The Imaginary Saint
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


The "praying Indian" of Maine is not buried on a York mountaintop

Saint Aspinquid of Maine was the perfect Indian for 19th century whites -- pious and peace-loving. He was also imaginary. The legend, so often connected with Passaconaway, tells us more about New Eng;and historians than it does about Native Americans.



UPDATE: Could Historic St. Abinquid of Canada be Real?
Part 2 of Tracking Passaconaway
READ: The poem by John Albee
SEE: Aspinquid Statue in Lowell

There was no Saint Aspinquid. The 19th century Native American leader reportedly buried with great pomp on Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine is simply make-believe. He did not spread the Christian gospel to 66 tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the 1600s. Over 6,000 wild animals were not sacrificed at his farewell feast in 1682. The story is an exaggeration, a literary device, or perhaps a hoax. Indian folklorist Fannie Hardy Eckstorm published that conclusion back in 1924, hoping to prevent this popular Seacoast fiction from being mistaken for fact.

Yet the "legend" of the praying Indian of Agamenticus persists. There is an Aspinquid Inn today near the beach in Ogunquit and a St. Aspinquid Masonic Lodge in nearby York. Local historians still quote from Edward Moody's "Handbook History" of York (1914) that offers precise, but wholly unsupported, details of Aspinquid's life and death. One local tourist web site says that Aspinquid jumped to his death from the peak of Agamenticus, not an easy thing to do at this sloping 600-foot hill. The writer has confused that story with the legend of Chocurua in the White Mountains.

Aspinquid Inn

Historians generally agree that Aspinquid (sometimes spelled "Aspenquid") is a fictionalized version of the authentic Indian leader Passaconaway (see previous article in NH Gazette). The name "Aspinquid" itself, one scholar has suggested, may be a European mispronunciation of Papasiquineo, the Abenaki term for "son of the bear" that has today been standardized as Passaconaway. He was the revered leader of the peaceful Penacook Confederation in 17th century New Hampshire and South Coast Maine.

It’s an innocent mistake. The danger of the Aspinquid story, however, is that it muddies the waters; it distracts from the already difficult search for the historic Indian leader himself without adding detail. This is a white-man's Indian -- savagely romantic, culturally fascinating, potentially dangerous, even sexy -- but ultimately powerless, obedient and contrite.

In an exhaustive study of library records, Eckstorm was unable to find a single mention of Aspinquid in the history of Southern Maine, although he was reportedly a revered leader there for over 50 years. Eckstorm could trace the Aspinquid legend back no further than an 1833 account in "The Book of the Indian" by Samuel Gardner Drake. Drake, who opened the very first antiquarian bookstore in Boston, was fascinated by Native American lore. His son, Samuel Adams Drake became an enormously popular New England historian with a special fondness for tales of devils, witches, ghosts and colorful superstitions that have fueled readers and writers ever since.

Indian SketchAccording to S.G. Drake, St. Aspinquid was born in May of 1588 before white settlers arrived in droves, and died in May 1682. He was reportedly converted to Christianity by the missionary John Eliot in 1631. This is unlikely, says Eckstorm, because Native Americans of that era were wholly unaware of years and months as recorded by the European calendar. John Eliot, who arrived in New England in 1631, did not begin preaching and "converting" Indians until 1646. As a staunch Puritan, he would never have sanctioned the concept of a Catholic Indian "saint".

Moody likely picked up the Aspinquid story from Drake, whose son was still recycling versions of it until the turn of the 20th century. Moody assembled his "history" for the Aspinquid Lodge that still maintains a sign near a pile of rocks at the summit of Agamenticus summarizing the legend. Moody claims that there was a tombstone there in 1780 that read: "Present Useful, Lived Desired, Absent Wanted, Died Lamented." Writers have been puzzling over that epitaph ever since.

By the late 1800s the legend had picked up scientific-sounding detail, including a precise list of the number and species of wild animals sacrificed at the sachem's funeral. The accounting of animals killed varies in different accounts with totals running from 3,000 to 15,000. Moody lists 6,712. It is unclear whether the animals are simply burned, or eaten. In some accounts they are sacrificed at Aspinqui'd's funeral. In others, he is in attendance and speaking.

Eckstorm points out that a number of the animals listed bore names used only by Europeans, not Indians. She is especially skeptical of the large number of buffalo, unknown in these parts, that were somehow dragged to New England from the Midwest. It is laughable, she implies, to think that Indian runners spread the story of Aspinquid's impending death across the continent and returned with animals and mourners in less than a month, as the legend claims. Eckstorm also notes that no local records mention the sudden arrival of hundreds, some (one account says thousands) of Native Americans to a gigantic funeral ceremony at Mt. Agamenticus. This was during the peak of the Indian reprisals when white settlers across the Seacoast were brutally killed by raising parties. No one in York, it appears, noticed the enormous funeral.

