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Radical Mainers: A Brutal Race War Ends in Victory for the Abenaki

A Brutal Race War Ends in Victory for the Abenaki

by | Feb 11, 2020

In the summer of 1676, the English and their Indian allies brutally crushed the Wampanoag and Naragansett insurgency in Southern New England. That August, after Wampanoag sachem Metacomet (a.k.a. “King Philip”) was hunted by a band of rangers led by Captain Benjamin Church, a “praying Indian” named John Alderman shot Metacomet in the Misery Swamp near Mount Hope, in Bristol, Rhode Island. The English promptly chopped Metacomet’s corpse into four pieces and hung them from trees. His head was mounted on a pike at the entrance to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where it remained for the next 25 years. His wife and nine-year-old son were sold into slavery in Bermuda.

But up in Maine, the Abenaki protectors were far from finished fighting, and would soon wipe out every settlement on the Maine coast.

Later that summer, Abenaki fighters and their allies, which included MicMacs and what was left of Metacomet’s defeated army, set out on a series of raids from Cushnoc (Augusta) east to Arrowsic and Pemaquid, sacking, looting, burning, and killing over 50 people. On Aug. 13, 1676, Abenaki warriors seized a trading post owned by Richard Hammond, another sleazy English businessman known for ripping off the Indians.

That fall, the natives decimated the Pemaquid settlement. According to the Maine Historical Society, they cut off the route connecting the men in the fields and fishing boats from the women and children in the villages, causing many of the English men to be killed or captured when they tried to return to their homes. Families fled to the islands in the harbor 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.” By the time they sailed south, a month later, all the coastal English settlements east of Casco Bay had been destroyed.

Meanwhile, as refugees from Massachusetts headed north into New Hampshire and Maine, Major Richard Waldron devised a plan to trick the Indians into surrendering. On Sept. 7, 1676, Waldron invited 400 local Indians and refugees to participate in a mock battle against his militia in Cocheco (now Dover, New Hampshire). After the indigenous people fired their guns, Waldron took them prisoner. He executed some of them and sold the rest into slavery in the deadly sugar-cane fields of Barbados.

Then, on Oct. 12, 1676, the Abenaki war chief Mogg led a hundred warriors in an attack on the fort at Black Point in Scarborough, forcing local leader Henry Josselyn to surrender. A week later, Major Waldron reported that the “Eastern Country” of Maine was “deserted and conquered.”

Mogg traveled to Boston to sign a peace treaty with the English, but it wasn’t in effect for long, given that Mogg had no authority to negotiate it and the terms were terrible for the Abenaki. For instance, in addition to ceasing hostilities and returning all prisoners, the treaty also required them to compensate the English for “Injuries, Losses, and Damages” to their “Housing, Cattle, or other Estate.” It also directed the Abenaki to “take up Arms” against any Indian bands that refused to ratify the treaty.

The other Abenakis would not agree to such terms. Francis Card, who had escaped from the Kennebecs in January of 1677, wrote, “the Indians spake nothing of any peace, but rather being heightened with their late and great Successes, were contriving how to get Possession of the other Places in the hands of the English.” Soon Penobscots began joining Kennebecs in the war, largely out of desperation due to the English arms embargo. Penobscots were also furious about the kidnapping of 15 Indians at Machias by an English sea captain, who sold them as slaves in the Azores.

However, it was Major Waldron who destroyed any last hope of peace with the tribes when he once again set up an ambush under the guise of a diplomatic meeting. In February of 1677, Waldron sailed to Pemaquid to secure the release of several prisoners. He came ashore with half the ransom, then signaled his men by waving his cap over his head. The English quickly massacred several unarmed Indians, including a Penobscot sachem.

Waldron was sadly mistaken if he thought his treachery would force the Abenaki to surrender. The Indians led a series of devastating raids on the settlements of Wells, York and Portsmouth that spring. In May of 1677, Abenaki warriors, along with regional allies, once again attacked the English fort at Black Point. Mogg died on the third day of battle, but the others captured the fort and slaughtered a small army of Christian Natick Indians and English soldiers that summer.

Shortly beforeMogg was killed, he came up with an audacious strategy to “burn Boston” by seizing English fishing and trading vessels. His men took up their slain leader’s plan.

According to historian James Axtell, over the next month the Indians seized more than 20 vessels, which were mostly “sturdy Salem fishing ketches” manned by crews of five or six men from Marblehead. The 17th century historian William Hubbard noted that the fishermen were not known for their fighting ability, “being a dull and heavy-moulded sort of People, that had not either Skill or Courage to kill any thing but Fish.”‘

One crew did manage to overpower a group of Abenaki raiders off the coast of Maine. After throwing a few overboard, they captured an old man and a young man, who’d eagerly surrendered. What followed was one of the most gruesome acts of savagery inflicted during King Philip’s War.

