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People of the Dawnland

The Wabanaki and the Mount Desert Island Region before Colonization
By Julia Clark and George Neptune
Spring 2014 Friends of Acadia Journal

An artist’s reconstruction of a Wabanaki encampment on the coast of Maine approximately 3,000 years ago. Painting by Judith Cooper. Courtesy Abbe Museum

An artist’s reconstruction of a Wabanaki encampment on the coast of Maine approximately 3,000 years ago. Painting by Judith Cooper. All images courtesy Abbe Museum.

Wabanaki people and their ancestors lived on the land now known as Acadia National Park for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans in their homeland, and continue to have an important presence in this place today.

According to oral histories, the Wabanaki have lived in this area since time immemorial. The roots of the word wabanaki can be found, as one example, in the Passamaquoddy word ckuwaponahkiyik, which means “people from the land where the sun rises.” The Wabanaki refer to their homelands as the “Dawnland.” When Koluskap, “culture hero” of the Wabanaki, arrived in the Dawnland, it was void of people. So, taking an arrow from his quiver, he aimed at a brown ash tree and fired. From the opening in the tree left by his arrow came the first Wabanaki people.

Archaeological evidence tells us that Native Americans first arrived in Maine beginning around 13,000 years ago, after the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated. Archaeological sites in interior and western Maine tell us about these earliest inhabitants. In and around Acadia National Park, however, the glacial retreat was followed (for a variety of reasons) by a substantial increase and then a substantial drop in sea level. And since Native American archaeological sites near the coast tend to be on the water, evidence of Mount Desert Island’s earliest inhabitants is now under water and not easily accessible to archaeologists. Archaeological research in other parts of Maine give evidence of people living in small groups and traveling across the landscape hunting migratory animals (including now-extinct mastodon) and gathering wild plant foods. They were highly skilled stone tool makers, and are perhaps best known for their distinct fluted spear points. They inhabited a tundra-like environment into which woodlands were slowly spreading.

As the environment warmed following the end of the ice age, Maine became more forested, the last of the ice age mega-fauna became extinct, and the plants and animals familiar in Maine today took up residence. Early forests on and around Acadia would have looked different from what was here when the first Europeans arrived. The composition of hardwoods and conifers changed with long-term changes in the climate, in some cases influenced by changing tidal amplitude and water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

The Wabanaki have many stories that serve the purpose of preserving the history of people in the Dawnland. In one tale, Koluskap must travel the world in search of animals that wish to harm Wabanaki people, so that he can shrink them to a more manageable size. Another tells of a winter that lasted many years, and Koluskap convinced the Winter Bird to close his wings for part of the year. While these stories are often interpreted as myths, modern science can sometimes inadvertently support oral histories by providing evidence—in these cases, with the proven existence of mega-fauna and the discovery of Maine’s “mini ice age” in the geological record.

During what archaeologists call the Archaic Period (9,500–3,000 years ago), native people living on or near the coast of Maine adapted to a forested environment. They hunted a wide range of animals— moose, deer, a variety of smaller mammals on the land, and seals and small whales in the ocean. They fished for everything from sturgeon and swordfish to cod, and took full advantage of annual runs of fish like alewives. A wide variety of birds, both migratory and local, contributed to their diet, as did amphibians like turtles, and of course shellfish. From the remains of fire hearths and food storage pits archaeologists find evidence for the harvesting of a wide variety of plants, especially nuts and berries.

Some creation stories go beyond the task of preserving Wabanaki history, and can even be seen as crucial to survival. In the story of the First Moose Hunt, Koluskap chases his prey, a baby moose and its mother, all over the Dawnland, leaving footprints and other clues of his journey. Eventually, the mother moose dies and turns into stone, while Koluskap catches up to the baby near the ocean, and prepares it to eat. He throws the entrails to his dog, while it waits across the bay. At first glance, the story seems to simply be a fantastical account of the excitement of moose hunting; however, a closer look reveals much more important meanings. This story not only speaks about how to hunt a moose, but which parts of the moose to eat and, most importantly, how to find the stones needed to make arrowheads. Starting in Penobscot Bay, you can identify the “entrails” of the moose—a large deposit of quartzite that reaches from one side of the bay to the other. While heading for the entrails, you discover “Moose Liver Rock,” an important vantage point to discover a portage route. Eventually, the story would lead you all the way back to the Mother Moose, who has turned into a large deposit of the stone that killed her, which is now called Mt. Kineo.

It is from the Archaic Period that the earliest archaeological sites in and around Acadia National Park are found. By about 5,000 years ago, the shoreline was fairly close to where it is today, and sites dating to this time period have been uncovered in places like Gouldsboro, Blue Hill, and Ellsworth. People lived in family-based groups and traveled by ocean, river, and lake (perhaps in dugout canoes) to take advantage of the seasonal resources in their homeland. We also see evidence of trade and interactions with groups as far away as Labrador and Pennsylvania, most often in the form of raw stone materials for making tools, but also in shared styles of tools. Some of the most characteristic tools associated with the Archaic Period in Maine are heavy, ground-stone woodworking tools such as gouges, celts, and adzes. Another tool type associated with the Archaic Period along coastal Maine is the plummet, a pendant-shaped tool that archaeologists believe was used to weight fishing lines or fish nets. Several large plummets have been discovered by fisherman around Mount Desert Island, pulled up in their nets.

