The Penobscot sachem Joseph Orono died in 1801, too early to know about his consolation prize for losing his people’s land to white settlers.
He lived plenty long, though. He was said to have been born in 1688, which made him 113 when he died in 1801. If that’s true, Joseph Orono lived through every one of the French and Indian Wars as well as the American Revolution, in which he participated
Five years after his death, Orono, Maine named itself after him. He probably would have preferred the land along the Penobscot River promised him, and then taken.
Historical accounts agree that Joseph Orono had reddish hair, blue eyes and a pale complexion. He spoke fluent French, English and Penobscot.
Accounts disagree about his lineage. Some say he had some relation to Baron de Castine, a French nobleman who married an Indian. (Castine also had a town named after him in Maine.) Perhaps Orono was Castine’s son-in-law, or grandson.
Joseph Orono himself said his father was French, and his mother half French, half Indian. A devout Catholic, he believed the Indians had suffered from war, and advocated peace. White people viewed him favorably, and described him as able, friendly and sagacious.
In 1775, Joseph Orono and three other Penobscot chiefs went to air their grievances to the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, as Maine then belonged to that colony. The Indian delegation stopped in Falmouth, now Portland, where the people gave them money, horses and a carriage to help them on their journey.
On June 21, 1775, Joseph Orono addressed the Provincial Congress on behalf of the whole Penobscot tribe. As he spoke, the men inside could hear the groans of the soldiers dying of their battle wounds.
Orono said that if the Congress took care of his people’s grievances, the Penobscots would aid the rebels with their whole force. Those grievances consisted chiefly of trespasses by the whites upon their timber lands and cheating them in trade.
The committee responded warmly, and said the Indians’ complaints would receive their attention as soon as they could take a breath from the Revolution. Eventually, Massachusetts signed a treaty giving six miles of land on each side of the Penobscot river to the Indians.
In 1779, the British built a fort in what is now Castine. Joseph Orono communicated intelligence about their activities to the patriots. Massachusetts then sent the Penobscot Expedition to Castine, and the Penobscot Indians fought with them. Whether Joseph Orono actually fought is unclear; he would have been 91.
The British routed the Americans in the worst naval disaster until Pearl Harbor. But Joseph Orono continued to help the cause, communicating intelligence to patriots in Machias and Halifax.
In 1780, Joseph Orono earned his Indian nickname, K’tolaqu. It means ‘frigate.’
Orono went to Newport, R.I., where French forces had landed before marching to Yorktown. His mission: to request a Catholic priest from the French consul. But he was so amazed by the French frigates in the harbor that he couldn’t stop talking about them afterword.
Joseph Orono had often stayed and hunted with a friend on Deer Isle, a white settler named Seth Webb. After he broke with other Penobscots in 1783, he moved a small group of his people to White Island, off Deer Isle.
They established a little village with a Franciscan missionary, a Catholic chapel and wigwams. But they couldn’t live in peace there, either. In 1786, Joseph Orono complained to Massachusetts Commissioner Benjamin Lincoln, once a member of the Provincial Congress. People were chopping down his trees and burning the wigwams, he said.
A decade later, Massachusetts reneged on its deal to deed the land along the Penobscot River to Orono’s people. All they had left was the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation.
Five years after Joseph Orono died, white settlers near the Indian reservation incorporated, naming the town Orono. Today, the University of Maine has its main campus there. An island in Penobscot Bay also bears his name.
In May 2018, the University of Maine and the Penobscot Nation were scheduled to signed an agreement ‘formalizing their collaborations in the past decade to help manage the tribe’s cultural heritage.’
With thanks to Canoe Indians of Down East Maine, by Bill Haviland. This story about the Penobscot chief Joseph Orono was updated in 2022.