Abenaki History Overview


Last Updated: 3 years

Native Americans have occupied northern New England for at least 10,000 years. Abenaki History shows no proof these ancient residents were ancestors of the Abenaki, but there is no reason to think they were not.

The Abenaki lived in a manner similar to Algonquin in southern New England. Since they relied on agriculture (corn, beans, and squash) for a large part of their diet, villages were usually located on the fertile floodplains of rivers.

Depending on location and population, some of their cultivated fields were extensive. Missisquoi, on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, reportedly had more than 250 acres of corn under cultivation.

Agriculture was supplemented by hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild foods. The relative importance of fish/seafood depended on location. In areas of poor soil, fish were often used as fertilizer to increase the yield of corn.

For most of the year, the Abenaki lived in scattered bands of extended families, each of which occupied separate hunting territories inherited through the father. Unlike the Iroquois, the Abenaki (and most New England Algonquin) were patrilineal.

In spring and summer, bands would gather at fixed locations near rivers, or the seacoast, for planting and fishing. These summer villages were sometimes fortified depending on the warfare in the area.

Compared with Iroquois settlements, most Abenaki villages were fairly small, averaging about 100 persons, but there were exceptions – particularily among the western Abenaki.

Some Abenaki used an oval-shaped long house, but most favored the dome-shaped, bark-covered (sometimes woven mat) wigwam during the warmer months. During winter, the Abenaki moved farther inland and separated into small groups of conical, bark-covered wigwams shaped like the buffalo-hide tepee of the plains.

Abenaki is actually a geographical and linguistic (rather than political) grouping. Before contact individual tribes were the usual level of political organization.

Occasionally several tribes would unite under a powerful sachem for purposes of war, but the Abenaki were noteworthy for their general lack of central authority.

Even at the tribal level, the authority of their sachems was limited, and important decisions, such as war and peace, usually required a meeting of all adults.

The Abenaki Confederacy did not come into existence until after 1670 and then only in response to continuous wars with the Iroquois and English colonists. Even this did not change things, and reports of French military officers are filled with complaints that Abenaki leaders usually had difficulty controlling their warriors.

In many ways the lack of central authority served the Abenaki well. In times of war, the Abenaki could abandon their villages, separate into small bands, and regroup in a distant refuge beyond the reach of their enemies. It was a strategy that confounded repeated efforts by both the Iroquois and English to conquer them.

The Abenaki could just melt away, regroup, and then counterattack. It was an effective strategy in times of war, but it has left the impression that the Abenaki were nomads. Since the Abenaki usually retreated to Canada during war, New England came to think of them as Canadian Indians – which, of course, they were not – but it served as an excuse to take most of their land in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont without compensation.

Only the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy signed treaties and kept some of their land. The other Abenaki were dispossessed and remain unrecognized. However, there was no “ride into the sunset.”

Largely invisible over the years, the Abenaki have remained in their homeland by living in scattered, small bands. New England has numerous romantic monuments which celebrate the disappearance of its original residents, which is misleading, since they never really left!

Within a few years after the voyage of Sebastian Cabot in 1497, European fishing fleets began regular visits to the Grand Banks and the coast of Maine. Giovanni da Verrazano also explored the area during 1524.

These initial contacts between Abenaki and Europeans eventually gave rise to a rumor which circulated through 16th century Europe of Norumbega, a rich and powerful native kingdom in northern Maine. Like the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola which lured Spanish Conquistadors into the American Southwest, Europeans never found the mythical Norumbega.

They did, however, discover something of great value …fur. The profits from the fur trade with Native Americans prompted French merchants to sent the expeditions that established the first permanent European outposts in the region.  

Samuel de Champlain and Pierre De Monts built Fort St. John at the mouth of the St. Croix River in 1604 marking the beginning of a steady trade in furs with the Penobscot and Maliseet.

