued to reside there for many years, and gradually retired to the St. Francis,—the last family migrating near the end of the last century.

The Assagunticooks were a numerous tribe who inhabited the country along the whole valley of the Androscoggin; and although their lands were not occupied by whites, they were frequently bitter enemies, and were the first to begin a war and the last to make peace. Their location gave them easy access to the settlements, from Casco to Piscataqua, which they improved to glut their thirst for blood and slaughter. About 1750 they moved to Canada and joined the St. Francis tribe. They could then muster about one hundred and fifty warriors, and being much the most numerous tribe that emigrated there, it is supposed they had the greatest influence, and that their dialect is more truly perpetuated than any other in that confederacy.

The Sokokis inhabited the country bordering on the Saco River, but were mostly limited to its head waters. Their villages were located on the alluvial lands in what is now Fryeburg, Me., and Conway, N. H. The Pegwakets and Ossipees were either identical with or branches of this tribe. In 1725 Capt. John Lovewell with about fifty soldiers, on a scouting adventure in the vicinity, fell in with a war party of the tribe, and a sanguinary battle ensued, disastrous to both parties. Their chief, Paugus, was slain; and within a short period the remainder of the tribe, dispirited by their misfortunes, retired to Canada.

The Pennacooks were probably the only occupants of the waters of the Merrimac, and perhaps included nearly all the nations who resided in what is now the State of New Hampshire. Their principal residence was at Amoskeag Falls, the site of the present manufacturing city of Manchester. It is usual to name the Pennatuckets, Wambesitts, Souhegans, and some others as tribes, but there can be no doubt they all owned fealty to the head sagamore of the Pennacooks, and were only branches of that tribe, as were all the Indians on the Piscataqua and its waters. It is also probable the small band of Cowasacks, on the upper Connecticut, were of this tribe. The Pennacooks must have been at one time a numerous community, and were less warlike than any of the Abenaki race. It is likely they were more disposed to cultivate the soil, and their historian, Judge Potter, represents them as amiable and friendly to the whites. Notwithstanding, they were the earliest emigrants to Canada. They left their pleasant hunting grounds with regret, and often returned to cultivate their ancient fields; but few of them resided permanently there after about 1700.  Abenaki Photo Gallery

It is proper to add to the names of the original Abenaki tribes, that of the Malacite or Amalecite, who have always resided on the St. John. It is not known that any part of this tribe emigrated to Canada with those of Maine, but in 1828 about thirty families emigrated there, and settled on a branch of the River Verte. But the largest part still reside in New Brunswick.

We come now to trace the emigration of the Abenakis to the banks of the St. Lawrence. As the Jesuits had been in constant communication with the tribes in Maine for more than half a century, the Indians had learned the way to Quebec, and it is probable that during Philip’s war some of the tribes obtained arms and ammunition from that place. During this war the Pennacooks, under the influence of their chief, Wonnolancet, had remained neutral, and in July, 1676, at Chocheco, signed with some others a treaty of perpetual peace. Still, the feeling of the whites was so strong against all the race, that they placed little reliance on their former good conduct or present promises. A few months after this treaty, they induced a large number of Indians, from the various tribes, to come to the same place, and where all the militia of the provinces had assembled, and while professing to practice some sham evolutions, the Indians were suddenly surrounded and captured. Many of the prisoners so treacherously obtained were executed, and others sold into slavery for having been in arms against the whites.

Although Wonnolancet and his tribe were discharged, this breach of faith must have taught him that he could not rely on the white man’s promise, and that neither he nor his tribe was safe on the Merrimac. With this feeling he, with a part of them, left for Canada in the autumn of 1677. Although he subsequently returned to visit his former hunting and fishing grounds, his real home was, for the remainder of his life, near Quebec, and he with his band became the nucleus of the Indian settlement there; but it is not apparent that he was at any period the enemy of the English.

In the course of the war, nearly all the tribes in New England had been more or less involved in it. The colonists now looked upon them as a conquered race of heathen, and that their duty was to drive them out, and enjoy their lands in the manner of the Israelites of old. On the other hand, the Indians who had made terms of peace, having now for the first time realized that they had not the ability to cope with the English in war, and could not trust their friendship in peace, naturally looked to the French as the protectors of their villages and hunting grounds. Many of them were willing to place themselves and their families under their care.

