“People of the First Light,” the main exhibit at the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor, explores the history and culture of the native people who lived on Mount Desert Island for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. PHOTO BY DICK BROOM

People of the first light lived here 5,000 years ago

By the time European explorers “discovered” the coast of Maine in the early 1600s, native people already had been living here for thousands of years.

Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation dating back at least 5,000 years on and around Mount Desert Island.

Long before the first Europeans came, the native people had established “a well-adapted and fairly affluent life in their homeland surrounding present-day Acadia National Park,” wrote Julia Clark and George Neptune of the Abbe Museum of Maine Native American history and culture in Bar Harbor.

Today, there are four Native American tribes in Maine: the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. Collectively, they are known as Wabanaki, a Passamaquoddy word meaning “people of the dawnland.” They called the coastal region of what is now eastern Maine and Atlantic Canada the “dawnland” because it is where the sun’s rays first strike land each day.

According to Clark and Neptune, “Evidence from archaeology, oral tradition and early European accounts suggest that the Mount Desert Island area was an important meeting place where people from several larger groups came together to interact in a variety of ways and was the center of one of the most important Wabanaki alliances encountered by early European arrivals.”

When a small group of French Jesuits arrived at Mount Desert Island in May 1613 with the intention of establishing a mission, they were welcomed by the native Wabanaki, who had a summer encampment on the island. With the encouragement of the Wabanaki, the newcomers planted corn and began building a fort at a site recommended by Asticou, the Wabanaki chief.

However, the settlement, called St. Sauveur, was abandoned after only three months, when it was attacked by an English ship from the Jamestown colony in Virginia.

“People of the First Light” is the new main exhibit at the Abbe Museum’s downtown Bar Harbor location. It provides an engaging introduction to the world of the Wabanaki from ancient times to today.

Acadia: a human timeline


From 13,000 Years Ago

First Peoples in “Maine”

The first evidence of a human presence in what we now call Maine dates to nearly 13,000 years ago. These first peoples and their descendants and successors create a network of nations linked by language, trade, and belief that encompasses all of New England and most of the Canadian Maritimes.


From 5,000-plus Years Ago


Wabanaki Island Domain

By at least 5,000 years before the present, the forebears of the Wabanaki Peoples have established successful communities along the coastal regions. Wabanaki settlements on the mainland and islands can see the range of mountains on what we now call Mount Desert Island. They call it Pemetic.



The Origins of a Name

Giovanni Verazzano, an Italian navigator for the French crown, sailed along the North American coast, placing the name “Arcadia” on areas between New Jersey and North Carolina


September 1604

The Wabanaki Discover Champlain

In the first week of September 1604, Wabanaki people discover a small sailing ship with a crew of fewer than a score of Frenchmen coasting near the mouth of what we call Somes Sound. The leader of these explorers—cartographer and geographer Samuel de Champlain—mapped the eastern coast of the island that he named “l’Isle des Monts-déserts.”


1613 to 1761

Contests for Dominion

During the first 150 years of European presence in North American and on the coast of Maine, the French and English colonial goals and regimes are distinct, but each deeply disrupts Wabanaki life and culture.


Summer 1613

Jesuit Settlement

Jesuits lead a well-supplied expedition to attempt a permanent settlement and find come to Mount Desert Island and camp at the site now known as Jesuit Field, on the southwest shore of Somes Sound. The English attack and disperse the would-be colonizers.


1761 to 1861

Colonial Settlement

During the century between the first permanent European residence on MDI in 1762 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the first five generations of white settlers create four towns, four or so churches, several roads, two bridges, twenty-two elementary schools, and 4,000 people on the island.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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