Carved portrait of Chief Orono

Chief Joseph Orono

Chief Joseph Orono. A Penobscot chief, born, according to tradition, on Penobscot River, Maine, in or about 1688 1. According to one tradition he was a descendant of Baron de Castine, and although Williamson, who seems to have seen him and was familiar with his later career, is disposed to reject this story 2, yet from Orono’s own admissions it is possible that he was a son of Castine’s daughter, who married a Frenchman, and with her children was taken captive in 1704. Nickolar, who was related to Orono by marriage, asserted, according to Williamson, that Orono was in some way related to old Castine; moreover he asserts that Orono was not of full blood, but part white-“a half breed or more.” Orono informed Capt. Munsell 3 that his father was a Frenchman and his mother half French and half Indian. He had none of the physical characteristics of an Indian save that he was tall, straight, and well proportioned. Very little is known of him until he had passed his 50th year. That he embraced the Roman Catholic faith while comparatively young, and that he was only a subordinate chief until he had reached his 75th year, are confirmed by the scanty records of his history. Until 1759 Tomasus, or Tomer, was head-chief of the Penobscot, when he was succeeded by Osson, who in turn was succeeded by Orono about 1770 or 1774. These three were ardent advocates of peace at the commencement of the French and Indian war in 1754, and until war was declared against the tribe by the English colonists. In 1775 Orono and three of his colleagues went, with one Andrew Gilman as interpreter, to profess their friendship and to tender their services to the Massachusetts government. They met the Provincial Congress at Watertown on June 21, where they entered into a treaty of amity with that body and offered assistance, and afterward proved faithful allies of the colonists during their struggle for independence. Orono was held in as high esteem after the war as before; and in 1785 and 1796 entered into treaties with Massachusetts, by which his tribe ceded certain portions of their lands and fixed permanent limits to the parts reserved. At the time of the latter treaty Orono is said to have reached his 108th year. He died at his home at Oldtown, Maine, Feb. 5. 1802. His wife. who was a full blood Indian and his almost lifelong companion, served him a few years.  Orono had a son, who was accidentally shot about 1774, aged 25 years; and a daughter who married Capt. Nickolar.  Orono was buried in the cemetery at Stillwater,  Penobscot County, Maine, in the vicinity of the town that bears his name. 4

Orono – Catholic Indian Chief

Chief Orono's Powder Horn
This powder horn is reported to have been owned by Penobscot Chief Joseph Orono (1688–1801). On close inspection of the horn two of the many images that it is possible to see are a man holding a musket and a square-rigged three-masted ship. Abbe Museum

There is very little authentic history of the chiefs or sagamores of the Penobscot tribe of Indians before Madokawando who lived in the 17th century. The time of his birth is not given by any historian, but it is certain that he was very active in the wars of King Philip and was on intimate terms with Baron de St. Castin, whom he met for the first time at Quebec. Madokawando, a Tarratine chief, was the adopted son of Assiminasqua, a sagamore of the Kanabis, or Canibas, one of the Abenaki tribes.

In the summer time Madokawando, with his brother Indians, was accustomed to make yearly trips in their birch canoes down the Penobscot to its mouth, and in the salt water to catch fish in sufficient quantities to supply their needs during winter, in their homes around Orono. On these annual excursions he again fell in with Baron de St. Castin, who was then sojourning on a peninsula in Penobscot Bay, and which now bears that nobleman’s name.

The sagamore and the explorer became fast friends and so great was his admiration for the Baron that he gave his daughter Matilde to him as wife, and of this union were born several children. Among them was one fair daughter who, afterwards, married a Frenchman of Castin’s suite, and to them was born, about 1691, Orono, the hero of this sketch.

In confirmation of the above. Captain Joseph Munsell, of Bangor, Maine, who knew Orono well, said, and his words are on record, that Orono himself told him, (the Captain), his father was a Frenchman and his mother half French and half Indian. Hence, we may conclude as almost certain, that Orono was the grandson of Baron de St. Castin and Matilde, the daughter of the celebrated sagamore, Madokawando.

