The Beave of Mawooshen
The planters heare aboutes, if they will have any beaver, must go 40 or 50
myles into the country, with their packes on their backes.
—an English settler on the coast of Maine, June 1634
Seventy miles from the Atlantic, in the central lowlands of Maine, if you head west along Route 2 and cross the Sandy River you will see a line of mountains far away upon your right. Built of slate, they rise to more than three thousand feet. They reach their finest color on a winter’s day, when the air is sharp and cold and the sunlight turns their eastern slopes from gray to blue. Above the modern town of Farmington, they form the outlying ramparts of a dark massif.
Here the influence of the ocean ends, and the American interior begins. Behind the blue ridge, the high ground extends for sixty miles, as far as the frontier with Canada. Between hills black and shaggy with spruce but dusted white with snow, the road ascends an esker, a ribbon of gravel, dropped into place by a glacier fourteen thousand years ago.
The esker makes a platform for Highway 27. Along the road, you climb until you reach a narrow pass and a chain of lakes. Beyond them lies a gloomy wetland, called Hathan Bog, where in the dusk moose wander from the swamp across the asphalt. Then, a little farther on, the highway arrives at a plateau, and a liquor store, and a customs post, at a hidden place named Coburn Gore, where day and night the Frenchmen thump back over the border in their logging trucks. Like the valleys of West Virginia, the pass supplies an aperture, an entry into the land beyond the mountains, at the northern end of the Appalachian barrier.
At places such as this, the west begins: but where did America start for new settlers arriving from England in the 1620s or the 1630s? Maybe they saw it first from ten miles out on the ocean, with a glimpse of sandy cliffs along the eastern rim of Cape Cod, or at forty miles, if their first sighting was Cadillac Mountain, above Bar Harbor, visible to any ship bound in from Newfoundland. Or did the New World really begin later? Did its strangeness dawn upon them when they saw ice jamming a river mouth as late as April, or a belt of white wampum beads, or a field of maize, or a man in deerskin breeches, with a shaved head and a torso painted purple? The point at which the alien was glimpsed for what it was, alarming, uncanny, or sublime, might occur at any of these moments, or at none of them. Half of the early migrants simply faded and died.
There was another point when America began. The moment took place when new settlers crossed a different kind of boundary, when for the first time they could be certain that their colony was going to endure. So far as the Mayflower Pilgrims were concerned, this moment occurred in the territory in Maine that lay below Coburn Gore, in the year 1628. Eight years earlier, they had landed at Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the extremity of Cape Cod. Soon afterward they founded their settlement across the bay at New Plymouth. That was another beginning, but it was tenuous and frail. It took far longer for the Plymouth enterprise to make itself permanent, and to open the way for the foundation of Boston to the north, by colonists in far larger numbers.
Fraught with risk, the Mayflower project endured a long period of trial, experiment, and error. Deeply in debt to their backers in London, and chronically short of supplies to keep their feet shod, their muskets loaded, and their small boats afloat, they needed a commodity to send back to England to be swapped for silver coins or used to redeem their IOUs. They eventually found it, in the quantities they needed, up here in Maine. They bought it from the people who lived in the country below the watershed between what we now call Quebec and the United States. This was where the moment of maturity occurred: the place where they passed
across an emotional frontier, the line that separates insecure ambition from likely success.
There was only one way in which the Pilgrims could find the money to pay their debts and finance new supplies from home. They needed the fur of Castor canadensis, the North American beaver. No other colonial product fetched so high a price, in Paris, in London, or in Holland. What made the skins so precious? That will be the subject of a later chapter. All we need know for the time being is that during the 1620s the price of a beaver pelt increased fourfold, to reach a peak of nearly forty shillings. That was enough to rent nine acres of English farmland for a year.
Until they had pelts, the colony at New Plymouth remained a fragile outpost, a tiny corn- growing settlement wedged between the forest and the sea. For it to become something more, the seed or nucleus for a much larger inflow of the English, they had to find beaver skins, and in Maine the valleys and the high ground supplied a vast habitat for the mammal.
As many as fifty beavers may have lived in each square mile, or even more densely in places such as Hathan Bog. Alongside the esker, on every stream beavers built their dams and lodges. Today the animals have left a chain of beaver meadows, dried- up ponds, strung out along the side of Highway 27. Take the surface area of Franklin County, Maine, around and beneath the bog and the highway, and multiply it by fifty. You come to an estimate of ninety thousand of the creatures in that one county alone.
Why did the beavers of Maine become the target of exploitation, and not those of another region? The Pilgrims might have gone elsewhere, and sometimes did. Beavers will live in any setting with the trees they like to gnaw, the quaking aspen or the willow, and streams that flow down gradients a few degrees above the level. As for the date, why did it take so long for the Pilgrims to begin to penetrate the deep interior? Because it was only in 1628, and in Maine, that chance and circumstance combined to make it feasible. Access, demand for the skins, the legal right to settle, the technology of transport, the command of language, a supply of trading goods, and the presence of people able and willing to hunt: these were essential too.
