Bashaba, Membertou, Passaconaway & Wanalancet, & Madockawando


We continue herein consideration of circulating-sakamos – leaders of or from one place, but active at or in another. Fluid voluntary societal organization allowed the Wabanaki peoples this very adaptive- advantageous status-&-role of mobile-manager. (Please see prior reports for organizational details.)

The willingness of Wabanaki peoples to have paramount-sakamos over them may have been based in ancient traditions, coupled with immediate times-of-need. Or, alternatively, in the absence of such ancient traditions, personal ability &/or momentary opportunity, during immediate times-of-need, may have been enough to account for persons in the right places gaining uncommon public acceptance. The cases are too few & the evidence is too inadequate to make a firm conclusion about the reasons for this extra level of Wabanaki leadership.

Herein I will outline only the most basic information about five famous high-chiefs among the 17th-century Wabanakis: the Micmac, Etchemin, & Abenaki-Pennacook peoples. Please bear in mind that changeable groups of voluntary followers placed themselves under the responsibility of any Wabanaki sakamo, low or high, and that personal prestige, not official authority, was all that any sakamo had for a power-base.

Peoples Distribution

©copyright by PC**2 & Assc’s(tm)

My maps show the supposed locations of the Wabanaki peoples (and some of their non-Wabanaki neighbors), at two different times separated by many cataclysmic events and encompasses the time period discussed below.

©copyright by PC**2 & Assc’s(tm)

BASHABA (died c1615) Western-ETCHEMIN

The first-known & least-understood Wabanaki superchief was/is Bashaba (Bessabez, Betsabes, etc.), who resided near the confluence of Kenduskeag River with Penobscot River, near the first falls & the head-of-tide on the Penobscot (in today’s Bangor ME). Here, in September 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain met & conferred with Bashaba, whom Champlain later called “chief of this river” (which is Maine’s longest). Another Frenchman, Jesuit missionary Father Pierre Biard, met Bashaba near today’s Castine ME on Penobscot Bay, in November 1611, at an Indian gathering of “about 300 people”, about which Biard later reported: “The most prominent Sagamore was called Betsabes, a man of great discretion and prudence”.

Although both Champlain and Biard actually met Bashaba in person, neither of these Frenchmen credited Bashaba with an overall regional status of super-chief. This seems odd indeed, but could be explained quite simply by the fact that both these Frenchmen dwelt among the Eastern-Etchemins & Micmacs, who together formed the Tarrentine alliance of traders-&-raiders – which was increasingly hostile toward Bashaba’s Western-Etchemin & Abenaki-Pennacook peoples, and thus would have de-emphasized to the French any regional importance Bashaba enjoyed.

It is from the accounts of early English explorers who did not meet Bashaba but had close contact with his “subjects” that we learn of Bashaba’s eminence above other Wabanaki leaders. The most-detailed report, dating from c1605, is The Description Of The Countrey Of Mawooshen. It resulted from intensive debriefing of five Wabanaki men kidnapped by Captain George Waymouth in June 1605 from the St George River area of mid-coast Maine, and taken to England to inform colonial planners there about Maine’s geography & Wabanaki politics. Waymouth’s official scribe James Rosier, in another account, calls one of the five captives “Brother to the Bashabes”, and calls a second one “his Brother” also — indicating insider-knowledge of Bashaba (which certainly could have been used by the captives as a deliberate hoax, but few modern scholars seem to think so).

The Description Of…Mawooshen details eleven rivers of coastal Maine, now considered to be from Union River (at Ellsworth) to Saco River (at Saco/Biddeford), and the Wabanaki towns & sakamos thereon. The name Mawooshen seems to mean walk-together, which would be an excellent political metaphor for the name of “the Dominions of Basshabez”. Clearly, this widespread alliance contained not only different dialects but separate languages (but all within the Algonquian Family). The Mawooshen account occasionally, & other early English reports also, added further prestige to Bashaba by calling him “the Bashabe”, which led some later writers to think his name was a title–but the to Wabanaki peoples meant only a very respectful prefix, implying the Great, just as they called Maine’s highest mountain the Katahdin.

English Captain John Smith explored the Maine coast in 1614 and continued both of the earlier English trends of 1) not meeting Bashaba, but 2) nonetheless describing Bashaba’s eminence above other chiefs: “though most of them be Lords of themselves, yet they hold the Bashabes of Penobscot the chiefe and greatest amongst them”. But within a year or two of Smith’s voyage, Bashaba was killed by marauding Tarrentines. Later, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the early promoter of English colonization in Maine, summed up in epic prose the conclusion of Bashaba’s tenure as paramount-sakamo of Mawooshen thus:

“…the Warre growing more and more violent between the Bashaba and the Tarentines, who (as it seemed) presumed upon the hopes they had to be favoured of the French that were seated in Canada their next neighbors, the Tarentines surprised the Bashaba, and slew him and all his People near about him, carrying away his Women, and such other matters as they thought of value; after his death the publique businesse running to confusion for want of an head, the rest of his great Sagamores fell at variance among themselves, spoiled and destroyed each others people and provision, and famine took hould of many, which was seconded by a great and generall plague….”