There are two other accounts of Orono’s birth which I deem fit to give, but which I consider improbable:

  1. Orono, according to a tradition that received credence among the old settlers of this town (Orono), was the child of white parents and was kidnapped, in infancy, by the Tarratines, from the banks of the Androscoggin, near where the town of Brunswick now stands. But this story I hold to be incorrect.
    Mr. Phineas Vinal, at present a venerated citizen of Orono, told me that he had heard his mother say that Chief Orono was certainly part Indian; his countenance indicated it although he had but few, if any, of the characteristics of that race. Mr. Vinal says his mother knew the old chief well. On his mother’s side Mr. Vinal is a grandson of John Marsh, the interpreter, who acted in that capacity between the Indians and the English in the war of 1812, when the latter occupied Bangor. Marsh Island, containing five thousand acres, (on which are Old Town and a part of Orono) was purchased by him from the Indians for fifteen bushels of corn.
  2. The other story is that he was a native of York in Cumberland County, this state, and was one of several captive children taken in 1692 by the Indians who ravaged that place. Orono, according to this story, was four years old at the time. Also the same tradition states that the Indians, soon after, sent back to the garrison-houses the old women, and the children between the ages of three and seven years, so as to recompense the English who, on a former occasion, spared the lives of several Indian women and children. Hence, if Orono, who was then four years, was among the captives, he must have been among those who were returned. Again this tradition says, that his family name was Donmel or Donnel, but, at that time, 1692. the Donnel family was one of the most, if not the most distinguished family in all that section, or in the province, and hence, if a son of that distinguished family had been taken captive, he would in all probability, have been returned or recovered. Besides, there is no mention of this, even traditionally, among the people of York.

Madokawando died about 1700. It is said that he always treated his prisoners well, and that he was known for his sagacity and sincerity.

We have no reliable data concerning his immediate successors, but of this we are certain, that at the beginning of the American Revolution, Orono, who had acquired the confidence of his people by his ability, integrity and prudence, was acclaimed their Chief.

Carved portrait of Chief Orono
Carved portrait of Chief Orono from the Catholic Total Abstinence Union Fountain in Philadelphia, PA

Some reviewers of his life make him chief long before this date and place his birth in 1688; but I cannot find a particle of evidence to sustain the former; on the contrary, in 1754, when the Indians were at war with the French, Tomasus was sagamore of the tribe and though Orono was at that time a man of ability and held important positions, yet we have no evidence of his being chief so early. Tomasus, or Tamor, as he is sometimes called, was succeeded by Osson, a chief who believed in the policy of peace until his patience was exasperated by the nefarious and bloody actions of Captain Casgill of Newcastle, who, one day with his company of volunteers, wickedly and inhumanely shot a party of peaceable Indian hunters on Owl’s Head.

Osson died about the beginning of the American Revolution and Orono succeeded him.

Orono was a man of intelligence, though not much of a reader or writer, a gentle, benign chief, and very sedate. He was very thoughtful and reserved, saying little and that after mature consideration. When he expressed his views they were always to the point and in as few words as possible. He had an analytic mind and good common sense which served him in the place of higher education, “a sensible, serious man and a hearty friend.” Naturally, he knew both the French and Indian languages, his father being French and his mother half French and half Indian. He could also speak the English language quite fluently, particularly towards the end, when he associated a great deal with the whites.

Orono belonged to the Tarratine tribe of Indians who were among the earliest converts to Catholicity made by the Jesuit Fathers east of the Mississippi. He is sometimes referred to as a convert to the Faith, but this is a mistake, as his father and mother were both Catholics. To the Catholic religion he was ardently attached. He loved its ritual and considered it an honor to be allowed to take part in its ceremonies. He was a staunch supporter of the faith planted in the hearts of his sagamore ancestors by the “black robes,” and when, after the Revolution, Protestant missionaries were sent to the tribe to proselytize them, they failed to shake the faith of their fathers.

In figure, he was tall and stately, finely proportioned, with noble bearing, fair hair, blue eyes benignly penetrating and intelligent the grand specimen of a warrior, and it is said that in his gait, even in old age, there were a gracefulness and elasticity which at once attracted and marked his superiority. But his breadth of mind, his gentlemanly manners and kind disposition made him a chief not alone among the Indians butt also among the white men, and gave him that distinction which posterity recognizes. Williamson says that:

His manners were both conciliating and commanding, and his habits worthy of all imitation. For he was not only honest, chaste, temperate and industrious, but his word was sacred and his friendship unchanging.

Though he was not deficient in courage or any of the martial virtues, he was so fully aware how much wars had wasted his tribe and entailed misery on the survivors, as to become, from principle, a uniform and persevering advocate of peace. He knew, and always labored to convince his people, that they flourished best and enjoyed most under its refreshing shade. And even after Casgill’s murderous assault, Orono, who was then a warrior passed middle age, was still for peace. “To kill the living will not bring the dead to life,” said he, speaking of the Owl’s Head wicked transaction.

