The Deep History of Presque Isle
Text by: David Putnam
In 1978, as a result of the proposal to construct the Aroostook Centre Mall, an article in the Bangor Daily News stated “there was little to support the theory that any band of Indians had ever been indigenous to Aroostook County, except perhaps after 1790 when white settlers along southern Maine (then part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) and New Brunswick moved the aboriginal people inland.” Just behind the Mall along the riverbank stone tools and stone boiling rocks spanning the last 3,500 years are plainly visible. Indeed, there is much hard evidence to support the “theory” that native people were indigenous to Aroostook County. Proof is as close as a stroll along a local riverbank or lake shoreline and an observant eye. The earliest Paleoindian sites in northern Maine date back to approximately 11,600 years ago and a Native American presence in Northern Maine can be found in the archaeological record and the landscape.
The Paleoindians, ice age hunters of mammoth and caribou, camped around Munsungan Lake and quarried high quality red, green, and gray chert (flint) which they used to make beautifully crafted “fluted” spear points. Despite the evidence of early Paleoindians in the Munsungan Lake area, the physical evidence documenting Native American activity is missing from the Aroostook River drainage for the peoples of the Early Archaic period (10,000-8,500 years ago). Artifacts that denote activity for the Middle Archaic period (7,500 -6,500 years ago) include full channeled gouges and early forms of pecked and ground stone axes some of which were found along the lakeshores of the upper Allagash River and from surface collections of plowed fields on the George Sawyer farm in Ashland. By the Late Archaic Period (6,500 – 3, 400 years ago) many artifacts and some sites are present throughout northern Maine, although none in the immediate Presque Isle area. Red ocher features, probably graves, have been found in Ashland, along the Big Machias River, and on Millinocket Lake (Aroostook River). Many Late Archaic period ground stone tools (probably used to fashion dugout canoes) and Otter Creek style projectile points are present in the George Sawyer collection from Ashland. The Archaic period comes to a close about 3,000 years ago. Several archaeological sites in the Presque Isle area date between 3,100 and 3,200 years ago, a little known period of transition from the late Archaic to the Ceramic Period.
About 3,000 years ago, the large ground stone woodworking tools (axes and gouges) of the Archaic Period were replaced with smaller forms of celts and chisels. This is believed to reflect the innovation of birchbark canoe construction from the prior heavy dugout canoes, and presaged a period of increased mobility and human population growth. Small chipped stone arrow points mark the arrival of bow and arrow technology, in addition to the age old spear and atlatl throwing board and dart. Fired ceramic pots, possibly an outgrowth of earlier soapstone bowls, appear in southern Maine, suggesting the beginning of agriculture and a more sedentary lifestyle. In northern Maine, corn, beans, and squash (the “three sisters”) were poorly adapted to the short, cool growing seasons and people retained a food foraging/ hunting and gathering strategy until after the arrival of Europeans.
By 1,200 years ago, at the beginning of the Medieval Warm Period, a group of people would winter at the mouth of Presque Isle Stream. They lived in a 3 meter wide, 6 meter long birchbark Shaputuan or wigwam. The burned animal bones from their meals include beaver, snapping turtle, caribou, and bear.
The Little Ice Age, between AD 1300 and 1850, likely had little effect on the food foraging native people who could easily adapt to the disappearance of species like the snapping turtle. It did preclude extensive agriculturally based European settlement until after the Civil War, although Acadians had lived along the St. John River since 1650 and American settlers arrived in Houlton in 1805 and 1807.
The first French explorers described the people of the region as Etchemin. This term probably included the current Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Nations. They called the Mikmaqs Souriquois, and the English called them Tarrantines. In the Presque Isle region, the Maliseets (Malecite) were the primary resident people who called themselves Wolastuqiyik, people of the beautiful river, or people of the Wolastuq (St. John) River. The term “Maliseet” is a Mi’kmaq word meaning “slow talkers”. Mi’kmaq and Maliseet speak related Algonquin languages, but are as different as Dutch and Austrian. The first Europeans brought epidemic diseases such as influenza, smallpox, and diphtheria. These contagions swept through native societies in waves, and ultimately killed between 70-90% of the population .
