SPAP Report No. I-6

Whose woods these were I think I know. / It’s not a simple answer, though. / –RF parody


Sebagoland’s “Colonial-Period” Natives too long have been, and unfortunately still are being, misnamed. There now is no excuse to continue the bad habits of calling them Sokoki(s) or Rockameecook(s). But, if anyone still feels uncertain about their specific-group-name, the easy & obvious answer is to call them by their absolutely-certain general-group-name Wabanaki(s). That’s the simple bottom-line; now to the details.

This report is about accuracy of group-identifications, not about political correctness. Some Native Americans might scoff at any Euramerican attempts to identify them, accurately or otherwise – Columbus having made such a bad start by mistakenly calling them Indians because of his geographical misunderstanding. [Click for Note 1] Some Native Americans might think “We know who we are & were, and it’s no business of Whitefolks anyway”.

A: Saco

B: Sokoki

C: Amarascoggin

D: Arosaguntacook

Nonetheless, in ongoing Encounter affairs, which by definition affect both Natives’ and Newcomers’ descendants, accurate group-identification of who was (& who was not) where, and when, become the very basis of the justice system’s attempts to redress Native grievances about past wrongs suffered. Especially is this issue important in Indian land-claims cases, aimed at belatedly compensating Natives for Euramerican usurpation of lands, and for steal-deals in actual purchases from the Natives. [Click for Note 2]

Indian land-claims controversy has not yet rippled the waters of Sebagoland, but this would be a difficult region indeed for making clear group-identification labels for its Native occupants of the so-called Historic Period-meaning the Contact / Encounter Period. Archaeological evidence shows that Prehistoric Period Indians were relatively numerous in the Lakes Region, but both artifacts and written accounts of resident Historic Period Indians in this area are relatively scarce. Furthermore, the written accounts are mostly secondary-source statements at best, often lumping Prehistoric & Historic data together, and using questionable group-names, as will be shown shortly. [Click for Note 3 & Click for Note 4]

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The Problem

Wabanakia(k) – the Dawnland-extended from Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec to Cape Ann (Gloucester) in Massachusetts, and from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia to Lake Champlain inVermont. In SPAP Report No.I-2 (Mapping Mawooshen), MAP A (shown above) showed Peoples Distribution Before 1600, with the Wabanaki then consisting of Micmac, Etchemin, and Abenaki-Pennacook.

MAP B (shown above) showed the Wabanaki peoples Circa 1725 as Micmac, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy, Penobscot (a.k.a. Eastern Abenaki), and Abenaki-St.Francis (meaning both the Abenaki remaining in New England and the Abenaki regrouped in & working out of New France – this latter category a.k.a. Western Abenaki). This also implies that, by c.1725, the Etchemin had regrouped as Maliseet & Passamaquoddy, and the (per se) Pennacook (a.k.a. Central Abenaki) had dispersed in all directions to merge with neighboring peoples.

While all of the above may seem complex, it really is quite simple compared with the discussion that follows now, which considers just some, not all, of the sub-groups of the Abenaki-Pennacook. The Sebago-Presumpscot drainage basin, lying between the valleys of the Androscoggin River and the Saco River, long must have been the joint territory of sub-groups of both Abenaki and Pennacook peoples. However, agreement seems difficult to attain about which sub-groups were resident there, and which were not, at least as regards the proper labels to give them.

Why? Because so few primary-sources say little if anything about sub-group names. And because a few relatively early secondary-source authors made some wrong assumptions about sub-group names, which, alas (like Columbus’ & others’ early booboos), have been repeated so often since, by more-recent writers, as to have become unquestioned “realities” today, irrespective of (in)accuracy. Readers’ loyalties to these familiar writers, &/or to “what we’ve always been told”, understandably will hinder quick agreement with what I have to say here. [Click for Note 4]

Yet as new knowledge becomes available, it should be heard out. Of course this applies to tomorrow as well as to today: Herein I am using specialty information not readily available until relatively recently, and surely some of it will be eclipsed eventually by newer information coming to light in the future. The endemic challenges of newly-discovered information, and of reinterpreting older theories, apply to ethnography (description of a culture) & historiography (the writing of history) just as much as to laboratory sciences & technology-e.g., microbiology research & development.

