In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Swan's Island: Six miles east of ordinary

The lives and stories of a unique community

I. Canoes and Clamshells: The Pre-European Settlement Years

Text by Kate Webber
Images from the Swan's Island Historical Society

Carrying Place
Carrying Place

Prior to European settlement, Swan’s Island was a source of food and materials for many Native Americans who used the island as a seasonal, and perhaps permanent, home. Little information exists on the exact nature of the island’s use before European settlement, but the island holds ample evidence in the form of archeological remains and place names.

A notable example of the latter category is Carrying Place, a strip of land across which Native American canoes could be portaged. Carrying Place is the narrowest place on the island, where, “…one can throw a stone from water to water at high tide.” Dr. Small, a Deer Isle man who served as a doctor on Swan’s Island between the years 1891 and 1903, points out in his island history that the name Hocomock (current Hockamock Head) was used before Europeans arrived. This name has been translated in two ways: either as the “evil spirit” or as the “place on the other side.” Burying Point, located near the Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station, is another relic of native land occupation. As its name suggests, it was at one point a burial place. Skeletons were also unearthed at Carrying Place and Middle Head.

Swan's Island artifact
Swan's Island artifactPartially chipped tool found on Swan's Island.

Artifacts such as arrowheads and stone tools have been unearthed over the years through farming, construction and natural erosion. Many houses on the island have private collections of these artifacts, though little is known of their original owners. There are also numerous shell middens: areas where heaps of shells were piled with other refuse over the course of months and years. The middens are primarily composed of clam shells, though there are also remains of oysters, sea urchins, fish, waterfowl and deer. Their size and quantity suggest longer periods of use rather than short visits to the island.

Much of what we could assume about Native American use of Swan’s Island can be drawn from similar patterns of use in other areas of the coastal Northeast. Perry Westbrook states in his Biography of an Island that the Malecite (Wolastoqiyik) tribe frequented this region of Maine prior to the Indian Wars of 1725-26. The Malecite were known for their skill in dealing with the salt-water environment, expertly handling canoes and hunting seal and porpoise. Swan’s Island may have attracted this tribe as a seasonal or even permanent home.

Penobscot Chief Joseph Orono
Penobscot Chief Joseph Orono

The Penobscot and, to a lesser extent, Passamaquoddy were known visitors to Swan’s Island. The island was a good site to hunt seal and porpoises for skins and oil, as well as to gather sea fowl eggs, sweet grass, clams and lobsters. As Dr. Small states in his 1898 history, “This tribe made irregular visits to the island for many years after the white settlers came, but of late, since their number has so decreased, they have ceased altogether.” Swan’s Island has no record or tradition of violence between native tribes and European settlers, perhaps due to the fact that it was settled post-Revolution. Penobscot chief Joseph Orono joined with the colonists to fight the British in 1779, and one of the islets on the Northern side of Swan’s Island now bears his name. This history has largely been forgotten on the island today.