Updated: Dec 13, 2021
York is best known for being a charming historic town with idyllic beaches, lighthouses, and other tourist attractions. But it was once known for cannibals and wendigo, known as kiawakq’ (pronounced: key-wah-kw) to the Penobscot. Wendigo are terrible Native American cannibal giants. They are not born that way, instead they are cursed humans, the curse is often caused by cannibalism. They suffer from an insatiable greed and hunger such that the more they consume the hungrier they get. They are thin and starved yet also large and immensely powerful. Unlike in the popular media, wendigo never have horns. Traditional stories describe them as hairy and big footed - like a demonic, violent sasquatch who has eaten his own lips and chewed on his own shoulders in a horrible attempt to satisfy the terrible hunger. They are creatures of snow and winter, and they are said to inhabit lonely wild places, and, apparently, also the area now known as York, Maine. In 1897 folklorist Abby Alger published “In Indian Tents,” a book of traditional folklore she collected from Wabanaki people which contains information about York and the kiawakq’. In this book she recounts a visit with her friend, a Wabanki elder named Louisa:
“As I was sitting with old Louisa I showed her an African amulet which I was wearing, made of pure jade, inscribed with cabalistic characters to ward off the evil eye. Thinking to make it clear to her Indian understanding, I told her that it was to keep off m’tēūlin, sorcerers, and kiawākq’ (legendary giants with hearts of ice, and possessed of cannibalistic tastes). She looked very grave, and told me that I did well to wear it, for there were a great many kiawākq’ in the region of York Harbor where we were; it was a famous place for them, although they usually chose a colder place, somewhere far away, where it was winter almost all the year. [... They leave] deep footprint in the snow, three or four times as large as that of any man.”
Louisa goes on to tell her a story of a family’s encounter with a kiawākq’ in Canada. While the reference to York is interesting, one might think little of such a reference except in the winter of 1710 York became, what is even today, the most famous place in Maine for historically documented cannibalism. On December 11 of that year the English merchant ship Nottingham Galley shipwrecked on Boon Island, a tiny barren rock outcrop six miles off the coast of York. The Captain, Johnathan Deane, was a violent, bad tempered man prone to yelling and fits of temper. During this ill-fated voyage his crew nearly mutinied and he was accused of making a secret plan to allow French privateers (aka pirates) to capture his loaded merchant ship so that he could collect its large insurance value. When he refused to bring the ship into port as planned for the third time with bad weather ahead, his mate confronted him and was ruthlessly beaten bloody. The captain in charge, that night the ship ran aground and broke to pieces. Miraculously all 14 of the crew made it out of the storm frothed icy waters and onto the rocks of Boon Island. Only one, the cook, died shortly after. Deane and his surviving crew had no coats, little food, and no way to make a fire - they were exposed and freezing. To survive they ate the little food that had washed ashore and whatever seagulls and mussels they could forage. But they were soon again starving and frost bitten. In desperation, two of the crew left on a make-shift raft and tried to cross the six miles of icy sea to York - which was frustratingly just in view of the island.
The remaining 11 survivors huddled in a tent made of scraps of sail hoping for rescue and slowly starving. Finally the ship's carpenter also succumbed to the cold and died, and the other survivors somehow made the decision that they would eat him in order to survive. As “luck” would have it Captain Deane, when not sailing, was also a trained butcher. So he skillfully cut the head, hands, and feet from the corpse, and then he sliced meat and fat from the dead man. To make it more palatable they wrapped the human flesh in seaweed, and dipped it in salt water. They survived, and some time after, in early January they were found and then rescued after the body of one of the crew who had left on the raft washed ashore on Wells Beach, his companion was never seen again. The rescue party reported that the survivors were skeletons of men, hairy, with mad, desperate eyes, and sores and frostbite covering their bodies. Most of the survivors could not walk out of the ragged make-shift tent - except of course Captain Deane, the butcher he strode out to meet the rescuers. In some ways he was the very image of a kiawākq’- greedy, violently powerful, cannibalistic, a heart of ice - yet starving and wandering across lonely places in winter. If not a kiawākq’ to begin with, certainly he was exactly what might draw the attention of the curse or the spirit of the kiawākq’ to possess him. Cursed for his cannibalism and greed.
