‘Indians in Eden’ a treasury of history, images

Posted Jan. 31, 2010, at 5:39 p.m.
Indians in Eden, book cover. for WEEKLY/BEACON
Indians in Eden, book cover. for WEEKLY/BEACON

The first book I bought for grandson Dylan about his family history had nothing to do with my Mayflower ancestors or Revolutionary War soldiers.

At 7 months old, Dylan has his own copy of “Indians in Eden: Wabanakis and Rusticators on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, 1840s-1920s,” by Bunny McBride and Harald E.L. Prins.

So do his sister and brother, Lexi and Andrew, and their cousin Lilly.

When they’re old enough to read and appreciate this wonderful resource, I’ll tell them that the woman who wrote the foreword to the book, author and former legislator Donna Loring, is their cousin, too, through Meme, their great-grandmother.

Elaine Francis Phillips, who calls Dylan “Handsome Dude,” is, like Loring and many others with Penobscot heritage, a descendant of Frank Loring, 1827-1906, who put on shows for many years as Chief Big Thunder. He also recruited other Wabanakis from Indian Island to join some of the shows in New York and beyond, and one year took along a couple of black bears.

Loring’s many descendants have Passamaquoddy ancestry, too, through his wife, Mary Lola Socoby, by whom he had at least seven children.

Alzoma, Susie, Peter and Mitchell are included on an 1884 bill of “grand entertainment.” (The 1880 Census for Oldtown Island lists children Mitchell, 16; Susan, 8; Peter, 4; and Walter, 2.)

On the program were Indian funeral ceremonies, imitation of hunting in a canoe, saving the life of Capt. John Smith, worship among the Indians, electing a chief, song by Mrs. Big Thunder, merrymaking, and Medicine Man casting out diseases from sick Indians by enchantment.

“Indians in Eden” has eight pages of history on Loring, including a half-dozen photos, not to mention references to him on several other pages in the book. How could I not want to purchase copies for my grandchildren and their cousin?

Other “notable Wabanakis” included:

• Elizabeth “Queen” Francis, 1839-ca. 1915, Passamaquoddy.

• Louis Mitchell, 1847-1931, Passamaquoddy.

• Joseph Lola, 1830-1900, Passamaquoddy.

• John Leonard Snow, 1868-1937, Passamaquoddy.

• Joseph Nicolar, 1827-1894, Penobscot.

The Indians who spent summers on Mount Desert Island sold items that they had made, and many were guides and canoeists for the visitors to the island.

One of the best-known guides was Mitchell, who in addition to serving as a tribal representative to the Maine Legislature, was prominent for having paddled around the entire Mount Desert Island in 12 hours.

There are numerous wonderful photographs in the book, shared by libraries and museums such as the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor and Penobscot Museum on Indian Island.

Also included is an excerpt from a letter Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her father, Elliott, while staying on MDI at age 9:

Yesterday I went to the Indian encampment to see some pretty things. I have to find out the paths all alone. I walked up to the top of Kebo Mountain this morning and I walk three hours every afternoon.

Writers Charles Godfrey Leland, Albert Samuel Gatschet, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, John Dyneley Prince and Frank Gouldsmith Speck, known for work in folklore and research, as is Joseph Nicolar, author of “The Life and the Traditions of the Red Man,” receive attention as well.

There is also a chapter, “A Perfect Shame,” about the way the Indian encampment was moved over the years.

Both McBride and Prins teach at Kansas State University and have written extensively about Indians. McBride’s publications include “Molly Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris and Women of the Dawn.” Prins wrote several segments for “Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia.”

“Indians in Eden,” published by Down East Press, is available in bookstores for $16.95.

Send genealogy queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402; or e-mail queries to familyti@bangordailynews.net.

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