The smoke was already rising from the Abenaki Indian raids on the Casco Bay settlements by the time English trader Thomas Gardner, of Pemaquid, sent a letter, dated September 22, 1675, pleading with Massachusetts Governor John Leverett to lift the arms embargo on the local Kennebec and Penobscot tribes. Had Leverett listened to Gardner, the governor might have averted a very bloody war.
For years, the native tribes had resented the white settlers for taking more and more land, disrupting traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and forcing the Indians to live under their fanatical religious laws. The first spark touched off at Plymouth, Massachusetts, when Wampanoag sachem Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, rose up against the colonists in the summer of 1675. Fearing an Abenaki conspiracy to the north, the colonial leaders demanded the Maine tribes surrender their weapons. Reflecting the views of the English at the time, 17th century Massachusetts historian William Hubbard wrote that the Indians “naturally delight in bloody and deceitful actions,” so it was justified to “disarm the Indians along the shore.”
But as Gardner informed Leverett in his letter, his Penobscot and Kennebec trading partners wanted to remain neutral, and disarming them would deprive them of the tools they needed to hunt for food. Indeed, a Massachusetts trade embargo on gun powder had caused food shortages among the local tribes the year before.
“I Conceive the Reason of our Troubles hear may be occa[s]ioned not only by som[e] southern Indianes which may Com[e] this way But by our owne Acctings,” wrote Gardner. “[T]hese Indians live most by Hunting as your Honour well Knoweth … we cant take away their armes whose livelihood dependeth on it. … These Indianes in these parts did never Appeare dissatisfied until their Armes were Taken Away.”
Furthermore, Gardner argued, “I do not find anything I can discerne that the Indians east of us are in the least our Enimies.” He added that they “only fly for fear from Any boats or English thay se[e] & good Reason for thay well Know it may Cost them their Lives if the wild fishermen meet with them. Sir I doubt whether we should Kill these Kennibeke Indians if we meet with them that have not Killed any of us.”
Unfortunately, Gardner did not find a sympathetic ear. Shortly after his letter arrived, he was arrested by the colonial authorities and brought to Boston for continuing to trade with the Kennebecs and Penobscots. Although Gardner was eventually exonerated, and the two tribes managed to maintain an uneasy peace with the settlers that winter, the English refused to back down. Within months, the Penobscots and Kennebecs would be forced to go to war.
The traditional English version of events, as first reported by historian Hubbard, was that the war in Maine began after a group of English sailors drowned the infant son of Indian sachem Squando in the Saco River. The sailors, it was said, were testing the belief that “young Indians could swim naturally like animals.”
Hubbard maintained that the baby’s death was just an excuse for the Indians to go to war with the English, that it was “an Occasion to vent the Mischief they formerly had conceived in their Hearts.” This “strange and enthusiastical sagamore,” he wrote of Squando, was “filled with malice and revenge,” and began attacking settler families along Casco Bay soon after his infant son’s death.
Of course, Hubbard’s account, A Narrative of Troubles with the Indians, is notoriously biased and riddled with errors and inaccuracies. As historian Lisa Brooks points out, by suggesting that the war was “instigated by the ‘rude and indiscreet act’ of a fisherman and the ‘natural’ proclivity of savages for ‘bloody and deceitful actions,’” Hubbard’s version conveniently avoids acknowledging “any cause arising from colonial encroachment” on native lands. Besides, she notes, even Hubbard acknowledged that the first fatal shot in Maine was fired by the English.
The first raid occurred on September 4, 1675, when a band of about 20 Androscoggins ransacked the home of trader Thomas Purchase at Pejepscot (present-day Brunswick). As Brooks notes, Purchase was known for swindling the local Indians, and one Androscoggin man recalled that the Englishman once charged him “one hundred pound for water drawn out from [Purchase’s] well.”
Purchase and his sons weren’t home when the raid took place, yet the Indians spared his wife as they looted the stores of liquor and ammunition. However, a group of English settlers traveling by boat to collect Indian corn spotted the raiders plundering the house and surprised them. During a pursuit up the New Meadows River, they managed to kill one of the Indians and wound another, starting the first battle of King Philip’s War in Maine.