Was the idea of Bashaba as the paramount-sakamo of Mawooshen a reality, or a hoax by five captive Wabanakis who knew him well, or an exaggeration by English writers who never met him, or maybe something of a combination of some or all of these possibilities? Perhaps the latter is the wisest choice. Or, put another way, quite possibly

Bashaba’s shadow was greater than his substance–just the way he wanted it to be.

“The reputation of power IS power”, Thomas Hobbes reminds us. Yet we today do not know the degree of power that Bashaba held then & there. What is clear to us is that, by their Definition Of The Situation (DOTS), some Englishmen empowered Bashaba’s reputation in History. (DOTS call the shots!)

We do know that Wabanaki sakamos were not passive pawns of the Europeans. They were astute at seeing (& seizing) opportunities, and worked the French &/or English (often both) for every bit of Native advantage they could gain, as the following cases clearly show. Bashaba should be viewed in this context.

MEMBERTOU (died 1611)      Souriquois-MICMAC

The first French settlement in what they called Acadia was in Eastern-Etchemin territory, on an island in the river which now divides Maine USA from New Brunswick Canada. Officially they named both island and river Ste-Croix, but because their first winter there (1604-05) was so miserable they called it quits. They moved across the Bay of Fundy to a better-sheltered area in Souriquois-Micmac territory, and re-established France’s Acadia headquarters at Port Royal (halfway between today’s Digby and Annapolis Royal in western Nova Scotia). Membertou (Mabretou) was the Micmac sakamo of that vicinity, and his decision to welcome these first French Acadia colonists there became profitable for both parties.

Two Frenchmen who knew Membertou as a neighbor described his complex personality. Geographer-Royal Samuel de Champlain wrote: “We found him…friendly…all the time we were there, although he had the name of being the worst and most traitorous man of his tribe”. Lawyer/adventurer Marc Lescarbot told more: “He has been a very great and cruel warrior in his youth and during his life. Therefore rumour runs that he has many enemies, and is well content to keep close to the French, in order to live in safety”.

On his own, Membertou not only was a sakamo but also a shaman (“medicine”-person) and a ginap (war-leader) – both of the latter statuses using supernatural endowment. Eventually he led a Tarrentine alliance of Micmac & Eastern-Etchemin traders-&-raiders. The Tarrentines (from a Basque word implying traders) grew no maize (corn) themselves, but obtained it from neighbors by trading-&-raiding. They highly prided themselves in directly exchanging furs with European fishermen/fur-traders in the Gulf of St Lawrence & on the Grand Banks, for European metal products & fabric goods. This direct exchange long had been called the French Trade, and for the Natives it had the exotic aura of diplomatic (even supernatural) contacts. The Tarrentines then redistributed the European goods to neighboring Native peoples further away from the Europeans, and expected to be paid with deference as well as with the needed maize & furs. Insufficient deference paid in trading quickly could turn the affair into raiding instead.

When Tarrentine trading turned sour with the “Almouchiquois”/ “Armouchiquois” (= Abenaki-Pennacook) of Chouacoet (at Saco River-mouth in Maine), and his son-in-law was killed in the scuffle that followed, Membertou parlayed his French connection into a Viking-like raid. Borrowing French shallops (sea-going work-boats) and firearms (the first-known use by some Northeastern Indians against others), ginap Membertou gathered a large Tarrentine war-party and crossed the Gulf of Maine with his deadly punitive expedition. I like to call this the Micmac Sack of Saco in Summer 1607. Marc Lescarbot even wrote an epic poem about it, reminiscent of a Norse Edda!

Reciprocally using his hospitality to the French and being influenced by them in return, Membertou unquestionably became a paramount-sakamo, whatever he had been before. He, his family, & his local band vaulted into international prominence after Membertou became Christianized – the first Northeastern Native American leader to be converted at home. Twenty members of his extended family, ready or not, were baptized with him on 24 June 1610, making great French fund-raising publicity. Eventually the French bestowed upon Membertou the title of first Hereditary Grand Chief of the Micmacs. Membertou died of natural causes in 1611, supposedly at well over 100 years of age. He was buried as a Christian — but only after losing a deathbed struggle with Jesuit Pierre Biard, because Membertou had wanted a shamanic burial!

