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Natanis

April 2006
revised Nov 2007

William Allen, writing in 1831, declared that at the time of Col. Benedict Arnold's 1775 Expedition to Quebec Natanis was "the only remaining Norridgewock Indian." Allen's comment is best taken as colorful and figurative, yet it is true that if Natanis were not actually the last then he was one of the last - one of the last of the Norridgewocks, that is, to live in a traditional manner and in traditional lands. Arnold, for his part, stated that Natanis was "a Native of Norridgewalk." In doing so, however, Arnold did not mean that in the literal sense of living at or near the old native Norridgewock village site, since on passing that area he remarked only of seeing "some small vestiges left of an Indian town," adding: "The whole tribe we are told is extinct except for two or three."

Arnold first learned of Natanis's presence in the Dead River Valley from the report of reconnaissance scouts Dennis Getchell and Samuel Berry. The two Vassalboro residents set out from Gardinerston and in six days reached the camp of Natanis, as they stated,

30 Miles up Dead River [from the Great Carrying Place]; here we got Intelligence of an Indian [namely, Natanis], that he was Stationed there by Governour Charlton, as a Spy, to watch the motions of an Army, or Spies, that was daily expected from New England; that there were Spies on the Head of Chaudiere River & down the River some distance there was Stationed a Regular Officer and Six Privates: - He positively declared that if we proceeded any farther, he would give information of his suspicions of our Designs, as otherwise he should Betray the Trust reposed in him.

Getchell and Berry could not, however, have found Natanis too hostile or intimidating since they hired him for two days of service, the block of time they spent on further travel up the Dead River and back to his camp. Natanis indeed was, according to expedition member and journalist John Henry, "well known to the white inhabitants of the lower country: they knew from him the geographical position of his residence." Vassalboro traditions hold that Natanis, and his brother Sabatis, traded and occasionally camped at Getchell's Corner, the site of the original settlement in the town, about Revolutionary times. The two scouts likely not only knew Natanis but also where to find him.

Arnold, nonetheless, on learning this news, at once ordered his men to seek and roust Natanis, whom he referred to as a "noted Villain" and branded as a spy. Despite this dismal beginning, Natanis eventually proved to be sympathetic to the colonial cause. In one exceptional historical moment he later, along with a number of native compatriots, presented himself to Arnold at the Colonel's field headquarters in Sartigan and there enlisted, then accompanied Arnold and his men to storm Quebec on New Year's Eve of that same year.

The Mark of Natanis
Photocopy of the mark of Natanis,
courtesy of Massachusetts Archives; SCI/series 45X, Massachusetts Archives Collection, v.34:p.3.
(digitally edited for web viewing by Ne-Do-Ba)

Historically, Natanis aligned himself with Norridgewock chief Nodogawerrimet. Between 1749 and 1753 he attended conferences and complied with his chief, orator Quinious, and other tribal representatives by placing his seal on the Norridgewock sides of ledgers. One example of Natanis's seal resembles a bow, perhaps an indication that he held himself in esteem as a hunter. However, the two examples which survive may be reverse images of each other and, alternatively, the results of his efforts at the representations of a bird in flight, since one possible meaning of his name in Abenaki is "little mute one," or, "the hummingbird" (in seeming reference to the bird's songless nature).

Following this era his historical trail ran dry until his reappearance on the Dead River in September 1775. Natanis belonged to a band which bears the distinction of having been the last native element to practice agriculture at Norridgewock, although native agriculture at the village site ended during 1754 when the tribe split, some going permanently to Penobscot and others temporarily to Canada. Presumably Natanis belonged to the band which followed Nodogawerrimet first to Penobscot and eventually to Bécancour during the Seven Years' War. On Nodogawerrimet's return to Maine, his band did not resettle at Norridgewock but rather moved about between there and Cobbosseecontee, and as hunters, not agriculturists. After the chief's death in 1765, Natanis may have been among Norridgewocks who hunted sporadically about Moosehead Lake. By the 1770s, according to Charles Nash, "a few families continued to live in hermit-like seclusion around the upper waters of the [Kennebec] river," and his reference can be taken to mean that of Natanis and his band.

As many as forty-five to ninety natives of Norridgewock bearing may have been living in the Dead River Valley in 1775. This figure may even be a low estimate, since it is derived from data used to measure and analyze, basically, the potential number of young men, or younger warriors. The mean figure of sixty-seven, therefore, seems a safe, if perhaps conservative, estimated population figure for the total number of native residents of the valley.

Natanis's choice of personal homesite was not a random decision on his part. Allen observed that the "abode was at a middle point between the American and Canadian settlements; it was chosen probably with reference to the convenience of hunting." Henry described the homesite in general and specific terms, remarking: "The country around Natanis house, a circle of ten or fifteen miles, was at that time, an admirable 'hunting ground'." It was "a flat country covered with pines &c.... The house was prettily placed on a bank twenty feet high, about twenty yards from the river, and a grass plat extended around, at more than shooting distance for a rifle, free from timber and brushwood. The house ... was clean and tight, with two doors, one fronting the river, the other on the opposite side. We [also] found many articles of Indian fabrication ..."