Very often the slow march of learning seems to go from non-concern, to ignorance, to error, to only relative “truth”. And when the pace of scholarship seems too slow, less-than-scholarly writers tend to fill the void with less-than-accurate quick-closures that may have quite negative consequences later on. [See tertiary-sources in Note 4]

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A: Saco | B: Sokoki C: Amarascoggin | D: Arosaguntacook

Gordon M Day, who was Eastern Canada Ethnologist (Emeritus) at Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa when he died in 1993, was the person most qualified to solve the current problem of searching out both proper and improper names for the Sebagoland Native peoples. He was by specialty a linguist as well as an ethnohistorian, and already had started the work on southwestern Maine, by bracketing our Lakes Region with two nomenclature studies: Amarascoggins (not Arosaguntacooks) on the Androscoggin River; and Sacos (not Sokokis) on the Saco River. [Click for Note 5] and map.

Dr Day had been the Outside Reader on my own doctoral dissertation committee in 1974, and I had high hopes that someday he would guide my efforts to label Sebagoland’s former occupants. But, alas, my Sebago research had to await my full-time retirement, which came too late for his direct help. Yet as a role-model he continues to influence me nonetheless.

Way back in 1966, in his first letter to me (responding to my first to him), Gordon Day offered a warning that I have never forgotten – but that the general public still knows not of. He clearly stated the bold truth about prior Euramerican attempts to identify the tribes and dialects of the Wabanaki peoples: “Much of the material in print is just plain wrong.” While that statement may make Gordon sound pompous & cavalier, he was in fact one of the most humble & cautious scholars that I have ever known. Indeed, he was so cautious that it greatly disturbed him when either less-cautious writers or outright bluffers let neither the facts nor the lack of facts interfere with telling a nice tight story.

In the decades since Gordon Day first warned me that many already written statements about Sebagoland’s Natives might be “just plain wrong”, I have found countless examples of what he meant. (Sometimes it really seems that accuracy about Native Americans is of absolutely no concern at all to some antiquarians who are fastidious about details of Euramericans.) However, “Day’s Warning” has to be recognized as a genuine problem by the general public before the ethnohistorical work of current & future scholars can meaningfully make any corrections in the accepted story of the Lakes Region’s past. If the public doesn’t care, then accuracy matters not.

Indeed, if Indian land-claims cases arise, the public may prefer to keep the inaccurate street-signs saying “Sokoki Drive” in several modern residential neighborhoods in southwestern Maine! And even without land-claims cases, it costs money to change street-signs & stationery; accuracy can be an expensive nuisance! [See Note 5 & map about Saco yes / Sokoki no]

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One of the main purposes of this article is to call attention to the various ways of telling about the past. There are indeed many different windows to look backward from, each with its own lens-focus. In Notes 3, 4, 6 & 7…

[Click for Notes 3, 4, 6 & 7]

…I have given working-definitions of several of these perspectives, using two general categories: History and Folklore. We tend to associate Factuality (Accuracy?) with History; Creativity (Inaccuracy?) with Folklore. Yet these associations can be quite misleading: Propaganda is deliberately created history; Oral Traditions can be more accurate than miswritten documentation. Nonetheless these associations should serve as rules-of-thumb to keep us wary. [Click for Note 7]

That part of the Anglo-Wabanaki Frontier which I call Sebagoland certainly has been disproportionately short on encounter Facts and long on Fantasy / Fancy – i.e., less Substance and more Shadow has been depicted about it. This beautiful realm of woods & lakes obviously was a place worth fighting for heroically – the Wabanakis to keep it, the Anglos to seize it. Little wonder then that Creativity has been the Euramericans’ oft-chosen means of expressing “what must have been happening” in Sebagoland when Our Sacred Ancestors encountered The Native Savages (Noble or Bloody) in that Wilderness. [Click for Note 8] Yet too often the price of Creativity is paid for at the expense of Accuracy, and the public must acknowledge that cost, if it chooses Legend over History, and turns Sebagoland into Shadowland thereby.

