Prehistory and Indians

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During the last Ice Age, all of Maine -- indeed most of North America -- was covered with glacial ice a mile thick.  This crushing weight temporarily depressed the land.  Most current coastal areas, including the Cranberry Isles, were below sea level under the ice.

About 13,000 years ago the ice started melting and the sea flooded in where it could.  Large areas of what is now dry coast were submerged.  But as the ice melted, the land slowly rose, relieved of its heavy burden.

11,000 years ago Maine was ice-free and the land had risen so the shoreline was about where it is now.  The Mount Desert area including the Cranberry Isles surfaced and started to support life.  However, the land continued rising for another 3,000 years before reversing itself and slowly sinking -- and it still falls about one foot every 250 years along the mid-Maine coast.

So for several thousand years starting about 9,000 years ago, the Cranberry Isles were not islands at all, but merely additional hilltops on an enlarged Mount Desert, which itself was a peninsula off the mainland.

The Paleo-Indians

The Mount Desert area 11,000 years ago was a rich tundra of moss, lichen, and grass, with a few trees and bushes scattered in better soils and protected areas.  Large animals such as mastodon, horse, musk ox, bison, and caribou roamed the land, hunted by the first people, the Paleo-Indians, whose ancestors probably crossed from Siberia to Alaska more than 30,000 years ago.

These prehistoric hunters used fluted stone spear points.  Two such points were reportedly found near Graham Lake in Ellsworth.  It is easy to imagine these hunters following game out to the Cranberries, which were then part of the mainland.  In fact, Great Cranberry Island lobsterman Wesley Bracy, Jr. found a mastodon thigh bone while scuba diving in a cove off Great Cranberry in 1970.

The Climate Changes

Gradually the climate grew warmer and forest replaced tundra.  By about 5,000 years ago the transition was complete.  The Cranberry Isles were pretty much as they are now.  The elephant-like mastodons had died off.  Herds of bison and caribou had left for more suitable habitats.  New plants and animals appeared.

Hunting techniques changed too.  The new game was small and solitary -- deer, moose, seal, duck.  Tribes could exist as smaller units and men could hunt alone instead of in organized groups.  If deer or moose failed there were always fish, shellfish, birds, and seals, as well as wild fruits, berries, nuts, and roots.

Year-round Island Living

Coastal regions and islands were sought for two important reasons: the abundant fish and shellfish are a more reliable food source than game, and the surrounding waters temper the climate and lengthen the natural growing season.  The coast is a good year-round habitat for hunter-gatherers.

Discarded shell heaps on Gott Island, North Haven Island, and elsewhere show that for the last 5,000 years the islands were inhabited year-round, not just in summer.  By examining calcium deposits in discarded bird bones (which thicken in egg-laying season), and annual growth layers in clam shells and seal teeth, we know some were killed and eaten in all seasons, including winter.

The Red Paint People

5,000 years ago the Red Paint People appeared in Maine.  The name comes from their custom of covering the dead with red ochre, the crushed powder of iron-rich rock such as hematite.  They were good fishermen, mariners, and traders.  They made points and gouges, sometimes from stone not found in Maine.  They also made bone fish hooks and harpoons, and caught swordfish -- found only far offshore.

The Red Paint People spent part of the year inland along rivers -- probably spring fish camps.  There they must have engaged in socializing and sport with the locals, as well as trading for the "imported" stones used in their tools.

We can imagine a permanent Red Paint settlement on Great Cranberry, one with a pleasant outlook, yet shielded from the north wind, and close to a flowing spring -- just such a place as Ship Yard, where Long Brook flows into The Pool.

The Susquehanna People

The Red Paint culture abruptly vanished about 3,800 years ago, to be replaced by clearly different workmanship in flaked stone points and tools, and a change in diet from fish to mostly land animals such as deer.  Susquehanna stone work is very similar to that of the mid-Atlantic region, suggesting a migration of people from that area.  This culture abruptly disappeared after 400 years.

The Ceramic Period

About 2,800 years ago another marked change occurs: the first appearance of pottery vessels, the bow and arrow, birch bark canoes, and agriculture -- but with no evidence of farming in the Down East region.

Like the Red Paint people, the Ceramic age people again took up maritime living.  Fish, seals, and sometimes whales were caught.  Trading flourished and even everyday items can be found made from imported Labrador chert stone, and occasionally Nova Scotia copper.

The Ceramic age people were the last pure native culture before first European contact, and their customs and habits are pretty much what we think of as the latter day or historic Indian culture.  See the detail book below for more information about their food, clothing, housing, furnishings, health, and hunting.

European Contact

The Ceramic period ends with the arrival of the first Europeans in America about 500 years ago.  Since the newcomers at first hoped they had arrived in spice-rich India, they called the natives "Indians."

First contact was an event of great upheaval to the Native Americans.  Introduced diseases, wars between England and France, and land-grabs by both severely reduced native populations and eventually forced them into reservations of greatly reduced territory.

Wabanaki Tribes of Maine

Today, there are four federally-recognized Indian tribes in Maine.  They are the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac, and Maliseet.


Probable Reconstruction of Ceramic Age Indian Culture

In all seasons, both men and women wore a thong-like garment made of a strip of skin or woven plant fibers, attached front and back to a waist belt.  Women wore a knee-length skin skirt over that.  Children went naked in summer.

In winter, more covering was added.  Men would don a soft fur, hair side in, over the left shoulder and sewn or gathered under the right arm.  A smaller pelt hung loose from the right shoulder, leaving the right arm free.  Women draped a large cape made of two deer skins over the shoulders, often dragging behind.  Children used a smaller cape.

Moose or deer skin moccasins were worn when traveling.  Girls decorated theirs with dye and porcupine quills.  All wore leather leggings hung from the waist belt when passing through briars and rough country.

Leather was prepared by letting skins soak in a running brook to loosen the hair.  Then brains were smeared on the flesh side to soften the hide.  A stone scraper, and finally a smooth wooden scraper was worked back and forth to break the fibers.  Furs (skins with hair) were prepared with oil and softened by days of hand manipulation.

Women wove soft bird breast feathers into warm capes and skirts for themselves and the girls.  Men wore one or two decorative eagle or turkey feathers in their topknot, or something like a sweatband with feathers sticking up from it.  The typical Western "Indian Chief" headdress with long strings of colored feathers dropping behind was unknown in Maine.

Boy's hair was cut short until they were sixteen.  Girls and women let their hair grow long and tied it behind, dressed with colorful porcupine quills.  Adults spent hours on their hairstyles, which were different from tribe to tribe.

Indians lived on the Cranberry Isles year-round in villages of well-constructed, tight, warm, and comfortable wigwams -- their word for a habitation with a circular floor and either a cone- or dome-shaped roof.

Domed wigwams were used in more or less permanent villages, while cone wigwams, being more easily set up and dismantled, were used as temporary quarters, such as at remote fish camps.

To construct a domed wigwam frame, the men cut young trees into flexible poles and placed them, large end down, into the ground at suitable intervals in a circle to form the shape of the floor.  Then all the tops were bent down on opposite sides and tied together with tough flexible twigs such as willow to form the rounded roof.

Next the women skilled in sewing stepped in to enclose the frame.  They covered the top and sides with large slabs of green birch bark, lapped like shingles and stitched together with fine roots.  Two low door holes were left on the southwest and northeast sides, and a smoke hole about a foot wide in the very top of the roof.

The doors were covered with skins and could be opened on either side, as winds changed, to provide proper draft for a small fire.  There were no windows, but light was provided by the smoke hole or by a door skin pulled aside.  At night there was the fire.

The fireplace was a small circle of stones in the center of the floor.  Sticks held birch bark cook pots above it to boil.  Wood chopping was hard work with only stone axes, so once a small fire was started, a long log extending out the door would be slowly pushed into the fire as it burned.