CONTINUE with the Imaginary Saint 

 SAINT ASPINQUID  (continued)


The story of the great congregation is probably based on Passaconaway's farewell meeting with his tribes near modern Concord or Manchester, NH in which he strongly advised them not to make war on the Europeans. Passaconaway may or may not have converted to Christianity. That fact is in dispute despite John Eliot's claims. A wholly different Indian leader, an historic "Bashaba", also conflated with Passaconaway, may be the source for the Agamenticus legend.

Like witch and Viking tales at nearby Hampton Beach, the story was certainly a boon to early tourism. But not everyone bought the Agamenticus legend promulgated by white male writers, most of them members of the Masonic order that delighted in religious allegory, secret codes and mystical rituals. One 1874 guide to York notes that Aspinquid was "a profound mystery" and says "some deny that he ever existed."

Sarah Orne Jewett, the 19th century writer from nearby South Berwick, said that people living near the base of Mt. Agamenticus had many vague superstitions about giant cats and mysterious pathways. Asked frequently about the Aspinquid story she once wrote:

…I never could trace this legend beyond a story in one of the county newspapers, and I have never heard any tradition among the people that bear the least likeness to it.

Clearly Mount Agamenticus had spiritual significance to natives over thousands of years. It is the tallest point of land near the sea for a great distance. The European tendency to simultaneously romanticize and analyze the past, especially when it comes to Native Americans during the Colonial Revival period, may be all the explanation we need. Aspinquid may simply be Passaconaway, re-engineered for polite Christian readers who enjoyed local history.

After his conversion, for example, Aspinquid "wanders" the nation on foot, Drake says, north and south, east and west, traveling as far as California. His wanderings in the great American desert, borrowing from a scriptural time frame, lasted 40 years. He did this, reportedly, in the 1600s as Europeans were settling in the New World. But the story is really about the westward expansion of white explorers in the mid-1800s. While the historic Passaconaway performed feats of magic that astounded his Indian followers, Aspinquid went a step further and healed the sick. His supernatural powers, a potent element in Indian tradition, were then explained away as a byproduct of his Christian conversion.

St Aspinquid Memorial

But the legend has one more twist. In Nova Scotia, Indians and whites in the Halifax area once attended an annual "Feast of St. Aspenquid of Agamenticus". The event appears in May in some Canadian almanacs printed from 1774 until 1786. May, according to legend, was the month of the saint's birth and death. In 1786, the story goes, at the height of the annual feast and under the influence of a great deal of wine, someone hauled down the Union Jack and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. Since Nova Scotia was a British colony and a haven for British Loyalists many from New England, the festival was forever banned in the Halifax area.

In 1971, novelist Thomas Raddall tried to unravel the story while researching an historical novel, The Governor's Lady, set in Portsmouth. His quest led him to Portsmouth librarian Dorothy Vaughan who turned him on to the life of Passaconaway.

In an article published in a Nova Scotian magazine, Raddall theorized that the seed of the St. Aspinquid legend was transferred to Halifax from the Piscataqua region before the American Revolution. It may have been a local Indian tradition, or it may have been invented by whites as an aid to converting Canadian Indians to Christianity. It is interesting to note that 1774, the year that St. Aspinquid Day first appears in the Canadian almanac, is the same year that John Wentworth, New Hampshire's last British governor, was driven from his home in Portsmouth. He later became governor of Nova Scotia at Halifax.

We know nothing about the historical death of Passaconaway. According to Indian legend, he rode a great sled pulled by wolves to the top of the tallest peak in the White Mountains and disappeared into the sky. Christlike, after his teaching and wandering, Aspinquid is entombed in a cave and sealed with stones. The pagan sacrifice of the animals reminds readers, however, that Aspinquid was born into a very different culture. 


Romantic literary inventions created by white Christian authors make for interesting footnotes to history -- but they are not history. Aspinquid is equivalent to Longfellow's Hiawatha, or Whittier's Bashaba in "The Bridal of Pennacook". He is not, it appears, equivalent to Passaconaway, whose life was all the more spectacular because it was real.

VISIT Mount Agamenticus

Photos by J. Dennis Robinson. Illustrations adapted from The Book of the Indians of North America by Samuel Gardner Drake, 1834 from The Portsmouth Athenaeum.