Father Biard became reinforced with enough religious assistants to establish a separate mission-station on Mount Desert Island (near today’s Bar Harbor ME), hoping to gain Western-Etchemin converts from the western parts of Acadia. The mission-station was just being completed when an English search-&-destroy expedition suddenly arrived from their South Virginia Colony (Jamestown). The English raiders razed not only the Jesuit mission-station but the Acadian headquarters at Port Royal and the warehouse at the old Ste-Croix Island site as well. All of the French personnel were evicted and shipped-off to Europe. French Acadia was totally eclipsed for the time being, and the Micmac-&-Eastern-Etchemin Tarrentines turned their attention to making all-out war against Bashaba & his Mawooshen peoples (Western-Etchemin & Abenaki-Pennacook) – the war Sir Ferdinando Gorges described so aptly, quoted above (in blue).So, Membertou’s immediate legacy to all the Wabanakis was his old war, not his new religion.

PASSACONAWAY (died c1665) & WANALANCET (died c1697)      Abenaki-PENNACOOK

Of all the Wabanaki peoples, the Pennacooks (also called the Central Abenakis) were the first to suffer the most from English colonial land-grabbing, because of their closest-to-Boston location. Spread all along the Merrimac River valley of today’s northeastern Massachusetts & southern New Hampshire, and all along the coast from Mystic River (Boston MA) to Merrymeeting Bay (Bath ME), Passaconaway’s immense personal alliance resulted from his own direct influence, &/or his indirect influence attained by marrying-out his children. (Perhaps Bashaba had created Mawooshen in just the same way, earlier, in central-southern Maine, even overlapping some of Passaconaway’s later-held turf — to the degree that these intertwined peoples are best termed simply Abenaki-Pennacook.) Again, like Bashaba’s alliance earlier, Passaconaway’s far-flung peoples spoke different dialects (for certain), even separate languages (within the Algonquian Family).

Passaconaway was from Penacook proper (near today’s Concord NH). His large Pennacook confederation consisted of the least-nomadic/most-sedentary villages of the Wabanaki peoples, who thus were the most-troubled by English encroachments – multiply-troubled, indeed:

  • First — they lived in the densest-populated settlements & therefore suffered the heaviest casualties when European-disease epidemics struck them
  • Second — they depended the most upon maize-gardening, which meant that having to relocate was the most costly for them.
  • Third — their already-cleared-&-cultivated lands appealed the most to the expanding English settlers.
  • Fourth — Englishmen’s towns north-of-Boston & in lower-Merrimac-Valley could grow only if-&-as Pennacook territory shrunk.

All indications are that Passaconaway had great influence over his widespread alliance, and that he had impressive shamanistic powers to augment his role as sakamo. Yet if he also ever had been a ginap he had given it up by c1634, after so very many of the Pennacooks had died in a series of devastating epidemics that he did not attempt to fight the English. Instead, Passaconaway’s sole strategy from the 1630s onward was peaceful coexistence with the English, whatever they did, lest Pennacook extinction be hastened. The English took fullest advantage of Pennacook pacifism to expand unchecked at their expense, whether intentionally or merely inevitably.

In 1644 Passaconaway submitted his lands & peoples to the authority of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yet even then he resisted Puritan missionary John Eliot’s attempts to Christianize him. By 1662 so much Pennacook territory had been lost to the English that Passaconaway had to petition the Colony for a tract of land to live upon. But despite the land losses, pacifism had kept the Pennacooks alive. And somehow Passaconaway was able to transmit his pacifist decision to his son-&-heir Wanalancet, despite repeated evidence & constant advice that it was an unsuccessful policy.

Wanalancet succeeded his father as paramount-sakamo of the Pennacook confederation c1660. While no major changes in policy marked his first decade in office, c1670 Wanalancet started listening to Puritan preachers & keeping the Sabbath. Finally in 1674 Wanalancet decided to”change canoes”–i.e., he converted to Christianity. He had not done so earlier because of opposition to it by his Council & his kin, and after Wanalancet converted he was deserted by many of his people. Yet he maintained considerable influence, and when King Philip’s War broke out in southern New England in 1675, Wanalancet insisted upon Pennacook neutrality.

Wanalancet moved his own band out of harm’s way, but the English misinterpreted his intent and sent troops after him. Some Pennacook bands moved far away, at least for a while. Hostile refugees hid among neutral Pennacooks, and the English dealt treacherously with both categories. Finally Wanalancet withdrew his band to Canada in 1677. His neutrality decision had proven no more effective than Passaconaway’s pacifism. However, both men’s policies had saved their Pennacook people, even if they had lost their lands.

