Section 6 – The Persistence of the Penobscot


The elimination of the presence of the Penobscot and other Wabanaki peoples and their place names from colonial era and subsequent maps of Maine does not mean that they themselves disappeared. In fact, Maine’s native peoples continue to live throughout the region, although their traditional ways of life have long been challenged by loss of their territories, game laws, and the damming of rivers (which prevented fish from spawning), as well as ongoing challenges to their sovereignty. For a long time, to support their families and communities, many residents had to leave their reservations on Indian Island (Penobscot) and on Pleasant Point and in Indian Township (Passamaquoddy), to participate in a variety of seasonal labor: picking potatoes and raking blueberries; guiding tourists on hunting and fishing trips; and selling intricately woven baskets and other traditional handicrafts to tourists from Lubec and Bar Harbor to Mt. Kineo and Poland Spring. The international border was not a barrier to movement between family groups and work in Maine and New Brunswick.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the persistence of the Penobscot and their continuing engagement with the landscape of Maine is the manner in which they have preserved names for places across the state. This preservation has largely been through communal practice, in which placenames are embedded in many kinds of speech that give them depth and nuance, from everyday conversation to traditional stories to oral maps.

Ethnographers have generally isolated placenames as contextless nuggets. Even so, one collector of Penobscot placenames, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, was able to preserve an oral map of the lower Penobscot River that had been recorded by Penobscot Nation elder, Joseph Nicolar [item 36]. Nicolar wrote much about the daily life of the Wabanaki; his 1893 book, The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, largely lost when the small print run was consumed in a fire, is now available in a 2007 edition. Nicolar recorded the oral map as one of a number of columns about Penobscot life he wrote in the 1870s for the Old Town Herald, one of several short-lived local newspapers that remain quite obscure. (Eckstorm found the unique copy of the column “in a scrap book found in rubbish abandoned in an old house.”) Nicolar’s oral map, hung in front of the center wall case, explains not only the meaning of placenames but gives each a context to assist in memorization.

Of particular note is Nicolar’s description of Fort Point as a place that Penobscot visited to record their presence, the size of their party, and direction of travel so as to let others know where they were. Wabanaki also recorded directions and routes on birch bark maps called wikhikonol; each wikhikon might be carried or left in a safe spot as a guide for other travelers.

Communal lore is a longer lasting means of communication than either birch bark or modern newsprint. Recently, the Penobscot Nation undertook a communal mapping project to map Maine according to Penobscot names. The resultant map—Iyoka Eli-Wihtamakw Kδtahkinawal, “This is how we name our lands” [37, 38]—and related linguistic materials establishes the foundation for an ongoing project to revitalize the Penobscot language, and to restore traditional place names on maps of the land we now call Maine.

Young Sabbatis [pseud. Joseph Nicolar] “The Scribe of the Penobscots Sends Us His Weekly Message: Some of the Names that the Indian Has Bestowed—Quaint and Old—Our Indian Correspondent Continues the Legends of His Race,” Old Town Herald (ca. 1887), taken from the reprint in Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, Indian Place-Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast (Orono: University of Maine Press, 1941), 239–41.

Note: for clarity, the Penobscot names have been italicized and their English equivalents placed in quotation marks

Some of the Names that the Indian has Bestowed–Quaint and Old–Our Indian Correspondent Continues the Legends of his Race.

Formerly members of our tribe on their annual trip to salt water for the purpose of fishing, etc., gave names to a number of places alone the bay and river, which may prove of some interest to many persons living in those places.

Commencing at Coo-cook-har-want-buk, “Owl’s Head,” we will ascend the west side of the river to our village. The name “Owl’s Head” or the Indian name meaning the same, was applied to that promontory, now so well known to all entering Rockland harbor from the south and was so called from its resemblance to the neck and head of an owl when viewed from the north side. About two and a half miles north of this place is Ca-tar-gwan-tic, “Grand Landing,” now known as the city of Rockland. This was always used as a landing place for those who were going south. Canoes were generally taken out and carried across, that the “Boisterous White Head” might be avoided, for the way around White Head was considered dangerous, also by carrying across into George’s River two miles, a trip of fifteen miles was saved.

Matar-kar-mi-co-suk, “High Land,” was the name given to Camden on account of its mountains. Lincolnville was called Mar-kurn-ta-quick, “Water ready for waves.” The old Indians assert that the little bay is full of waves from whatever quarter the wind blows.

Pa-qua-tan-ee, “out of the way,” was applied to the spot where Belfast City is now located. The place was considered out of the regular course of travels. Sears Island, on account of a little sandy beach which can be seen from far away in the southern direction, was called Warsumkeag, “Bright sand.”

