South Berwick's First People

Drawing of a Native AmericanWho were the first people in South Berwick, Maine? Unfortunately, very few historical documents have survived to tell us about the native people who were living here at the time of settlement. Books have been written about the New England native culture; they likely applied to the people living in the South Berwick area (see bibliography below.) 

Early visitors and settlers provide some eyewitness reports, but they came with a mission -- to take possession of the land occupied by the Abenaki, one of the Algonquian-speaking peoples of northeastern North America.

Excerpt from "Map of Pascatway River, in New England," by I. S. (John Scott),1660-1670, courtesy British Library

Early European fishermen. Contact between Europeans and the native people living on the Piscataqua River had taken place by the 1500s. Basques, Irish, Portuguese, French and English had fished for cod off the New England coast, setting up drying racks called stages, at temporary fishing settlements on the Isles of Shoals and along Old Road in Eliot. These early fishermen would bring from their home countries items to trade with their Indian neighbors -- steel knives, kettles and cloth in exchange for beaver skins and Indian corn. At the end of the fishing season, the fishermen would head back to their homeports in Europe, to return again the following year. The local natives undoubtedly recognized in these fishermen the pattern of their own lives -- commuting from one food source to another, depending on the season. It must have been easy to share space with these saltwater fishermen from faraway “tribes.”  They always went home.

European explorers. In the late 1500s, a new kind of visitor began appearing off our shores, exploring the land with an eye to colonizing it. The explorers made inventories of the natural resources of the seacoast, noting the seemingly endless supply of timber and useful plants, beaver, fish and other game. In 1602, Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold was exploring the Maine coast.  His ship dropped anchor off what is thought to be Cape Neddick. He was looking for sassafras, a medicinal herb highly prized in England. John Brereton was the recorder for the trip. Brereton wrote about a peaceful encounter with local natives. Six Indians in a Basque shallop (small fishing boat) with mast and sail approached the ship and came aboard. One of them was wearing a black coat and trousers, stockings and shoes. The other five wore deerskin breechcloths. Brereton described the men as tall and dark-skinned. Their eyebrows were painted white. They carried bows and arrows. By words and sign language, the Indians indicated that some Basque fishermen, had, in the past, fished and traded in that place.

Who were these native people? The people who lived in South Berwick before English settlement shared an ecological setting with those in southern New Hampshire and eastern coastal Massachusetts. They lived near the seacoast.  They lived on a river emptying into the sea, the river we know as the Salmon Falls River but called by them the Newichawannock (pronounced by us, New-ik-a-WAN-nok). They lived near the “fall line,” that place where waterfalls and increasing altitude prevent salt water from traveling any further into freshwater rivers. The natives called the nearby falls, Quamphegan (Kwam-FEE-gan). Most important, the climate was mild enough that the natives living at Quamphegan could rely on agriculture. The growing of corn and squash had spread from Middle America, reaching New England by the 1300s and 1400s. In the northern and eastern parts of Maine, the growing of corn was unpredictable. The eastern Abenakis had to rely on hunting and fishing, and stealing the corn crops of more fortunate Indians. People living in Quamphegan were hunters AND farmers.

The natives who lived in New England spoke the Algonquin Indian language and called themselves the Abenaki (Wabanaki), the People of the Dawn. The eastern Abenaki lived to the north and eastward. The western Abenaki lived south and west of the Saco. The people living at Quamphegan were most likely western Abenaki.

What was “Quamphegan”? In the area that is now South Berwick, the name Quamphegan was used in several ways by the native people. The most likely translation of the name is “place where fish is taken in nets.”   Quamphegan was the name given to the area on both sides of the falls at Quamphegan -- in Old Dover and also on the Maine side. On the Maine side, there was an Indian settlement called Quamphegan. In 1643, the Indian leader, Sagamore Rowls, sold land to Humphrey Chadbourne but reserved Quamphegan for himself and his people.  Eventually, the name carried over to the English settlement – after 1713, our village was called Quamphegan, of the town of Berwick. In 1814, South Berwick separated from Berwick; the village of Quamphegan was renamed the village of South Berwick, of the town of South Berwick.

Who was Sagamore Rowls? Rowls represented the native people who lived here at the time of English settlement. Many if our earliest settlers – including Thomas Spencer, lived peaceably among the natives. In 1650, Rowls sells his village of Quamphegan to Thomas Spencer. 

“To all Christian People to whome these Presents shall come Health & Peace in our Lord God everlasting.  Amen.  Know all Men by these Presents that I Mr Rowles Indian & Sagamore of Newichewanacke have for Five Pounds Sterling payed to me in Hand by Tho : Spencer ... have sould unto the Sd Thomas Spencer ... a Parcell of Land called by the Name of Quamphegon ... ”  19D March 1650.
(York Deeds Book I, Folder 18)

Rowls also signed the Wheelwright Deed of 1629, an agreement natives and settlers in the Exeter (NH) area. Among the names of the Indian signers is that of Rowls, identifying him as . . . “Sagamore of Newichawannock.”

