Mary Pelagie (1775-1867) an early 19th century Native American Penobscot woman, strove to live an autonomous life in an era in which there were numerous hindrances and hardships associated with womanhood. Existing in the late 18th to early 19th century was difficult for a woman in Maine and it was certainly a struggle surviving the winter months and living off the land in “Wabanaki Country” was surely an accomplishment. One such survivor was Mary Pelagie, a.k.a. Molly Molasses.
Born during 1775 in the Penobscot River Valley, Molly led an ideal childhood and learned the ways of her people. Shortly after the French and Indian war, and one year before the American Revolution, the Wabanaki land was claimed by King George for England. Soon English colonists dotted the landscape.
Although the first white settlers came to the region six years before her birth, the Penobscot outnumbered the strangers and Mary was happy in the work expected of her as a Penobscot girl. Her family taught her to be self-sufficient. She learned how to plant essential crops like corn and beans and how to gather wild berries, herbs and eggs. Her mother handed down traditional arts like moccasin making, basket weaving and building birch-bark wigwams for shelter. She learned how to decorate with porcupine quills and dye, adding personal touches to her wares. Most importantly, she learned how to survive. This meant learning how to cope with each season of the year by maintaining a certain ebb and flow that enabled her to survive both through a year’s passing and her life’s passing.
Using these life skills, Molly was able to establish herself as a Penobscot woman. She became shrewd in her business, trading with the ever-increasing white settlers. Molly had a gift: the art of m’teoulin or magic. Of all the skills she had learned, it was m’teoulin that most helped her survive in her later years.
In her youth, Molly Molasses was an attractive girl and she caught the eye of John Neptune, who like her, had the gift of m’teoulin. He would become a second chief in the Penobscot nation, subordinate to Chief Attean, but unofficially Neptune had more influence among the tribe’s people who referred to him as Governor. He had many wives and consorts; Molly herself had four children by him. Two of her children died and a prominent Bangor businessman raped her only living daughter Sarah. Molly would harass the man for compensation for the rape every time she crossed paths with him.
It was not easy dealing with her new life. The settlers ravaged more than Molly’s only daughter; they raped the Penobscot land. In 1784, surveyors planned the city of Bangor and by the turn of the century, there were 300 settlers, with 1,000 more in outlying areas.. Bunny McBride describes the change in Women of the Dawn. “Within a few decades,” McBride wrote, “Bangor would become the center of Maine’s booming timber industry. In turn, the landscape and the lives of Molly’s people would be transformed more swiftly and thoroughly than anyone could have imagined” (McBride, p. 80).
The settlers made and broke treaties with the Wabanaki, and the Indians were losing their rights to hunt, trap and gather ash wood for baskets. Trees fell at alarming rates in Wabanaki country but the Penobscot were harassed for trespassing onto homesteads to gather wood for basket making.
In the year 1820 Maine split from Massachusetts and the new state of Maine established jurisdiction over its Indian reservations. By this time, there were 300,000 settlers in the state, and 1,000 in the Bangor area, but the Penobscot numbered less than 400.
With their hunting grounds decimated by logging and lumber mills, Molly’s people turned to farming to make a living. They hunted, trapped and traded but many Penobscot took factory or logging jobs, or became entertainers. Molly resisted these trades. She continued to move through Wabanaki country, trading baskets but she also begged on the streets for money and frightened passers by. Unmarried females left on Indian Island were vulnerable and needy but Molly Molasses gained a reputation of fierceness. She frightened merchants and businessmen who prided themselves in being able to walk by her, unscathed, as if she were from the spirit world. Ultimately, Molly became a source of entertainment for the town folk.
When she was an older woman, she caught her gaze in a mirror. The cracks in her face and her hard exterior exposed the reality of her lost hope. She felt weakened after Neptune’s death and was often seen wandering aimlessly like a ghost.
McBride tells us that Molly once thought that “the enemy seemed to have two faces: one cold and selfish, the other kind and helpful” (McBride, 89). Like the faces of her enemy, she too became embittered with sarcasm and detachment, but this was not her true nature. The young girl whom she had caught a glimpse of in the mirror, distorted by her own shields, created an impenetrable wall around her heart, and she knew it was something she needed, to survive.
Molly Molasses defied her gender role. She survived during a period in American life when women were subject to their fathers and their husbands. Although it was never easy to make her way in a patriarchal society without a husband, she rose to the challenge and survived Maine’s harsh physical and social climate.
Image credit: Photo of portrait of Sarah Molasses, a Penobscot woman and daugther of John Neptune and Molly Molasses, oil on canvas, 32-3/4″ x 24″, painted ca. 1886 by Anna Eliza Hardy (1839-1934), copying an original by Jeremiah Pearson Hardy (1800-1887). This painting is in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard. From Wikipedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sarah_molasses_penobscot.jpg (accessed January 24, 2012)
Brown, Jason K. Molly Molasses: Mixed Media Drawing and Story. http://www.acaciart.com/stories/archive13.html (accessed June 5, 2008)
McBride, Bunny. Women of the Dawn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. pp. 73-150.
ssipsis. Molly Molasses & Me: A Collection of Living Adventures. Brooks, Me. Little Letterpress, Robin Hood Books, c1988.
Contributed by Elizabeth May-McGrath, Bowdoin, Maine, 2008.