The Historical Newell Family

Today I will take a break from my Kanistanaux project to post this brief case study of the Newell Family. I recently received inquires from two different directions about the family and a new item to work with. I thought this would be a good time to take a fresh look at the family.
I would like to thank my good friend Salmon for locating Item 1 and bringing it to my attention.

I will start by presenting the basic historical data that informs us about the family.

Item 1

Eastern Argus, 25-Dec-1832, Portland, ME
Whereas, a company of Indians have encamped in Westbrook on the bank of Presumpscot river, and whereas one of said Indians, an old man, lame of a stiff crooked leg, named Newell, has made a practice of begging money of the people of this and neighboring towns, this is to inform them that he does not belong to the Penobscot tribe, but is a British Indian of the St. John’s tribe, and that he is no more an object of charity than those of the Penobscot tribe among whom he lives, but is as able to hun[t] and get his own living as they are; and as he passes for a Penobscot Indian, the people are informed that he is an ally of the British who rob the Penobscot Indians of their furs, and in case of a war with Great Britain he would be as active in taking their scalps as he is now in begging their money.
Nov. 29, 1832

Item 2

The Life of John W. Johnson
Chapter 13 paragraph 2 (as published by Ne-Do-Ba)
“I was glad to see my wife [Susan Newell], and her father, who had always used me well, and was a very kind man. He was exempt from many habits and indulgences that the Indians are accustomed to, as he never swore, used tobacco, or drank strong drinks, which may perhaps account for his long life and his remarkable health, as he was never to my knowledge sick, and is now about one hundred years old, yet smart and active.”
John W. Johnson (late 1850s)

Item 3

1858 Indian Island (Penobscot) Census
March 25th, 1858 as taken by
J. C. Knowlton, Supervisor of Schools – Old Town, Maine …
Thomas Newell         m    66
Mary Ann Newell        f     56
John Newell             m     22
Loring Newell           m     20
Newell Newell          m     18
Mary Newell               f     24
Susan Newell              f     16
Frances Newell           f     14
[other Newell households identified in this census are: Dr. Joseph age 50, Zedie age 36 widow, Thomas Jr. age 31, Sabatis age 26, Charles no age given, Joseph no age given, Elizabeth no age given]

Item 4

Penobscot Man, Frank G. Speck, 1940
Page 228

20. Newell (Rabbit (Hare)).
A family of Malecite extraction known as Wa’bus, “Hare”, incorporated with the Penobscot since about 1870. We learn they were wanderers through the country, settling at last at Oldtown, and for a long time subsisting by charity. The family head of the group was an old man, Ktciwabu’s, “Old Rabbit”. He was so dubbed because he limped. As may be seen in the list of family intermarriages, the Rabbits soon became blended with the Penobscot. Their hunting territory remained on the eastern frontier of the Penobscot, bordering Malecite territory.

Penobscot Man, Frank G. Speck, 1940
chart on pg. 215

Family: 20
Name: Matagwe’su
English Name: Rabbit (Hare)
Modern (1910) Christian Family Names: Newell
Territory: Masardis waters
Origin: (blank)
Remarks: A band of poor hunters, with a small territory. Said to be feeble and poor, like the rabbits.



Newell is the French Catholic baptismal name Noel. Current research does not tell us exactly when, where, or how the given name transitions to a family name and we don’t know how many unrelated families may have adopted it as a family name.
I believe I can show all the above items are referring to the same family. I will explore these items as a group to see what I can learn about the early Penobscot Newell family.

