Maine before the Popham Colony

Wabanaki homeland (Portland Press Herald)

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the land which is now Maine was the home of several tribal nations that we now know as Wabanaki. The name Wabanaki translates to “People of the Dawn”, and comes from the name the people in Quebec called them. Most tribal nations called themselves “people” or “real people” and other tribes described them by where they lived. The Kennebec River was a shared waterway between the Etchemins such as the Penobscot to the east, and Alnambak or Abanaki to the west. Farther north and east in what is now the Canadian Maritimes lived the Mi’kmaqs who were known for their trading and boating skills.

We use the name Wabanaki to describe these people as it is the preferred collective name. However, most of these people would have known themselves as members of a tribe, village, and family rather than the larger collective. The Eastern Algonquin language spoken by the Wabanaki was to some extent understood across this territory, but there were also significant regional differences in the language.

This is a land with a long coastline due to the many bays and islands. Inland there are many rivers and lakes, and some high mountains.

The Wabanaki did not always live in peace and both fought wars and made alliances among the various tribes. There were strong kinship relationships between the various groups. The Wabanaki also faced incursions from outside such as from the Iroquois to the west.

Despite the harsh winters, this is a land of plenty for those who know the land and the sea, the currents and tides, and the seasons as they change. The Wabanaki knew this land and the waters that flowed in it, and scarcity was mostly confined to the coldest part of winter.

Modern birchbark canoe

About 3000 years ago, the Wabanaki developed the lightweight and resilient birchbark canoe. It was made from readily available materials (birch and cedar) and easily repairable and can be carried on a person’s shoulders. The lightweight canoes were easily portaged overland, and with multiple paddlers could travel quickly. In a land full of rivers, bays, and lakes this was often the only way to travel. This is one of the great boat technologies of the world, and was rapidly adopted by Europeans when they arrived in this area. All modern canoes descend from this technology.

Variations of the canoe were also used to travel to the islands off the coast and almost all of them show some seasonal habitation. The Mi’kmaq are known to have fished the Gulf of St Lawrence and traveled to what is now Newfoundland. The French Voyageurs used large canoes based on these to access the interior areas of North America.

The waters and marshes were full of fish, clams, oysters, and lobsters. There were also seals and birds to hunt. The Wabanaki also harvested plants and hunted moose, deer, and beaver on the land. Rather than living in a single location, they followed the food seasonally, carrying their houses with them. In the spring, the migration of anadromous fish from the oceans to freshwater provided a large bounty; salmon, herring, and smelt migrated each year. Huge sturgeon roamed the larger rivers and estuaries.

In the southern and western areas, including some near the Kennebec River but mostly farther south, the Wabanaki also planted corn, beans, and squash as well as hunting. In the northern and eastern areas, the Wabanaki were almost fully dependent on hunting and gathering. That does not mean they were passive hunters. The Wabanaki actively altered the environment by cutting undergrowth and starting controlled fires to provide a habitat for the animals they hunted and the plants they harvested. When the Europeans arrived, they found lush stands of fruits and nuts along the coasts and waterways, but more dense forest inland. Although the Wabanaki lived within the natural world, they also made significant modifications to it.

The Wabanaki had little metallurgy technology and used stone and bone tools. A small amount of copper was mined by the Mi’kmaq. They were efficient hunters and gatherers. The Europeans sometimes referred to them as lazy as they had a significant amount of free time after providing for food and shelter.

Near the mouth of the Kennebec River, there are several middens made up of clams and oyster shells over thousands of years. The largest of these is found near the current town of Damariscotta Maine.

Dauphin Map of Canada (1543)

In the eleventh century, Norse explorers came to Vinland (modern Newfoundland). They called the native people Skaeling (barbarians). They also explored the coast further south. Most of the journeys seem to be summer trips, but there is evidence of several winter camps including evidence of boat repair. The Norse left Vinland after hostilities with the native people.

In 1497 John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto) traveled to Newfoundland on a commission from Henry VII. Traveling due west from the south coast of England you come to the Labrador or the Newfoundland coasts. Like Columbus, this was an effort to find a more direct route to Asia and what is now the St Laurence River is the deepest penetration into the North American continent. This is the basis of the English claim on North America. He made no contact with the native people but did see their fishing nets and tools.

