A Portland Press Herald photograph of Merrymeeting Bay taken about 1930 from a zeppelin overhead. Maine Historical Society

Merrymeeting Bay, one of the great natural wonders of Maine, likely got its name four centuries ago from gatherings along its long shoreline of drunken revelers and strange characters often called witches.

Historians who have pored through colonial records say traditional, stodgy and long-told stories about the origin of the bay’s name don’t even make sense.

The story they’ve unearthed has been long submerged in a thicket of little-read paperwork, written in several languages with bad handwriting and variable spelling. The paperwork is also full of references to obscure sites and forgotten people who lived and died in what a Puritan leader in Boston once called a “dark corner” of New England.

Near the story’s center is a native sachem mockingly nicknamed “Robin Hood” by English traders who made a living reaching across the Anglo-Abenaki divide. Called “a great sorcerer” by a French priest, the man is remembered today mostly on maps that mention a road, village and cove that still carry the name Robinhood.

Robin Hood was among the most prominent of a group of natives trying to make their way in a new era that saw them as fools, mystics and drunks – the merry men who likely inspired a name for the broad estuary.

Retired anthropologist Harald Prins, an expert on Maine’s native nations, said that in the past, a merry meeting was “a place where you go to a site where people sing, where they dance and basically have fun” with “the help of alcoholic beverages.” Kansas State University

Harald Prins, a retired anthropology professor from Kansas State University who is an expert on the history of Maine’s native nations, said that in the late medieval and Renaissance period, “a merry meeting” was a place where people would get together to sing, dance “and basically have fun.”


During the 1600s, he said, one of those places was what became known as Merrymeeting Bay, a convergence of six waterways, including the Androscoggin River, that form a rare inland, tidal, freshwater delta.

Until recently, the origin story of the Merrymeeting Bay name has been some version of what Edward Ballard described in his 1876 book “Geographical Names on the Coast of Maine, United States coast survey.”

In the volume, Ballard said the bay got its moniker either from the confluence of the rivers or “a meeting of surveyors and their enjoyment of the occasion on its shores.”

He added that it may also have been named “from any other similar gathering at the house of the first settler, Thomas Purchase, about 1625-28, or at any later time.”

In short, Ballard didn’t really know.

“It’s kind of mindboggling” that the origin of Merrymeeting Bay’s name can’t be readily explained, Prins said.


He said the old tale for the naming of Merrymeeting Bay that Ballard echoed “just doesn’t make sense at all. It’s a stupid, insane explanation that any schoolkid who’s 9 years old and hasn’t done his homework could come up with.”

Emerson W. Baker, a specialist in the history of 17th-century Maine and one of the top experts in witchcraft in colonial America, agreed that the traditional version is wrong.

Baker, a Bates College graduate, wrote a doctoral dissertation at the College of William & Mary in 1986 called “Trouble to the eastward: the failure of Anglo-Indian relations in early Maine.”

In that little-noticed academic paper, Baker suggested the old story of Merrymeeting Bay’s name might be mistaken.

After looking into the deeds of the Abenaki chieftain named Rawandagon, nicknamed “Robin Hood” by white traders, Baker wrote that “perhaps it is no coincidence that the Indian Robin Hood and his band lived on the shores of the body of water the English called Merrymeeting Bay.”

Robin Hood signed legal papers in 1650 selling property to English settlers by making these drawings. York Deeds

More recently, in his acclaimed book “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience,” Baker mentioned another “Maine Indian sachem” whom English settlers called “John Cotta,” perhaps after an Englishman of the same name who was the leading authority on witchcraft at the time.


“The sachem lived not far from Merrymeeting Bay,” Baker wrote, adding that “Englishmen often referred to witches’ gatherings as ‘merry meetings.’”

Baker said, though, that Prins’ exploration of the topic exceeded his own.

Prins began his professional career four decades ago on the shores of the Kennebec River, where he canoed in the summer and donned his snowshoes for long, winter hikes. He, too, speculated in 1986 that the bay’s name could be tied to the settler-friendly Robin Hood – and later delved into the issue more deeply.

First, though, let’s dip into etymology for a bit.


In 1793, a native named Pere Pole provided a legal deposition in which he used the term Quabacook as the Abenaki name for Merrymeeting Bay. It is typically translated as “duck watering place” or something similar.


Massachusetts colonial records also contain a reference to Quabacook in a 1661 account of a native sachem.

Silas Adams’ 1884 “The History of the Town of Bowdoinham” says that some early deeds called the bay Swan Pond.

The U.S. Geological Survey says that among the other words that have been used to designate the estuary over the years include Lake of New Somersett, Nassouac, Naxoat and New Somerset Lake. The Abenaki also called it Chisapeak, which meant “at the big part of the river.”

But from an early time, the name Merrymeeting Bay was often used and ultimately caught on.

Prins said the first known reference to the estuary as Merrymeeting Bay occurred in 1650.

“Merry meeting” has deep roots as well.


A volume by Robert Morton Nance on place names in Cornwall in the southwestern portion of Great Britain found the name Merrymeeting may have been an Anglicized version of the Celtic words “myr an myttyn,” which he translated as “morning aspect,” someplace the sun rises from each day.

Another expert in Cornish place names, the Rev. John Bannister, defined merry meeting as a “place where the hounds meet.”

The 1856 Robinhood Free Meetinghouse on Robinhood Road on Georgetown Island is one site that carries forward the name of a largely forgotten native leader who often traded with English settlers in the 1600s. Google Maps

If either Bannister or Nance pegged the way the word arose, regardless, it came to mean more.

More than two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary defined “merry meeting” as “a meeting for mirth, a festival.”

In his wake, Connecticut lexicographer Noah Webster, who compiled the first good American dictionary, proved that even the most esteemed wordsmiths are lazy at times.

