Home Business and Labor How July 4th Partying Cost the Life of Thoreau’s Maine Guide

How July 4th Partying Cost the Life of Thoreau’s Maine Guide


Joe Attien was a Maine guide, logger and Penobscot chief who died in a logging accident. It probably wouldn’t have happened if his skilled crew hadn’t been off  partying on the Fourth of July.

maine guide joe aettien

Joe Attien

Logging season usually ended around Independence Day, and loggers on the Penobscot River usually spent their wages raising hell in the Devil’s Half Acre in Bangor, Maine.

But in 1870, the logging season ran long, and Attien got stuck with an inexperienced skeleton crew to drive the last of the logs down the Penobscot.

Maine Guide, Logger, Chief

Henry David Thoreau made several trips to Maine. On his second trip in 1853, he hired Joe Attien as his Maine guide. They met at Moosehead Lake, and Thoreau described him:

He was a good looking Indian, twenty-four years old, apparently of unmixed blood, short and stout, with a broad face and reddish complexion, and eyes, methinks, narrower and more turned up at the outer corners than ours, answering to the description of his race. Besides his under clothing, he wore a red flannel shirt, woolen pants, and a black Kossuth hat, the ordinary dress of the lumberman, and, to a considerable extent, of the Penobscot Indian..

Joe Attien was more than a stereotypical Indian, though. He was the last hereditary chief, or governor, of the Penobscot Nation and the first to be elected. Born on Christmas Day, 1829, he grew up when the tribe had illegally ceded most of its land to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Maine. Like many of the Penobscot men, he earned seasonal wages working as a Maine guide and a logger.

Log drive on the Kennebec River, 1922. Courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Log drive on the Kennebec River, 1922. Courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

On July 4, 1870, Joe Attien was leading a team of log drivers down the Penobscot River in a bateau. Some of the experienced loggers were in Bangor, celebrating Independence Day. Attien and his crew had to drive the last of the logs down the river.

Attien’s bowman was inexperienced and unskilled. They shoved off on the West Branch of the Penobscot, and the bowman ccouldn’t get the bateau in position to run the rapids. They struck a rock sideways and the boat began to break apart. Some swam for the shore while others clung to the boat. Attien stayed behind to rescue the men who clung to it. He was desperately trying to save their lives when the bateau plunged over Grand Pitch Falls.

Folklorist Fanny Hardy Eckstorm had known Joe Attien since she was an infant, and she wrote about his death in a collection of stories called Penobscot Man.

He was not only brave but good, an open-hearted, patient, forbearing sort of a man, renowned for his courage and skill in handling a boat, but loved for his mild justness.



Gail Dedrick July 5, 2015 - 3:50 pm

RIP Joe.

Rev. Henry Wight – Father of the Fourth of July - New England Historical Society July 4, 2016 - 7:24 am

[…] served as a soldier in the American Revolution, determined that the town of Bristol should observe Patriotic Exercises on the Fourth of July. He led the ceremonies in 1785 with a speech and call to reflect on the hard […]

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