The Ancient Dominions of Maine

Pathways and Canoe Routes of Native Americans

Southern New England is criss-crossed with the ancient pathways of the many Algonquin tribes who lived in the area prior to European settlement.  These pathways are the subject of a number of publications, which are included in the bibliography on this topic.  It is often forgotten that in Maine there is a similar network of Native American pathways, especially in the coastal regions.  More well known is the fact that ancient Native Americans utilized an extensive network of canoe routes throughout coastal and interior Maine.  The definitive study of the canoe routes of Maine is David S. Cook's Indian Canoe Routes of Maine.  Also participating in the documentation of Maine Indian canoe routes is Mike Krepner and his website Native Trails, which focuses in on four of the most important canoe trails in the Norumbega coastal region along with other important Maine canoe trails.  Native Trails' map of the Wawenoc ahwangans (canoe route portages) and inland canoe routes utilized by the Wawenoc Indians provide a graphic illustration of the mobility of the Wawenoc and other coastal tribes.  They also illustrate the ease of access to inland resources -- fur, moose hide, birch bark -- and help us understand the interconnectedness of the numerous Native American communities in the maritime peninsula.

Cook's text makes clear that utilizing a few short portages, Maine's Native Americans were able to travel throughout Maine and the Maritime Peninsula.  In a larger context, the eastern United States was one large canoe route and included such important riverine environments as the Connecticut River, Hudson River and the Susquehanna River, the latter of which connected Chesapeake Bay with the Great Lakes and was one of the most important traders routes of the early contact period.

Native Trails Inc. maps illustrate the Wawenoc Ahwangans along the Ancient Route from Penobscot Bay to Merrymeeting Bay as well as the Damariscotta-Pemaquid River Canoe Trail and the Mecadacut-Magwintegwak Cut-off Route (Camden to Belfast).  Native Trails maps further supplement Cook's classic on canoe routes by illustrating such important trails as the link between the Penobscot River and St. Croix River via Nicatous Lake, Fourth Machias Lake and the West Grand Lakes and the Maliseet Trail (St. John River to Penobscot River).  Not illustrated in the Native Trails Inc. website graphics, but discussed extensively in David Cook's text, is the most important of all canoe routes in Maine, the several variations of routes up the Kennebec River to either Moosehead Lake or to Quebec via the Dead River and the Chaudiere River.  It was this latter route that was followed by Arnold in his futile attempt to capture Quebec (1775); this route was also utilized by Native Americans during the French and Indian wars prior to Arnold's futile trek, when several thousand colonial captives were transferred to Quebec during a period of over 100 years, many never to return to their New England homes.

Of importance pertaining to the role of the canoe in Maine's prehistory is the concept of  "wangan," summarized by Cook as "in Maine and throughout canoe country, wangan, an old Indian word, refers to all the impedimenta associated with canoe travel." (pg. xiv).  In prehistoric times typical canoe cargo would have been hides, moose meat, deer carcass as well as any equipment, trade items and other gear utilized by Native Americans as they hunted, fished, trapped and traded during their annual subsistence treks.  Whenever Native American canoeists had to go from one watershed to another they had to unload each canoe and carry both the canoe and the wangan across the portage.  This is the origin of the word "ahwangan," the ancient Native American term designating the portage from one navigable stream to the next.  As with most Native American words, ahwangan is a metaphor for the laborious process of traveling from one watershed to the next, carrying both canoe and canoe cargo overland.

Nearly overlooked in the discussion of the canoe as the primary mode of Native American travel is the absolute necessity of the canoe's cold weather equivalents, snowshoes, sledges and toboggans.  These cold weather travel methods played a less visible role in getting the bounty of the winter hunt to village, camp and trading sites on canoe-navigable waters.  Without these winter modes of transport, the labyrinth of Native trails in the Norumbega backcountry would lead nowhere and the canoe cargoes of Indian traders would be nonexistent.

