ABENAKI INDIANS are a linguistic and geographic group of Eastern Woodland tribes that originated in the New England region of the United States and Quebec and the Maritimes of Canada, a region called Wabanaki (“Dawn Land”) in the Eastern Algonquian languages.
The Abenaki are one of the five members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Historically, there was not a strong central authority, but a large number of smaller bands and tribes who shared many cultural traits.
One of the five tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy
The Abenaki Indians were one of five algonquin tribes that belonged to the Wabanaki Confederacy. The Sokoki, or western Abenaki, were known in New England as the St Francis Indians.
While the Abenaki are a separate tribe on their own, their name is often used interchangably to mean the whole Wabenaki Confederacy.
Abenaki Confederation tribes:
Amaseconti, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Maliseet, Ouarastegouiak, Passamaquoddy, Patsuiket, Penobscot, Pigwacket, Rocameca, Sokoni, and Wewenoc.
Wabenaki is actually the geographical area these tribes lived in, and means Dawn Land. Wôbanakiak is the term used to mean People of the Dawn Land. Abenaki and Wabanaki have the same Algonquian root, meaning in English “people from the east.”
The Penobscot Indians are often included in the Western Abenaki grouping, although they are a separate tribe from the Abenaki.
Ethnologists divide the Abnaki people into two subdivisions: the Eastern Abenaki and Western Abenaki.
These subdivisions are further broken down into bands.
Eastern Abenaki Bands:
Amaseconti (also known as Odanak, or St. Francis River Abenakis) Alternate Spellings: Amesokanti, or Anmissoukanti. Between the upper Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers in western Maine.
Androscoggin (Amariscoggin, Ameriscoggin, Anasaguniticook, Arosaguntacook, Asschincantecook). Main village, on the river of the same name was called Arosaguntacook Town. Arosaguntacook is sometimes applied in error to the St. Francois Indians.
Kennebec (Caniba, Sagadahoc, Kanibesinnoak, Norridgewock, Nurhantsuak) lived along the Kennebec River in northern Maine. Villages: Amaseconti (Amesokanti, Anmissoukanti), Norridgewock (Naridgewalk, Neridgewok, Noronjawoke), Kennebec, and Sagadahoc.
Ossipee – One of the twelve Algonquian tribes. The Ossipees lived along the shores of Ossipee Lake in east-central New Hampshire. Sometimes classed as Western Abenakis.
Penobscot (Pentagoet, Panaomeska). Meaning “rocky place,” or “ledge place.” Location – Both sides of Penobscot Bay extending far inland along the Penobscot River. Subdivisions – The Penobscot on Moosehead Lake are known as “Moosehead Lake Indians.” Villages: Agguncia, Asnela, Catawamtek, Kenduskeag, Mattawamkeag, Meecombe, Negas, Olamon, Oldtown, Passadumkeag, Pentagouet, Precaute, Segocket, and Wabigganus. Now considered a separate tribe.
Pigwacket (Pegouakki, Peguaki, Pequawket). Main village called Pequawket Town was located on the upper Saco River.
Rocameca were located on the Upper Androscoggin River.
Wewenoc (Ouanwinak, Sheepscot, Wawenock, Wawnock) Located on Coastal areas of southern Maine.
Wôlinak (Becancour) Located on Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.
Other names associated with the eastern Abenaki:
Western Abenaki Bands (Sokoki):
Arsigantegok (also Arrasaguntacook, Ersegontegog, Assagunticook, Anasaguntacook) – Lived along the St. Francis River in Québec. Principal village: St. Francis (Odanak), therefore called St. Francis River Abenakis and came to be applied to all Western Abenakis
Cowasuck – (also Cahass or Cohass, Cohasiac, Koasek, Koasek, Coos, Coosuc, Koes) Meaning “People of the Pines”), lived in the upper Connecticut River Valley. Principal village: Cowass, on the Connecticut River near Newbury, Vermont.
Hoosac. Mixed settlement with the Mahican.
Missiquoi (or Missisquoi,Mazipskoik, Misiskuoi, Missiassik, Missique, Missisco)- Meaning” place of flint.” Located in the Wabanaki region of what now is northern Vermont and southern Quebec. This sub-group of the Abenaki lived along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain at the time of the European incursion.
Their name Missiassik, from which “Missisquois” is derived, means “place of flint” in the Abenaki language; or alternatively, from Masipskoik, a word that means “place where there are boulders”, more specifically “boulders point.”
