Our Beloved KinI was excited to hear Lisa Brooks speak at the Maine Historical Society last night.  Lisa is the author of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, which is an amazing narrative.  She goes back to original documents and source material, combined with local Indigenous knowledge to reexamine the stories of the New England colonies and the Indigenous peoples during the later 1600s, particularly the unfolding of hostilities that came to be known as King Philip’s War.  I wrote about some of my first impressions in an earlier post.

In her talk, she focused on the parts of the book that were about Wabanaki territory, what we now know as Maine.  One of the things I especially noticed was the name of this place–greater Portland–before it was occupied by settlers–Cascoak.  The Fore River used to be called the Casco River.

I learned more about Skitterygusset, the sachem who first made an agreement for a settler to live near Capisic Brook and its uplands (where Margy and I now live).  Lisa talked about how after the deaths from disease that happened during first contact, many native people were building new alliances between regions, through marriage and family relationships.  Thus, Skitterygusset cannot be understood apart from his relationship to his sister, Warrabitta, who was the leader of Owaskoag (now Scarborough).  Women were often rulers, especially in places where planting fields were located, since women were responsible for the planting fields.  Owashkoag was a sweetgrass gathering place.  Their brother, Sagawetton, lived with his wife on the Saco River.

In settler narratives, when they talk about Indian raids, they write as if the hostilities were random acts of violence.  But Lisa talked about how the raids were focused on settlers who were upsetting the balance of communal subsistence living.  One example was the settlers who had built their houses at Amancongon, which was an important planting field on the Presumpscot River (now part of Westbrook).  Another target was to burn the mills, set up at falls on multiple rivers.  By the time of the “Indian wars” there were 50 saw mills that had been built: they cut and harvested the huge white pines of the forest, processing 1000 feet a day of pine board.  Destruction of the forests meant destruction of the game that was hunted.  The mills also prevented fish from migrating upriver, thus cutting off another important source of food.

I have to stop for now, but I was newly inspired in my quest to understand the history of this place.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough!


The Old White Pine

White pine familyContinuing my passion of learning about the mature trees in our yard, I found myself drawn to the biggest tree here–a white pine near the southwest corner of our land.  It is among several smaller pines that extend into the undeveloped land near our yard.  I found a resource that helps estimate the age of a tree.  It goes like this:  measure the circumference of the tree at about chest height (54 inches).  Divide by 3.14 (pi) to get the diameter of the trunk.  Multiply that number by the “growth factor” of the tree, which can be found on a chart.  In the case of white pine, the growth factor is five.

So today, I measured its girth as about 102″, which gives a diameter of about 32.5″.  Multiplied by five, the estimate of the tree’s age is 162 years old.  That means it might have begun its life around the year 1856.  I was intrigued by what might have been going on during that time, and discovered some interesting historical facts about our land.  At that time, we were part of Saccarappa–in 1871 Saccarappa divided into Westbrook and Deering, and we were likely part of Deering after that, before Deering was incorporated into Portland.  In 1855, the Evergreen Cemetery was established, just several blocks around the corner from us. In 1854, S.D. Warren bought the mill in Westbrook at Amancongan, which had in ancient days been a Native farm site.

I followed my questions down the internet wormhole, and made some other discoveries. This land first came into the record of English settlers when the sagamore (leader) Skitterygussett signed a deed with the fisherman Francis Small in 1657.  In many historical accounts, they claim Small bought the land “from the marshes and uplands of Capissic” to the fishing falls at Amancongan on the south side of the Presumpscot River. But my new favorite book by Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin, actually talks about this very deed on page 21.

She says that Small pledged an annual “pay” of “one trading coat,” which was a symbolic recognition of Skitterygusset’s leadership, and “one gallon of liquor.”

The exchange of wampum and tobacco, as Small later testified, in this and subsequent agreements, sealed a pledge to share space, creating a negotiated relationship as much as an economic transaction.  He later sold the rights to part of this tract, including a mill privilege at Capissic, to John Phillips, who transferred it to his son-in-law George Munjoy, both of whom had come to Casco from Boston.

Brooks explores the significance of this and other deeds from the perspective of the Indigenous people who contracted them.  In reference to a similar deed, she says:

…these leaders of Cascoak were entrusted with diplomacy. Thus, part of their role  was to create responsible relationships with the newcomers.  With [these agreements], they gave [particular families] permission to live [on these lands,] but negotiated some of the terms of sharing space and required “acknowledgement” of their continuing relationship to and leadership in this place.  As Alice Nash has observed, such “deeds should be read more like proto-treaties” or councils in which rights, land use, and jurisdiction were negotiated, rather “than as simple property transactions.”

While I was looking at a modern day map to place these descriptions, I noticed that the public housing development in our neighborhood is called Sagamore Village–most likely in a (perhaps misguided) recognition of the sagamore who negotiated that first deed about this land.

There were many more complications after that first deed–all of the settlers were gone from the area during 1690 to 1730, because of conflicts with the Indigenous inhabitants.  Later, when people came back or new settlers came, they had disputes on who actually “owned” the land, the heirs of the first deed makers, or the new settlers.  But that is a different story than today’s.

The white pine tree inspired me to explore the history it may have seen, and I found myself drawn much deeper.  I wonder now, was this pine descended from earlier pines that were cut down to send posts for ship’s masts to England?  How many other stories might be hidden in its branches and roots?