Home: The Story of Maine

A Part of the Main: European Settlement of the Mainland

Lesson #1: Culture and Resource Use

The following are excerpts from The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes: A Resource Book About Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki Indians, published by the American Friends Service Committee, in 1989. There is a wealth of information in this book for teachers and students, including lesson plans, fact sheets, and readings. These excerpts are taken from the Historical Overview that appears at the beginning of the book.

p. A-5 – A-7

An estimate of the Wabanaki population in 1600 A.D. can only be very rough, but the available evidence suggests about 32,000 people in Maine and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. Villages ranged in size from a half-dozen houses to over a hundred, and they were built at the coast, along the estuaries of rivers, and near lakes, rivers, and streams. People moved to the coast or inland according to the season and the foods that were available. Waterways were the people’s major roads. Parked on the banks of villages, frequently, were dozens of canoes. Houses were wigwams framed with saplings and covered with bark or woven mats.

A French priest, Father Pierre Biard, who lived among the Wabanakis from 1611-1613, described how Micmacs and Maliseets appeared to him and how they got their living:

They have no beards, the men no more than the women. . . . They have often told me that at first we seemed to them very ugly with hair both upon our mouths and heads; but gradually they have become accustomed to it, and now we are beginning to look less deformed. You could not distinguish the young men from the girls, except in their way of wearing their belts. For the women are girdled both above and below the stomach, and are less nude than the men; also they are usually more ornamented. . . . Their food is whatever they can get from the chase and from fishing; for they do not till the soil at all. . . . In the month of February and until the middle of March, is the great hunt for beavers, otters, moose, bears (which are very good), and for the caribou, an animal half ass and half deer. If the weather then is favorable, they live in great abundance, and are as haughty as Princes and Kings; but if it is against them, they are greatly to be pitied, and often die of starvation. . . . In the middle of March, fish begin to spawn, and to come up from the sea into certain streams, often so abundantly that everything swarms with them. . . . From the month of May up to the middle of September, they are free from all anxiety about their food; for the cod are upon the coast, and all kinds of fish and shellfish. . . . In the middle of September [they] withdraw from the sea, beyond the reach of the tide, to the little rivers, where the eels spawn, of which they lay in a supply; they are good and fat. In October and November comes the second hunt for elks [moose] and beavers. (Jesuits: 1959)

The priest neglected to mention the birds (and birds’ eggs) that could be taken and eaten, such as Canada geese, loons, ducks, brants, and mourning doves; and the raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and nuts; and the walruses, seals, whales, and porpoises that could be hunted. There was some agriculture practiced in Maine but nowhere did the Wabanakis rely upon it, because the growing season was too short. Where they did practice it, they grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and tobacco for their pipes.

As the priest observed, the most precarious time of year was in February and March. By then, food that had been stored in bark-lined cellars might be gone. If deep snow remained on the ground, hunters could track large animals and pursue them on snowshoes, which gave them an advantage, but if there were little snow or none, people might go hungry. They could go for eight or ten days without food and expect to survive, and in fact they survived winter better than the early European colonists, who relied on agriculture and food storage far more than the Wabanakis. So the six weeks of February and early March might be lean times or might be fat ones, but the rest of the year was certainly a time of plenty.

Given the vast land area they lived in, Wabanaki populations were not large (e.g. roughly 41 persons per 100 square miles in Maine), and therefore the pressure they exerted on the environment through manufacturing tools and getting a living was not great. The rich natural environment remained rich. The Wabanaki people were careful to maintain an ecological balance. Throughout most of the year and often throughout the entire year, there was more than enough. . . .

