Whom we remember atop Agamenticus

view from the top

click to enlarge

The middle panel above looks easterly from the highest of the three hills that are Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine. The current signage dates from 2009 when the rock pile in the picture was instituted after an older nearby pile was summarily dismantled, to the displeasure of local Native Americans.

Our subject for this Hallowe’en is the legend told by the left-hand sign, and by its predecessor at the earlier pile that had proposed its own version of the Native hero Aspinquid. The right-hand placard is shown only for the record. It has no predecessor. It scolds about a “leave no trace policy” amid cell towers, a former ski lodge, ample parking, a newly installed semi-paved walking trail, a fire watch tower, a memorial to a deceased fire watchman, picnic tables and bird-watching platforms. There are portable toilets, but not public trash cans. Carry in, carry out, sure enough, but leave no trace? Traces have been left, oh gentle bureaucrats.

Hilton memorial

Hilton Memorial and nearby towers

Despite the ragtag development, the view from this First Hill is exceptional, especially considering the ease of reaching the summit. There are also the two other hills whose conservation is still possible. If there ever was an Aspinquid and if he was buried on Agamenticus, then it is probably somewhere in the spacious rougher terrain off-summit.

The site and the cairns

The earliest mention the Uncertaintist found which connects Aspinquid with Agamenticus is a satirical “letter to the editor” from a Halifax newspaper in May 1773. A transcript of that letter, along with other material related to this post, is offered for download from the Unlinks page (link).

The 1773 satire refers to a supposed annual pilgrimage from Halifax to Aspinquid’s tomb on Mount Agamenticus. Even that far back, there is doubt about the historicity of Aspinquid. The author of the letter, possibly Anthony Henry, the publisher of the newspaper (and also of an almanac which for a few years listed a feast day for Aspinquid), mocks the idea of a real Aspinquid.

The earliest rock pile on the summit of which your correspondent found mention was the cairn apparently left by the United States Coast and Geodesic Survey in 1847. Their visit is well documented. That they left a cairn to mark the spot from which they took scientific measurements is suggested by an 1877 Portsmouth, NH newspaper (transcribed link). In a filler item in the May 7, 1899 Pittsburgh, PA Free Press, a cairn on Mount Agamenticus, possibly the Survey’s from 1847, is identified as the tomb of St Aspinquid, chief of the “Passaconaway Indians.” Remember that “tribal” name, it will come up soon.

The Survey’s cairn was destroyed sometime during the Twentieth Century. It seems to have survived the construction of a fire tower in 1918 (link), but it must have been dismantled when the Survey’s ground marker was replaced in the 1930’s. A recent amateur expedition found that reset marker below one or two small flat rocks flush with the surface, not a cairn (link). If the cairn was rebuilt in the 1930’s after the new marker had been installed, then it was unlikely to have been left undisturbed by the radar station built on the summit during World War II which was destroyed by a fire (link),  and by the ski resort operating from 1966 to 1974 (link).

abandoned ski lift wheelThe ski resort leaves many traces on the First Hill, both at the summit and on the trails (see picture). One of those traces may have been its very own tomb of Aspinquid, somewhere between its lodge and its parking lot. At least that is what  a remark of a former patron suggests, “I loved the Big A and the memories of St. Aspinquid who is buried at the top of Mt. Agamenticus” (link).

Regardless, by the turn into the Twenty-first Century, there was a pile of rubble up there. The pile had a sign erected by a local Masonic lodge, which had been named since 1892 for Aspinquid (link). Unlike the current placards, the Masons’ sign (transcribed in the Unlinks pdf for this posting) implied that beneath its pile of rocks was the actual grave of Aspinquid, that the pile had accumulated for centuries by hand-carried rocks. Given the site history, that was unlikely, and the rocks looked to many people more like construction debris than anything people would hand-carry. Nevertheless, an archeologist ensured that the pile was not a grave marker before it was dismantled.

Who was Aspinquid?

The Halifax source material from the 1770’s portrays Aspinquid as a chief among chiefs of Native Americans throughout the northern British colonial area, a Christian who enforced good relations with the English. Our search for a historical person essentially ends there. There simply is no such Anglophile Superchief in the historical record. The English had a superintendent for all the Northern tribes; the Native American-First Nations didn’t have a corresponding superintended. Some tribes were consistent allies and exemplary Protestants, some were at best occasional allies, and some were Catholics most often allied with the rival French. Whoever wrote the 1770’s material knew this from their own lived experience.

If we look for “near misses,” powerful chieftains who were consistent allies of the English, then the leading candidate is Passaconaway, chief of the Penacooks, a federation of several tribes who lived in what is now New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts and Southern Maine. He was active from before Mayflower times and remained active into the 1660’s or so. Pinning down the precise life dates of this indisputably historical man is impossible.

