First of six parts

In the beginning there was ice.

It was nearly two miles thick over what is now Maine, submerging Katahdin and Mount Washington, an ice sheet that 20,000 years ago extended all the way to what are now Long Island, Cape Cod and Georges Bank, themselves just great piles of sand and gravel left behind when the ice sheet finally began to retreat.

As the Ice Age ended, this super glacier retreated, exposing first a vast, ice-scraped plain, carved by cascading rivers of glacial meltwater that over several thousand years raised the ocean level by hundreds of feet, creating the Gulf of Maine. By 13,000 years ago, most of present-day Maine had scrolled out from the retreating ice: a stark tundra of sedges, dwarf pines and grasses frequented by herds of caribou, mastodon and woolly mammoths and by a species of giant beaver that grew 7 feet long and weighed 200 pounds.

Maine is celebrating the bicentennial of its statehood, but the story of our beginnings lies in the millennia and centuries that preceded March 15, 1820, the day we regained our independence from Massachusetts.

This six-part series tells that story, a harrowing and little understood saga of war and betrayal, of clashing empires and ethnic cleansing, of an intra-English civil war and a 170-year colonial occupation by Massachusetts of what had been a separate province. These events shaped us as a people and explain some of our culture’s most impressive virtues and most frustrating faults, as well as the still-fraught relationship between this land’s real natives and those whose families came “from away” at some point in the past 400 years.


As the ice sheet retreated, the first people – presumably the ancestors of the Wabanaki – followed the mammoth and caribou into this newly born landscape, which they called “Wabanahkik,” or “the Dawnland.” It lay on the sunrise edge of a continent their descendants would call Turtle Island.

Wabanaki lore teaches that Glooscap, their immortal hero-creator figure, had trod ahead of them, dripping pine trees from his arms, creating ponds with the indentations of his snowshoes, pushing up ridges, carving rivers and scattering the sea with islands. According to legends collected from elders in the 19th century and published by Penobscot Lt. Gov. Arnold Neptune in 1996, Glooscap taught the people “they would have to draw on their own power – their fierce bravery and respect – their keen foresight and careful preparedness, and their knowledge of the woods and the spirit world.”

Over the millennia that followed, the Wabanaki adapted in tandem with the changing environment as tundra gave way to forest, mastodon to moose, caribou to deer. Later, when the glacial melt flooded a great island at the mouth of the Gulf of Maine – now Georges Bank – powerful tides and a current-driven gyre kicked into life, spinning nutrients toward the light-filled ocean surface and creating one of the most fecund marine environments in the world.

The Wabanaki mythic hero Glooscap spears a great whale in this engraving in “Algonquin Legends of New England,” an 1884 book by Charles Leland. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of, item#7531

They learned to build light, portable canoes from birch bark that let them travel swiftly not only across bays, between islands, and up rivers, but also across narrows, portages, lakes and ponds to connect from one river system to another. They could travel from Monhegan to the foot of Katahdin with the same canoe, and use them to hunt seals and ducks, swordfish and even whales or to trade with other tribes in networks extending into the High Arctic.

“It’s like the Apache with their mustangs and the Tuareg with their camels,” said ethnohistorian Harald Prins, professor emeritus at Kansas State University. “Camels can run a long time without water or food. Mustangs are fantastic for the Great Plains. And the canoe is a fantastic vehicle swiftly diverting around the waterfall and over the sandbar, a perfect adaptation to the environment.”


By the time European explorers arrived on their shores, an estimated 30,000 Wabanaki were living in Maine, organized into a loose confederacy encompassing the people of the Saco, Kennebec, Penobscot and eastern Maine river systems. In southern Maine, the Wabanaki had sprawling fields of corn, which were remarked upon by such early 17thcentury colonizers as Samuel de Champlain and John Smith. But the climate was harsher in eastern Maine, the soils ruined by the ice sheets, so the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet sustained themselves by hunting and fishing. Pierre Biard, a French Jesuit missionary who lived with the Passamaquoddy from 1611 to 1614, said they got their food from “chase and from fishing, for they do not till the soil at all” and described their seasonal round: hunting for inland game in late fall and late winter, feasting on spawning fish in the early spring, on inshore cod in May, and spawning eels thereafter.

Because they were part of a vast indigenous trade network, the Wabanaki of Maine knew of Europeans long before they saw one. Around A.D. 1300, the residents of a large seasonal village at Naskeag Point in Brooklin possessed more than 30 tools made out of Ramah chert, a translucent quartz stone found only in northern Labrador; a polished jade knife made by the Dorset Paleo-Eskimo people of the Canadian Arctic; and a late 11thcentury Norse coin of the sort in circulation among Leif Erikson’s Greenland Norse. By the late 1500s, Mi’kmaq traders – who had regular contact with French and Basque fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – were sailing the Maine coast in French-made wooden sailing vessels called shallops to sell metal tools and woolen clothes.

The first English expedition to explore Maine – Bartholomew Gosnold’s in 1602 – made landfall at an anchorage in either Cape Neddick or Cape Elizabeth only to encounter “a Biscay shallop with saile and oars” manned by eight Mi’kmaq, one of them dressed in a black waistcoat of English serge, breeches and cloth stockings, European shoes and a banded hat. In 1603, Martin Pring’s men met Saco warriors wearing chest plates “of brasse a foot long and half a foot broad.” Six years later, Henry Hudson’s party encountered local Indians in upper Penobscot Bay in “two French shallops” who desired to trade.

The Wabanaki would have known that European crews didn’t always behave themselves. French explorer Jacques Cartier had kidnapped a Montagnais chief, five other adults and four children in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 1530s. Fishermen in and around Newfoundland had already started decimating populations of great auks, guillemots and other seabirds indigenous people depended on. Portuguese navigator Esteban Gómez had seized 58 Indians from either Maine or Rhode Island in 1525 to sell as slaves in Spain.

Shortly before the Europeans arrived, Penobscot chronicler Joseph Nicolar related in 1893, Glooscap informed the Wabanaki that he was departing Turtle Island. “I shall leave you and shall hearken no more to your calling, but shall wait the calling of the Great Spirit,” he told them. “Strange things shall happen, but those who bring about the changes will tell you all about them so you may understand them.” He sailed away either in a stone canoe or on the back of a great whale, leaving them to face their greatest crisis themselves.

On May 14, 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold made landfall off either Cape Neddick or Cape Elizabeth in his vessel, the Concord. Six days later he landed on Cuttyhunk Island, Mass., an event depicted in this Albert Bierstadt 1858 oil painting, “Gosnold on Cuttyhunk, 1602.” Photo courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum


The Europeans turned out to be organized into rival tribes, each with very different stances toward the Wabanaki and their homeland. The struggle between them for control of the Gulf of Maine region would define much of the next 150 years of Maine’s history.

The French came first, sailing up a river they named the St. Croix in the fall of 1604 and building a settlement on tiny St. Croix Island, a few miles downriver from where Calais would one day stand. Their 79-man party – which included Samuel de Champlain, who would later found Quebec – believed the 6-acre island would provide protection from the Indians while affording easy access to the hunting and crop-growing grounds on the mainland.

Sunday, Feb. 16 – Chapter 1: Dawnland
Sunday, Feb. 23 – Chapter II: Rivalry
Sunday, March 1 – Chapter III: Conquest
Sunday, March 8 – Chapter IV: Insurrection
Sunday, March 15 – Chapter V: Liberation
Sunday, March 22 – Chapter VI: Legacy

Like so many early European colonizers, they underestimated the severity of the Maine winter. The river froze, preventing the use of boats, and the powerful tides tore up the ice, making it unsafe to walk across. Shivering in inadequate shelters on their tiny island, the isolated French began to starve. The Passamaquoddy found them in the spring, took pity and gave them a cache of fresh meat and medicinal plants. Half the colonists survived to flee across the Bay of Fundy to what is now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, where they founded the colony of Acadia.

