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York Indian Legend Might be Real



Sometimes you have to turn a legend upside down to find the truth. A Noca Scotia historian traces the legend of a York Maine Indian back to its roots and offers a refreshing new theory on a dramatic series of events. Is the mysterious St Aspinquid actually "Abinquid"? 



Is it Really Abinquid of Agamenticus?

READ: Imaginary Legend of St. Aspinquid  

Don Awalt of Nova Scotia says I am dead wrong about Saint Aspinquid of York, Maine. I suggested that the legendary Indian of Mount Agamenticus may be a fictional character patched together by white historians in the 1800s. Awalt is convinced Aspinquid was real. New England historians like me, he says, have been looking in the wrong place for the wrong man for a long time.

St. Aspinquid, Awalt says, came from what is now Halifax. His name is an English phonetic translation of "Abinquid", a healer and holy man from the region that became Nova Scotia. Today Abinquid is remembered as a MicMac (also Mi’kmaq), although other reports claim he was a Penobscot leader. MicMac legend says he brought many women and children safely from Maine to Canada during the bloody frontier wars here in the late 1600s.

Abinquid was also a converted Catholic, which explains a lot. Local historians have been struggling for two centuries to understand why a Native American saint (no longer recognized by the Roman Catholic Church) is buried atop the highest point in a region settled by Protestants and governed by Massachusetts puritans.

The Warrior Priest

The controversy was moot until York Parks and Recreation officials recently attempted to move a pile of rocks on Mt. Agamenticus that, legend says, marks the burial of St. Aspinquid. The location of the rock pile is very likely not historic. It appears to have been moved in the 20th century. But Awalt’s theory may go a long way toward explaining how it got there.

The story really starts with the arrival of Father Louis Peter Thury (1644-1699) in Canada. Thury was a Catholic zealot from France who believed, according to Don Awalt, that the English were the enemies of God. Thury aligned with the MicMac, Maliseet and Abenaki who had their own reasons for keeping aggressive English settlers out of their ancestral territory.

In 1688 the Jesuit Father Thury, nicknamed "The Warrior Priest", was transferred from Nova Scotia to the Penobscot region, now Maine. Thury was a force behind the well known Indian raids in this region, at York and Pemaquid in Maine and Oyster River and Portsmouth in New Hampshire during the late 1600s. According to Awalt’s theory, Thury knew the holy man named Abihquid who was reportedly in this region during the raids.

According to MicMac oral history, Thury was buried in 1699 at what is now Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Awalt is convinced that Father Thury’s seaside grave (as-yet-undiscovered) is located near a rock formation known as "The Cathedral of St. Aspinquid." Here Native Americans celebrated an annual festival known as the Feast of Saint Aspinquid. The Halifax festival is clearly of ancient origin. But exactly when it was renamed for "St. Aspinquid of Agamenticus" is not clear. Records, so far, only go back to 1770.

Here Don Awalt, an artist and environmental planner, takes a giant leap of faith. While researching the history of Point Pleasant Park, he interviewed Native American elders, tapping into unpublished oral traditions. These stories come from a time before the borders and place names we know today and may shed light on the Aspinquid mystery.


Abinquid legend & history

According to MicMac legend, Abinquid was among the Indians who came with Thury to Maine. But Abinquid had a vision. He came to believe that it was wrong to attack the white settlers and he refused to accompany the raiding party. Awalt says this vision occurred while Abenquid was at a small mountain near an English village by the sea. He believes the mountain -- known in MicMac tradition as "brother stands along with little sisters" -- was Mt. Agamenticus and the town below was York, Maine. Canadian oral history matches local legends of the attacking Indians arriving on snowshoes.

"To me, in my mind, I’m convinced they are describing the same event," Awalt says.

The 1692 raid on York did take place. Approximately 130 settlers were either killed or taken hostage by Abenaki-speaking warriors. During the famous Candlemas raid most of the roughly four-dozen houses in town were destroyed. But Abinquid, a converted Catholic, would not participate. The following summer Abinquid stepped briefly into the history books. In August 1693 Abinquid and his brother Edgeremet and a dozen other Indian leaders signed their marks on a peace treaty with the English at Pemaquid, Maine.

Then came treachery. Three summers later in 1696, Abinquid and his brother were invited back to Fort William Henry at Pemaquid. Father Thury warned them that this might be an English trap, but they went all the same. Captain Pasco Chubb who was in command of the fort ordered the brothers killed. Again, this is a matter of public record. White history books tell us it was "a horrid and cold-blooded act." Years later, according to record, "the savage followers" of Egeremet and Abinquid murdered Chubb in revenge.

Here MicMac legend offers us more astonishing details than we find in standard history. According to Don Awalt’s research, Abinquid was nailed to a cross and brutally whipped. The English poured turpentine into his wounds and left him outside the fort to die. It seems possible that, seizing on this horrific event, Father Thury, both out of respect and for propaganda, may have elevated the martyred holy man to his sainted position. It is also easy to imagine that some of the 70 to 80 captives from York carried the Abinquid story back. At least one York survivor, raised Catholic in Montreal, returned home decades later.

