Among the many treasures housed in the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society is a large map of Penobscot Bay, prepared for the society by James Eric Francis Sr., director of cultural and Historic Preservation for the Penobscot Nation. On the map are shown the traditional canoe routes and portages used by Wabanaki Indians, along with several of the place names. If you haven’t seen this work of art, you really should visit the exhibit barn during the summer season, where it is prominently displayed upstairs in the Indian exhibit.
As one looks at the map, one is struck by the lack of place names on Deer Isle itself. The only one is K’chisitimokan’gan (the great fish weir), the passage between Deer Isle and Little Deer (where the causeway is today). There must have been other names here, for an important canoe route runs through the center of the island. And there must have been a name for the island itself, as we know there were for: Isle au Haut, Sulikuk (Place of the Empty Shells); Islesboro, Pitaubegwimenahanuk (Island Between Two Channels); and Mount Desert, Pemetic (A Range of Mountains).
The reason for this dearth of place names goes back to events of the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1616 a major epidemic swept through native populations, killing off up to 90 percent of the people. Of European origin, the disease was one to which Indians had no immunity. It may not have been the first epidemic to devastate the natives, and we know it was not the last. As if this were not enough to cope with, casualties mounted in the course of a century of nearly continuous warfare as the Wabanaki people fought to defend their homeland against invasion by English speaking colonists.
Especially vulnerable were the very young and the elderly. In societies without writing, it is the elders who serve as the repositories of knowledge, equivalent to the archives and libraries of our own society. As they succumbed to disease, elders were unable to transmit knowledge to grandchildren, and so much of this was lost. The wonder of it all is that as much of it survived as has.
The earliest name I know of for Deer Isle appears on a map drawn in 1771 for the governor of the French province of Acadia, probably drafted by his lieutenant, Jean Vincent d’Abbadie, Baron de Saint Castin. On it, Deer Isle is labeled “The Foundry Isles.” Evidently the French considered the sections north and south of the Haulover as separate islands. Why they named them as they did is a mystery. Perhaps it was a mistranslation of an Indian word, but it certainly was not the original name for Deer Isle!
A clue to what that original name was comes from the Daylight Mitchell family from Indian Island. Best known on Deer Isle were Lawrence Mitchell and his family, who came to Sunset every summer from the 1920s well into the 1950s to sell baskets and other craft items. They were not the first members of this family to come here, however. We have an account of Charlie Daylight Mitchell, a first cousin of Lawrence Mitchell’s grandfather, paddling a canoe from Sylvester’s Cove to Eagle Island.
Both Charlie and Lawrence are discussed in my book At the Place of the Lobsters and Crabs. Since writing that book, evidence has come to light of a third member of this family on Deer Isle. The evidence is a brief statement by Dr. B. Lake Noyes, noticed by Connie Wiberg while looking through one of his volumes in the historical society archives. This refers to the father of Rosetta (Holbrook) Robbins-Dunbar as “Old Indian Jo. Mitchell.” Although she was known to be half Penobscot Indian, I had never been able to satisfy myself about Rose Dunbar’s paternity. This clarifies matters: Evidently Rose’s mother, Lucy Morey, had a relationship with this Indian Jo before marrying Abram Holbrook. Rose was born in 1866, and was subsequently given the surname Holbrook by her mother’s husband.
The identity of Old Indian Jo. Mitchell must surely be Joseph Mary Mitchell, born in 1838. This was the cousin of Charlie Daylight and grandfather of Lawrence. Rose Dunbar would have been a cousin of Lawrence Mitchell’s father. So, we have an association of Daylight Mitchells with Deer Isle going back three generations.
Another Indian Joe on Deer Isle was Joseph Lauren. I was never sure of his identity, but one Possibility was Joseph Mitchell Lolar (Lolar is a variant of Lauren) or his son of the same name. The senior Lolar is listed in the 1880 and 1899 Penobscot Indian census and the 1900 Penobscot Federal census. The middle name suggests descent from a Mitchell woman. The fact that on at least one occasion (in 1939) he was a guest in the house of Rose Dunbar suggests another tie to the Daylight Mitchells.
Given a continued presence of Daylight Mitchell descendants on the island in the 19th and 20th centuries, information gathered by anthropologist Frank Speck around the start of the 20th century takes on special interest. He reported an ancient connection of the Daylight Mitchell family and this part of the coast. They were one of the last families to subsist predominantly on resources from the sea, and were reputed to be expert seafarers and saltwater canoeists. Mitchell (originally Michele) was their French baptismal name, while Daylight was a nickname, from their reputation as early risers. Their original Indian name was Lobster, and they are said to have always lived near the lobsters.
Here, then, seems to lie the solution to the mystery of Deer Isle’s original name. As Isle au Haut was the Place of the Empty Shells, I propose that Deer Isle was the Place of the Lobsters. In the Passamaquoddy language, a modern version of that spoken by the Mitchell ancestors, it would be Sakhiq (pronounced “Zugheegw”), in Penobscot, Nsakek (the a is pronounced ah). The two modern words probably derive from the Etchemin word spoken by the natives of this area 400 years ago.
I thank Connie Wiberg, who called Dr. Noyes’ s statement about Rose Dunbar’s paternity to my attention. I am grateful as well to Passamaquoddies Donald Soctomah and George Neptune, along with Penobscot Darren Ranco, all of whom read an earlier draft of this article and agreed that it made sense. To Passamaquoddy David Moses Bridges and Penobscot Carol Dana, my thanks for the translations of Place of the Lobsters.
This article first appeared in
, Nov. 14, 2013