Typical Ceramic Period artifacts from Gotts Island shell middens, from the Abbe Museum’s Ruth Moore Collection.

Typical Ceramic Period artifacts from Gotts Island shell middens, from the Abbe Museum’s Ruth Moore Collection.

More significant changes began to happen in the region approximately 4,000–3,000 years ago. The environment in the Mount Desert Island region started to shift from a more mixed forest to the coastal coniferous forest we see today from Penobscot Bay east, in part caused by drops in ocean temperature as a result of increasing tidal amplitude in the Gulf of Maine. Moose became more important than deer, as populations of each animal followed the shifting forest cover. It may have been around this time that Wabanaki ancestors in Maine began to make and use birchbark canoes. Interactions (the exact nature and extent of which archaeologists are currently debating) with people to the south and west increased, and perhaps the most important technological introduction, that of pottery, occurred in Maine.

This birchbark log holder by Joseph Nicholas, a Passamaquoddy artist from the late 19th to early 20th century, depicts important food resources for the Wabanaki, especially deer and moose. From the Abbe Museum Collections.

This birchbark log holder by Joseph Nicholas, a Passamaquoddy artist from the late 19th to early 20th century, depicts important food resources for the Wabanaki, especially deer and moose. From the Abbe Museum Collections.

Archaeologists refer to this time period in Maine as the Ceramic Period (3000–500 years ago) because the presence of pottery, which is an easily recognized marker in archaeological sites. During the Ceramic Period, populations in Maine increased, and larger groups of people came together to live year-round in both coastal and interior Maine. While in southern and western Maine the introduction of domesticated plants supported the formation of fairly large villages, in the Acadia region, it was an abundance of both marine and terrestrial wild resources that supported groups of multiple extended families living together in small settlements, evidenced in the shell middens that dot the shores of the area.

While it is theorized that the island’s resources would not be plentiful enough to support several year-round encampments, Wabanaki people used Mount Desert Island as a meeting place for trade and to collect various resources. For example, two Passamaquoddy place names, moneskatik (Bar Harbor) and wawonok (Somes Sound), speak to two important resources found in those places: moneskatik, “the clam digging place,” and wawonok, “the egg gathering place” (literally, eggs), reveal the history of Wabanaki people gathering clams and waterfowl eggs from the Bar and Egg Rock.

As the region closes in on the imminent arrival of European fishermen, explorers, and settlers, the Wabanaki had established a well-adapted and fairly affluent life in their homeland surrounding present-day Acadia National Park. Living on the coast year-round, they took advantage of the diverse and abundant plant and animal resources harvested from the land and water. They traveled widely to gather seasonal resources, to meet with extended family and allies, and to trade with other groups near and far. Important political alliances had been developed to manage relationships between communities and tribes. In fact, evidence from archaeology, oral tradition, and early European accounts suggest that the Mount Desert Island area was an important meeting place where people from several larger groups came together to interact in a variety of ways, and was the center of one of the most important Wabanaki alliances encountered by early European arrivals. And Frenchman Bay became a critical borderland of sorts in the complex relationships that developed between the Wabanaki, French, and English. (To learn more about what happened in the area during this critical time of contact, visit the exhibit “St. Sauveur: A Meeting of Nations” at the Abbe Museum at Sieur de Monts Spring, or on the Abbe’s website at:

Indian encampment in Bar Harbor, 1881. Stereoview by Kilburn Brothers.

Indian encampment in Bar Harbor, 1881. Stereoview by Kilburn Brothers.

With the colonization of Mount Desert Island, the Wabanaki presence here slowly began to dissipate. Once an important resource, Mount Desert Island became the home to fewer and fewer Wabanaki encampments while colonial settlers expanded their homesteads. During the Rusticator time period, Wabanaki people continued to visit Mount Desert Island and made tourist-trade items to sell to the wealthy visitors of the island—Wabanaki encampments were eventually banned from Bar Harbor and surrounding areas. Now, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and the Abbe Museum host an annual Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market at the College of the Atlantic in July. And Wabanaki people still live and work on and around Mount Desert Island or travel here to share knowledge about their culture and history, and to sell their fine art and crafts in the modern-day incarnation of millennium-old traditions.


JULIA CLARK is the curator of collections at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. She has a B.A. in anthropology from Bowdoin College and a M.A. in anthropology from the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Abbe, she worked for ten years doing cultural resource management archaeology in Maine.

GEORGE NEPTUNE is the museum educator at the Abbe Museum. He learned basket making from his grandmother at the age of 4, and his baskets have been featured at the Abbe for many years. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 2010 with a BA in theater, and was active in the Native American Studies program. He has been an interpretive ranger at Saint Croix Island International Historic Site and was the Unit Director/Mentor Program Coordinator of the Passamaquoddy Boys and Girls Club at Indian Township before joining the Abbe.