He simply flipped Johnson’s language to define “merry meeting” as “a festival; a meeting for mirth.”


Prins said, though, that merry was used in England during the centuries leading into the settlement of New England as something more than just “being happy.”

Bates College alumnus Emerson W. Baker specializes in 17th-century Maine history. “The sachem lived not far from Merrymeeting Bay,” Baker wrote, adding : “Englishmen often referred to witches’ gatherings as ‘merry meetings.’”  Submitted photo

A merry meeting, he said, was “a place where you go to a site where people sing, where they dance and basically have fun” with “the help of alcoholic beverages.”

In short, for a merry meeting, people gathered in drunken revelry.

Perhaps the most famous use of the term is a sentence written by John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon in England in the 1600s, who noted that William Shakespeare and two friends “had a merry meeting” so excessive that the famed playwright soon died of a fever after drinking too much.

Baker added a related meaning for “merry meeting.” He said the term was also used at least several times in the region before the memorable events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 to describe “a gathering of witches.”



Reviewing written accounts of early encounters between Maine natives and the rowdy English fishers and traders who began showing up along the coast in the 1600s, Prins described the scene as a “seaside theater of the absurd.”

Nothing about it fits the paintings and pictures that have dominated the image of encounters between Europeans and American natives.

In Prins’ telling, these weren’t the prim and proper Puritans and Pilgrims of Massachusetts searching for a religious haven. They were rowdy renegades, dissidents, runaways, freebooters and pirates who “let their more ribald language flow freely in the makeshift taverns in seaside Maine.”

They amused themselves, he said, by singing ballads and staging comical burlesques.

Mixing with them were coastal Abenakis, survivors of a pandemic that wiped out virtually all of their friends and family, who sometimes spoke crude, broken English and wore an array of mismatched European clothing that added to an atmosphere of “mirth and laughter,” observer William Wood noted at the time.

In a way, the historians said, the Maine coastal region carried the old Catholic culture into the New World while farming-oriented settlers closer to Boston and Plymouth were dominated by austere protestants, matching something of the divide that led to religious wars across Europe at the time.


For the Boston-area settlers, merry meetings by the bay in Maine would have seemed an abhorrence.

Mainers probably had a different attitude, though in truth the period is so thinly documented that it’s hard to say much about what anyone thought about anything in the region.

An Abenaki couple depicted in a watercolor painting from the 1700s by an unknown artist. City of Montreal Records Management & Archives


In a piece for a University of Massachusetts Press volume titled “Northeastern Indian Lives, 1632-1816,” Prins wrote a chapter on a native leader, the once prominent Rawandagon, known among the English as Robin Hood.

Prins pointed out that the chief, well known to early settlers but almost completely ignored for centuries, normally “comes to mind” these days “only through place names in the lower Kennebec River area.”

“A Georgetown Island village is called Robinhood and is located at the entrance of Robinhood Cove,” Prins wrote in the 1996 volume. Robinhood Road cuts across Georgetown Island even now, passing Robinhood Free Meetinghouse on the way.


S.H. Whitney’s 1887 book “The Kennebec Valley” mentions a native home on a small island at the head of the bay where Robin Hood supposedly lived, “ever a friend to the whites.”

An Englishman named John Parker bought an island in the bay from Robin Hood in 1650 in return for a hogshead of rum and a few pumpkins, Whitney wrote.

Whitney also mentioned a “noted sachem” who lived at the head of bay. When the unnamed native leader held “a joyful feast” there, “the forest-crowned shores of Merry-Meeting Bay re-echoed the songs of a thousand dusky warriors.”

Put another way, “you get a merry meeting at the bay” after natives swapped the furs they collected during long winters for goods they wanted from the English traders, including plenty of alcohol, Prins said.

Prins said after selling furs — their “soft gold” — to coastal traders, the native would pull back a safe distance from the coast and into the bay “and they thought to make merry.”

It wasn’t long, he said, before the Merrymeeting name became “embedded in the folk tradition” of the area.


Prins said he used to walk through the snow or canoe along the river back in the 1980s when he researched native history, thinking about what it was like for early traders who must have seen shaman chiefs mourning the many dead with their faces painted black, wearing costumes with copper bells and other oddities.

To those men, he said, the natives must have seemed much like Robin Hood and his merry men, the stuff of ballads that portrayed them “almost like clowns” or fools, though not quite in the sense of those words now.

Prins said they would have been seen at the time more like clowns in the Pueblo tradition: “weird characters” who represent the antithesis of what is normal.

This picture shows Merrymeeting Bay looking north from Bath. The bay is where the Androscoggin, Kennebec and four other rivers meet to form an unusual freshwater tidal estuary. Steve Collins/Sun Journal


Not everyone agrees with the Merrymeeting Bay origin story suggested by Prins and Baker.

Frank Burroughs, who wrote a book titled “Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay,” wrote that the name “might more plausibly have come from the springtime reunions of trappers and traders, native Americans and Euro-Americans, which would presumably have been as convivial as cheap rum and brandy could make them.”


That’s in keeping with the idea that it had some connection to revelry and rum.

But Burroughs offered his own guess that the name “had more to do with the English culture wars than with local events, and that it was intended to appeal to one kind of English colonist and warn off another.”

In short, he called the name a public relations coup.

That’s possible, of course, but Prins pointed to a Jesuit writer whose 1650 report included the first known use of Merrymeeting Bay. That same report also mentioned Robin Hood, which offers a connection between the two from early on.

In any case, one way or another, Prins said, it’s “an amazing story.”

“I feel it is important that wherever we live, that we not only know something about the natural history of the area and the environment, but also why things are called the way they are,” Prins said.

The past, after all, created and helps explain the world we live in today. It’s never a simple story.

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