Less than a week later, a local militia discovered the charred remains of Thomas Wakely in his burned-out home on Back Cove, in Falmouth. Abenaki raiders had also scalped his pregnant wife, tomahawked two of their children and taken the other three as captives. The attack was unspeakably brutal, but Brooks points out that Wakely was one of three Englishmen who built their houses north of Skitterygusset Creek, an area known for its fertile soil. The settlers were encroaching on the land of the sagamore Skitterygusset, who lived there with his extended family. The raid, Brooks argues, could also be understood as the reclamation of this land.
On September 15, as a group of colonists were gathering grass at the salt marsh in Owascoag (Scarborough), “3 guns” appeared “out of the bushes” and two men were shot down in the marsh. Then Squando and his band began targeting mills in Saco.
Colonial military commander Richard Waldron recounted, on September 18, that “36 Indians came over ye [Saco] river in english canooes & which come Ashore cut holes in ym and turned ym Adrift.” They then proceeded to set Major Phillips’ saw mill and corn mill on fire as the owner and 50 settlers holed up in a garrison.
Phillips recalled that when he peered out to investigate a “stirring” in the foliage, he was immediately shot in the shoulder. The Indians, who were “decked with ferns and boughs,” then moved toward the fortified house with a wheeled contraption filled with gunpowder, birch bark and other “combustible matter.” According to Brooks, before they left in the morning, the Indians set fire to an outhouse stuffed with hogs — “a message ripe with satirical symbolism,” she observed.
It was relatively quiet on the Maine frontier throughout the winter that followed the raids, because the Abenaki had destroyed most of the settlements on the coast and “many of the people being slaine … the rest [had] retyred to places of bettr securyty,” according to a Massachusetts colonial government report from April of 1676. The English suspected that the French, who resided in the north, were arming the Abenaki. But for a few exceptions, the French remained neutral, fearing that if they took sides the English would ally with their enemies, the Iroquois, to the west, in a war against the Abenaki.
That spring, John Earthy, the English agent of Pemaquid, convened a meeting among the local tribes at Pemaquid to “perswade them of the Cuntrys willingness to continue a Peace with them.” The Kennebec and Androscoggin leaders were asked to mediate with the Androscoggin and Saco war chiefs, but Squando never showed up.
Madockawando, the Penobscot sachem, repeatedly pointed out that by demanding that the eastern tribes disarm, the English were forcing the tribes to flee and leave their corn fields, thus depriving them of desperately needed sustenance. He asked what the Kennebecs and Penobscots could do to get the powder and shot they needed for winter hunting. Noting that their corn supplies were running low, the sachem asked “whether they would have them dye,” or if the English would prefer to force them to flee their land and live among the French.
“If we sell you Powder,” the English countered, “and you give it to the Western [French] men, what do we but cut our throats?”
There was little the Indians could do to assuage the deep fear and paranoia of the English. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before an English sea captain destroyed the uneasy peace of early 1676. Lacking an organized army to deal with Indian raids on the Maine frontier, the Massachusetts government resorted to issuing warrants for the arrest of hostile Indians. One of the sea captains who held a warrant abducted several Indians east of the Penobscot River and sold them into slavery. Only two of the captives would ever see Maine again, after being returned from the Azores a year later. Infuriated by the repeated treachery of the white men, the Penobscots were done kowtowing to the English.
Meanwhile, the English military forces, with the aid of the Iroquois, crushed Chief Metacomet’s resistance and killed the chief along with 2,000 Indians. It’s estimated that 3,000 Indians also died of war-related diseases and starvation in Massachusetts. Those who were unable to flee to Canada or into Abenaki territory were either executed or sold into slavery. But victory came at a large cost for the colonists. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick estimates that nearly eight percent of the adult male population of Plymouth Colony, and a smaller percentage of women and children, were killed during the war.
Meanwhile, up in Maine, the war was far from over, as Abenaki warriors and their allies prepared for another summer of violent resistance. For, as the Kennebec sachems reminded the Massachusetts Governor in a letter in 1677, they were the “owners of the country.” This country “is wide and full of enjons [Indians],” they wrote, “and we can drive you out.”