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by Martha F. Barkley
According the back cover of his Kennebec: Cradle of Americans, "Robert P. Tristram Coffin was a descendant of the original English settlers of Maine and an acclaimed historian of his time. He was also a poet and essayist and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1935. He attended Bowdoin College in Maine and later taught there while writing many of his thirty-seven books."
I purchased this 1937 history with updated 2002 front and back large cover painting by Trevor Paul Robertson at my favorite Brunswick bookshop on the corner of Maine Street. DownEast Books are usually great republished reads and this one overwhelmed me, every single page.
I dare you, reader, to open anywhere in this local history, only 218 pages, and read any page and discover Robert Coffin's pure poetry in prose about our beautiful lakes and mountains surrounding the Kennebec.
The fur trade established here along the river is our local success story in American history. The Abanakis, handsome and tall, called themselves the "dawn people" and lived forever in the Kennebec River area: "The Abenakis built bark cabins, long houses with ridge pokes, and small ones around a central paved fireplace. They had towns…as at Norridgewock and at Koussinok, where Hallowell now stands. And they built boats. Birch-bark canoes, some of them large enough to hold a small army of men.
Curious now? A few more quotes? Dear reader, you do not need my opinion, just read this author. My copy over winter reading has almost every other page dog-eared. (I own the book).
So fortified with bayberry and nicotine, the Abenakis held the Kennebec many thousand strong, a tough and bright people. But another race of men was coming to fit their bodies into the winds and to be made tough and bright and smart by the splendors and the rigors of Maine weather.
Maybe it was a Viking. Leif Ericsson got down lower than Maine, likely…Maybe it was an even older European than a Nordic. On Manana, the island next to Monhegan, near the Kennebec's mouth, there is a rock that bears what seems to be an inscription. Perhaps it is an old Indian pictograph, though some people believe it to be a runic message of the Vikings; other people say it was put there by the Phoenicians, the men who founded Cadiz in Spain and colonies in Britain…Anyway, fishermen were here early and stayed late. They found the water alive with cod and could dip them up by the bucketful. The cod, not Columbus, opened the door to the new world.
Cartier saw Indians as white as men in France. Probably European fishermen had already been active in domestic affairs. The French brought settlers over to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Trappers, traders, fishermen, and missionaries were soon living as neighbors to the red men. Henry Hudson may have thrust his nose into the Kennebec.
"Surely one of the first Englishmen to swim the Kennebec, and half a hundred other rivers from Mexico to Maine, was David Ingram, the most famous walker of American history". Ever hear about him, dear reader? I had not until reading this most revealing history. Go to page 39.
Navigators could smell Maine far out at sea. No wonder, with so much bayberry and sweet fern around. The poet Drayton knew his Maine:
When as the luscious smell
Of that delicious land,
Above the seas that flows,
The clear wind throws,
Your hearts to swell
Approaching the dear strand…
But the first sailors to the Kennebec were thinking about breeding a new race of heroes, too. They foresaw that this wealthy world would be a fine cradle for men of a future empire.
"Maine has her mystery of lost colonists as Virginia has hers. The Kennebec keeps her secrets as does the James." Remember Popham Colony disbanded after an extra cold winter and the Lost Colony in Virginia?
They were a mixed crowd, these first families: English, French, Dutch, and Spanish.
And then in the winter of 1617-1618, a mysterious disease, harmless to the whites, swept the whole race of red men from the Penobscot to Cape Cod. It may have been just the measles or some offspring of the family of common colds. But it was fatal to the sons of the forest who ran naked in the summers and had never had colds before. Probably three-quarters of all the Abenakis were dead by spring.
Pandemics of yesteryear worth reading about now in 2020. Or skip that part and find that "Edna St. Vincent Millay was Maine's daughter before she was born beside the Penobscot, but Kennebec also can claim her now that her harp weaves its song through the wind-tuned Kennebec spruces… [T]he pith of her music is the clean strength of Maine. The sharp loveliness of the evergreen sky line and the keen light in some of her finest sonnets are the radiant beauty of the Kennebec coast."
Let Robert Coffin into your reading life this summer: "A classic of Maine literature, Kennebec's appeal for the preservation of both the river and a way of life is as relevant today as when it was written more than sixty years ago" (from the back cover).