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  • Castine
    – Difficult implementation of the Acadian border
Mount Desert Island
Coast of Mount Desert Island, near Southwest Harbor, seen from the sea, near the old Jesuit mission (Photo credit: Mourial, license CC BY 3.0)

Maine became a state of the Union in 1820. Previously, it was a district of the colony of Massachusetts which also joined the Union as a state. In the 17th century, Maine’s Atlantic coast was fiercely contested between the Anglo-American colonies and the French colony of Acadia. As early as 1613, the Acadian border was set in Penobscot Bay (now Castine, Maine), but at the cost of an incredible combination of circumstances…

In May 1613, when the French landed on Mount Desert Island (east of Castine), they had not yet reached their final destination. The expedition was financed by the Marquise de Guercheville and other noble ladies of the Court in order to establish, upstream of the Penobscot River (today Bangor, Maine), a colony and a Jesuit mission among the local Native Americans. On the Bangor site, chief Bessabes, whom Jesuit father Pierre Biard had met two years before, could not but welcome them with open arms. But, who was Bessabes?

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As early as 1604, Samuel de Champlain had explored and mapped the coasts of Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces where he had identified three large Algonquian-speaking communities. The Etchemins (also called Malécites) lived between the Saint John River and Kennebec River, where the bay of Penobscot is centrally positioned. Whereas the Armouchiquois, of which the best known tribe was the Abenakis, occupied the southwest of the territory, the Souriquois (a Mi’kmaq tribe) resided in the northeast. Etchemins’ and Abenakis’ villages did form an intertribal alliance of which Bessabes, an Etchemin, was the great chief respected by all. Their main traditional get together was held in Pentagouet (Castine), the other residential site of Bessabes. However, on Mount Desert Island, nothing went as planned…

An incredible combination of circumstances

Fascinated by the beauty of the place where they had anchored by chance, after two days and two nights of waiting in the fog, the French colonists named it Saint-Sauveur. Chief Asticou, an Etchemin loyal to Bessabes, was very convincing to ensure the colony of Saint-Sauveur settles down on his island (at present-day Southwest Harbor). But the sky over the new colony darkened very quickly. The British in Virginia had commissioned Samuel Argall to drive the French out of the territory already claimed by Great Britain. In the early summer of 1613, Argall landed on the coast of Maine, probably already aware of a French presence in the region. Along Mount Desert Island, he accidentally saw an Etchemin who inadvertently pointed out to him the colony of Saint-Sauveur, thinking Argall’s boat was a French boat…

Yet, according to historian Daniel Thorp, another scenario is possible. What if the Etchemins had deliberately pointed out the colony of Saint-Sauveur to Argall? After all, they could not ignore the difference between French and English sailors, given that the French could be a threat to their territory. In 1605, after the failure of their colony on the St. Croix river, the French did found Port-Royal (in present-day Nova Scotia), where the Mi’kmaq had given them a warm welcome, too happy to be within immediate reach of their fur trade goods. However, the ambition of the Mi’kmaq chiefs to extend their influence over new hunting grounds ran up against that of their common enemy, the great chief Bessabes; a state of affairs no less important. So, was it really an unfortunate combination of circumstances? The result was in any case disastrous, since the newly established French colony, absolutely unprepared to react to such a sudden attack by the British, was destroyed. The captured French settlers were either released at sea or sent to Virginia as captives. The Etchemins did not gain anything as a result, though…

History panel of Fort Pentagoet, in Castine (photo credit: John Stanton, license CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1615, after years of violent conflicts, the Mi’kmaq, allies of the French, inflicted to the Etchemins and their allies a terrible defeat, killing their great leader Bessabes. During the same period, French merchant Claude de La Tour established the first trading post in Pentagouet (Castine), which quickly established itself as an important crossroads in the fur trade. La Tour was then driven out of Pentagouet in 1626 by the British from the colony of Plymouth. In 1635, after the signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Frenchman Charles de Menou d’Aulnay repossessed Pentagouet to build a fort and rebuild the French fur trading network. Thus was consolidated (provisionally) the Acadian border, the political and economic aspects of which were of considerable importance. What happened next is another story (see the history panel above)…

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