As the sailor Robert Roules later recounted in a deposition before the Massachusetts General Court, after the crew sailed into Marblehead Harbor and led the bound captives ashore, a crowd gathered and “began to grow clamorous.” Roules said the sailors told the angry mob that they intended to “deliver them into the hands of the constable of the town, that they might be answerable to the court at Boston.” But several English women suddenly surrounded them, drove away the captors by force, and even stoned those who attempted to protect the prisoners. The women laid “violent hands upon the captives,” and seized them by the hair.

“Then with stones, billets of wood, and what else they might, they made an end of these Indians,” said Roules. “We were kept at such distance that we could not see them till they were dead, and then we found them with their heads off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones. And such was the tumultation these women made, that for my life I could not tell who these women were, or the names of any of them. They cried out and said, if the Indians had been carried to Boston, that would have been the end of it, and they would have been set at liberty; but said they, if there had been forty of the best Indians in the country here, they would have killed them all, though they should be hanged for it. They suffered neither constable nor mandrake, nor any other person to come near them, until they had finished their bloody purpose.”

Indeed, after so many months of brutal warfare, both sides had become capable of the most inhumane acts. Hundreds of English and Abenaki people were forced to flee the area. Finally, after New York Governor Edmond Andros took over and reinforced Fort Charles at Pemaquid, the Kennebec leaders agreed to lay down their weapons and release prisoners in exchange for an end to the trade embargo.

Sachem Moxus pointed out to Massachusetts Bay Colony leaders that it was the English who “allways broke the peace,” and that the Indians were “willing to live [peacefully]” and “not fight without they fight with us first.” The Kennebec sachems expressed anger over Waldron’s massacre of the Penobscots at Pemaquid. They said the major was responsible for “all that have bin killed this sommer,” and further noted that they had taken care of the English prisoners, but “if you had any of ours prisoners you wold a knocked them on the hed.”

Eventually the Massachusetts government appointed Anthony Brockholt to negotiate with the Indians. Soon after, Squando and the sachems of Pegwacket (Fryeberg), Saco and Androscoggin agreed to peace talks. Not surprisingly, the English remained the biggest barrier to peace, for they continued to heap more demands on the Indians as they held their families captive in the filthy holds of their ships off Pemaquid. As historian Lisa Brooks notes, the colonial government wanted the Indians to return all vessels they seized in the war, which the Indians saw as a “breach of promise,” given the number of English prisoners they had already released. The Indian leaders Symon and Madoasquarbet were allowed to briefly visit the captives, and Symon reportedly leapt to take a “little boy out of ye Hold & would have carried him away but being Hindered put him down again.”

The English released the families on Aug. 18, after the Penobscots gave up the ketches. Among the freed Indians, Brooks noted, were “two miserable creatures” that she believes were likely the Machias leader and his wife, retrieved as slaves from the Azores. Symon was finally able to carry the little boy home, and the Penobscot sachem Madackawando brought the two formally enslaved members of his family back to their relatives in Machias. But several other kidnapped Machias Indians never saw their homeland again.

The following year, the provincial government of New York, which controlled Maine between 1677 and 1686, signed the Treaty of Casco Bay. Under its terms, the English were required to pay an annual tribute of one peck of corn per family for the privilege of resettling the Maine colonies. While the Abenaki were required to respect the property rights of the English, they would continue to have sovereignty over their land, at least on paper. In the end, the tribes in Maine had proven that they were not going to be pushed around by the European colonists.

“From the beginning of settlement, the northeastern maritime settlements had existed only as long as they were tolerated by the native inhabitants,” wrote Canadian historian John G. Reid. “In Maine, as the growth of towns had given an apparent solidity to English colonization, the Indian had come to be seen as an alien. The war between 1675 and 1678 was a warning, though one not taken to heart by the colonists, of how fragile the English achievement could be.”

Unfortunately for the Abenaki people, their culture and way of life would continue to be eroded as more and more Europeans settled the area. Over the next several decades, more wars would break out and eventually whole tribes were exterminated, as the local Indians were killed, sold into slavery, or forced to flee to Canada. By the mid-18th century, the Europeans had largely conquered the Indian tribes and were free to colonize and transform the New England landscape.

As for Major Waldron, the Indians never forgot his bloodthirsty deceit at Cocheco and Pemaquid, and he eventually got his just desserts. But that’s another story.

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