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 the Wabanaki.  The Wabanaki are made up of several Algonquin speaking tribal nations. The five current tribes are the Mik’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot, but there were a number of others historically. The name Wabanaki translates to “People of the Dawn”.  The Wabanaki lands include what are now the states of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the eastern part of Quebec.  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.

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 such a larger collective.

The Wabanaki did not always live in peace and both fought wars and made alliances among the various tribes. 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

Over thousands of years, the Wabanaki developed the lightweight and resilient birchbark canoe.  It was made from readily available materials (birch and cedar) and easily repairable.  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.

Variation of the canoe were also used to travel to the islands off the coast and almost all of them show some seasonal habitation.  The Mik’kmaq are known to have fished the Gulf of St Lawrence, traveled to what is now Newfoundland.

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 fish from the oceans to fresh water provided a large bounty.

In the southern and western areas, starting near the Kennebec River, the Wabanaki also planted corn, beans, and squash. In the northern and eastern areas the Wabanaki were almost fully dependent on hunting and gathering.

Near the mouth of the Kennebec River there are a number middens made up of clams and oyster shells over thousands of years.  The largest of these is found near the current town of Darmariscotta 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 farther south.  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 VIII.  Like Columbus, this was an effort to find a more direct route to Asia. 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 Mik’kmaq.  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 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 bead work was also popular with the Wabanki.  In exchange, the French were mostly interested in furs.

The land of the Wabanaki was originally named Norumbega by the French, and latter referred to as France Nouvelle (New France) or Acadia.  The easternmost peninsula was called New Scotland, a name it still maintains as Nova Scotia

Wabanaki stone drawing (Nova Scotia Museum)

Although there can be no exact figures, it is estimated that there were about 70 thousand people living in this area in 1500 with about 20 thousand of them in what is now Maine.  Even by 1600 the population had declined, most likely due to European diseases for 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.

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. A number of English fishing vessels and traders did make it to this area. In 1604 following the death of Elizabeth I, James I signed a peace treaty with Spain which freed up resources for exploration, and decreased problems of sailing the preferred southern route.  The war with England had badly strained the Spanish treasury which limited their efforts to protect their claim in North America.

The land between the French claims in the north, and the Spanish claims in the south became known as Virginia.  The northern half of that claim was later renamed New England.

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.

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 Pemequid, he abducted five Wabanaki and return to England with them.  Two of them returned with the Plymouth Company colonists.