The Curse of the Saco River

By Thomas Verde


The Saco River, one of Maine's largest, has its origins in the White Mountains and winds its way across the southern corner of the state to empty into the Atlantic at Ferry Beach and beautiful Biddeford Pool. The Saco has long been a source of enjoyment for fishermen, canoeists, and swimmers from Fryeburg to Camp Ellis. Yet until as recently as 1947, some Maine folks in the Saco-Biddeford area would hesitate to go near the waters of the Saco until they were certain that three people had drowned there that season. Their fears stemmed from a centuries-old curse placed upon the Saco by an Indian chief - a curse that demanded the lives of three white men every year. This is its story:

The early English settlers in Maine were not always welcome by Native Americans who resided there. The exception to this rule was the white settlement at Winter Harbor near present-day Saco and Biddeford. Here the English encountered a friendly tribe called the Sokokis (hence the Saco River), with whom they engaged in trade and lived peacefully for half a century. That peace was shattered, however, in the summer of 1675.

In the spring and summer, the Sokokis enjoyed the pleasant retreat of Factory Island, then a beautifully wooded isle in the Saco several miles in from the coast. Here, they hunted, fished, and swam in the cool, foaming waters of the cataracts that flowed from each side and emptied into the bay. One of the most respected leaders of the Sokokis was a chief named Squandro. Not only a great sachem, Squandro was supposed to have commanded the powers of sorcery and magic. Dignified and solemn, Squandro was respected among the whites as well for the peace he maintained with them.

Legend had it that he once returned a little white girl who had been captured in an Indian raid years before and reared by the Sokokis. In the early months of the destructive King Philip's War, it was Squandro who kept the peace between his tribe and the English, while other New England tribes were readying themselves for battle. Squandro's heart was turned against the whites, however, because of a cruel joke.

In the summer of 1675, an English vessel lay at anchor near the mouth of the Saco. Three sailors from the ship rowed up the river and came upon the Indian settlement at Factory Island, then known as Indian Island. They noted a young Indian woman crossing the channel in a canoe. With her was her infant son.

"I have heard," said one sailor, "that these Indian brats can swim at birth, like a very duck or dog or beaver."

"What say you?" laughed another. "Let us find out."

The sailors blocked the Indian woman's way in the channel and tore the screaming infant from her arms. While one held her back, the other threw the helpless child overboard, where it immediately sank in the river. The mother broke free and dove in after the baby. She rescued him, but he soon fell ill and died. The sailors, thinking it all a fine joke, rowed back to their ship unaware of what they had done. They did not know that this Indian woman was no ordinary squaw, but the wife of a great sagamore; they were further unaware that this little baby they had, in effect, killed was Menewee, the son of Squandro.

For three days and nights, Squandro mourned at the grave of Menewee, while:

FROM "The Truce of Piscataqua," by John Greenleaf Whittier

On the third day, Squandro went down to the river and stood on its banks with his arms outstretched. He cursed the waters of the Saco and vowed revenge upon the whites who had killed his son, He commanded the spirits of the river to take the lives of three white men every year until they were driven from "Saco's hemlock-trees."

He then went along the Sokokis and fueled the fires of their resentment toward the white settlers, and it was here in Saco that the first major blow of King Philip's War was struck.

Squandro's curse was fulfilled each year until the mid 1940's, when a year passed with no drownings and the Maine Sunday Telegram headline happily proclaimed "Saco River Outlives Curse of Indian Chief." Although years after Menewee's drowning Squandro was supposed to have made his peace with the whites, his curse was so feared and respected that for centuries Saco mothers would not allow their children to swim in the river until three white men had drowned there that season.

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