After the withdrawal, a younger Pennacook leader, Kancamagus, became bloodier-minded. Although he was both a grandson of Passaconaway and a nephew of Wanalancet, he abandoned both pacifism and neutrality and took to the warpath. While he may have achieved some revenge against his enemies, he only could postpone the inevitable outcome of English expatriation of his people. While Pennacook genes still are alive and well, adaptive merger with other Native communities has obscured the Pennacook survivors. Pennacook history is only now being rediscovered, and the possibility of their future is not precluded.

MADOCKAWANDO (died c1698)      Western-ETCHEMIN

Madockawando was the last of the Wabanaki paramount-sakamos, wielding widespread influence from his Penobscot Bay home-base of Pentagoet (modern Castine ME). By adoptions and marriages, the prestige of Wabanaki authorityless leadership could be enhanced, and Madockawando enjoyed the benefits of both. He himself had been adopted as the son of a noted Kennebec River sakamo, Assiminasqua. His daughter Pidianiske was married to French soldier/adventurer Baron de St-Castin, who had come to live at Pentagoet to run a fur-trading post. Madockawando greatly relied upon his son-in-law’s advice (and vice versa), but nevertheless he was secure enough to be quite independent, not only as a high-sakamo but as a shaman and a ginap as well. When Madockawando did not wish to make war, or had had enough of war, he abstained with impunity – at least until French Acadia Colony authority (reestablished on St John River) could not tolerate his abstinence any longer, and attempted to undermine his leadership.

Despite his pro-French environment at Pentagoet, Madockawando ceased his participation in King William’s War after his surprisingly unsuccessful raid on Wells ME in 1692. It was to have been a model raid, to make up for a failure there (led by another chief) in 1691. It seems likely that, as both shaman and ginap, Madockawando took the double failure at Wells as an omen to stop fighting. Then, when that omen was coupled with evidences of English superiority in numbers & equipment, and of French exploitation of the Wabanakis, peace seemed to him to be essential for Wabanaki survival.

The French commandant in Acadia, Joseph Robineau de Villebon, understandably supported the pro-war party among the Wabanaki led by Taxous, a Penobscot River sakamo subordinate to Madockawando. So, when Madockawando signed a 1693 treaty with the English, he went beyond Villebon’s tolerance & had to be controlled, lest he cost the French the war. Therefore Villebon publicly adopted Taxous as his brother and raised him as a puppet foil, thus both humiliating Madockawando and threatening to undermine the Wabanaki power-structure. Taxous was coached by Father Louis-Pierre Thury to challenge Madockawando to return to the warpath or become “contemptible to all the young Indians” as Villebon put it.

Madockawando and the alliance he headed both would have succumbed if he had not returned to the warpath, so return he did because he had no real choice. Taxous remained bumptious, but stayed a subordinate sakamo. Madockawando apparently regained full prestige, for he succeeded to a sakamoship on the St John River (in Villebon’s vicinity) in addition to his other leadership responsibilities. He died c1698, leaving a definite power-vacuum in his absence.

English push and French pull, together, both fragmented and factionalized the Wabanaki peoples too severely, thereafter, for there to have been any opportunity for further Wabanaki paramount-sakamos like those discussed herein. That type of leadership seems to have died with the 17th Century. However, another type of Wabanaki leadership – mobile managers – came into ever-greater usefulness at that time (c1700), and it will be the subject of the next report in Mawooshen Memos’ Sakamo Series.

Although it depicts a rather pompous sakamo, the following passage (written by an Englishman residing in coastal Pennacook country in the early 1630s) is too vivid to ignore. It appears internally in Chapter 5 (titled Of Their Apparel, Ornaments, Paintings, & Other Artificial Deckings) of William Wood’s (1635) NEW ENGLAND’S PROSPECT*. It well exemplifies the genre of biased antique Euramerican accounts from which ethnohistorical anthropology must seek data about Frontier-Encounter-Era Native Americans.

“xxx But a sagamore with a humbird in his ear for a pendant, a black hawk on his occiput for his plume, mowhacheis for his gold chain, good store of wampompeag begirting his loins, his bow in his hand, his quiver at his back, with six naked Indian spatterlashes** at his heels for his guard, thinks himself little inferior to the great Cham. He will not stick to say he is all one with King Charles. He thinks he can blow down castles with his breath and conquer kingdoms with his conceit xxx”

The logo shown at the right and used here for this Sakamo Series of Mawooshen Memos is a silhouette of a 19th-century drawing (probably based on Wood’s 1630s statement, just quoted) supposedly depicting 17th-century Pennacook paramount-sakamo Passaconaway.

*NEW ENGLAND’S PROSPECT. William Wood [1635, 2nd Ed]. Edited by Alden T Vaughan (1977). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press [1993, 1st Paperback Ed]. Pages 84-85.

** “A variant of ‘spatterdash’—a kind of legging worn to protect trousers from spatter. Here used figuratively.”—p 85 of Vaughan (1977).