The crimes of few never sprinkle blood on all. Strike the murderers I Let the rest be quiet. Peace is the Voice of God. Everyone is blessed under its wings. Everything withers in war; Indians are killed; squaws starve. Nothing is gained, not plunder, not glory. Englishmen are now too many. Let the hatchet lay buried. Smoke the calumet once more. Strive for peace. Exact a recompense by treaty for wrongs done us. None! Ay, then fight ‘em.

Orono could not understand how England could persecute, plunder or enslave her colonies, which he looked upon as her children in a far off land, and he could not conceive how England, professing Christianity, could be a factor in such unnatural a warfare.

There was nothing so dear to Orono’s heart, after his religion, as liberty. It was the sweetest sound to the Christian sagamore’s ears. “Give me liberty or give me death,” was the key note of his soul. On one, occasion, addressing his braves, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, before he proffered aid to the Americans, he made use of these noble and patriotic words:

The Great Spirit gives us freely all things. Our white brothers tell us they came to the Indian’s country to enjoy liberty and life. Their Great Sagamore (the English King) is coming to bind them in chains, to kill them. We must fight him. We will stand on the same ground with them. For should he bind them in bonds, next he will treat us as bears. Indians liberties and lands, his proud spirit will tear away from them. Help his ill-treated sons’; they will return good for good, and the law of love runs through the hearts of their children and ours when we are dead. Look down the stream of time. Look up to the Great Spirit. Be kind, be valiant, be free: then are Indians Sons of Glory.

Captivated by these patriotic sentiments, his people applauded him and swore fealty to him, whatever cause he espoused. So, when the Revolutionary War broke out, resisting all solicitations of other tribes, he extended his sympathy and proffered the aid of his warriors to the American cause; and at a moment when Indians, in other parts of the state, were threatening to join the English, Orono, with three of his colleagues, as a deputation of the Penobscot Indians, arrived in Watertown, Massachusetts, two days after the battle of Bunker Hill, and tendered their services to the Provincial Congress held there on June 21, 1775.

Orono, addressing a committee of the Provincial Congress among other things, said: “In behalf of the whole Penobscot tribe I hereby declare to you, if the grievance under which our people labor were removed, they would aid with their whole force to defend the country.”

The grievances, spoken of by Orono, were principally trespasses by the whites upon their timber lands and cheating them in trade. Though the smoke of battle of Bunker Hill had scarcely cleared away, the committee of the Provincial Congress said nothing about accepting Orono’s offer, but promised him that, “as soon as they could take breath from this present fight” their complaints should be attended to. In the same year the above mentioned grievances were removed, and, on July of the following year, three of the Penobscot tribes acknowledged the independence of the United States, withheld all succor from the British enemy, and, eventually, some of them engaged in the war, under Captain John Preble, Lieutenants Andrew Oilman, Joseph Munsell and Orono, who then bore a Continental Commission as he led his braves to the field of battle.

When Castine, (the peninsula) was taken by the British in 1779, and other settlements on either bank of the Penobscot were under their sway, Orono proved himself faithful to his engagements and true to the American cause by communicating, with great dispatch to the government important and repeated intelligence, and his zeal to the last was inspiring to his tribe.

The war being over Orono entered into negotiations with Massachusetts. Through him assignments of large tracts of lands, for valuable considerations, were made to the State and the limits of the territory retained by the tribe were agreed upon. He then retired to his island home at Old Town, rich in years, honor and renown, respected by the commonwealth, loved by the whites and idolized by his tribe.

At that time, Father Romaigne, a French priest, had charge of the Tarratines of this section, who held the faith through weal and woe, defying bribes and threats, since their conversion from paganism more than a century before.

In all the public services of the Church, Orono took a prominent part. His assiduity at Mass, his joining in its Chant, his responding to the litanies, and his reception of the sacraments, furnished a grand exemplar of all that was noble and elevating in Christian life, which materially advanced the spirituality of his tribe, by spurring them on to the practice of their religion. Whilst he never peremptorily commanded them to observe the laws of their Church, his example in this regard amounted to the same.

During his lifetime there were very few delinquents in religious matters among the Tarratines of Marsh Island, and it was a pleasure for the “black robes” to expound to them the teaching of the church.

At length, under the weight of over one hundred years, Joseph Orono died, (according to Captain Samuel Lowder, of Bangor) in his wigwam on a Sunday morning, 1801, on the banks of the Penobscot just opposite where Mt. Hope Cemetery now lies, mourned by all who knew him irrespective of creed or color. He retained his mental faculties to the last; and his erect attitude and sickly whiteness of face, flowing white hair and spiritual aspect, gave him the appearance of a grand old saint.

