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The Pilgrim Fathers on the Kennebec

When the Pilgrim Fathers made up their minds to start on that wonderful voyage in the Mayflower, across the stormy ocean, in order that they might find in the wilderness "freedom to worship God," they had to borrow money for the journey.

All the things required for founding a colony in the new world meant quite a large sum, even though the Pilgrims were as economical as it was possible to be. After trying a long time they succeeded in finding some merchants in London who were willing to let them have what they needed on the condition that the Pilgrims for seven years should give the merchants a one-half share of all profits they might get in trade or by fishing or farming in the new country. So the Pilgrim Fathers and the London Merchants signed a partnership; a grant of land was obtained for the new colony from one of the great land companies which under the King controlled the western world; and in September, 1620, the Mayflower at last put to sea for her voyage across the Atlantic.

Everyone knows the sufferings of the little colony at Plymouth during that first cruel winter on the bleak New England shore. Far from being able to send any profits back to England in this spring of 1621, they had to borrow more money.
The Pilgrims did not all stay quietly in Ply-mouth, clearing their farms and raising their corn. They had brought over in the Mayflower a shallop, a small sail-boat such as would now be called a sloop. It had been stowed away in parts in the ship, and was put together by the ship's carpenter after they landed. Several years later, a ship carpenter, who had joined the colony, made them two good and strong shallops. In these the more venturous of the young men sailed up and down the coast, and worked up some trade with the Indians at different points.

One of these sailing trips was especially mentioned by Governor Bradford, in his history of the colony, because it led to important events.

It was in the fall of 1625, after their first abundant harvest, that half a dozen of the "old standards," as Governor Bradford calls them, loaded one of the two new shallops with corn for an expedition up the coast. They had laid a little deck over part of the boat to keep the corn dry, but the men had no shelter from any storms that might come. Edward Winslow, one of the finest of the Pilgrim men, afterwards Governor of the colony, was skipper.

Northward and eastward they sailed up along the shore, by Seguin Island, which had no light-house then, and across Merrymeeting Bay, and entered a fine large river, called Kennebec. They sailed by a large island upon which was an Indian village, the home of an Indian sachem. They kept on sailing up the river between hills heavily wooded with pine and fringed with birches at the water's edge and did not stop until they came to the head of the tide, where the swift river current met and overcame the movement from the ocean.

Here, just below the first rapids, they found an Indian village, and were received in a most friendly manner. They unloaded the corn from their shallop, and the Indians brought beaver skins and other furs from the wigwams and traded the pelts for the corn. When the shallop came again into Plymouth Harbor, she carried seven hundred pounds of beaver fur, which the Pilgrims were happy to send to England by the next ship that sailed.

The Pilgrims were now having a hard time with their creditors, the London Merchants, who heaped reproaches upon them for their delay in paying their debts. They were now sending to England by every returning boat what little they were able to procure, a few clapboards they had made, or some furs they had taken in trade, and every now and then one of their number would go to London to make explanations and excuses, and to borrow a little more money if he could to purchase things to carry home. The whole of their borrowings made a large amount for a handful of settlers in the wilderness, toiling hard to feed and clothe their growing families, to send over the sea in a few years. No wonder the thoughts of Edward Winslow and the rest of the "old standards" went often to the Indian village at the head of the tide on the Kennebec, and to the splendid furs that the Indian hunters brought down every year from the country up the river.

When Isaac Allerton went to England the second time, he obtained from the great land company which held all of New England, a grant or patent of the land upon which Plymouth Colony was settled, and also of a large tract of land lying on both sides of the Kennebec River, which the Pilgrims were anxious to control for the purpose of trading in furs with the Indians. The former patents had run to someone in England. This time the grant was made to William Bradford and a few men associated with him, as the responsible men of the colony. These men became, as it were, trustees for the colony until its debts should be paid. By agreement between themselves and the colony they were to control all its trade and to have the use of all boats until their trust was fulfilled.

So the Pilgrims of Plymouth became the owners of a large part of the Kennebec valley, the land upon which now stand some of the beautiful cities and villages of central Maine. What was much more important to them, they were able to control the valuable fur trade of the whole region, and to keep it from the fishing fleets which came every year from Europe to the mouth of the river. The patent in its final form was received in 1629, but a year before that the Plymouth men had built a trading-house, a sort of combination of fort and store-house, upon the east bank of the Kennebec, just below the first rapids, and close to the Indian village where they had traded on their earlier trip. The Indian name of the place was Koussinoc.

As they had no boat big enough to be used in the Kennebec trade, and as the ship carpenter who had built the two shallops was dead, the house carpenter of the colony did his best to meet the situation. He selected one of the biggest shallops, sawed it in the middle, lengthened it five or six feet, strengthened it with timbers, and laid a deck over it. The result was a serviceable vessel, which was used for seven years on the Maine coast and up the Kennebec.

The Indians who lived neighbor to the Pilgrim trading-post in their little village of about five hundred inhabitants are sometimes called the Kennebec and sometimes the Canibas Indians, and were part of the great Abenaki nation of western Maine. They were a gentle people, and were on friendly terms with their neighbors from Plymouth. They lived in wigwams made by planting poles in a circle, joining them in the center, and covering them with large sheets of bark. Their fire was in the middle, on the ground, and they had rush mats on the earth to sit or lie upon. They dressed in skins or in red or blue blanket garments, and wore deerskin moccasins. In the winter they wore snow-shoes, and could travel long distances over the level snow of the river.

