Home Arts and Leisure Lucy Nicolar Goes Far From a Maine Indian Reservation — And Then Returns

Lucy Nicolar Goes Far From a Maine Indian Reservation — And Then Returns

A life spent mixing entertainment with political activism

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55 comments

In January 1900, 17-year-old Lucy Nicolar traveled from her home on Indian Island in Penobscot County, Maine, to New York City where she attended a debate about immigration. Lucy, a Penobscot Indian, was also known as Princess Watahwaso.

Lucy Nicolar

The debaters concluded that immigration was dangerous and threatening to all true Americans. Lucy rose to speak:

I believe I am the only true American here. I think you have decided rightly. Of all my forefathers’ country, from the St. John to the Connecticut, we have now but a little island one-half mile square. There are only about 500 of us now. We are very happy on our island, but we are poor. The railroad corporations, which did their share of robbing us of our land, are now begrudging us half-rate fare. But we forgive you all.

The room fell silent. Then the president of the society announced there’d be no musical feature as the pianist was sick – unless someone volunteered. Lucy Nicolar sat at the piano and played selections from Chopin. She then sang a plaintive song that, according to a journalist, touched everyone in the room.

Princess Watahwosa would spend the rest of her life mixing entertainment with political activism.

Indian Island

Lucy Nicolar was born June 22, 1882, on Indian Island, Maine, the daughter of Joseph Nicolar and Elizabeth Joseph. Every summer, her family traveled to the resort town of Kennebunkport to sell baskets. Lucy and her sister performed in Indian dress for the tourists. In her late teens she started performing at public events such as sportsman’s shows. 

During those performances, she came to the attention of a Harvard administrator who hired her as his assistant. He took her into his household and gave her musical and educational opportunities in Boston and New York. In 1905, she married a doctor and moved to Washington, D.C. Eight years later they divorced, and Lucy moved to Chicago to study music.

Recording Artist

Eventually she became a recording artist with Victor Records, performing adaptations of Indian songs such as By the Waters of Minnetonka and By the Weeping Waters. The company sent her on a national promotional tour. As Molly Spotted Elk did later, she acted out stereotypes of Indians while presenting classical European music. She performed on stage in traditional Indian dress, mixing opera arias with Native American songs. 

In 1917, Music News raved about a concert she gave in Chicago:

All the seriousness and reliability of her race (The American Indian) are hers and in addition she has individual charms and graces which maker her the peer of brilliant young womanhood of any Race and the superior of most.

Gifted with keen intelligence and musical ability she has added to the force of her natural heredity the style and finish which come from fine education and she stands today as a public entertainer possessing both intelligence and artistry of high order and — as these are applied to a subject of rare appeal to the public she is extremely fascinating to every audience before which she appears.

Sensational Success

In a review of her New York debut, the Music Courier reported, “Princess Watahwaso, A Full-blooded Penobscot Indian Mezzo-Soprano, scores a sensational success at her New York debut recital at Aeolian Hall, April 7, 1920.”

Lucy Nicolar as Princess Watahwaso

Lucy Nicolar as Princess Watahwaso

Lucy Nicolar also toured as part of the Redpath Chatauqua Bureau, then the Keith vaudeville circuit. She married a lawyer who became her manager. He took all her money and fled to Mexico after the stock market crashed in 1929.

When vaudeville died, she returned to the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation with her husband Bruce Poolaw, a Kiowa entertainer from Oklahoma. They opened a gift shop — a teepee 24 feet in diameter — called it Poolaw’s Indian TeePee and sold traditional Indian crafts. They also continued to entertain locally.

Lucy Nicolar’s gift shop, which became an office

Sisters

Lucy and her sister Florence campaigned to improve life for their people on the reservation,. Their land stretched along the Penobscot River from Indian Island near Old Town to East Millinocket.

The sisters raised the educational standards for Penobscot children by gaining access to the public schools. And they persuaded the state to build a bridge to the island.

liberty-pole-old-town

Postcard of Indian Island before the bridge

Lucy and Florence also demanded the right to vote for their people. When the state extended suffrage to the Penobscots in 1955, Lucy Nicolar cast the first ballot.

The Old Town Enterprise reported “The princess has done much for the uplift of her people during her public career, both locally and nationally.”

