The Indians who took John Dinsmoor Captive
It is interesting that family oral history can hold up as truth for over three hundred years. Robert Dinsmoor stated that John Dinsmoor had been taken captive by the Penobscot Indians and Colonel Westhbrook’s letters prove that this was actually the case. We know that he was held captive in a village with a fort on “Indian Island” located in the middle of the Penobscot River, across from Old Town, Maine; a place that remains an Indian reservation to this day.
“William Williamson in his History of Maine says, “The fourth Indian war, begun in 1722, and since denominated the Three year’s or Lovewell’s war, was carried on by the natives themselves, principally, against the provincials of New Hampshire, Maine, and Nova-Scotia. As there was at this period a well settled peace, between the English and French crowns, the Canadians durst not take any open part in the controversy, through fear of being charged with violating the treaty. But, they affected to represent the Indians as an independent people, and secretly incited them to drive the English settlers from the frontiers and the reviving plantations. By acts and pleas of exclusive friendship, they had enchained the confidence of the savages, in bonds not easily broken; while the basest passions still lay at the bottom. Stripped of the disguise, the dark designs appeared in bold relief and deformity. Old prejudices and ill will towards the English, were only sleeping embers, even in the calms of peace. The French, having been in possession of the country eastward of the Penobscot, were fully determined either to recover it, or to keep the settlements in perpetual check. By a kind of magic, the rulers of Canada artfully moved the springs behind the curtain; and Rale, la Chase, le Masse, and other Jesuit missionaries, gave ample proof of their skill in political intrigue, as well as that of multiplying converts.”
The eastern tribes were manifestly in a sad dilemma. They were situated between the Colonics of two European nations, often at war with each other, and seldom under the influence of mutual fellowship. In their frequent negotiations, and individual parleys and conversations with the English, they were frank to open their whole hearts. They knew themselves to be ignorant and needy, and to be viewed as a savage race of men. But why, one enquired of them, ‘are you so strongly attached to the French, from whom you can never receive so much benefit as from the English?’ A sachem gravely answered, ‘because the French have taught us to pray unto God, which Englishmen never did.’ A Summary of thoughts and expressions dropped by Indians, at different times, will shew their views.— ‘Frenchmen speak and act in our behalf. They feed us with the good things we need; and they make us presents. They never take away our lands. No, but their kind missionaries come and tell us how to pray, and how to worship the Great Spirit. When the day is darkened by clouds, our French brothers give us counsel. In trade with them, we have good articles, full weight, and free measure.”
In his History of Norridgewock, William Allen states, “… and a comparison of the policy pursued by the French settlers with that of the English colonists, will account for the discrepancy in the statements. The English writers of that day describe the Indians of Maine as ‘the very outcasts of creation, discovering no footsteps of religion, but merely diabolical,’ ‘the veriest ruins of mankind,’ ‘the most sordid and contemptible part of the human species.’ On the other hand, the French Jesuits, who insinuated themselves among the Indians at about the same time, describe them as ‘docile and friendly,’ ‘accessible to the precepts of religion,’ ‘strong in their attachments to their friends, and submissive to the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic faith.’ ” Certainly, John Dinsmoor, would have said that “Captain John,” the mysterious chief who held him captive, was compassionate in releasing him, even though the Penobscot’s and other tribes had slaughtered many of his fellow English settlers. As with most conflict, there were old scores to be settled on both sides, and the English practice of paying large sums for Indian scalps added to the incentive for violence.
“A writer on the Abenaki gives a lucid account of this in, Above the Village, at the head of the rapids of the Kennebec, was a chapel dedicated to the most holy virgin, in which her image in relief demanded the prayers of the savages as they passed upward to the chase; and below, where the waters rested on their quiet level, another chapel stood, dedicated to the guardian angel of the tribe. The women contended with a holy emulation in the embellishment of their sanctuary by all the finery they possessed, and the chapels and the church were illumined by brilliant lights from the wax of the bayberries gathered upon the islands of the sea. Forty youths in cassocks and surplices officiated in performing the solemn functions around the altar. Such was the machinery of the holy office among the rude people of Nanrantsouak; and multitudinous processions, symbolical images, paintings, and mysterious rites were combined to catch the fancy and arrest the eye of the savage neophytes. Every day was introduced by the performance of mass, and the evening was ushered in by prayer in their native tongue, in which their zeal was excited by the chanting and recitation in which they took part, while the frequent exhortations of the father allowed no distraction of their attention, no suspicion of their piety, and no backslidings in their faith.” This evocative image of Indian life with the French was totally wiped out at Norridgewock and Penobscot by the English commanded by Colonial Westbrook.
“The expedition to Penobscot River was revived, and the conduct of it entrusted to that commander. “He left Kennebeck, Feb. 11, at the head of 230 men, and with small vessels and whale-boats, ranged the coast as far eastward as Mount Desert. On their return, they proceeded up Penobscot River; and, March 4, came to anchor, probably in Marsh Bay. From this place, they set out to find the fort; and after five days’ march through the woods; they arrived abreast of several Islands, where the pilot supposed the fort must be. ‘Being obliged here,’ says the Colonel, ‘to make four canoes to ferry from Island to Island; I dispatched 50 men upon discovery, who sent me word on the 9th, that they had found the fort and waited my arrival. I left a guard of 100 men with the provisions and tents, and proceeded with the rest to join the scouting party. On ferrying over, the Indian fort appeared in full view; yet we could not come to it by reason of a swift river, and because the ice at the heads of the islands would not permit the canoes to come around; therefore, we were obliged to make two more, which we ferried over. We left a guard of 40 men on the west side of the river, to facilitate our return, and arrived at the fort, by 6 of the clock in the evening.
This was the place John Dinsmoor was held for a time in captivity and where he was forced to participate in the building of the Indian fort. “It appeared to have been deserted, in the autumn preceding, when the enemy carried away every article and thing, except a few papers. The fort was 70 yards in length, and 50 in breadth, walled with stockades 14 feet in height, and enclosed twenty-three ” well finished wigwams, or as another calls them, ‘houses built regular.’ On the south side, was their chapel, in compass 60 feet by 30, handsomely and well finished, both within and on the outside. A little farther south, was the dwelling house of the priest, which was very commodious.— We set fire to them all, and by sunrise next morning, they were in ashes. We then returned to our nearest guards, thence to our tents; and on our arrival at our transports, we concluded we must have ascended the river about 32 miles. We reached the fort at St. George on the 20th, with the loss of only four men, Rev. Benjamin Gibson and three others, whose bodies after our arrival here, we interred in usual form.’”
I have been really amazed at finding the references to John Dinsmoor in Maine, in the early 1720’s. As a stone mason he may have built stone houses in and around the area of St George. Tantalizing possibilities exist including the stone house built in the 18th century on Mosquito Island. In an e-mail, Leith Smith of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission stated that, “We have done some work on Allen Island (owned by the Wyeth family, outer mouth of the St. George River) and I am convinced that the early house out there was a stone structure as well, dating to the early to mid-18th century.” I also stumbled across a reference to an early stone house known as the “Campbell house” in the St George area that was also constructed of stone. Of course proof of whether John Dinsmoor was involved must be left for further research. At this point, I am truly content and pleased, to have found the proof of John Dinsmoor’s time as an early pioneer in Maine. “Daddy” Dinsmoor is now more than just a legend.
- Letters of Colonel Thomas Westbrook, and Others, Relative to Indian Affairs in Maine, 1722-26. Communicated by William Blake Trask, A.M., or Dorchester. George Littlefield, Boston Mass.: 1901 https://archive.org/details/lettersofcolonel00tras
- Penhallow’s Indian Wars. Samuel Penhallow. Boston 1726 https://archive.org/details/penhallowsindian00penh
- The history of the state of Maine : from its first discovery, A.D. 1602, to the separation, D. 1820, inclusive by Williamson, William D. (William Durkee), 1779-1846 https://archive.org/details/historyofstateof02will
- The History of Norridewock by William Allen, 1849 https://archive.org/details/historyofnorridg00alle
- Journal of Several Visits to the Indians of the Kennebec River, By the Rev. Joseph Baxter, of Medfield Mass., 1717. https://archive.org/details/cihm_23407
- Indian Wars of New England, By Herbert Milton Sylvester, Vol. III https://archive.org/details/indianwarsofnewe03sylvuoft/page/n8
- Annals of the Town of Warren; With the Early History of St George’s Broad Bay, And Neighboring Settlements on the Waldo Patent. Cyrus Eaton, A.M. 1851 https://archive.org/details/annalsoftownofwa00lceato/page/n6
- Properties of Empire, Indians, Colonists, and Land Speculators on the New England Frontier. Ian Saxine, New York University Press, New York. 2019