When Henry David Thoreau made his storied expedition into the Maine woods, he didn’t travel alone. He was accompanied by a series of Indian guides, without whom Thoreau’s trips would never have been successful. One of those guides was Louis Annance, a well-known figure in the Moosehead Lake region. Annance was a member of the St Francis nation of Abenakis, and had been born in the Abenaki village in Odanak, Quebec. Annance, however, spent a large portion of his life in Maine and New Hampshire, and moved back and forth between two worlds; the French, Catholic Indian world of his birth, and the English, Protestant, American world of his chosen home.
Annance contradicted many assumptions white Americans held about Indians at the time. He was a Protestant, a Mason, and attended a college. Nonetheless, bound by the stereotypes and preconceptions of their time, those who knew Annance, who spent most of his adult life around Maine’s Moosehead Lake, described him as in patronizing terms, admitting that he was “an exceptionally educated Indian.”
There are a lot of historical uncertainties about the life of Louis Annance. Both because he an Abenaki, but also because he lived an itinerant life, he doesn’t always appear in records of the time. Most of the histories and biographical accounts of him were written either in his later years, or after his death, and they present contradictory facts and details.
The uncertainty begins from his birth, which is consistently listed as August 25, 1794, even though his baptism is not recorded in the register of the mission to the Abenakis at Odanak. Some of Annance’s biographers refer to him as a “chief” or the “son of a chief” of the St Francis Abenaki. In fact, Louis was related to two well-known leaders of the community, but more distantly. The confusion is probably partly due to the impulse of white Americans to make every prominent or well known Indian a chief or princess. Louis’ grandmother, Marie Appoline Gill, was the sister of Chief Joseph Louis Gill, whose son Francis (or François) Gill was also chief of the St Francis Abenaki. Louis Annance’s father, François, was the nephew of Chief Joseph Gill, and a cousin to Chief François Gill, making Louis a distant cousin to the chiefs.
Louis’ grandmother, Marie Appoline Gill, and his great-uncle Joseph Louis Gill, were both children of Samuel Gill and Rosalie James – two English children who had been kidnapped from Maine by the Abenakis in the course of one of the French and Indian Wars. The English children were raised by the Abenakis, and eventually married each other. Their descendants became prominent leaders of the Abenakis, despite their background. As a result of this heritage, Louis Annance was sometimes known as the “blue-eyed Indian.” His appearance was just one of the many unusual things about him that drew curiosity.
In 1803, at the age of nine, Louis was sent to the Moore Charity School in New Hampshire. The school was established by a Congregational Minister, Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, to educate Abenaki and Iroquois children. The school would later become Dartmouth College. Louis’ father had attended the school, as had Chief Gill’s son Francis, and the Chief’s other nephews. In addition to educating the children, it also acted to assimilate them. According to one account, when Chief Gill’s son Francis returned from the school it was “not as a savage, but with the dress and manners of a young man.”[i] Presumably, this experience had a similar effect on Louis Annance. Not long after his own return from the school, Annance began signing his name “Lewis,” in the Anglicized style.
Some accounts of Annance’s life say that the War of 1812 interrupted his studies. Others imply that he finished at the Moore School as early as 1809. In either case, the young Americanized man was soon fighting for the British Army against the United States. Even so, he would be back in New Hampshire shortly after the war’s end, perhaps as soon as 1818.[ii]
Before leaving for the United States, however, Annance married Marguerite Guillman at the village mission on November 12, 1817. Although the couple were married before four witnesses and “many other friends and the parents of the couple,” Louis was the only one who knew how to sign his name, which he did, as “Lewis.” The couple must have left Odanak not long after their marriage, and before their daughter Marguerite was born on January 14, 1819. They probably did not return to the village until just before September 29 1827, the date Marguerite, aged 8, was baptized.[iii]
The family lived first in Hannover, where Louis had gone to school. Louis probably worked there as a hunter and guide, the occupation he seems to have had throughout his life. One historian of Lancaster, NH, wrote that Annance “lived in the style of his fathers; his papooses were strapped to boards, and hung up in the lodge, or carried on his back while travelling.” The same historian, somewhat less believably, claims that Annance kept a tame moose on display.
While living in Hannover, Louis became a member of the local Freemasons’ lodge. For an Indian to be admitted as a Freemason was extremely unusual. Then, as now, Masons were typically members of the elite within a community, and membership required being recommended by fellow members of the lodge. In Annance’s case, it seems likely that the connections he had made at school helped his case. The association with the Freemasons lasted Louis’ entire life. He became a Master Mason at Lancaster in 1834, and was a member of the Columbia lodge in Greenville when he moved to Maine. His gravestone was erected by the Grand Lodge of Maine, and members of the fraternity came to Greenville to dedicate the grave.