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Part A: Chief Polin

In what follows, please remember the geographical realities. Rather far to the north, the Crooked River ( which joins the Songo River just before the Songo flows into Sebago Lake) starts in Songo Pond in Bethel ME, very close to the Androscoggin River. Also, the southwest shore of Sebago Lake is very close to Steep Falls on the Saco River. Therefore, both Amarascoggin and Saco Natives had easy access to the Sebago-Presumpscot drainage basin – but did they live in Sebagoland?

Also please remember that in the primary-source records, the latest-listed / most-recent sakamo (chief) of the Sebagoland area is Polin. Although Polin sounds like a French-influenced name (even in different spellings & dialects), no primary-source record that I know of gives him any other name, especially an Indian-sounding name – despite what at least a couple of recent publications tell us.

According to official Massachusetts Colony records, in August 1739 “Polin the Sachem [sakamo] of the Pesumpscot [note spelling] Indians” was in Boston to complain to Governor Jonathan Belcher that “the River, which I [Polin] belong too, is barred over [dammed tightly] in Sundry Places”, which stopped fish-migrations, and therefore prevented sustenance-fishing by the Native community*, contrary to prior agreement for fish-ways.

SIDELIGHT (A) *Governor Belcher: “How many Familys have you att Pesumpscot?” Chief Polin: “About 25 Men besides Women & children.” [August 10/13 1739 Boston meeting (MeHlSy Baxter Manuscripts V23:260)]

Despite new promises then, not enough (if anything) corrective was done thereafter, by the intruding English settlers on the Presumpscot (especially by dams-owner Col Thomas Westbrook). So, a decade later, a primary-source document (dated 8 October) about a 1749 treaty conference states that “Pooran” [Polin in another dialect] was by then a chief of (& likely also at) “St.Francois”(Odanak / Arosaguntacook) [MeHlSy Collections S1V4:147]. This indicates that Polin had moved to the major French refugee-center for the Abenaki peoples, in southern Quebec.

Five years after that, according to official Massachusetts Colony records, Governor William Shirley complained to his council (15 July 1754) of “the many Outrages & Hostilities suppos’d to be done by one Polan an Arssagunticook Indian” [MeHlSy Baxter Manuscripts V24:17]. Clearly, Polin was retaliating from his French power-base, on the continually-intrusive English frontier settlements, for at least the Presumpscot fishery interference, if for nothing else.

Two years later on, according to several secondary-sources (but no primary-source that I yet know of), Chief Polin supposedly led the war-party against English settlements in Sebagoland, and on 14 May 1756 was shot dead by Stephen Manchester of New Marblehead (now Windham ME). [Click for Note 9]

With this 1756 event, the Polin of History is replaced by the Polin of Folklore– and it is Whitefolks’ folklore, not Indian folklore. Polin seems not to be widely remembered in Wabanaki traditions as a freedom-fighter for his people. At best, Whites cast Polin as a forced-to-be-villain*; at worst, he has been cast as a skulking Bloody Savage who impeded White Supremacy in Sebagoland.

SIDELIGHT (B) *At least one thing does seem certain: the Town of Poland ME was not so named to honor Chief Polin, not even as a corrective to its earlier name of Bakerstown which honored the 1712 militia-leader whose scouting-party killed Wabanaki sakamo Wattanummon in central New Hampshire.

In 1841, poet John Greenleaf Whittier artfully described Chief Polin’s burial (by his retreating warriors) under a lone beech tree, in “Funeral Tree of the Sokokis”-using the wrong name for the Saco River Natives who Whittier assumed were Polin’s people. It is likely that Whittier based his poem on the detailed account in Williamson’s (1832:V2:322) HISTORY OF THE STATE OF MAINE, which Williamson footnotes only to “MS.Let.of John Waterman, Esq.” Access to that Waterman document, &/or learning Waterman’s connection to Polin’s burial, would be the only means of assessing the validity of the descriptions that both Williamson and Whittier have published.