The Maliseets lived a life of high mobility arranged around kinship and clan affiliations. The large seasonal villages were located where Atlantic salmon could be caught in the early summer. Clans and bands would congregate for the salmon fishing when many people could be fed in one spot. Meductic, Tobique, and Grand Falls were such large village sites, with Madawaska another that occurred above the salmon run. After the salmon fishing, the village would break up into bands, or groups of related families. These would disperse into their traditional hunting and foraging areas. As summer progressed the Bear Clan from Tobique would travel up the Aroostook River (originally the Moosiec River (River of Moose). “Aroostook" is a mangled version of Wolastuq, the original name for the St. John River. The families would disperse broadly through the late summer and fall until they established winter camps over the entire Aroostook, upper Allagash and St. John Rivers, or all of what is now northern Maine. They subsisted primarily on beaver and muskrat in the winter as a predictable food source, but hunted moose, caribou, and hibernating bears to augment their diet.
The Mailiseets and Mi’kmaqs were staunch allies of the French in the various conflicts between France and England. The fur trade caused intense competition among native people for access to European goods such as copper kettles, iron axes, knives, and firearms. Mouth harps, iron arrowheads, knives, axe heads , clay pipes, glass beads, musket balls and gunflints have been found around Presque Isle, of both French and English manufacture. The Mi’kmaq waged war against the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Cannibas, (Etchemin) and the Almouchiquois of southwest Maine to gain control of the French and English fur trade. Innu (Montagnais) hunters from north of the St. Lawrence made incursions into Maliseet hunting territory to poach furs and sporadic hostility resulted. Algonquin speaking refugees from English areas of southern New England fled northward and enlarged villages on the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers. The first cornfields at Meductic (south of present day Woodstock, New Brunswick) were planted by native refugees from southern New England following King Phillip’s War.
Intense exploitation of beaver for fur hats in Europe eliminated the winter food supply for the food foraging native people of northern Maine. This forced them into a cash economy based around the European trading posts and ended the highly mobile way of life that had persisted since the Ice Age. By the time that John Fairbanks built his mill at Presque Isle in 1836, native people had been driven off of much of their traditional land by disease, violence, and European (American and Canadian) encroachment.
By the 1880s, native Maliseet and Mi’kmaq populations were near an all-time low. Initially, native people benefited from labor opportunities in lumbering and agriculture. They produced ash tool handles, canoes and paddles, and the ash baskets for the potato industry. With mechanization of logging and potato farming, the tribe’s economic role disappeared. The people were left to fend for themselves without any social service support or a land base to sustain them. While poor white families received public assistance, Maliseets were denied public assistance until the late 1970s. While African Americans received the right vote in 1870 and women the right to vote in 1920, the United State government did not give this right to native people until the mid 1930s.
Today, the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians are federally recognized nations, and despite their continued struggle with deeply rooted discrimination, they have worked hard to maintain their cultural identities. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, for example, has maintained their Maliseet language so that this region is known as the only place on earth where the Maliseet language is spoken. In addition, the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs has developed a cultural center to allow for younger generations to learn about their cultural heritage . As a marginalized people in this area they continue to demonstrate incredible resiliency and commitment to their culture and as such, it is important to recognize their historic presence in the region and the role they have played in the history of the area. For more information on both groups of native people, please see www.micmac-nsn.gov/ and www.maliseets.com.
1. Borns et. Al. 2004 The portion of the Laurentide Ice Sheet over Maine became separated from the main ice sheet by calving in the St. Lawrence estuary creating a radially flowing, independent ice cap over northern Maine. Radiocarbon dates from basal sediments of Mansell Pond indicate that it was ice free by 12,400 C14 yrs BP, or about 13,200 calendar years ago.
2. Borns et. al. 2004, Putnam and Putnam 2009. TheYounger Dryas is a period of global or northern hemisphere intense cold, dating between 12, 300 and 11,300 calendar years ago.
3. Pollock et. al. 1999, Bradley et. Al. 2008. Munsungan Chert fluted spear points at the Bull Brook site.
4. George Sawyer collection is on display at the Nylander Museum in Caribou.
5. Bruce Bourque “Twelve thousand Years: American Indians in Maine