Now we come to the celebrated Ar-quar-har-see-dek, “Stepping Ashore,” now known as old Fort Point, where hundreds of pleasure seekers during the summer months enjoy the cool sea breeze, but in the olden times when member of the tribe visited here, they only stopped long enough to make the sign of their visit, showing which direction they were going, the number of their party and canoes, etc. On account of its being a marking place no one was ever allowed to mar or deface its outline by using it for a camping ground.

The reason for selecting this for a marking place, was because of it being the last prominent point, from entering the river from the bay, or going out into the bay from the river, and coming or going from the eastern or western shore all stopped here and made their marks. All the families of our tribe were known by a mark. Some were represented by animals, fish and reptiles, and others by well-known implements, the moon, sun, etc. Each mark showed the number in the family and the direction taken.

Asick, “Clam-bed,” is situated a little west of Fort Point now known as Stockton and was always noted for being the first place where good clams could be found on going down river.

Verona Island was known by the name of Ar-lur-meh-sic, “spawning island.” The small river that flows into the Granite Quarries between Prospect and Frankfort, Que-que-mis-we-to-cook, “Duck River.”

Our next stopping place was War-li-ne-tuk, “Cove Brook,” on the east side of the river north of Winterport. Then we crossed to the west side, landing at Et-ta-li-tek-quan-ki-lur-nuk, meaning “a place where everybody runs up.” Here we have a sort of high bluff, slightly sloping, produced by land slides. A cove is located on the one side, and at the base of the bluff there was a fine pebbly beach. This was always a noted sporting place and here they left the cramped position made necessary by the canoe of those times, and exercised by running up the steep sandy side of this bluff. It was always considered a great feat to run up to the top of this sandy-sided bluff without stopping, as the sand gave way under the feet, and the steepness of the incline taxed the wind-powers of the runner to the fullest extent. This was also a popular sporting place for all who wished to test their strength as well as a general race ground. And often large parties chose sides at Kur-des-keag, put up a large amount of wampum and other valuables to be contended for as a wager, and started very early in the day that a large amount of time might be given to sports and that the superiority of the different factions might be decided. Thus a great amount of wampum and valuables here changed hands.

The name Toul-bunt-bus-suk, “Turtle Head,” was applied to what is now known as “High Head.” Hampden River was called on account of a “slanting ledge” Su-war-tep-skark. Then we stopped at Kur-des-keag, “Eel River” upon which at its junction with the Penobscot river is now located the City of Bangor. The river now retains the old Indian name somewhat Anglicized into Kenduskeag.

Up the river a short distance, at what is now known as the Red Bridge, was the “Devil’s Track,” Majah-hundo-pa-mumptunque. Also here the Hathorn Brook was called Pem-jedge-wock, “Current raggedly dropping down.”

But returning to the Penobscot, at the water works, where so many beautiful salmon are taken every year by the sportsman, the So-ba-quarps-cook, “Sea-rock” was applied, and farther up, near Veazie we have Wee-quer-gar-wa-suk, “Head of the tide.” “Steep Hill,” Ar-quer-kek was applied to Veazie, and what is now known as Basin Mill, was called A-ne-quer-sar-sa-suk, “Ant heap.”

Mur-lur-mes-so-kur-gar-nuk, “Alewive catching on the way,” is now known as Stillwater Falls, and just above we have Mar-tarmes-con-tus-sook, “At the young shad catching,” and the next rips were called War-sar-sump-qua-ha-moke, “Slippery ledge rips,” and further on, at the bend of the river just before reaching the Greatworks is Bet-cum-ka-sick, “Round bend shoal.” The come Wag-ge-we-sus-sick, “Bad gall,” now known as Greatworks. An old Indian once killed a sturgeon here, and finding a very large gall in the fish thought he must be bad.

Just before reaching Oldtown is Tar-la-lar-goo-des-suk, “a place of painting,” now known as “Shad Rips.” Here the women were allowed to stop and paint themselves before entering the village.

Now we arrive at On-ne-gar-nuck, “At the carry,” on the Oldtown side; here it was always necessary to take canoes out and carry by what is known as Oldtown fall before paddling across to their village.

As there were but few stopping places on the east side of the river we will briefly mention them. Returning to the bay we have See-bur-es-suk, “At the sea thoroughfare,” now known as Vinalhaven; the Cas-cu-nar-cook, “Crane Island,” now known as Mark Island, opposite Camden, and Pit-tow-be-gook, “Inland sea island,” now call Long Island. Last, but not least was Margi-bee-guar-do-suk, which the white man calls Castine. If we have not tired the readers of the HERALD this week with Indian names, we will give a few more in the course of two or three weeks. Next week we hope to interest them in a few more of our amusements.

Y. S.

Penobscot Nation, Iyoka Eli-Wihtamakw Kətahkinawal (Indian Island, Me.: Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, 2015).

Offset color lithograph, 145 × 101 cm
OML Collections

Penobscot Nation, This Is How We Name Our Lands (Indian Island, Me.: Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, 2015).

Offset color lithograph, 145 × 101 cm
OML Collections