Therefore the Jesuits, who had for a long time been their spiritual, and often their temporal advisers, began to turn the steps of the broken and scattered remnants of the tribes who had suffered most in the war, to the feeble settlement of the Pennacooks, near Quebec, and as early as 1685, the Governor of that colony granted a tract of land at a place called Côte de Lauzon, opposite that city, for their use. Up to the commencement of the war, a considerable number of Indians had continued to reside on the Connecticut river, above Northampton; they had fought against the whites, and at the death of Philip, fled and took up their abode at Scauticook, above Albany, and were afterwards increased by additions from other tribes.

After a few years, the government of New York became desirous of being rid of such neighbors, whom they could not trust or control, and induced them to remove to Canada, where most of them were settled before the close of that century, with or near the Pennacooks.

Early in the eighteenth century, the numbers of refugee Indians attracted the attention of the Governor of Canada, and as the whole of the French population of that colony did not then number ten thousand souls, he saw they would materially add to the strength of his command, and could be used most effectually against the frontiers of New England. He therefore took measures to give them a home there. As the grant near Quebec was found not adapted to their needs and condition, probably from its close contiguity to that city, two convenient tracts of land were granted for their use; the first bears date Aug. 23, 1700, the second, May 10, 1701. These were on the St. Francis river, which has given a name to the tribe. In 1704 another settlement of refugees from New England received a grant of land at a place called Beçancour, near Three Rivers, and during this year the Governor addressed a letter to the ministry in France, giving his reasons for inducing the Abenakis to settle in his colony, and from this period it was a constant policy to encourage their immigration there, for more than half a century.

Here was the place where parties were to be fitted out to carry war, destruction, and misery to the frontiers of New England.

In 1704 these Indians piloted a body of French to the vicinity of their former homes, on the Connecticut, and entirely destroyed Deerfield. The writer not long since conversed with an ancient member of this tribe, who claimed to be the great grandson of Esther Williams, daughter of Rev. John Williams, who was, with his family, captured at that time. In 1707 this tribe, piloted by the Pennacooks down the Merrimac, destroyed Haverhill, murdering and capturing most of its inhabitants. It would fill a volume to relate the bloody tragedies acted and instigated by this tribe; it seems almost incredible that any people could exist for a generation amidst such repeated incursions of a relentless enemy.

In November, 1724, Vaudreuil, Governor General of Canada, addressed an urgent letter to the Minister of War in France, giving an account of the attack on Norridgewock, and the death of Father Rasle, with a full account of the losses and sufferings of that tribe, and asking for a grant of ammunition, guns, and blankets to supply their losses, and enable them to make war on the English settlements. He also gives a particular account of the condition of the Abenakis, and says, “of all the Indians in New France, they are in a position to render the most service; this nation consists of five villages, which number, altogether, about five hundred warriors. Two of these villages are situated on the St. Lawrence, near Three Rivers—one below that town called Beçancour, the other ten leagues above, called St. Francis, the three others are in the direction of Acadie, called Narantsouak, on the River Kanibekky, Panagamsdé, on the Pentagouet (Penobscot), and Medocteck, on the River St. John. These three villages have different routes, each by its own river, whereby they can reach Quebeck in a few days.”[3]

In April, 1725, a delegation of three gentlemen visited Montreal with a letter from the Governor of Massachusetts, in reply to one addressed to him some months previously by M. Vaudreuil, relative to the attack at Norridgewock, and the death of Father Rasle. They demanded that the prisoners held by the Abenakis should be given up, and a perpetual peace established.

The Indians, who were entirely under the influence of the French, were extremely haughty in their language and deportment; they demanded that the English should restore their lands, rebuild their church, which they had destroyed at Norridgewock, and when asked what land they referred to, said “that their land commenced at the River Gounitogon, otherwise called the long river,[4] which lies to the west beyond Boston, that this river was formerly the boundary which separated the lands of the Iroquois from those of the Abenakis, that according to this boundary, Boston and the greater part of the English settlements east of it are in Abenakis’ lands; that they would be justified in telling them to quit there, but that they had considered that their settlements were established and that they were still inclined to tolerate them; but they demanded as an express condition of peace that the English should abandon the country from one league beyond Saco River to Port Royal, which was the line separating the lands of the Abenakis from those of the Micmaks.”[5]

The Abenakis denied that they had ever sold any land to the English, and when the latter claimed that much of it was theirs by a possession of more than eighty years, and that this possession gave them a title, the Indians replied, “We were in possession before you, for we have held it from time immemorial.” The English delegates conceded that they did not claim beyond the west bank of the Narantsouak (Kennebec), and that the fort at St. George was built not by them, but by the government of Port Royal.

The meeting seems to have been unsatisfactory to the delegation, and no treaty or arrangement was made. The French governor denied that they had furnished the Indians with arms, or instigated them to attack the English, although Vaudreuil’s letters to his government in France bear abundant evidence that this was his constant policy.