Regional historians of Sebagoland have informed me that an Indian burial has been dug-up near Songo Lock on Songo River, and thought to be Polin’s remains. Supposedly at least the head-bones were kept by the finder(s). And supposedly the mandible (jaw-bone) was huge – which may indicate a pituitary gland disorder called acromegaly, that causes giant-sizing of various body-parts. Those consequences of acromegaly could be considered a supernatural / spiritual endowment, and bestow elite status on the individual, and, if hereditary in his lineage, on all his kinfolk. Therefore, this burial’s remains may very well be those of a Native leader – but is it Polin? Someday these possibilities may lead to real connections with Polin, but for now they are pure speculation – and so the last warrior-chief of Sebagoland is ensconced in mystery, not history.

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Part B: Chief Polin’s People

As for the group-name of Polin’s people, or of Polin’s own personal ethnicity, all three primary-source statements cited earlier (Pesumpscot, St.Francois, and Arssagunticook) have been ignored by several writers from at least 1873 onward, who call them / him Rockameecook (in various spellings) instead. Why they ignored the primary-source names (unless they had no access at all to Massachusetts Archives data), and why they chose the R-name (this I really would like to learn), I have no idea at this time. But if all that is meant by Rockameecook is an antique & confusing alternative term for Pigwacket (or Pequawket), then it is, at best, an obscure & misleading choice of name for that major Abenaki-Pennacook band & community on Saco River in what is now Fryeburg ME*.

SIDELIGHT (C) *At “the head of this River Shawakatoc there is a small Province, which they call Crokemago, wherein is one Towne. This is the Westermost River of the Dominions of Basshabez….” [Description Of The Countrey Of Mawooshen (Hakluyt in Purchas 1625) – See SPAP Report No.I-1]

I certainly would not recommend using the R-name for the Sebago-Prescumpscot People. Most scholars since at least 1910 onward have used the name Rocameca for an Abenaki band & community on the zigzag section of Androscoggin River around Canton Point & Jay Point (west of today’s Livermore Falls ME). [Click for Note 10 re a modern Rockameecook]

Based upon the modern analyses and the best secondary-sources that I know of at present, I can only suggest that Polin’s Presumpscot group probably was a part of the Pigwacket band of the Abenaki-Pennacook peoples. This seems to me more probable than a connection with the proper Rocameca band on the Androscoggin River, although the latter is still a possibility*.

SIDELIGHT (D) *Dated 7 Sept.1736: “His Excellcy was inform’d [earlier] that three Indians belonging to Ammiscogan River [Click for Note note 12X]were at Biddeford [on Saco River] in Order to take passage on Board a Sloop bound here [Boston], & yt [that] their Business was to complain that the [Presumpscot] River leading to the Sebagoge Ponds was so dam’d and Obstructed that the Fish cou’d not pass up to the said Ponds….” [MeHlSy Baxter Manuscripts V11:172-173] (In his 1739 interview with the Governor, cited earlier, Polin indicated that he had “for Sometime” & “a great while” wanted to come to Boston, apparently to complain earlier about Presumpscot damming. So, was this 1736 attempt made by Polin, or by others? – From Polin’s group, or from another group?)]

We know that a great deal of Wabanaki rearranging & relocating continually took place because of English pushing & French pulling, and that from at least 1675 onward, displaced Pennacook groups & individuals went at least as far northeast as the Androscoggin River, where the Amarascoggin Abenaki traditionally lived. However, going elsewhere certainly did not mean staying there, or not returning. All of the Abenaki-Pennacook bands at least occasionally had some of their people at, or traveling to or from, St Francis (Odanak / Arosaguntacook), or other French mission-villages, in southern Quebec.

Most if not all Abenaki-Pennacook bands, by custom, long had been kinship-interrelated with the others, and family intervisitation was recreational as well as adaptive. I call this frequent moving around among their villages (and returning) the Dawnland Diaspora, which was a vital part of the Wabanaki dynamics of survival – an adaptive strategy. It is because of this phenomenon that Polin meaningfully could wear different group-labels: Pesumpscot, St.Francois, & Arssagunticook. He was not really a transient, nor a complete free-lance, but he obviously was a traveler, and he certainly was not unique in that. Indeed I suggest that Polin could wear at least one more group-label: Pigwacket.

