Auburn’s 150th birthday is a great time to think about the city’s past, so I enjoyed the Sun Journal’s recent article about Auburn history. As a historian and a 17-year resident of Auburn, it is nice to learn more about the place that I call home. I was disappointed, though, to see that Joseph Welch, who arrived in 1797, was named the first settler in the downtown area. At the very least, it would have helped to note that he was the first “European settler.”

Joseph Hall

The distinction is important for two reasons.

The first is that indigenous peoples have been living in today’s Auburn, including the downtown area, for millennia. Wabanakis — the People of the Dawnland — are the indigenous peoples of northern New England and southeastern Canada. The four federally recognized peoples in Maine are the Penobscots, Passamaquoddies, Mi’kmaqs and Maliseets. Other communities in western Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are known as Abenakis. For those interested in the details of their local history, I recommend Nancy Lecompte’s book “Alnobak: A Story of Indigenous People in Androscoggin County.”

People first started living in this area not long after the glaciers melted, 12,000 years ago. When Auburn and most of the rest of the Pine Tree State was still tundra, communities gathered near today’s Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport to hunt passing caribou herds. Remains of these 10,000-year-old hunting settlements are among the oldest archaeological sites in the state. These sites suggest just how long the peoples of this region have been studying and cultivating this place now called Auburn.

As this region changed, so did its inhabitants. By about 500 years ago, Wabanaki women of the area cultivated fields of corn, beans and squash along the Androscoggin River. Right near downtown, not far from Bonney Park, was the Wabanaki town of Amitgonpontook. Long before Joseph Welch built his log cabin, Wabanaki residents knew and cared for this area with an attention that comes from long occupation. They gathered salmon and other migrating fish from the river, used the nearby clay deposits for pottery, and cultivated crops just above and below the Great Falls. These were gifts from the area to be respectful of and grateful for.

Wabanakis’ names for this area reflected their knowledge. In 1794 a Wabanaki elder named Perepol described how his people lived in this river valley. In the spring they gathered at Merrymeeting Bay, called Quabacook, which means “the place for hunting ducks.” Then they fished at Pejepscot, which means “long rocky rapids,” and at Amitogonpontook, which means “place to dry fish at the falls.” These two rapids at Topsham-Brunswick and Lewiston-Auburn were ideal sites to catch salmon and other fish migrating upriver to spawn. Upriver in Canton was Rockamecook, “the good ground,” where Wabanakis planted corn, beans, and squash. From these names, many of which are still used today, Perepol described a landscape that Wabanakis had known for generations.

But Wabanakis could not continue to care for the land as they had for generations, and this brings me to the second reason why this history matters. These first and oldest residents of the area had to survive the violent colonization of this region. This is not a pleasant story, but it is no less important.

In 1690, during the wars of conquest that would tear through the Wabanaki homeland for nearly 100 years, English settlers destroyed the town of Amitgonpontook. Its destruction was part of a colonial agenda bent on dispossessing indigenous peoples of their lands. It is why Pejepscot is now named Brunswick — after a German duchy of the British royal family. It is why Amitgonpontook is called Auburn — after a British poem from the 1700s.

But Wabanakis did not disappear. Perepol described his people’s lives in this area more than a century after English colonists destroyed Amitgonpontook. In the middle 1800s, residents of Auburn met Wabanakis still camping at that same site. Wabanakis living in the area adapted to the industrializing region. Some made snowshoes and baskets for the residents of the new town. Some of those items can be found in the Androscoggin Historical Society. Others found new jobs in the industrializing Twin Cities.

Today, Wabanakis are among the hundreds of American Indian people who call Lewiston-Auburn their home.

This story of survival is important because it shows just how deep Auburn’s history is. It also reminds all residents of Maine that their indigenous neighbors are still here and still working to live in their homeland.

Happy 150th birthday, Auburn, and many happy returns. And, as we celebrate, let us not also forget to respect and to celebrate our elders.

Joseph Hall is associate professor in the Department of History at Bates College.

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