By the middle of the 17th century the Abenaki were living in a nightmarish landscape shaped by conflict, disease, and alcohol, and they turned to the missionaries for help and reassurance.
After the cessation of hostilities in Europe, the 1713 Treaty of Portsmouth quickly brought peace to the Maine frontier. By this time it was apparent that English population expansion would engulf southern Maine, and most Indians in the area withdrew to the St. Lawrence settlements.
The century before the American Revolution was marked by a series of destructive wars between Natives and Europeans that kept Maine – the frontier between New France, New England, and the Abenaki homelands – in constant turmoil.
The tensions were local – disputes over control of land and resources – and international. France, Spain and Great Britain engaged in numerous wars. Most were economic in nature with the European powers seeking to control both territory and resources to expand their economic power.
Religion also played a part in these struggles. The Europeans viewed control of North America as crucial to their economic and political success and fought for territory and colonies in the New World. Even the wars that were largely centered in Europe often spilled over into North America.
Tensions between the native population and Europeans began as early as the first European arrivals. In 1525 Estevan Gomez raided Nova Scotia and Maine and took some 58 surviving Indians back to Spain, and subsequent explorers, whalers, fishers, and traders continued this practice into the 18th century.
Early fishing settlements and trading posts further poisoned the relation between native and newcomer. Walter Bagnall was killed on Richmond Island in 1631, for instance, for repeatedly cheating his clients, and when John Winter arrived in 1632 he found the Indians so unfriendly he abandoned hope of trade.
Indians, on the other hand, suspected that English colonials brought on the terrible recurring epidemics, and they found it difficult, under their own political system, to rein in those who wished vengeance for trading abuses, land grabs, murders, and enslavements.
Fluctuations in the price of furs left the impression that all whites cheated them, and as the Wabanaki became more dependent on European guns, ammunition, and commodities, fur-trading – and its abuses – became an increasingly desperate matter. A heritage of mutual suspicion soured relations between Indians and whites in Maine.
Effects of European Rivalries
Rivalries between France and England in the New World further strained Indian-white relations. Most of the wars in colonial North America followed upon conflicts in Europe, and although Maine's Wabanaki did their best to remain aloof from these foreign quarrels, they were inevitably drawn into the maelstrom. Still, they entered these wars for their own reasons, maintaining a political independence that both French and English officials refused to respect.
French or English alliances with various tribes exacerbated ancient feuds and created new conflicts, and as the devastating plagues swept through the villages, these alliances were again disrupted; those who survived regrouped and exacted tribute from more debilitated or less powerful neighbors.
Was the outcome of these wars inevitable? European advantages included a technology based on metal and gunpowder and expertise with capitalist relations, while Indians clung to a culture disordered by plague and constant demographic movement. Indians, however, enjoyed an advantage in logistics and tactics.
Most of Maine's 6,000 English settlers were dispersed in "ribbon" settlements strung out along the coast or lower rivers, almost impossible to defend militarily. The English clung to what early historian William Hubbard called the "sea-border," considering the unfamiliar woods behind them "a great Chaos, the lair of wild beasts and wilder men."
This, of course, was familiar territory to the Abenaki, who could traverse the woods and waters, wait for an opportune moment, raid, and scatter. Indian tactics – sudden attack and withdrawal – prevailed against a people with little wilderness experience and a history of open-field combat.
However, these tactics were designed for short wars or raids to avenge particular wrongs or insults. Given their subsistence regimes and their limited capacity for storage, Indians simply did not have time to wage a protracted war, and when English militia began destroying their corn fields and blocking access to traditional hunting, fishing, and foraging grounds, Indians were powerless to resist.
English victories also depended on alliances with other Indians, particularly the Iroquois-Mohawk, while the Wabanaki's French allies were relatively weak south of the St. Lawrence. By the 1670s, New England contained about 50,000 inhabitants, and New France about 10,000, and there were fewer than a thousand French inhabitants in Acadia.
Most important were England's pathogenic allies – the plagues that swept through the Indian villages beginning in 1616, killing more than 75 percent of the inhabitants and leaving the rest weakened culturally, spiritually, economically, and militarily.
