A 13-year-old son of a French baron named Jean-Vincent d’Abaddie de Saint-Castin arrives in Maine in 1665 to quell the Iroquois and conquer North America. Brutal colonial wars will soon pull Saint-Castin into the fighting among the Dutch, the French, the English and the Abenaki.
To outsiders, Saint-Castin’s allegiances may seem to veer between the French and the English, but he remains steadfast in his loyalty to the Abenaki people. He learns their ways and their language, and they adopt him as one of their own. He marries Molly Mathilde, the daughter of an Abenaki chief. And he commands military operations that drive the English from Maine in the latter half of the 17th century.
Those, at least, are the broad outlines of the life of Jean-Vincent d’Abaddie de Saint-Castin. A descendant of kings and cousin to a Three Musketeer. An Indian sachem. A skillful hunter, a rich fur trader. A bold, hardy, adroit and tenacious guerilla fighter.
To New Englanders, their most dangerous enemy.
He was born in France in 1652, the second son and third child of a French baron. His mother was a cousin of Henri d’Aramits, immortalized by Alexander Dumas as Aramis. She was also a direct descendant of Louis VIII.
His mother died of the plague when he was a baby, and his father before he reached his teens. At 13, Saint-Castin joined the French Army—not all that unusual for the younger son of a French nobleman.
In 1665, he sent the 1200 men of Saint-Castin’s regiment, the Carignan Salieres, to eastern Canada. They sailed in seven ships to Quebec City, Saint Castin as an ensign in the company of Hector d’Andigne de Grandfontaine, later governor of New France.
By the time the young nobleman arrived, the French had been coming to Acadia to trade and fish for more than a century.
They got along well with the people who already lived in the land they called the Dawnland. Five peoples of the Dawnland — the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki and Penobscot – had banded together in the Wabanaki Confederacy.
“…[N]ever did the Abenakis consider the French as entertaining expansionistic designs that would have deprived them of their lands and rights, whereas they lived under constant threat of the same from their English neighbors,” wrote historian Paul Chasse.
The Indians exchanged beaver skins with the French for blankets, needles, knives and guns. Eventually they came to depend on those items, especially guns.
But the French and other Europeans also brought plague. Epidemics of smallpox, typhus and influenza hit Maine especially hard. The Great Dying of 1616-1619 killed three-quarters of Maine’s Indians.
The Wabanaki population, estimated at 20,000 (except for Mi’kmaq) before contact with Europeans, fell to about 5,000 around 1620.
As the Indian population declined, the French population increased. When Saint-Castin arrived, French speakers amounted to about 10,000 in New France. However, only about a thousand French people inhabited Acadia, which bordered New England and included Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
But the English population was growing faster than the French. With about 50,000 settlers in New England by the 1670s, they started pushing east. They would claim Maine—Acadia—all the way to the Penobscot River. The French claimed Acadia extended to the Kennebec River. That, of course, meant conflict.
But the beaver, not the English, first drew the French into war in North America. Their skins made fine felt hats, a hot fashion item in European capitals.
The thirst for beaver skins, though, had wiped out much of the beaver in North America. The Wabanaki’s enemies to the west, the Iroquois, started to cast covetous eyes on the Wabanaki beaver territory and on fur trading posts in New France. And so the Beaver Wars began.
The French king sent the Carignan Salieres to Canada to eliminate the Iroquois threat to New France. It is likely, writes Georges Cerbelaud Salagnac, that Saint-Castin took part in a 1666 campaign against the Iroquois.
The campaign succeeded, and in 1667, the French, the Wabanaki and the Iroquois made peace.
At 18, Ensign Saint-Castin sailed to a tiny coastal fort called Pentagoet with his captain Hector D’Andigne de Grandfontaine. The English had agreed to cede Acadia to the French. Grandfontaine had orders to oversee the transfer and develop the colony as its governor. He made Pentagoet, now Castine, Acadia’s capital.
Fort Pentagoet lay at the mouth of the Penobscot River near an Abenaki village. The great chief of the Abenaki, Madokawando, and his family spent summers there fishing and hunting. When winter arrived, they paddled upstream to their winter home on Indian Island. There a French missionary converted many of them to Catholicism.
Be Fruitful and Multiply
To strengthen New France with more French settlers, Louis XIV made the Carignan Salieres soldiers an offer. He gave them rations, land and money (depending on their rank) if they stayed. He encouraged them to marry, even sending 800 women – ‘the king’s daughters’ – as marriage bait. It was even okay to marry Indian women.
In the end, about 450 French soldiers – including Saint-Castin – stayed.
Saint-Castin found the wilderness and the Abenaki to his liking, and he adopted many of their ways. He also formed a friendship with Madokawando.
But the 30 or so soldiers at Fort Pentagoet struggled. The government of New France paid little attention to its wilderness outpost, leaving it to fend for itself. To survive, Grandfontaine had to trade with the English who came by sea. But French officials forbade commercial ties with the English. Soon they replaced Grandfontaine with an army officer named Jacques de Chambly.