The most likely scenario I can suggest currently is this: Most of Polin’s Presumpscot people either already were a part of, or became merged with, the Pigwacket people, most of whom in turn were closely associated with the St Francis (Odanak / Arosaguntacook) people. As for the causes & timing, I can only refer readers to SPAP Reports No.I-3, I-4, & I-5 (on the “Triple-Whammy”) for general possibilities. Perhaps Pigwacket village (at now Fryeburg ME ) long had been a hub community, using the Presumpscot River largely for seasonal fishing & hunting territory. This scenario would incline the Presumpscot people toward the Saco River, rather than the Androscoggin River: i.e., they may also be called “Saco (but not* Sokoki) Indians” . [*See Note 5 for why not Sokoki].

Anyhow, let’s assume the likelihood of this scenario for purposes of further presentations by the Sebago-Presumpscot Anthropology Project. Indeed, Pigwacket (Pequawket) has some rather interesting things to be said about it, to be the subjects of some future SPAP Reports.

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This report has emphasized the Presumpscot people of the 1730s-1750s, and the latest-known sakamo of the Sebagoland area: Polin. I have suggested their affiliation both with the inland Pigwacket band (HQ at now-Fryeburg ME) of the Abenaki-Pennacook peoples, and with the much-further-inland St Francis / Odanak people of the French mission village on the St Francis / Arosaguntacook River in southern Quebec. These affiliations may have resulted from, but certainly were increased by, continual English colonial expansion inland from the coast, from the late 1720s onward, and also (of course) by French influences. But what of the century before?

In SPAP Report No.I-5, I discussed the earliest-known sakamo of the lower Presumpscot River: Skedraguscett / Skitterygusset, who (in 1623-24) “hath a house” at Presumpscot First Falls (now Smelt Hill Dam in Falmouth ME). He again is mentioned as still concerned thereabouts in a 1657 primary document, thus giving him at least a 34-year tenure in the area. In Report I-5, I stated that, under the spelling Squidrayset, this sakamo well may have been also a chief of today’s Lynn MA area, through intermarriage between Pennacook bands*. Indeed, research now being done by two ethnohistorians (David Stewart-Smith on the Pennacook peoples, and Emerson W. Baker on land-deeds in southwestern Maine) reveals the close ties of marriage & kinship among many of the Native leaders in the large area between Boston, MA and Bath, ME on the coast, and inland between the Mystic River and the Androscoggin River, in the 1600s, and through Pennacook connections especially.

SIDELIGHT (E) *Occasionally, individual leaders were borrowed / lent among related communities, especially after disasters. Skitterygusset seems a likely case in point. Perhaps he rotated between his communities. For instance, where was he in 1634? In April 1634, trading-post agent John Winter at Richmond Island (just-offshore south of Cape Elizabeth ME) complained to his boss Robert Trelawny in England that “no Indian lives nearer unto us then [than] 40 or 50 myles, except a few about the River of Salko [Saco]” [MeHlSy Documentary History V3:461]. If literally true, this would mean that no one lived then (in 1634) on either Presumpscot River or Sebago Lake. We know that a very widespread epidemic of 1633-34 had much-thinned the ranks of the Pennacook on the Merrimac River – so possibly in Sebagoland also.

Any continuity in Sebagoland over time, specifically between the 1620s and the 1750s, also may have been the result of Pennacook leadership-bridging. For example, the Pigwacket main village had been abandoned after the famous stalement battle there (now Fryeburg ME) in 1725, between invading English scalp-bounty-hunters under Capt John Lovewell and resident Pigwacket warriors under Paugus (who apparently was a borrowed war-chief). The leaders of both sides were killed in that battle. However, Pigwacket village was reoccupied relatively soon thereafter – quite possibly by, among others, Chief Polin (who may have been a borrowed sakamo, too).

