The life of Penobscot Indian Molly Molasses began on the eve of the American Revolution. She was born in 1775, as she told it, in a canoe on Green Lake. This long sweep of water, located in the Union River valley just northwest of Ellsworth, is on the old Native canoe route to Blue Hill Bay and the Mount Desert Island region.
Molly spent much of her first four years in glades along the Kenduskeag and Penobscot rivers between present-day Brewer and her tribe’s upstream village on Indian Island at Old Town. In 1779 the British ousted the American rebels from the Penobscot valley and occupied it along with allied Mohawk warriors, longtime enemies of Molly’s people. Having sided with the rebels, Penobscots fled to the Kennebec valley.
Not until the war ended in 1783 could 8-year-old Molly and her family return home to their valley, and then only to face a steady stream of Euramerican settlers. Within 40 years, thousands of newcomers lived there, and 250 sawmills dotted the Penobscot and its tributaries.
A stranger to security, Molly Molasses grew up guarded and suspicious. She had to figure out how to survive within a radically changing world that pushed her people to the margins of society – and sometimes over the edge. A strong and uncompromising woman said to have the gift of m’teoulin (magic), she refused to be invisible or silenced.
Turning to trade as a livelihood, she became a shrewd dealer, supporting herself and her children through selling and bartering things that she made or purchased. Often involved in exchanges between settlers and fellow tribespeople, she used intimidation and gossip to strengthen her position on both sides of the trade. No one dared cross her.
When asked why she was called Molly Molasses, Molly would grin and say, “‘Cuz I sweet.” But since she wore bitterness as a shield and appeared anything but sweet, she probably gained the nickname simply because it rhymed with Balassee – the Penobscot pronunciation of her second name, Pelagie.
Influential in tribal matters, Molly Molasses was a lifelong partner to John Neptune, one of the most famous Penobscot chiefs of all time. Known as “the Governor,” he fathered Molly’s four children, and like her was noted as a m’teoulin with extraordinary powers. When his position as “life chief” was challenged in 1838, Neptune quit Indian Island for several years. During that time, he and his supporters, including Molly, based themselves in wigwam encampments on the outskirts of Brewer, across the river from Bangor.
Molly’s son Piel and daughter Sarah also made the move. Like Molly they spent much time traveling to sell crafts as well as Indian medicines. Often they found themselves trudging through a snowstorm along some lonesome road after dark. Homeless for the night, they slept under makeshift lean-tos, wrapped in their blanket capes.
Later in life, Molly Molasses expanded her trade inventory beyond crafts, tools and animal skins. She began selling photographs of herself to the residents of Bangor and Brewer and other growing towns and cities. Clearly, she liked the image of herself as a stern proud woman wearing the traditional peaked headdress of her people.
Along with the photo, she handed out a poem written for her by a local bard named David Barker. The ode, “To Moll Molasses,” ended with this stanza:
I write these rhymes, poor Moll, for you to sell-
Go sell them quick to any saint or sinner –
Not to save one soul from heaven or hell,
But just to buy your weary form a dinner.
Writer-anthropologist Bunny McBride served as curator for the Abbe Museum exhibition “Journeys West: The David & Peggy Rockefeller American Indian Art Collection,” on display through June 15. She and co-author Harald Prins recently completed a two-volume study for the National Park Service, titled Asticou’s Island Domain: Wabanaki Peoples at Mount Desert Island 1500-2000.
Maine’s history is full of female pioneers who blazed a path for the women of today. The Bangor Daily News, in cooperation with the Maine
Historical Society’s online museum Maine Memory Network, the Maine FolkLife Center and others, will highlight a different woman each day throughout March.