In the summer of 1524, when Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano arrived on the shore of what would one day be known as Maine, he didn’t expect to get such a rude reception. The natives to the south had been much more hospitable.
Sure, some of the tribespeople in the future Carolinas fled when they saw the freakishly hairy white men paddling to shore. But the crew made friendly gestures to assure those who remained that they meant no harm, the locals were intrigued, and they beckoned the visitors to land. The natives on the Outer Banks marveled at their bizarre appearances, their clothes and their whiteness. These “Indians” offered the Europeans food, and the two groups began trading trinkets for furs and other local goods.
The 49-year-old mariner had been hired by the King of France to search for a passage to Asia, but so far Verrazzano had spent the voyage sailing up the eastern seaboard of North America, documenting the land and the exotic people he encountered along the way. The natives at present-day Cape Lookout, North Carolina, were helpful. They later performed a “magnificent deed” by rescuing a member of the explorer’s crew who’d nearly drowned trying to swim ashore to barter for more stuff.
“After remaining with them for a while, he regained his strength, and showed them by signs that he wanted to return to the ship,” Verrazzano wrote to King Francis I. “With the greatest kindness, they accompanied him to the sea, holding him close and embracing him; and then to reassure him, they withdrew to a high hill and stood watching him until he was in the boat.”
The natives who fled the white men had a different experience. On another occasion, when a group ran into the woods upon sight of the odd-looking strangers, Verrazzano’s men were able to corner two women with three children. As an elderly native woman trembled and held the young ones, the white men spied a boy, about eight years old, trying to hide behind her legs. They seized him to take back to France. Verrazzano noted that the much younger woman, maybe 18 or 20 years of age, was tall and quite beautiful. He probably thought she would be an excellent souvenir, but “because of the loud shrieks she uttered” as the men “attempted to lead her away,” they gave up trying to bring her back to the ship.
The most gracious people they met on the journey were the residents of Narragansett Bay, near present-day Providence, Rhode Island. As the Europeans approached, they were surrounded by 20 small watercraft full of Wampanoags greeting them “joyfully” and “uttering loud cries of wonderment.” The natives showed them the safest place to beach the ship, and at first they kept their distance. But the voyagers lured them closer by imitating their gestures, and the Wampanoags floated close enough to catch a few little bells, mirrors and other items tossed their way, “which they took and looked at, laughing, and then they confidently came on board ship.” The natives returned to the vessel frequently during Verrazzano’s 15-day stay in the harbor, bringing the newcomers food and enjoying their company.
The Wampanoag men, Verrazzano wrote, were well-nourished, “as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe,” and taller than the white men. They had bronze skin and long black hair that they painstakingly decorated. The Italian didn’t go into detail about “other parts of the body,” but assured the French king “they have all the proportions belonging to any well-built man.” The females were equally shapely and attractive, and went nude save for a stag skin. The Wampanoags made sure no womenfolk went aboard after observing the white men leering and hearing the “irksome clamor of the crowd of sailors.”
Compared to most Europeans at the time, these “Indians” were living well, feasting on abundant fish, game, fruits and berries, as well as the maize, beans and squash they cultivated. Verrazzano remarked that the Wampanoags’ fields stretched for miles and were clearly very fertile, suitable for growing every kind of crop for grain, wine or oil.
Eventually, it was time to head north, toward the place 16th century explorers would come to call Norumbega, a legendary city of silver and gold on the banks of the Penobscot River. Sailing eastward up the Maine coast, the explorers found a land “full of very dense forests, composed of pines, cypresses, and similar trees which grow in cold regions.”
But there were no joyful cries of wonderment to greet the sailors when they landed in present-day Casco Bay. No, these natives “were full of crudity and vices, and were so barbarous” that the visitors could hardly communicate with them. The Abenaki clothed themselves in the skins of bear, lynx, “seal-wolf” and other animals, and appeared to live solely on game, fish and wild fruits. There was no sign of agriculture, but the land didn’t appear to be suitable for growing anything anyway. The only value Verrazzano could see in the land was the possibility there was metal buried in the forested hills, as some of the natives had beads of copper in their ears.
“If we wanted to trade with them for some of their things, they would come to the seashore on some rocks where the breakers were most violent, while we remained in the little boat,” Verrazzano reported to the king, “and they sent us what they wanted to give on a rope, continually shouting to us not to approach the land; they gave us the barter quickly, and would take in exchange only knives, hooks for fishing, and sharp metal.”
When there were no more goods to exchange, the Abenaki bid them farewell by bending over and shaking their bare asses at the white men. Verrazzano was appalled by this crude behavior, which the natives found hilarious — they laughed uproariously as they mooned the tourists.
Shortly thereafter, Verrazzano led an armed expedition inland. They were met with a volley of arrows and heard loud cries before the natives slipped away into the woods. As the author Charles C. Mann points out, it was pretty clear that, unlike the Wampanoag, the Abenaki had dealt with white men before. The offended Verrazzano named the area Onde di Mala Gente, Land of the Bad People. (In retrospect, the Abenaki actually treated Verrazzano quite hospitably compared to the Caribs on Guadeloupe, who killed and ate him when he showed up on their shores four years later.)
Sadly, the Abenaki were not able to hold the Europeans at a rope’s length for long. At the time of Verrazzano’s voyage, it’s estimated that there were around 100,000 indigenous people living in New England. Between 1616 and 1619, epidemics of European diseases wiped out 90 percent of the natives living on coastal land from Maine to Massachusetts. White settlers later discovered deserted villages filled with the bleached bones of the Abenaki, Wampanoag, Pennacook and Nauset who perished in what the natives called the “Great Dying.”
“For in a place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left alive, to tell what became of the rest, the living being not able to bury the dead, they were left for the Crowes, Kites and vermin to prey upon,” observed the colonist Thomas Morton. “And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations, made such a spectacle after my coming into those partes … it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.”
To the English venture capitalists who financed colonial expeditions, this tragedy was Divine Providence, the work of the hand of God. Wars between the English, the French and the local tribes followed, and eventually the English conquered the Maine frontier. The now infamous 1749 proclamation of war on the Penobscots, issued by Spencer Phips, acting governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, reveals the brutality the new ruling class was willing to employ. A bounty was placed on each Penobscot captured or killed, with different amounts to be paid for captives and scalps, and for men, women and children, or the scalps of the same.
Wealthy English proprietors subsequently carved up the land into vast, privately owned tracts, and extracted massive amounts of wealth from the natural resources and the poorer white pioneers who squatted there. Land that the People of the Dawn once held in common trust was now in the hands of a handful of Europeans. Over the next few centuries, the newcomers dammed up the rivers for their mills, dumped poisons in the waterways, clear-cut the forests and decimated the once abundant fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine, all in the interest of profit. This voracious and exploitive new economic system reaped astonishing riches for a few white elites while pushing the Abenaki onto reservations at the margins of society.
The descendants of those early white settlers soon discovered that America’s promise of freedom was just smoke and mirrors. Powerful monopolies drove independent Maine farmers, artisans and shopkeepers out of business and into wage slavery. Many ended up working twelve-to-fourteen-hour days, toiling in dangerous or oppressive conditions in the potato fields of Aroostook County, the blueberry barrens of Washington County, the northern forests, the textile mills of Lewiston and Auburn, quarries along the Midcoast, shipyards in Bath, and the fearsome seas off our rocky shore.
The industrial money machine did its best to crush the human spirit, and in many ways, it succeeded. But there have also been those who rebelled. From the Abenaki who shook their asses at Verrazzano, to the workmen and fishermen who mutinied off Richmond Island in 1636 (the first strike over economic conditions in the proto-United States), to the labor activists of the last century, there have been dissidents throughout our state’s history who resisted colonial subjugation and capitalist exploitation. In the coming months, we will share the stories of these radical Mainers with you.
Andy O’Brien is a writer and labor activist. Will Chapman is an archivist at the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. In addition to writing for Mainer, they maintain the Facebook page Maine Working Class History.