In spring and summer they fished for shad, alewives and salmon, at the rapids, gathered berries in the woods, or went down to the mouth of the river to fish and trade. In fall and winter they traveled up river, and hunted the forest and trapped along the many streams that then, as now, bounded down from the hills to leap into the Kennebec.

Often they went as far as the great lake of the Moose, around whose shores they found beaver colonies in large numbers. When they returned to their village in the spring, they brought deer and moose skins, great black bear skins, fox skins, mar-tin and otter skins, but by far the most valuable and numerous were the beaver skins. All these they were glad to exchange with the Pilgrims at the trading-house for corn which had come from Plymouth; for while the Indians raised some corn in their little clearings, they were too devoted to their hunting to raise as much as they needed.

But the Pilgrims kept on hand various other articles for trade. Governor Bradford mentions that they had coats, shirts, rugs, blankets, biscuit, pease and prunes. They had also hatchets and knives and English beads. Some of these things they imported from England; but some they bought from the fishing ships on the coast, paying for them with corn or with beaver. Once they purchased one half of the stock of a trading store on Monhegan Island, including the cargo of a French ship that had been wrecked, in which, among other things, were some Biscay rugs. This lot of goods cost them £500.

But the Indians were most ready to sell their furs for wampum, which the Pilgrims were able to get from the Indians of southern New England, the Narragansetts and Pequots. This wampum consisted of white and purple beads made out of parts of shells clipped into small, round pieces, ground and polished, and then pierced so as to be strung. These beads were very ornamental, and were prized for necklaces and bracelets, and for the embroidery and fringe of belts. The chief value of wampum, however, came from the fact that it was used for currency by the Indians in trading with one another. The Pilgrims got hold of a large quantity of wampum, and offered it to the Kennebec Indians in payment for beaver. It was nearly two years before the northern Indians, to whom it was a novelty, were willing to receive wampum, but when they had once done so, they were eager to get all they could, and this convenient currency made them more prosperous.

It was natural that the young men of Plymouth should have charge of the trading-post. John Howland, the young man who was thrown overboard from the Mayflower in mid-ocean by a sail, and was saved by catching hold of the topsail halyards and being dragged back into the ship with a boat-hook, seems to have had the management of the post for a time. It must have been a hard experience for him to spend the long months of the winter at Koussinoc, alone, in those first years, or with just one or two companions, in order to have the first chance with the Indians when they brought the season's trophies down the river in the spring. We can imagine that they made their log camp as comfortable as possible, with a big fireplace at one end, made of stones from the bed of the river, a black bearskin in front of it, and the walls hung with furs' and bright blankets.

But when the soft, warm days of spring came and the ice went out of the Kennebec, John Howland's eyes must have turned often downstream, looking for the shallop from Plymouth with one of his friends at the helm. It might be John Alden, the handsome young cooper who married Priscilla and became one of the colony's leading men, or it might be Captain Standish, who didn't get Priscilla; for both these men came at different times to the trading-house at Koussinoc. Governor Winslow was also a frequent visitor, and I feel quite sure that Governor Bradford came there, as well as most of the younger men of the colony.

Nowhere else in New England was there such a profitable trade in furs as at Koussinoc. In five years the Pilgrims shipped to England 12,500 pounds of beaver, besides other furs. Beaver was so abundant that it came to be used as a sort of currency in Maine. People would say, such a thing is worth so many beaver skins, and payment would be made in them for work done or for goods purchased.

So the Pilgrims prospered on the Kennebec. They paid in full the debt of the colony to the Lon-don Merchants and all its other debts. After about a dozen years. Governor Bradford and his associates, like the honest men that they were, deeded the land occupied by the Plymouth colony and the Kennebec tract as well, to the freemen of New Plymouth. But the same men who had been managing the trading-post at Koussinoc kept on doing so, leasing the trading privilege from year to year. For more than thirty years trade was carried on by Plymouth men at Koussinoc on the Kennebec to the great profit of the colony. Then came hard times in the fur trade, the Indians learned something about the value of their furs, and that a handful of corn or a string of shell beads was not enough for them. Other traders competed with the Pilgrims, who finally got tired of carrying on at so great a distance from home a business that had become unprofitable. So, in 1661, the colony of New Plymouth sold its tract of Kennebec land to certain men of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This finishes the story of the Pilgrim Fathers on the Kennebec. The new owners did not carry on the trading-post and its buildings fell into decay. Indian wars arose, cruel and long; and for well-nigh a century the Kennebec valley was deserted by white men. The Indian village also was abandoned, and the forest grew over the ground where the Indian and the Pilgrim had lived as neighbors and traded with each other. For many years the spot was marked, as one looked upon it from the river, by the lower tree growth on the shore. Then, as the trees grew bigger and higher, the last trace of the Pilgrims vanished. Nothing was left to tell the story of how on these shores had walked the famous men of Plymouth, Winslow and Standish, Alden and Bradford, who here worked out the salvation and built up the prosperity of their colony. But I think the more ancient pines and birches, which remembered the older days, sometimes whispered to one another tales of the Indian village and the trading-house, and of Indian mothers crooning lullabies to their babies while the braves dickered in beaver and wampum with the white-faced strangers.

It came to pass after very nearly a hundred years, when the Indian wars were about over, that the descendants of the purchasers of the land on the Kennebec formed a company, and induced settlers to come up the river, and to clear farms and make homes upon its banks. A fort was built on the spot where the old Plymouth trading-house had stood, and in the course of years a beautiful village grew up at that place. The capital city of the State of Maine stands on land that the Pilgrim Fathers once owned, and covers the very ground where for so long a time they carried on a successful trade, and in that way saved from ruin their colony of New Plymouth.

Louise H. Coburn


Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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