Analysis of the name Ktciwabu’s

Speck (Item 4) states the head man of the family was called “Ktciwabu’s” or “Old Rabbit” and he was given the name because he was lame.
Speck’s suggestion the name means “Old Rabbit” doesn’t make sense. The “Ktci” at the beginning does not mean “old“. The prefix means “big” or “great“. Even a novice such as myself should recognize this.
Speck claims the Newell family’s totem is rabbit and uses the name “Matagwe’su” in his chart covering Penobscot family totems. Gordon Day provides “madegwas” in his Western Abenaki dictionary for rabbit or hare. The online resource Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal provides “mahtoqehs” for snowshoe hare.
So how does Matigwas (rabbit, according to language resources) become Wa’bus? Some Algonkian speaking Peoples do refer to the rabbit as Wa’bus, with our neighboring Mi’kmaq being one of those groups. But, Speck’s informant is Penobscot and he is telling me the Newell’s are Maliseet (St. Johns), so why is the elder’s personal name an apparent Mi’kmaq word?
Another possibility for the word “Wa’bus” could be “white“. So, “Ktciwabu’s”  might translate to “Great Rabbit” or “Great White“. Hmm … What does either have to do with limping?
To the Wabanaki, Rabbit is the impostor or shape-shifter, like coyote is to western tribes. One correlation I see is that rabbit sometimes disguises himself as an old man and elders are often depicted with a walking stick or lame. Ah … but this sounds like a pretty lame explanation (pun intended).
I consulted my good friend Salmon, who just so happened to be working on the same puzzle — serendipity. We both came to a similar conclusion. The name has nothing to do with limping but it does relate to the rabbit. We believe this name refers not to the animal but perhaps to the mythical rabbit sometimes referred to in Wabanaki mythology as the “Great White Hare“. This certainly makes more sense than Speck’s explanation. Still, I do not claim to be an expert or even a great novice, so I could be way out on a limb with this theory.
The interesting thing to think about here is the idea Newell is possibly being referred to by Speck’s Penobscot informant as a impostor, conjurer, magician, or shape-shifter – figuratively speaking. In other words, “He is not what he appears to be.” Newell Lions (Item 1) confirms this possibility when he tells us Newell “passes for a Penobscot Indian” when, according to Lion, he is Maliseet. The name might also imply Newell is presenting himself to the public in an unfamiliar manner for an Indian.
Magic is connected with healing powers, so there is a possible Native healer connection concerning the mythical rabbit. Hmm … actors and doctors, seems to fit nicely with the historical Newell family I have come to know.
I still have no idea what the name has to do with being lame, but I am very grateful Speck included this item. The mention of the family elder being lame shows the Newell family remembered by Speck’s informant at Indian Island, Old Town in the 1870s (Item 4) is the same family band with the same head-man as the one discussed in the 1832 news-clipping (Item 1). Because of this fact, we also know the family elder discussed by John Johnson (Item 2) and enumerated in the 1858 School Census (Item 3) must also be the same man.

The Historical Newell Family

The news-clipping (Item 1) tells me this family is representing itself as Penobscot and is living among the Penobscot as early as 1832. Speck’s information (Item 4) about the family settling at Indian Island about 1870 is off by almost three decades!
The earliest useful document for the Penobscot at Indian Island is the 1858 School Census (item 3). This is not a tribal document. It was prepared by the Old Town school department. Therefore, it should contain families with children known to be at least part-time residents of Indian Island regardless of their origins or tribal affiliations. There is a note with this census stating some families are away at the time of the census and they will be recorded later.
In this census there are eight separate households bearing the Newell family name. At least six Newell  families appear to be present at Indian Island in March of 1858. The other two may be away, but are present sometime between then and February of the following year.
The importance of this census document is in providing the names of all the family members and relative ages along with the fact they are resident at Indian Island at least part of the year. The focus of the census is school age children, so I would expect the children’s ages to be reasonably close to reality, but I am not so sure about the adult ages. My prior research shows the ages of a number of people in this census do not fit well with known ages from other documents.
This census shows the oldest Newell listed is Thomas at age 66 with wife, Mary Ann age 56. Dr. Joseph Newell is next oldest at age 50.
John Johnson (Item 2) married Susan Newell and traveled with this family in the late 1850s, the same period covered by this school census. About 1860 or 1861 he published a book about his experience growing up as an Indian. Members of the Newell family that John specifically mentions in the book are his wife, Susan; “her oldest brother“, Dr. Newell; her brothers, Loring and Thomas; and John Newell of unstated relationship to Susan. John Johnson speaks of Susan’s father, but never provides his name. However, we do find his name in the 1858 School Census (Item 3) which shows siblings, Susan and Loring, in the household of Thomas Newell.
If I subtract 26 years from the 1858 School Census ages I arrive at an 1832 family consisting of

  • Thomas age 40
  • wife, Mary Ann age 30
  • Dr. Joseph age 24
  • widow Zedie age 10 (she represents a male about the same age, who dies before 1858)
  • Thomas Jr. age 6

I am not sure I would call Thomas an old man at age forty and he does not appear to be old enough to be the father of Dr. Newell. Certainly his wife, Mary Ann, is not the mother of Joseph.
About 1860, John Johnson (item 2) tells us Susan’s father was about 100 years old, but we see from the 1858 census that Susan’s father is age 66. I’m not sure I believe either age. The truth is probably in between. John may be exaggerating Newell’s age a bit, but obviously he appears to be very old.
I believe Thomas should be at least 80 to 85 in 1860, about the time his death. This age puts him in his 50s at the time of the 1832 news-clipping (Item 1) and more likely to be referred to as an old man. He might also be 100 years old like John Johnson claims which would put him in his70s in 1832 and certainly an old man in anyone’s mind.
An earlier birth year for Thomas makes it much more reasonable to place him as the father of Dr. Joseph Newell. Most if not all the other Newell adults present among the Penobscot in the 1858 School Census are probably children of Thomas, but it is unclear if Mary Ann is the mother of all the younger adults.

The Family Business

Newell Lion (Item 1) refers to the Newell family as “begging for money” and tells us they are just as capable of hunting as any other Indian. Both Newell Lion and Frank Speck (Item 4) suggest the family is not surviving on hunting the way other Penobscot families do at that time. Instead they are camped away from the Penobscot community, among the white folks, and doing something to get cash from those white folks. In Newell Lion’s mind they are not taking care of themselves, they are turning outward to the white folks for their survival. I can understand why some might see this as begging or living off charity.
During the early to mid 1800s, trading for cash is a new experience for most Wabanaki. They generally hunt for survival and trade furs for needed ammunition and supplies or to pay off the prior year’s debt. However, by the early 1800s it is becoming clear to many Wabanaki the land can no longer provide enough fish and game to support all of the People in their traditional life-ways.
These statements by Newell Lion and Frank Speck clearly  demonstrate the Newell family is exploring non-traditional methods of survival as early as 1832. Unfortunately, Item 1 makes no mention of exactly what activity they are involved with, but basket making is most likely. They may be going door to door through the country side or perhaps already providing simple entertainment to attract folks to the camp. Regardless of exactly what the Newell family is doing, it is clear Newell Lion and John Crow do not approve of the activity and are trying to interfere by scaring away their potential customers.
In the news-clipping, Mr. Lion is not pretending to speak for his tribe, does not claim to be a chief, and is not using the Indian agent through which to voice his concerns. Newell Lion and John Crow have personally placed this ad. This suggests the news-clipping represents a personal issue between the two of them and the Newell family and does not necessarily represent how other Penobscot feel towards the family.
Item 1 suggests there is animosity and Item 4 suggests it is still on-going about 1910 when Speck did most of his field work concerning the Penobscot families. I say this because one of Speck’s primary informants was a man named Newell Lyons, whom I suspect is the son or grandson of the Newell Lion responsible for the 1832 news-clipping.
The Penobscot have recently lost much of their land through no fault of their own and the State has decided they should be assimilated. Outsiders are also trying to introduce Protestant ministers and non-Catholic school teachers in the Penobscot community. Some family groups experiment with change while others resist. It is only human nature.
Basket-making is one of the new survival tactics the Wabanaki People are discovering at this time in history. With this occupation the Wabanaki are able to continue to live their traditional semi-nomadic family band life-way while performing traditional activities and using traditional knowledge and skills. Periodically they returned to Wabanaki communities such as Indian Island for rest and recuperation in the same way they would return in prior times of need to the sanctuary of the mission villages.
For some families basket making appears to be a good fit, while others resist any change. For them it may seem like giving in to the dominant culture or giving up other important Wabanaki values. However, testimony to basket making’s overall success as a viable life-way is demonstrated by the fact that by the end of the 19th Century many Wabanaki families have adapted to this new life-way by making baskets and other Wabanaki craft items during the winter months and traveling in family groups to the summer resorts of the Northeast to sell their goods to affluent white folks. Basket making was a major source of income up to WWII. It died as a viable occupation due to outside causes but has now been revived and is flourishing as a traditional Wabanaki activity.
John Johnson provides us with a wonderful picture of the life of a traveling basket-maker in the 1850s. In this early time period, they seem to have no real boundaries or territories. They appear to go wherever something may be happening to attract a group of people with cash, where the steamboat delivers them, where the new railroads lead them, where needed raw materials will be abundant, or simply where white folks treat them decently. Sometimes they just travel until they run out of money, find some ash to make baskets, sell the baskets, and move on once again.
John’s primary activity appears to be basket-making, but he often travels with a healer. This includes his time with the Newell family. He peddles his baskets to the general public while the healers offer their knowledge and medicines to the general public. Both usually receive cash in return.
The thing Speck (Item 4) mentions about the Newell family “subsisting by charity” doesn’t jive with John Johnson’s story which suggests the family did quite well for themselves while on the road. Perhaps they did spend their profits as fast as they earned them, but that is not unexpected among a nomadic People who carry all their worldly possessions wherever they go. Still, if the family is depending a little bit too much on the Penobscot community for support during down times, this could be the reasoning behind the “charity” statement.
Now this brings me to a deeper exploration of Item 1, where It seems Speck’s information is coming from the same source as the 1832 news-clipping! If, as I have demonstrated, the early account shows clear bias against the Newell family, the more recent account will also be biased against them. Any statement coming from either source should be used with a great deal of caution. But, of course this really is true of all the sources. Census are notorious for errors and I already demonstrated a problem with the census ages in Item 3. John Johnson (Item 4) will certainly be biased concerning his own father-in-law. I don’t believe Thomas Newell is a degenerate beggar, nor do I believe he is the perfect man John Johnson paints for us. The truth is very likely sandwiched somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Family Origins

