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The European Plague of the Maine Native Americans
In the early 1600’s in the newly discovered world, there was a clash between the descendants of a nation which had ruled the world for many years, and a land which had been hidden by vast oceans for thousands of years. The new settlers were unaccustomed to the landscape, weather, and people. Within just a few weeks after leaving London, English settlers would be introduced to an unknown world, with only their family and neighbors to help them, not that the neighbors would have been any help, since the land was unknown to them as well. This new land, however, was not unknown to the people who had already been living here for over 11,000 years. These were the Native Americans of Maine. The Abenaki, Maliseet, Mic Maq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes which were all members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the main group of Native Americans in Maine.
European settlers began to travel to the new world in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was then that the Native American people got their first glimpses of a white person, and it most definitely would not be their last. The Native American people had lived on this land for approximately 11 to 12,000 years, and they were not ready to give it up to just any settler that came along. The introduction of the European lifestyle in Native American culture changed the course of history.
When the settlers came over from Europe to the new world, they made the voyage across the Atlantic on an ocean vessel. Although the settlers believed that they were the only ones being shipped across the ocean to a new land, there were many other stowaways that the Europeans had not included in their inventory. These stowaways would become a death sentence for hundreds of Native Americans. The most obvious addition to the cargo was the rodents. These nasty pests fattened themselves with food supplies intended for the human passengers on board, and the worst fact about them was that they carried many diseases which, once contracted, could not be remedied by any of the medicinal treatments of the time. One example of a disease which can be spread partly due to rats and rodents is typhus. Typhus is a disease that is transmitted by fleas, mites, or body louse which may jump from a rodent host to a human host very easily, especially in the cramped quarters of a ship.
One of the greatest issues that Native Americans faced in terms of disease was smallpox. This disease was yet another that had not been present in North America until the Europeans came along and exposed the Native Americans to this highly contagious disease. Smallpox was the most feared of the diseases the Europeans carried with them because of the high death rate in a Native American community once the smallpox virus was introduced. Other diseases which killed more than 75% of Maine’s Native American population were cholera, measles, and the plague. These were all diseases brought over by the Europeans and caused enormous death tolls in the Native American population.
The European settlers who came to North America proved to be quite a force to be reckoned with. They killed many hundreds of thousands of Native Americans not only with the weaponry on their shoulders, but with the diseases in their bodies as well. If only the Europeans had heard a statement like this one, from Thomas Paine, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
Bruchac, Marge. "Native Land Use and Settlements in the Northeastern Woodlands." Raid on Deerfield: the Many Stories of 1704. May 2006. 25 Oct. 2007 http://1704.deerfield.history.museum/popups/background.do?shortName=expNLand.
"Historical Timeline of American Indians, African-Americans and People of Color in Maine." 25 Oct. 2007 http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/specialrpts/faces/timemain.shtml.
Hassinger, Amy. Finding Katahdin: an Exploration of Maine's Past. Orono: The University of Maine P, 2001.
Throughout history, the relationship between the Wabanaki Native Americans and the Europeans has been a rather unfriendly one. The day Giovanni da Verrazono unsuccessfully tried to trade with the Wabanakis is when it started, and it hasn’t stopped since. From then, until the present day, there has been ongoing bickering. Fortunately, the arguments aren’t nearly as strong as they were 300 years ago.
The reason for all of the controversy is prominently because of the difference in cultures. Other factors were the way the two viewed the world, as well as certain morals that differed. The Wabanakis were content with the way they were living, sleeping in houses made of animal hides and remaining the same way they had been for thousands of years. The Europenas, however, were all in favor of expanding, making money, and claiming territory for their country.
The Wabanaki culture and religion consisted of spiritual ceremonies, as well as having a spiritual relationship with everything under the sky. They looked to the motewolon, or shaman, of the tribe for spiritual answers. They respected each animal they killed, for this animal gave themselves to the Wabanaki, so the Wabanaki could survive. They believed that the land was sacred, and no one truly owned it for themselves. Most Europeans, on the other hand, were either Protestant or Catholic. The Europeans constantly tried to force their culture onto the Native Americans, wanting to “save” them. The original Massachusetts Bay Colony seal had a Native American on it saying, “come over and help us”. Europeans thought the Native Americans were living horrible lives, simply because they were not as technologically sophisticated as the Europeans. The Europeans also believed that land was something to be traded and bought for more power and wealth, which greatly effected the way the two cultures traded. A European would give a Native American alcohol and a metal tool in trade for land, thinking the Native American got the worse end of the deal. The Native American, however, would believe the European got the negative end of the deal because the land was still partly the Native American’s meaning he could still hunt and fish on it.