Captain Munsell of Bangor, who talked with him in his last sickness, says that Orono told him he was no years at that time, thus fixing his birth in 1691. Mrs. Hall, who died over thirty years ago in this town, aged 100 years, had a distinct recollection of this chief, and saw his funeral cortege pass by. Captain Lowder says that he was buried on the Jameson farm, upper Stillwater, but more likely he was buried in Old Town, probably on Indian Island; but there is absolutely nothing left to make the spot where his remains were consigned to Mother Earth. All my investigations have failed to discover his grave, and not one of the Indians now on Indian Island knows where their great Chief’s dust awaits the resurrection.

That nothing exists to indicate the grave of the celebrated Orono appears incredible, but such is the fact.

Nobody has yet explained what the grand and sonorous name, Orono, signifies, but it will be perpetuated and honored as long as this township exists, which was incorporated March 12, 1806, and called “Orono”‘ in compliment to him.

To my astonishment I discovered a few years ago that the pupils of the public schools here did not know that Joseph Orono professed the Christian faith, and to my great astonishment I discovered also that even some teachers, in the higher grades, never heard of Joseph Orono; though the town from which they get their living was called after that worthy chief. Had he descended from the “Pilgrim Fathers” (and held the creed of the “Reformers”), his name in all probability, would be emblazoned in letters of gold in the school rooms of the town; his praises would be sounded for the children, by every teacher in the district, and a monument would have been erected long since, by the citizens to perpetuate his name and speak his renown.

This honor was left for the Knights of Columbus, and on the 12th of October, 1911, the unveiling and dedication of a monument to the memory of the old Indian chief were carried out under the auspices of Joseph Orono Council by whose good work the monument was completed and erected on a lot owned by the writer of this sketch.

When the town was incorporated it is said that some protested against its being name after Orono. The protest came from those who hesitated to have the town named after a Catholic Indian chief, and whose descendants even today, objected to having this monument erected in the little public park of the town because, forsooth, the inscription read:

Chief Orono's Monument
Chief Orono’s Monument

Erected in memory of
Joseph Orono
Indian Chief.
By the Knights of Columbus

But the shaft is erected to do honor to Orono, whose virtues are worthy of imitation by the noblest and best of our race, and on it is inscribed the word, Catholic, a word which is historic, brought here by the Northmen even before Catholic Columbus 5 touched the American shores, a word which is firmly rooted in our soil and which will adorn other monuments on this continent in centuries yet to come. 6


Chief Orono’s nickname, K’tolaqu, translates to “Big Ship.” He was given this nickname as a result of the many tales he told of the big ships he saw during a trip to Boston in 1780 to offer Penobscot aid to the Americans in the Revolutionary War. 7

Consult Further:

  • The Penobscot Tribe
    This should provide you additional details on the Penobscot tribe specifically. For a general view of all Abenaki’s see: Abenaki Tribe.
  • The Penobscots in Maine: Orono, the Chief of the Penobscots
    An interesting chapter from Catholics and the American Revolution which provides a narration of Joseph Orono’s life. Some of the claims by this manuscript are countered by John Harrington in our biography.
  • A Collection Of American Epitaphs And Inscriptions With Occasional Notes. By Rev. Timothy Alden, A.M., Honorary Member of the Massachusetts and of the New York Historical Societies, Member of the American Antiquarian Society, etc. Pentade I. Vol. I. pp. 60-62.
    This epitath began the “Donnel” claims of heritage for Chief Joseph Orono.
  • Joseph Orono – Wikipedia
    This article as seen on 9 August 2014 is completely unsourced, declares as facts that which is in contention, and contains errors; as such it should be given little credence.


  1. See Orono – Catholic Indian Chief below for a contradictory statement by John Harrington[]
  2. Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 3d s., ix, 82-91, 1846[]
  3. Williamson, Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll, 3d s., ix, 83, 1846[]
  4. Hodge, Frederick Webb. Handbook of American Indians. Bulletin 30, Bureau of American Ethnology, part 2, p. 155-6. Washington:Government Printing Office. 1912.[]
  5. The Catholic Columbus is what is in the book[]
  6. Harrington, Reverend John M. Orono – Catholic Indian Chief. Published in Sprague’s Journal of Maine History, Vol. 2 No. 3. Dover, Maine: John Francis Sprague. July 1914. Also published in the Lewiston Evening Journal, Oct 28, 1911.[]
  7. Maine Memory Network[]



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