The inland canoe routes described by Cook as well as the coastal Wawenoc ahwangan depicted by Krepner are not the only significant canoe routes in Maine.  All authorities and historians writing on Native Americans living in eastern North America agree that the prehistoric era was characterized by an extensive network of intertribal trading activities.  Cook makes reference to the link between central coastal Maine and the maritimes via eastern Maine.  One of the mysteries of the prehistoric maritime cultures of the archaic period is to what extent Native Americans utilized large ocean going canoes and dugouts, particularly during the archaic era when Native Americans living in the maritime provinces and Maine made extensive use of deep sea ocean resources (swordfish, haddock, whales, etc.)  Once this period of extensive harvesting of pelagic fish on the open ocean ended, Native Americans traversing the maritime peninsula in an east-west direction may have resorted to more sheltered inland canoe routes as described by Cook.  For Native Americans traveling from the eastern maritimes west through Maine, Cobscook Bay and the Machias River complex may have been the route of choice into eastern Maine.  The Moosabec Reach in Jonesport also would have been a canoe route of preference.  Cook makes reference to the intercoastal route via the north end of Mount Desert Island with access to the Union River watershed.  Both Krepner and Cook make reference to the several possible routes from Blue Hill Bay to Penobscot Bay.  The Eggemoggin Reach would have been a primary canoe route for both archaic maritime fishermen and later woodland era canoeists in smaller birch bark canoes heading west to the central Maine coast.  Any Native Americans traveling west through the Eggemoggin Reach would either bypass Cape Rosier to head north up the Penobscot as described by Cook, or cross the Penobscot River to the Fox Islands.  From the Fox Islands it is only a short haul across west Penobscot Bay to Ducktrap and the south branch of the Cushnoc trail.  The American colonists who built a road from Ducktrap to Augusta were not the first to utilize this pathway.  One can surmise that in fact the Ducktrap - Cushnoc connection would have been one of several prehistoric trading routes to western Maine and Canada.  A second alternative is clearly described by Cook and Krepner: traders utilizing the Eggemoggin Reach could come down West Penobscot Bay to Rockland Harbor and then utilize the Wawenoc ahwangans or portages to travel the coast to the Kennebec River.  An alternative route from Blue Hill Bay for traders destined for the lower Sagadahoc via Rockland Harbor would have been through the Deer Island thoroughfare and thence to the Fox Islands thoroughfare and again across west Penobscot Bay directly to Rockland Harbor.  It is no coincidence that some of the most important archaeological sites in eastern North America are located on these trading routes.  The Turner Farm Site, the subject of Bruce Bourque's historic research, is located on Fish Point, North Haven Island directly adjacent to the Fox Islands thoroughfare.  Many other important archaeological sites excavated to date in coastal eastern Maine are also located in close proximity to these maritime canoe routes.