One of the biggest issues between the Wabanakis and Europeans were the disasterous treaties that were so often made. The reason for disaster was either misunderstanding, or Europeans breaking the treaties. It was hard for the Native Americans and the Europeans to understand each other, so each would go home happy, not knowing the other one thought the treaty said something different than they thought. Yet the Europeans so often broke the treaties knowingly. Most of the Europeans wanted to cunningly snatch the Wabanakis land from them, so to make more money and gain more power for their homeland. They assumed that since the Wabanakis hadn’t farmed the land, it was not truly theirs. They also believed that since the Wabanakis were considered uncivilized heathens, the land wasn’t truly theirs anyways because they weren’t sophisticated enough.
European and Wabanaki relationships, however, were not always negative. The French Wabanaki relationship was very good. Samuel de Champlain, a famous French explorer, made the first French Wabanaki alliance with the Wabanaki Sakom Bessabez in 1604. In the late 17th century, Jean Vincent D’Abbadie de St. Castin, a Frenchman, came over and was stationed at Fort Pentagoet. Instead of living in the fort, however, he preferred to live in a small Penobscot village nearby. He married the Sakom’s daughter, Pidiwamiska, further strengthening the French- Wabanaki alliance.
Overall, the relationship between the Wabanakis and European settlers has not been a very successful one. There have been seldom moments of trust since settlers began encroaching the Wabanaki land, and frequent hostility between the two groups. Hopefully, the future will hold more trust, as well as a stronger friendship.
The Native Americans of Maine: Diplomacy in the Wabanaki Confederacy
Long over a quarter of a millennium ago, before Maine officially became a state, many Native Americans called this area of land their home. Those Algonquian-speaking, Native Americans of Maine were divided into five tribes: the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq (Micmac), Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. Moreover, all five of these tribes formed a society called the Wabanaki Confederacy.
The Wabanaki Confederacy, also know as the Eastern Confederacy, was an alliance that consisted of five, northeastern, Native American tribal groups believed to be established sometime around the 1680’s. It formed when the five tribal groups banded together as a defense coalition against the aggression of the Iroquois Confederacy. Each tribe within the union maintained their own form of political system and government. They never banded together to set up one central government in which everyone would have to obey. However, as allies, they collaborated and worked together on many important political issues, such as war, commerce, and especially joint diplomacy.
In terms of joint diplomacy, the Wabanaki Confederacy has worked together as an assembly for about two centuries, meeting frequently to discuss issues affecting their overall welfare, whether good or bad. One of the main goals that they have tried to accomplish over the past one hundred years is maintaining their aboriginal rights and rank in modern American society. Historically, the Wabanaki Confederacy was more than just a political alliance of five, northeastern, Native American tribes; it was also a union for equality, protection, and justice among the entire Native American body.
Continuing with historical diplomatic customs, the tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy met periodically to discuss politics and other issues. At those meetings, they traded important information, listened to each of the member’s comments and concerns, and resolved and compromised on matters that affected their common, overall security as a league of five, united tribes. In addition, the Wabanaki Confederacy decided that in times of war, any tribe could call upon another tribe for help and/or assistance and that each of the individual tribes should always be prepared, equipped, and available to assist another tribe when in a military or political conflict.
During peace negotiations with foreign tribal leaders, chiefs, or ambassadors, an orator would speak for the Wabanaki Confederacy and offer selective wampum belts, each symbolically representing a major point or message to be expressed on behalf of all the chiefs. This was a tradition that occurred at every peace negotiation. Depending on the occasion, the tribal leader, chief, or ambassador, would decide the particular location where the Wabanaki Confederacy would meet, commonly known as a council fire. Typically, these council fires were held at politically important and centrally located places, in the lead Wabanaki villages. After choosing the particular village in which their council fire would be held, the chiefs, or ambassadors, would discuss any challenges facing them and through compromise, would try to reach an agreement on their decisions with the group. Since each of the tribal groups was independent and had their own political system and government, sometimes these meetings were not effective.
