Fanny Hardy Eckstorm in 1904 published a story about the tragic death of Henry David Thoreau’s Maine guide, a Wabanaki Indian who had held her as a tiny child.
She was a folklorist who collected vanishing stories and songs. She got them from the logging camps of the Maine North Woods, the river drivers on the Penobscot, the forecastles of coasting schooners, mill boarding-houses, wharves, employment offices and jails.
As a young girl she went with her father into the North Woods where she heard the folk tales of the lumbermen, hunters and Indians. Her father, Manly Hardy, was a successful fur trader. He documented more of Maine’s wildlife in the last half of the 19th century than anyone. His daughter would then continue his work in the first half of the 20th century.
Fanny Hardy Eckstorm
She was born June 18, 1865, in Brewer, Maine, a brickmaking town that complemented nearby Bangor’s lumber business. She was the eldest daughter of Manly Hardy, who ran the most prosperous fur business east of the Rockies. He hunted and traveled with Indians, learned their ways and guarded their secrets. Joe Attien, Thoreau’s guide and a logger, was a close friend.
Fannie Hardy graduated in 1888 from Smith College, where she developed an interest in ballads. After college she returned to Brewer and wrote about hunting and game laws for such publications as Forest and Stream Magazine.
At 28, she married Episcopal minister Jacob Eckstorm, but he died six years later. After his death, she resumed her writing career.
It was in her first book, The Penobscot Man, that she wrote about the death of Joe Attien. The book was a collection of stories about the lumbermen and river drivers on the Penobscot River she knew as a young girl. She called the stories a ‘garland to lay upon their graves.’ These men, she wrote, ‘tended me in babyhood, who crooned to me old slumber-songs, who brought me gifts from the woods, who wrought me little keepsakes, or amused my childish hours…’
They were men who cared most about their work and didn’t fear death. The stories, she wrote, ‘illustrate the trait of the whole class. They are all true. ‘
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.
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm thought Thoreau never understood Attien because he couldn’t get past the fact that he was an Indian. She had a much higher opinion of Joe Attien, who had been elected governor of his tribe:
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.
Attien, like many Penobscot Indians, earned seasonal wages driving logs downriver. River drives were usually over by Independence Day, when the men went into Bangor and celebrated with a vengeance. In 1870, though, the West Branch drive was late because of rough water. On July 4, the rivermen tried to break up a logjam at the Blue Rock Pitch. A bateau was then launched with seven red-shirted men, captained by Joe Attien from the stern.
The churning water caught the boat and shot it across the channel, smashing it against the rocks. The collision sheared off a hole in the boat, which quickly filled with water. Then the unmanageable craft hurtled over a waterfall among the rocks and logs. Some of the men couldn’t swim, and Joe Attien died trying to save them.
Wrote Fannie Hardy Eckstorm:
And when they found his body they cut a cross into a tree by the side of the pond, and they hung up his boots in the tree and they stayed there always, because everybody knew that they was the Governor’s boots…
There the river-drivers left them till they wasted away, a strange but sincere memorial of a good man.
Between 1904 and 1945, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm wrote many such stories in a number of books, bringing to life people whose culture and traditions were disappearing. Her books include David Libbey: Penobscot Woodsman and River Driver; Minstrelsy of Maine; British Ballads from Maine; Indian Place-Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast; and Old John Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans.
She died in Brewer on Dec. 31, 1946. Two of her essays have been reprinted by the Maine Folklife Center as Tales of the Maine Woods: Two Forest and Stream Essays.
This story was updated in 2021.