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Sebastian Rale

Long ago, when the Abenaki roamed the forests of Maine, there occurred in the Indian village of Narrantsouk or Norridgewock, events so tragic that poet and historian alike have told the tale for future generations. The village, seventy-five miles from the mouth of the Kennebec, was for the time and the race, rather pretentious. It consisted of a square enclosure, 160 feet on each side, walled in by a palisade of stout logs, nine feet in height. In the middle of each side was a gate, and the two streets connecting these gates met in an open square in the centre. Within this enclosure, on either side of the two streets, were twenty-six wigwams, really huts, built of round, hewn logs, "after the English manner." Outside, only a few yards away, stood the chapel. It was of hewn timber, surmounted by a cross. The bell of that ancient church is still in existence, in the rooms of the Maine Historical Society, Portland. Within, the rough chapel walls were hung with pictures, among them the Crucifixion. The communion service was of silver plate. We ask why so much of order and even of beauty should be found in an Indian village in the forests of Maine. But for thirty-four years, these Indians had been taught by Father Sebastian Rale, a Jesuit priest. Whittier describes the scene most effectively.

"On the brow of a hill which slopes to meet
The flowing river and bathe its feet.
The bare-washed and drooping grass
And the creeping vine, as the waters pass,
A rude, unshapely chapel stands.
Built up in that wild by unskillful hands;
Yet the traveler knows it's a place of prayer,
For the holy sign of the cross is there;
And should he chance at that place to be,
Of a Sabbath morn or some hallowed day,
When prayers are made and masses said.
Some for the living and some for the dead,
Well might that traveler start to see
The tall, dark forms that take their way
From the birch canoe on the river shore
And the forest paths to that chapel door;
And marvel to mark the naked knees
And the dusky foreheads bending there,
And, stretching his long, thin arms over these
In blessing and in prayer.
Like a shrouded specter, pale and tall.
In his coarse white vesture. Father Rale.

To add to the effectiveness of the service, a choir, gowned and trained, had been formed of forty of the braves. At dawn and again for vespers, the bell rang to summon these dusky worshipers to prayers.

Father Rale, pastor of this unusual flock, was a Jesuit priest who had come to Canada with Frontenac. He was of illustrious French family, and finely educated; but he was content to give up all that he might have enjoyed in France, and to suffer hardship unspeakable in order to teach the precepts of religion to the Indians of the New World.

Rale's Chapel
Father Rale's Chapel
(By Courtesy of John Francis Sprague Author of Sebastian Rale.)

In the Abenaki village to which he was finally assigned, all of Rale's various acquirements were of use. He was carpenter, gardener, and physician, as well as priest. Nor was he less the scholar. Ho prepared a vocabulary of the Abenaki tongue that is now preserved in the Library of Harvard College, and he was at work on an Indian dictionary at the time of his tragic death.

But not all of Father Rale's activities met the approval of his English neighbors. For one thing, the French claimed the Kennebec as their western boundary, while the English insisted on a river which we call the St. John, the present boundary between Maine and the Dominion of Canada. They declared that Rale and his Indians were trespassers on English soil. But they accused Rale also of something worse than simple trespass. They declared that he was guilty of inciting the Indians to attack the English settlements. It was in that period of bitter feeling known to us as the French and Indian Wars, and, as we know, the Indians of Maine had been merciless in their attacks, both with and without their allies, the French. Small wonder that feeling in Massachusetts ran high and a price was set upon Rale's head. Just how far these attacks were due to Rale, history has not decided. Certain it is that the priest did translate and forward to the Governor of Massachusetts the Abenaki's declaration of their right, as first settlers, to the land they dwelt upon and hunted over.

In 1723, matters came to a crisis. After a series of blood-thirsty raids by the Indians, an expedition under the leadership of Captain Moulton of York was sent to Norridgewock to seize the hitherto elusive priest. This expedition failed in making the capture. Though the English surprised the Indian village, Rale escaped, and the only trophy Moulton could bring back was the priest's strong box. This contained, among other papers, correspondence with the Governor of Canada that showed Rale to be to some extent responsible for the outbreaks against the English. Doubtless Rale thought himself justified, because of the possible peril to his mission at the hands of the English Puritans.

In August, 1724, a second expedition, commanded by Captains Moulton and Harmon, ascended the river. On the way they saw three Indians and shot at them. One, who proved to be the noted chieftain, Bombassen, was killed; the other two, his wife and daughter, were taken prisoners.

''Bomazon from Tacconock
Has sent his runners to Norridgewock,
With tidings that Moulton and Harmon of York
Far up the river have come;
They have left their boats - they have entered the wood,
And filled the depths of the solitude
With the sound of the ranger's drum."

So wrote the poet Whittier of their approach. But, in actual fact, so silent and swift was the advance, due to information extorted from the captive wife of Bombassen, that the Indian village was surrounded and surprised.

At the first volley, the Indians rushed from their wigwams, fired, but too high, and fell in confusion before the better aimed English bullets. No more than sixty warriors were in the village at this time. These, in spite of the odds, for the English force is variously estimated at from two hundred and eighty to eleven hundred, did their best to the last to cover the retreat of the old men, the women and children. Many of these were caught in the river, as they attempted to cross, and were slaughtered.

Rale fearlessly presented himself to his assailants, hoping to gain some measure of protection for his people, but in vain. He fell, shot through the head, and the few braves who had endeavored to protect him shared his fate. Among the slain was Mogg, an old and famous chieftain. The rangers burned and plundered, then retreated down the valley with their burden of scalps.

Father Rale's mutilated body was tenderly buried by the remnant of his sorrowing people; but the strength of the Norridgewocks was broken. The few survivors of the tribe sought other hunting grounds, and Narrantsouk was left desolate.

"No wigwam's smoke is curling there;
The very earth is scorched and bare,
They pass and listen to catch a sound
Of breathing life, but there comes not one,
Save the foxes' bark and the rabbit's bound."

In 1833, a monument was erected to the memory of Father Rale on the site of the chapel where he had ministered to his savage converts. It consists of a granite shaft, eleven feet high, on a base five feet in height. The whole is surmounted by an iron cross. On one side an inscription is cut in Latin. Translated, it reads:

''Rev. Sebastian Rale, a French Jesuit missionary, for many years the first evangelist among the Illinois and Hurons, and afterwards for thirty-four years a true apostle in the faith and love of Christ, among the Abenakis, un-terrified by danger, and often by his pure excellent character giving witness that he was prepared for death, this most excellent pastor, on the 23d day of August, 1724, fell in this place, at the time of the destruction and slaughter of the town of Norridgewock, and the dangers to his church. To him, and to his children, dead in Christ, Benedict Fenwick, Bishop at Boston, has erected and dedicated this monument, this 23d day of August, A.D. 1833.''

Henrietta Tozier Totman


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

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