Unfortunately, the French had chosen a bad location for their first outpost, and after a year of floods, cold, and starvation, they moved across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal (Nova Scotia). Although this area belonged to the Micmac, the French fur trade with Abenaki continued.

The Penobscot prospered from this and, with the advantage of European trade goods, began to dominate the other tribes of Abenaki to the south and west. Under the leadership of their sachem Bashaba, the Penobscot were able to form a powerful alliance which threatened the Micmac across the bay.

There appears to have been an earlier hostility between these two peoples, which competition for trade with the French only aggravated. By 1607 the rivalry escalated into the Tarrateen War between the Penobscot confederacy under Bashaba and the Micmac and their Maliseet allies.  

This war continued with few interruptions for eight years. Meanwhile, the French, who were not pleased with the fighting, continued to trade with both sides. Jesuit missionaries arrived at Port Royal in 1610 and immediately began work with the Micmac in the vicinity.

Despite the war, the French priests also built a mission and trading post for the Penobscot at St Sauver Mont-Deserts de Pentagoet (Bar Harbor, Maine) in 1613. It had, however, a brief existence and was destroyed, not by natives, but English raiders from Jamestown, Virginia later that year. In 1615 the Micmac succeeded in capturing and killing Bashaba and won the war.

During the following two years, victorious Micmac warriors swept down the Maine coast in a wave of destruction which reached south into Massachusetts. Here they encountered a different enemy …health epidemics!

It followed them home, and between 1616 and 1619, three separate epidemics swept New England and the Canadian Maritimes which probably killed at least 75% of the population. Too few survived to bury the dead, much less wage war, and the fighting stopped.  

The Abenaki had already paid a terrible price for European contact, but the French had discovered a much better source of fur in the St. Lawrence Valley. Since Maine and the Canadian Maritimes were exposed to English raids, they had little reason to stay and began to abandon most of their posts in 1610.

By 1616 only Port Royal and a small trading post at the mouth of Penobscot River were all that remained to trade with the Abenaki and Micmac. Even this limited presence was disputed by Great Britain which claimed the region by virtue of Cabot’s voyage (1497) and Sir Humphrey Gilbert “discoveries” (1578).

The first Abenaki experience with English settlement occurred during an abortive attempt by the Plymouth Company to establish a colony on the Kennebec River in 1607. Seven years later Captain James Smith met Abenaki when he explored and mapped the coast of northern New England.

By 1620 the Abenaki were familiar enough with the English that Samoset, a Pemaquid sachem from Maine hunting in Massachusetts, could walk into the Plymouth colony in February, 1621 and greet them in perfect English with “Hello Englishmen.”  

During the next 50 years, as the Abenaki probably watched in amazement, English and French fought several wars over who owned the Abenaki homeland. In 1628 an English fleet commanded by Thomas Kirke destroyed a French fleet unloading supplies at Port Royal, burned the French settlement, and then moved north to the St. Lawrence and captured Quebec.

Britain held all of Canada for four years, until it was returned to France in 1632 by the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye. Meanwhile, Boston fur traders had established a post near Machias in northern Maine to trade with the Abenaki.

Immediately after they had regained Canada in 1632, the French destroyed it and warned English traders henceforth to confine their activities to south of the Kennebec River.

In response, the English ordered French traders from Acadia to remain north of the St. Croix. As a result, relatively few English and French fur traders were willing to visit the Abenaki who lived in between.  

Despite Samoset’s kindness to Plymouth in 1621, relations between the Abenaki and the English colonists were strained from the beginning.

Living along the Merrimack River of southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts, the Pennacook were the southernmost Abenaki group and the first to have extensive contact with the English.

Decimated by the recent epidemics, they were also threatened from the west by the Mohawk and distrusted the intentions of the Abenaki in Maine. The Pennacook extended well-inland along the Merrimack River to a point where their boundaries with the Sokoki (western Abenaki) blurred.

