Friday, January 19, 2018

"A Matter of Historical Record" - The early natives of Sebagoland by Walter Lunt

In 1623 the English explorer Christopher Levett sailed into Casco Bay and up to the first falls of the Presumpscot River where he ingratiated himself with the local natives. So amicable was the encounter that he was invited to return with his family to live with the Presumpscot band. 

Fast forward 131 years to July, 1754. Gov. William Shirley of Massachusetts called for any measure necessary to take and secure the Indian Polin (of the Presumpscots) to prevent further “outrages and hostilities.”

What had happened in the intervening decades to cause such a monumental shift in relations between the English and the indigenous people?

What natives in Maine may have looked like prior to 1500 AD based upon descriptions. Artwork by Jerry Black
Today, many Lakes Region citizens, and probably most school children, are familiar with the redoubtable Chief Polin who commanded a small band of natives along the shores of the Presumpscot River and Lake Sebago in the mid-1700s.

Initially, Polin tried peace and agreement with the intrusive habits of the encroaching white settlers. But when talk and intimidation failed, he turned to raids of destruction to preserve a way of life.

Simply put, misunderstandings, greed and disrespect prevented mutual trust between the two sides. Acrimony began soon after Levitt’s first encounter at Presumpscot Falls. The major difficulty was cultural differences. 

It’s instructive to understand the world view of indigenous people who had inhabited the northeast for over 11,000 years. They were connected by rivers and tributaries, by the seasonal cycles and by a unique appreciation of nature. Bands (or families) would move in concert with these rhythms, planting and fishing near the coast in summer, hunting inland in winter. Lifestyles reflected the give and take of the land – never using more than needed and utilizing all, a resource to avoid waste. Through stories and celebrations, their custom of interdependence was passed on to succeeding generations.

As stated in a recent article by Brooks & Brooks (Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies), “‘Belonging to’ a village represented one’s residency in, kinship with and commitment to a particular place.” Thus, ‘belonging to’ is distinguished from, and the antithesis of ‘owning’.”

This sense of one-with-the-land was not shared by the colonial settlers. 

Sebagoland and the Presumpscot basin, ripe with resources, would be invaded by a multitude of English entrepreneurs. 

Dams were built to power sawmills and grist mills. The ancient forests became fodder for a hungry European market. The tall white pine was cut for the masts of the Royal Navy. Numerous other species were cleared for the sale of firewood and lumber. Using nets and weirs, hundreds of pounds of smelts and alewives were harvested as the fish stalled in their run upstream by the Presumpscot Falls dam, ironically where Christopher Levett had cultivated friendly relations with the natives decades earlier.

As the number of settlements grew, control over the land by the indigenous peoples diminished.

In 1739, Chief Polin traveled to Boston with several of his “counselors.” He would petition Gov. Belcher for fishways around the dams to restore a food source. And he would call for a halt to the increasing number of settlers. 

Who was Polin? And to which tribe (or nation) was he associated? In our next installment we’ll learn that it’s a matter of historical record that he would have a profound effect on the new township of New Marblehead (Windham). 

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