Every American kid knows the story of Thanksgiving, as told in schools across the land.
There’s the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the winter of hardship, the helpful American Indians and the triumphant and thankful meal at the end of that first year. The story has become part of the national mythology, and influences what we think about the nation’s founding.
In Maine, they have their own tale of Colonial-era suffering and woe that is leavened with cruel villainy, a heroic rescue by the Passamaquoddy Indians, and maybe a miracle or two. Hardly anyone knows this story, and some Mainers think it’s time for that to change.
The action began in Northern Ireland in July 1741, when a group of about 200 Scots-Irish Presbyterians boarded a ship, called the Martha & Eliza. They departed from Londonderry and were bound for North Carolina by way of Philadelphia, in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom from the Church of England. They no doubt sailed from the old world with hope in their hearts about the new lives they could make in America. Times had been tough in Ireland after a volcanic eruption in the late 1730s created a mini ice age, in which winter stayed for two years, freezing the River Shannon solid. The group sailed under an emigration scheme that likely was called “the Grand Design”.
After about three weeks at sea, the passengers were struck down by a serious illness which proved fatal for many. Then, after surviving a hurricane which disabled the masts and swept the ship off course for weeks, the Martha & Eliza finally foundered in late autumn near an island with sand beaches and high cliffs.
The passengers were stranded on Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Washington County.
Grand Manan island
The captain, Matthew Rowan was a scoundrel. He & his crew abandoned the passengers, taking the ship's longboat. The shipwreck survivors were left to scrounge for clams and make crude shelters on the deserted island. When the captain finally returned several weeks later — mainly to salvage the goods off the boat - most of the men from the emigrants camp had left on a quest for help, never to be seen alive again. Some of the remaining women had gone farther afield in search of more food, and the crew left them behind without a search. Captain Rowan did take a group of 48 hungry, debilitated survivors to St. George, where he took their clothes, goods and money before leaving them to the mercy of the villagers.
Meanwhile, the women left behind faced extreme privations, including hunger, cold, death, despair and fear of the Indians. But as fate would have it, the island on which they were marooned was sacred to the Passamaquoddy, the people of the dawn. John Bear Mitchell, a lecturer in Wabanaki studies at the University of Maine, said that Grand Manan features prominently in the Passamaquoddy creation story. Dawn, the daughter of the sea and sky deities, was chased to sea by wolves and became the island.
“It’s believed to this day by Wabanaki men and women that that island has the spirit of Dawn in it because it is her,” Mitchell said, “Men will go out there and do their first hunt. Women do after-winter ceremonies there.”
A Passamaquoddy indian huntsman
In the spring of 1742, Passamaquoddy hunters were shocked when they paddled to the island for their hunt and heard an English speaking voice — a mother carrying an infant. When they learned the 10 or so women had survived all winter on food they literally pulled from the rocks – edible seaweed and shellfish such as clams, periwinkles and mussels, they were astounded.
“They knew the only way the women had survived was that Dawn had taken care of them and the baby,” Mitchell said.
Instead of bringing the women to the relatively close French settlement (who were at war with the British Isles at the time) and ransoming them there for profit, the Passamaquoddy hunters decided instead to deliver an SOS letter to the nearest British settlement.
That they would paddle over 100 miles in an open canoe, risking their lives on the women’s behalf, is even more remarkable.
A ship from St. George went to Grand Manan to pick up the last survivors, bringing them back. Many stayed in St. George, not wanting to risk anything else in the name of adventure. They married local men and put down deep roots in Maine. It’s said that the women from the shipwreck kept a good relationship with the local Indians.
There was a huge prejudice against the Indians at the time. But the people the emigrants had trusted — the captain & his crew, had let them down. The people who had rescued them were the Indians.
Mitchell said people can learn a lot from the stories of positive interactions between Europeans and Indians, like the story of the rescue of the women from the Martha & Eliza, instead of concentrating on the myths of settlement and conquering.
“Focusing on positive interactions is sort of like Thanksgiving,” he said. “It refocuses Thanksgiving from Pilgrims and Indians to family time. We’re taking care of people. As humans, this is what we do, and this is what we should be doing.”