The Abenaki: Who were they?

The Abenaki tribe is a branch of the original Algic or Algonquin family of indigenous people who originally occupied the area from the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.  Groups of Abenaki tribes eventually settled in areas of New Brunswick, Maine, and New Hampshire.  The name of the Abenaki tribe designates the tribes as the “people if the Aurora Borealis” or as understood by European explorers, “The people of the East”.  Early sources describe the Abenaki people as a docile and hospitable people who had a tremendous sense of loyalty to the French.  In comparison to other tribes the Abenaki were not as cruel or barbaric in the eyes of the Europeans.  The Abenaki had tremendous hunting and tracking abilities and as such survived mostly as a hunting and gathering society with very little agricultural activity.

With whom did these people come into contact (individuals and nationalities)

The Abenaki suffered a great deal from their contact with Europeans, It unfortunately resulted in a huge loss of population for the Abenaki. The first group to have prolonged contact with the English were the Penneacook along the Merrimack River. Prior to this many Abenaki had come into contact With the French, and Jesuits looking to convert Abenaki. The Jesuits were very protective of the converted Abenaki and did not like the thought of French Catholic or English intervention. The Abenaki were often caught in between the deep seeded rivalry between the French and English. There is also some evidence showing that the Abnaki in the Northeast also had relations with the Dutch. Outside of the European nationalities the Abnaki also regularly traded with other tribes. They were often in conflict with the Iroquois and would fight with their neighbouring tribes. In the mid-18th Century they created the Wabanaki Confederacy with the Penobscots, Passamaquoddies, Maliseets, and Micmacs. After the creation of the confederacy these tribes never fought with each other, unfortunately it was disbanded in 1862.

How did Europeans respond to the Abenaki’s they encountered?

The Europeans responded to the Abenaki’s that they encountered in North America by trading with them and teaching them about Christianity. The Abenakis were a gentle group towards the Europeans. The French and the Abenaki formed a strong alliance early on because of the influence the French missionaries had on them. The Abenakis traded to the Europeans with furs, fish and products from the forest that the Europeans could use to settle with and to use on their ships. In return, the Abenakis were given metal tools and cloth. The Europeans arrival also had negative consequences for the Abenaki tribe like new diseases such as smallpox, resulting in many sick or dying people.

What purpose were Europeans in this area?

The Abenaki territory, stretching through New Brunswick, Maine, and New Hampshire, is a land vast in resources including fisheries, and fur. Europeans made initial contact with these peoples in the 15th century due to fishing and trade expeditions. Many Europeans were drawn to this region based upon rumors of a rich, mythical city called “Norumbega” that began to circulate in the 16th century. Eventually, however, it became clear that this was a fictional city.

The French established Fort Saint John, and remained in the area after the recognition of Norumbega’s nonexistence, due to the profitable fur trade they had with the Abenaki peoples. This allowed for the French and the Abenaki to cement a trade-based alliance that lasted long after the French moved to Mi’kmaq territory.



The first interaction between the Abenaki and English was with the Penneacook (southern tribe). The Abenaki also had interactions with the French during the 17th century when Champlain was in North America. There is also some evidence of encounters with the Dutch. Prior to the first recorded interactions between the Abenaki and Europeans there is evidence that suggests that these people came into contact with fishermen who came from Europe to take advantage of the rich fisheries along the coast. The relationship between these groups was generally benevolent and the Abenaki and French created a strong, long-lasting alliance.

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