The Wabanaki made alliances with the French through the fur trade, and here the French had a decided advantage over the English. Fur trading relationships were based on mutual respect nurtured carefully over years. In their 1604-1605 voyage to the Gulf of Maine, Sieur de Monts and Samuel Champlain mastered the tricky diplomatic exchanges that involved ritual gift exchanges, speeches, banquets, dances, and songs, and tribal alliances, and by the early 1600s French adventurers had the upper hand in relationships with Wabanaki north and east of the Kennebec.
Since no New England river offered the trading advantages of the St. Lawrence, and since southern New England Indians grew crops more than they hunted, English colonists were less interested in the fur trade. For the French, Indians were the essence of empire; for the English they were obstacles to an agricultural empire fashioned after the English countryside.
French missionaries also were more successful than their English counterparts. They lived in the Indians' villages, knew their spiritual needs, and benefited from the cultural disruptions brought on by war and plague.
By the middle of the 17th century the Abenaki were living in a nightmarish landscape shaped by conflict, disease, and alcohol, and they turned to the missionaries for help and reassurance. Catholicism was something of a compromise with traditional religion, just as European trade was a compromise with native material culture. English missionaries were less interested in compromise and generally lacked the ability to use religion to cement military alliances.
Despite the inadequacies of English diplomacy, Indians became increasingly dependent on their trade goods. The epidemics disrupted oral communication and accelerated the loss of traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering skills.
As Indians narrowed their economic focus, their involvement in the fur-trade took on a desperate tone. Tensions increased in the mid-1640s when truck houses began selling hard liquor. As beaver populations declined, Abenaki interjected themselves as intermediaries in the trade with tribes further west, resulting in a series of violent clashes known as the "Beaver Wars."
These conflicts, involving tribes from Cape Breton Island to the Chesapeake and as far west as the Great Lakes, eventually yielded new alliances that turned the Abenaki against the English.
King Philip's War
By 1670 Indian frustration with trade abuses, land encroachments, rum dealing, and free-roaming English livestock in their cornfields was mounting. Sensing these tensions, in fall 1674 English officials banned trade of shot and powder to Indians. The Abenaki suffered severe food shortages during the following winter, and some fled to Canada seeking French aid.
In summer 1675 war broke out in southern New England between Pilgrims and Wampanoags led by King Philip, or Metacomet, and the war strained relations all through New England. Relations between French "Papists" and Indian "heathens" fueled English fears that all Indians were conspirators of King Philip, and with war raging to the south, the General Court sent commissioners to Maine trading posts to enforce the ban on arms. English scalp hunters, given a bounty to hunt Indians south of the Piscataqua, no doubt crossed the river into Maine as well.
Madockawando, the chief sagamore on the Maine coast, withdrew to the Penobscot, where French traders at Pentagoet and Port Royal provided muskets and shot.
In July magistrates met with local Indians to encourage neutrality, but later that summer British sailors accosted the wife and child of Squando, a sagamore among the Saco River Abenaki, and overset their canoe to test the theory that Indian babies could swim from birth. The baby died, and as native law required, Squando sought revenge on white settlers.
In September a party of 20 Indians robbed a trading house belonging to Thomas Purchase at Brunswick. Purchase's neighbors pursued the raiders up the New Meadows River, surprising and killing one, and the resulting skirmish was the first battle of King Philips War in Maine.
In Falmouth members of the Wakely family were tomahawked and two children carried away as captives, and throughout the fall Indian bands continued raiding English settlements from Saco to Casco Bay. With no knowledge of the interior, militia and settlers alike were forced to "huddle together, in danger of being shot down," until winter snows and lack of ammunition restricted Indian military movement.
At a conference in Pemaquid in 1676 English officials gained an uneasy armistice that lasted until several Indians were kidnapped nearby and carried off as slaves. Indians insisted on powder and shot, and English negotiators refused, demanding that the Abenaki admit blame for the war and join in attacking other hostile tribes.
That summer Abenaki and their allies, including Micmacs and remnants from King Philips' troops, attacked settlements eastward to Cushnoc on the Kennebec, moving from cabin to cabin in swift raid-and-retreat maneuvers. In August the well-established trading post at Arrowsic fell in hand-to-hand combat, and the fort, mills, mansion house, and outbuildings were burned.
