The white man will feel it as a duty to his children to seek new lands.
—AN EASTERN ABENAKI PROPHECY, RECORDED BY JOSEPH NICOLAR IN THE LIFE AND TRADITIONS OF THE RED MAN (1893)1
Documents come in many different kinds, and archives take the form of stone as well as paper. The boulder at New Plymouth remains the foremost symbol of the Pilgrims, but there is another significant rock, another slab of memory with its own tale to tell about the same events. A long way from Massachusetts, it rises from the cold middle reaches of the river in Maine where the Pilgrim fur trade had its heart. Forgotten by mapmakers, this second fragment of geology has evaded fame or notoriety, as the finest archives often do. And yet in its own way it serves as a monument every bit as meaningful as Plymouth Rock.
It can be found fifty miles north of Augusta, just inside the boundary of the town of Embden. From the west bank of the Kennebec a ledge of shale pokes forty feet out into rippling blue water. Shaped like a dark gray tooth with a rough blunt tip, the rock makes a natural jetty in a swift, wide, but silent stretch of the river between two bends. On the rock the Eastern Abenaki left an array of carvings, struck into the slanting face of the stone with blows from hammerhead tools.
We cannot read the writing on it as readily as we can decipher the scrawl of a Jacobean manuscript. Even so, the rock at Embden is an archive, just as much as any parchment in a repository in London, York, or Belfast. Mostly submerged, but with its southern face covered with imagery, the legible rock was intended to be seen from a birch-bark canoe coming upstream toward a wild place called Caratunk Falls. And when we examine the art that the Abenaki created on it, we find ourselves gazing at something we did not expect. The rock contains a testament of Native American thinking and belief, made during the earliest days of European entry to the region. It brings to mind new questions about the nature of historical records, and about our winding path toward our knowledge of the past.
For many generations, writers have chronicled the events of the 1620s in New England with the help of a very small range of sources, far too few to make adequate sense of what occurred. For accounts of what transpired, they have chiefly relied on William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Roger Williams, and Captain John Smith, four Englishmen born in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.
Each author had talent, sometimes approaching the sublime. They were careful note takers. They did not fabricate their narratives, and they did not make foolish mistakes. Bradford, for instance, carefully transcribed scores of letters, copied verbatim into his history of the Plymouth Colony. His interpretation of events can be challenged, but it is very hard to catch him making a false statement of fact. When new documents come to light, such as the papers describing the Pilgrim flight from Stallingborough, they say much more about what happened, but they also verify the gist of William Bradford’s version. The problem lies not with what Bradford and Winslow put in but with what they left out.
Omissions, vacancies, and unexplained allusions abound within the narratives they wrote. Among them, by far the most tantalizing absence relates to the fate of William Bradford’s first wife. She died after falling from the Mayflower into the wintry sea at Provincetown as the ship lay at anchor, but Bradford passed over the circumstances of her end in complete silence. Why did he exclude a detail so shocking, and so personal?2
We might speculate, and many writers have, about the nature of her death and about his motives for leaving it unspoken. If she took her own life, Bradford might well have preferred not to record such a memory, just as modern families at an inquest try to persuade the authorities not to return a verdict of suicide on their loved ones. Perhaps it was an accident: the Pilgrims were not mariners, and a tired, hungry woman with frozen limbs could easily lose her footing. We simply do not know what happened. Bradford might have had any one of many reasons for failing to describe her passing. We have no means of knowing which one was decisive, but the fact of the omission remains significant in itself. It reminds us that we cannot rely on Bradford to tell the whole story.
Does it matter that Winslow and Bradford left so many empty spaces in their chronicles? Does it matter that they tell us so little about the Mayflower, about Jones or the ships in Plymouth Sound, about Thomas Weston, about the politics of Leiden, or about their own precise, local reasons for choosing the odd path of Separatism? Do the omissions make a difference, since what they did say remains so powerful? The answer to all these questions is yes. Lost in the crevices within their writing lies most of what we need to know if we are to explain how and why the English ended four decades of fitful efforts in North America and made their determined push across the Atlantic.
