As it celebrates its bicentennial, Maine is recognizing the people who carved a new state out of the woods and set it on its path. But that history is complicated by the fact that some of those early Mainers displaced Indigenous people who had made the land their home for thousands of years.
Jennifer Neptune, who runs the Penobscot Nation museum, said the Penobscots worried about the impacts of non-natives long before Maine began its push for statehood.
“Cutting down the trees to make farms, damming rivers for sawmills, which impacted our fisheries,” she said.
Some of the explorers who first made their way into Maine treated the Penobscots with a degree of respect, said James Francis, director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation. He cited Samuel de Champlain as an example.
“Champlain wait[ed] in Bangor for a couple of days until a Penobscot chief comes down river and they talk,” he said.
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The English explorer George Weymouth took a different approach, Francis said.
“Weymouth capture[d] five Penobscots, kidnap[ped] them and [took] them to Europe so he [could] teach them how to speak English and better explore the land and the Penobscot River Valley,” Francis said.
By the time Maine became a state in 1820, then-Gov. William King called on the Penobscots for help in assessing the resources that might be tapped in building the new state’s economy.
In November 1820, a team of three men returned from an expedition into central and northern Maine. They were Maj. Joseph Treat, a surveyor from Bangor; his cousin, Capt. Jason Holyoke; and Lt. Gov. John Neptune of the Penobscot Nation. Treat kept journals that documented trees that could be harvested, where the rivers ran and fish and animals that could be used for food.
Jennifer Neptune said John Neptune, no relation, was surely aware of what might be at stake when he agreed to join the Treat expedition in the fall of 1820.
“Things like this usually didn’t go in our favor. But, I think, wanting to have some part of that and some control in that was important for Penobscots to know what the intentions were, what Maine was up to,” she said.
Treat’s journals pointed the way for the new state to exploit its natural resources. But Francis said Treat also mapped, literally, the Penobscots’ significant presence on their namesake river.
“Treat did a really good job of documenting where Americans were living, but also he put these little triangles on the map, where Indians were living. And so, you see the population of these waterways inundated with indigenous people living on the river and on the islands and really shows that population and how we really strive to be near the waterway,” she said.
And Neptune said the Treat journals not only documented what the Penobscots had, but also what they were about to lose.
“Shortly after Maine statehood, Maine illegally [took], like, 95 percent of the remaining Penobscot land in our upper townships. And that was, you know, devastating. And it’s still devastating. When you travel north and you see the ‘Indian Purchase’ sign, it hurts,” she said. “It always hurts. And it always will.”
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That land grab, Francis said, was born of a policy that reflected how the new state’s government viewed the tribes.
“In the first Legislature, Maine decide[d] that the tribes of Maine would be ‘wards of the state.’ They set up this long relationship where we have Indian agents speaking on our behalf: state appointed officials. Sometimes living in our communities, speaking on our behalf. Collecting our money from leases on our islands during the log drive and putting them into the state coffers. And we remained under the thumb of the state of Maine until the mid-1970s,” she said.
That’s when the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes began legal action, claiming title to nearly two-thirds of the land of Maine. That led to the Maine Indian Land Claims Act in 1980. It resolved the land claim, but much else about the rights of the Maine tribes, their sovereignty from the state and who controls the river that’s been their home for thousands of areas remains in dispute.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.