Indigenous Story of Southern Maine

Long before Europeans arrived at the American continent, the forests covering Maine were home to an estimated 32,000 to 40,000 indigenous people. Archaeological evidence tells us that Native Americans first arrived in Maine beginning around 13,000 years ago, after the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated. Waterways were their “roads,” and therefore they settled along coastlines, rivers, lakes and streams; and used both dugout and birchbark canoes for transportation. Their homes were wigwams which were framed from saplings and covered with bark and woven mats.
Indigenous tribes hunted and fished with expertly-crafted stone and bone tools. From a variety of types of stone they chipped spears, arrowheads, knives, scrapers, and woodworking tools. From animal bone they carved harpoons, needles, awls, and fishing hooks.
Collection of Native American stone tools collected at Riverhurst, Kennebunk.
Collection of Native American stone tools collected at Riverhurst, Kennebunk.
The most abundant food in this area was fish and shellfish. The first European explorers to our region were astounded by the numbers of fish in the rivers. One Jesuit missionary wrote: “In the middle of March the fish began to spawn and to come up from the sea in certain streams, often so abundantly that everything swarms with them. Anyone who has not seen it could scarcely believe it. You cannot put your hand into the water without encountering them.”
John White illustration of Algonquian fishing techniques, 1585 
National Park Service
John White illustration of Algonquian fishing techniques, 1585 National Park Service
Indigenous Maine tribes used a variety of methods to catch fish: spears, hook and line and nets. One method that stands out in historical accounts was their use of fish weirs. These were fence-like structures that would be placed in tidal flats or in the narrowest parts of a river. The weirs were built to corral the fish toward a small opening, ending in a trap or net. In ocean waters, the weir would be erected in a shallow place, or across a small bay. The fencing would be wider higher up so when the water was high, the fish would swim in, and when the tide fell, they could not get out through the narrower spaces toward the bottom.

New Research in Southern Maine

Research into the lifeways of Native Americans in the Kennebunk region is ongoing through the Cape Porpoise Archaeological Alliance (CPAA). The CPAA is joint effort between the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and Brick Store Museum, formed in 2017 to study the intertidal zone along Cape Porpoise and the islands just off the coast. Archaeologist Tim Spahr leads excavations each season to discover more information on indigenous peoples that lived in Southern Maine. In 2019, while conducting a surface survey of the intertidal zone, Spahr located the remains of a dugout canoe. Carbon testing dates the canoe between 1280-1380 C.E. The canoe was carefully excavated and it will be on view at the Brick Store Museum this year as part of the upcoming Bicentennial exhibition.
Tim Spahr with excavation team studying the remains of the dugout canoe.

Studying the canoe

Tim Spahr with excavation team studying the remains of the dugout canoe.

Canoe Excavation

Video footage of the dugout canoe excavation in 2019, courtesy University of New England.
Past excavations have also discovered a number stone tools off of Cape Porpoise with some dating to 7000 years old.
These Native American stone tools represent some of the earliest objects to enter the collection of the Brick Store Museum.
Recent scholarship by Dr. Emerson Baker of Salem State University suggests that the indigenous people that lived between the Kennebec River and Massachusetts Bay were called the Almouchiquois. Evidence from archaeology and ethnohistory points to these indigenous tribes being more closely aligned with their southern neighbors (i.e. the Pennacook) than the Wabanaki to the north or the Abenaki to the West.
Map-Novi_Belgii_Novæque_Angliæ_(Amsterdam,_1685)

French Map of New England, 1685. The area highlighted in red depicts what they believed was a distinct indigenous culture, separate from other regional tribes.

Champlain
Early explorer and cartographer Samuel de Champlain differentiated the tribes in Southern Maine using the term “Almouchiquois” to describe the people living along the coast. He went on to describe the culture as agricultural, whose people lived in coastal villages, compared to northern indigenous cultures that tended to be more migratory.