Later that fall the Pemaquid settlement was destroyed as Indians cut off access to the neck of land separating men in the fields and fishing boats from women and children in the village. With no alternative but to return to their homes, the men regained the fortress, but many were killed or taken prisoner.
Settlers fled to the nearby islands and watched as the "whole circle of the horizon landward was darkened and illuminated by the columns of smoke and fire rising from the burning houses of the neighboring Main." After a month, they sailed south. In the course of five weeks, 60 miles of coast east of Casco Bay had been wiped clean of English settlements.
Hardships were equally severe on the Abenaki side. Families fled their villages, leaving fields unharvested. Denied access to their guns, ammunition and fishing grounds, many starved.
Despite overtures for peace on both sides, seafaring slavers continued to murder and kidnap along the coast, and in September 1676 Major Richard Waldron invited 400 Indians to a conference at Dover, New Hampshire, and used the occasion to enslave around 200.
In February Waldron led an expedition eastward to ransom English captives and capture Madockawando. Although he failed on both accounts, he managed to kill eight peace-seeking Indians at Pemaquid.
In 1678 the provincial government of New York, which controlled Maine between 1677 and 1686, signed the Treaty of Casco. According to its terms, the Abenaki recognized English property rights but retained sovereignty over Maine, symbolized by an annual land use tax for every English family. The treaty also stipulated closer government regulation of the fur trade.
In 1686 Sir Edmund Andros, appointed governor of the Dominion of New England, took charge of Indian relations. Although widely resented as a representative of the Catholic King Charles, Andros acted decisively to regulate the fur trade in a manner that would ensure fair prices and protect native clients from abuses. Pemaquid was designated the sole trading post between the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers, and ammunition was traded only in amounts deemed necessary for hunting.
Despite fresh memories of a horrible conflict, settlers refused to abide by the terms of the Treaty of Casco. Traders continued unfair practices, settlers placed nets across the Saco River, preventing fish from migrating upriver to the Wabanaki villages, and livestock ruined Indian corn. Negotiations and further treaty attempts were not successful and confrontations continued.
King William's War
During King William's War (1689-1699), Comte de Frontenac, the aggressive governor general of New France, launched a campaign to conquer all of North America. A large force of French and Indians drove the English from the settlements east of Falmouth. Baron de St. Castin, who lived with his family in a village of 160 Etchemin Indians on the Bagadauce River near present-day Castine, became a target for militia raids, and he helped launch a series of attacks on Maine settlements in the summer of 1689.
The major event of the war came in September 1689 when 200 Norridgewock, Penobscot, and Canada Indians converged on Peaks Island In Casco Bay and, on September 20, attacked the Back Cove settlements. Major Benjamin Church arrived by sloop at sunrise at Fort Loyal, and after a "fierce fight" drove the Indians from the area.
Exhausted by war and discouraged by French ambivalence, in 1693 the Abenaki sued for peace, but the English refused to negotiate on realistic terms. This brought another round of attacks on English settlements in 1694.
The English at Fort William Henry, built under the authority of Governor Sir William Phips in 1692 at a huge cost, fell to a force of Canadian-based Abenaki in August 1696, and the English once again abandoned the lower Kennebec. Massachusetts counterattacks against Port Royal and Quebec were largely ineffectual, as were several raids up the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers.
France and England concluded a peace in 1697, and in 1699 the Wabanaki agreed to a treaty. In 1698 Father Sebastien Rasle (also spelled Rale or Rasles) built a mission at the Indian village in Norridgewock on the upper Kennebec River, and this became a center for French-Indian interaction. With the coast east of Wells nearly devoid of English settlers, Rasle's mission became the southern boundary of New France.
The Latter Wars
In the quarter century after King William's War, Falmouth, once the center of a vigorous trade in fish, masts, spars, timber, and sawed lumber, slowly revived. Sawmills, gristmills, and boatworks again dotted the rivers and inlets between the Piscataqua and Kennebec, and farms sent hay, dairy products, cattle, sheep, swine, cordwood, and fish to Massachusetts ports for the local and coastwise trade.
