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Paul Higgins

April 2006

Numerous instances of whites living among Indians occurred throughout our history. Most of these situations were the result of whites having been taken captive to replace native comrades or family members lost to illness or fallen in battle. Whites so taken often became fully assimilated into their native families and societies, and a number of them actually found themselves able to rise in status as far the rank of chief in their adoptive communities. In fact, by the time of the American Revolution this characteristic was fairly widespread. Chief Joseph Orono of the Penobscot nation was a white man, and, remarkably, the same was true for every one of the chiefs of the seven tribes represented at Caughnawaga mission village in Quebec. Paul Higgins was one more notable example of this phenomenon.

Higgins flourished in central Maine environs during the 1760s and -70s. He had been taken captive in his youth at Berwick, an event which may have occurred during a raid around the years 1723-24. Raiding in that immediate area was rampant about that time, and he likely fell in with a band of Pequawket Indians, the native group most closely associated with the Saco drainage and its lands.

Paul Higgins first appeared in recorded history in 1767 when he and a group of his bandfolk appeared before Gardinerston resident James Flagg at Cobbosseecontee. They complained of atrocities, murders and robberies, committed against them earlier that year while they camped in the Sebago area. With Paul acting as native spokesperson in behalf of Chief Esak, Flagg listened and transcribed their message, which he then sent to Gov. Bernard in Boston. Flagg also commented to Bernard that the Indians indicated they were headed to Penobscot, although they returned to Cobbosseecontee later that year, since, as Flagg noted, the region was "their old rendezvous."

Higgins's 1767 appearance at Cobbosseecontee is important for several reasons. For one, he acted as translator for his group, giving clear evidence that he spoke the English language which he retained from earlier in his life at Berwick. Significantly, however, Higgins's previous camp location, his current traveling companions, and the appeal of Cobbosseecontee strongly suggested that he was intimately familiar with Saco, Androscoggin, and Kennebec lands. With him in the group at Cobbosseecontee were Swansen, an individual normally linked to upper Androscoggin and St. Francis regions, Philip, later associated with Norridgewock, and an individual identified as "Mally," who may have been, in fact, Mollyocket, the well known native doctress most often identified as a Pequawket. Many of these same folk also traveled and camped in that era with others such as Perepole, commonly considered either an Androscoggin or a Norridgewock, and Sabatis, whom Henry Tufts, a 1770s white émigré to native lands, identified as Androscoggin (along with Swansen and Mollyocket).

A decade later Paul Higgins's ranging ways once again came to light when he made an incidental appearance in an early phase of the American Revolution. Of this event, Samuel Gardner Drake stated that

a chief named Swansen, or Swashan, well known on the borders of New Hampshire ... when the revolution began ... seems to have decided on taking the part of the Americans; and with a few followers marched to the Kennebeck, and with some of the Norridgewoks rendezvoused at Cobbossee, now Gardiner, at the mouth of the Cobbosseecontee River. Over the Norridgewoks, or Pequawkets, or some of both, was a chief, named Paul Higgins, who, though a white man, had lived so long among Indians, that to all intents he was one of them. He was born at Berwick, but had been taken captive when quite young, and spent most of his days with them. This company set out for Cambridge, the head quarters of General Washington, about the beginning of August, 1775, under the direction of one Reuben Coburn. There were 20 or 30 of them, "and they were rowed down in canoes to Merrymeeting Bay by their squaws;" here they left them, and proceeded to Cambridge on foot, where they arrived about the 13 August. They tendered their services to the general, who gave them all the encouragement he could, consistently, but evidently advised them to remain neutral.

Worth noting is the fact that by that time Higgins was considered a chief, yet of a group of mixed Abenaki elements. In truth, his actual participation in the Revolution amounted to little. No accounts exist to document his activities during the time he spent in Washington's camp other than a Congressional record for expenses paid to Colburn on the Indians' behalf while they were there. Apparently, though, Higgins had been asked to accompany Swansen's men back to the Kennebec at the time Col. Benedict Arnold left with the expeditionary force for Quebec (on September 15) since Arnold, waiting at Fort Western on the twenty-fifth and not having made an expected rendezvous, wrote to Washington: "the Indians with Higgens set out by Land and are not yet arrived." Then on the thirtieth, in a more frantic tone, he wrote to his rearguard officer: "When the Indians arrive, hurry them on as fast as Possibl" - but Higgins never arrived.

Kenneth Roberts, in his historical novel Arundel, for the sake of spinning a good tale, would, however, have us believe otherwise. He gives Higgins a major role in the expedition as one of that group of Indians who tailed the army through the Dead River lands and left food, canoes, and a youthful guide along the route, then met with Arnold in Sartigan where a number of Abenakis joined the forces bound for Quebec. Roberts portrays Higgins as delivering an oration to Arnold before personally enlisting, and ultimately elevates him to the position of "captain" of the Abenaki party. Arundel is a thoroughly enjoyable fireside story, but one must not take it to accurately depict the life and activities of Paul Higgins.

Norridgewock resident Sylvanus Sawyer, in 1779, most likely gave better testimony of the destiny of Higgins, as well as others who served at the camp in Cambridge. Local Indians, Perepole among them, told him that they had become disillusioned with their treatment, promised much but given little. As for Higgins, a commentary of the Rev. Jacob Bailey is likely the most telling account of the man's actual fate. Bailey, while a missionary and preacher at Pownalborough, knew him and others of the Norridgewock bands quite well. He stated that following their encounter with Washington "it was not long before that party of Norridgewocks, which Colbourn had allured to the army, quitted their station in disgust and returned to the Kennebec, finding more satisfaction in ranging the streams and the forests than in all the boasted freedom of Congresses and Continental Armies."

Higgins never surfaced again in the record of American history. Sawyer seemed to imply that the chief of the Norridgewocks, by 1779, was Philip and made no mention at all of Higgins. Some researchers have speculated that Higgins migrated to Canada, to St. Francis or Bécancour, or perhaps even as far as the Montagnais country. This development, however, seems unlikely since no evidence points to his attraction at any time toward Canadian lands, but only those of Maine. Higgins may have been among the group of Indians who camped around Fort Halifax during the latter years of the war and after - but then again, possibly in his sixties by the time, he may have spent the final years of his life in that brief era of 1775-79, as Bailey suggested, roaming, simply, the lands he loved best, then passed that legacy onto Perepole, Philip, and others after his death.

That Paul Higgins, as a white man, could rise to the level of chief, or leader of family bands, is not so much of a mystery as that of uncovering who the man actually was. The best theories researchers can adopt regarding Higgins's identity suggest that he was not a joiner but tended to form his own alliances and hunt his lands on his own terms, and that he managed to escape exposure, and harm, in those ways. Manuscript documents may exist in the Massachusetts Archives which shed more light onto his identity, and genealogical work might help clarify still more of the enigma which surrounds Paul Higgins.

Written by: Arthur Johnson © 2006
Contributed by: Arthur Johnson

Ne-Do-Ba Comment - - - Some of the material in this article appeared in slightly altered form in a thesis by the same author entitled "Indian-white Identity Conflict and the American Revolution: The 1775 Expedition to Quebec and Indian Contact in the Borderland Region of Canada and Maine,"  © 2004, 2006.

Learn More:
Androscoggin
Saco
Kennebec
Molly Ockett
Swassin
Sabatus
Pierre Paul
Phillip
Henry Tufts