Davistown Connection

The numerous rivers that are linked by the Wawenoc coastal ahwangans (the series of canoe portages between the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers) have their origins in the Norumbega backcountry watersheds within the Davistown Plantation.  In the context of the canoe routes described by Cook, the Davistown Plantation is one of many inland locations of prehistoric subsistence activities.  Close attention to the Davistown Plantation as a microcosmic fragment of a larger pattern of prehistoric travel routes reveals the relationships between the various watersheds that begin within the confines of what is now Liberty and Montville.  The area in the vicinity of the Muskingum (The Kingdom), Liberty Village and Sherman's Corners can be considered the location of ahwangans (portage routes) between all of the major rivers of the Norumbega coastal region (Sheepscot, Medomak, Damariscotta, St. George) with links to both the Kennebec River (via the Sebasticook) and the Penobscot River.  The Ireland Road, which runs north from the Muskingum, is a possible ahwangan with connections to both the Penobscot and the Kennebec rivers.  The link to the Penobscot River would be via Marsh Stream, whose head waters are on Frye Mt. on the Montville/Knox town line just north of the Getchell Rd.  Just slightly west of Frye Mt. is the Half Moon Stream, which drains into the Sebasticook watershed, a major canoe route described by Cook linking central Maine east of the Kennebec with all the major watersheds of northern and western Maine via the Kennebec River.  The Muskingum itself would be the end of the Montville ahwangan providing access via the St. George River to all the canoe routes of the Wawenoc's coastal dominion.  Just west of The Kingdom lies Lake St. George, which can be accessed via Mud Pond with a short portage to the east end of Lake St. George near Clark's Corner.  Lake St. George, which is the originating point for the southern branch of the St. George's River is just a short portage to the Sheepscot River via the Colby Brook.  Also of interest is the portage to the head waters of the Medomak River in South Liberty via Cargill Pond or the southwest corner of Lake St. George near Pratt Island and the Stickney Hill Rd.  The Medomak River also provides easy access to the Damariscotta River via either Washington Pond or the Davis Stream, the latter of which drains into the Damariscotta Lake at Jefferson.  Many of these streams and waterways would be difficult, if not impossible, to pole upstream, but would provide handy routes for shipping pelts and furs downstream to the coastal trading posts at Pemaquid, Arrowsic or on the Kennebec River.  Of particular importance is the accessibility to all of inland, northern and western Maine provided by the Sassona River as a link to the Kennebec River.  This is one of the reasons why the first European trading posts were located not only at Cushnoc (Augusta) and Pemaquid, but also at Arrowsic where the Sheepscot's back river joins the Sassona River and provides access to Boothbay Harbor and Pemaquid to the east, as well as to all the western and northern river watersheds accessible via the Kennebec River.  Not be be forgotten is the winter use of canoe portages and nearby trails by sledge and snowshoe to transport essential natural resources and the trade goods to accessible canoeable waterways.

Prehistoric Native American Trails in Davistown and the Norumbega Bioregion

The Wawenoc Indians inhabited a much smaller territory than the Penobscots to the north or the Maliseets and Passamaquoddy to the east.  Their primary mode of travel was also by canoe, but a substantial amount of hunting, fishing and family migration from seasonal fishing camp to seasonal hunting camp must have been on foot.  The cold weather counterparts to canoe travel are Indian toboggans and sledges.  Long Maine winters and frozen streams and rivers ensure individuals traveling from the Muskingum to the shellfish resources of the coast didn't always go by canoe.  Since beaver were usually trapped in the winter, sledge and toboggan would have been used by both Native American and European trappers to bring pelts to locations accessible by canoe or shallop.  It was only a one day hike from the Muskingum to Waldoboro and the network of portages described by Cook and Krepner was supplanted by a labyrinth of footpaths.  While not as dependent on these footpaths as the Indians of southern New England, the Wawenoc Indians, due to the small range of their tribal movements, would have made extensive use of footpaths  to bring  moose hides, beaver pelts and other furs and foods to their coastal village sites.  The advent of a European market for beaver pelts increased the demand and ultimately reduced the availability of these pelts in most central Maine coastal areas in the seventeenth century.  The great pandemic of 1617 - 1619 eliminated most village sites and populations that consumed these natural resources prior to European settlement.  The advent of European and especially English "trucking stations" after 1620 simply replaced native destinations with nearby European ones.  The trails and canoe routes utilized to obtain and transport these resources remained essentially unchanged for centuries.

The following is a preliminary list of major Indian trails in the Davistown area.