Maritime economics, advances in navigation, competition for skins, and the reasons why beaver fur became a fetish: essential though these elements were, you will find them neither explored nor explained within the familiar Pilgrim texts. Nor do Bradford and Winslow deal with the motives of King James, or his son, or with those of men and women as essential to the story as John Pocock of Bread Street Ward. Still less do they make clear why Massachusetts became an irresistible compulsion only in 1629, after the blockade of La Rochelle and the political crisis that followed. This was not because Winslow and Bradford thought that these events were insignificant, but because they took their relevance for granted.
To get at these things, we have had to multiply the sources, on both sides of the Atlantic. We have been forced to go backward, sideways, and around and beneath the accepted narratives of migration. We have also been obliged to abandon any yearning for moral fables in the past. It is difficult enough to find out the facts of what happened, and to reproduce them faithfully. Trying to find lessons for the present day is more likely to block the process of understanding than to help it on its way. History is not a stage upon which we are entitled to act out the dramas of our own transitory period.
At this moment we can return to the Embden rock. Among the many gaps in the archives, there is one above all others that anybody who writes about the period must find not merely inconvenient but deeply troubling. No matter how acute Edward Winslow was in his observations of the Native Americans he met, we lack—or rather, we seem to lack—a history written by the other side, by the native peoples themselves. In the imagery at Embden, we can find at least some hints about the form that such a narrative might take.
Once upon a time the rock in the Kennebec was longer than it is today. Apparently, in the era when lumbermen drove logs downriver, they found that the rock snagged the timber. They blasted its tip with dynamite. Even so, and even in its wounded form, with a ragged end like a shattered lump of brick, the Embden rock retains a striking, uncanny appearance. This is because of its shape, and because it enters the water at a precise right angle to the bank. Within the angle, on the sheltered downstream side, where the ripples vanish, the water is calm and transparent, but the riverbed is invisible. The rock seems to leap straight out of a void without a bottom. Nothing quite like it exists elsewhere in the central valley of the Kennebec. Because of this, for a very long time indeed the rock has served as a landmark for human beings.
On its southern flank, the rock protects a sheltered little cove. It makes a perfect natural harbor; and nearby, on a flat terrace of pebbles and soil, Native Americans created an encampment, a place to sleep, to wait out bad weather, to repair a canoe, or to skin the pelt from a carcass. Intermittently, they occupied it for more than half a millennium, ending in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. They left behind them at least a hundred implements of stone.
From the cove, the carved mural that gives the Embden rock its significance stands out with sharp clarity. A narrow shelf, no more than a few inches wide, runs along the face of the stone, just above the level of the water. It provides a place to squat. Three feet above it, where the Kennebec in spate has polished the surface of the shale, an image can be seen scored into the rock in a grid pattern of grooves. It unmistakably portrays a square house of the kind built by Europeans, with a front door and a tall pitched roof.
At first, the house seems unique and isolated. But if you splash a little water on the stone, another picture instantly appears. As your eye learns what to look for, images become visible in their dozens. They form a densely populated frieze, placed in such a way that as the level of the river rose and fell with the seasons, the images would seem to vanish into the water or to emerge from its depths. They lead off in a procession outward from the bank: a dog, a serpent, winged figures half-bird and half-human, men with sticklike arms and triangles for bodies, a moose, and a canoe with inside it a crew wielding poles and paddles. Farthest from dry land, we see the running figure of a man with exorbitant genitalia. From his erection he ejaculates four drops of semen, which fall straight into the Kennebec.
Contrasting examples of Native American and English memorials in stone. Above is the rock at Embden, Maine, covered with Abenaki carvings. Below is the Helwys family monument in the church of St. Martin of Tours, Saundby, Nottinghamshire. The monument was erected in 1599 by Sir Gervase Helwys, cousin of the Separatist Thomas Helwys. (Photography at Saundby: Nick Bunker)
Beginning in the 1970s, a Maine archaeologist called Mark Hedden studied the rock with great care. He found more than one hundred images that he could identify and copy. They closely resemble other petroglyphs made by Algonquian people, at Machias Bay on the coast of Maine, in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and most lavishly of all at Peterborough in Ontario. At Peterborough, at least nine hundred carvings cover a rock near a canoe trail between the Great Lakes. They contain the same symbolism of bird-men, boats, canoes, and serpents. These icons have their distant parallels elsewhere, similar patterns etched on stone far away in Siberia and in northern Europe, as well as in other parts of North America.