There was abundance. There was also movement. There was a limit to what they wanted to possess, not only because they could fairly easily find it and replace it, but also because there was a limit to what they could carry. Wealth, as it is often conceived—the accumulation of things—was to them, or would have been, a positive hindrance. The value of objects, therefore, was measured by very different standards, and real wealth in their terms—that is to say, something that could be usefully accumulated—was not in things but in spiritual wealth, as well as in relationships of trust among people. One could acquire more and more of these relationships, and usefully so; and relationships did not have to be carried from place to place like a weight. They were created and maintained through the routine sharing of food and possessions, through feasts, exchanges of gifts, and through marriages. The larger a person’s network of family and friends, the greater number of people that could be counted on to rally around, whether to share food when times were lean, to go to war, to prepare feasts, to lavish presents on allies, or to support decisions.

p. A-10 – A-12:

Another major change occurred very gradually over a period of two hundred years, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. As European colonists settled the coast and later moved up the river valleys to harvest timber and to farm, the uses to which the land was put began to change, and consequently the nature of the land, the very composition of the environment, was altered. This occurred first in southern Maine and eventually throughout Maine and the Maritimes. These environmental changes were as dramatic and as far-reaching in their consequences for the Wabanakis as any that had occurred in the previous 12,000 years.

The ancient forest was cut down. In process of formation for 10,000 years, in the space of just two hundred years it was gone. New trees grew up in its place in some areas, but often they were neither the same species nor as extensive, and they did not provide the same habitats for animals as the old forest had done. White pine trees that towered over the forests more than two hundred feet above the ground were taken for ships’ masts. Oaks and cedars were used for firewood, houses, and industry. Many timber products were shipped to England for profit. The lumberers cut as if the supply would never run out. In fact, white pine and cedar were not abundant in New England and were soon used up, and it became necessary to go farther and farther north to find them. The first sawmills in Maine were built as early as the 1630s. By 1682 there were twenty-four of them in the region of Portland, Wells, and Kittery, cutting softwoods for the most part since these, unlike the denser hardwoods, could be floated down streams and rivers to the coast.

Often dams were built on streams and rivers to produce the waterpower necessary to run sawmills and gristmills. The dams prevented the great spawning migrations of fish up the rivers. These fish runs were an important source of food for Wabanakis, a source which became ever more important as Wabanaki use of the coast was increasingly blocked by European settlement. Over and over Wabanakis complained about the dams, but to no avail. By the mid-nineteenth century the industry had moved farther north and east in pursuit of the vanishing forest, and at that time along the Penobscot River alone there were some 250 sawmills; similar patterns appeared at the same time in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Yet lumberers cut fewer trees than farmers, who cleared large areas to plant their crops and graze their cattle. Sometimes they left the dead trees to rot. Sometimes the trees were burned and their ashes were used for fertilizer. Trees were cut to build rail fences. Trees were cut to be burned in open fireplaces to heat houses that consumed between thirty and forty cords a year.

Farmers understood that different trees grew in different types of soil. Maple, ash, and beech indicated, for instance, a rich black humus underneath, so they were cut first. While it was true that trees were a product of the soil, what the farmers did not understand was that the soil was also a product of the trees. A forest produces nutrients. It moderates extremes of heat and cold and the effects of wind. It retains snow cover; consequently, frost does not penetrate the ground so deeply, which means that water from snowmelt and rain can be absorbed over longer periods of time. It retains rainwater in its roots and canopy, which reduces erosion and floods and permits streams and ponds to remain at more constant levels throughout the year.

In Maine, and throughout New England and the Maritimes, where the forest was cleared the land became "sunnier, windier, hotter, colder, and drier." (Cronon: 1983) Some streams and ponds dried up for parts of the year. Increased erosion caused others to fill in with sediment as much as five times as rapidly as before, until eventually some of them disappeared. The water table dropped. The soil became drier, poorer. Crops and other vegetation suffered.

On the heels of the vanishing forest came farm animals. Both Wabanakis and Europeans relied heavily on animals, but not on the same ones, and that difference alone was to be of enormous importance.

In the fall and winter Wabanakis depended on moose, bear, caribou, deer, and beaver. These animals were wild, they roamed over large areas, they could not be taken with certainty. When they were taken (in the Wabanaki view) it was because they had offered themselves so that people could live, and this signified that cooperation existed between the hunters and the spirits of the animals. The animals had an independent existence; when they entered into a relationship with the hunters that turned to the advantage of the hunters, it was out of an entirely free choice. The natural world, like the world of Wabanaki families and communities, was based on relationships of trust. One could not, in any sense, own or possess these animals; one could only enter into a relationship with them which, like others of its kind, could be maintained or broken by the ways in which one behaved. Thus there were rules about how these animals could be used, what was to be done with their bones, and so on—these were ways in which respect was paid.

