RED PAINT PEOPLE WILLIAM C. LARKIN
Several thousands of years ago (4,000-5,000 years), long before the Indians who where here when the first Europeans arrived in the Northeast, there lived Maine aborigines known much later as the Red Paint People. They were so-called not because of the color of their skin but because their grave sites yielded a finely powdered hematite or red ochre, usually several quarts layered in each grave.
Red paint cemeteries have been documented from the Kennebec River to Bar Harbor, Maine, although there have been reports over the years of sites discovered from New Jersey to Labrador and Newfoundland. Orland has a number of these cemeteries.
In the 1890's Professor C.C. Willoughby of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University was the first to conduct a serious explorations and studies of many of Maine's Red Paint grave sites, including some in Orland. He was the first to differentiate, without a doubt, their stone implements found from some of those of much later Algonkians and to identify the Red Paint People as a Stone Age, prehistoric culture.
During the period of 1912 to 1920, Professor Warren K. Moorehead of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass continued the archeology and confirmed Willoughby's conclusions. He studied 30 cemeteries in Maine, at least four of them in Orland as well as two more in neighboring Bucksport. Many stone tools eventually wound up in Massachusetts museums. Other collections, including some still in our area, are in local museums or are unrecorded and private. Some of Moorehead's collections are at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.
The Orland Historical Society has many Red Paint artifacts on display, including one unusual gouge that has been verified as archeologically unique by a specialist at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.
The Orland cemeteries made our town a focal point for study of the Red Paint culture. Explorations have turned up practically no physical evidence other then the red ochre and stone implements. Because Maine's acidic soil completely dissolved skeletons over time, a very few bone fragments have been found in one or two of the Maine graves. Even some of the stone tools had begun to crumble.
The experts, however, have learned much about the Red Paint culture through scientific deduction, For instance, we know they lived near both fresh and salt water navigable by small craft for travel and fish. They even caught swordfish miles at sea. They were a highly organized culture with unique customs and rituals, a strong sense of community and a belief in the afterlife.
Red Paints probably traveled by water to Mt Kineo, the closest place for the felsite used to make certain essential tools. The so-called flint was also used with iron pyrite to make fire. The ochre was most likely obtained at what is now Katahdin Iron Works where it is still found in small patches on Ore Mountain. So the Red Paint People had to travel great distances or trade to obtain these materials so critical to their needs. Their tools strongly imply they were hunters and fishermen, not farmers. We know nothing about their language.
Two of Orland's cemeteries were considered large and therefore documented in some detail by Moorehead and his colleagues. The cemeteries were found at the south shore of Lake Alamoosook on the Mason farm and on land of Capt. Seth Hartford in Orland Village, mostly in the gravel pit behind the old school-house that is now F.L. Davis & Co. Frank Davis's local contracting company headquarters.
Much detail is available from the Hartford site. Hay was removed from one of his barns that was built in the early 1800x. The barn floor was taken up to allow archeological excavation. Fifteen graves were unearthed. A total of 39 graves were found in that site, but Moorehead believed originally there were many more graves in that cemetery. Unfortunately, it had been greatly disturbed earlier "to satisfy idle curiosity"
Most of the artifacts taken from the disturbed graves were found within 18 inches of the surface, while many more were found in the same graves after digging another two feet or deeper. Undisturbed graves were generally 30 to 40 inches below the surface but lesser and greater depths have been recorded.
The Mason cemetery occupied a low, sandy ridge quite near the shores of Lake Alamoosook. In the mid 1800s, a dam raised the water level five feet, thus making it impossible to discover any new graves which were by then underwater. Other sites around the lake and along Dead River undoubtedly were similarly lost. The seaboard Paper Co. dam build in 1929-1930 raised the water level of the lake permanently, again submerging much of the shoreline along with other possible Red Paint graves and campsites. No serious Red Paint People explorations were undertaken in Orland since Moorehead's expedition in 1920. No substantial evidence of the Red Paint People was ever found on Toddy Pound in Orland.
Less detail is available about graves discovered by J. Foster Soper on his farm near the lake off the Upper Falls Road and at Emerson Point near Alamoosook's outlet. Other individual sites and scattered artifacts have been found around the lake. Moorehead hired local men as many as 12 at a time to augment his own crew, to do the digging under his direction. Land owners were usually interested in the projects and were generous in giving Moorehead access to their property.
Ernest O. Sugden, a well-known Orland town clerk and professional surveyor, used his skills on most of Moorehead's Orland explorations
These stone implements have been found in Orland and other Maine sites: celts or adzes (blades), hatchet blades, chisels or spuds, gouges, plummets (weights for nets), spear points, pendants-both ceremonial and ornamental, flint (felsite) and iron pyrite.
Very few arrowheads from the time of the Red Paint People were found in Maine. The celts, hatchet blades, chisels and gouges imply that the Red Paint People were adept at shaping wood such as water craft, bowls, utensils, totemic and ceremonial objects, and other necessities.
What became of the Red Paint People? To Willoughby and Moorehead, it seemed clear this culture did not become assimilated into any other known culture. Yet tools found at Red Paint sites bear similarity to tools from other prehistoric time periods in Maine. Several theories have cropped up to explain the disappearance of the Red Paint People but there is no hard evidence to support them.
The Penobscot Nation claims the Red Paint People gradually merged with their forerunners but, again, there is no supporting evidence. Meantime, Orland can be proud of the knowledge that major discoveries and documentation in the town led to much of what we know today about this prehistoric culture called the Red Paint People.
Our archaeological sites are important resources that can teach us a great deal about Maine's past when they are properly excavated and findings carefully recorded. Recreational digging can destroy important sites. Anyone who thinks they have found a site should contact the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.