Opinions differ about the meaning of rock art. However, in the last two decades scholars have mostly come to agree that images such as these portray the beliefs of shamanism. A shaman was a seer, a prophet, or a poet, a man or woman who by way of a trance or in a dream could mediate with forces latent in land, river, sky, and ocean. Like the figures in the frieze at Embden, he or she could alter shape, in a chain of metamorphosis, taking the form of a reptile, a beaver, a muskrat, or a bird, and swim underwater or fly through the sky. Shamans could cure sickness, but they could also kill, wounding an enemy by pointing a finger. They foretold the outcome of hunting expeditions. They could conjure fire from water, animals from fire, and corn and tobacco from the soil in winter.3
All of this they could do, or so it was said, by way of their access to manitou, the name given in the eastern woodlands of America to the spiritual energy that filled nature like an electric charge. From time to time, manitou flashed visibly, like a spark or a bolt of lightning, when a brilliant creature like a Kennebec eagle displayed its grandeur, or when a comet passed across the sky. More often, manitou made itself present in the landscape, in sites where the elements seemed to promise an epiphany: places, perhaps, like the rock at Embden. By way of its shape, color, oddity, and size, and its location near the foot of the mountains, the rock may have symbolized a point of pregnant intersection. It was a threshold or an orifice. It was a place of passage where a shaman might journey back and forth between the underworld, the heavens, and the earthly home of human beings.
When Winslow made his notes about the native people whom he met in the villages of Massasoit, he found evidence of beliefs of precisely such a kind. Much later, on the Great Plains, researchers in the years around 1900 followed his example and documented the persistence of similar ideas and practices. But among the many records that survive, the rock at Embden has a special quality of relevance and immediacy. This is because we can give at least some of the carvings a date, and because the culture that made them left so much by way of verbal poetry behind.
By its very nature, rock art defies exact chronology. It deposits no organic traces. It might have appeared in any decade within a span of hundreds or even thousands of years. But at Embden, the image of the house tells us that carving must have continued after the first settlers arrived from the other side of the Atlantic. And when archaeologists sifted through the soil, besides stone tools they found European objects: gunflints, clay pipes, trading beads, and a seventeenth-century iron table knife. They also found the remains of fur-bearing mammals. They identified more than forty pieces of bone. All but one came from beaver skeletons.4
When beaver pelts traveled to Paris or London, to make costly hats, first they had to come down the Kennebec and past the Embden rock. Perhaps French Jesuits or the English camped at the site, but more likely it was used simply by the Eastern Abenaki who sold skins at Cushnoc or in Quebec. Only twenty miles upstream from the rock, the Kennebec flows past a wide belt of wetlands filled with beavers, around a body of water called Lake Moxie. As late as the 1820s, trappers from the native people on the coast came up to the bogs at Moxie to hunt the animal. They sold its fur to storekeepers at Embden.
So, in the stone, its date, its setting, and its decoration, we find an alternative kind of archive, a window that opens directly into the native world of the 1620s. We also encounter an emblem of mental continuity, between the thinking of the artists who decorated the rock and that of the native people of a much later period.5 Far into the nineteenth century, the Eastern Abenaki preserved poetic stories that contained motifs identical to those we can see at Embden.
When Henry David Thoreau explored the Maine woods in the 1850s, he met a very unusual old man by the name of John Neptune, the lieutenant governor of the Penobscot tribe. Born as long ago as 1767, Neptune certainly knew the carved rock, because he was one of the men who killed beavers at Moxie. By common consent he was a great shaman, a worker of miracles and dreamer of dreams, perhaps the last among his people. And in his biography, and in the tales told about him, we find another strand of persistence between the seventeenth century and modern times.
Old John Neptune lived in at least two worlds. Recent research has shown that he fought hard by way of politics to defend Penobscot lands from legalized dispossession. But it seems that he owed his fame among his people to the extraordinary legends he inspired. Neptune died in 1865, at the age of ninety-seven, and as late as the 1930s it was still possible to find men and women who remembered him firsthand. At that time, a diligent scholar and gifted writer from Maine called Fannie Hardy Eckstorm collected the Neptune stories. Among them, the strangest of all concerned a serpent of exactly the kind we see carved at Embden.
In the mythology of the Eastern Abenaki, there existed a creature called the wiwiliamecq, an underwater monster with horns like a snail. It was said that a shaman from the Micmac, old enemies of the Penobscot, took the form of the monster. To defeat him, John Neptune took the likeness of an eel. Plunging into the water, like the creatures of many kinds at Embden, he entered the pond where the wiwiliamecq lived. He killed it after a titanic battle. One of Eckstorm’s contacts among the Penobscot even led her to see the pond where the fight took place.