Nashau (or Nashaway or Weshacum or Onejagese)
Ossipee – One of the twelve Algonquian tribes. The Ossipee Indians lived along the shores of Ossipee Lake in east-central New Hampshire. Often classed as Eastern Abenakis.
St. Francis – Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation (Odanak, St. Francis, St. Francois du Lac). Southwest of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec and included settlements along the St. Francois River.
Schaghticoke. Mixed Mahican and New England Algonquin settlement on the Hudson River north of Albany, New York.
Sokoquis (Sokokiois, Sokoquios)
Squakheag (Squaeg, Squawkeag). Variously assigned to the Sokoki, Pocumtuc and Nipmuc. Mixed population and probably at various times was occupied by any of these tribes.
Some accounts include groups of the western Pennacook as Sokoki: Amoskeag, Naamkeek, Nashaway, Souheyan, and Winnipesaukee.
Sokoki is often confused with the Saco, a name given to eastern Abenaki who lived near the Saco River (a combination of Pigwacket, Kennebec, and Androscoggin).
Closer in language and culture to the Micmac, the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy have been listed as Abenaki for historical reasons. The French usually referred to both tribes as the Etchemin.
Maliseet (Aroostook, Malecite, Malicite, St. John’s Indians). From the Micmac word “malisit” meaning “broken talker.” Their own name “Wulastegniak” means “good river people.” Located along the St. John River in northeastern Maine and western New Brunswick.
Villages: Devon, Kingsclear, Madawaska, Mary’s, Medoctec (Medoktek, Meductic), Okpaak, Oromocto, St. Anne, St. Basile, The Brothers (Micmac), Tobique, Viger, and Woodstock.
Passamaquoddy (Machias Tribe, Opanango, Pesmokant, Quoddy, Scotuks, Scootuck, St. Croix Indians, Unchechauge, Unquechauge). The name means “pollock spearing place.”
Villages were located on Passamaquoddy Bay, the St. Croix River, and Schoodic Lake.
Villages: Gunasquamekook, Imnarkuan, Machias, Sebaik, and Sipayik. Other towns at Lewis Island and Calais in Maine with a few locations on the Canadian side of the St. Croix River.
Other Names of Abenaki Villages:
Aquadocta, Cobbosseecontee, Ebenecook, Ketangheanycke, Mascoma, Masherosqueck, Mecadacut, Moshoquen, Muscongus, Negusset, Ossaghrage, Ouwerage, Pasharanack, Pauhuntanuc, Pemaquid, Pocopassum, Sabino, Sagadahoc, Satquin, Segotago, Sowocatuck, Taconnet, Unyjaware, and Wacoogo.
Alternate names and spellings for Abenaki
The Abenaki people call themselves Alnôbak, meaning Real People. There are a dozen variations of the name Abenaki (singular) or Abenakis (plural form), such as Abnaki (contracted), Abanaki, Abenaquiois, Abakivis, Alnanbal meaning “men,” Abenaqui, Benaki, Oubenaki, Quabenakionek, Wabanaki, Wippanap, Wabenakies and others.
The earliest use of the term Abenaki in its various spellings appears to be French. Champlain, the Jesuit Relations, and other sources use the term after about 1630, abandoning the earlier extension of Etchemin (Maliseet-Passamaquoddy) to include them.
Many later writers lumped all the abenaki with the Western Abenaki under the heading Openango (with several spelling variations). English writers of the seventeenth century usually called the Eastern Abenaki simply Eastern Indians.
In the nineteenth century the term Tarrantine, a seventeenth-century English name for the Micmac, was revived as Tarratine and erroneously applied to the Penobscot. Various other obscure and confusing identifications also exist.
Because Abenaki was not a written language, there are no rules for spelling, adding to the proliferation of Abenaki names.
Extending across most of northern New England into the southern part of the Canadian Maritimes, the Abenaki called their homeland Ndakinna meaning “our land.”
The eastern Abenaki were concentrated in Maine east of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, while the western Abenaki lived west of the mountains across Vermont and New Hampshire to the eastern shores of Lake Champlain.
The southern boundaries of the Abenaki homeland were near the present northern border of Massachusetts, excluding the Pennacook country along the Merrimack River of southern New Hampshire.
The maritime Abenaki occupied the St. Croix and the St. John’s River Valleys near the border between Maine and New Brunswick.
New England settlement and war forced many of the Abenaki to retreat north into Quebec where two large communities formed at St. Francois and Becancour near Trois-Rivieves, and are still there today.
There are also three reservations in northern Maine (Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet) and seven Maliseet reserves located in New Brunswick and Quebec.
Other groups of Abenaki, without reservations, are scattered across northern New Hampshire and Vermont.
The original Abenaki name for their specific tribe is Alnombak, “the people.”
The Abenaki tribe is only officially recognized in Canada, and only the Canadian population still speaks the Abenaki language fluently.
Modern Abenaki history has been a fugue of attrition and regrouping. Up to 75% of the Native Americans in New England were killed by European diseases in the 1500’s and early 1600’s.
Dozens of distinct tribes originally lived in this area, but after each disaster the survivors of nearby villages moved together for safety’s sake, and even Indian oral history became blurry about who was who.
Since the Abenaki tribe tended to retreat into Canada to avoid attacks from the British and Iroquoians, England was left with the impression they were Canadian Indians, but in fact the Abenakis were originally natives of New England.
The Abenaki bands’ strategy of merging after heavy losses and keeping more powerful neighbors in the dark about their existence may have caused them headaches in getting federal recognition, but it has also ensured their survival, whether their neighbors are aware they are still there or not.
Abenaki, or Western Abenaki, is an Algonquian language spoken today by only a few elders in Canada.
The Abenaki dialect of Algonquian is distinct from the languages of the Micmac to the north and the New England Algonquin to the south.
There was also a dialectic difference between the eastern and western Abenaki with language of the western Abenaki being closer to that of the Pennacook
Native speakers call their language Alnombak, Alnôbak, or Aln8bak (the 8 was a Jesuit symbol for a nasalized, unrounded ‘o’.)
Penobscot or Eastern Abenaki, a dialect mutually comprehensible with Western Abenaki, was once spoken in Maine. Sadly, the last fully fluent speaker of Penobscot Abenaki has passed on, but several elders know something of the language and are working to revive the language in the Penobscot Nation today.
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!
Native Americans have occupied northern New England for at least 10,000 years. There is no proof these ancient residents were ancestors of the Abenaki, but there is no reason to think they were not.
In 1614, Thomas Hunt captured 24 young Abenaki people and took them to England. During the European colonization of North America, the land occupied by the Abenaki was in the area between the new colonies of English in Massachusetts and the French in Quebec.
Since no party agreed to territorial boundaries, there was regular conflict among them.
The Abenaki were traditionally allied with the French; during the reign of Louis XIV, Chief Assacumbuit was designated a member of the French nobility for his service.
Facing annihilation from English attacks and epidemics of new infectious diseases, the Abenaki started to emigrate to Quebec around 1669. The Governor of New France allocated two seigneuries (large self-administered areas similar to feudal fiefs).
The first was on the Saint Francis River and is now known as the Odanak Indian Reservation; the second was founded near Bécancour and is called the Wolinak Indian Reservation.
In 1724 during Dummer’s War, the English took the principal Abenaki town in Maine, Norridgewock, and killed their Catholic missionary, Father Sébastien Rale.
The following year a party of English colonists led by John Lovewell, out to collect scalps to redeem for bounties offered by the Province of Massachusetts Bay, came near an Abenaki village near present-day Fryeburg, Maine.
Two returning Abenaki war parties engaged the English, who withdrew after a 10-hour battle.
Due to this pressure, more Abenaki emigrated to the settlement on the St. Francis River. Because many of the Abenaki moved further north as white settlers settled around the seacoast and southern areas of New England, when they later attacked the English, they were considered raiders’ invading from Canada.
U.S. Abenaki Tribes Don’t Have Federal Recognition
Within the United States, the Abenaki are not, and never have been, federally recognized as a tribe. However, three component tribes in Maine: Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet, have this status.
In 2006, the state of Vermont officially recognized the Abenaki as a People, but not a Tribe.
The state noted that many Abenaki had been assimilated, and only small remnants remained on reservations during and after the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War).
Facing annihilation, the Abenaki began emigrating to Canada, then under French control, around 1669 where they were granted two seigneuries.
Seigneuries are a feudal land system that granted small plots of land.
A tribal council was organized in 1976 at Swanton, Vermont, as the Sokoki-St. Francis Band of the Abenaki Nation.
