Tale

Norridgewock Massacre

A nighttime massacre of an Abenaki village opened the Kennebec for English settlement and created a martyr of a controversial French missionary

Depiction of the death of Sébastien Râle, 1856 lithograph, Thomas W. Strong, publisher

On August 23, 1724, two hundred colonial militiamen attacked the Abenaki settlement of Narantsouak, or Norridgewock, on the Kennebec River north of Skowhegan. During the nighttime assault, the New Englanders killed a well-known French Jesuit priest named Sébastien Râle along with 80 of the Abenaki. Many, including women and children, were killed as they tried to escape in canoes and their bodies floated downstream. The troops destroyed the settlement and scalped the dead for bounties.

The brutal destruction of the settlement was a turning point in what became known as “Dummer’s War” because it forced the Abenaki to abandon the area and retreat towards Quebec. With the Abenaki gone, the colonists were free to settle unchecked North along the Kennebec River valley.

The Build-Up

Abenaki canoe routes with Naragooc north of Cushnoc (Augusta)

Native Americans had been living on this stretch of land for 7,000 to 8,000 years. The river valley was fertile for crops, game was abundant for hunting, and the river provided a steady supply of fish. A major Abenaki village developed between the Kennebec and Sandy Rivers called Naragooc and was home to 50 households and 150 people.

By the early 1600s, the French and English were fighting for control of Northern New England. The English controlled Nova Scotia and Southern Maine, while France controlled Quebec and was pressuring Northern Maine and New Brunswick using Jesuit missionaries as its mouthpieces. The English and French built forts on the coast and up rivers. The French established missions in the interior in Wabenaki communities to gain their trust, spread Christianity, and ultimately gain their loyalty in the battle for territory. Maine was the Northern Frontier.

The “Apostle of the Abenakis”

In 1694, a French Jesuit missionary named Father Sébastien Râle (1675-1724) arrived in Naragooc. Before arriving, he had studied at the Society of Jesus in France and, after finishing his studies in 1688, volunteered to go to the provinces on mission. In 1689, he was sent to Quebec City, and was assigned to work with a nearby Abenaki settlement. He immediately bucked down and began learning all-things Abenaki, including the language. He was recalled from the Quebec settlement and reassigned to work with the Algonquin in modern-da Illinois. He spent two years with them and was then sent back in 1694 to Maine to take charge of the Kennebec Mission in Norridgewock.

The Kennebec Mission was the westernmost of three French missions in Maine. The others were on the Penobscot River and and on the St. John’s River. It was quite remote, and at that time, the Kennebec River served as the unofficial border between French and English land.

Râle arrived as a missionary representative of the Society of Jesus intending to convert them to Christianity. After a few years, he somehow moved the settlement to the East side of the Kennebec to try to protect it from the English as it was now on the “French side” of the river. The new settlement settlement was in Old Point (now a part of the town of Madison), a scenic bend at the confluence of the Kennebec and Sandy Rivers.

Example of an Abenaki village, illustration copyright Frank Gregory

Father Râle erected a church in 1698 and continued to work with the Abenaki, even conducting mass in Abenaki. The English were quite wary of a French missionary arriving in a hostile territory, assuming he would use his influence to incite them (which he did). Trade between the Abenaki and English remained strong, with the Abenaki supplying valuable furs (the Europeans loved beaver pelts) and the English supplying gunpowder.

Father Râle devoted himself to the Abenaki, serving as their spiritual leader and was, by all accounts, fully invested in their well being. During his time with them, he compiled a dictionary of their language. The longer he stayed with them, the more convinced he was that they needed to defend themselves against the spread of the English, and ally themselves with the French.

He became known as “The Apostle of the Abenaki.”

Meanwhile, the English and French were in the middle of the 2nd French and Indian War and the Wabanaki territory was right in the middle. In 1703, Governor Dudley of Massachusetts arranged a meeting with the Wabanaki on Casco Bay where he asked them to remain neutral. Father Râle accompanied the Wabanaki to the meeting. The English claimed that the Wabanaki agreed to let the white men fight it out themselves, while Father Râle claimed that the Wabanaki rejected the request and proclaimed their allegiance to the French.

Hostilities

With Father Râle whispering in their ears, the Wabanaki attacked various English settlements. Governor Dudley put a price on Râle’s head and in 1705, 275 militiamen attacked Norridgewock to depose him. Râle was forewarned and managed to escape into the woods with his papers. The attackers burned the church and village, but this was far from over.

Father Râle continued his mission work and not a lot is known about the next few years in his life. Meanwhile, in Europe, a series of peace treaties between various countries (known as the Peace of Ultrecht) were signed between 1713 and 1715 which was supposed to put an end to various hostilities, including those in the New World. A subsequent conference was held in Plymouth, Mass where the English once again tried to get the Wabanki to agree to peace with them.

Again, we don’t know much about the next few years of Father Râle’s life, other than a single report of him seeking aid in Woolwich in 1716 from a non-Catholic clergyman, the Rev. Hugh Adam, for rheumatism. He was treated without incident.

In 1717, at the request of the English, another English/Wabanaki conference was held in Arrowsic. Father Râle invited Indians from Quebec to accompany his party of Abenaki from Norridgewock. Massachusetts Governor Shute, travelled to Arrowsic up the Kennebec on his ship “The Squirrel.” According to reports, the meetings did not go well because Shute’s arrogance was on full display (mentioned in this piece) as he stated that the land simply belonged to the English.