In addition to council fires, many formal proceedings took place. According to their particular designs, ceremonial belts served to record and honor important joint decisions such as declarations of war and peace. One of the most important belts awarded was a tribute to the Wabanaki Confederacy itself. The belt symbolically represented the political union of the allied tribal groups.
By the mid-1800’s, the Wabanaki Confederacy began to decline as a result of foreign diseases and violent warfare. This plague of misfortune reduced each of the five tribal nations to only a fraction of their original strength. Eventually, the Wabanaki Confederacy officially split in 1862; however, the five tribes continue to remain close allies to the present day. These tribal groups truly made a difference in the lives of not only Native Americans, but also in the lives of Europeans and Americans. In this way, our United States Presidents have adapted their diplomatic customs by meeting with other political leaders and groups of people directly to convey important information and/or discuss current issues affecting the welfare of each culture. The Native Americans’ structure of collaboration within the Wabanaki Confederacy has shaped the way we, as Americans and citizens of the world, manage diplomacy today.
Prins, Harald E. "Wabanaki." Pleasant Point - Passamaquoddy Tribal Government. 25 Aug. 2007. Department of Sociology and Anthropology. 22 Oct. 2007 http://www.wabanaki.com/Harald_Prins.htm.
Redish, Laura, and Orrin Lewis. "Wabanaki Confederacy." Native Languages of the Americas. 2007. 22 Oct. 2007 http://www.native-languages.org/wabanaki.htm.
The Changing Economy of Maine Native American Tribes
Maine’s Native American economic system has changed significantly through the past four hundred years. It changed from subsistence economy to trading. The arrival of the Europeans in the early 1600s began this economic transformation. After the Wabanaki gave up their land in the late 18th century, the Native American economy adopted an industrial economy.
In the pre-colonial period, the Wabanaki had a subsistence economy. They traded within their own clans and tribes. Families followed the spring and fall runs of migratory fish. They met at midwinter reunions at the main villages to exchange canoes and other fall hunting equipment for snowshoes, toboggans, and other winter hunting gear. These gatherings were a way to distribute their wealth. The Native Americans had no currency. They traded necessities with one another. There wasn’t any savings involved. One would think that they had no use for extra funds. The Wabanaki thought only about food, shelter, and clothing. This is what formed their way of getting by, meeting only their basic needs.
When the European traders arrived in the early 1600s, the Native Americans’ economy began to change. It was converted to an economy made up of trading. The Wabanaki were among the earliest Native tribes to encounter the Europeans who came from England, France, and the Netherlands. This contact lead to the exchange of material goods along with ideas and knowledge. An English trading post was started in 1629 on Penobscot Bay which is now known as Castine. The Wabanaki traded furs, moccasins, canoes, snowshoes, and what they knew about survival in America for metal tools, beads, and clothing from the Europeans. For example, the Abenaki were a source for beaver pelts that the European had great interest in.
After 1600, the fur trade was very important to the Wabanaki people. It’s importance led to the conversion of the traditional family hunting areas to more defined areas for family hunting and trapping. By the 1800s, family territories had grown to about one hundred square miles each. Competing to control the trade with the English, French, and Dutch people, the different Wabanaki groups started to fight with each other. This was different to the tribes’ subsistence way of life.
The Native Americans began their move into the industrial economy when they signed the treaties in the 1790s. The European fur market had begun to decline during the late 1700s. They gave their interior lands away except for their rights to hunt and fish on them. After this, the Wabanaki worked in lumbering and started to make splint baskets and canoes to earn cash income. They used birch bark to make shelters, canoes, moose calls, trays, and containers. Baskets were made from ash splints and sweet grass. Wabnaki men made canoes which eventually led to the Old Town canoe manufacturing company. These arts served as an alternate income source.
In conclusion, the Wabanaki’s economic system went through three major changes. They began with a subsistence economy and then it turned to trade with the European traders. This all resulted in an industrial economy. The Wabanaki have this economy presently. Over the four hundred years since the Europeans journeyed to America, the Maine Native Americans adapted to many different economies.
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