As we shall see, the very early history of New England contains many hidden, forgotten corners, niches quite as remote as Coburn Gore. Most often, these spots of vagueness or omission arise because, in the British Isles, the evidence lies neglected, scattered in odd places in dozens of archive collections.
They contain a wealth of overlooked material about the origins of the Mayflower project and its place in the wider history of England under King James and his son the future Charles I. For the most part, British scholars have either left these very early sources untouched or failed to see their significance. They have done what the Pilgrims did not do, and left America to the Americans. This is why so much of the Pilgrim narrative remains in shadowy monochrome, like a photograph in sepia or a silent film, deprived
of color, light, and sound.
Among the gaps in the story, one of the most serious concerns the trade in beaver pelts, shipped back in their thousands by way of the ports of Barnstaple, Bristol, and Plymouth in the west of England. That is why we start in Franklin County. We might begin by imagining its character, not by way of fantasy, but with the aid of available resources, scientific and archaeological, and verbal too. To help us, we might imitate the native people of the region. We might invoke the spirit of a bird to function as an
Today more than four hundred pairs of bald eagles breed in the state of Maine. When Charles I sat on the throne, doubtless their numbers were far greater. What might she have seen, an eagle, if in the spring of 1628 she swung her head around through three- quarters of a circle and scanned the country below Coburn Gore? She saw the land of Mawooshen. That was the name given then to the region: mountain, river, valley, plain, and coast, and among them the Eastern Abenaki, who lived between the blue ridge and the ocean.
The Bald Eagle’s Nest
From her zenith, at four thousand feet, she sees the Sandy River bending back and forth. Fed by streams cascading down off the massif, the river swings around and doubles back but never ceases to drop toward the sea. Beyond its broad, flat valley, to the south the ground rolls out to form a plain covered by birch woods and pine, with strewn on the earth beneath them hundreds of pale gray boulders. They were abandoned, like elliptical cannonballs, by the same retreating glaciers that formed the esker.
As the ice melted and the Atlantic rose, the sea reached this far inland, laying down thick beds of silt and sand. Even now, the ocean is far closer than it seems. In the seventeenth century, long before men dammed the rivers of Maine, salmon swam all the way up from the sea to Farmington to spawn.
If our eagle of 1628 leaves her nest at the top of a tall white pine, and goes looking for game along the valley, she comes to a spot where the Sandy meets another river, deeper and wider. Before it begins its own final descent toward the sea, it flows in a sequence of long, quiet reaches between sets of falls and rapids. Each one marks a geological division, ten or fifteen miles apart, where the river suddenly alters course. For this reason, the river bears the name Kennebec. In the native language of the country the word gwena means “long,” while the syllable bague refers to a placid
stretch of water.
Hovering above the Kennebec, the eagle probes with her eyes for a leaping fish or a squirrel breaking cover. When she finds one, she swoops down at the spot where the Sandy River meanders in from the west, near the site of the modern town of Madison. Beneath a bluff, the water forms a calm, deep pool, tinted in spring by a drifting haze of pollen from the pines. As she skims the amber surface and then swings back up into the sky with a fish in her talons, she flies over a place where the woods have been cleared, to make a wide, flat open space on a terrace thirty feet above the river.
As she climbs, the eagle pays little heed to the village of Naragooc, or the human beings stooping down to collect Maine fiddleheads, edible wild ferns gathered at this season. She ignores the circular huts along the bluff, the wooden longhouse, or the people moving to and fro between cooking fires, storage pits, and the fields of maize that loosely encircle the settlement.
Instead, she rises steeply again. From her highest altitude, she can see as far as eighty miles. With the dense packing of nerve cells in her retina, she can pick out objects three or four times smaller than those detected by a human eye.
Far to the north, she sees the mountain escarpment and the dark smudge marking the site of Hathan Bog. Bare summits and icy mountain streams offer little by way of food, and so she turns toward the south. On the way to the sea, the landscape becomes a mottled rug, made up of ridges of gravel between elongated lakes. They point toward the site of the modern city of Augusta, forty miles away, with the Atlantic visible far beyond it as a distant rim of silver.
This was Mawooshen. Even the English called the country by that name. They did so in a document compiled in about 1607,most likely as a briefing paper for a failed attempt to found a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec, at Fort St. George.The word apparently referred to a confederacy of some thirteen towns and villages of the Eastern Abenaki, scattered across the zone between the Sandy River and Cadillac Mountain.
Among them, the deepest inland was Naragooc, located at the junction of the Sandy and the Kennebec. Today its name survives on a modern map in the altered form of Norridgewock. When the English manuscript was written, Naragooc provided a home to as many as four or five hundred people, led by a Zegeme, or sachem, a chief by the name of Cocockohamas. His clan occupied a spot where the earth was unusually good. A fine olive brown tilth called Hadley loam, it formed a narrow carpet along both banks of the river, like the rich soil of exactly the same kind along the Connecticut valley, coveted by later English settlers.
