Native and European Relations Revealed in Family Stories

Amy (Sharman) Bearman, mother of Annie, and her brother, William "Allen" Sharman, standing in front of the ell at the Sharman House in Robbinston. (Photo courtesy Steve Robbins)

By Lura Jackson


Among the longest-running relationships between cultures in our area is that between the Native tribes and the European settlers. There are many stories that exist of how the relationships were between the two groups beyond the tragic conflicts stemming from territorial acquisition. Some stories, such as how the Passamaquoddy were responsible for saving the lives of dozens of Frenchmen stricken by scurvy as they attempted to wait out the winter on St. Croix Island in 1604, are well known. Other stories involving individuals or families that would come later are lesser known, but it is there that we can perhaps gain a better grasp of how relations went in the centuries after the European settlers arrived. This article collects some of those lesser-known stories.

The Sharmans and their Passamaquoddy neighbors

The first story comes from Robbinston between 1867 and 1929, courtesy of Steve Robbins. Robbins interviewed Annie (Bearman) (Dodge) Lyons in May of 1977 about her experience growing up in the Sharman house. The house, which was built in the 1830s by Calvin Sharman, had an ell with a sleeping room and a cooking room inside it, and it was always unlocked to enable travelers to find respite. Those who came in were sometimes family, but oftentimes they were simply seeking rest from the journey up the long hill. Occasionally, those who came in were Natives, as Annie recalls.

“They always got along well with the Indians…The Indians would come up the hill on their way out to make camp for several weeks or a month at the lakes.” She is probably referring to how, during the winter, the Passamaquoddy would move inland during the colder months. Annie said that her grandmother, Ruth (Allen) Sherman, would always leave out milk and cookies for anyone that came in, and she’d invite the Passamaquoddy that stayed the night to join her in breakfast. Whether or not they partook of breakfast, they always filled the jugs and tended the fire, Annie said. She adds that “Grammie” Sherman took it a step farther and told them, ‘As long as you’re staying out back [i.e., at the lakes], you’re welcome to help yourself to our vegetables in the cellar.’ Over the winter, vegetables would occasionally be taken. Annie said that the Passamaquoddy “were honest, and you could trust them,” and in the spring they’d return with a list of everything they had taken. When Grammie Sherman refused payment, they returned again with “all different kinds and sizes of baskets which they’d made”, several of which they presented as gifts to Grammie and Annie’s mother, Amy. 

When Steve Robbins contacted Tony Bearman to share the story with him, he learned that Bearman’s wife had been a treaty negotiator. “Grammie Sharman and friends could teach a lot to modern treaty makers on both sides of the table,” Bearman wrote to Robbins in 2004. 

The timely provision of 

shelter rewarded

Another story with something of a similar air comes from Passamaquoddy Tribal Historian Donald Soctomah. Though the date of the story is unknown, it takes place along the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke. A group of Passamaquoddies were traveling up the river and the hour was becoming increasingly late and darkness was setting in. A pregnant woman suddenly signaled that it was time to stop and seek shelter as she had gone into labor. The tribespeople gathered the canoes to the shore and saw a barn nearby belonging to a farmer of European descent. In need of a place to bed down out of the elements, the Passamaquoddy sought refuge in the barn and a young healthy babe was soon born unto the world. After cleaning their surroundings, the tribespeople left a gift of fresh deer meat for the farmer in exchange for his contribution of having erected the sheltering structure. 

Friends from two cultures

The next story involves Passamaquoddy guide Joe Mell. Joe Mell, whose mother was French and father was Passamaquoddy, became a well-known guide around the backcountry of Washington County and beyond. Mell was extremely well-versed in the ways of the Passamaquoddy after being raised by a kindly Native family when his father died. One of the men he guided the longest was William Underwood, a wildlife photographer that would later write a book titled “Wilderness Adventure” featuring many situations involving Mell. Mell demonstrated some of the time-honed fishing techniques of the tribe to Underwood, including the now-illegal method of using a long torch to draw fish to the surface at night and then spearing them. 

At some point during their 30-year relationship, Underwood convinced Mell that it was time to leave Washington County and visit the big city. Since it was legal at that time to sell venison, Mell agreed that he would bring two deer down to Boston to sell, and he left from Eastport with that intention.  

In Boston, Underwood brought Mell to a football game between the Carlisle Indians and Harvard. To Underwood’s apparent surprise, Mell found it difficult to watch. “This awful tough game. I rather chop wood than play this game,” Underwood records Mell as saying. When two Indians were removed from the field, Mell was ready to leave. “I don’t like to see men get killed,” he said. “We go home.”

After Boston, Underwood and Mell traveled to New York. While taking a ferry to the towering city, Mell observed a red full moon shining bright over the city’s lights. He smiled. “That moon, he shine for everybody,” he observed magnanimously.

Following a series of small adventures in the city, Mell was ready to leave. “This is awful place; people going and coming all time. I don’t like this place. I would not live in city if you pay me one thousand dollars week. I awful glad when I get back my canoe and paddle.” 

For more about Mell and Underwood’s shared story, read “Wilderness Adventures” by William Lyman Underwood.

They do what with their beards?

While not a personal account of local relationships, the “History of the District of Maine” – written by James Sullivan in 1795 – has some interesting observations from a European immigrant of the day. 

The book includes a chapter titled “On the Manners of the Natives” in which the author muses on how and why the Natives do not have beards. “That they pluck it out by the roots depends upon the testimony of men, who speak rather from conjecture than from facts under their own observation.” The author goes on to say that there has never been an instrument found in a Native’s camp that was “adapted to the use of plucking out a beard.”

Sullivan also commented on the robust quality and strength of Natives from the New England area as compared to those from further south or north. “The northern latitudes, from forty to forty six degrees, produced men in a higher state of perfection than the natives either more northerly, or nearer the equator.”

While Sullivan notes that the tribes can be aggressive, he concedes that all warring nations and parties have behaved inhumanely toward one another. With that said, he writes, “There never has been one instance of an unchaste attempt among them on a female captive.”

When it’s time to woo

The final story comes from “The Ordeal of John Gyles: Being an Account of His Odd Adventures, Strange Deliverances Etc. as a Slave of the Maliseets”, written by Stuart Trueman in 1966. In that account, Trueman shares Gyles’s story of having been a prisoner of the Abenaki between 1689 to 1897. 

Despite the hardships of one who has been taking prisoner, Gyles came to admire his captors rather than to hate them. He had the highest opinion of their integrity and modesty in their relations to one another and to him. His relatively comfortable stay with the Maliseets enabled him to capture this account of how young men expressed their desire for the young women of their fancy. “He goes into the wig-wam where she is and looks at her. If he likes her appearance he tosses a chip or stick in her lap which she takes and, with a reserved side look, views the person who sent it yet handles the chip with admiration as though she wondered from whence it came. If she likes him she throws the chip to him with a modest smile and then nothing is wanting but a ceremony with the Jesuit to consummate the marriage. But if she dislikes her suitor she, with a surly countenance, throws the chip aside and he comes there no more.”

Special thanks to the St. Croix Historical Society, Donald Soctomah, and Steve Robbins for their provision of materials for this piece. 

Joe Mell sleeps under his canoe as the fire winds down in this photograph by William Underwood from around 1895. (Photo from Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Sharman House in Robbinston, Maine, where Passamaquoddy visitors and others would come in to stay overnight. (Photo courtesy Steve Robbins)