Early Descriptions

This description is comparable to the early written historical accounts of Native Americans in the Kennebunk area. From these early accounts, we know there was a settlement on the north side of Gooch’s Creek of about 20 wigwams; another community lived on Great Hill with about seven wigwams; and yet another settlement near Larrabee’s Garrison on the Mousam River. According to European records, the indigenous population in the area of Wells and Kennebunk at the time was roughly 160 people.
Tom Wawa or Wahaunay was the leading Sagamore, having his home on Great Hill. Another man by the name of Ambereuse is also mentioned in 19th Century local histories, as having a wigwam on the Mousam River until 1752 when he moved to South Berwick. Additionally, Dr. Emerson Baker conducted a study of early Native American land deeds. From his research he discovered that a man named Sosowen was the sachem of Cape Porpus, several miles east of Kennebunk River. The Dony (or Donany) family were sachems in the Kennebunk area in the 1680s.
Drinking Cup made of maple or birch burl, date unknown.  The cup was used by a local tribe. Donated by Josephine Brazier in 1943.
Drinking Cup made of maple or birch burl, date unknown. The cup was used by a local tribe. Donated by Josephine Brazier in 1943.

First Encounters

The first encounters between the indigenous tribes and Europeans in the 1500s brought about far-reaching changes. European settlements increasingly blocked the tribes’ use of the coast, including dams built on rivers for waterpower required to run sawmills; and forests with towering white pine trees were cut down for timber and farming. In turn, the landscape became sunnier, windier, hotter, colder and drier. The Almouchiquois and Wabanaki depended on the animals living in the forests; with the land cleared, these food sources moved inland. Oppositely, European settlers depended on hogs, cows, sheep and horses that required pastures. Conflict was inevitable as two opposing ways of life clashed on shared land. For native people, disease, increased warfare, different tools and technologies, and new religions would change their cultures forever.

"Kennebunk"

Our town’s very name, Kennebunk, roughly translates as “long water place” from Eastern Abenaki, a language spoken by indigenous peoples here in Maine for thousands of years. The location described as “long water place” (sometimes interpreted as “long cut bank”) is generally believed to refer to Great Hill, along Kennebunk’s coastline.

Today

Through these challenges, indigenous peoples are still here. Whether they belong to federally-recognized Wabanaki tribes or are descended from the Abenaki or Almouchiquois peoples who are not federally-recognized today, they have persisted. Many of their early traditions have survived and continue to flourish in communities throughout Maine.

In the 20th Century, the Wabanaki were some of the first artists to cater to the growing tourist trade in Kennebunk. In numbered tents along River Road (now Ocean Avenue), Wabanaki artisans placed advertisements in local newspapers for baskets, canoes, and other traditional craft; and even instructed tourists in canoe paddling, sitting, standing and walking. Joseph Ranco, Penobscot, was probably the first to build canoes in Kennebunkport, beginning around 1890, bringing his supplies by train from Old Town. Indigenous artistry continues to thrive and grow in the 21st Century.

Today, the four Maine-recognized tribes are the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, known collectively as the Wabanaki, “People of the Dawnland.” Although most of Maine’s Native peoples belong to one of these four federally recognized groups, other Native people live in towns and cities across our State and contribute greatly to our diverse culture and memory.

The Wabanaki have many stories that preserve the history of people in the Dawnland. Please invest time in learning the history and culture of the Wabanaki people through a variety of resources offered around the State, beginning with the Maine Wabanaki REACH organization and Maine’s tribal museums. Institutions across the state, including the Brick Store Museum, are working to indigenize our shared human story in 2020 and beyond. In the celebration of our shared history, we also must look to the future to protect our diverse cultures from disappearing.

Research Continues

Unfortunately, some of the history relating to specific tribes in southern Maine is buried. Scholars have referred to this area’s history as a “no man’s land” because of early disruption by European settlers that unseated tribes in this area, so that much of the established culture was not observed before tribes either merged with other northern groups or, in the case of the Abenaki, moved their cultural centers to Vermont and Canada. Additionally, little archaeological research has been conducted in Southern Maine. However, descendants of these tribes are still in our community today, and we thank them especially for helping to keep this culture alive. The Museum pledges to continue its work of highlighting and investing in this important local history and culture, and welcome your help to do so.

Learn more about this work by visiting our Archaeology page.