In the 1530s the French explorer Jacques Cartier made several explorations to the seas and lands of the Wabanaki, reaching as far inland as what is now Montreal (looking for the elusive Northwest passage). Starting in the 1540s French and Basque traders made many trips to this area and traded mostly with the Mi’kmaq. By the end of the 16th century, hundreds of French, English, Basque, and Dutch fished the waters off Newfoundland each year and dried fish on the islands. There were several attempts at settlement but there were mostly trading posts and none of them became permanent until 1608 with the founding of Quebec City. The French interest was mostly in fish and trade, but by the early 17th century this started to change to more permanent settlement.

The French brought with them technology the Wabanaki did not have including metalworking and weaving such as blankets. The European beadwork was also popular with the Wabanaki. In exchange, the French were mostly interested in furs. The trade with the French disrupted earlier trading between Wabanaki tribes, and gave the Mi’kmaqs technological advantages over the other tribes.

The land of the Wabanaki was originally named Norumbega by the French, and later referred to as France Nouvelle (New France) or Acadia.

Wabanaki stone drawing (Nova Scotia Museum)

Although there can be no exact figures, it is estimated that there were about 75 thousand people in this area in 1500 with about 35 thousand of them in what is now Maine. Even by 1600, the population had declined, most likely due to European diseases to which the Wabanaki had no immunity. The Popham colonists saw Wabanaki everywhere they went, but the 17th century would see a large drop in the population with a 90% reduction in many places due to both death and displacement. Entire tribes were driven to extinction. The years 1615-1619 are known as the “great dying” and over 50% of the population is thought to have died in those years from European diseases.

The Wabanaki are now revered for their artwork, and especially for elaborate baskets. We have records of elaborate clothing and decorative objects from early contact. The Wabanaki also left us artwork on stone, such as this drawing of a European ship.

Champlain Sagadhoc maps (1605)

In the 16th century, England was preoccupied with solidifying rule over all of Britain, and with a long-term war with Spain (including the Spanish Armada in 1588). Those who would be explorers and traders made their money as privateers. Many English fishing vessels and some traders did make it to this area. In 1604 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, King James I signed a peace treaty with Spain which freed up resources for exploration and decreased problems of sailing the preferred southern route. In 1605 James declared all privateers to be pirates. The peace and the end of privateering put the privateers and their ship builders out of work. The war with England had badly strained the Spanish treasury which limited their efforts to protect their claim in North America. By the start of the 17th century, English fishermen were making regular trips into the Gulf of Maine and drying fish on the islands off the coast of Maine.

The land between the French claims in the north and the Spanish claims in the south was called Virginia by the English. The northern half of that claim was later renamed New England by John Smith (the first leader of Jamestown) who extensively mapped it in 1614.

In 1604, Samuel de Champlain created detailed maps of Acadia, and the following year mapped further south along the coast including detailed maps of the bays and islands along what is now the Maine coast. This map is a reasonably accurate detail of the mouth of the Sagadahoc (now Kennebec) River and shows the location where the Popham Colony would be established. This map shows several villages near the site, one is near what is now Parker Head, and the other is in what is now Georgetown.

When the Europeans came to North America, they found many familiar plants and animals, and a few unfamiliar ones. They mostly came in the summer and found this land to be a bountiful one. Very few Europeans before 1607 had been in the Wabanaki lands in the winter. Maine is at a similar latitude to southern France, and the European explorers who did stay the winter were not prepared for its severity.

Columbus called the native peoples Indians as he thought he had reached Asia. Champlain wrote a book about his voyages named Des Sauvages (The Savages). In French, sauvage means wild in addition to the meaning of ferocious (as in English). The English mostly used these terms to refer to the native people.

Before the arrival of the English explorers at the start of the 17th century, the Wabanaki were using some European boats along the coast, presumably of French or Basque origin. When George Weymouth landed in 1605 along what is now Nova Scotia, he found Wabanaki in a Basque shallop, who could speak some Basque and French. When at Pemaquid, he abducted five high-status Wabanaki men and took them to England. One of the Wabanaki returned to Pemaquid in 1606, and another returned with the Popham colonists in 1607.


Agwiden is a documentary video done by D’Arcy Marsh with the Penobscot Nation in 2002. It follows the building of a Wabanaki birchbark canoe from the harvesting of the birch bark, the cedar logs (which are split and carved into ribs and gunwales), and the black spruce roots (which are used to sew the bark) to the launching of a completed canoe. For 80 years the Penobscot Nation had stopped building birch bark Canoes. Then Chief Barry Dana invited Steve Carard (a white man) to help him and the Penobscots, along with members of the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet nations to bring back the ancient craft and tradition of Birch Bark Canoe building, which is the heart and soul of Wabanaki culture. 52min