Home Maine The Mystery of the Walker Pond Massacre

The Mystery of the Walker Pond Massacre

A key event in the history of coastal Maine somehow disappeared from the record

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Sometime in the late 17th century, or maybe the mid-18th century, English soldiers massacred some or maybe all of the Wabanaki Indians at a place called Walker Pond in Brooksville, Maine. But strangely, the Walker Pond massacre  a major event in the history of Downeast,  almost completely forgotten.

According to one version, a Puritan militia captain from Massachusetts traveled to the pond in 1755 with 200 men. They surprised the village and killed all but a few escapees.

According to another version, famed Indian fighter Capt. Benjamin Church in 1660 led an expedition from Boston. They intended to retaliate for the murder of the crew of a fishing vessel in Downeast Maine. They arrived at daybreak and killed many.

Col. Benjamin Church, ca 1675

You’d think archaeologists and historians could find the truth somewhere. So far, you’d be wrong.

Todd Seabold, professor of history at the College of the Atlantic, described how he tried to solve the mystery of the Walker Pond massacre during a presentation at the Stonington Public Library, 12 miles from the site.

“I was naïve enough to think we were going to resolve it,” he said.

Walker Pond Massacre

Today the placid surface of Walker Pond belies the violent murders that happened over 250 years (or maybe 300) years ago. The three-mile-wide pond sits at the base of Caterpillar Hill. From the top of the hill, an overlook offers a stunning vista. The land slopes to the Eggemoggin Reach, which flows between Penobscot Bay and its islands. Walker Pond gleams like a monocle.

View from the top of Caterpillar Hill. Walker Pond is in the middle.

Walker Pond, today lined with camps and farms and homes, was once a hub of Wabanaki travel among. They migrated seasonally and carried on trade up and down the Penobscot River watershed and Penobscot Bay.  The Wabanaki Confederacy – an alliance of the main Eastern Algonquian nations — stretched from the Kennebec River to the St. John’s River on the Canadian border. Seabold said the Wabanaki world centered at the pond. Seabold called Walker Pond the most significant native settlement in Downeast Maine.

“This was a very, very significant place and we would do well to remember that,” Seabold said.

The English attack, Seabold said, was an attack on Wabanaki power. It probably happened at the moment when the English destroyed the village as a center of gravity for the Wabanaki.

Native Remembrance

The Wabanaki remembered the Walker Pond massacre, Seabold said. “Their account was that 50 people survived and moved upriver to Old Town, now the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation.

All the accounts differ in their details in some important way, he said.

For example, Grace Limeburner, in Stories of Brooksville, wrote that Church came to Penobscot in 1704, killed and “took many Indians prisoner.”

A Memory of the Walker Pond Massacre

There was some local memory that lasted until the late 19th century, according to Seabold. But there’s plenty of disagreement about when, why, who, and how many were killed.

A story in the May 21, 1885, Republican Journal is one clue. It quotes Hosea Wardwell relating “some of the old legends handed down from father to son.” He called the Walker Pond massacre the “Massacre of Indians in Brookesville.”

“The Jesuits had established a mission here and the natives had embraced the religion of Rome and were its devotees and faithful followers,” he said. That made them obnoxious to the Puritans of Massachusetts, he said. “In their dealings with the Indians they did not stop to consider whether they were guilty or not guilty but slaughtered indiscriminately friend and foe.”

“While cruising the vicinity of Owl’s Head, Cargill surprised and captured a young sanap,” the account continued. He tortured the young native. That evening they landed at Bucks Harbor in Brooksville “and arrived at the Indian Village just at daybreak. To begin his cruel work he first cut the throat of Eggemoggin his guide, least he should alarm his people and give them an opportunity to escape.”

View of Bucks Harbor in 1908

The natives were making breakfast. “The surprise was complete. Before they were aware of the approach of a relentless enemy, the discharge of 200 muskets carried death and dismay in every wigwam. No resistance was made. Cargill and his men rushed on and with knife and bayonet finished what the rifle had failed to do. Not a pale fact was hurt.”

Only five escaped, according to Wardwell: the French priest, an old squaw and three papooses. The Indians say that more than 50 escaped and joined their friends at Old Town.

Another Version

Another version, collected by Donald Soctomah, tribal historian, puts the massacre in 1660:

Some time during the spring the Indians captured a fishing vessel in the Eggemoggin Reach, at a little cove called the Punch Bowl, killing the crew and burning the vessel. An expedition was sent out from the Boston area with Colonel Church leading, landing near South Brooksville, where they captured an Indian who was promised his life if he showed the village to them. He led them a long and difficult way which kept them traveling all night. They came up on the village just at daybreak. It was green corn time. The tribe had been having a feast and unsuspicious of danger were sleeping late with no guards posted. The whites killed many of them.

Furthermore, many stone arrowheads, spearheads and other native implements have been found there, and nearby many human bones have been excavated, showing the location of an Indian burying ground.”

What We Do Know—Some Clues

There was other evidence provided by Wardwell.

  • A Mr. Gray built mills at the pond outlet he employed a millwright from Massachusetts. The millwright said he recognized the place as one where he as a private took place in the slaughter.
  • About 1770 a widow Grindal settled there and she selected the battleground as her garden spot. She hated Indians and was accustomed to spurn their bones with her foot and pile them under the bank until she had a heap as large as a haystack.
  • Many relics were found in 1885: skeletons, stone arrowheads and hatchets.

He also remembers as a child being shown the cornerstone of the chapel by an old man named Levi Gray.

Folklorist Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, born in 1865, wrote that her father’s journal reported that he camped on the spot. An aged resident told him that many years before, when he was a boy, he used to dig bullets out of the pine trees there, where the whites and Indians had fought a battle.

That’s it. That’s pretty much all we know.

An Uncomfortable History

Seabold said no other records of the battle have been found. Neither has any archaeological evidence. A researcher pored over hundreds of pages of colonial documents to find out more, but found nothing, he said.

Seabold said the likelihood that the Walker Pond massacre happened during the French and Indian War is high. “But I have no evidence,” he said. Since the French and Indian War went on from 1754 to 1763, that would put James Cargill as the leader of the massacre.

The Battle of Carillon, which took place during the French and Indian War.

Once the Wabanaki power was broken, it became possible to settle Downeast Maine, Seabold said. The region had been a battleground since King William’s War which began in 1688.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why there are so few clues. Other Indian massacres – at Norridgewock, for example, or the Great Swamp Fight – are all documented and memorialized.

Why the forgetting?

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