What was it about this particular spot called Quamphegan that attracted permanent settlement? Water, water, and water. The native village was nestled into the protective slope of Powderhouse Hill, a drumlin (small oval-shaped hill) left behind by the glacier's retreat around 10,000 years ago. The hill is a veritable fountain of fresh water springs. The hill provided excellent and abundant drinking water and an easy means of watering crops. Quamphegan was located near the junction of two rivers -- the Newichawannock River and the Asbenbedick (As-BEN-be-dick) River, today's Salmon Falls River and Great Works River.  Great Bay and the ocean were just a short canoe trip downstream, providing another major food source -- saltwater fish, clams, mussels, oysters and lobster. There was bountiful water to drink, water for crops, water for transportation and water as a source of freshwater and saltwater food.

What was “Newichawannock”? The name “Newichawannock” seems to have been used in several ways by the natives.  “Newichawannock” was the Indian name of the river flowing through Milton Three Ponds (New Hampshire) to the sea -- we call it the Salmon Falls River. One translation of the name is “river with many falls.” The river does indeed have numerous waterfalls all along its length. The waterfalls at Quamphegan and at the Salmon Falls, and undoubtedly, at Great Falls, further north, were significant, for native people from all over the region came to this area to catch salmon and other fish that migrated up the river in the spring, the visitors setting up temporary wigwams across the river in the fields of Rollinsford.

According to Chester Price, of the NH Archeological Society, “Newichawannock” was also the name of the Indian trail running along the Maine side of the Newichawannock River, and then crossing into New Hampshire at a wading place that once existed near Leigh’s Mills. Part of the old trail still exists today in Rollinsford at the intersection of Baer and Sligo Roads. This dirt track road is identified as the Newichawannock trail, in a deed of the property of Ruth Emerson.

It’s very likely that “Newichawannock” was the Indian name for the extensive falls between today’s South Berwick village and Salmon Falls village, near Fogarty’s Restaurant. Any other Indian name for the falls is unknown.  Samuel Sewall was a traveling judge in 1689, and notes in his journal, a trip to the mills at “the Salmon Falls.”  By that early date, the Indian name for the falls no longer existed.  However, records of ancient Dover do make reference to Salmon Falls village having once been a tribal seat.  According to Dover Historical Memoranda (p. 413):

“Two hundred and eighteen year ago (from 1859), this tract was a wilderness.  Indian trails connected the falls (Cochecho falls in Dover), a favorite camping place, with Dover neck in one direction, and Salmon Falls (the seat of a tribe) in the other...”                 

An Indian village undoubtedly existed at the location of today’s Salmon Falls village, and like others, included both sides of the river – in New Hampshire and in Maine. 

How did the early settlers use the name “Newichawannock”? The English use of the name “Newichawannock” appears in Ambrose Gibbons’ letters to his employers in London. Gibbons’ trading post was located at “Newichawannock” in 1631, somewhere in the vicinity of Leigh’s Mills. As late as 1697, Major Charles Frost and his friends were returning from the meeting house at “Newichawannock” (located near the corner of Brattle Street and Old South Road) when ambushed and killed by hostile natives. Early settlers living on both sides of the river identified themselves as residing at Newichawannock for much of the 1600s.

The first permanent settlers and the native people. By 1620, the enthusiastic reports of earlier European explorers had attracted the attention of English “merchant adventurers.” These were businessmen who were willing to invest their fortunes in the development of New England. They came to the Piscataqua region with their employees and families, and they intended to remain. There were early settlers at Strawbery Banke and Pannaway (Portsmouth and Rye) as early as 1623, when the whole region, on both sides of the Piscataqua, was known as the Piscataqua Plantations.  In 1634, Alexander Shapleigh, an English fish merchant, came to the Piscataqua and settled in what would become Kittery, then Eliot. He brought with him his family, fishing vessels, his employees, and his disassembled house, as well!  No longer did fishermen come just for the summer -- they came to stay.

In 1631, Ambrose Gibbons, his wife and little daughter, Rebecca, settled among the natives at Newichawannock. Gibbons was an employee of the Laconia Company, organized by John Mason and Ferdinando Gorges, “merchant adventurers” (investors) from England. Gibbons built a trading post seeking furs from the native people.