Vermont recognition of the council was granted that same year but was later withdrawn for unknown reasons. In 1982, they applied for US federal recognition, which is still pending.
Before contact the Abenaki (excluding the Pennacook and Micmac) may have numbered as many as 40,000 divided roughly between 20,000 eastern; 10,000 western; and 10,000 maritime.
Due to early contacts with European fishermen, at least two major epidemics hit the Abenaki during the 1500s: an unknown sickness sometime between 1564 and 1570; and typhus in 1586.
The major blow came in the decade just prior to English settlement of Massachusetts in 1620, when three separate epidemics swept across New England and the Canadian Maritimes.
Maine was hit very hard during 1617 (75% mortality), and the population of the eastern Abenaki fell to about 5,000. The western Abenaki were more isolated and suffered relatively less, losing perhaps half of their original population.
The new diseases continued to take their toll:
- Smallpox 1631, 1633, and 1639
- Unknown epidemic 1646
- Influenza 1647
- Smallpox 1649
- Diphtheria 1659
- Smallpox 1670
- Influenza 1675
- Smallpox 1677 and 1679
- Smallpox and measles 1687
- Smallpox 1691, 1729, 1733, 1755, and 1758.
The Abenaki population continued to decline, but after 1676 they absorbed thousands of refugees from southern New England displaced by settlement and the King Philip’s War.
As a result, descendents of almost every southern New England Algonquin (Pennacook, Narragansett, Pocumtuc, Nipmuc) can still be found among the Abenaki, especially the Sokoki (western Abenaki).
After another century of war and disease, there were less than 1,000 Abenaki remaining after the American Revolution. The population has currently recovered to almost 12,000 on both sides of the border.
Today there are 2,000 Abenaki Indians living on two reserves in Quebec, where they fled from British aggression in the 1600’s, and another 10,000 descendants scattered throughout New England.
The Penobscot have a reservation on Indian Island at Old Town, Maine and a tribal membership near 2,000.
The Passamaquoddy number about 2,500 on three Maine reservations, Pleasant Point, Peter Dana Point, and Indian Township, while the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians have close to 600.
There are also seven Maliseet bands in Canada (470 in Quebec and 2,000 in New Brunswick) for a total of 3,000.
Canada also has 400 Abenakis de Wolinak (Becancour) on a reserve near Trois-Rivieres, Quebec and almost 1,500 at Odanak (St. Francois) 30 miles to the southwest.
The other Abenaki are scattered among the general populations of Quebec, New Brunswick, and northern New England.
Currently there about 2,500 “Vermont Abenaki” in both Vermont and New Hampshire but concentrated in northwest Vermont near Lake Champlain.
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.
The Amaseconti Tribe (also known as Odanak, or St. Francis River Abenakis) was a small division or band of the Abenaki , formerly residing partly at Farmington Falls on the Sandy River in Franklin County, Maine, and partly near the present day town of New Sharon between the upper Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers in western Maine.
The Abenaki are one of the five members of the Wabanaki Confederacy.
The Amaseconti took part with the other Abnaki in the early Indian wars against the English and joined in the treaty made at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1713.
Some of them lingered in their old homes until about 1797, when the last family removed to St Francis, Quebec, Canada, where they retained their distinctive name until 1809.
Amaseconti means “abundance of small fish,” referring to the herring.
Eighty miles due north of Portland Maine is the valley of the Sandy River.
From its main sources, the two Sandy River Ponds just south of Saddleback Mountain, the river flows southeast to a low waterfall then turns to the northeast growing in size until it empties into the Kennebec River.
Before the area was settled, the river was thick with Atlantic salmon, alewives, shad, sturgeon and striped bass. These all swarmed far upstream to spawning grounds. The streams and forests were filled with beaver, otter, sable, ermine, moose and deer. Natural meadows in the valley were few and small. The native trees are several kinds of maple, beech, ash, elm, basswood, pine, hemlock, fir, spruce, cedar, with some oak in the highlands and black larch or “hackmetack” on the low lands.
The first people to settle in the area were an offshoot of the Abenaki people called the Amaseconti.
They established two villages along the banks of the river, one at the falls and another a few miles further downstream to the northeast.
They called the valley “Mussalunsquit,” which means “good hunting place.”
No one is sure when they settled there.
The Amaseconti cleared a large tract of land along the river from what is now Farmington Falls where the primary village was to the edge of New Sharon.
The Abenakis as a whole were a stable population.