Like modern day Marines, MicMac warriors were honor bound to retrieve their fallen comrades. Abinquid’s body, legend says, was then transported from Pemaquid to the place of his vision – possibly Mt. Agamenticus – and buried beneath stones. Awalt notes that all of these details are consistent with regional Indian traditions. Many MicMacs believed in reincarnation, but a warrior who returned to life too quickly, would come back as the opposite of himself. Since the holy Saint Aspinquid might return as evil, he was buried beneath heavy stones.

A thrilling new perspective

Don Awalt calls his study on the roots of the St. Aspinquid legend "an historical essay in progress." The 45-page article, richly documented, has never been published. Awalt emailed a copy to me, and I forwarded it to three local history professors with expertise in the 17th century or in Native American history. All of them found it fascinating.

There are still holes in the research, of course. We have no way of knowing, for certain, whether Abinquid’s vision took place on Mt. Agamenticus, or whether his body was carried there from Pemaquid for burial. Awalt suggests that, after declaring Aspinquid (Abinquid) a Catholic saint, Father Thury then renamed the rock formation and the Halifax Indian festival in his honor. It is pure supposition. We do not know when the Nova Scotian legend became attached to Mt. Agaementicus. Scholars still have a long way to go.

What we do know is that Awalt’s theory is far superior to our own. For at least 150 years, local white historians have conflated St. Aspinquid with Passaconaway of New Hampshire. Little in that comparison has ever made sense. Passaconaway lived half a century too early and stayed largely in the White Mountains and Amoskeag areas. If he was converted to Christianity, as some claim, it was by a Protestant missionary, not Catholic. Passaconaway also had a vision decades earlier that Indians and whites should not make war on each other, but nothing else seems to match.


Legends of Agamenticus

We have tried and failed to unlock the Aspinquid legend using the tools available to New England historians. But this is not really a local story. It belongs to the Mi’kuaq or the Penobscot. By the time of the death of Abinquid in 1696 almost all of the indigenous Indians of this region had been driven to Canada, leaving no one here to tell the story. Our faded Agamenticus legend is simply an echo of stories told by the Native elders to the north. And as each generation passes, that echo grows fainter, even in Halifax where traditional tales are rapidly disappearing.

"Mi’kmaq tradition very much sounds like it is describing Mt. Agamenticus," Awalt told me during our lengthy phone discussion last week.

Proving that Abinquid was buried there – short of discovering the grave itself – remains difficult, if not impossible. Awalt points out that, even in written records, his name is spelled many ways including Ahanquit, Ahenquid and Honquild.

Awalt is amused by the wild romantic fictions that have been attached to Saint Aspinquid by white Christian historians. He certainly did not, Awalt says, travel to the West Coast converting Indians along the way. The idea that Native Americans sacrificed 6,723 wild animals at his funeral, according to Awalt, is "utterly ridiculous".

Ron Nowell of York agrees. Nowell says that his own ancestors, members of the Trafton family, made up tall tales about the Indians of Agamenticus to make money off the influx of tourists starting in the 1870s.

"They picked up on that [Saint Aspinquid] story and people’s natural interest in the Indian culture, Nowell says.

Among the manufactured lore, according to Nowell, was the field of "Indian graves" displayed to tourists who paid to ride the Trafton wagon up Agamenticus hill. In fact, the graves were simply piles of stones created by an earlier generation of sheep farmers trying to carve out a living on the craggy hill. Nowell’s grandmother, who died recently at age 96, said she could hear the ringing of the sheep’s bells at night when she was young.


What about the rock pile?

According to Nowell, the current stone "memorial" to St. Aspinquid is a modern assemblage. It was built in the 20th century, he says, as part of the Indian-themed ski resort that sported names like Wabanaki Trail and Wampum Path. An earlier rock pile, however, Nowell says, did exist nearby. That pile, including a stone obelisk, is visible in an 1890 photograph, but was bulldozed to make way for the ski resort. Nowell is preparing a collection of historic family photos that, he says, will document the migration of the memorial rock pile. An earlier sign at the memorial encouraged visitors to "Add a Stone".

But long before the sightseers, Don Awalt says, Native Americans have been carrying stones from Canada to the top of Agamenticus, both with respect for St. Aspinquid and in memory of the land their ancestors once occupied. Bringing a stone on a pilgrimage, he says, is an ancient tradition, like carrying flowers to a grave, not just an amusement for tourists.

Awalt, whose research on Aspinquid successfully led to a Native American memorial area in Halifax, says residents of York now have a similar opportunity to designate a sacred space.

"You have so very few places anywhere near an urban environment where you can celebrate your First Nation’s heritage. This place [Agamenticus] is historically and spiritually significant to the Mi’kmaq. Now you can use it to celebrate that heritage."

Asked whether the site of the modern rock pile should be moved, Awalt says: "How’s this? You give us permission to dig up your grandfather, and I’ll give you permission to dig up mine."

Copyright © 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the history web site and author of the award-winning history of Strawbery Banke Museum, available in bookstores, on, and in the museum gift shop.



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