When it was clear that the English had no intention of stopping their expansion, Father Râle decided to throw gas on the fire. He continued to rally the Abenaki to resist the English and he had their full attention. Deciding he needed a little more firepower, he wrote to Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, marquis de Vaudreuil (wow, what a name), the Governor-general of New France asking for reinforcements. Vaudreuil answered by sending hundreds of Abenaki warriors from Quebec who also did not like the English. On July 28, 1721, Râle led a force of 250 Wabanaki down river and landed at Georgetown. With the Wabanaki in war paint and flying French colors from their fleet of 90 canoes, they delivered a letter to the colonists demanding that they leave or they will be killed, their houses burned, and their livestock destroyed. The English were given two months to comply.

This was the turning point.

Sébastien Râle’s lockbox that was taken by the English during the first raid of Norridgewock

The English did not listen and responded by cutting off all trade. A subsequent series of Râle-led raids on English settlements caused Governor Shute to demand that New France remove the angry Jesuit priest – which of course accomplished nothing.

Tired of his antics, the British launched yet another raid on Norridgewock in January, 1722 intending to capture Father Râle. Most of the village was out hunting and Father Râle was warned again of the attack and escaped with the church vessels, after first consuming the consecreted hosts. The attackers pillaged the church and Râle’s house. In a secret compartment of his lockbox, they found letters proving that he was indeed an agent of Canada (as they had suspected) and had promised the Wabanaki enough guns and ammunition to drive the dreaded English from their lands. They also took his three-volume dictionary of the Abenaki language which was eventually given to Harvard University.

Father Râle and the larger Wabanaki Confederacy responded swiftly by conducting a new series of raids throughout 1722, attacking settlements and forts in Woolwich and Brunswick in the South, North along the coast to Penobscot, and even seizing shipping vessels off Nova Scotia. They took hostages and burned buildings.

The English had seen enough. On July 25, 1722, Governor Shute formally declared war on the Wabanaki. This three year war became known by many names: Dummer’s, Lovewell’s, Father Râle’s, or the Three Years’ War. Later that same year, Shute abruptly left for London, angry at the funding of the war. Lieutenant-governor William Dummer assumed management which is why his name is attached to the three year war and not Shute’s.

The authorities in Boston placed a £ 100 bounty on Father Râle.

Hostilities continued throughout 1723 and early 1724, with Father Râle and the Wabanaki executing dozens of raids on English settlements from Kennebunk up to Penobscot. Later in 1724, the English countered with an aggressive and successful campaign deep into Wabanaki territory. Then they decided to have another go at capturing Râle.

“Cruel murder of Father Sebastian Rasle,” lithograph

The Massacre

On August 19, 1724, Captains Jeremiah Moulton and Johnson Harmon left Fort Richmond with 200 rangers and travelled by boat up the river to Norridgewock. They left the boats at Taconic Falls and continued on foot.

On the night of August 23, 1724, they attacked Norridgewock and its 160 sleeping Abenaki. Father Râle was killed in the opening minutes of the raid and most of the Abenaki fled to the river. Around 30 stayed to fight and were mostly killed. The English lost but 3, while 80 Abenaki perished, including unarmed women and children. The fleeing Abenaki jumped into canoes and were trying to get across the river to safety. The English shot at their fleeing canoes and the dead floated downstream. The English plundered guns, blankets and kettles, and burned the village.

Alternate Version of the Attack

The above story is the English version, which is what is the generally accepted version. The French version differs substantially, and paints Râle as a martyr. According to the French, who got the story from the Abenaki that escaped, Moulton and Harmon brought 1,100 men with them, not 200. And the French version says that Father Râle met the English alone next to a large cross in the center of the village to try to draw attention to himself to save the Abenaki – but was shot down immediately. The English claim he was shot in his hut reloading his flintlock. The English also claimed that Moulton’s instructions were to take Râle alive, but the rangers disobeyed the order and shot him on sight.

So was he a murderer or a martyr?

Aftermath

The surviving Abenaki returned to the village to bury the dead. They then abandoned the area entirely and headed to Quebec.

Father Râle’s scalp was taken to Boston to be redeemed for the bounty, along with Abenaki scalps. Moulton was promoted.

The English established further settlements, including their own at Norridgewock. Benedict Arnold stopped there in 1775 on way to invade Quebec as it was the last place he could get food and supplies on his trek North. It didn’t do much good, as only 600 out of the original 1100 actually made it to Quebec City where their attempt to capture the city failed miserably.

Further settlement of the area and North was slow. The Kennebec Proprieters had the rights to the land along the Kennebec River, and laid out lots all the way to Norridgewock, but development mostly occurred South of that. Their involvement is mentioned over in this MM story. This was still the frontier after all, but with the Abenaki gone, they were able to advance a little easier.

Father Râle’s grave and monument in Madison, Maine

In 1833, Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick of Boston dedicated an 11-foot tall obelisk monument over Râle’s grave in St. Sebastian’s Cemetery at Old Point in modern day Madison. It was erected on the spot where he supposedly died. The road leading to the cemetery is called Father Rasle Road.

Historians still debate Father Sébastien Râle’s legacy. Just how much he was acting as an agent of New France and how much he was acting as a friend of the Abenaki in their fight to keep their ancestral land may never be known. There is no doubt that he was clear in his faith and his commitment to the Abenaki and their right to defend their land from invasion by the English.

“To save the souls of the Abnakis he gave up his time, his energies, his health, and lastly life itself. He was a man, a patriot, a soldier at times, and a diplomat; but above all and through all he was a missionary. Thus he lived and thus he died, a fearless and resolute hero, whose name will live in the Catholic history of Maine as a source of inspiration for all generations to come.” – The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 1 No. 2 (Jul. 1915).

SOURCES & CREDITS:

Wikipedia, starksme.com, military-history.fandom.com, biographi.ca, holycross.edu, penelope.uchicago.edu