In 1674, a raid on Fort Pentagoet became a turning point in Saint-Castin’s life. The French and the English allied against the Dutch and fought them largely at sea. But by 1674 the war drew to a close. The Dutch settled with the English, but not with the French.
And so Capt. Jurriaen Aernoutsz, commander of a Dutch privateer the Flying Horse, viewed Pentagoet as fair game. He sailed into Penobscot Bay in August with a fighting force of 110 men. They easily overtook the French soldiers at Fort Pentagoet and captured them – along with the commander, Chambly. Then they turned the fort’s own guns on its walls and leveled them.
Accounts differ as to what happened to Saint-Castin. Did the Dutch take him to Boston? Did he somehow escape? Or did the Dutch send him to Quebec City?
Whatever the case, Saint-Castin traveled to French headquarters in Quebec City with a ransom note for Chambly.
The obscure young Army officer gave the note to Louis de Frontenac, governor general of New France. De Frontenac apparently recognized Saint-Castin’s talents. He gave him a bill of exchange for the ransom, and the mission that would put him in the history books. Saint-Castin was to urge the Wabanaki to join the French.
Return of Saint-Castin
Saint-Castin returned to the ruined fort at Pentagoet. But instead of rebuilding fortifications he built a house and a lead-shot workshop amidst some 30 Indian wigwams.
On the surface, he seemed to have shed his responsibilities as a French officer, according to Salagnac. He migrated with the Indians to their winter home upriver. He enjoyed the company of Indian women – perhaps too much, according to gossip that made its way to the Jesuit missionaries and the leaders of New France. But he remained a staunch Catholic.
Meanwhile, he proved an astute businessman and his trading started to make him rich. Then around 1675, Saint-Castin’s older brother died childless, making him Baron Saint-Castin at the age of 22.
Rather than returning to France, however, he stayed in Acadia with the Wabanaki.
And sometime before 1678 he married Madokawando’s daughter Pidianske. She had converted to Catholicism, and took the Christian name Marie-Mathilde, nicknamed Molly Mathilde.
According to historian Bunny McBride, Madokawando wanted his daughter to marry Saint-Castin because it assured at least some French support to the Wabanaki.
McBride, in her book Women of the Dawnland, tells the story of Molly Mathilde. She didn’t want to marry Saint-Castin, though she’d known him for most of her life. But when she turned 15, her mother told her she had to marry him.
Molly Mathilde said no. The man had hair all over his face and arms, and sometimes he dressed in strange colored wigs and boots with spurs. He smelled funny, too.
Her mother had no sympathy for her. She had been told to marry Madokawando, and she did. For her people. Molly Mathilde would have to do the same.
Saint-Castin first married her in the Indian way, but in 1684 a French Jesuit priest married them in a Catholic ceremony at Pentagoet.
“Romance may not have been the inspiration behind Molly Mathilde’s marriage to St. Castin, but the mutual cares of a shared life gradually inspired love,” wrote McBride. “Among the French, people commented that the baron had surrendered his former habits and that he often spoke of his commitment to his wife.”
Together, they had five children who survived infancy.
King Philip’s War
In June 1675, King Philip’s War broke out in southern New England. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indian refugees from the war came to Acadia to urge retribution.
The Wabanaki didn’t need much persuading. English authorities tried to order them to give up their guns so they wouldn’t rise join King Philip’s uprising. But even before the English tried to take their guns, they had cheated them, sold them rum and let their livestock trample through their cornfields.
Then in the summer of 1675, three sailors killed the infant son of a chief named Squando by throwing him into the Saco River. The sailors wanted to see if Indians could dog paddle at birth.
That outrage caused Saco and Androscoggin Indians to begin guerilla warfare against English settlements in the Casco Bay region. They killed about 80 settlers and burned down their houses and mills.
Madokawando stayed out of it until August 1676 when Abenaki, Mi’kmaq and refugees from King Philip’s War laid waste to English settlements along the Kennebec. They defeated the English in hand-to-hand combat at the trading post at Arrowsic, then a few weeks later killed seven on Peak’s Island in Casco Bay.
There is little mention of Saint-Castin’s role in all of the fighting. But historian Georges Cerbelaud Salagnac concludes he advised Madokawando.
“One may reasonably suppose that Saint-Castin began to exercise his talents as a military counselor on the occasion of this war,” wrote Salagnac.
“… Madokawando was the sole great chief of the Penobscots; he had his lieutenants who were in command of the warriors, led expeditions, and parleyed with the enemy when truces were made,” wrote Salagnac. “But it was known everywhere that nothing was done without his son-in-law’s advice, and that the latter had only to express a wish for it to be instantly complied with.”
Any hope of a truce ended with an act of shocking English treachery on Sept. 7, 1676. Four hundred Indians — including Abenaki and some of King Philip’s former warriors — paid a visit to a New Hampshire strongman, Richard Waldron, at his invitation. They would hold a mock battle with the local militia in Dover, N.H.
Instead, the militia captured those who had fought with Philip — half the Indians — and sent them to Boston. There, seven or eight were tried and hanged. The English sold the rest into slavery.
In retribution, the Wabanaki went on a rampage, terrorizing and destroying 60 miles of English settlements along the coast.