So, then, consider the strong likelihood that an at-least-residual (if not direct) Pennacook thread tied together the Lakes Region of Maine & the Presumpscot River, through time, just as the Pennacook (a.k.a. Central Abenaki) in their heyday especially had held together the Lakes Region of New Hampshire & the Merrimac River. That would make quite a large combined Pennacook legacy, from a Native American confederation which supposedly became extinct (per se) right after King Philip’s War (i.e., by 1680), but which sent its still-proud refugees not only in all directions but into the future as well.

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Historians once thought they could totally reconstruct the past, so as to tell about it as it really was. Happily, few today still believe that is possible, and most instead seek the closest approximation of the past that is currently feasible. Interpreting facts is a relative matter, not an absolute one, and sometimes facts must be recognized as few indeed. Ethnohistorians try to add inputs from the Native perspective (if & when such are known; & shared by the Natives), both to add depth in depicting frontier encounters, and to help verify the written accounts of the Newcomers.

Yet, for the Sebagoland frontier, much of what is now known is really not verifiable currently as facts. And no matter how comforting it may be to keep the old nostrums alive, mere repetition of some of them will not make them the kind of Folklore that can be teamed-up with History for the new-&-better understandings of the Encounter being sought here. In a word, currently our Sebagoland data are weak.

So, in this report, I have presented the most meaningful interpretation of the very limited available data that I can, currently, about Polin & the Presumpscot people. My study of him & them is only a work-in-progress, but at least it is a start. Clearly, Sebagoland had numerous prehistoric Indians, but no one yet can explain in detail the apparent scarcity of resident Native Americans there in the 1600s & 1700s.

Ideally, a professional team of archaeologists, ethnohistorians, folklorists, & historians – with dozens of eager student-assistants – should set up residence in Sebagoland and work continually until all sources of data have been processed thoroughly. In practice, however: Only occasional archaeological work is done there, usually only when-&-where required, in brief contracts, in limited spots; My own ethnohistorical study is only a one-man retirement project; Folklorists & historians seem to become uninterested in the Sebagoland area of the Wabanaki Frontier, after initially visiting the opportunity to research it, as some indeed have done briefly.

Yet this situation may change for the better, maybe even soon. Perhaps my smoke-signals here will be seen by some others who can & will help supply additional data for an eventually fuller interpretation. I certainly hope so; such help would be very welcome indeed.

In this situation of scarcity of professional attention, the need increases for amateurs teaming-up with professionals. Archaeological research by law requires professional control – but amateurs frequently alert professionals to new sites in need of investigation, and often can assist at a dig, & in the lab afterward. If you know of an uninvestigated archaeological site in Sebagoland, I can get you in contact with an archaeologist, if you will contact me. All three of the other disciplines just mentioned (ethnohistory, folklore, & history) also often start new research with amateur alerts & interviews. So, if you have family-traditions about encounters with Sebagoland’s Historic-Period Native Americans, I would very much welcome hearing from you. [SEE NOTE 11]

As a self-test of where your input(s) might fit in, please try to figure out
(by using NOTES 3 | 4 | 6 & 7 herein) what category/ies your information represent(s). Our common goal should be to try to get Chief Polin & the Presumpscot people out of the hearsay-shadows into documentable-substance – or at least to enlighten those shadows to the utmost extent that we possibly can*.


History?, Romance?, or Mystery?
Which of this trio did Muse Clio intend?
What are the means, & what is the end?
What about facts, when coddling a friend?
WHY did Jones** tell his stories that way,
When the Noble-Savage idea was passe‘?
Heartbroken Minnehaha indeed–
THAT surely can only impede!
2000’s too late to be droll in,
So let’s now try to get rollin’–
On a much better view of Chief Polin!

**Herbert G Jones (1946): Sebago Lake Land In History, Legend, & Romance. Freeport ME: Bond Wheelwright Co. This book is only a tertiary-source, for reasons I have described in NOTE 4. For the Noble-Savage idea, see NOTE 8. Heartbroken Minnehaha (Jones calls her Polin’s daughter) appears on Jones’ page 23. (Read it and weep, but not just with Minnehaha – more so for History!)

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