Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien examines a July 1839 letter signed by Penobscot Nation Gov. John Attean and Lt. Gov. John Neptune addressed to the governor of Maine that the archivist recently obtained before it went up for auction. The document was recovered as property of the State of Maine. The letter is located in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Probably squirreled away in an attic or an old barn for almost two centuries, a letter emerged recently that spotlights the heartbreak of Maine’s native peoples during the state’s early years.

Portrait of John Neptune by Jeremiah Hardy, about 1840. Neptune served as lieutenant governor of the Penobscot nation. Old John Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans

What happened after European invaders arrived on the rocky shores of the Wabanaki homeland is laid out in the agonizing words of two Penobscot leaders pleading in 1839 with Gov. John Fairfield to help their nation’s dwindling numbers survive.

Writing from Indian Island, John Attean and John Neptune, the governor and lieutenant governor of the Penobscots, described the members of their tribe as “very poor — no hunting ground left — the moose, the deer and beaver are all gone — the vast woods where we used to hunt are cut down — the River where we used to fish are now encumbered by mills and mill-Dams, and choked up with saw dust so that the fish no longer come up as they used to.”

“When the white man come over and wanted a place in the wilderness to kindle a fire, our fathers gave them the best of our grounds,” they said. “He eat of our meat and planted himself on the shore of our River. He has grown rich — has built up his city and his villages and we have looked on without hindering him.”

“We have parted with our land for a trifle, and the white man now finds it worth thousands of dollars. Indians glad to see white man grow rich; though Indians are very poor,” the two men wrote.

What Attean and Neptune sought from Fairfield seems paltry after so wrenching an introduction.


They pointed out they had recently traveled to Montreal on tribal business, part of an effort to unite regional tribes to avoid getting wrapped up in growing border tensions between New Brunswick and Maine that had exploded earlier in the year in the farcical but potentially dangerous Aroostook War.

To cover the $75 expense of the journey, they said, they had “pawned silver brooches” to a man named Hardy, a fraction of their $200 value at the time.

“Unless they are redeemed in the course of the next week, Indians lose them,” the July 13, 1839 letter told Fairfield, urging him to dip into tribal funds to cover the tab.

Gov. John Fairfield of Maine The Letters of John Fairfield


Over the summer, Thomaston Place Auction Galleries listed the two-page, handwritten letter for sale at its next auction.

It described “two full sheets of laid paper,” unframed, loose, addressed and docketed, written in 1839 “in secretarial hand” to Fairfield and “signed with the marks of John Attean and John Neptune.”


Someone at the University of Maine spotted the listing in the catalog and wondered if it belonged to the state given that it was addressed to the governor and seemed to have filing notations on it like many of the documents in Maine’s extensive repository of old paperwork.

Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien examines the July 1839 letter to Maine Gov. John Fairfield from the leaders of the Penobscot Nation pleading for financial relief from the State of Maine. The archivist obtained the letter signed by Penobscot Gov. John Attean and Lt. Gov. John Neptune before it went up for auction. The document was recovered as property of the State of Maine and is preserved in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Enter Kate McBrien, the Maine state archivist.

She looked at the auction listing, agreed that it likely belonged to the people of Maine, and notified the seller, who put her in touch with the unidentified owners of the letter.

McBrien spoke with them. They readily agreed to hand it over, she said, bringing home one more of the many pieces of paper scattered by time that state officials admit they never kept tabs on for generations.

The state didn’t create the archivist position until 1965, McBrien said, and for many years, gubernatorial records often vanished when officeholders went home after leaving office. But the papers themselves often survive in some out of the way spot, preserved by families as precious remnants of earlier days.

It’s a good thing Mainers tend to hang on to things, McBrien said.


“Attics and basements and barns in Maine are amazing places,” she said, and often contain forgotten gems.

In the case of the Penobscot letter, McBrien said, “Within a couple of days, I just picked it up from the auction house.”

Now slipped into an acid-free folder in an archival box, the letter joins the tens of thousands of documents and other items (including even a handgun from a 1983 shooting in Oxford County) held in perpetuity by the state archives.

But O’Brien isn’t the sort of archivist who’s happy simply to file a newly acquired old letter. She’s too curious for just that.


In a series of one-sided colonial treaties, the white settlers took possession of most of Maine.


But in their final deal with the Penobscots, part of the bureaucratic necessities for Maine’s statehood, officials guaranteed to deliver to Old Town every October, 500 bushels of corn, 15 barrels of wheat flour, seven barrels of pork, a hogshead of molasses, 100 yards of broadcloth (its color changing annually), 50 blankets, 100 pounds of gunpowder, 400 pounds of shot, six boxes of chocolate, 150 pounds of tobacco and 50 silver dollars.

It also vowed that the Penobscots would control Indian Island and upper reaches of the river along with four townships nearby.

It took little more than a decade, though, before the state forced the Penobscots to hand over the four towns in return for $50,000, which formed the basis of a special account “for the benefit of the tribe” that provided payments through an appointed agent.

All in all, it wasn’t much in the way of compensation for taking over a large swath of Maine and it left the small native nation struggling to hang on.

All the Penobscots had was a little land beside a despoiled river, dependent on state leaders to deliver promised supplies and fork over paltry sums on occasion.

By the late 1830s, the number of Penobscots had reached the lowest level ever tallied before or since: 362.


As Attean and Neptune wrote in the newly discovered letter, the “white man once wanted favors of the Indian — Indian no crusty and close-hearted and stingy then— He gave um land and venison and fish and whatever he had that white man wanted.”

