Editor’s note: The writer of this article, Emily Burnham, is a descendant of Joseph Treat on her mother’s side.
The woods and waters of what is now Piscataquis and Aroostook counties were largely uncharted territory for the people of European descent in Maine in the years prior to statehood in 1820.
But for the Wabanaki people, who had lived along Maine’s rivers and streams for countless generations, the land was a family member. Thousands of years of ancestral knowledge made them intimately familiar with every bend in the river, every seasonal change in water level, the shape and size of every island, rock and mountain.
So when Maine became a state in March 1820, one of the first things decreed by Gov. William King was the need to more accurately map Maine’s vast interior wilderness — untouched in the eyes of the state, but home for the Wabanaki.
King asked Maj. Joseph Treat, a Bangor-based surveyor and son of a wealthy merchant family, to lead an expedition up the Penobscot and Allagash rivers and down the St. John River. Treat was part of a family of Treats who were among the region’s earliest white settlers, and had been living along the lower Penobscot River since the 1750s.
Knowing he would never be successful in the task at hand without help, Treat hired John Neptune, lieutenant governor of the Penobscot tribe, to be his guide. Their vessels were the perfect watercraft for river travel and something refined over generations by indigenous people across North America: two birch-bark canoes.
Treat and Neptune’s three-month journey in the fall of 1820 was like a microcosm of the Lewis and Clark expedition that occurred 15 years earlier: a fact-finding mission on behalf of a new government that would have been impossible without indigenous assistance. Its impact is still felt today in how it codified a relationship between the state and the tribes that continues to be a source of tension in both worlds.
Strange canoe fellows
Treat and Neptune set out from Bangor on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 1820, accompanied by Capt. Jacob Holyoke in two birch-bark canoes. Though the relatively late start meant they ran the risk of encountering cold weather and even snow, it also meant that river levels were low enough to allow an easier passage on the water.
By Sept. 30, the trio had gone 60 miles upriver to Mattawamkeag Point, where the town of the same name lies today, and where John Attean, governor of the Penobscot tribe, had his residence. Thirty-three years later, Attean’s son, Joseph Attean, would lead Henry David Thoreau on a similar canoe trip on the Penobscot.
They then made their way up the West Branch of the Penobscot, into what is now the Millinocket area, paddling through the interconnected lakes and marveling at Katahdin looming in the distance. It was there they met up with two Penobscot men who warned the group that the river levels between Katahdin and Chesuncook Lake were too low to traverse. On Oct. 8, they climbed the mountain, discovering a bottle of rum and a copy of Maine’s Constitution someone else had left at the summit.
Once Chesuncook was passable, they paddled up the Allagash, attempting to make it to the St. John Valley within 10 days. Treat constantly noted in his journal the quality of the soils, the types of trees growing, and the suitability of various spots in the rivers for mills and dams. By Oct. 23, they had reached Madawaska, and stayed two days with a man named Simon Hebert, a wealthy local resident of French descent.
Following the St. John River for another 50 miles, the trio crisscrossed the rather nebulous borders between Maine and New Brunswick — borders that would not be finalized for another 23 years, when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed in 1843. Not far from present-day Fort Fairfield, on Oct. 26, Treat and Neptune decided to follow the Aroostook River as far as they could, but by Oct. 28, they had to turn back due to low water.
By Oct. 30, they were back in the St. John, which already had ice forming in it, and on Nov. 1, they found themselves in Houlton. From there, it was a hasty slog down the Eel River and the Mattawamkeag River, as the weather was getting colder and they were running out of food. On Nov. 16, they were back on the Penobscot River, and on Nov. 20, they arrived back in Bangor, where the journal rather abruptly ends.
Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.
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