Skip Maine state header navigation

Agencies | Online Services | Help

Skip First Level Navigation | Skip All Navigation

Home > Winners Page > 2010-11 Essays

2010-2011 Essays

First Place Middle School Winner, Ben Stanley
Cape Elizabeth Middle School, 8th Grade

The Penobscot Indian Nation

The Penobscot Indians are an interesting and overlooked subject, and they deserve to be recognized in Maine history. Traditionally known as the Penawahpskewi, which means "the place where the rocks open out," the Penobscot Nation is part of the Wabanaki Confederation. The Wabanaki Confederation consists not only of the Penobscots, but also the Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Abenaki and Maliseet. Indigenous to the Penobscot Watershed, their reservation is currently located on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine. The Penobscot tribe has a rich history and an interesting culture, dating over hundreds of years ago.

The story of the Penobscots begins in 1606, with Bessabez, or Bashaba as the Europeans called him, the great Penobscot chief and first recorded leader of the Penobscots. Bessabez ruled a nation of over 20 villages throughout present-day Maine. Around 1607, the French explorer and geographer Samuel de Champlain allied with Bessabez and his nation, which profited both the Penobscots and the French colonists greatly. In the alliance, the French were allowed to settle on Bessabez's territory. In return, the Indians traded with the French and they also received protection from them, who had a higher quality arsenal of weaponry. This alliance benefited Bessabez greatly and made him even more powerful than before. At the height of his power, Bessabez fell ill and died suddenly of European-introduced small pox. This marked the start of an epidemic that would plague the Penobscots for years.

The Small Pox epidemic started around 1630. So many Native Americans fell ill to this disease because their bodies were not immune and therefore vulnerable to the disease. The "Great Dying" of the Penobscots was furthered along by their wars with the Mohawk tribe. At the start of "the Great Dying," it was estimated that there were around 10,000 Penobscot Native American. By 1803, that number was reduced to 347, and the Penobscots were on the brink of extinction.

The Penobscots managed to survive through the plague and allied with the French and the other Wabanaki tribes in the their war against England. Their rivals, the Iroquois, joined the British side. The war ended in 1760 but hurt the Penobscots and their resources.

Still against England, the Penobscots were recruited by George Washington to join the colonists in their fight for liberty. Although the Penobscot fighters fought hard beside their American counterparts, they have been all but forgotten in their efforts in the American Revolution.

After the revolution, the Penobscots became part of America, and their territory was located in the northern part of Massachusetts. Soon, treaties were worked out between the state of Massachusetts and the Penobscots. These treaties gave the Penobscots land, goods, and services. The Penobscots were tolerant of their situation under the American government until Maine became a state. Maine assumed the obligations from the Massachusetts treaties, but soon they went back on their word and took large amounts of Penobscot land. By doing this Maine violated the Non-Intercourse Act, which forbids transfer of the Penobscots’ land without permission from Congress. Years later, in 1965, Maine became the first state to create a department of Indian Affairs, which dealt specifically with problems with native cultures in Maine. This was short-lived, however, and the severely under-funded program was shut down only fifteen years later, in 1980.

The Penobscot Reservation is located on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine. The reservation has its own laws, police and government, although they also follow American laws. The people of the reservation elect the chief of the Penobscots. Also, they have a representative in the Maine State Legislature, but much like the representatives from U.S. Territories, the Penobscot representative cannot vote.

The Penobscot Nation has a rich and exciting history where they have come through many adversities to become the thriving tribe we know today. They have impacted the Wabanaki and the State of Maine both with their great leaders and struggles for the land they rightfully own. Their story is inspiring and deserves to be recognized forever.

Works Cited

Facts for Kids: Penobscot Indians (Penobscots). Orrin's Website. Web. 03 Nov. 2010

Hassinger, Amy. Finding Katahdin an Exploration of Maine's past. Orono, Me.:
University of Maine, 2001. Print.

Wabanaki: Maine Tribes. Abbe Museum. Web 04 Nov. 2010

“Welcome to the Penobscot Indian Nation Museum Site! Offical Website of the Penawahpskewi. Web. 09 Nov. 2010.

Second Place Middle School Winner, Lily Jordan
Cape Elizabeth Middle School, 8th Grade

The Role of the Fur Trade in Wabanaki Economics

Up until the seventeenth century, the Wabanaki of Maine lived a lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and migration. But when French and English settlers began trading with them, their economy underwent a drastic change - all because of beavers. Could these furry little animals really change an entire culture? The Wabanaki proved that the answer is yes.

Before European contact, Wabanaki tribes were mainly independent. They hunted and fished for their own food using homemade weapons. Though there was some trading among family bands, the Wabanaki were not reliant on trade goods. Instead of living on the coast all year round and getting imported food in the winter, they migrated inland to hunt game themselves. Everything they owned, wore, and ate came from the land.

All that changed when the Europeans arrived and began to trade with the Wabanaki. European settlers gave them shiny objects that they had never seen before. The Wabanaki gave the settlers beaver pelts in return. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain started the first trading post at what is now Quebec, and the beaver fur trade continued to grow. This was the beginning of a trade relationship that would last for centuries.

At the time, beavers were nearly extinct in Europe. Hats made from beaver fur were in style, and the New World offered a huge supply. The demand was so high for beavers that the Wabanaki began hunting them much more than before. Before the Europeans had arrived, the Wabanaki hunted beavers for their meat, their fur to make clothes, and their teeth to make knives. Now, instead of using the animals only to support themselves, they traded them to the French and English in return for things like knives, kettles, food, clothing, alcohol, and muskets. Beavers became the primary animal that they hunted, and often they spent more time hunting beavers than hunting food for their families. With all of the new things they obtained, the Wabanaki culture became more and more like that of the Europeans: they wore European clothes, hunted with European weapons, ate European food, and cooked with European kettles. There was no question that their culture and economy were permanently altered.

Not only did the fur trade cause the Wabanaki to dress, hunt, and eat like the Europeans, it also made them dependent on the foreigners. Since the muskets they received were much more effective than the weapons they already had, soon almost every Native American hunter had one. Because of this, they became dependent on European traders for their livelihood. Without the muskets, they couldn't hunt beavers, and without the beavers, they couldn't get the goods that they needed to live.

Alcoholism was also a new influence in the lives of the Wabanaki, who had never seen or tried alcohol before and did not know of its harmful effects. The Wabanaki leaders did not approve of drunkenness, saying it made their people act like madmen. Wabanakis who became alcoholics were even more dependent on the European traders, who supplied liquor, then they had been before. Alcoholism also led to increased violence in Wabanaki tribes.

Yet another result of the fur trade was conflict between tribes. The Wabanaki were already enemies with the Mohawk Indians, who lived in present-day New York State, and arguments over land for fur trapping were the last straw. Mohawks were hunting beavers in Wabanaki territory, and the Wabanaki were not happy about this. These new conflicts led to violence and raids on both sides. Eventually, there was an attempted peace conference, but it ended in fighting after a Mohawk entered with wounds from a Wabanaki attack.

By the time the fur trade began to diminish in the 1800s, the Wabanaki economy - and consequently their culture - had changed drastically. They had gone from a life of hunting and fishing to one of trading, negotiating, and fighting. The Wabanaki were practically a different people, all because of that one industry: the fur trade.


Hassinger, Amy. Finding Katahdin. Orono, Maine: The University of Maine Press, 2001.

Sky-McIlvain, Elizabeth. Wabanaki Studies: A Teaching Timeline. 2007. Least Tern. November 7, 2010

Samuel de Champlain. ThinkQuest. November 7, 2010

Micmac Economy. Countries and their Cultures. 2010. November 7, 2010