Written by Penobscot Governors and Indians in Council at Old Town, Maine, The Penobscot Land Claims Petition of November 5, 1829 concerns the sale of tribal lands in the new State of Maine. The petition, which was in response to an application for further land sale, addressed the Penobscot’s growing wariness of sharing or selling their dwindling homeland.
In 1820, the Missouri Compromise declared Maine an independent state; the Penobscot Indians faced loss of land in direct violation to the 1790 Trade and Non-intercourse Act. The Trade and Non-intercourse Act was meant to protect Indian lands on a federal level, and other treaties also made by the Penobscot with the former Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1796 and 1818 were meant to help establish reservation lands.
On August 17, 1820—a mere nine years before the Penobscot Land Claims Petition—the Maine signed a new treaty with the Penobscot people, effectively releasing the Commonwealth from their former agreements with the Native Americans of Maine. Only three of the four tribes in Maine, the Penobscot, the Maliseet, and the Micmac, signed this treaty. The Passamaquoddy people, the last of the four tribes comprising the Wabanaki people of Maine, were the only tribe to not sign the treaty.
Maine was and remains a border state with the territory that is now modern-day Canada. Maine was formed before the American Civil War and during a time when there was still significant tension between American, French, and English settlers. There was a drive to lay claim to the largely unknown interior and fringe areas of Maine. As property as a form of power grew, the demand for ownership of the new, rich areas in Maine became a goal for the white settlers. The Penobscot people had already given up vast areas of tribal land to the government of Maine when the 1829 petition was written, and the document sought to voice their concerns about losing the diminished portion that they had left.
As seen in the 1829 petition, the additional transfer of Penobscot lands when so much had been “sold” (or forcibly handed over already), was quietly responded to as an outrageous notion. The Penobscot people’s first argument was that the State of Maine had a large quantity of wild lands that the Penobscot and other Native Americans of Maine ceded to them. Those lands had thus far been relatively unused and the Penobscot compromised by offering that once all the land was used up then they would gladly share with their white neighbors. The Penobscot wrote that “Till this is the case, leave us this little pittance, the miserable remains [still in their possession]. The wording in this section of the petition was likely crafted to dissuade the government from taking more of their land and show the “pittance” or “miserable remains” were inadequate, not worth the effort to obtain from the Penobscot.
One of the substantial concerns the Penobscot people had was that if they were to continue selling their land in Maine, there would be no land remaining for future generations. The Penobscot relied on the land’s resources for sustenance and to keep their traditional practices of hunting and fishing alive. In the petition, it is highlighted that through settlement of Penobscot territory—that was supposedly theirs to govern and call home—a fish trap was destroyed, and white settlers stole previously harvested and stored provisions from their land. By bringing attention to these struggles, the Penobscot people attempted to obviate any further dispossession.
Throughout the petition, the Penobscot continually maintain that they are willing to work with the terms of the white people in order to come to a common understanding. In reference to building a tavern on a military road so white men had a place to stop along their travels, the Penobscot were very willing to make “such men to be accommodated.” The Penobscot also point to the fact they anticipated the white settlers would ask for more taverns along the road when they complain that one is not enough. The Penobscot refer to the white people as their “brothers” and “brethren,” recognizing certain equality between them, and are taken aback by the whites not treating them the same respect and understanding. In the closing lines of the petition the Penobscot write: “We have been faithful to our white brethren and all we ask in return, is, that their contract towards us should be just and reasonable.”
In 1833, four years following the 1829 Penobscot Indian Land Claims Petition, a controversial sale of some of the remaining Penobscot lands took place. It is said that a number of the Penobscot tribal members who signed the treaty did not understand exactly what they were giving up when they did so. Further loss of Penobscot land took place and 100,000 acres of land was sold, leaving only 5,000 acres in the ownership of the tribe. It was not until over a century later, in accordance with the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, that the Penobscot and other Wabanaki tribes in Maine were compensated for the unlawful disposition of their tribal lands.
What is perhaps most troubling—and perhaps most worth noting—is this thought of the intent to gain possession of tribal lands at all costs. That the Penobscot people signed away land unintentionally is further testament to the settlers’ avarice and disrespect toward not only the Penobscot, but many other tribes at this time. Such documents as this petition are central to our discussions of reclamation and land rights and are worth excavating for the richness of culture and context they provide.
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