When Peter Scontras was growing up in Saco, he was often warned to take heed of the curse of the Saco River.

The folklore of the curse – that three white people would drown in the river each year – was pervasive in the region and beyond, but Scontras would later learn it was based on inaccurate history and perpetuated racism toward Indigenous peoples.

The Biddeford Culture and Heritage Center hopes to correct that folklore by erecting a bronze statute of an Indigenous leader, or sachem, named Squando and his family to acknowledge the pain inflicted on tribes by European colonists. Scontras, who serves on the center’s board of directors, is working on the project as part of the organization’s Local Indigenous Peoples Awareness Initiative.

Diane Cyr, president of the center, believes the statue will start conversations and promote education about a dark chapter in local history.

“Our hope is that the statue will speak to Mainers and other New Englanders about the extent of the brutality that Indigenous people endured,” she said. “It will stand alone in Maine as the only visual reminder to date of these horrific events.”

The statue will depict Squando, sachem of the Saco Tribe, his wife and their infant son, who drowned after English sailors intentionally tipped over a canoe in 1675. The sailors wanted to see if Indigenous infants could instinctively swim from birth, so they tipped over the canoe of Squando’s wife, whose name is unknown, according to the 1677 book “Indian Wars in New England From 1607 to 1677,” by the Rev. William Hubbard.


The child’s death led to the burning of the area now known as Biddeford and Saco and gave rise to the folklore of Squando’s curse.

Wabanaki people lived in the region long before English settlers began arriving in the 1600s. The Sokokis tribe lived along the Saco River in the Saco River Valley, where they fished its waters, canoed to its headwaters each summer and lived in villages farther upriver each winter.

European colonists who set up settlements near the mouth of the river and overlooking the harbor created tension as they encroached on the Indigenous peoples’ hunting grounds and set nets that interfered with their fishing. Squando was among those who tried to help the colonists, but the drowning of his son broke his trust in the English, Scontras said.

Squando, a respected leader, then led his tribe and others to join the raging war against the English in southern New England colonies that was being waged by Metacom, also known as King Philip, leader of the Pokanoket Tribe and international leader of the Wampanoag Nation. Squando became a major strategic leader in the war as it intensified in Maine.

For generations, folklore perpetuated the story that Squando put a curse on the Saco River in retribution for his son’s drowning, an alleged “spell” that destined the waters of the Saco to take the lives of non-Indigenous people each year until the colonists no longer inhabited the area, said Scontras, a local historian and retired Saco Middle School teacher.

But there is no mention of the alleged curse in historical records until 1883, and experts believe the story originated in an attempt to justify numerous drownings in the 130-mile river. Scontras hopes the statue directs attention away from the purported curse and refocuses it on the real catalyst for events that still fester today.


“Placing blame on an Indigenous person as the cause of the drownings perpetuated the racism and and insensitivity toward Indigenous people during their continuing struggle to garner respect for their sovereignty and centuries-long sufferings,” Scontras said.

Scontras and others from the center have been consulting with experts from Maine’s tribal communities, including Dr. Darren Ranco of the University of Maine and Gail Dana-Sacco, an author and member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, to ensure the statue is as accurate as possible and created in a way that honors Indigenous peoples. The committee also has been looking for an Indigenous artist to sculpt the piece.

The artwork will be funded in part by a $40,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation. The remainder of the estimated $150,000 cost will be raised through public and corporate donations. The project will be done in two phases, with a targeted completion date of 2023.

The location of the statue and an accompanying historical plaque has not been determined, but Cyr said the committee will meet soon with officials in Biddeford and Saco to start the process of finding a spot.

Scontras said he would like to see the statue stand in a prominent place near the river, where people can come to reflect on history that, for too long, has been skewed in favor of colonists and colonization.

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