Lucy Nicolar died at Indian Island on March 27, 1969, at the age of 87.

With thanks to Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives (Viewpoints on American Culture) by Theda Perdue. This story was updated in 2023.

Images: “Indian offices” By No machine-readable author provided. Hhmb assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1507581. Young Lucy Nicolar By Matzene, Chicago. – Cover illustration, Lyceum News (November 1916): 1., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71257272.

55 comments

Wendy Laffely
Wendy Laffely January 12, 2014 - 12:22 pm

Who wants immigration reform ???

Wendy Laffely
Wendy Laffely January 12, 2014 - 12:22 pm

Who wants immigration reform ???

Aliesha Bennett
Aliesha Bennett January 12, 2014 - 12:29 pm

Amazing.

Aliesha Bennett
Aliesha Bennett January 12, 2014 - 12:29 pm

Amazing.

Becki Savery
Becki Savery January 12, 2014 - 12:41 pm

my kind of gal…

Becki Savery
Becki Savery January 12, 2014 - 12:41 pm

my kind of gal…

Dora Compean
Dora Compean January 12, 2014 - 12:47 pm

Good history

Dora Compean
Dora Compean January 12, 2014 - 12:47 pm

Good history

Gail Bryce Driscoll
Gail Bryce Driscoll January 12, 2014 - 1:23 pm

A Mighty Girl indeed! Thanks for sharing.

Ailton Nascimento
Ailton Nascimento January 12, 2014 - 1:29 pm

is true

New England Genealogy
New England Genealogy January 12, 2014 - 1:31 pm

shared!

Nancy Markey Gleason
Nancy Markey Gleason January 12, 2014 - 1:56 pm

This land is her land.

Lori Foley
Lori Foley January 12, 2014 - 2:15 pm

Amazing brave woman!

Eleanor Griffin
Eleanor Griffin January 12, 2014 - 2:16 pm

Amazing- sharing this…

Ann Lunny
Ann Lunny January 12, 2014 - 2:22 pm

Beautiful inside and out.

Bobo Leach
Bobo Leach January 12, 2014 - 2:30 pm

Fascinating story.

Linda Davis
Linda Davis January 12, 2014 - 3:09 pm

Beautiful remimner of our history. Thank you for the post.

Debra Moore Alie
Debra Moore Alie January 12, 2014 - 3:17 pm

Incredible woman . She’s definitely on my “spend the morning fishing with an interesting person list”

Nancy FitsEmons Rivers
Nancy FitsEmons Rivers January 12, 2014 - 3:19 pm

Amen to the truth!

David Dunn
David Dunn January 12, 2014 - 3:34 pm

Love this bold beautiful spirit!!!

Linda Brayton
Linda Brayton January 12, 2014 - 4:24 pm

The perfect response!

Leslie Burke Fernandes
Leslie Burke Fernandes January 12, 2014 - 5:09 pm

Too bad our government didn’t listen to what she had to say..

Robert Vincent
Robert Vincent January 12, 2014 - 5:11 pm

They never do.

Tom Hendershott
Tom Hendershott January 12, 2014 - 5:54 pm

Like your friend on the train, “I’m from America”.

Joanne McDonnell
Joanne McDonnell January 12, 2014 - 7:36 pm

fierce!!!

Dru Milligan
Dru Milligan January 12, 2014 - 8:06 pm

Very interesting

Jenny Lynn Zbras
Jenny Lynn Zbras January 12, 2014 - 8:19 pm

When does the government ever listen?

Mary K Davis Haidle
Mary K Davis Haidle January 12, 2014 - 8:26 pm

Strong woman.

Dee Doubleu Abbott
Dee Doubleu Abbott January 12, 2014 - 8:41 pm

I never read about her in My history books.

Patricia Flinn McClary
Patricia Flinn McClary January 12, 2014 - 8:52 pm

We need more people like this

Vicki Wolfe
Vicki Wolfe January 13, 2014 - 11:36 am

she has a look of determination on her beautiful face

Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum
Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum January 13, 2014 - 4:24 pm

Sounds like a great movie…

Adele McVay
Adele McVay January 13, 2014 - 5:44 pm

What a woman, but, no, please don’t encourage Hollywood to rewrite her history!

