The Province Fort was built as a means of protection for Windham’s early settlers. Contributed / Windham Historical Society

Those of you who grew up in Windham are probably well acquainted with the story of the Abenaki Chief Polin, who was the “sakamo” or head of the Sokokis tribe that New Marblehead settlers referred to as the Rockameecooks. But if you’re like me, “from away,” you may not know very much about this noble man.

When New Marblehead’s first settler, Thomas Chute, arrived in the township in the 1730s, Polin was the leader of the Indigenous people of the time. For centuries, his tribe had occupied the area that is now Windham. For generations, they had traveled the local land, moving around seasonally, gathering food along their way. In spring, they planted corn on the banks of the Prescumpscot River, the “river of many falls.” In summer, the river was teeming with salmon, trout and other fish that could be eaten in summer and cured for winter fare. In the colder months, hunters went out in search of the abundant game that could be found in the woods of the vast frontier.

As more and more English settlers began building homesteads in the territory, the peaceful life these people had known for centuries began to see disturbing signs of change. One of the biggest concerns for the chief and his tribe was the increasing number of dams cropping up along the river. In addition, Col. Thomas Westbrook, a military leader and King’s Mast Agent, was in the process of erecting a great dam on the river to help support the logging industry that supplied the wood for masts for British ships.

Polin believed the land and waters in New Marblehead belonged to his people. He was willing to share the space with the newcomers and receive them as friends, but he did have some compromises in mind. In an attempt to establish diplomatic rules that would be of mutual benefit to both the Indigenous people and the settlers, in 1739, Polin walked all the way to Boston to meet with Gov. Jonathan Belcher of Massachusetts. The governor was probably very impressed by this imposing native. He was a tall man, over 6 feet, with a prominent jawline and he carried himself with dignity. It was clear he was intelligent and brave. He talked convincingly of the importance of the fishways to his people. He explained the new dam would block vital fish runs on “the river to which I belong” and that he “desired only that a place be left open in the dam so that the fish may come up in the proper seasons.” If this could be done, the white men were welcome to use the river for their purposes. The governor agreed to the terms and signed an order to that effect.

But when Westbrook was presented with the order, he defied it and continued on with his dam with no regard to the fish. Polin considered this a direct encroachment to the natural rights and privileges of his people and decided it was time to take action; he began organizing raids on the settlements. By 1743, relations had deteriorated to a point that the Massachusetts House of Representatives granted the settlement of New Marblehead 100 pounds so they could build a fortress for their protection. The Province fort was built in the center of the territory on the highest piece of land on what is now River Road and was completed in 1744.

In 1745, hostile activities began to accelerate. Skirmishes were erupting all over the frontier, and, with one as close as Gorham, there was reason for the uneasiness of the homesteaders. Things got even worse in 1747 when the two young Knight boys were abducted by Native Americans while out gathering crops. Then, on May 14, 1756, after years of frustration, the situation came to a head.

Before dawn, Polin and 12 braves had silently made their way down the Presumpscot. They had observed the settlers for quite some time now and knew that it was planting season and excursions would be taken out of the fort so the farmers could begin sowing their spring crops. The small group of warriors lay waiting in the shadows on what is presently Anderson Road to ambush the unsuspecting settlers. Gunshots rang out and settler Ezra Brown was killed. Another settler, Ephraim Winship, was also wounded in the initial volley. But in the end, it was Polin himself who fell. While attempting to reload his rifle, he exposed himself to the sights of young settler Stephen Manchester, who instantly raised his musket and, with sure aim, fired. Chief Polin, the original advocate for the Presumpscot River, was dead and soon thereafter, raids on New Marblehead stopped.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society.

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