At Naragooc, the Abenaki lived at the northernmost point where at the time the climate permitted the cultivation of maize. They also sat on the perimeter between the northern hardwoods, spruce, and fir and the softer oaks and pines of southern New England. Accessible by water, Naragooc was poised between corn country and the hunting spaces of the north. And so in spring, when our imaginary eagle saw the village, the people who lived there would be skinning hundreds of dead beavers. Late winterwas the time to catch them, with a spear driven through the melting ice, when the animals were most hungry and least cautious and their pelts were thickest.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the trade in beaver fur had come to lie at the heart of the life of the Abenaki. At Naragooc the evidence is plain, and it takes two forms, material and linguistic. In the 1990s, when archaeologists explored the village sites beside the Kennebec, they found scores of beaver bones, from the animal’s jawbone, skull, and legs. But the beaver left a still deeper mark on the language that the people spoke.
It survives in the form of a lexicon compiled more than three hundred years ago by a French Catholic missionary, Father Sebastian Râle. He listed more than thirty nouns, verbs, and phrases used by the people of Naragooc to describe the animal, its skin, its behavior, and the manner in which they pursued it. They called the beaver temakwe, meaning “tree cutter.” They gave different names to male and female adults, and they called a young beaver a temakwesis. They had separate words for beavers as they appeared in winter and as they were in warmer weather when their pelts had thinned. Then they were known as nepenemeskwe, from nipen, meaning “summer.”
The people of Naragooc called the skin of a beaver matarreh, and they added extra syllables to grade the pelts into categories of size and quality. The beaver’s kidneys, rognons de castor, had their own Abenaki word—awisenank—and this suggests that once skinned, the beaver was cooked and eaten: an English visitor to Maine in the 1620s compared the taste to roast lamb. Father Râle recorded phrases referring to the beaver’s motion, as its tail beats the surface of a pond, as it lifts its head from the water, or as it dives back to hide. At home, the English hunted otters with packs of webfooted hounds. Râle tells us that the Abenaki did something similar: they pursued the beaver with a chien à castor, a “beaver dog,” or in their language a temakwekkwe.
They inhabited a place ideal for the purpose. From the highland plateau, three river systems descend to the north, south, and east: the Kennebec, the St. John, and the Chaudière, the Canadian river that drains away from the far side of Coburn Gore and down into the St. Lawrence. If the sheer quantity of mammals was the first great attraction of the region, the second lay in the ease of entry and exit along these great waterways. To the Eastern Abenaki, the chain of ponds and lakes around Hathan Bog were the high road that led from Mawooshen to Quebec and back.
After the British seized control of Canada in 1759, they sent a military engineer called John Montresor to find the path, as a means to move men and guns from Quebec to Boston and back. He found the bog and the beaver dams, but Colonel Montresor remembered how reluctant the people of Mawooshen were to disclose the secret of the forest highway.
The Abenaki, he said, were “the natural proprietors of the country . . . No nation having been more jealous of their country than the Abenaquis, they have made it a constant rule to leave the fewest vestiges of their route.” In the early days of New England, long before Montresor, no European had trod the path at all. The first were Râle’s forerunners, French Jesuits, in the 1640s, coming over the watershed southward. This was a journey a skilled Abenaki could accomplish in a week or so, if the weather were benign.
With a birch-bark canoe, eighteen feet long, fit to carry two men and one thousand pounds of cargo, the Abenaki could pole and paddle along streams as little as five inches deep. But to make canoes like these, they needed sheets of bark from birch trees at least four feet in circumference. In the seventeenth century, paper birch of such a size grew rarely in southern New England, but the trees existed in plenty in Maine. For this reason, the birch-bark canoe was chiefly a tool of the people of Mawooshen and
the country that lay behind it.
With their canoes, they could travel for hundreds of miles, from the headwaters of the Connecticut River in the west to Nova Scotia in the east. Up on the plateau, the belt of land around Coburn Gore could be crossed on foot. Down in the lowlands, the pattern of lakes and low ridges left behind by the ice sheets created natural canoe trails, by way of short overland carries between the waterways. By this means, the Abenaki could make detours around obstacles in the Kennebec, cross from it to another river, the Androscoggin, and reach the mountains of northern New Hampshire. In the other direction, going east from Naragooc by way of the Sebasticook, they could enter the vast basin of the Penobscot and the St. John. In turn, those rivers led them across the modern border into what is now the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
If there were boundaries to movement, they arose only from hostile opponents. In 1626, on the Hudson River, the Mohawk killed and ate seven Dutch fur traders, and two years later they ejected from the same region their foes the Mohican. So, for the people of Naragooc, the Mohawk and their fellow Iroquois fixed the limit of commerce to the west.
To the east, the St. John marked a frontier with the Micmac, known then as the Tarrentines, long the enemies of the Abenaki. They were sea-going raiders and middlemen, passing up and down the coast between the French in Canada and the people of Massachusetts to the south. Even so, between these limits there remained forty thousand square miles of uncontested country. And that was why, in the spring of 1628, our bald eagle saw the English up the Kennebec
A graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, with a master’s degree from Columbia University, Nick Bunker has had a diverse career in finance and journalism. A former investment banker and reporter for the Financial Times, he now lives with his wife, Susan, in Lincolnshire, England.