In 1634, William Chadbourne came to Newichawannock, one of three carpenters employed by John Mason to build a gristmill and a saw mill at the high falls there. Called Asbenbedick Falls by the natives, the steep falls are located at the bridge on today’s Brattle Street. William’s son, Humphrey Chadbourne, purchased land from Sagamore Rowls in 1643, and established himself as a permanent settler.  He had built a fine house by 1665, complete with diamond-shaped panes of glass for windows, a rare luxury.  Chadbourne has the honor of being one of the colonies’ first packagers, making barrels for the Caribbean trade, his mills, turning out lumber and shingles for the growing Boston market.  

The native people succumb to European diseases. As the English settlers increasingly pushed into the territories and lives of the native people, with their different ways of farming and lumbering, and their saw mills, the Indian way of life was permanently altered. It is thought that, between 1616 and 1618, seven out of ten natives died of simple European illnesses such as measles or small pox. At Quamphegan, Sagamore Rowls survived these epidemics and seems to have lived in peace with the new settlers. But shortly before his death, Rowls predicted that there would be trouble between the English and the native people. 

The abandonment of Pisgatoek, the Indian village at the Great Falls between Somersworth and Berwick village.   Chester Price, of the New Hampshire Archeological Society, published a work in 1958, entitled “Historic Indian Trails of New Hampshire.”  In it (p. 3), he lists numerous Indian villages that once existed, but whose inhabitants were wiped out in the Indian epidemics.  The people of Pisgatoek were not as fortunate as the family of Sagamore Rowls.  According to Price, Pisgatoek was found to be abandoned, along with others, including the Indian village in York.  However, we can assume that the native people of Pisgatoek lived on both sides of the Great Falls, as they did at other fall locations along the Salmon Falls and Cochecho Rivers.

Peaceful native life in the early days. There is a brief description of life among the native people in Thomas Spencer’s time (he lived at Old Fields between 1634 and 1680), passed on through oral tradition and included in The Maine Spencers (1898) by Wilbur Spencer (pp. 45-46):

“. . . it is really an essential feature of this sketch of Thomas Spencer’s life, to say a few words of his neighbors, the Indians. Hardly a day passed when he did not see them, now that he had come to live in their midst. He would see them on the ponds, on the rivers, in the woods, and even in his own dwelling. Their dress was very meager, consisting of skins before they began to use English cloth, and then they were not particular about its scantiness. Their canoes were of two kinds, with which they ventured upon the roughest seas. The birch canoes were made from a good quality of bark sewed with sinews over their frames. Canoes made from tree-trunks were shaped in the woods and then burned out, the process requiring often a dozen years. These boats were much used by the settlers themselves in those times.

“In the Indian village near Thomas’s house they lived during the planting season. At other times they were in their hunting lodges or on the seashore. Their wigwams were taken down and put up by the women. These were covered with skins and mats so that not a drop of rain could enter, and were often fifty or sixty feet long. These encampments can still be located by their circular stone fire-places . . . .” (Note: This was in 1898, when Wilbur Spencer wrote the book, the location of these encampments is not known today.)

Quamphegan, the Indian village near Thomas’ house, was a sizeable Indian settlement, occupied and busy the spring, summer and fall months of the year. In winter, the group broke up into individual family units living in “winter camps,” each family grouping fending for itself in the difficult winter months.  

“The work of the men consisted in fighting their battles, hunting and fishing, and making and mending their implements. This kept them much time in the woods, while the wives tilled the fields. In these early years of peace they would enter a settler’s house without knocking and even sit down without being asked to do so…” (Note: This habit of entering without knocking for a friendly visit was normal among the Indians of those times -- have you ever tried knocking on a tent?! With the retelling of this memory, it came to appear “rude” or “surprising” to later Spencer generations).

The Indian wars. Natives of New England finally attempted to drive away the new settlers in their midst. There were Indian attacks on local settlers during King Philip’s War (1675), a war of survival. The story of one attack on the Tozier garrison at the Salmon Falls settlement in Newichawannock --on Route 236 in today’s Berwick -- was passed on through the Spencer family, and it involved one of their ancestors (The Maine Spencers, p. 89-90). It was the opening chapter of a series of wars, a period of almost 75 years during which daily life among the settlers was stressful and dangerous:

“On the twenty-fourth day of September, 1675, the Indians made an attack upon the dwelling house of John Tozier at Newichawannock. This house stood about a half a mile above the garrison and mills at Salmon Falls in Berwick. Near the house of Tozier stood another which had better means of defence. The door of the Tozier dwelling was standing wide open when the savages approached the house, and within was a number of women and children, amounting to fifteen in all. The attack was led by Andrew, of Saco, and Hopegood, of Kennebec, the two powerful representatives of their tribes.”

