Abenaki - Orientation

Identification. The Abenaki appear first as "Abenacquiouoict" on Champlain's map of 1632; they were located in the interior of Maine between the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. In 1604, Champlain had called the Indians of modern New Brunswick and Maine "Etechemins" (lumping the Indians of southeastern New England under the term "Armouchiquois"). Because "Etchemin" was later applied more specifically to the modern Maliseet and Passamaquoddy of New Brunswick and easternmost Maine, some scholars have concluded that the communities Champlain found in Maine in 1604 subsequently withdrew eastward and were replaced by Abenaki expanding from the interior. Others, including this writer, have favored the view that the apparent shift was more likely due to confusion resulting from the changing mix of place-names, personal names, and ethnic identifications that alternated and overlapped in time and space in New England.

Location. In the Handbook of North American Indians (1978) a distinction is drawn between the Western Abenaki of interior New Hampshire and Vermont and the Eastern Abenaki of western and central Maine. The Western Abenaki included people of the upper Connecticut River called the "Sokoki." The Eastern Abenaki can be further subdivided from west to east into the Pequawket, Arosaguntacook, Kennebec, and Penobscot, reflecting community clusters along the Presumpscot, Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot rivers. All through the devastating epidemics and wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many survivors from the first three divisions, as well as many Western Abenaki, relocated to the Penobscot. Most Western Abenaki, along with some Eastern Abenaki, eventually settled at Odanak (Saint Francis), near the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Most Eastern Abenaki survived at Old Town and in other communities of central Maine, where they are known today as the Penobscot Indians. Both communities have absorbed people from southern New England and to a lesser extent from the Maritime Provinces over the last three centuries.

Demography. There were probably around 14,000 Eastern Abenaki and 12,000 Western Abenaki in 1600. These populations collapsed quickly to around 3,000 and 250, respectively, owing largely to epidemics and migration early in the seventeenth century. Further demographic changes took place as refugees arrived from the south, the number of violent deaths increased in the course of colonial warfare, and communities became consolidated at a few locations. In 1973 there were probably no more than 1,000 Western Abenaki, 220 of whom lived at Odanak. Others remain scattered in Vermont and in other portions of their original homeland. The population at Old Town was 815 in 1970, with many people of Penobscot descent living elsewhere.

Linguistic Affiliation. Abenaki dialects belong to the Eastern Algonkian subdivision of the Algonkian-Ritwan Language family. Depopulation and family relocations have so confused Abenaki history that it may be impossible to ever reconstruct the contents and distributions of seventeenth-century dialects.

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User Contributions:

My family has been told that there was an Abnaki settlement farther south on the Kennebec between outer Augusta and Winslow. My children are part MicMac, part Abenaki and we own land in this vicinity. Is there any truth to this statement, or were these observed natives perhaps a temporary or seasonal extension of the Norridgewock band?

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