Water serpents often appeared in the stories told by native people in New England. So did the motif of shamans swimming beneath the waves to destroy their enemies. In the 1630s, a shaman in Connecticut threatened to make a submarine attack on an English sailing ship, and the case of John Neptune shows that stories such as these remained as a living tradition hundreds of years after the Pilgrims landed. Nor was it only legends that lived on, but also an independent account of history. It included a narrative of the arrival of the English and the French.
John Neptune had a grandson called Joseph Nicolar, a Penobscot man who served in the state legislature of Maine. In 1893, Nicolar published a remarkable text called The Life and Traditions of the Red Man. Very few copies survive, and it was reprinted in the United States only in 2007. Like the icons at Embden, it supplies another alternative archive: a source as worthy of respect as William Bradford or Edward Winslow.
Through his mother’s family, Nicolar could trace his genealogy directly from the Kennebec people who lived at Naragooc. His book first appeared at a desperate time in Native American history, soon after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Undaunted and undeterred, Joseph Nicolar composed a strange and wonderful prose epic of his people’s past. The Homer of the Abenaki, Nicolar preserved and beautified oral traditions that must date from the earliest contacts between the Eastern Abenaki and the fishermen of England and of France. Like Homer, he may have altered and embellished them, but he did not make up the events he described, any more than Homer invented the city of Troy.
In his Penobscot Iliad, Nicolar wrote about blazing stars in the heavens that preceded the arrival of the white newcomers. He described a sailing ship—a “large canoe … propelled by a brown colored cloth spread in the wind”—and he chronicled the wars between the native people, between the Abenaki, the Micmac, and the Iroquois. He recorded native memories of kidnapping by the Europeans on the coast. He gave an alternative account of wampum. Nicolar said that it was never intended to be a form of currency, but only to function as a gift, a pledge of goodwill.
Little known and rarely studied, like the rock art at Embden, Nicolar’s book records from the native side the beginnings of colonization in New England. Like the rock by the Kennebec, his book reminds us that our knowledge of the past is incomplete, meager, and fragmentary. Both the book and the rock teach us about the extent of what remains to be discovered, about stories and occurrences that seem familiar but that in reality are distant, remote, and strewn with ambiguity.
Far too many sources such as these, Nicolar’s book and the rock, lie neglected and ignored, not only by the Kennebec, but also in the record offices of England. In London, the National Archives contains thousands of forgotten papers from the period, documents arising from litigation, from shipping, from taxes, or from diplomacy. Where great matters of politics are concerned, such as the causes of the English Civil War, or where the Crown took a close interest in affairs, as it did with the Virginia plantation, researchers have mined the archives deeply; but the very early settlement of New England was achieved entirely by private enterprise. The traces it left linger in obscure, unfashionable places, in archives relating to trade, lawsuits, and the sea. These are often hardly touched at all.
No single fact, stone, or document will change our picture of the period. History is not a secret code waiting to be cracked with a simple key or a password. We have to examine it from all sides, and find as many sources as we can. Only by doing so can we hope briefly to see things as perhaps they were, for the Eastern Abenaki or for the native people of southern New England, as well as for the Pilgrims. So it is not only in a record office filled with manuscripts but also in the terrain on both sides of the Atlantic.
When we slither down a wooded hillside in Nottinghamshire and come upon a stand of maples or a hedgerow that a Pilgrim might have passed, for an instant the centuries slip away. On a winter afternoon, as darkness falls over an English parish church, we find in a dim corner an alabaster monument, pink and white, made for a family who were allies of William Brewster; so, in that place, a fugitive epiphany occurs. And when we leave a highway in rural Maine and follow a winding trail down through the forest to the stream, suddenly we see beneath the dying autumn leaves the uncanny rock at Embden.
By the water, we have a fleeting intimation of what a shaman meant by manitou. In a small moment of vision of our own, we glimpse the same objects that John Howland might have seen as he came up the Kennebec. We see, as perhaps he first saw them, the foaming river and the white pines, an eagle’s nest and the tracks of deer, and, in the distance and the sunset blue slate hills, a glowing palisade against the western sky.