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Penobscot Indians

The principal tribe of the famous Abnaki confederacy of Maine

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Penobscot Indians, the principal tribe of the famous Abnaki confederacy of Maine, and the only one still keeping its name, territory, and tribal identity. The Abnaki confederacy, to which the Penobscot belonged, consisted of a number of small tribes of Algonquian linguistic stock, holding the greater part of the present state of Maine, and closely connected linguistically and politically with the Pennacook of the Merrimac region on the south and with the Maliseet or Etchimin of the St. John river on the north, and more remotely with the Micmac of eastern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In all the colonial wars they were active allies of the French against the English, and suffered correspondingly, having dwindled from perhaps 3000 souls in 1600 to about 785 in 1910. Of these the Penobscot number 425, while the rest, all of mixed blood and including the descendants of the broken and incorporated Pennacook, reside, under the name of Abnaki, in the two mission settlements of Saint Francis (335) and Becancourt (25) in Quebec province, Canada.

The beginning of missionary work among the Abnaki was by the Jesuits Pierre Biard and Enemond Masse, of the French post of Port-Royal (Annapolis, Nova Scotia), in 1611. Two years later a mission establishment was attempted, in connection with a French post, on Mount Desert island, Maine, but was destroyed by the English commander, Argall, before it was fairly completed. From 1646 to 1657 the Jesuit Fr. Gabriel Druillettes, of the Montagnais Mission, spent much time with the Abnaki, establishing a temporary chapel on the Kennebec, and later drew off many of them to the mission settlements of Canada. In 1688 the Jesuit Fr. Jacques Bigot again took up the work on the Kennebec while in the same year Fr. Louis-Pierre Thury, of the Foreign Missions, established the first regular mission at Panawambskek (“it forks on the white rocks”—Vetromile) or Penobscot, at the fails near the present Oldtown. Here he labored until his death in 1699, and was succeeded by other priests of the same seminary until 1703, when this mission, like that on the Kennebec, was transferred to Jesuit control, under which it continued, although under constantly greater difficulties, until the fall of Canada in 1763. The most noted incumbent of this earlier period was Fr. Etienne Lauveyat (1718-1729).

From the outbreak of King Philip’s war in 1675 up nearly to the close of the French period in 1763 the history of the Abnaki tribes was one of almost unceasing bloody struggle against the English advance. On the side of the English it was a war of extermination, with standing bounties for scalps (or heads), increasing from five pounds in 1675 to forty pounds in 1703 for every scalp of a male above ten years, and at last in 1744 one hundred pounds for the scalp of every male above twelve years of age and fifty for that of a woman or child. Prisoners were sold as slaves (see Williamson). In 1706 Governor Dudley reported that he had not left an Indian habitation or planting field undestroyed. Shortly afterward it was estimated that one-third of the Abnaki had been exterminated by war, disease, or exposure within seven years. In 1722 three hundred men were appointed to destroy the village at Penobscot and four hundred others to ravage constantly throughout the whole Abnaki country. To draw off the Indians from the French interest, efforts were twice made by the English authorities of Massachusetts to persuade them to receive Protestant missionaries, but the offer was rejected. Three times the mission at Norridgewock on the Kennebec, under the devoted Fr. Sebastian Rasles, was attacked and destroyed, and the third time the missionary himself was among the slain. The final result was that the Abnaki who survived withdrew to St. Francis or other mission settlements in Canada, with the exception of the Penobscot, who made a separate treaty of peace in 1749, thus saving themselves and their territory, but forever alienating the affection of their kinsmen by whom they were thenceforth regarded as traitors to the confederacy.

On the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775 the Penobscot, under their chief, Orono, tendered their services to the American cause, at the same time asking that a priest be sent to them, they having then been for nearly forty years without religious instruction. Their offer was accepted and they gave good service throughout the war, but the Massachusetts Government was not then able to find them a priest, owing to the fact that Jesuits and other missionaries had for years been outlawed from New England. When the war was ended the Penobscot made another appeal, this time by a delegation to Bishop Carroll of Maryland, to whom they presented the crucifix of the murdered Fr. Rasles, with the result that in 1785 the Penobscot mission at Oldtown was reestablished under Fr. Francis Ciquard, a Sulpician, sent from France for that purpose. He continued with it until 1794, going then to the neighboring Etchimin (Maliseet). Orono died at Oldtown in 1802. Of later missionaries the most noted is the Jesuit Fr. Eugene Vetromile, stationed at Oldtown from about 1855 to about 1880, author of a small history of the Abnaki and of several works in the language, the most important of which is a manuscript Abnaki Dictionary, now with the Bureau of American Ethnology. The other great dictionary of the language, that of Father Rasles and plundered from the mission in the second attack (1722), was deposited in Harvard University and published in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Cambridge, 1833).

The principal existing Penobscot village, officially known as Oldtown, is on an island in Penobscot river, a few miles above Bangor, and, as indicated by the Indian name, about on the ancient site. The church, dedicated to Saint Anne, is served by a secular priest. In their aboriginal condition the Abnaki tribes were semi-sedentary, dwelling in villages of communal wigwams covered with bark or woven mats, each village having also a larger central townhouse for public gatherings. They cultivated corn and other vegetables, and understood the use of manure. They had also game and fish from the woods and waters. They had the clan system, with fourteen clans (Morgan). Polygamy was rare and tribal government simple. They buried their dead. In general character they were comparatively mild and tractable and not given to extreme cruelty as were the Iroquois. What remains of their mythology has been brought together by Leland in his “Algonquin Legends of New England“. The modern Penobscot are entirely Christianized and civilized in habit of living, deriving subsistence by lumbering, boating, hunting, some farming, and the making of Indian wares for sale. They are in friendly touch with their neighbors, the Passamaquoddy band of the Maliseet. See also Catholic Indian Missions of the United States.; Maliseet Indians; Rasles; Saint Francis Mission.


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