In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Wabanaki Agency in the Proprietor Records

Essay by Lisa Brooks (Abenaki), Fall 2022

Lisa Brooks (Missisquoi Abenaki) Henry S. Poler '59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College. Known for her extensive archival research and place-based scholarship, Professor Brooks is the author of "The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast" (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and "Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War" (Yale University Press, 2018), which received several awards, including the Bancroft Prize for American History and Diplomacy and the New England Society Book Award for Historical Nonfiction in 2019. Professor Brooks is the Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society for the 2022-23 academic year.

These Proprietors collections exist because of competing colonial claims to land. As historian Alan Taylor observed:

In 1800 the Pejepscot Patent's settlers complained that "each claimant comes producing pompus Parchmints of royal patents or fragments of Antient Indian Deeds. He who purchases of one is considered as the enemy of the other, being the tenant in possession. He is sued and at the end of seven years law suit it is of no consequence to him whether he gains or loses his cause, he is ruind in either case."(1)

“Ancient Indian deeds” in the collections exist largely because English settlers needed evidence to validate their claims to Wabanaki land, against other settlers and speculators. Many of the documents were created and assembled to validate the holdings of the Pejepscot Proprietors, who in 1714 purchased rights originally acquired by Richard Wharton through an agreement with Wabanaki leaders.

Similarly, as historian Emerson Baker observed, “the Kennebec Proprietors desperately sought” to secure their own claims against “the opposing claims of the Pejepscot Proprietors and the Clarke and Lake Company.” (2) Wabanaki people often had a much more nuanced understanding of the places mentioned in the documents than any of the English settlers who claimed those lands as their own.


In the twenty-first century, historians and tribal scholars have turned to these documents for different kinds of evidence, including evidence of Wabanaki agency, kinship, leadership and placenames.

In 1670, according to one deed in the Pejepscot Proprietors Collection, Thomas and Samuel York, “Planters,” agreed to give annual “acknowledgement” to Wabanaki leaders on the Androscoggin River: “Derumkin, or Daniel or Robin [ramegin]…shall come and lawfully demand and receive one Peck of Corn on every five and twentieth day of December for a due Acknowledgment forever.”

These recorded “acknowledgments” are important symbolic recognitions of Wabanaki leadership and representations of the annual contributions pledged by settlers who sought to reside, plant or trade on Wabanaki lands. These acts incorporated settlers into existing Indigenous economic and social systems. In a similar deed, the Wabanaki leader Warrabitta, known also as Jane or Joan, secured an annual “acknowledgment” of “a bushel of corn,” alongside her mother, from the Alger brothers in Owascoag, or Scarborough. (3) Wabanaki leaders also required an annual acknowledgment of corn, at the end of King Philip’s War (1675-1678), from settlers who wished to return to Wabanaki coastal territories.

English guests all too often misinterpreted such hospitality, misunderstanding the obligations that accompanied the privilege of sharing space. The written language of the English as compared with wampum protocols and verbal agreements of the Wabanaki led to confusion and to deliberate dispossession. Even as Wabanaki people strove to incorporate settlers into their Indigenous cultural and economic systems, the settlers sought their signatures and consent of land ownership on finite political documents.

Kinship and Leadership

It was not uncommon to see multiple Wabanaki leaders sign deeds, or to see the same leaders sign deeds for the same land, with different settlers. For example, “Robin Hood” or Ramegin, appeared on more than fifteen agreements, often with other leaders. Warrabitta witnessed a deed signed by Robin Hood, in 1675, on the Wescustogo (Royal) River, and appeared on a deed regarding land on Merriconeag Neck with Robin Hood and her brother Sagattawan. Many documents in these collections feature locations where multiple communities intersect, such as a deed that came late in Warrabitta’s life, at Small Point, in Casco Bay, in which “Blind Joan” appeared along with “Great Agumagus” or Moxus, a Kennebec River leader, and Sheepscot John, a Wabanaki leader on the coast. Places like Small Point, and the councils that took place there, were not boundaries as much as confluences. Nearby Merrymeeting Bay was an English placename which recognized Wabanaki purpose.

Just as multiple rivers converge in Casco Bay and Merrymeeting Bay, so multiple communities converge in Wabanaki kinship networks. Leaders cultivated diplomacy through councils. Many deeds emerged from such councils, which included English newcomers. In Wabanaki languages and traditional stories, these relationships are paramount. It is difficult to talk about land or people without using kinship terms, terms that embed relationships of responsibility and reciprocity, which Wabanaki leaders sought to preserve.

Sovereignty and Subsistence

The protection of these relationships to land and kin are evident in the ways that Wabanaki leaders sought to reserve subsistence rights. For example, in a 1659 Kennebec River deed, Nanudemance retained “liberty unto me and my heirs to fish, fowl, and hunt also to set otter traps without molestation.” In a 1684 deed that is foundational to the Pejepscot Proprietors Papers, six Wabanaki leaders, including Darumkin and Warumbo, allowed Richard Wharton to purchase land and fisheries on Merrymeeting Bay but also reaffirmed the rights they retained:

Nothing in this deed [should] be construed to deprive us the Sagamores or Successors or People from improving our Ancient Planting grounds nor from hunting in any of the said land being not inclosed nor from fishing for our own provision so long as no damage shall be to the English Fishery.

Although deeds did not always recognize subsistence rights, Wabanaki leaders later reiterated in councils that they had reserved the sovereign aboriginal right to hunt, fish and plant in their homelands. These documents collectively demonstrate that Wabanaki people intended to remain.

Place Names and Continuance

Similarly, some of the maps within these collections contain vital placenames and locations, including documentation of little-known homelands like Ameskonti. The Kennebec Proprietors maps document the continuance of Wabanaki people at Norridgewock, despite a persistent myth that Norridgewock was “abandoned” after a violent English raid in 1724. The maps instead reveal a long, and more complex, history of resistance, displacement and return.

Settlers, including the Pejepscot and Kennebec Proprietors, sometimes relied on the Wabanaki people who remained to interpret early documents and the placenames they contained. One striking example is the testimony of Pial Pôl. In 1793, Pial Pôl provided vital information, including the locative placename of the lower Androscoggin River, as Pejepscook (Pejepscot), and the upper river homeland, Ammoscongon (Amikôkan). He explained the location of particular Wabanaki places, such as Quabecook (Merrymeeting Bay), and the names of falls on the Androscoggin, including Amitgonpontekok (Twenty Miles Falls), which divided Pejepscook from Ammoscongon. He named important historic planting places and homelands like Rockamecook (Canton), near Ameskonti (Farmington), where he lived with his family at that time.

Although his testimony served to delineate the boundaries of settler claims to land, Pial Pôl’s presence, in 1793, also speaks to the Wabanaki people who remained. The manuscript also provides valuable information about place names and language, which Wabanaki language keepers and scholars are using today, asserting agency over how the documents of displacement are repurposed.


1. "‘A Kind of Warr’: The Contest for Land on the Northeastern Frontier, 1750-1820,” The William and Mary Quarterly 46:1 (January 1989), pp. 3- 26

2. “‘A Scratch with a Bear's Paw’: Anglo-Indian Land Deeds in Early Maine,” Ethnohistory 36:3 (Summer, 1989), pp. 235-256)

3. Richardson, H. W., William M. Sargent, Leonard Bond Chapman, and E. C. Bowler. “Book II, Fol. 113, 114.” York Deeds. Portland: John T. Hull, 1887.