Around the fire the men made raised wooden platforms extending to the walls, and the women covered these lounges with skins or woven grass mats.  On these the family sat, or slept with their feet to the fire, covered with furs in winter.

The house was watertight and warmer than a contemporary European home.  The wife kept it neat with a cedar broom.

Woven baskets holding supplies were hung from the wigwam walls and under the lounges.  A well-equipped household might contain stone knives and skin scrapers; clay jars, bowls, and cooking pots; wooden ladles and spoons; gourd or turtle shell bowls; and birch bark pails, measuring cups, and boiling pots.

Women made birch bark items by carefully stripping the bark from a tree, heating or steaming it soft over the fire, cutting and folding it into the desired shape, and sewing the edges together with fine roots.  Vessels intended to hold liquids had their seams sealed with spruce gum.  Rims and bail handles were formed from slender branches.

The women were adept at making baskets out of rushes, reeds, grass, hemp, or tree bark.  The baskets were used for day-to-day storage of household items and foodstuffs.  Many were not only useful but beautiful too, with colored designs woven in -- either directly onto the basket, or on dyed porcupine quills which were worked into it.  Green came from pond scum, brown from walnut shell, and red from ochre.  Materials were collected in summer and worked into baskets during the long winter.

Women also made clay pottery.  Formed without a wheel, ropes of clay mixed with ground-up shell were simply coiled upon each other, building up the walls of the vessel.  The coils were pressed together and smoothed over with additional clay, both inside and out.  The potter did not forget to embellish the rim and shoulders with geometric designs.  Similar designs were used over a wide area, and changed over time.  After air-drying the pot for several days, a fire was built on a bed of flat stones.  When the fire was reduced to coals, the pot was laid mouth to the heat until it was lightly browned.  The pot was then rolled onto the embers and covered with dried bark.  The burning bark fired the pot.  The hot pot was removed from the fire, and burning pith was thrown inside, thus firing and waterproofing the inside too.  Then it could safely be placed in the fire to boil soup or meat without danger of cracking.

Sewing needles were made from shell slivers or sharp bones such as mink ribs, with an eye hole carefully bored on one end.  Thread for sewing skins, baskets, and birch bark came from the fine split roots of cedar or hackmatack trees.  Twine and rope for nets and weirs was rolled and twisted from hemp and the inner bark of basswood trees.

Men made the wooden utensils such as dishes, spoons, and bowls.  Remarkably thin and delicate bowls can be crafted from a solid wood block by burning out the hollow with fire, then scraping away the charred wood -- and repeating the process many times.  The bottom and outside were kept wet to prevent burn-through.  After being "seasoned" by fat, which was never washed off, such a bowl would last years.

Every family also had at least one mortar and pestle for grinding, and a dog that stood guard and helped hunt and retrieve game.  Dogs were also occasionally eaten.

Indian women ground grain, nuts, herbs, and dried fish and flesh into meal and flour using a mortar and pestle.  The mortar could be a large wooden log or boulder, or a stone small enough to be held in the lap.  The pestle, always a smaller hand-held stone, is pounded into the mortar to crush the contents.  Fine-ground particles rise to the top and are spooned out.  Eventually the collected grist could be sieved through a fine basket.  The method was so effective that the first European settlers adopted it too.

Indians had a great respect for animals and so did not waste meat.  They ate nearly every type of animal except carnivores such as wolf, and they ate every part including the tripe, liver, heart, and kidneys.  Meat and fish was cooked by boiling in fresh (green) birch-bark vessels hung over a fire, or in pointy-bottom clay pots placed upright in the embers.  Roasting was not favored as it wasted the juices.

Fish were also broiled on a flat stone or simply placed directly on live coals.  Clams could be made into a chowder with wild leeks, simply roasted near a fire until they opened, or baked in pits filled with heated rocks covered with seaweed, green corn, and fish -- the classic clambake.

