INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine — Seventy-five years ago, more than 200 young men arrived from Europe in this remote Washington County town near the Canadian border. They did not know how long they would stay.
They were German soldiers the U.S. had taken prisoner during World War II, and they were housed at a guarded camp next to Route 1 on land that belonged to the Passamaquoddy Tribe. The nearby residents, members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe whose living conditions may have been worse than the prisoners’, were not given a say in whether they wanted a Nazi prisoners of war camp in their community.
“I think they must have had some challenges in understanding why [the German POWs] were there,” said Bonnie Newsom, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maine. “It was a very complex social situation.”
Newsom has conducted research at the Indian Township site in cooperation with Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s historic preservation officer. The pair have documented their findings from a 2013 archaeological dig at the mostly bulldozed camp site, and Newsom hopes to publish a book about the camp. It would show how the Passamaquoddy Tribe fit into one of the 20th century’s largest global conflicts and offer a Native American perspective on World War II-era POW camps that were located throughout Maine.
A $6,000 grant Newsom recently received from the American Association of University Women will pay for the creation of a historical manuscript that could lead to that book.
The 6.5-acre camp in Indian Township was one of seven such camps in Maine — the largest was in Houlton — that held German POWs from 1944 to 1946. Prisoners at the camps — which also were located in Augusta, Bangor, Presque Isle, Seboomook, and Spencer Lake — had been brought to the U.S. to address a national labor shortage caused by the war. In Maine, they typically worked on potato farms or in forestry operations while they were held captive. Many even were paid for their work.
In Indian Township, remains of the local camp were bulldozed decades ago into a berm in the trees behind where a small group of homes now stand on Raven Road. Parts of wood stoves, broken glass cream bottles, bits of metal barbed wire fencing, old forestry tools and other items used by the prisoners have been found in the mound over the years. Soctomah has moved many recovered items into storage at the nearby Passamaquoddy Cultural Heritage Museum.
“I like messes, so I went in there and found a sawmill,” Soctomah said recently, rummaging through a stack of items in a corner of the museum’s basement.
Newsom, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said the Germans were kept at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp that had been built next to the road in the 1930s, when the federal government established thousands of such volunteer camps across the country to put unemployed young men to work on public projects during the Great Depression.
Poverty among indigenous people in Maine and elsewhere has long been a problem, but was especially so in the early 20th century, Newsom said. Living conditions among members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe were poor, and the Army did not consult with the tribe before it decided to house prisoners of war on its land.
“There probably were hard feelings at the time,” Newsom said. “I hope the publication [of the manuscript] will get to some of these more complex social issues.”
The years leading up to World War II had brought other outside intrusions to Indian Township, often aggravating the tribe’s economic plight. Several tribal members were maimed or killed fighting in the Army in World War I — despite not being considered American citizens at the time — which created “further hardship for their families,” according to a 2014 tribal planning document that recounted the community’s history.
During the Great Depression, malnourishment made tribal members vulnerable to tuberculosis, for which they did not get proper treatment, and in 1934 poor water quality was blamed for the death of 20 tribal members from pneumonia or typhoid fever, according to a historical summary prepared by the Abbe Museum that quotes a 1935 Department of Interior report on the tribe’s welfare.
“The small dwellings in which they live are so old and in need of repair that the Indians suffer from the cold in winter,” the 1935 report read. “There are holes in the roofs and sides and windowpanes are broken in some. In the case of one large family, the sleeping quarters are inadequate and 5 older boys and girls are obliged to sleep in one small room. Certain families do not have beds, not even mattresses to put on the floor on which to sleep.”
Passamaquoddys also were deprived of their rights.
In 1941, the state Legislature revoked membership for the Passamaquoddys and the Penobscots in the Maine House of Representatives, and did not restore those seats until 1975. Despite having been granted citizenship in 1924 with all Native Americans, Passamaquoddys were not permitted to vote until after World War II — in federal elections in 1954 and in state elections in 1967.
The POWs, on the other hand, were given regular work in the woods, according to Soctomah, the tribal historian. When they weren’t working, they were housed in heated barracks and fed meals by a camp cook. Some who did good work and followed the rules were even allowed to attend community dances on Saturday nights in neighboring Princeton, he said, or take correspondence courses through UMaine.
“Their main job was cutting timber, cutting forest roads and working on farms,” Soctomah said.
Despite this disparity, Soctomah said, there wasn’t much local animosity toward the POWs, most of them young men captured in North Africa who did not have hardened convictions about the war. Members of the tribe were more troubled by the presence of the camp itself than by the German prisoners it contained, he said.
“The biggest problem the tribe had was the taking of the land,” Soctomah said. “At that time, we weren’t given much choice of anything on our land. In a way, we felt like prisoners on our own land, without a barbed wire fence.”
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The site where the camp sat, west of Route 1 where the road follows a spit of land that separates Lewey Lake and Grand Falls Flowage, has always been considered Passamaquoddy land, Soctomah said, but was handed over to the state after the war ended and the POWs left. The buildings fell into disrepair and a few years later, most of the debris was bulldozed to the camp’s back fence, where in 2013 researchers dug through the resulting berm.
The state sold off the land and the tribe was not able to reclaim it until 1980, after the tribe won a court case against the federal government and Congress ratified the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The tribe used money the act provided to purchase back the camp site, among other traditional Passamaquoddy lands in Maine.
“The tribe got this parcel back as a reservation status,” Soctomah said.
Two buildings from the old camp remain intact. One of them, the former quarters for imprisoned German officers, is now Soctomah’s house. The other, the former camp hospital, is where his daughter lives.
The prison camp at Indian Township existed at a time of intense global conflict and change, when many disparate cultures were thrown together in uncomfortable and unexpected ways, Soctomah said. By being able to write a historical manuscript about what they have found and learned about the camp — which Newsom hopes might result in a book — the researchers plan to show how Passamaquoddy history fits into the broader pattern of what was happening at the time throughout the country and around the world.
“The grant gives us the opportunity to tell the whole story,” Soctomah said.