The Sokoki and Pocumtuc (Connecticut River in western Massachusetts) had a long history of hostility with the Iroquois and helped the Mahican in their war against the Mohawk (1624-28) with the Pennacook being drawn in as allies of the Sokoki. The Mohawk eventually won, forced the Mahican east of the Hudson, and began to attack the Sokoki and Pennacook.

For this reason, the Pennacook welcomed and made an alliance with the English settlements in Massachusetts. The alliance between the Pennacook and English made the Abenaki uneasy, but the colonists were also concerned about their own safety after the near destruction of Jamestown (Virginia) by the Powhatan in 1622.    

Although they had been by-passed by the fur trade, the Abenaki were still subject to its destabilizing effects. After finishing with the Mahican in 1628, the Mohawk attacked the Sokoki a year later.

The Sokoki and Pennacook turned to both the French and English for help but were ignored, since neither wished to offend the powerful Iroquois (Dutch ally). The Sokoki might well have been destroyed if the Mohawk had not been drawn into a war in the St. Lawrence Valley with the Algonkin and Montagnais (French allies) and made peace with the Sokoki and Mahican.

Smallpox epidemic hit the New England tribes during 1633-34 and then spread north to the Abenaki, the St. Lawrence River, and then west to the Iroquois.

By 1637 the Abenaki had their first firearms – probably from Boston traders – and the following year an English trading post was established on the Merrimack River among the Pennacook. Despite this, most Abenaki still had to travel great distances to trade with the Europeans.  

Britain and France built few permanent posts in the disputed region of Maine, and to the west, English and French traders were reluctant to visit the Sokoki villages because of Mohawk war parties.

The English generally distrusted the Abenaki because of their past association with the French, not realizing the French were not really interested in the Abenaki because they were getting all the fur they needed from the Great Lakes through the Huron.

To trade with the French in Quebec, the Abenaki had to cross an area controlled by the Montagnais who were often hostile or charged tolls for passage. There was a mixed reaction by different Abenaki tribes to this trade barrier.

Most of the eastern Abenaki eventually came to terms with the Montagnais, but by 1642 the Sokoki had joined an alliance with the Mohawk and Mahican against the Montagnais – an uneasy combination of former enemies against a common foe.

The fighting continued for several years and included a raid by a joint Mohawk, Mahican, and Sokoki war party on a Montagnais village at Sillery (Quebec) in 1645.  

Oddly enough, the Sokoki war with the Montagnais actually renewed French interest in the Abenaki. After French Jesuits obtained the release of a Sokoki prisoner held by the Montagnais, they decided to visit the Abenaki.

Opposition by their Montagnais converts (not to mention the chance of meeting a Mohawk war party) kept the missionaries from the Sokoki villages, but they made several brief visits to the Kennebec and Penobscot between 1646 and 1648. The Jesuits were generally well-received by the eastern Abenaki and were able to arrange a peace between them and the Montagnais.

However, the Sokoki and Montagnais remained hostile to each other until 1650. Unfortunately, the effect was to continue one war while creating another. After the eastern Abenaki began to help the Montagnais against the Iroquois, the Pigwacket and Ossipee on upper Saco River were attacked by the Mohawk in 1647.  

Everything changed after the Iroquois overran the Huron during the winter of 1648-49. The destruction of their most important ally and trading partner put the survival of the French themselves in doubt, and they began gathering every possible ally against the Iroquois.

The uneasy alliance of the Mohawk and Sokoki also collapsed, and the Mohawk began attacking the Sokoki and Pocumtuc in 1650.

The French encouraged an alliance between the Sokoki, Pocumtuc, Pennacook, and Mahican and even sent a Montagnais chief and Jesuit to Massachusetts to ask for support in a war against the Mohawk.

While the New England Puritans recognized the threat, the devil himself would have had a better chance of forming an alliance with them than a French Jesuit, and the offer was refused.

This left only the French to support the alliance and by 1651, they were supplying the Sokoki, eastern Abenaki, and their allies with firearms and ammunition.