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Legends of The Great Falls - Part 4
An Analysis of the Legends

Last Updated Dec 2008

Author: Canyon Wolf for Ne-Do-Ba
Portions published in Newsletter of the Androscoggin Historical Society

It seems quite apparent by the sheer number of legends - a tragic event involving Native Americans did occur at the Great Falls. Perhaps it is time to look closer for some truths. All versions of the legend have three things in common; the death of Indian People by going over the falls, the use of torches or fire to signal the location of the falls, and the interference of another person by moving the signals. In all but one of the versions, the person moving the signal markers was non-Native.

The need for signals at the falls has always puzzled me. If the Native People involved were local Abenaki, there would be no need for signals! These people lived as one with their environment and their primary means of travel was by canoe using ancient water routes. They traveled to Merrymeeting Bay at least twice each year and were still "numerous at the Falls" when Harris first settled here about 1770. They would have learned from a very early age how to 'read a river' during any season and at any time of day or night! Even Indians 'from away' would be able to read the signs indicating major falls were ahead. So, why the need for signals? Finding a reasonable explanation may help in sorting fact from fiction.

Story 4 appears to describe a game of 'chicken'. The signals would have been set at the point where normal minded men landed to carry around the falls. Anyone going past this point by canoe (and surviving!) would prove themselves very brave and excellent at handling a canoe. It is very likely that some wagering was also taking place on who dared go the furthest past the markers. This scenario is somewhat believable and possibly a true version of the event. However, it does not seem reasonable that a war party would be taking the time to play games. This would make a more believable story if it occurred after the settlement of Lewiston and involved a few young men out having some sport.

Story 7 also gives a good reason for the signals - to mark the West Pitch for navigation reasons. After studying old pictures of the Great Falls, it does seem plausible the West Pitch could be navigated by canoe, at least in some seasons. But, it might be a little tricky after dark without the use of a navigation aid. So, this scenario seems to provides a believable explanation for signals and is possibly a good version of the event.

A picture of the Great Falls

The West Pitch of the Great Falls on the Androscoggin River

Story 10 is similar to the other war party versions, yet different enough to warrant adding it as yet another version of the tragedy. This one gives us no time period, but does appear to be during a war and prior to the settlement of Lewiston [1770s]. It does give a new reason for the signal torches and this version sounds better than most. However, I question the plausibility of any of the war party stories. I just don't see a warrior, even a drunken one, giving up details of a planned attack. Arousing suspicion of a pending attack - YES - giving up details of its execution - NO.

Generally, the war party versions lead us to believe the Abenaki are traveling from their village in Canton to the settlements of the coast. I do believe strong canoeists could make the trip from Canton to Topsham in one day. However, even with the help of spring runoff, doing it in one day would be tough, leaving them tired by the time they reached Topsham. Not smart planning! Two days would be more likely. If I where to plan a raid like this, I would come down to the Great Falls and camp below the falls - perhaps with no fires to give away my location. During the colonial wars, Lewiston would be a safe place to rest, as there were no known settlers or traders north of Lisbon/Durham. After resting here, I would leave at an appropriate time to portage around the falls at Lisbon under the cover of darkness and arrive at Topsham with enough time to make a dawn attack. Dawn is the most common time for planned raids on settlements during the colonial war period. I have a hard time understanding why the need to pass the Great Falls during the night.

At what time did the event happen? If the Abenaki were a war party, this event could have taken place anywhere from 1675 to 1761. Story 5 gives a specific date of 1688, but this one has too many obvious inconsistencies to be considered a valid story. We know how and when Molly Ockett died - it was not in 1688 going over the Great Falls with her "tribe"! Furthermore, in 1688 there was a large village at the Great Falls. If the tragedy involved settlers living near the falls, the event would have happened between 1770 and about 1870. Lewiston was settled about 1770 and we have accounts of Abenaki families camping at Deer Rips, West Pitch, and Laurel Hill well into the 1870s.

Who and how many died in the event? That they were Androscoggin Abenaki is almost certain. Depending on the time period, they may have had their primary village at Laurel Hill (Auburn) or Canton Point. If the event took place after Lewiston was settled, then it was very likely a nomadic family band traveling through the region. We would expect to find some documented evidence of the event, if a large number of Abenaki died during a war period or after settlement. No evidence has been found to date, making a major disaster very unlikely. Versions that mention war parties traveling with families, should be totally discounted - families would never be traveling with a war party! I speculate the number of deaths to be perhaps two to five.

Who moved the signals? Joseph Weare is named most often. Joseph was born about 1737 in North Yarmouth, some 12 years after his grandparents (Felt) were involved in an Indian raid at North Yarmouth. No one in his immediate family is mentioned as killed in this or any other raid. In Ancient North Yarmouth we find the following note about the legendary "Joe Weare, Scout and Indian killer ... being nineteen years old at the time of the last Indian outrage in town, some of his alleged exploits are plainly fictitious and all are very improbable." In the legends that mention Joseph Weare (Story 1, Story 2 & Story 4, the background given for him is totally wrong or grossly exaggerated - creating doubt about the accuracy of other details in those versions.

As in the other versions, Story 8, contains all three elements of the legend and seems possible. However, I have a problem with the signal torches - no explanation for their need. The likelyhood of Abenaki women being harassed by a few of the local men is not hard to believe, nor is it hard to believe that generally good folks turned their heads instead of assisting. We do find this type of treatment documented in other places. I would expect to find some documentation to support this version, if it took place as described. The local settlers would not have been proud of their actions, but it does not seem likely it would be completely ignored in town records or surviving journals and diaries. I believe the portion of the story describing the treatment of the Abenaki by the settlers has some truth and that some Abenaki people may have been brought to town as paupers, widows, and orphans. In the case of this version, I believe the old legend has been woven into family oral history.

Story 9 names John March and puzzles me a great deal. I find myself asking many questions about this version. It does seem to have the three basic elements, even though it does not actually state that the Indians were killed. But, why did he do that? The Abenaki were generally peaceful and no threat after the mid 1700s. If the genealogy in the letter is correct (great great grandfather of a person living in 1965), we should be looking at a man living in the late 1700s to mid 1800s. I did find a John March born about 1810, living in Auburn in 1850 and a John March in Portland in the late 1700s. Either of these men could be the one mentioned in the story, but without further information we will can not be certain. Anyway, why should he be worried about an Indian canoe on the river? Had he done something to these people to warrant concern? How did he swim across the current to the shore if he was near the falls? Could this possibly tie into the oral history about the Abenaki men going after locals who were harassing their women?

As an educated guess, I would narrow the time down to the last two war periods (1744-1748 and 1755-1761) or very early settlement (1770-1810). I would not place Joseph Weare as the 'hero' of the event, but would leave that person nameless. I believe the movement of the signals was intentional, if this occurred during war time, but possibly unintentional if it happened after settlement. I favor the early settlement period and believe Story 7 or Story 4 are perhaps the most reasonable scenarios for the Tragic Event at the Great Falls.