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China Lake Maine: looking south from wentworth point

The Romance of Indian Heart 

By Rufus Jones






On the western shore of the beautiful lake, now known as China Lake, in Maine, near its southern end, a wooded point of land projects into the lake, at the edge where the point meets the water, stands a large sentinel granite rock, split by the glacier, which like a plow-share of the Almighty plowed out the lake in the great Ice Age. On the face of the rock is carved a huge heart, about eighteen inches in width at the bulge and perhaps twenty inches from top to bottom. It was not made by the glacier. It was cut by human hands, but before any white man ever saw the lake.


I am telling the story of the origin of that rock-cut heart. Part of my story is historically true, as true as the Bible, and some of it is my own imagination; and I shall not tell you where to draw the line between what is fact and what is fancy, though there is a wavy line between them. 


Our story must begin at the great curve of the Kennebec River at Norridgewock, which the French called ''Narantsouk". In 1693 the famous French Jesuit Missionary, Father Sebastian Rale, began his forty years of labor with the Abenaki Indians of the Kennebec region here in this picturesque wilderness of hills and forests, where the river makes a great curve. He was a person of great distinction, a priest, a scholar, a magnetic fascinating leader of men, and unfortunately a wily politician, using his spiritual power over his Indian village to advance the designs of' France to maintain control of the section of Maine east of the Kennebec, originally a part of Acadia, and inciting his converted Abenakis to harry, and if possible, eliminate the colonists who attempted to settle in that attractive domain.


A spacious church was built of logs at the edge of the Indian village by the river. It had a belfry and a bell which in the morning summoned the Indians to mass and in the evening to a sermon.


The Norridgewock Indians had all the outward, superficial marks of being well-ordered

Christians. They bowed, they kneeled, they gave the responses, they said the creed, they made bayberry wax candles for the altar, but all the time they remained fierce Abenaki warriors. They kept their war paint and feathers, and their hatchets and scalping knives were sharp for forays against the inroad of English settlers.


Story of Kekiberba

My story is especially concerned with a young Abenaki chieftain named Kekiberba, who was the son of the great chief of the village tribe, Bomazeen. Kekiberba was a young and fearless hero, the leader of a band of youth, and a devoted disciple of Father Rale. He had the marks of nobility, unusual height, great strength of body, a clear eye and a fine high forehead. He was as skilful when he assisted the priest at the altar as he was fearless when he led his band of youth in some night attract.


Feast at Damariscotta

Every year, in the autumn, after the corn harvest, the Indians from all parts of eastern Maine gathered at Damariscotta for a feast of clams and oysters, and, I hope, of lobsters. The mound of shells still exists near Damariscotta to prove this point. They ate and then ate more. They danced, then danced again. In the group on one of these trips was a beautiful Indian maiden from Pemaquid named Nemaha, or Nemi. She had some French blood in her pedigree, for her family came to Pemaquid from Castine and she was plainly enough, as Kekiberba could see with half an eye, the most beautiful creature at the feast and at the dance. Before the day of eating and jubilation were ended, being as expert in love-making as he was in fighting. Kekiberba had won Nemaha as his bride; and she went proudly back with him on the return journey to Norridgewock.


They walked through the woods to Head Tide on the Sheepscot, where they had left their canoes. They paddled up the river to a spot about two and a half miles from China Lake.


They crossed to the lake, paddled to the site of Indian Heart Rock, where they stopped to cook and eat the clams they had brought. Then they paddled to the Outlet Brook, down the brook to the Sebasticook River, carried across the point of land to the Taconic Falls, where Waterville now is, and so up the Kennebec to their beloved village of Norridgewock. Kekiberba and Nemaha were never to forget that wooded point in the beautiful lake where they ate their meal of roasted clams. Nemaha had been baptized as a child at Castine and was, like her husband, a devout Roman Catholic, so they were married in due form in the church by Father Rale. In front of them, as they stood hand in hand facing the altar, there was on the wall of the church a picture of the Sacred Heart, which to the Jesuit priest represented Christ's presence and His eternal loving nature.


Sisters of the Sacred Heart

Then and there, in that sacred moment, Nemaha resolved to form a sisterhood of the young women of the Indian village to be called "The Sisters of the Sacred Heart". Being Indian squaws, they had to work in the corn fields and do other menial tasks, but each week they had a Sacred Heart lesson from Father Rale about Divine Love, and they made the elaborate preparations for the great event of the year, which was the feast of the Sacred Heart.


Life in the young chief's wigwam was full of happiness. Love in the bosom of these red denizens of the forest was as wonderful as it is anywhere else in the world. The one trouble was that they were all the time being stirred to hate and to acts of violence by their priest and beloved Father Rale. There was a Fort Western at Cushnoc, which is now Augusta, and a sturgeon fishery established there. There was a hated fort at Pemaquid, another at Richmond, down the river, and still another at Saco. These forts angered Father Rale and the Indians. The attacks on the young settlements and the massacres of new settlers, which frequently happened, seemed all the time to be traceable to the political influence of the otherwise noble Jesuit Father of Norridgewock.


Destruction of Norridgewock

The universal English hate of Norridgewock finally came to a head in fierce action. Two hundred and eight men, heavily armed set out from Fort Richmond in seventeen whaleboats, the 8th of August, 1724. They left their boats at the Taconic Falls, now Waterville, with forty men to guard them, and the one hundred and sixty-eight men, with three Mohawk Indians, marched through the woods to Norridgewock, on the morning of the 10th. They surprised the Indians who, men,  women, and children, rushed out of their wigwams and log houses. They fired wildly but too high at the English. The latter, with their rifles, mercilessly mowed down the Indians, who now fled to the river and leaped into canoes, and tried to escape. Most of them were shot to death in their canoes for most of them had no paddles. Meantime, Father Rale was shot through the head in his doorway. The wigwams and houses were burned to the ground and the church was fired. It looked in the evening as the soldiers returned to their boats at Taconic, as though the Norridgewock Indians were annihilated and the power of the priest forever broken. But, this is the crisis where my real story begins.


Kekiberba Escapes

Chief Bamazen was killed and scalped and his wife carried off a prisoner. But Kekiberba, our young hero, escaped across the river with a small band of his intimate friends. They hid in the woods and spent the night in much agony over the fate of their loved ones. They returned in the morning to an awful scene. Where was Nemaha? She was not found among the bodies that strewed the ground. No, she was not there. She was not on the banks of the river where many bodies lay. She wasn’t in the ashes of the burned village. When the crisis came the day before she had suddenly gathered around her the little band of the Sisterhood. They had rushed to the church and seized the picture of the Sacred Heart and fled into the woods to a secret hiding place which Nemaha knew, and there, with the precious picture, they had passed an anxious night, wondering whether anybody was left alive.



Kekiberba stood on a knoll at the edge of the western forest and called in his far-carrying, melodious voice, "Nemaha, Nemaha." She heard him with joy and came running with her friends. And there, surrounded by death and the ashes of their village, Kekiberba and his living friends found their companions who had also survived the tragedy. They buried the old chief Bombazeen and Father Rale and those they loved. They hid the bell of the burned church in the hollow of an ancient pine tree where it was found many years afterward, and taken to the museum in Brunswick.


China Lake Settlement

They carried to their canoes the few implements that were left unburned, some hidden supplies of food and sadly the little party of Abenaki exiles, led by their young chief, paddled down the Kennebec to the Taconic Falls, carried their canoes across to the Sebasticook, then pushed up the stream to the mouth of the Outlet Brook, and made their way with paddles and pulling to the lake we know, and then they went on silently but with one united mind, to the beautiful western point at the south end of the lake where pine trees three hundred years old stood waiting for them. Here in this beautiful spot settled the tiny remnant of the Norridgewock Abenakis, with Kekiberba for their chief and hie beautiful Nemaha as the keeper and guardian of the picture of the Sacred Heart which they brought with them. They built wigwams under the lofty pines and a shrine for the picture of the Sacred Heart, covered in front with a curtain of deerskin which could be lifted up in the daytime when the little band met each morning to say their prayers before the shrine, this picture of the Sacred Heart and what it had come to signify is the lives of these simple dwellers in the woods was all that was left of reality from the years of priestly labor from their former Father in the Faith.


Sacred Heart Survives

They had no sacraments now. They had no sermons, no lessons, no kneelings, no formal prayers. The Sacred Heart was the center of their religion. This great heart had loved and suffered for them and they would never forget that, whatever else they might forget. What they wanted most to forget was the teaching about hate and violence. They had seen enough of that, they knew how it all ended and henceforth they wanted to live in peace and quiet on their beautiful point among the giant pines.


Unexpectedly something quite remarkable happened. One evening after their supper of fish, as Kekiberba was standing near the great rock and looking out across the lake in the glory of its sunset colors, he said in a loud voice, "Le Sacre Coeur", which is the French for "The Sacred Heart", and is the term the Indians always used for it. Suddenly to their amazement the words came back to them across the water, "Le Sacre Coeur," and it seemed to their untutored minds as though it came from the sky -- from the heavenly world. It is a peculiarity of this spot on the shore, as I have often proved, that a whole sentence shouted from this rock comes back to the speaker in a marvelous echo. But to the Indians this repeated word was something more than an echo -- it seemed to come from another world, from the Great Spirit. And from this time on every night, before they slept, their chief called across the water, "Le Sacre Coeur," and back to them mysteriously from the sky came the same words as a strange comfort for their sleep. This experience fired the Sacred Heart as the center of their tribal life.


Corn for Winter

Obviously they had to have corn for their winter staple food, and to get it they had to go back with their canoes to Norridgewock. The English soldiers had marched through the corn on the fatal day and had tramped much of it down; but enough was left for their winter supply, and they filled their canoes with as much as they dared to carry. Soon after their return with the corn, the time had come for the great feast at Damariscotta.


The clams and oysters were as fine as ever, but the feast was bound to be touched with sadness, so many faces were missed from the throng. But Nemaha's friends and relatives were there from Pemaquid, and still older friends and relatives came from Castine, and they ate and danced and tried to forget their losses and their sadness. The little group of Sacred Heart Indians brought back with them, up the Sheepscott and across the lake, a load of clams. Some of them they roasted and ate on their rocky shore, and some of them they planted in the nearby cove. They grew and multiplied but they were never, in fresh water, the same tasty rarebit as they had been in the sea. But they fed the muskrats that abounded around the lake, and dried and smoked muskrat meat was one of the Indians' most prized foods, Still more prized, however; in fact, the topnotch item in their diet, were alewives, which means herring. These fish swarmed up the Outlet Brook in the Spring in vast numbers to spawn. They were so numerous that they could be caught with their hands, or they could be netted by the bushel. They were smoked and would last the whole year through.


Tribe Grew

Of course "Nemi" as Kekiberba loved to call his wife, had babies. There was no doctor to help but that didn't matter. Indian women knew how to have babies without such outside help. So, too, the other squaws had babies and the tribe of Anakis, on their lovely point in the woods grew in numbers and multiplied. They continued to cultivate the corn at Norridgewock, for there was no clearing around the lake where they could plant their corn, and they had no axes to clear off the great trees that lined the shores. They burned over patches of the woods to get crops of raspberries and blueberries, but they could not create corn fields without better tools than they possessed.


Now we come to a crisis epoch in the life of the encampment. One awfully stormy night -- for there are sometimes lion-storms on the shores of China Lake the shrine was blown over in the darkness and blown out into the lake, and the precious picture of the Sacred Heart was turned into pulp in the water and was destroyed.


Permanent Shrine

It was a supreme disaster. Their life had focused on this picture. It was the center of their religious devotions and the rallying point of their community and tribal life. They sat down in silence as a group of mourners and ate no food that day as they gazed hopelessly at the ruined wonder. The next morning without any consultation except in the night with his wise Nemi, Kekiberba took his stone gouge. and hammer and began cutting the image of the Sacred Heart on the face of the rock as near like the picture as his memory could reproduce it. Day after day, with his poor tools of the Stone Age, hardly eating enough to support his heavy work, the Indian cut away at the stubborn rock until the Sacred Heart which in picture had stood in the shrine, now appeared in permanent form, to last through the ages, cut with patient care on the face of the rock where we see it today. 