It’s difficult to keep track of Annance’s movements, but historical records give us some clues. He must have returned to Odanak in 1827 for the baptism of Marguerite. His son, also Louis, was baptized on the same day as Marguerite (Sept. 29), but had been born April 10. The family probably returned to Odanak some time between his birth and his baptism. The family then stayed in the village for some years. Another son, Edouard, was baptized there December 26, 1829. Louis and his family are also recorded in censuses at Odanak in 1831, 1841, and through 1852. But the family clearly also spent time in New Hampshire in this period. Not only did he become a Master Mason at Lancaster in 1834, but he appears in the US Census of 1841 in Littleton, New Hampshire.
During this period, Louis found himself once again engaged in military action. He served as part of the Abenaki contingent in support of the British government in Canada against the Patriotes in Quebec whose armed rebellion called for greater autonomy for the French Canadian population of the province in 1838 and 1839.
Some time in the early to mid 1850s, Louis and his family moved to Maine, to the town of Greenville on Moosehead Lake. Greenville became his permanent home, and Louis would die here in 1875.
When Thoreau encountered Annance in 1854, he noted that he was a Protestant. The Indian’s religion is mentioned in every biography and historical account. It was probably a source of curiosity and some pride for New Englanders to know that an Indian whom they saw as having unusual abilities was a Protestant. It would have confirmed their suspicions and prejudices about Catholics, whom they thought were generally less intelligent and less independently-minded than themselves. The situation may not have been as cut and dry as writers like to portray. Thoreau, for example, twice mentions that Annance went to church at Old Town, which suggests that he attended the Catholic Church that served the Penobscot Nation. His marriage and the baptisms of his children were all conducted in the Catholic Church at Odanak, as was the marriage of his son Louis in 1854. There is no mention of the older Louis or his children among the records of the Anglican mission at Odanak, where some Abenakis worshipped. At the same time, Catholics were prohibited from becoming Freemasons, and Annance had joined the order while continuing to have his children baptized in the Catholic faith. It seems possible that Annance was not wholly tied to one doctrine or another. Indeed, one biographer states he was a Congregationalist, while another account has him as a Methodist.
Just as they may have been over-eager to paint him as a convert to Protestantism, Annance’s biographers also play up the reasons behind that conversion. Maine historian John Sprague visited Annance shortly before his death, and wrote in 1885 that Louis “became convinced that the priesthood and church were serious impediments in the way of any intellectual or moral advancement of his race.” Most likely, Annance was influenced at least partly by Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, the Congregational minister who ran Moore’s Indian school in Hannover. Religious education was almost certainly part of the school’s efforts to assimilate and Americanize Native Americans. There were also a lot of other external pressures for Catholics to conform in New England in this period, especially in rural areas. Attending the local church, whatever its denomination, could have primarily been a route to acceptance in the local community. The St Francis Abenaki were also courted by Protestant missionaries in this period. One of Annance’s classmates at the Moore school, Osunkhirine (also known as Pierre-Paul Masta) even became a Congregational missionary to his own people. He returned to St Francis in 1830 with the mission to convert his compatriots.
The attitudes ascribed to Annance, that Catholicism and the French Canadians were holding his people back could plausibly have been held by the Indian. Annance had, after all, fought for the Canadian government against the French Canadian Patriotes. He was also clearly detached enough from his upbringing that he lived hundreds of miles away from Odanak. Yet the story fits so neatly into the stereotype of the backwards French Canadian Catholic and the enlightened Yankee protestant, that it has to be taken with at least a pinch of salt.
During his residency in Greenville, Louis Annance became something of a legend, and not just for his unusual background. He was apparently well-known as a guide and woodsman. Aside from Thoreau, others sought him out for advice and conversation. Maine Governor John Hubbard paid him a visit in 1852, and onlookers were treated to the sight of
“The chief executive of the state conversing on a literary level with an Indian whose glory was in the hunt and the chase.”
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, a Maine folklorist identified Annance as the unnamed Indian guide Thoreau met on July 25, 1857. She also recorded that Annance thought Thoreau was a “could not make a good canoe.” Annance’s reputation was such that he was even cited in the New England Journal of Medicine as an authority on the health benefits of eating raw pork (he said that, whatever raw pork’s supposed nutritional benefits, the diarrhea it would cause in most people would negate the advantages).
It’s telling that Louis Annance has significant stature as a local legend, but that we have very little certainty on the details of his life. While his contemporaries were quick to point out how educated and well-spoken he was, these traits were always talked about as novelties, just like his blue eyes. Things were written about him, but apparently nothing by the man himself survives. Our information is continually filtered through the eyes of others. These limitations are emblematic of the limitations Louis himself faced as an Indian in the 19th Century. It was easy for White New Englanders to assume that Louis preferred to “live in the manner of his fathers,” living on the edge of their communities (metaphorically and literally), and to scratch out a living hunting and acting as a guide. But there were probably few other options for someone like him. He was a man who could live in two different worlds– but he was always partly an outsider in each.
[i] According to Rev. Joseph-Pierre-Anselme Maurault, who served the Abenaki mission from 1841 until his death in 1870, and who wrote a history of the Abenaki people. Maurault is quoted in Mary Calvert’s The Kennebec Wilderness Awakens (1986), p36.
[ii] Calvert, p37
[iii] Parish records of Saint-François-du-Lac, Québec.