While traditions fondly held in Maine to this day claim that Natanis and his brother Sabatis were Arnold's guides, this is not true. Arnold's guides were in fact five Penobscot men who had seen previous service in the colonial forces and joined him before he began his ascent of the Kennebec, presumably at Gardinerston. This confusion has no doubt been generated over the years by the fact that one of the Penobscot guides was also named Sabatis - not to be confused with the Norridgewock brother of Natanis.

Likewise misleading, Kenneth Roberts, in his historical novel Arundel, makes much use of Natanis in this tale of the expedition, elevating him in it to the role of a major player. On the one hand, this literary treatment is colorful, even instructional in a sense. Roberts is correct when he credits Natanis and his bandfolk with attempting to help the struggling Arnold and his men along their route by leaving directions in the form of a map, canoes at waterside, and caches of food, as well as by sneaking a youthful native guide into a nighttime encampment at another point. These instances received documentation in expedition members' journals and may easily be attributed to Natanis and his followers, but it is Roberts's in-depth reconstruction of the character of Natanis and his personal activities which must be taken as purely fictional.

Once in Canada, Natanis clearly demonstrated to Arnold that he'd had a change of heart, that is, if he ever truly had supported the British position at all. Henry was the first to note the appearance of Natanis in Sartigan (the Canadian frontier region of Quebec which lay along the Chaudiere Valley). He recorded that

at this place, we, for the first time, had the pleasure of seeing the worthy and respectable Indian, Natanis, and his brother Sabatis, with some others of their tribe, (the Abénaquis.) Lieutenant Steele [Henry's commanding officer] told us, that when he first arrived, Natanis came to him, in an abrupt but friendly manner, and gave him a cordial shake by the hand, intimating a previous personal knowledge of him. When we came, he approached Cunningham, Boyd, [two members of Henry's party,] and myself, and shook hands in the way of an old acquaintance. We now learned from him that on the evening when we first encamped on the "Dead river," ... he lay within view of our camp, and so continued daily and nightly to attend our voyage, until the path presented, which led directly into Canada. This path he took; to the question, "Why did you not speak to your friends?" He readily answered, and truly, "You would have killed me."

Henry then stated that "he, his brother Sabatis, and seventeen other Indians, the nephews and friends of Natanis, marched with [Arnold's men] to Quebec." Continuing a short way down the Chaudiere, Natanis and his band members joined ranks with other Abenakis who sought Arnold at his headquarters at Gilbert.

Expedition physician Isaac Senter noted that the Abenaki group at Gilbert relayed an address to Arnold through a translator. Natanis spoke English, making him a natural candidate for this distinction. Tradition holds that Natanis did address Arnold at this time and offer a prophecy of the events that would unfold at Quebec. Arnold would come within reach of Quebec, it told, but the prize itself would elude him and he would fall. Although likely fanciful in origin, its disturbing message may yet serve to reflect the uneasy feeling the Abenakis had about Arnold, as thirty-two more chose at that time to follow him to Quebec while a comparable number of others did not.

Any prophecy aside, and to the frustration of the colonial forces, the eventual assault on the fortress at Quebec failed. Arnold was wounded and incapacitated, and many of his men were killed or captured. Most of the Abenakis escaped by gliding across an icy bay, leaving Natanis and brother Sabatis the only individuals of native blood to be captured by the British on that night. Both were also wounded, Natanis in the right wrist, his brother in the left hand. Natanis was released by Gov. Carleton almost immediately and Sabatis later escaped, presumably returning either to the Dead River or to Penobscot. Following his release, Natanis may have stayed with colonial forces at Quebec for the duration since he fought again among them later in the campaign at Saratoga in 1777.

Two years after the action at Saratoga, Natanis, along with forty other Indians of Maine, enlisted for service in the Penobscot (or Bagaduce) campaign. These forty were most likely all Penobscots, a situation which hints that Natanis may have taken up residence among bands of predominantly Penobscot people upon returning to Maine. Although he still somewhat frequented the Vassalboro area, Natanis may also have been among those Indians who formed the joint gathering of Norridgewock and Penobscot peoples later that year (1779) about Fort Halifax.

Natanis, perhaps, was an individual, typical for the era, who customarily frequented the lands of both the Kennebec and Penobscot regions - in a sense holding a dual identity, the end result of decades of mingling by the two peoples. Although numerous sources identify him as a Norridgewock, oral traditions and modern day genealogical research place Natanis in Penobscot lines. From Penobscot sources, Fannie Eckstorm recorded: "Old Natanis was a Lunksoo ...," or allanksoo, the totem of the wolverine (a characteristic attributable to his brother as well). Also: "Maria Saukees was a niece of Big Thunder, Frank Lola. She was the daughter of his sister. Her father was a Natanis." Natanis's bloodline thus may have been absorbed into Penobscot ranks - and so, in effect, Penobscot folk inhabiting present day tribal lands in the Dead River Valley representatively carry on the tradition of Natanis and the Norridgewock people once prevalent in that region.

Written and Contributed by: Arthur Johnson ©2006

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.

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see also Nanatasse