So, what are the origins of this Newell family known in the 1800s as Penobscot?
Lets look at what Newell folks have to say about their origins in the 1900 Census, Indian Population Schedule. There appears to be only one Newell present in 1900 old enough to be a child of Thomas Sr.. This is Peter, b.abt. 1842 and most likely a son of Dr. Joseph rather than Thomas. Peter claims both his parents are Penobscot born in Maine.
The only other source I have to work with is the information from Newell Lion (Item 1) and his descendant, Newell Lyons, informant to Frank Speck (Item 4). I do not trust their information to be accurate based on my other research, but I have no proof it is incorrect.
There certainly are a large number of Maliseet found in the published New Brunswick Church records with the family name Newell, Nuel, and its original form Noel. I searched these records for signs of Thomas, but nothing stood out. But then, Thomas Newell was born in a time period when family names where not commonly used. I also have to consider the Maine and Quebec Maliseet populations. We have no records for early Maine Maliseet families and the indexing of Quebec records is extremely poor, so I can draw no conclusion one way or the other based on the vital records I have access to.
I suggest a future project should make a complete search of all existing vital records in New Brunswick and Quebec, looking at all the possible variations of Thomas and Newell names in the 2nd half of the 18th Century and the first half of the 19th Century looking for Thomas and other possible relatives. This would be quite an involved project and not something I am prepared to do at this time.
Another future project should check all existing military records from the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (both sides of the conflicts) for signs of Thomas Newell. The 1832 news-clipping (Item 1) suggests the possibility Thomas Newell served with the British during war time. He certainly was old enough to serve in 1812 and I know the British did impress Abenaki men into service in Quebec. Perhaps they did the same with the Maliseet. If Thomas really is 100 years old in 1860 then he might also have served during the American Revolution, but if so, it is much more likely he served with the Americans.
Speck’s chart (Item 4) states the hunting territory of the Newell family is “Masardis waters“. If this is accurate I would expect to find some family members settling there at some point in time.
Google the name and I find the tiny town of Masardis is located on Route 11 (Aroostock Scenic Highway) due east of Mars Hill in Aroostock County. The “waters” of the region consist of the good sized Scopan Lake (originally Squapan Lake), the Aroostook River, and its St. Croix branch.
Often times local streams, ponds, or hills will bare the name of local Natives known to inhabit an area. I don’t notice any land features on old Masardis maps carrying the Newell name, nor Rabbit, Hare, etc.. My search has not been exhaustive, so there is great potential for error on this matter. Perhaps this is another future project for someone.
My search of census records between 1850 and 1880 for the name Newell anywhere in Aroostook County provides only a Nathan Newell at Easton in 1870. In the 1900 census Charles Newell shows up in Houlton with a wife and family, all with birth locations in Massachusetts. I see nothing to suggest a Wabanaki connection, but Charles is of proper age to be a son of Sabatis Newell. More research is required before any possible connection can be accurately stated. In 1910, a few more Newell show up in the county, but none with any obvious connections. At this point, this line of research is providing no obvious signs the family frequented the region.
If we look at locations where the family members gravitate to or settle down at as possible indications of their prior territorial origins, the research does not support a Maliseet heritage. However, far too many family members disappear from “Indian” records after 1880 and have such common names that picking up their trail elsewhere is nearly impossible. In the 20th century, off-reservation families frequently show up as white in census and other public records even when they are being referred to as “Indian” in local histories. Hmm … yet another future project – find all the descendants.
For those we can follow;

