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by Jud Hartmann
 
 
 
 

"Penebscot Hunter" by Jud Hartmann

"These Indians lead a very singular life. At one time of the year they live on a very small store of corn, beans and melons which they have planted, during another period, or at about this time, their food is fish, without bread or any other meat, and another season they eat nothing but game such as stags, roes, beavers, etc., which they shoot in the woods and rivers. They, however, enjoy long life, perfect health and are more able to undergo hardships than other people. They sing and dance, are joyful and always content and would not for a great deal, exchange their manner of life for that which is preferred in Europe." Peter Kalm, 1749.

The Penobscots, like other northern peoples, set out in early winter tracking the fur-bearing animals in the fresh snow. Though beaver was most sought after, other animals taken included otter, mink, marten, fisher and ermine. The seasonal migration and semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Algonkian speaking peoples, such as the Penobscot and other Abenakis of northern New England, as well as the indigenous trade network already in place, allowed for the easy introduction of the European fur trade into early 17th century America. The success of the Indian trapper was enhanced by combining the native technologies of cedar wood snowshoes and toboggans with European manufactured flintlock muskets and iron beaver traps. After a month or more hunters would return to winter camp with pelts where native women would clean and preserve them. With some wear, the skins became softer and more valuable. During the summer, the furs were then traded at French, Dutch or English outposts such as the French fort of Pentagoet (now Castine, Maine) at the mouth of the Penobscot River. The fur trade was a double edged sword for the native peoples. On the one hand, acquisition of new and highly prized materials, such as hatchets, knives, awls, cooking pots, wool cloth, scissors, hoes, etc., eased the burdens of everyday life. On the other, those material goods, at first novelties and luxuries, soon became necessities upon which the Indians increasingly became dependent. Additionally, greater interaction with Europeans increased exposure to devastating diseases from which native people had little or no immunity. Moreover, to the west of the Penobscots, the growing importance of the fur trade gave rise to the Iroquois Confederacy, a power which would totally transform the political and social makeup of the northeast woodlands. By 1640, having depleted beaver populations in their own territory, and being well supplied with firearms by their Dutch trading partners, the Iroquois were poised to erupt. Launching a series of wars known as the "beaver wars" or the "wars of the Iroquois", their goal was at first to divert and then ultimately control the entire fur trade. In turn, they subdued the Mohican, the Algonquin, the Huron, the Petun or Tobacco Nation, the Nuetral, the Erie and the Susquehannock, thereafter calling themselves "ongue-onwhe", ("men surpassing all other men").

By the close of the 17th century they were effectively in control of an area stretching from the coast of Maine to the Mississippi and from Hudson's Bay to Northern Alabama. The balance of power in the wars for colonial supremacy were forever altered in favor of the Iroquois and their ultimate European trading partners, the English. Something as seemingly isolated and innocuous as the trapping of beaver on a winter day on the upper Penobscot in the late 17th century (and countless repetitions of this act all across the northeastern part of the continent) would, over time, help to totally transform the world of the Indian and his singular way of life.


 

 

View of sled with trapped Beaver, Mink, etc.

Edition size 20. Hot cast bronze.
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