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Radical Mainers: A Brutal Race War Brews in Colonial Maine

A Brutal Race War Brews in Colonial Maine

When English merchant Christopher Levett arrived in Portland Harbor in the spring of 1624, he knew he had finally found the spot to build his dream colony. Levett had secured 6,000 acres of land in the region from the Council for New England, a joint stock company led by English proprietor Sir Fernando Gorges, and he found the area to be perfect for fishing, fowling and farming. Of course, the English venture capitalists had no actual right to the land where Wabanaki people had fished, hunted and raised their families for thousands of years. But the coastal tribes had been decimated by European plagues and the natives were in no position to fight colonization. Instead, they decided to try diplomacy.  

About three miles up the Presumpscot River, at the falls, Levett came upon a small Indian village of about 50 men, women and children, according to his travelogue, “A Voyage into New England.” The sagamores (leaders) welcomed the Englishman, fed him, shared their tobacco and liquor, and presented him with a beaver skin as a token of their hospitality. Cogawesco, “the Sagamore of Casco and Quack,” told Levett that he “should be very welcome” to settle the area and invited him to come out in the canoe with his wife, “the Queen,” to scope out potential spots for his settlement.

Levett was impressed that these tribal leaders gave him their blessing to establish his colony, because he knew the Indians “hath a naturall right of inheritance, as they are the sonnes of Noah.” Therefore, he reasoned, it was necessary to “carry things very fairely without compulsion, for avoyding of treacherie.” The Indians talked of bringing him into their family, and he joked that he “was not a little proud … to be adopted cousin to so many great kings at one instant.” Soon after, Levett took the Abenaki leaders down to his ship to meet the rest of the crew, and they dined and drank together. 

“The woman or reputed Queene, asked me if those men were my friends,” wrote Levett. “I told her they were; then she dranke to them, and told them, they were welcome to her Countrey, and so should all my friends be at any time, she dranke also to her husband, and bid him welcome to her Countrey too, for you must understand that her father was the Sagamore of this place, and left it to her at his death having no more Children.”

As historian Lisa Brooks explains in her book, Our Beloved Kin, when the Queen welcomed Leavett and his men — and even her indigenous husband — to her tribe, she was inviting them into her kinship network, with its diplomatic practices and reciprocal relations. “It was up to [Levett], and those that followed,” she writes, “to reveal whether they would ‘abide with’ them and ‘share’ in the first mother’s power and strength, or fall among the ‘brutes,’ who would ‘steal’ her ‘body’ and refuse to ‘share in it’ as she had intended.”

In other words, this diplomatic arrangement encouraged the white men to share the earth’s bounty, but it did not give them free rein to possess it and take all the fish and game. The natives were reportedly very fond of Levett, as he respected their customs, but he didn’t stay long. Soon a new crop of sleazy English businessmen arrived who had no interest in adhering to local customs or sharing the land with such “savage” heathens. 

As the late Harvard business historian Thomas K. McCraw observed in Creating Modern Capitalism, the colonization of America was “one long entrepreneurial adventure,” and more Americans have made their fortunes on the appreciation of real estate values than from any other source of wealth. He noted that this ravenous appetite for land, which had been pent up for centuries in the Old World, was born of “European deprivation confronting New World opportunity.” After being unable to secure land for so long, the Europeans were willing to lie, cheat and murder to get it. 

Private land ownership was a totally alien concept to native people. Brooks notes that Indians in Maine “sold” plots of land to the white men for coats, liquor, and “twenty shillings.” Monquine, the son of a Kennebec sagamore, “sold” a massive tract of land from Cushnoc Falls (Augusta) to Skowhegan for a barrel of bread, a barrel of beans, two cloth coats, two gallons of wine, and a bottle of rum. For the Indians, Brooks writes, these agreements weren’t considered property transfers, but rather “negotiated treaties to share space.” They had no idea they would be banned from hunting and fishing on their own traditional grounds.