There were more attacks at Newichawannock in October 1675. Roger Plaisted and his two sons were killed defending their garrison (it was located on the site of Salmon Falls Nursery just beyond the railroad track on 236). According to Wilbur Spencer, (p. 100) the mill at Great Works was also attacked and destroyed during this war, around October 23, 1675. This uprising lasted barely a year, and then there was a period of uneasy peace.

In 1688 a series of French and Indian Wars began, making life in our area unsettled and often dangerous. Some of these wars were extensions of war in Europe between France and England. In the New World, the French had the support of disenchanted natives from western and eastern Abenaki tribes as well as Indians from Canada; the English had their native allies as well. The French and Indians made numerous attempts to disrupt English settlements in New England, with attacks and general harassment lasting well into the 1700s. It was to the benefit of France that English settlements fail, for settlements like Salmon Falls and Quamphegan were providing masts for the English navy in Europe.

Salmon Falls, Quamphegan and Old Fields felt the effect of King William’s War (1688), Salmon Falls was all but destroyed in the surprise attack of March 18, 1689. A group of French from Canada and their Indian allies burned homes and mills, killed many settlers and captured others. This attack may also have been responsible for the burning of the Humphrey Chadbourne homestead. King William’s War lasted until 1698.

A few years later, Queen Anne’s War (1703-1712) broke out. With the French and their Indian allies in easy striking distance from the north, living on the forested frontier continued to be a risky business. According to Wilbur Spencer ( p. 122):

“An Indian war commenced in 1703, and on the twenty-sixth of September five men were beset by an ambushed party, and one of them killed, another wounded and the rest made prisoners; two houses were burned; and an attempt was made to capture the garrison of Andrew Neal, but it was unsuccessful.

“As Berwick was in a critical position on the frontier, about a hundred friendly Indians were posted there, who had been brought from Rhode Island. In spite of this arrangement, however, on the twenty-fourth of April Nathaniel Meader was shot while at work in his field, and two other persons were killed, while returning from church by a small roving band. The people of the town, aroused to action by their repeated outrages, again took up arms against the savages …”

Another French and Indian War, Lovell’s War (1722-1726) forced men to have weapons and ammunition with them as they carried out their daily lives. According to Spencer (p. 131):

“Two men were killed in May, 1723, and in April of the following year (1723), Mr. Thomson was killed and his son captured near his home on the road from Quampheagan to Wells at Love’s brook. A boy named Stone was mangled and scalped near the same place, but he survived and lived to an old age ... This all happened above the road upon which Moses Spencer lived (Witchtrot Road) and not very far away.”

It was a harrowing time, and settlers who stayed must have been very brave indeed.  Continued harassment by Indians resulted in renewed hostilities. According Spencer (p. 131-132):

“Between the war ending in 1726 and the one beginning in 1744, there was a long cessation of hostilities on the part of the English. But the French in the northeast became intolerable, for they kept Indian bands constantly hovering about the frontiers for scalps, upon which they paid a large sum in bounties, and they often assumed command of great expeditions in person. To put an end to this state of anxious uncertainty, and to destroy what would be their ruin in the future, an enormous expedition was planned by the New England colonies with the purpose of subduing a stronghold at Cape Breton, called Louisbourg. William Pepperell, a wealthy merchant of Kittery, a man highly esteemed in York county, and known personally to the people of Berwick, was entrusted with the command.”

In 1745, the English colonies in New England took the war to the French in Canada, in a war that wouldn’t be resolved until 1763.

What happened to the Indian village of Quamphegan? Some native families of Quamphegan remained in the area, living peaceably among the settlers. Sometimes the Indians warned their neighbors of impending raids by wandering bands of hostile Indians, as happened in the Spencer family. Others moved away from the coast and joined other tribes, some joined tribes in Canada. By 1713, Quamphegan was no longer an Indian village.

Our early streets and byways -- traces of the native people in South Berwick. The major legacy of the native people of Quamphegan is their trails. Quamphegan was once crisscrossed with Indian trails. The natives traveled either by canoe or by foot -- they did not have horses or other beasts of burden. Moccasined feet wore deep into the soil, narrow footpaths connecting one important place to another. They sought the shortest, fastest, driest way possible. Their trails would have been no more than six inches to a foot in width. They connected Indian villages – in York (Accominticus), Wells (Wabannet), and Dover (Cochecho).  The new settlers continued using these well-established paths, eventually improving them to accommodate wagons and oxen-drawn carts of harvested timber, to be used as masts for English ships, or bound for the saw mills at the river.  Many of the roads we use today, are remnants of our village’s native history.

(Article by Norma Keim, OBHS, 11/26/12)


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Braun, Esther K. and David P., The First Peoples of the Northeast, Lincoln Historical Society (Massachusetts), 1994.
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John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (1638 and 1663).  Edited by Paul J. Lindholdt, University Press of New England, 1988.
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