Martha Underwood
Martha Underwood January 13, 2014 - 6:32 pm

thanks for sharing and has it happened not a Hollywood film

Michael Todd
Michael Todd January 13, 2014 - 6:57 pm

Very interesting. I love her expression!

Maureen Drennan
Maureen Drennan January 13, 2014 - 8:01 pm

She showed them right left and centre. Xxxxxxxx

Steve Ranz
Steve Ranz January 14, 2014 - 11:39 am

One of the Unsung Heroes !!

Lauren Thomas
Lauren Thomas January 14, 2014 - 9:50 pm

I must share

Lori Lambert Mumaw
Lori Lambert Mumaw January 14, 2014 - 10:11 pm

Awesome read! Thank you

Phyllis Witt Payne
Phyllis Witt Payne January 15, 2014 - 1:45 pm

Thank you Marty Fields Galloway, this was an incredible snapshot of history.

Robin Boyd
Robin Boyd June 22, 2014 - 12:57 pm

My great great grandmother was Penobscot.

Meg Smith
Meg Smith June 22, 2014 - 12:57 pm

Beautiful

Molly Landrigan
Molly Landrigan June 22, 2014 - 1:25 pm

Loved this story. I think our government should be ashamed for the way we have always treated Native Americans….I know, I am!

Cora Peirce
Cora Peirce June 22, 2014 - 10:45 pm

An honorable lady!

Marshall Maguire
Marshall Maguire June 23, 2014 - 2:24 pm

Molly, the government that treated Native Americans poorly was way before our time. We have nothing to be ashamed of. The United States has done and continues to do all it can to treat all Americans equally.

Powhatan daughter November 26, 2014 - 7:20 pm

Marahall, you have to be F***ing kidding me, or you have NO idea, that this government will not be happy,
till every Native American is DEAD!!!!

Cynthia Kennett-Robbins
Cynthia Kennett-Robbins June 23, 2014 - 11:04 pm

Thank you for sharing this. The story was very interesting and the music was unique and pretty. Your right, this is right up my alley !

Molly Spotted Elk, From Poverty in Old Town, Maine, to Fame in Paris - and Back - New England Historical Society June 25, 2015 - 9:20 pm

[…] the engagement at the Aztec ended, she returned to New York and found work with Lucy Nicolar, a Penobscot entertainer 20 years her senior. Lucy, known as Princess Watawaso, led an all-Indian […]

Eunice Williams, The Unredeemed Captive - New England Historical Society September 17, 2015 - 8:50 am

[…] wife Eunice. They camped near the village and attended Sunday services. They stayed for 10 days, weaving baskets and selling fabrics to the villagers who visited them so often they could barely find time to eat […]

Six Amazing Indian Women From New England - New England Historical Society March 21, 2018 - 7:58 am

[…] Lucy Nicolar, a talented musician, took the stage name Princess Watahwosa, and spent her life mixing entertainment with political activism. […]

Six Places That Raised a Liberty Pole - New England Historical Society September 1, 2018 - 7:51 am

[…] between 1848 and 1859, the Indians on the Penobscot Reservation in Old Town, Maine, split into two groups. It started when the old sachem, Atien Swassin, was […]

Eric Nicola September 7, 2018 - 11:52 pm

The top picture is not of Lucy Nicolar Poolaw. I am her great nephew, we see that photo pop up every so often, as far as we can narrow it down, it is of a Seneca or Oneida lady. We could be wrong at that too, but it is not our dear Aunt Lucy. No one ever listens to her family and takes it down. Shame.

Leslie Landrigan September 8, 2018 - 9:18 am

Sorry, we thought we had taken it down. It’s been removed.

Handy Yoder March 7, 2019 - 8:40 pm

The part about Indian Island stretching from Old Town to East Millinocket is a bit confusing.
Indian Island is about 1/2 mile long’
The Penobscots own all the other islands in the Penobscot River, north of it, all the way to E Millinocket.

Charles Shay, An Indian War Hero on Omaha Beach - New England Historical Society November 11, 2020 - 3:51 pm

[…] aunt, Lucy Nicolar, and her husband Bruce Poolaw had built a two-story wooden teepee from which they sold Indian […]

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