Walter Bagnall, the first permanent settler of Casco Bay, set up a trading post off Cape Elizabeth, on Richmond Island, in 1628, and was notorious for extorting and cheating the local Abenaki people. After finally having enough of Bagnall’s skullduggery, a local sagamore named Skittergusset killed the English merchant and burned down his trading post in 1631. When John Winter, agent for English merchant Robert Trelawny, arrived on Richmond Island a year later, relations between the Wabanaki and the English had soured so much that he couldn’t even trade with them. 

In 1636, Winter complained that the Indians had killed a number of his hogs that had escaped. He wrote his boss that “they stand in fear we will take hold of them for yt, and so I will yf I Cann meete with them that did yt.” The incident inspired the settlers to enact a new law stating that “every planter or Inhabitant shall doe his best indevor to apprehend, execut, or kill any Indian that hath binne known to murder or doe them violence and will not mack satisfaction.”

The following years were a period of ever worsening tensions between indigenous people and white settlers, as a steady flow of English colonists arrived on the New England shores to make a new life for themselves. Of course, relations between the cultures had never been great. For years, European sea captains had abducted indigenous people to take back to Europe as souvenirs. The English also brought virulent diseases that wiped out up to 90 percent of the coastal tribes, eradicating entire cultures and their customs and oral traditions. The white men also sold the the Indians intoxicating spirits, which caused an epidemic of alcoholism among what was left of the native population. 

Rather than trying to learn the local culture and language, to assimilate, the Puritans were more interested in “taming the savage,” converting them to their fanatical religion, and forcing them to live under their strict theocratic laws. For example, a 1636 Massachusetts law stated that both colonists and Indians could be executed for blasphemy, which was defined as “a cursing of God by atheism, or the like.” Indians at Plymouth Colony were also prohibited from hunting or fishing on the Sabbath. 

Indeed, both the English and the Indians feared the corrupting influence of the other’s culture on their brethren. Puritan leaders were terrified that English colonists would be seduced by the allure of indigenous life and become no different than the “savages.” The Indians rightfully feared that the English would wipe out their culture, their social and religious traditions and way of life. 

At the same time, the two sides had a mutual interest in keeping the peace in order to preserve trade relations. While the English and French eagerly sought fur to export back to Europe, the Indians desired the white man’s steel swords, muskets, copper kettles and iron arrow points, which were far superior to their traditional stone, ceramic and bone tools. The Indians become more dependent on European technology after the plagues interrupted the transmission of traditional skills passed down by the elders, wrote University of Maine historian Richard Judd, in an essay for the Maine Historical Society. As a result, the fur trade boomed throughout the 17th century, but it did so at a high price for native people, 

As Judd notes, the commodification of fur disrupted traditional patterns of hunting, fishing and gathering that were more in tune with the seasons, and it altered the Wabanaki’s spiritual connection with the animal world, as they focused on hunting fur-bearing animals. “The fur trade also changed tribal politics by creating new forms of status based on European goods,” wrote Judd.

This new economic model inevitably led to bitter competition between tribes over hunting territory, as beaver populations declined. Soon the French and the Algonquian-speaking people of New England began battling the Iroquois to the west. These violent clashes in the 1640s came to be known as the Beaver Wars. As their colonies developed, the English became less reliant on the fur trade, but the Wabanaki still needed English goods like firearms and ammunition for their survival, and they began to fall into debt. 

By the early 1670s, many Maine indigenous tribes — the Sacos, Androscoggins, Kennebecs, Sheepscots and Penobscots — were fed up with the colonists’ encroachments on their land, their rum-peddling and trade abuses. But these tribes still wanted to live in peace with colonial Mainers, even as a vicious race war was brewing in southern Massachusetts. In the end, it was the English, with their paranoid fears of an Wabanaki revolt, who would spark the war in the north. When the colonial authorities demanded that the Wabanaki preemptively surrender their arms, the Indians had but one choice: fight or starve.

It’s not clear how many English and Indians lost their lives in the raids and battles that swept through New England between 1675 and 1677. Both sides engaged in mass slaughter as they tortured, raped and mutilated men, women and children. As mass hysteria gripped the New England colonies, combatants made no distinction whom they beheaded, dismembered or burned alive. In Maine, entire settlements emptied out, from Pemaquid to Kittery, as the colonists fled for their lives. In proportion to population, King Philip’s War would be remembered as the deadliest war in American history.

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