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 Passaconaway did exist. 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 in northern New England in 1620. They had to band together to survive. Three plagues decimated the native people 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 with 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 and swim great distances under water. He could also perform other mysterious feats, such as moving rocks with his will and bringing a dead snake to life.
A legend about Passaconaway says Massasoit summoned him 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 changed his mind. He decided the spirits wanted the American Indians to behave peacefully toward the English.
He made 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. He recognized they had to keep the hostile Mohawks of New York at bay. And he knew the New England Abinaki tribes couldn’t do it if they fought among themselves.
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. Twice he had to negotiate for release of his own sons when the English charged them with crimes. Then in another instance, when an Indian had killed a colonist, he handed the culprit to the English authorities.
People respected him as he traveled in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. By counseling peace, he probably saved the fledgling settlements of Lynn, Dover and Newburyport. He grew 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.
No one knows exactly when Passaconaway died, though he probably lived at least until the 1670s. Some histories suggest his body lies buried on Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine.
This story was updated in 2019.