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Friday, March 2, 2012

Curses! Chief Squandro and the Legend of the Saco River

The river lapped the shores of peaceful meadows; it flowed along banks green with maple, beech, sycamore, and birch; it fell tempestuously over dams and fought its way between rocky cliffs crowned with stately firs. It rolled past forests of pine and hemlock and spruce, now gentle, now terrible; for there is said to be an Indian curse upon the Saco, whereby, with every great sun, the child of a paleface shall be drawn into its cruel depths. Lashed into fury by the stony reefs that impeded its progress, the river looked now sapphire, now gold, now white, now leaden gray; but always it was hurrying, hurrying on its appointed way to the sea.

Indians Fishing ~ Albert Bierstadt

Kate Douglas Wiggin grew up along the shores of the mighty Saco River in Maine, and it is the focal point of her novella, Rose O' the River. The above passage mentions an Indian curse said to have been placed on the river in 1675, and still feared more than two hundred years later at the time of the writing of Rose O' the River in 1905.

Squandro was the chief of the Sokokis Indian tribe living near the mouth of the Saco River when European settlers began arriving in the area. Squandro was revered by his tribe, who believed him to be a powerful sorcerer, and he was well-respected by the white men for his dignified demeanor and peaceful policies. The Sokokis and settlers enjoyed nearly fifty years of peaceful co-existance until a fateful day in the summer of 1675. Legend has it that three sailors from an English ship anchored at the mouth of the river set forth in a rowboat to explore, and as they neared the Sokokis' retreat on Factory Island, they came across a Sokokis mother and child in a canoe. These men did not know that the young woman was Chief Squandro's wife when they decided to test the common belief held by European settlers that Indian babies were born knowing how to swim. They accosted the mother and threw Squandro's infant son into the river.

Battle of Bloody Brook, King Philip's War
Here's where accounts differ: Some say that Squandro's wife dove into the river and rescued her son, only to have him later succumb to his trauma; some believe that both mother and child died, and some believe that Squandro lost not only his wife and son that day, but also the unborn child she was carrying at the time. Chief Squandro mourned for three days and then stood on the banks of the Saco and commanded the spirits of the river to take the lives of three white men every year until they were driven from the Saco's shores. He also vowed to take personal revenge on the white men responsible for his loss, and spurred the Sokokis to attack white settlers along the Saco in what would become the early days of King Philip's War.

The legend lived on for Maine residents, for the Saco claimed at least three lives every summer until 1947. Up until that time, many people feared the curse so much that they would not go into the river in the summer until it had already claimed three lives. But the entire year of 1947 went by without a single drowning, and an article in the Maine Sunday Telegram proclaimed the curse to be broken with the following headline: "Saco River Outlives Curse of Indian Chief."


Rose O' the River by Kate Douglas Wiggin
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