When it was finished, the Indians in wonder and joy held a great feast to celebrate this new creation. They danced far into the night in their joy, and then their chief stood by the rock -- their new shrine -- and shouted across the lake, "Le Sacre Coeur," and once more, as of old, the words came back as from the sky over the lake, "Le Sacre Coeur," and they all lay down to sleep in peace, believing that heaven was once more satisfied with their labors.


One day, moving noiselessly in his birch canoe, Kekiberba saw in the nearby cove a blue heron, standing on one leg, watching for a frog. The Indian approached so slowly and quietly that the heron, absorbed in his coming assault on the frog, did not become aware of his danger. Suddenly, swiftly, and with deadly aim, a winged arrow flew toward him and pierced his outstretched neck. The beautiful feathers of the heron went to make a gorgeous head-dress for Nemi. 


Over their point there frequently flew two magnificent bald eagles, already as old as the pine trees in which they built their nests. Every Indian wanted their feathers to adorn his head but nobody could ever reach these lordly birds that flew too high for an arrow to be dangerous. Deer and moose abounded in the woods and often supplied the Indians with food and skins for clothes and moccasins. Once in a great while they brought in a bear and had a mighty feast, and a new bed couch of bear-skin. Woodchucks were easy to get and delicious to eat, though white folks have lost the secret.


Encroaching White Men

Years rolled on. Wars came and ended. No settlers came to the lake. Not a tree fell except from old age or from the storms that swept down upon it with fury. But slowly the world was changing. A fort went up at the mouth of the Sebasticook: Fort Halifax, and settlements came along the shores of the Kennebec. The Indians could no longer go to Norridgewock for corn, they could no longer go to Damariscotta for clam feasts. And one day, when Kekiberba was now an old chief of 75 years, the Indians saw trees falling across the lake in a region where they had often gone to hunt and to fish for suckers in the near-by brook. A little later the shock came nearer home. The point just north of their beloved camping place began to be cleared and they saw a cow where they had usually looked for deer or for bear. 


The end of their peace was plainly in sight. The irresistible invasion had begun and there was no way to head it off. They went one evening to visit the new settlers. But they could not talk together because they had no common language. They could only make signs. The settlers brought out their pop-corn and popped it by the open fire to the delight of the Indians. They· made and pulled molasses candy, which delighted them even more. But it was perfectly evident that the white man had come to stay, and that more were to follow. They read their doom. They outnumbered the whites and they could have exterminated the first settlers if they had resolved to take fierce action, as they once would have done. But a different way of life had come. They had revolted against fierce action and had accepted the gentler doctrine of the Sacred Heart.


There is a rumor, a legend perhaps, that at the time of their visit to the Settlers, they threw water on the white man's guns standing in the corner of the room. If they did do that, it was only a symbolic act to indicate that guns were not to be used in violent ways. If the Indians had themselves meant violence, they had quite effective ways of wiping out new settlements which here they never tried. 


What they did do was to hold a Council by the Sacred Heart, and in it, by the advice of their old chief, they decided to leave their beloved camping ground and go away to join the old remnant of the Abenakis at Passamaquoddy Bay. They made their way through the forests to Castine where they found old friends and distant relations, and together they made their way to Passamaquoddy and became a part of the ancient tribe to which they belonged. Three quarters of a century later Stephen Jones and my Uncle Eli Jones from China and John D. Lang from Vassalboro used to go occasionally as a committee to visit the Passamaquoddy Indians, and when the Catholic priest would allow it they would hold a Quaker Meeting with them. It was mostly in silence, for the Indians prefer silence to talk. One wonders whether any of them remembered that they had sprung from the shore of the same lake as their visitors, and that their cult of the Sacred Heart and of the Great Spirit was essentially similar to the central principle of their Quaker visitors.

Masthead Photo Credit: Jen Syer

Indian Heart Rock:

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