“It would be very difficult to ascertain the character of this region without spending a winter in it,” Champlain concluded.

Under Champlain’s influence, France sought to coexist in a friendly, respectful alliance with the Native American nations in whose territories its colonies would be embedded. Instead of conquering and enslaving indigenous people (as the Spanish had) or driving them away (as the English soon would), New France’s leaders would embrace them, learn their customs and even intermarry with them. Their teenage sons were sent to live with the Mi’kmaq and learned to make birch bark canoes, track moose on snowshoes and speak Wabanaki languages. They hoped to bring Catholicism and other aspects of French civilization to the Wabanaki, by persuasion and example.

An image from “The Abnakis and Their History” by the Rev. Eugene Vetromil, published in 1866. Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

“The English came and said they wanted our furs and trees and then our land and after that wanted to give us their religion,” said Penobscot elder Donna Loring, a former tribal representative to the Legislature who now serves as indigenous affairs adviser to Gov. Janet Mills. “The French came and they gave us their religion first, and then we traded, which is why the Wabanaki chose to deal with the French over the English, because the French treated them like human beings.”

This strategy also suited France’s circumstances, as few peasants wanted to come to the New World and their kings didn’t seek to force them to. On the shores of the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River, France’s tiny outposts and modest settlements could only exist in symbiosis with indigenous people, and by helping them keep their European rivals at bay.


The English came to Maine with a different point of view, one shaped by their recent experiences conquering the “savages” of northern Ireland in the 1560s and 1570s. Their first imperial conquest was conducted with unusual brutality, including routine burning of crops and villages, large-scale massacres of noncombatants and the forced relocation of survivors to reservations. By the end, English writer Edmund Spenser described hordes of half-dead Irish who “spake like ghosts crying out of their graves” and feasted on human corpses and clover when they could be found. “In short space there were none almost left and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man and beast.”

Such behavior was deemed justified because the Irish were seen as barbarian others to whom Christian morality did not apply. They were mobile herdsmen rather than settled farmers. They had less rigid marriage customs, allowing for easy dissolution, and observed many pre-Christian rituals the English considered pagan. They spoke strangely and dressed differently and didn’t want to give up their land.

When the English came to the Gulf of Maine, veterans of these wars and their aftermath saw Native Americans in the same light. In their journals they likened Mi’kmaq sealskin breeches to “Irish Dimmie trousers,” Wampanoag bearskin capes to “an Irish mantle,” wigwams to Irish huts. Martin Pring even brought a Welsh interpreter on his expedition on the expectation that the Wabanaki would speak a Gaelic language.

Their first in-depth reconnaissance mission, George Waymouth’s 1605 Archangel expedition, spent several weeks interacting with cautious Wabanaki in midcoast Maine. After finally establishing trust via trade and the hosting of feasts, Waymouth’s crew suddenly kidnapped five of the Wabanaki, tossed them in the hold and set sail for England.

Word of their treachery spread rapidly across the Wabanaki confederacy that summer. Champlain, sailing down the coast two weeks after the incident, was informed by Kennebec Chief Anassou that the English “had killed five savages of this river under the cover of friendship.” The incident would set the tone for Anglo-Wabanaki relations for decades to come.

Weeks later, the Archangel dropped anchor in the shadow of the great fort in Plymouth, England, where one of the expedition’s benefactors was the commanding officer. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an eccentric feudal knight and ally of King James, received three of the captives, who would spend more than a year with him, learning English and filling his head with disinformation about their homeland. By the following summer he was plotting with his friend Sir John Popham – who had the other two Wabanaki captives – to organize the colonization of this new land, a place he would eventually come to call Maine.

His ambitions would soon collide not only with the Wabanaki and the French but with powerful and tenacious English rivals to his south, a people who believed themselves tasked by God with an errand in the American “wilderness.” The clashes to come would leave scars on Maine and its people that remain with us today.

Next Sunday: Rivalry

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