Vegetables such as beach-pea, beans, pumpkin, and squash were common in this area, maize (corn) less so.  Those not needed for summer meals were dried and stored for the winter, when they were boiled in stews or ground for pudding.  Fresh pumpkins and squash were simply boiled -- the less water the better.  The seeds were roasted for a favorite treat.

The Indians gathered spring fiddleheads, cowslip shoots, and roots of the yellow pond lily and cattail.  The sweet lily roots were dried for the winter, while the others were eaten raw or used to flavor stews.

Berries of all kinds were especially enjoyed.  Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, currants, and of course cranberries all grew hereabouts.  All were eaten fresh or dried for winter use, such as meat seasonings.  Cranberries contain iron and iodine and are especially healthful.

Indians mostly drank water, but made a pleasant summer drink from strawberry and raspberry leaves, and a fine tea from wintergreen, spruce, and wild cherry twigs.  They never brewed or fermented.

The cook never threw out broth from boiled flesh, fish, or vegetables.  It was used as a base for stew or simply drunk as a bouillon.

Salt was never used.  Living by the sea, they were certainly aware of its properties, but the roots, fish, and animal parts they ate contained enough dietary salt for their needs.  Meat was preserved by drying and smoking; sassafras and other herbs kept animal fats such as duck, seal, and fish oil sweet even in summer, so salt was unnecessary.

The Cranberry Isles Indians had few sweets.  European type honeybees did not exist.  Maple syrup was known, but sugar maple trees do not grow in this area.  Probably the sweetest things they had were chestnuts, yellow pond lily root, fruits, and berries.

In short, the Indians' diet was varied and balanced, with all necessary vitamins and minerals.  That, and their Spartan life made them strong, vigorous, and healthy.

Pre-contact Indians were generally healthier, with longer life spans and better teeth than the average European of the same era.  But Indians did suffer from arthritis, rheumatism, chills, and fever, as well as eye troubles from smoky wigwams.

Natural remedies such as massage and plant-derived specifics were well-known to the elder women of the tribe, who generally treated these ailments.  In particular, arthritis called for a tea made from sarsaparilla and sweet flag root, or with wintergreen, which contains aspirin.  The skin was covered with fish oil or animal grease to prevent sunburn, poison ivy irritation, and mosquito bites.  Birch or pine bark was used for burns, ground juniper or dogwood bark were effective cold remedies, a wild blackberry root gargle treated sore throat, milkweed was a good antiseptic, spider's web stopped bleeding, and an unripe cranberry decoction was used to draw out poison from arrow wounds.  Cranberry poultice was also used on sores and to soothe inflammation.

Indian mothers were renowned for quick and easy delivery.  Newborns were small by European standards.  They were laid in a bed of cattail or milkweed fluff, sphagnum moss, or duck feathers, which prevents chaffing and acts as an absorbent diaper.

Babes weren't coddled and were soon accustomed to cold weather.  Only a few days old, the infant would be strapped onto a smooth flat cradleboard and carried on its mother's back, to be hung from a convenient tree while she resumed her usual chores.  Mothers nursed for two years.  If her milk failed and no wet nurse was available, baby food was prepared by grinding hickory nuts and dried deer meat.  This "nut flour" becomes white and sweet as milk when added to boiling water.  Teething infants were given a bone to gnaw.

Unfortunately, the Indians had no natural immunity to imported European diseases such as smallpox, typhus, and bubonic plague.  In the early 1600s, when quantities of white men started arriving as settlers rather than just the occasional explorer, Indian populations died off as much as 50% to 75% along the Maine coast.

Men did the hunting and fishing.  Harpoons were made from deer antlers or from a deer's leg bone, with sawtooth notches cut on the side.  A wishbone made an excellent fishhook.

A skilled hunter learned to disguise his body, make bird and animal sounds, and use animal scents to attract prey.  He would frequently dress in a full deer skin, with stuffed head and antlers, and lay prone near the peak of a hill for hours waiting for a clear shot by bow and arrow.