One of the first American Indians to come to the attention of English explorers visiting New England was an exceptionally tall leader known as Passaconaway.
Much of the history of the American Indians and their relations with the English settlers is muddled, lost in time or deliberately misrepresented. But there was a Passaconaway and he did make peace with the invading English as they colonized New England.
Passaconaway managed to create an alliance among the many small tribes of American Indians living in northern New England in 1620. The native people had been decimated by three plagues that took place in the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, as many as 75 percent of Maine’s Indians died in 1617 alone.
Passaconaway held sway in the Merrimack River Valley. His power derived from his reputation as a miracle worker who had supernatural powers. Early explorers noted his presence and anglicized his name, which meant ‘Child of the Bear,’ as Conway. And they recorded that the American Indians believed he could conjure fire, swim great distances under water and perform other mysterious feats, such as moving rocks with his will and turning a dead snake’s skin into a live snake.
One of the legends of Passaconaway was that he was summoned by Massasoit to a council in 1620 to help deal with the new plague on the land – the English colonists who had arrived at Plymouth. After attempting to summon a storm to drive the English away, Passaconaway decided that the spirits wanted the American Indians to behave peacefully toward the English.
It was a costly decision, but in keeping with his overall world view. Passaconaway had established peace among northern New England’s tribes mainly through marriages and alliances. Recognizing that if they wanted any chance at keeping the Mohawks of New York at bay, the New England Abinaki tribes could not withstand the losses that fighting among themselves would bring.
Modern historians credit him with perceiving that English weaponry put the Indians at a disadvantage. His peace policy toward the English made him influential in dealing with the new settlers, and on two occasions he had to negotiate for release of his own sons when they were charged with crimes by the English. In another instance when an Indian had killed a colonist, he handed over the culprit to the English authorities.
Travelling in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, he was widely respected and his counseling peace probably saved the fledgling colonies of Lynn, Dover and Newburyport. He became so influential that Rev. John Wheelwright forged Passaconaway’s name on a deed to try to gain title to a large swath of land in New Hampshire.
Exactly when Passaconaway died isn’t known, though he probably lived at least until the 1670s, with some histories suggesting that he was buried on Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine.