Part Two: EUROPEAN-DISEASE EPIDEMICS. SPAP Report No. I-4
“Hints” is a trilogy, presented as SPAP Reports Nos. 3, 4, & 5. Part One described the Native trade-wars; Part Three will consider the European usurpation of Native independence. Here in Part Two disease is discussed. Together, these three calamities form an intertwined triple threat against the Native Americans in the Gulf of Maine region. Unfortunately we lack specific details of inland affairs in this early period of “The Encounter” (as Red/White interactions are collectively termed). The view from the coast gives only hints of the hinterland surrounding the Sebago Lake drainage basin.
With no immunities to Old World diseases, Native Americans were totally vulnerable to contagion from encounters with any Europeans sick with anything. During 1617-18 a major European-disease epidemic struck the Native peoples from Cape Cod Bay to Penobscot Bay, killing off entire communities in some places. How or where this epidemic began is uncertain; sick fishermen off-shore seem likely. There were only a few Europeans actually residing in the area at the time, temporarily manning fishing-stations, or still exploring preparatory to attempting yet other colonial settlements that really would last (earlier attempts having failed).
The few Englishmen who commented about the epidemic from either their own or their workmen’s experiences of it tell of vacant villages, unburied dead, and “plague sores”. English explorer Captain John Smith blamed the victims, in doggerel: “They say this plague upon them thus sore fell, / It was because they pleas’d not Tantum well.” (Tantum or Tanto supposedly was the southern New England Algonquian peoples’ negative “god” of woe.) Indeed, only the natives were stricken; the few English who were living with or nearby the natives did not sicken.
And so, in 1620, King James I of England’s “Great Patent (charter) of New England”–the land-lease for the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims–declared that God had killed-off the Indians to make way for large-scale English colonization, which started immediately, continued with Mass. Bay Colony Puritans, and never stopped thereafter, pushing ever-more-northeasterly into Maine.
This was not the first epidemic–Micmac chief Membertou had told the French at Port Royal colony (in NS) his remembrances about late-1500s effects of European diseases from the Gulf of St. Lawrence–nor was it the last to strike the Wabanaki peoples. Each deadly wave of disease may have been different from the one before it, because Native Americans lacked relative immunity to all European diseases. However, for our region, the great epidemic of 1617-18 was a defining event, even if modern scholars still are not sure what this disease was. The best-reasoned suggestion I am aware of is hepatitis. This idea is presented in an article titled “New England Pandemic of 1616-1622: Cause and Archeological Implication” by Arthur E Spiess and Bruce D Spiess, in pages 71-83 of Man in the Northeast, Number 34, Fall 1987.
Meanwhile, back on the Ashamahaga, how were things in Agnagebcoc? Please remember that SPAP Report No. 1 (“Mawooshen’s Rivers”) theorizes that the Ashamahaga was the Sebago-Presumpscot drainage basin, “and on the East side there is one Towne called Agnagebcoc, wherein are seventie houses, and two hundred and forty men, with two Sagamos”–Maurmet and Casherokenit. (Hereafter, let’s abbreviate Agnagebcoc as “A-Town”.) That was a large community, but the fact is, it’s lost: archaeologists have not yet found anything of that size, in the Sebago drainage area, from that time (c. 1605).
The Hakluyt/Purchas description states that the Ashamahaga “runneth into the Land two dayes journey”, but it does not even hint at whether or not A-Town 1605 was on the tidal estuary, or simply nearby the river-mouth, or quite far inland, or at the very beginning of the drainage basin. For the Presumpscot-Sebago drainage, this could mean in Falmouth, or Westbrook, or Windham, or Harrison (even Bethel–but that’s stretching “two dayes journey” from the coast, to get all the way up the Crooked River).
Tarrantine raids probably caused any near-coastal village to relocate up-river, by 1605 or soon thereafter. There is written evidence from 1624 for at least a seasonal fishing camp at Presumpscot First Falls (1) (now Smelt Hill Dam/Pleasant Hill Dam in Falmouth, near Allen Avenue Extension). Near the second falls (2) (Amoncongin) and/or third falls (3) (Saccarappa) of the Presumpscot, in today’s downtown Westbrook, there were (supposedly) “Indian planting grounds”, but was the town there also, in 1605?
Certainly A-Town 1605 could have been in the vicinity of the coast, or of Presumpscot First Falls, or of today’s downtown Westbrook–but well-hidden, to minimize its fire-smokes’ attracting either Tarrantines from the sea or Mohawk raiders from upstream. Carefully-planned escape routes would have been equally important criteria. Indeed, if A-Town 1605 had been very-well-hidden from its contemporary enemies, that factor alone could account for why it still is “lost” to us today.
My own suggestion is that A-Town 1605 was quite far inland–near where Presumpscot River leaves Sebago Lake, in today’s White’s Bridge area of Windham and Standish. Because of today’s higher lake level, this vicinity is called Sebago Lake Basin. It is naturally sheltered from the openness of Sebago Lake proper, and besides being the beginning point of Presumpscot River, it also is the end point of Outlet Brook from Little Sebago Lake.
All this would make for a very logical address logistically, as well as for its spiritualistic natural beauty–from an adjacent hill is a stunning vista of Agiochook (today’s Mt. Washington in New Hampshire). From “The Basin” neighborhood a dense concentration of far earlier prehistoric artifacts already has emerged. (The large Kennard Collection recently was acquired by Maine State Museum in Augusta.) Yet the evidence for a big historic-period A-Town still is lacking there, unfortunately.
At this stage of knowledge we don’t have to quit entirely. It is quite possible to make some logical estimates about at least some aspects of the lost town of Agnagebcoc, wherever it really was located. Let’s call them “projections” about A-Town 1605 as it probably was when alive and well. Whenever and wherever archaeologists find it and dig it up, what might they expect to find, especially in the light of things considered in SPAP Report No. 3 on Native trade-wars?
If located on or near Sebago Lake Basin, the A-Town 1605 site surely would contain mostly local-style pottery, and possibly some foreign-style pottery, but certainly a few retraded European kettles, and some other metal tools and trinkets that soon would bring Native crafts-making to a halt.
There also might be clear evidence of a shift from traditional balanced subsistence-patterns and diet toward newer less-healthy ones, influenced directly or indirectly by European fur-trade activities. However, this far inland, a day’s journey from the coast, it might still have been safe enough to grow maize (corn-on-cob) to keep it out of the way of Micmac Tarrantine raiders, who didn’t grow maize themselves, but traded or raided for it.
Indeed, some of these A-Town people visiting the seashore at the mouth of the Presumpscot River in the summer of 1605 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain “coasted” by from Port Royal colony might have seen that famous chronicler, who states he was told that Native coastal raiders (i.e., Tarrantines) stole any corn-crops grown near the coast.
Also, in 1605, English explorer George Waymouth stole five Wabanaki men who visited his ship (near today’s Port Clyde, ME), to take back to England to interrogate about where best to settle the first English colonial attempt. Angry Natives told Champlain that the English had “killed” the five Wabanaki, and this would have been the inter-village Native gossip throughout Mawooshen.
In 1607, some of the A-Town men well might have been drawn into the Chouacoet campaign’s follow-up fights, and the entire A-Town community might have taken in refugees, after the Micmac Tarrantine raid at the Saco River-mouth. Some if not many of A-Town’s kinfolk probably had lived (and died) there.
Also in 1607, a few A-Towners might have travelled to Merrymeeting Bay, where the Androscoggin River meets the Kennebec River to form the Sagadahoc Estuary, and there encountered English scouting parties from the new nearby Popham-Sagadahoc Colony–which had brought back as guides two of the five Natives Waymouth had kidnapped in 1605. (Weird people, these English; can we really trust them?–So must have been the inter-village gossip, this time around.)
The “Mawooshen’s Rivers” brief statement about Agnagebcoc-on-Ashamahaga c. 1605 was pre-epidemic-1618. A-Town easily could have been entirely depopulated by 1620 due to that disease–or possibly because of Mohawk raids, or both. But there were less-widespread later epidemics and a few wars with the English that might have caused abandonment and decay of A-Town before any surviving written accounts were made of the Presumpscot-Sebago drainage area. SPAP Report No. 5 will discuss the wars with the English as part of the topic of European usurpation of Wabanaki independence.