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Athena Review,Vol.3, no.2: Peopling of the Americas

The Eastern Abenaki at the Contact Period (AD 1500-1625)

The Eastern Abenaki are comprised of several closely related Algonquian-speaking tribes in the northeastern United States who archaeologically may be traced to both late prehistoric and contact periods. By the time of European arrival in the northeast in the 16th and 17th centuries AD, indigenous people as the Abenaki and their predecessors had lived along Maine’s coast for millennia.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter-gatherers, the Abenaki also practiced limited horticulture, and cultivated maize by about AD 1000 (with the Kennebec River marking the northernmost soil and climatic conditions suitable for maize growing). They lived along the coast in larger groups during the warm months and dispersed inland as smaller family units during the winter, utilizing at specific seasons many different wild food resources including fish, shellfish, porpoises, seals, moose, deer, beaver, rabbit, woodchuck, wild fruits, and tubers. Domesticated dogs helped the Abenaki track game. Stone tools, shell beads, and shell-tempered and cord-marked pottery are well known archaeological finds of their manufactures (fig.1).

[Fig.1: Excavations at the south end of the storehouse at Maine's Popham Colony (built in 1607-1608) reveal probable Eastern Abenaki artifacts and occupational features including hearths (Brain 1999).]

Contact with Europeans: Brief and possibly tense encounters took place between the Abenaki and Verrazano’s crew in southern Maine in 1524. Sporadic interaction with European fishermen and explorers in the 16th century and with colonists in the 17th century led to native use of some European goods, including durable metal tools, colored glass beads, and alcohol. As demand for beaver skins and hats increased in Europe, skyrocketing prices for beaver pelts spurred more European venturers to bargain with New England’s indigenous hunters. While the fur trade was profitable for some Native Americans, it also tended to create intertribal competitions lasting through the 17th century, which in some ways paralleled those between rival European trading companies. Coastal tribes such as the Penobscott of the Eastern Abenaki had a strategic advantage in reaching the European traders first, and were able to establish themselves in the profitable role of middlemen between the Europeans and inland tribes. Increasing friction between upland and coastal tribes helped spark the Tarrantine War (1607-1615),  when Micmacs raided the East Abenakis. This invasion, in combination with a devastating epidemic, resulted in the Indians of this region abandoning horticultural practices.

Popham Colony seems to have been virtually set in the middle of this conflict. By the time of Popham’s founding in 1607, the Eastern Abenaki had already made substantial contact with some Europeans as evidenced by some of them knowing French. Yet they often showed unwillingness to trade with the new English arrivals. For the colonists, a profitable trade network thus failed to flourish. For the Native Americans, meanwhile, profits became less reciprocal, and severe outbreaks of new diseases coincided with increasing colonist contact.

[References: Brain, , Jeffrey P. 1999. Fort St. George IV: 1999 Excavations at the Site of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony on the Kennebec River in Maine. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Brain, , Jeffrey P2001. The Popham Colony, An Historical and Archaeological Brief. 3d. Rev. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA; Brasser, T.J. 1978. “Early Indian-European Contacts” in W. Sturtevant (ed.) Handbook of North American Indians, Vol.15. Smithsonian Inst., Washington; Snow, Dean R. 1978. “Eastern Abenaki” and “Late Prehistory of the East Coast” in W. Sturtevant (ibid.).]

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