In the treaty with many of the tribes, held at Deerfield in 1735, the St. Francis Indians were represented, and agreed to the arrangement for perpetual peace; but a few years elapsed before they were again engaged in their bloody pastime. War was declared against France in 1744, and the Abenakis were soon hovering on the frontiers. In 1746, Keene and Concord, in New Hampshire, felt their power, and many captives were carried to Canada. In 1752 Capt. Phineas Stevens proceeded to Canada, as a delegate from the governor of Massachusetts, to confer with the Abenakis, and to redeem some prisoners they had in their possession. At a conference had with them in the presence of the governor of Canada, Atewaneto, the chief speaker, made an eloquent reply, in which he charged the English with trespassing on their lands: he said, “We acknowledge no other land of yours than your settlements, wherever you have built, and we will not consent, under any pretext, that you pass beyond them. The lands we possess have been given us by the Great Master of Life, we acknowledge to hold only from him.”

In 1755 they were again in the field, and followed the French armies to the head of Lake George, and carried terror into the new townships on the Connecticut river. Some of their small parties at that late day penetrated within sixty miles of the capital of New England. But these long continued aggressions were soon to meet a fearful retribution. The capture of Quebec, which gave North America to England, had changed the relation of the Abenakis. Capt. Kennedy having been sent to their villages with a flag of truce, was, with his whole party, made prisoners. To chastise them for this outrage, as well as to retaliate for their continued cruelty and murders on the defenseless frontier settlements, Gen. Amherst dispatched the celebrated Major Rogers with a detachment of his rangers to the villages on the St. Francis. Just before daybreak, on the fifth of October, he surprised and killed at least two hundred Indians, and burnt all their wigwams, plunder, and effects. Rogers in his journal says: “To my own knowledge, in six years’ time, the St. Francis Indians had killed and carried into captivity on the frontiers of New England, four hundred persons; we found in the town, hanging on poles over the doors &c., about six hundred scalps, mostly English.”

The power of the tribe for evil was gone, and we hear no more of them till the Revolution, when their warriors followed Burgoyne to Saratoga, where they again used the tomahawk and scalping knife, but when his fortunes began to wane, they retired to the banks of the St. Lawrence. Again in the war of 1812, they joined the English, but their numbers were few, and after a brief campaign, they, for the last time, retraced their steps to their own homes.

A few more remarks will close the history of this tribe, once the terror of New England.

The present condition of the Abenakis is given in a report made in 1858 to the Legislative Assembly of Canada. This states that the tribe on the St. Francis has diminished to three hundred and eighty-seven persons; they live mainly by agriculture, but everything is done in so rude a way, that they gather but scanty crops. Part of them, through the exertions of one of their own number, have been induced to discard their ancient faith, and are now professed Methodists. This change has involved the tribe in continual feuds and difficulties, which will prevent any improvement, and will probably lead to a permanent division and removal of one of the parties. They often undergo much privation for want of proper food and other necessaries of life. The portion of the tribe at Beçancour presents a still more degraded condition. There remain but thirty families, in all one hundred and seventy-two individuals. They still remain Roman Catholics, have no schools, and seem to have reached the extreme of misery and destitution, and so completely have this people intermixed, that their missionary writes, “he does not know of a single pure Abenaki among them.”

The vocabulary now published is copied from a small volume printed about thirty years ago, entitled “Wobanaki Kimzowi Awighigan,” i.e. Abenaki Spelling Book. It was procured by the writer with much difficulty, as it was the only copy that could be obtained among them. It is supposed by those qualified to judge, to be a fair specimen of the dialect formerly spoken on the Androscoggin and Kennebec, although there are in it many words originally borrowed from the French and English. From a memorandum made when with them a few years since, the name of their tribe, as near as can be written and pronounced in English, is W’Banankee, accenting the last syllable.

The treaties, now for the first time printed, are copied from the original in the possession of the writer; they will be perused with pleasure by those interested in antiquarian researches. But at the present day it is difficult to realize the interest which these proceedings and documents excited; they were often considered almost a matter of life or death to the frontier settlers. It is apparent that every chief had then his peculiar totem, or symbol. At a later period this system was abandoned, and they used only a simple cross. Among the chiefs who signed, is to be found the totem of Bombazeen and some others, whose names are perpetuated in history for their bloody exploits. The autographs annexed show the names of men then prominent in both provinces, and some of them afterwards attained the highest positions in political life.

The vocabularies and treaties are now submitted for publication by request of the Maine Historical Society.

Boston, August, 1859.