  • Peter Newell remained at Indian Island
  • Mitchell Newell remained at Indian Island with descendants moving towards Passamaquoddy Bay.
  • Thomas Newell Jr married women from NH and VT.
  • Belmont Newell is found at Odanak (Quebec) and in New York with connections to the Mohawk at Caughnawaga. (Belmont is most famous for carrying on the family business of selling medicine and entertaining the public.)
  • Etta Newell is found with her non-Native mother in NH but also remains a member of the Penobscot community at Indian Island.
  • Betsey Newell married a Penobscot and her descendants appear to stay in the Penobscot community
  • Loring Newell was well known in Western Maine and died in Buckfield. Loring married a woman from Weld, ME.
  • Thomas Belmont Newell married in Coos Co., NH and settled in Dixfield, Oxford Co., ME. His descendants stay in the area or move to NH.
  • Frank Newell lived in Woodstock and Paris, Maine.
  • Socalexis Newell married in Denmark and settled in Locke Mills, Oxford Co., ME

Did anyone notice? Most locations are in Western Maine or New Hampshire and a great distance from Aroostook County and the Maliseet communities of New Brunswick and Quebec.
If I was to make an educated guess based solely on the above locations, it suggests either Thomas Newell Sr. or his wife (1st or 2nd?) has roots on the upper Androscoggin or upper Saco River. This is the region where Henry Tuft’s is found living with the Abenaki between 1772 and 1775, just prior to the American Revolution. There is at least two Wabanaki healers active in this region while Henry Tufts is with them.
At the time of the American Revolution the family bands inhabiting this region may have been displaced for one reason or another. They could go east to the Penobscot, northeast to the Wabanaki community at Sartigan on the Chaudiere River in Quebec, north to the Wabanaki mission village of St. Francis (Odanak) in Quebec, or west to the Wabanaki community north of Haverhill, NH on the upper Connecticut River. There may have been a community at Lake Memphremagog as well. All Quebec communities are under the British Government at the time of the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

My Conclusion

It is obvious the family has identified itself as Penobscot from a vey early time. Some descendants remain on the Penobscot rolls even today, almost two centuries after we first discover the family in a 1832 news-clipping. Regardless of who they may have been, the historical Newell family is undeniably Penobscot.
My exploration of the Newell family suggests a different picture than the one painted by Mr. Lion and Mr. Speck. I am not sure I buy all of John Johnson’s glowing account of his father-in-law’s personal character, but neither do I believe the family was as ugly as the picture painted by Lion and Speck. The family is probably not that much different then any other Wabanaki family of the time period.
Many scholars question Frank Speck’s authority concerning the old Penobscot families and their hunting territories as well as many other topics. They suggest Speck had too few informants and those informants have a tendency to tell him what they think he wants to hear, often feeding him a “good story” to amuse themselves, and as human beings show their personal bias for or against other families, aspects of tribal history, and traditional Penobscot culture. My research suggests these criticisms are probably very valid.
I do not feel there is enough evidence one way or another to form a proper conclusion concerning prior origins. I do not trust statements made by Newell Lion or Frank Speck about Maliseet origins without some further evidence from outside sources. Any such evidence will probably require a large amount of effort to uncover and is not a project I have any plans to tackle.
I may never learn who Thomas Newell really is or where he comes from. My Androscoggin theory is based on some actual research and appears more likely than what others have to say about the matter. Perhaps one day we will all be proved wrong, but until then, I will continue to refer to this family as Penobscot, as this is the only origin that is documented and confirmed with numerous pieces of supporting evidence.
I strongly admire the historical Newell family for their courage and flexibility to try new things and their ability to make it work for them. They find a way to remain clearly identifiable as Indian People while catering to and living among the dominate culture. The Newell folks I know personally have been off-res at least a century yet still maintain a very strong Native identity. I salute them all.

Canyon Wolf 
Copyright ©2013 Ne-Do-Ba – All Rights Reserve


Categories: Analysis, Documentation, Entertainments, Family-Other, History-Wabanaki, Wabanaki | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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