Nearly 500 years ago, Wabanakis spotted the first European sailing ships cruising along their seacoast. The Wabanaki or People of the Dawnland* had lived in Maine for thousands of years, successfully surviving as migratory hunters, fishers, and gatherers.
European colonization of Wabanaki Country began in the early 1600s. At that time, a band of a few dozen Wabanaki families seasonally inhabited Mount Desert Island, headed by Chief Asticou at Manchester Point (Northeast Harbor) by the entrance to Somes Sound. Adapted to the seasonal rhythms of the region, they migrated between seacoast and inlands by way of ancient canoe routes.
By the mid to late 1800s, the Wabanaki (especially Passamaquoddies and Penobscots) came to Mount Desert Island seeking relief from the confines of reservation life, along with the economic opportunities presented by a popular resort. For them, the island was a familiar place long frequented by their ancestors for fishing, hunting, and gathering. No longer able to survive solely on the old lifeways, Wabanakis now marketed their traditional arts, crafts, and canoeing skills to rusticators who visited their tented encampments. At its peak in 1885, Bar Harbor’s summer encampment at the foot of Holland Avenue was home to 250 Wabanakis.
Rusticators were curious about the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot families who encamped every summer at Bar Harbor.
Most vacationers made at least one visit to the Wabanaki village to peruse and purchase handmade baskets and a host of other wares. In addition to goods that could be carried away in hand, some bought big-tag items: rustic furniture or 18-foot birchbark canoes. Visitors also stopped by the encampment to hire guides for canoe outings or sport-hunting, to place special orders for items such as personalized hand-carved paddles, and occasionally, to have their fortunes told.
The encampments are no longer part of the cultural or physical makeup of Mount Desert Island; however the Wabanaki have continued to have a presence here, as residents, visitors, artists, and educators. The spirit of camaraderie and community that existed in the camps continues through the annual Native American Festival.
Wabanaki people serve as educators through programs at the Abbe Museum and. Acadia National Park, sharing their history and contemporary story with people from all over the world. The open sharing that occurs between the Wabanaki and visitors helps to dispel stereotypes and create personal relationships.
*Today, Wabanakis are divided into the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot.