Mount Desert Island ancient Native American history

Summer visitors might enjoy learning the history of Mount Desert Island, just as much as they will be in awe of the natural beauty of the special area. As 3,303,393 visitors are expected to visit Maine’s magnificent Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, the beauty they will experience often takes precedence over the extraordinary history of the panoramic views. In fact, Mt. Desert was named by the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635).  French traders and colonial settlers came and went through the area, but their very existence was supported by the Native American inhabitants.  Passamaquoddy Indians were friendly to the French and even helped them to survive during the winter of 1604-1605, when the colony on St. Croix Island failed.  Perhaps, one of the most succinct descriptions of the very earliest explorers of Mount Desert Island is reported by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, published in 1960, in his book, “The Story of Mount Desert Island” (The Atlantic Monthly Press).

Frist chapter describes Red Paint people.

A succinct history about Mount Desert Island by Samuel Eliot Morison includes a brief history of the Red Paint People.

In fact, the Red Paint People were an ancient seafaring tribe which explored the shores of North America 7,000 years ago, and Mount Desert Island. In fact, the Red Paint people were the first to colonize the east coast of North America. These early Americans rivaled their European counterparts in navigational skills, demonstrated several millennia before the Vikings. As archaeologists have discovered, they used sophisticated tools, and for reasons unknown, these ancient sailors covered their dead with a dye called red ochre, an iron oxide hematite; the word comes from Greek, hema meaning blood.

Although the first Europeans documented the exploration of Mount Desert in 1604, the shores were already used by Indians for several thousand prior years.  Morison reports on three different Indian cultures to have occupied the territory.  Archaeologists discovered a cache of relics, with edged tools, spearheads and slate lance-points near Ellsworth Falls, which, the Carbon-14 dating method must have been deposited around 4, 000 B.C. Moreover, the tools resemble objects found in New Mexico and Arizona, more than those found elsewhere in New England. Archaeologists even found bones of tuna fish.  This means, the Indians were amazing fishermen who traveled outside of the Frenchmans Bay coves to catch big game fish.

Red Paint People

A NOVA description of the Red Paint People shows how they covered their dead with red ochre.

For want of a better name, the earliest Indians on Mount Desert became known as the Red Paint People. Their name was given to them because they were “addicted to make-up”, wrote Morison.  In their graves are caches of red and yellow ochre that was used to adorn their faces and bodies.  Red Paint relics found at Blue Hill, Hancock Point and in Ellsworth are similar to those of the so called Mound Builders of the Middle West. They made their cutting tools out of slate, created pottery and used iron pyrites to strike fire with flint.

Red Paint People may have been so obsessed with their make-up, that the preoccupation caused them to forget to pay attention to their own survival, wrote Morison. As a matter of fact, their disappearance is a mystery. Speculation is that these ancients were conquered by the Indians who inhabited Mount Desert when the French arrived. The Algonquin and Abnaki were the  tribes that developed the birch-bark culture associated with Indians of historic times.  “These were Abnaki, who belonged to the Algonquian language group, one of the most important branches of American Indians, at one time covering most of the Eastern United States and Canada.” The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes of the Abnaki were the Indians encountered at Mount Desert by the French explorers.  Even in colonial times, the Abnaki Indians were not permanent residents of Mount Desert Island.  Like tourists today, they were more or less “summer folk”. Rather, their permanent villages were up the Penobscot River, near Orono, and on the headwaters of the Machias and Narraguagus Rivers (flows into the Gulf of Maine).  Indians kept summer residences at various points on Frenchmans Bay and on the shores of Mount Desert, always near tidal flats where clams flourished. They established birch-bark lodges for the summer season.  As history records the settlements in this region, the European settlements eventually broke off the seasonal Passamaquoddy visiting.

Mount Desert was inhabited by summer Indians who lived near Orono, Maine during the remainder of the year.

Artistic rendering of earliest summer inhabitants of Mount Desert Island

Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, are flooded with visitors who can’t get enough of seeing the vistas and landscapes.  Honestly, there is always something magnificently beautiful to experience, regardless of the weather or season of the year, when visitors happen to be on Mount Desert Island.  Although the inhabitants today are largely a hardy group of year round Mainers, they are just as welcoming of visitors as were the Indians before them.  Therefore, be sure to point guests to the historic Abbe Museum, in Bar Harbor, to pay tribute to the ancient people and their ancestors. who welcomed the French explorers and settlers. (This museum has Smithsonian Affiliation and is sponsored by the Maine Arts Commission.)

The Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe today largely resides on Indian Township and their website provides an overview about their culture.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.