His Penacook federation was originally a military and diplomatic defensive measure against the Mohawks, who might otherwise have exploited a disunited New England population that had been hard hit by European diseases in the early 1600’s. Passaconaway was a charismatic figure, a shaman of formidable reputation for magic, a warrior, a politician and a diplomat. When the English arrived, he adopted a liberal immigration policy.

Passaconaway had a body of legendary feats in his own name to complement his historical deeds. Even while he lived, colonists wrote about his miracles. After he died, it was said that he ascended into heaven, in the style of Elijah, in a fiery chariot (or, to be precise, a wolf-drawn sled that burst into flame while speeding up Mount Washington’s slopes).

Passaconaway was tolerant of Protestant missionary activities in his domain, but it is unclear whether he ever adopted Christianity himself. The English missionaries did convert many Natives, often by positioning their Protestant religion as a superior source of practical boons, especially healing, and as countermagic to the indigenous shamanic religion of which Passaconaway was an adept.

Passaconaway was a household name in New England, but Halifax is a long way from Agamenticus, and a name like his isn’t easily confused with Aspinquid. The phonetic problem might be solved by invoking the memory of another historically attested chief named Abenquid (or Ahenquid or Honquid … there is little consistency in English transliteration of Native names; “Aspinquid” is not far beyond the range of variants of Abenquid).

Abenquid was a signatory of a 1693 treaty at what is now Bristol, Maine (about 100 miles or 160 kilometers northeast of York). He was assassinated by a Massachusetts Bay commander named Pasco Chubb in 1696, also at Bristol. Cotton Mather describes Abenquid as famous, but doesn’t say famous for what. In the 1693 treaty, Abenquid is listed as a Penobscott, a tribe in what is now northern Maine and the Maritimes. He is thus a plausible contributor of the name Aspinquid to a Halifax audience.

There is nothing in the record that suggests that Abenquid enjoyed the living-legend stature of Passaconaway. Moreover, a defining aspect of Aspinquid is consistent friendship with the English. That quality isn’t in any record of Abenquid or his tribe. Chubb clearly didn’t think of him as a friend, or as a useful pacifier of his people.

Familiarity with Passaconaway’s biography plausibly entered Nova Scotia from New England before the 1770’s. In the 1750’s and 1760’s, the English expelled French Catholics from the Maritimes, and confiscated their land. Thousands of New Englanders migrated north to settle on that newly vacated real estate (link).

The 1773 satire mentions a Saint Aspinquid Festival celebration in Falmouth, Nova Scotia hosted by a “Brother York,” not otherwise described, as if he were well-known. The reference may be the prominent former Rhode Islander, Edward York, who settled in Falmouth and served in the Nova Scotia legislature. One of the two named hosts in Halifax, Nathan Nathans, was definitely a former Rhode Islander.

Neither Passaconaway nor Abenquid is ever referred to with the title of “Saint” in records that reach us. Abenquid was arguably martyred, and lived within a Catholic missionary culture area. It is therefore possible that the French clergy, some of whom were as zealous in their patriotism as in their piety, might have exploited Abenquid’s misfortune, “waving the bloody shirt.” However, if so, the propaganda would serve hostility against the English, not peaceful coexistence. It is possible that Passaconaway was referred to as a saint, small-s. Puritans did use the term for people who displayed conspicuous piety. A common phrase was “visible saint.” Since Passaconaway is sometimes portrayed as a convert, the descriptive term “saint” may have been applied to him informally.


“Saint Aspinquid” is a bundle of legends associated with an apparently short-lived annual festival in the Canadian Maritimes (possibly concurrent with a Mi’kmaq tribal spring festival), a rock formation in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax called St Aspinquid’s Chapel, and a succession of rock piles on Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine. There are at least two historical figures who may have contributed aspects of their lives to the bundle, but there is no reason to think that the pious superhero, the answer to a Puritan colonist’s prayers, ever really existed as an actual man.

This is a spookless Hallowe’en post. I set out looking for the disturbed grave of a shaman, the very beating heart of a Hallowe’en story. I would have settled for a memorial, but in the end, couldn’t even find a body. Oh well, tall tales about the dead are also much heard on this holiday, and in that spirit, I submit my report.


1 Comment

Filed under Hallowe'en

One response to “Whom we remember atop Agamenticus

  1. as usual, people take bits of stories and put them together to form a TALE like this was or sorts, Im hoping that the author of this tale writes to me as I have some historical facts about some of the characters in this tale…

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