In a nearly unprecedented move for 1711, three of surviving crew members jointly published a detailed pamphlet stating that it was Captain Dean who urged them to eat their deceased crewmate and that he had on multiple occasions during the voyage attempted to allow the ship to be captured by French privateers. The captain for his part denied this and published a pamphlet instead claiming the crew demanded that he butcher the corpse, with him protesting strongly. His reputation and fortune ruined, Deane left England and the colonies and joined the Russian navy as a captain where he met with many victories and was known for his ruthless ways until again he was accused of scheming to get his ships captured by the enemy for some personal benefit. For this he was found guilty and court martialed. He returned to England, where he served as a spy within high society - promising to expose traitors to the crown.
Is it coincidence that York was said by the Wabanaki to be a place of kiawākq’, a place of the wendigo? Some might claim that Old Louisa only thought many kiawākq’ were in the area because of the stories of the cannibals of York Island 175 years earlier. However, while possible, I think this is not the case. Perhaps the cannibalism occurred because of the power of the kiawākq’ curse in the area, and the kiawākq’ spirit is always seeking victims to infect in lonely places. Captain Deane did seem to have the greed and violence of a kiawākq’, it was winter. And in fact when a shipwreck had occurred on the same island in the summer of 1682, no cannibalism occurred despite being marooned much longer. I think perhaps the greed and violence of the Captain attracted the attention of the kiawākq’ spirit that had been there all along in that lonely place, and the curse was set upon him.
To prevent shipwrecks and further tragedy on Boon Island, in 1799 the first light was finally built. A few years later it washed away and was replaced by a series of warning beacons. To me these lights serve as wards to loneliness and danger, they are beacons of society reaching out to protect travelers and keep away the wendigo. Today Boon Island hosts the tallest light in New England which stands as a 133 foot tall sentinel over the lonely place. But even it was not safe from winter tragedy. Legend has it that during the 19th century, Keeper Lucas Bright died in a nor’easter while tending the light, leaving his wife Katherine alone at the station. She tended the station herself for quite some time until, consumed by grief, despair, and exhaustion, she was unable to continue. Eventually the light went out, when a ship arrived to investigate why the light was out she was found talking to and caring for her husband’s corpse, still out on the rocks. Never truly recovering from the ordeal, she died sometime after being rescued. Since then many keepers have told of seeing Katherine’s ghost returned to the island where her love was lost. But while her spirit still wanders the light and the island, she does no harm and sometimes helps.
In one story of the 1970’s the both the Coast Guard Light Keepers were off fishing and drifted too far to return in time to turn on the light before nightfall. Nonetheless, somehow when they returned they found the light on. A friendly light in the darkness, warning of danger and keeping safe the ships from desolation on the rocks. They knew that Katherine had lit it. It seems perhaps that Katherine’s bravery and devotion to family and light finally overcame and displaced the powerful evil of the kiawākq’. In traditional Native American stories, this same love, devotion, and courage is often what overcomes the powerful wendigo. Even in the story Old Louisa’s told to Abby Alger all those years ago - the family defeated the kiawākq’ by treating him like their own long lost Grandfather and melting his icy heart with the redemption of love.
Sometimes progress takes its toll on mystery and nature, but the light shining on the deadly rocks of Boon Island is welcome progress for sure. For it has always been true that the light of community is the surest way to prevent the disasters and curses which are born of human greed and loneliness. Keep each other safe and warm this winter, reach out to your neighbor - this will keep the wendigo away.
If you want to learn more about Maine’s wendigo, and over 40 other other monsters and mysterious creatures told about by the Sailors, Lumberjacks, Guides, French Candadians, Cryptozoologists, and the Wabanaki check out my new book "Mythical Creatures of Maine: Fantastic Beasts from Legend and Folklore.” It was just published by Down East Books September 1. Ancestral stories of Maine, are a perfect gift for friends and family, they are certain to warm the heart.