Abenaki take their name from a word in their own language meaning “dawn land people” or “easterners.” In 1600 the Eastern Abenaki occupied what is now the state of Maine, except for its northern and easternmost portions. The Western Abenaki lived in the rest of northern New England, from New Hampshire to LAKE CHAMPLAIN. The Western and Eastern Abenaki spoke closely related ALGONQUIAN languages, each having various local dialects. Eastern Abenaki had at least 4 such dialects, Pequawket (Pigwacket), Arosaguntacook, Kennebec and Penobscot. All Abenaki were part of the Eastern Algonquian cultures and were separated from other Algonquian in the west and north by a migration of Iroquoian-speaking cultures around 1000 years ago. The Iroquoians eventually expanded through the St Lawrence Valley, but the region opened up to Western Abenaki expansion when the Iroquoians withdrew westward during the 16th century.
Around 1600, there were approximately 12 000 Eastern Abenaki and 10 000 Western Abenaki, but within a few decades Old World diseases, particularly measles and smallpox, reduced the populations in many communities by up to 98%. Surviving Western Abenaki, often called Sokoki or Penacook, withdrew into refugee communities in northern New England and Québec. The Eastern Abenaki were not as devastated by warfare and disease, and their principal community at Old Town, Maine, has survived to the present. Today there are more than 3000 Penobscot, with more than 500 living at Old Town.
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During the colonial period many Pequawket, Arosaguntacook and Kennebec people moved to Penobscot communities as English settlements expanded throughout southern New Hampshire and southwestern Maine. Others joined Sokoki or Penacook communities and moved to Vermont and Québec settlements.
The Abenaki are prominent in the journals of CHAMPLAIN and other explorers and missionaries. They survived the colonial wars of the following 200 years by balancing competing French and English interests and remained politically important despite their reduced population. The fall of NEW FRANCE left the Abenaki with little defence against English expansion after 1760, forcing them into weak alliances with other tribes formerly allied with the French. The American Revolution split the Eastern Abenaki from the Western Abenaki, most of whom were living in Québec. The Penobscot sided with the Passamaquoddy of eastern Maine in holding the frontier of New England for the Americans. The Abenaki remained divided in their loyalties through the WAR OF 1812 .
In 1600 the Abenaki were hunters, fishers and gatherers. They travelled mainly by birchbark canoes on lakes and streams while their farming relatives to the south depended upon less-agile dugout canoes and overland travel. Favoured game was more often moose than deer. Attempts to adopt agriculture did not succeed until after the FUR TRADE developed because farming alone was too risky as a full-time occupation. The fur trade and other means of outside income buffered the effects of periodic crop failures. The population density of the Abenaki was about only a tenth that of agricultural Algonquians in southern New England. The Abenaki adapted quickly to the fur trade and a world economy. They traditionally lived in villages near waterfalls on major rivers during the seasons when migratory fish could be harvested. During other seasons they dispersed in family groups to the coast or to small camps on interior tributaries. These camps became the bases of trapping territories during the heyday of the fur trade. When the trade declined, many turned to the lumber industry, CANOE manufacture and basketry.
The cultural hero Gluskabe (GLOOSCAP) figures importantly in Abenaki tales. However, the stories are now told in English or French, for Abenaki dialects are nearly extinct.