Returning settlers took up a quasi-military life. Garrison houses, usually under a militia command, provided nuclei for small settlements either just outside or within a stockade. During daylight, men and women worked in their fields under protection of scouts and guards. For most of the period, English Maine lived in a state of virtual siege. Only the larger seaports – Boston, Salem, Portsmouth, Kittery – enjoyed sufficient security to benefit from the military expenditures from Great Britain.
By 1701 France and England were engaged in what came to be known as Queen Anne's War. When France proved less willing to supply arms, the Penobscots ratified a series of neutrality agreements with Massachusetts. But in August 1703 an expedition of about 500 French and Micmac Indians from the St. Lawrence devastated the coastal towns and forts from Wells to Falmouth, and Massachusetts declared war on all Maine Indians. Militia raids in the upper Saco kept villagers from their fields and from critical foraging areas.
After the cessation of hostilities in Europe, the 1713 Treaty of Portsmouth quickly brought peace to the Maine frontier. By this time it was apparent that English population expansion would engulf southern Maine, and most Indians in the area withdrew to the St. Lawrence settlements under the command of Governor Vaudreuil.
Indian military successes were significant, and the upper Kennebec remained a contested territory. With English settlers pushing upriver, the Massachusetts militia rebuilt the fort at Brunswick, giving the English power to prevent Indians from reaching the coast for foraging and fishing activities. Indian security in central Maine was becoming more tenuous.
Despite the peace treaty, wars involving Indians and Europeans and between Europeans were not over. Dummer's War in 1721-1727 began as a series of skirmishes in Maine and Vermont in territory claimed by both French and English.
By this time the Muscongus Company had pushed the English frontier eastward to the St. Georges in Thomaston. Responding to Indian raids in March 1723, acting Governor William Dummer sent militia under Colonel Thomas Westbrook into the Kennebec region to burn Indian villages and fields, and in August 1724 a combined force of English militia and Massachusetts and Mohawk Indians destroyed the village at Norridgewock, killing as many as 100 Indians and Father Rasle.
Another desperate encounter took place in April 1725 on the upper Saco valley when a party of bounty hunters under John Lovewell encountered an Indian troop near the Pigwacket village. Lovewell and 11 other English were killed, along with an equal number of Indians.
During this war the French offered only limited aid, leaving Massachusetts free to focus its attention on the Wabanaki. With the destruction of Norridgewock, the Penobscots emerged as leaders of a new intertribal alliance, and after consulting with Vaudreuil, leaders ratified a treaty with Massachusetts in summer 1727.
Seventeen years of peace followed Dummer's War and during that time, English resettled to the St. Georges River. Hostilities resumed in 1744 during King George's War after a group of English scalp hunters killed or wounded several Penobscot Indians. In 1745 Canadian Indians attacked Pemaquid and Fort St. Georges, and despite minimal Penobscot and Kennebec participation, Massachusetts again declared war on the Wabanaki in August 1745.
In this war, colonial forces, including those from Maine, prevailed against the French stronghold at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, but in Maine military action was limited to occasional skirmishes. The war ended with the Treaty of Falmouth in October 1749.
The sixth and final Anglo-Abenaki war, known as the Seven Years, or French and Indian war (1754-1760), was largely fought in the Ohio Valley. In Maine, Governor William Shirley used rumors of French maneuvers on the Kennebec to construct Fort Halifax above Norridgewock at Winslow. Many Penobscots withdrew from the St. Georges area when both Massachusetts and the French demanded that the Indians take up arms against the other.
In 1759, English forces defeated the French at Quebec, ending the long struggle for control of North America. During the next few years Indian family bands re-occupied tribal grounds on the upper Penobscot, Kennebec, and Saco rivers.
Governor Bernard banned white hunters and trappers from the upper Penobscot and sent surveyor Joseph Chadwick to mark the limits of English settlement at the falls above the Kenduskeag, but theft, murder, poaching, land encroachment, and an explosion of white settlement up the river valleys made a return to the old ways all but impossible.
Between the late 17th century and the early 19th century, Great Britain, France, and others in Europe engaged in nearly constant warfare. The battles for economic and political power spilled into North America, catching the native populations in the middle. By the time a lasting peace came between France and Britain, European descendants had permanent settlements in North America and the native populations were relegated to the fringes.