  1. Sennebec trail: an inland trail from the alewife run at the Kenduskeag Stream (Bangor,) with a connection from Belfast is located east of Davistown and passes through Searsmont where it begins paralleling the St. George River to Union.  Branches of the Sennebec trail connect with the Medomak shell heaps and other coastal resources.  Early settlers in Davistown utilized this route as far as Union to ship spars and milled products to the booming shipyards of Thomaston, Rockland and Warren.  Route 17 from Union to Rockland is the may follow, in part, the coastal branch of a Native trail that once extended to Augusta (Cushnoc.)
  2. Waldoboro mast trail: this trail provides a direct route from Montville to the shipyards of Waldoboro and can be followed today as route 220. This trail, first used in the colonial era for masts for the King's ships, became a key route for spars, masts and other milled products originating in Davistown and used in the construction of hundreds of ships at Waldoboro.  In prehistoric times this was the most direct route for Native Americans traveling from Lake St. George to the seacoast and its rich shellfish resources.
  3. Megunticook trail: lying north of the east west trail from Cushnoc to Rockland (Rte. 17,) the Megunticook trail connected Searsmont to the trading post at Camden and linked what would later be the Davistown Plantation to both Indian and French coastal traders during the early years of the fur trade (1525(?)-1650).  This trail later played a role in the lime trade by providing access to Rockport for the coopers of Liberty and Montville, who supplied the large casks needed for transport of lime to Portland and Boston.  See the Native Trails map of the Belfast-Camden canoe routes.
  4. The old Ireland road: Running north from The Kingdom, the Ireland Road is a vestigial trail with links to the Kenduskeag and to the Sebasticook rivers.  The Ireland road passes through Muskingum, linking what is now the Kingdom Bog and Stevens Pond to both the Waldoboro mast trail and (following route 173) to the Sennebec trail at Searsmont.  Due to the configuration of streams, swamps, ponds, hills and sheltered campsites, the Muskingum provided the ideal environment for trapping, hunting and winter camping before the intense competition of the fur trade depleted the beaver population.
  5. Cushnoc trail: Recent work by Rosey Gerry of Lincolnville indicates the Cushnoc trail has a third middle branch lying between the southern Cushnoc to Rockland (Rte. 17) trail and the northern Belfast to Searsmont to Cushnoc trail.  Originating in Ducktrap and running south of Levenseller Mountain this road goes to Searsmont then continues to Augusta.  The original Cushnoc trail system was used prior to European settlement by Native Americans and later by European hunters, trappers and traders during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Gerry's research on the colonail roads built by the first settlers indicates a  southern component of the Cushnoc trail from Ducktrap joins the Belfast Road at Searsmont Center, which was the crossroads for both Native American Indians prior to European contact, and settlers in the booming years of the early 19th century.  Gerry's research on colonial roads indicates the first road to Augusta went through West Appleton crossing Harriet Brook, the Dead River, then passed through South Liberty and Washington following the county road, which has been long known to be an old stagecoach route.  This is the shortest route between either Belfast via Belmont Corner or Ducktrap via Searsmont and the Kennebec River at Augusta.  Its unlikely that the Wawenoc, and later, Abenaki Indians would have followed anything other than the shortest trail to the trading posts and "trucking stations" at Augusta (Cushnoc) and on the Kennebec River.  While much of the travel to Cushnoc from the coastal regions of Norumbega would have been by canoe, travel by foot from Belfast or Ducktrap to Augusta by this route would have only taken two or three days for Native Americans living in or traveling east to west through the Norumbega backcountry.  The later colonial road that Gerry has traced hooks up to present day Route 105 after passing through Hibberts Corner, going directly to Fort Western.  There is the probability that this road follows what was originally the Cushnoc trail.  (See Groening, Tom, September 23, 2000, Augusta road less traveled, Bangor Daily News, pg. B3.)
  6. St. George River trail: West of Searsmont village, the Cushnoc trail heads W-SW.  A branch of this trail follows the St. Georges River forking in South Montville.  A northern branch goes to what is now the Kingdom to the north of Trues Pond and the southern branch goes up through Liberty village to Lake St. George.  The connector between these two branches, from the Kingdom to Liberty village, can still be followed today in the form of a dirt road on the south side of Haystack Mountain.  The rich hunting and trapping resources of the swamps and lakes west of Searsmont, including Lake St. George and Sheepscot Pond provided a basis for an interlocking warren of Native American pathways.  The use of these trails continued after the Wawenoc diaspora; the roaming bands of Abenaki fighters during the Indian Wars were gradually supplanted by European trappers, hunters, woodsmen seeking furs, masts, lumber and lime during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The first settlers followed these pathways establishing roadways that are still utilized today.

Native Trails' Maps of Native American Canoe Routes in Maine The following copyrighted maps are reproduced here with permission from Native Trails Inc.  They have been scanned from a printed copy.