The Wabanaki, Champlain and Mount Desert Island

Acadia National Park Saved to future generations as it has been to us The Maine THing Quarterly
Chapter 1

9,000 years.

It’s frankly hard to even imagine how long that is.

But that’s how long it is said the Wabanaki have inhabited the gorgeous Mount Desert Island. It was quite a stroke of luck that the Wabanaki lived on the island, considering how connected with the land they are. These are people of great craft and heritage, resource and skill, Native Americans whose relationship with the land is embedded in the history of their people. The island was in capable and respectful hands with the Wabanaki.

The name Wabanaki is a word that means “People of the Dawnland.” It’s a name that references one of Acadia National Park’s top attractions, Cadillac Mountain, which is one of the first places in the United States to see the sunrise every morning. In other words, Mount Desert Island literally is the “dawn land.” Often you’ll see hundreds of people at the top of the mountain at 4 AM waiting for that first glimmer of sunlight.

It feels like a pilgrimage; a dramatic, unique and extremely special part of not just the park but of the heritage of the people that first lived there. You could say that when the sun rises over Acadia National Park, it enlightens an entire nation.

People of the Dawnland

The Wabanaki connection to nature begins with a legendary figure named Koluskap. As the story goes, Koluskap pointed his arrow at an ash tree, hitting it so soundly and with such force that he broke the tree in two. As the tree separated, the Wabanaki people emerged from the trunk, born, literally, from nature.

In the coming years, the Wabanaki would perfect the art of basket making, crafting elaborate baskets (which are actually intricate pieces of art) out of wood from the black ash tree. They believe that the baskets are made from the very fabric of their people.

The Wabanaki thrived on the island for thousands of years, hunting and gathering, and acting as great stewards of the land. They enjoyed a vibrant trade and welcomed numerous fishermen and explorers that came to the island through the years. In fact, the Wabanaki picked up quite a few French words from these fishermen and explorers that came to the island. That’s why, in 1604 when Samuel de Champlain made his historic visit to the island, he was likely greeted with a polite “Bonjour.” The French and the Wabanaki couldn’t be any more different. Yet the Wabanaki’s knowledge of French language and customs played a huge part in their relatively harmonious relationship.

Mount Desert Island and the People of the Dawn
The Wabanaki Language of Mount Desert Island

Upon glimpsing the island for the first time, Champlain wrote:

“That same day we also passed near an island about four or five leagues [19 to 24 km] in length, off which we were almost lost on a little rock, level with the surface of the water, which made a hole in our pinnace close to the keel. The distance from this island to the mainland on the north is not a hundred paces. It is very high and cleft in places, giving it the appearance from the sea of seven or eight mountains one alongside the other. The tops of them are bare of trees, because there is nothing there but rocks. The woods consist only of pines, firs, and birches.”

The Wabanaki called the island “Pemetic,” which means “range of mountains.” And when Champlain viewed the bareness of the rocks he was inspired to call the island “île des Monts Déserts,” which translates to “Island of the Bare Mountains.” It’s easy to see how, from there, the name evolved to “Mount Desert Island.” Today’s visitors see it just as Champlain did: A place of tremendous geographical and biological diversity.

Unlike most visitors to the island, Champlain didn’t stay long. He departed after only a few days, but many French explorers and traders stayed and worked with the Wabanaki, learning their trades, customs and ways of living off the land with respect and dignity. Many French explorers married Wabanaki women and had families. They lived not just in tune with the land but with each other, another example of the goodwill this special place has a way of harboring.

The Wabanaki relationship with the French wasn’t without its challenges, however. In fact, the several hundred years of interactions between Wabanaki and European and American explorers, settlers, churches, and governments were frequently very destructive. An original Native population in Maine of about 25,000 in 1600 was reduced to less than 2,000 by the 19th century. Shockingly, a combination of disease, warfare, and government policies led to the near-destruction of Wabanaki people and their culture. But, despite these centuries of loss the Wabanaki persisted, and were able to hold on to their language, their culture and history, and small parts of their homeland. As a testament to the strength of their people, the Wabanaki persevered.

Later, from 1855 to around 1880, the rustic outdoor experience, along with the stories of the Wabanaki, brought a whole new type of visitor to the island. Before there were tourists, there were “Rusticators.” When the Rusticators began to arrive on Mount Desert Island they encountered Wabanaki people making a living by meeting the needs of these early tourists, and many positive interactions followed.

Pickerings & Rusticators
Courtesy Acadia National Park

The Rusticators came from the larger cities to the south of the island.

Their curiosity was driven by the historic writings of Henry David Thoreau called “The Maine Woods.” They were also driven by the images they saw in paintings of Maine’s landscape by legendary artists Frederic Church and Thomas Cole. Seeing these images of Maine’s awe-inspiring beauty, they were drawn to the island, where they built cottages and purchased land. It’s a great example of art literally moving people.

The Wabanaki and the Rusticators got along quite well. In fact, many accounts speak of the Rusticators entrusting their children to the Wabanaki. The kids would pile into one of the Wabanaki’s trademark birch bark canoes and learn how to hunt and fish. This harmony is yet another example of how friendly and welcoming the Wabanaki were and serves as a tribute to the spirit of such a beautiful place.

But there was much more to come in the bright future of this destination. By the late-1800s, a landscape architect by the name of Charles Eliot had conceived a vision of Mount Desert Island as a massive, conserved public space.

Abbe Museum
100 Years Before Champlain
This was only the beginning.