“Now white man very rich — he no wants much of the Indians,” they said, leaving the tribe poor with “only little land, no hunting grounds, no chance to fish or trap beaver.”

A piece of trade silver from the 18th century obtained by the Wabanakis, probably at a session of the Grand Council Fire in Caughnawaga. Manufactured in nearby Montreal, the silver brooches were given by colonial authorities to native leaders to inspire loyalty. Maine State Museum


The Penobscots’ letter, written by an agent and signed with an X by each of the tribal leaders, told Fairfield they needed to repay the $75 they’d borrowed by pawning the silver brooches, probably to Jeremiah Hardy, a friendly white man who often dealt with the Penobscots.

Thanks to inflation, that $75 is the equivalent of about $2,500 today.

A photograph of Molly Molasses from about 1860. She was perhaps the first wife of Penobscot Nation Lt. Gov. John Neptune. Dr. Frank T. Siebert Collection

The brooches, some as large as dessert plates, made an impressive sight.


A Lewiston Evening Journal reporter saw women at Indian Island wearing some for an 1885 wedding. He mistakenly called them “relics of the ancient barbaric magnificence of the Penobscot tribe.”

In fact, though, the Penobscots likely received the brooches, made in Montreal, in the late 1700s and early 1800s during diplomatic dealings with colonial authorities.

Still, they were precious relics.

There’s an 1836 painting of Neptune by Obadiah Dickinson, which now hangs in the State House, in which he is wearing a small brooch that may be like the ones pawned years later.

McBrien pointed out another painting, done by Jeremiah Hardy in 1835, that shows Sarah Nicola wearing several large silver brooches. Nicola was the daughter of Neptune and the woman who may have been his first wife, called Molly Molasses by whites.

There is also a photograph of Molasses in her old age in which she, too, appears to be wearing large silver brooches around her neck.


Peaked Cap of Molly Molasses, perhaps the first wife of Penobscot Nation Lt. Gov. John Neptune. Maine State Museum

That Neptune, his wife and his daughter wore silver brooches in their portraits gives some indication of how valued they were to the Penobscots.

Losing them would have hurt.

In the letter to Fairfield, Attean and Neptune told him, “By sending us the money you will make us sure that you are friend of the Indian.”

The unsaid implication was, no doubt, that failing to send the money would be an indication that Fairfield and his administration in Augusta were not friends of the Penobscots.

The Penobscots, with little else to offer, were keen on flattery and diplomacy.

“White man and Indian all children of our Father,” the two men said in the letter to the governor. “God gives us different color, but God make our hearts alike. God give us different talk, but he made us all to want, and made one man to depend on another.”


“Now white man kind,” they said, and neither stingy nor “closefisted when Indians asks for a little money for expenses, which civilization had rendered necessary.”

John Neptune, Penobscot Nation lieutenant governor, in 1836 painting by Obadiah Dickinson Maine State Museum


McBrien dug up what records exist from the period and found the response to the Penobscots from the state’s Executive Council.

On Sept. 24, 1839, more than two months after the tribal leaders said they only had a week to come up with the money, the council firmly and coldly rejected the request.

It said the money spent to go to the gathering of tribes in Montreal “is not equal to the expense required to attend it.”

The authorities said the Penobscots are “under the protection of the Government of this State” and had no need “to seek protection from treaties of alliance with other tribes.”


It called the expenditure “a useless waste” of funds meant to feed and clothe Penobscot widows and others in dire need. The state fund should only be used, the panel said, “for the benefit of the whole tribe.”

A stereoscopic view of Indian Island in the 1870s. Robert N. Dennis Collection, New York Public Library

Another state document, apparently sent to Fairfield in August 1839, mentioned a plan by Indian leaders to visit the president in Washington, D.C., meet with as many tribal leaders as possible in the West and more. State officials didn’t think much of the idea, which doesn’t appear to have panned out.

More generally, though, petitions from the Penobscots during the 1830s were common. The tribe sought access to the money from the forced land sales which Maine had set aside while state authorities remained opposed to having anyone other than appointed agents disperse the funds.

Illustration of an older Penobscot woman in the first half of the 19th Century. Old John Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans

In short, the state wasn’t about to let the Penobscots decide how to spend the money, no matter how heartfelt, obsequious or persuasive any petitions delivered by the Penobscots might be.

Without the recently unearthed Penobscots’ letter, understanding the state’s existing records would have been limited at best.

The Executive Council’s response to the petition is inherently a “one-sided, state perspective,” McBrien said.


But with the letter from the Penobscots now in the state’s possession, and available to researchers, she said, it’s possible to have a much fuller idea of the issues at stake.

“When you have one side of a story, you don’t have the full context,” McBrien said.

The 1839 letter by Attean and Neptune shows in wrenching words how hard the Penobscots tried to open the hearts of decision-makers in Augusta, an effort that has continued with varying degrees of success ever since, a case laid out in this year’s stunning report “One Nation Under Fraud:A Remonstrance” by Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations.

Attean and Neptune looked forward to the moment when justice would prevail.

“God will then give to all his children equally,” the two leaders wrote in 1839, “though now he made one rich and the other poor.”

“So, white man be kind to Indian — as Indian kind to white man — all brothers — sons of one Father — all go to one place at last — when favors are never forgotten — and when Indian if he have done good actions, will be as rich as white man — and no be proud and haughty — nor turn away grieved because his is denied a little favor.”

The July 1839 letter by Penobscot Nation Gov. John Attean and Lt. Gov. John Neptune to the governor of Maine that Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien recently obtained before it went up for auction. The document was recovered as property of the State of Maine. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

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