Abenaki Tribes in the Merrimac Valley

At the period of the first settlement of New England by the English, the principal Indian powers located in that territory, were, the Pokanokets, under Massasoit; the Narragansetts, under Canonicus; the Pequot-Algonquins of Connecticut; and the Merrimack, or Pennacook, bashabary of Amoskeag. Each of these comprised several subordinate tribes, bearing separate names, and, although bound, by both lingual and tribal affinities, to the central tribal government, yet yielding obedience to it in the ordinary loose manner of the local Indian tribes. Each of these tribal circles was ruled by its particular chief, who, although he arrogated to himself the powers and immunities of hereditary descent, yet exercised no absolute controlling influence, beyond what the popular voice allowed him. The colonists were not long in ascertaining who were the principal rulers, nor in taking the necessary measures to conciliate them.

Their mode of treating with the Indians was, to assert that the sovereignty and fee simple of the soil were vested in the English crown; but yet to acknowledge the possessory right of the aborigines, by presents, or by purchase, in order to conciliate the local chiefs. When collisions were occasioned by disputed boundaries, or by questions of trade, they were adjusted in councils of both parties. No difficulties of any general moment occurred until the origination of the Pequot war. The bloody feud between the Mohicans, under Uncas, and the Narragansetts, under Miontonimo, was a consequence of the Pequot outbreak. The colonies endeavored, as much as possible, to abstain from any participation in this struggle; but in a very short time they became involved in open warfare with the Narragansett. It could not be supposed that the Pokanoket or Wampanoag, who, under the benevolent Massasoit, had lived in amity with the English for such a lengthy period, could sit calmly by, and see a foreign people, whose manners, customs, and opinions differed so widely from their own, attain the possession of power, and spread over their country, without experiencing feelings of jealousy and animosity. The impatient spirit which Alexander evinced during his short reign, and the more deliberate, secret, and crafty policy of Philip, developed this latent Indian feeling. These events have, however, been previously related in detail.

The Merrimack tribes, among whom the Pennacook appear to have held the highest position, had located the seat of their government at the Amoskeag Falls, a name denoting the abundance of beaver on that stream. The ruling sachem was Passaconaway, a celebrated magician, a distinguished war captain, an eloquent speaker, and a wise ruler. Few aboriginal chiefs ever surpassed him in mental or magisterial qualifications. Far a long period, he prudently maintained friendly relations with the Massachusetts and Now Hampshire colonies; and his interviews with John Eliot denote that he possessed a mind, capable of grasping and comprehending the truths of religion. It is manifest that his most earnest desires were, to make the vicinity of his beloved Amoskeag his home in old age, and that his bones should be deposited on one of the beautiful islands in the Merrimack. But the spirit of aggression frustrated his wishes. There was a strong prejudice in the English mind against the natives, which brought the colonists and the Merrimack into collision in many different ways. Injury was retaliated by injury, and blood was avenged by blood. Murders were followed by wars, in which the English were invariably successful, and, finally, Passaconaway and his Pennacook were driven from their homes. New Hampshire and Maine, from the Merrimack to the Penobscot, were drenched with Indian, as well as English blood. The time will arrive, when the history of these sanguinary strife will become a fruitful theme for the pen of the author, and the pencil of the artist; and then the bold and heroic men, whose lot it was to act the part of their country’s defenders in these perilous scenes, will receive their due weed of praise. The deeds of valor enacted at Kennebec, Norridgewock, Castine, Monhagan, and Sagadehock, and on the lofty Wambec, 1 will thenceforth constitute subjects to interest the mind of the reader, and excite his imagination. (9C. R. Potter’s sketch, Vol. V., p. 217.))

The Abinaqui tribe also acted an important part in the Indian history of Maine and New Hampshire. This word is of French origin, and is too vague for any ethnological purpose, being the mere translation of the Indian term for Eastlander. 2 The language of this people designates their Algonquin lineage, the latter being distinguished by some orthographical peculiarities, the principle of which is the use of the letter r. The early colonists called them Tarranteens; 3 but, among the Iroquois, they were known by the name of Onagunga. 4

About 1692, while the colonies were contending with the refractory tribes on their western borders, Sebastian Rasle, a Jesuit missionary from Quebec, who had previously visited some of the western tribes, made his appearance among the Abinakies. He located himself at Norridgewock, and earnestly devoted his attention to the task of teaching them the truths of Christianity. It must be remembered, that the French residents in Canada aimed to construct an empire in America, by obtaining influence amongst the Indian tribes, east, west, north, and south, which might be turned to political account in the hour of emergency. To a great extent, the new system of instruction, introduced by Rasle, had not only a religious character, but also a powerful political tendency. The people of New England and New York, nay, of all the colonies, deemed it such ; and numerous and protracted negotiations between the colonists and the tribes, as well as between the respective authorities of the two countries, were the consequence. Every movement was, either in reality, or was conceived to be, the result of Canadian jealousy of the British colonies, or of British animosity against Canada. If the Indians committed a murder, or perpetrated a massacre, it was alleged that the French authorities had incited them to the act, or countenanced them in its performance. Squadrons of ships sailed from England to avenge these reported injuries, and, for a long period, the country, from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to that of the Mississippi, was the battle-ground of the contending nations.

This position of affairs caused Rasle to be regarded by the colonists as a partisan. Throughout New England, his labors were deemed to be directed toward perverting the Indians, and implanting in their minds the seeds of error, and of hatred to the colonies. He was cited before the authorities of Boston ; but the negotiations only resulted in mutual misapprehension, and ended in vituperation. The Catholics and Protestants were so directly at variance with each other, and so many worthy men and women had been slain by the tomahawk and the scalping-knife, that the colonies determined, by a coup de main, to rid themselves of what they considered the grand exciting cause of all their evils. With the caution and celerity, resulting from long practice in Indian wars, they marched a body of troops to the site of Norridgewock, and made a descent upon the village. The Indians were roughly handled in an engagement, which took place on the green, were driven thence to their wigwams, and cut down wherever discovered. Among the rest, Rasle was slain, while boldly defending his flock. His chapel was burned, and the village entirely destroyed.Citations:

  1. A name for the White Mountains.-Allen’s Biography.[]
  2. From wabun, the east, or place of daylight, and ackee, earth, or land.[]
  3. Wood’s New England Prospect.[]
  4. Colden.[]


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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