Once settled they didn’t move around much. Some branches would migrate from lake or riverside into the hills for better shelter during the winter, but the Amaseconti had a prime location with both hills and a river.
Corn, beans, squash, and potatoes were among the crops they grew. The river also provided food and they netted or speared the salmon and alewives easily.
The Amaseconti hunted for meat and hides from non-migratory game like moose and deer with bow and arrow or used snares and traps for smaller game.
Trappers came through occasionally for the valuable fur animals in the area.
This hunting did not significantly lower the animal population.
The Amaseconti band used wild foods such as berries, nuts, mushrooms, maple syrup, and had a wide knowledge of medicinal plants.
The Amaseconti lived in wigwams.
These were not the conical tents covered with hides of the plains indians, but eight-foot high, dome-shaped dwellings that were capable of withstanding high winds and heavy snows.
The men were responsible for the framing of the wigwam. They cut down saplings ten to fifteen feet long, bent the longer ones into arches, then placed them around a 10 to 16 foot diameter circle or oval drawn on the ground.
The arches of the long saplings formed the basic structure and the shorter saplings wrapped the longer ones to provide support. The sides and roof were birchbark, elm bark, reed mats or a combination. Bed platforms were attached to the inner frame. These kept sleepers off the cold hard ground and provided additional storage space.
Larger wigwams or different shaped wigwams could accommodate larger families, or provide a meeting space.
The Amaseconti were a relatively small group led by a civil chief.
The civil chief advised and facilitated decisions of a council made up of representatives of all the families rather than imposing unilateral rule. A separate war chief led a council composed of all adult men and women to decide matters relating to the defense of the group.
By the mid 1700s the Abenakis had lost a much of their population to a series of plagues, one of which in 1617 had a mortality rate of 75%. There is no reason to think that the Amaseconti would not have suffered the same losses.
Alternate spellings: Amesokanti, or Anmissoukanti
The Cocheco Indians were a sub-tribe of Western Abenaki. They lived in an area known as Wecohamet. Today, we call it Dover, New Hampshire. Dover is the oldest permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, and the seventh oldest in the United States.
Dover once included the communities of Durham, Madbury, Newington and Lee. It also included Somersworth and Rollinsford, which together, the Abenaki Indians called Newichawannock after the Newichawannock River, now known as the Salmon Falls River.
Settlers felled the abundant trees to build log houses called garrisons. The European town’s population and business center would shift from Dover Point to Cochecho at the falls, where the river’s drop of 34 feet (10 m) provided water power for industry. Cochecho means “the rapid foaming water.”
At the end of King Philip’s War, a number of aboriginal natives fleeing from the Massachusetts Bay Colony militia took refuge with the Abenaki tribe living in Dover. The Massachusetts militia ordered Waldron to attack the natives and turn the refugee combatants over to them. Waldron believed he could capture the natives without a pitched battle and so on September 7, 1676 invited the natives—about 400 in total, half local and half refugees—to participate in a mock battle against the militia. It was a trick; after the natives had fired their guns, Waldron took them prisoner. He sent both the refugee combatants and those locals who violently objected to this forced breach of hospitality to Boston, where seven or eight were convicted of insurrection and executed. The rest were sold into slavery in “foreign parts”,mostly Barbados. The local Indians were released, but never forgave Waldron for the deception, which violated all the rules of honor and hospitality valued by the natives at that time. Richard Waldron would be appointed Chief Justice for New Hampshire in 1683.
Thirteen years passed and settlers believed the incident had been forgotten when King William’s War began and members of the newly formed Wabanaki Confederacy arrived. When citizens spoke their concern to Waldron, he told them to “go and plant your pumpkins, and he would take care of the Indians.” On June 27, 1689, two native women appeared at each of five garrison houses, asking permission to sleep by the fire. All but one house accepted. In the dark early hours of the next day, the women unfastened the doors allowing native men who had concealed themselves to enter the town. Waldron resisted but was stunned with a hatchet then placed on his table. After dining, the Indians cut him across the belly with knives, each saying “I cross out my account.” Five or six dwelling houses were burned, along with the mills.
Fifty-two colonists, a full quarter of the entire population, were captured or slain.
During Father Rale’s War, in August and September 1723, there were Indian raids on Saco, Maine and Dover, New Hampshire. The following year Dover was raided again and Elizabeth Hanson wrote her captivity narrative.