Hogs and cows, sheep and horses, on the other hand, did not have spirits, they had owners. Even when they grazed together in common herds in open fields or the woods, they belonged to somebody, never to themselves. "The notch in its ear or the brand on its flanks signified to the colonists that no one other than its owner had the right to kill or convey rights to it." (Cronon: 1983) They were herded and slaughtered as it suited the farmers, who depended on them, not just in the fall and winter, but year-round. At first, conflict between the English settlers and Wabanakis arose as the cattle trampled unfenced Wabanaki cornfields. The settlers could not control their cattle, and yet would not permit the Wabanakis to shoot them. Eventually, as the English settlements grew, the English settlers began to exercise more control over their cattle. Thus, fences—miles and miles of rail and stone fences—began to divide and bound the land. They were there to keep the animals in and, of course, others out. Fences signified what the farmers assumed—the animals and land inside the fences were their sole and exclusive possession. No one else had a right to use them. This was an assumption Wabanakis had never made, about the animals or the land, when they had freely shared use of them with the first European settlers.

p. A-15 – A-16:

The major Wabanaki goals throughout the years of conflict with the English were to retain their land and to continue to govern themselves. They acted as most nations would to preserve their boundaries and protect their sovereignty. Treaties were broken or appeared broken, and sometimes this resulted in skirmishes and war. Wars also broke out because the violent conflict in Europe between Britain and France could not be avoided when it spread across the ocean. . . . [The Wabanakis] signed numerous treaties with the English representatives in an effort to create clear and separate areas of interest as the basis for peace. This effort largely failed.

It failed because there were misunderstandings on both sides about what the treaties meant. These misunderstandings revolved around differing ideas of property and land. Ideas of what property is change over time and vary among societies throughout the world, and there is a natural tendency for members of a particular society to assume that "property," in their sense, is what property means for everyone else as well. The Wabanakis and the English were no different in this regard. The English assumed that when Wabanakis gave them rights to land, this meant that they had received sole and exclusive possession of it. In this view, Wabanakis had renounced any claim to occupy or use the land in any way. In the Wabanaki view, by contrast, what the English had received was a right to share use of the land. The English could hunt and fish and farm, but Wabanakis expected to continue to do the same, in the same area. When Wabanakis came back the next year to do these things, the English were outraged. The Wabanakis thought they had agreed to share use. The English thought they had received exclusive possession. Each side was convinced that the other had broken the agreement. This basic misunderstanding occurred again and again and was the cause of much trouble.

But there was more to it than that. "Property" or "land" for the Wabanakis had a much larger significance than it did for the English. When Wabanakis conferred on the English a right to share use of land, in their view they had given the English a chance to enter into a particular kind of relationship. Land was that place where animal beings and the spirits of the animals had their separate and independent existences. Trees and stones and rivers could possess personal qualities, and it was possible, therefore to have a social relationship with them. One could no more own or sell a right to exclusive possession of these beings than one could own or sell one’s mother. But a person could enter into a relationship of respect with them. If this were done, through the right kind of behavior, these beings would cooperate so that people could live.

The land, in this view, was not a sack of flour in an English kitchen or a hog in an English farmyard, whose existence and use depended entirely on the will of the master. The land did not have a human master. It was a sacred, social world; as such, it had a life that one could participate in but not that one could transfer exclusive title to, in exchange for English cloth or English corn. When Wabanakis agreed to share use of land they permitted the English passage into a sacred world; but the English did not realize they had entered it. By their own lights, they had done something else: they had bought a commodity on the market. It is doubtful that the English ever appreciated the sacred significance of the land for the Wabanakis. Instead of responding with gratitude for the importance and value of what had been shared with them, they acted in ways that caused heartbreak and resentment.


References cited:

"Letters from mission (North America)," in The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1610 – 1791, ed. R.G. Thwaites. Vol. 36. New York: Pageant Book Co. 1959.

Changes in the Land, by William Cronon. New York: Hill and Wang. 1983.