We are pleased to share an excerpt from Wells historian Joseph Hardy’s most recent book: "Mills on the Mousam: A History of the Mousam River in Alfred, Sanford, Shapleigh, Springvale, & Wells/Kennebunk"
Every history needs a starting point, and for this history of the Mousam River it is the first decade of the 17th century, only a few years removed from England’s defeat of a Spanish armada in 1588. Building upon the confidence stemming from that victory, merchants and nobility joined forces through the creation of stock companies to finance explorations of North America. Some were designed to search for the Northwest Passage to China, others to explore the possibilities for gold and riches, and still others to seek out sites for new colonies.
Most of the explorers and sea captains dispatched by these companies sailed a long way to get to the New England coast. They voyaged along the French and Spanish coasts before heading across the Atlantic to the West Indies. This roundabout route allowed them to take advantage of the prevailing winds, much in the fashion of Columbus a century earlier. The great majority of them set sail in the early spring, arriving here in the summer, when the vegetation was fresh and green. As a consequence, their written reports proved to be misleading for later settlers, who would underestimate the harshness of our winters.
Bartholomew Gosnold, a young mariner from Suffolk, stood in stark contrast to the others by sailing directly west from England, in 1602, at a latitude of 43 degrees, braving the North Atlantic waves and weather in his small ship. During this brief expedition he explored much of the New England coast. Encountering the natives of Southern Maine, with their partially naked and painted bodies, he referred to them as savages. More important to him, it seems, was his return cargo of sassafras and furs, encouraging signs that English colonization could one day be profitable.
Martin Pring visited the following year, arriving on June 7 near Penobscot, then sailing as far south as the Piscataqua River. Along the way, he maneuvered his ship a short distance up the Kennebunk River and though he encountered no native people, he did find evidence of their fires. Samuel Champlain, a French mariner, was here in 1604, and was responsible for an accompanying map that depicts the maize fields of the local inhabitants. He also remarked how much shore land was cleared of underbrush. George Weymouth arrived on our coast from England in 1605 and was either the best or the worst of the lot, depending on one’s point of view. He captured five natives and carried them back to England, for “study and information.” At least he evidenced some curiosity about the local inhabitants. Given ample time for observation, Weymouth described them as “very comely, with good features….slender, limbs cleanly, straight….plump as a partridge, of a modest deportment….black eyes and very white teeth….sweet, pleasant faces….few or none cross eyed, blind, lame, or hunchbacked, most were well formed and without blemish….no male was bearded beyond a few hairs….dark olive in complexion…bronze or tawny…an average height of five feet ten inches….with an erect carriage and an ability to bear great burdens without stooping….”
In retrospect, we know that the Native Americans inhabiting the Mousam River Watershed in 1600 were the end of an ancestral line that stretched back roughly 15,000 years to the last ice age, when newly transplanted Asians began their slow, inexorable migrations eastward and southward from this side of the Bering Strait land bridge. These earliest arrivals have been called Paleo-Indians, from the Greek word for “old,” and during the course of the next few thousand years they evolved into subgroups, on two continents, defined by specific cultures and lifestyles. Some made their way slowly southward and their descendants eventually inhabited Central and South America. Those who moved eastward found abundant game and other amenities in the river valleys of the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Ohio. By the time of Columbus, there were great concentrations of people in those areas and lesser populations further east and in the less hospitable regions of the sub-Arctic. They were the original or true settlers of North and South America, and have a right to be called “Native Americans.”
It has been estimated that, as of 1600, between 70,000 and 150,000 Native Americans were present in what is now New England; the region we identify as Maine may have hosted five to ten thousand inhabitants, though estimates vary greatly. The majority spoke a language that was derived from the same source and is considered to have been “Algonquin.” Large groups of people — nations — had distinct histories and areas of congregation, and we have come know them by such names as Abenaki, Pequot, Narragansett, and Micmac. As Neil Rolde has emphasized in his book about Maine Indians, however, we don’t really know what these people called themselves. Nevertheless, whatever their true names, the larger nations had smaller subdivisions. The Abenakis, or “Dawnlanders,” for example, have been divided into western and eastern groups, with the latter occupying much of eastern and central Maine, and the former much of New Hampshire and Vermont. The Western Abenaki people of the Mousam Watershed may have included the Pennacooks from Southern New Hampshire, the Sacos who inhabited the Saco River valley just to the northeast of the Mousam, and the Piqwackets from the Ossipee region of Southern Maine.
If historians are hesitant to attribute tribal affiliations to these earliest Americans, they do have a better grasp of where they lived, based partly on archaeological evidence, and partly on the writings of ship captains and other visitors who chronicled what they observed. In general terms, the Indians clustered around the estuaries at the river mouths, and at specific locations up the river valleys; these were locations which provided access to an abundance of food and plant resources. In Wells (which until 1820 included Kennebunk), they could be found on the uplands above the Webhannet and Little River Estuaries where there was later evidence of abandoned corn fields and clearings. Similarly, they were at the mouth of the Saco River below the falls. Bartholomew Gosnold recorded that what is today’s Kennebunk Beach was the summer home of the Webhannet tribe of the Abenakis. Edward Bourne and Daniel Remich, in their respective histories of Wells and Kennebunk, tell us that the local sagamore (chief) and others of his village lived on Great Hill at the mouth of the Mousam.
The Historical Society will collaborate with Wells Public Library on a very special author reading and book signing event in the Library’s Community Room, to be held at noon on Friday, February 21. Andrea Kazilionis, Adult Services Librarian, has shared with us how Joe’s books are among the library’s top-circulating local history materials. She said, “Wells Library is pleased to have the opportunity to host local historian and author Joseph Hardy to showcase his newest work of local history.” For more information, email email@example.com or call 207-646-8181 ext. 205