Finally in 1678 the two sides agreed to another truce in which the English would pay the Indians in corn for the use of their land.
The English in Boston couldn’t understand why the Abenaki in the north seemed more tenacious and defiant than King Philip’s warriors in the south, according to Salagnac. Eventually they learned of the French soldier who had masterminded the attacks on their settlements – Saint-Castin.
Saint-Castin and his growing family prospered in the interregnum before the next war. An indication of his wealth was discovered in 1840, when a farmer named Stephen Grindle dug up treasure believed buried by Saint-Castin’s daughter. Found six miles north of Saint-Castin’s home, it included somewhere between 500 and 2,000 coins from France, Spain, England, Massachusetts, Portugal and Holland.
A French priest named Louis-Pierre Thury persuaded Saint-Castin to send his sons to Catholic school in Quebec. Thury would figure prominently in the next war to break out, known as King William’s War, the Second Indian War, the First French and Indian War or even Castin’s War.
In May of 1687 or 1688, Sir Edmond Andros, governor of the Dominion of New England, made a big mistake. He personally led an expedition to Pentagoet to seize Saint-Castin. The baron happened to be away on a military expedition with the French, so Andros and his men ransacked his house and plundered his trading post
In the end, the English had to apologize for Andros’ illegal raid. It did no good, and instead touched off a decade of warfare. The English had continued to cheat the Indians and reneged on their agreement to pay Indians corn for the use of their land.
So Saint-Castin and Thury orchestrated a series of raids on English settlements. When it all ended, the French and Indians wiped most of the English settlements off the map of Acadia. From 1689 to 1713, there wasn’t a single English home north of Wells.
On June 28, 1689, the Wabanaki and Pennacook wreaked revenge on Richard Waldron for his treachery during King Philip’s War. In a surprise attack known as the Cocheco Massacre, they killed 29 people in Dover, N.H., captured 28 and tortured Waldron to death. Then they left Dover in smoldering ruins.
Saint-Castin that summer then launched half a dozen attacks on English settlements as far south as Andover, Mass. He led a Wabanaki attack on Fort Charles in Pemaquid, now Bristol, the northernmost English settlement in Acadia. They burned down the fort and killed 200 English soldiers and settlers.
In September, 200 Indians attacked the English on Peaks Island, but Capt. Benjamin Church drove them away after suffering heavy casualties.
Sporadic guerilla warfare continued, with one of the most dramatic attacks on York in February 1692. Called the Candlemas Massacre, it ended with 50 dead and 100 captured.
Exhausted and starving, the Indians sued for peace in 1693, but the English wouldn’t negotiate. The war dragged on for another four years, though it may not have deserved the term, according to historian John Grenier.
“It had devolved into a string of gruesome murders that terrorized New England,” he wrote.
In 1696, Saint-Castin and Thury led an Abenaki force with the French naval commander Pierre leMoyne d’Iberville against a newly rebuilt English fort at Pemaquid. After a short siege, the fort fell, and the English abandoned the Kennebec.
Finally, the Wabanaki made peace with the English in 1699. The Indians had driven nearly all of them out of Acadia.
Saint Castin had helped the Wabanaki survive, but at a cost. The bloody and gruesome war had intensified English hatred of Indians, and in 1703 another long war – Queen Anne’s war—broke out.
Return to France
But by then Saint-Castin had left for France, intending to return to Molly-Mathilde and their children. French officials had accused him of treason because he and the Wabanaki had traded with the English. He crossed the Atlantic in 1701 to defend himself against the charges, as well as to claim his inheritance.
In France Saint-Castin had a sister, Marie, and her rapacious lawyer husband, Jean de Labaig. Labaig wanted the baronetcy and the estate that went with it for himself. He had also gotten wind of the rumors about Saint-Castin’s libertine ways before – and even during – his marriage.
Labaig used those rumors to put legal obstacles in Saint-Castin’s way.
Saint-Castin cleared himself of the charges of treason, but spent years fighting Labaig. Finally by 1707 he won his legal battle, gaining the family castle in Bearn and the title of baron.
Shortly thereafter, he died in France. Molly-Mathilde continued to live in Acadia until her death.
The Rest of the Saint-Castins
Saint-Castin’s oldest son, Bernard-Anselm, led the Wabanaki against the English during Queen Anne’s War. When that conflict ended, he sailed with his wife and three daughters to the Saint-Castin estate in France. Bernard-Anselm died in 1721.
Castine, Maine, was named after Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin. His descendants, who include Charles Shay, occasionally visit the Witherle Memorial Library in town.
With thanks to Abaddie de Saint-Castin, Jean-Vincent d’, Baron de Saint Castin by Georges Cerbelaud Salagnac in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Women of the Dawn by Bunny McBride, The d’Abbadies de Castins and the Abenakis of Maine in the Seventeenth Century by Paul Chasse, Steadfast in their ways: New England colonists, Indian wars, and the persistence of culture, 1675-1715, by David Michael Corlett, Saint-Castin: A Legend Revised by Gorham Munson, The Dalhousie Review.
Image: The church of Saint-Castin By France64160 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10769225. This story was updated in 2022.