It Happened in Windham: The courageous tale of early settler Joe Knight


The year was 1747. Tensions had been building between the English settlers of New Marblehead and the indigenous people who had inhabited this wilderness for thousands of years. The native people were growing more and more frustrated with the new arrivals who they felt misused the natural resources of their hunting and fishing grounds. Their villages were being uprooted by the new immigration and they were being forced farther and farther away from their sources of food and water.

Eight years earlier, the chief of the Sokokis tribe (known as Rockameecooks to the colonists), Polin, had walked 100 miles to Boston to petition Governor Shirley of Massachusetts to install fishways in dams along the Penobscot River so the fish could flow freely upstream toward his village. Though Shirley promised he would honor the request, dam owners had not complied and anger grew among the tribe. Now, rather than just attacking crops and livestock, the natives were attacking settlers as well.

Most of the New Marblehead farmers were at the Province fort for their protection. Farms could not be left to run themselves, however, so people would venture out of the fort at varying intervals, usually under guard, to plant their fields and exercise their stock. It was on one of these ventures out of the fort that young Joe Knight and his brother, William, were captured by the Rockameecooks. The pair, little more than boys, had gone out to an area near Inkhorn Brook in search of their father’s lost cows. When they encountered Indians during their search, they were abducted and taken to the Indian settlements.

William was released shortly later, but Joe remained with the tribe who had decided to adopt him as one of their own. Joe quickly learned the ways of the indigenous people. He found their dress to be warm and comfortable and he enjoyed the sports and pastimes that they taught him. He actually liked painting his face for certain ceremonies and found learning their language interesting. He fit in well with this new family, and over time, even took a wife they had selected for him.

In 1751, peace was declared between the settlers and the tribes. One of the conditions of the treaty was that all captives, on both sides, be released. Although it pained Joe to leave his new bride, he realized just how eager he was to return to his own family. And so, he left his captors and went back to New Marblehead. His surprised family and neighbors, who had thought him long dead, welcomed him home with open arms.

For the next five years, Joe had a peaceful existence working alongside his brother and father at the saw mill his father had built at Little Falls. But by February of 1756, troubles between the natives and the settlers had been revived and Joe found himself in another predicament.

He had been out cutting trees for the mill when he noticed an Indian peering at him from behind a log. Joe began running toward Little Falls where he knew several men were at work. While, he was running, his arm was broken when it was hit by a musket ball fired from a second Indian’s rifle. Joe found himself a captive once again.

Joe and his captors traveled north and arrived at an Indian village where Joe remained for several months. Since he had learned the language during his earlier captivity, he took every opportunity to listen for details of upcoming attacks on the settlements. He learned that raids were planned that would span from Brunswick to Saco and he determined he had to try to escape to warn the unsuspecting settlers.

On May 7, a war party left the village and Joe was left alone with some old men and women and the children of the tribe. He took advantage of the situation. Ignoring the warnings of his guards, Joe took off briskly after the departing war party. He caught up with them fairly quickly, but stayed a safe distance behind to keep from being noticed. When the war party reached the Androscoggin River, they began a water route.

Joe took a trail into the forest instead and traveled through the night in the hopes of finding an English settlement. At last, at sunrise on May 10, he came upon a log home where he proceeded to tell his story to the astonished settlers.

Joe left this settlement in North Yarmouth and made his way to Portland to give warning there as well. Then, he headed a party of scouts into the wilderness where they would confront the enemy that Joe believed consisted of about 120 braves. The Indians had somehow caught wind of their scheme, however, and Joe’s party found only deserted campsites where the indigenous people had been shortly before.

And so, Joe returned to New Marblehead. He was tired and exhausted from his ordeal, but was thankful for the recognition of his bravery by his kinsmen at the Province fort. On May 23, the Rev. Parson Smith recorded, “Had a contribution in favor of Joe Knight.” It was a small token of gratitude for a large amount of courage.

Excerpted from “A History of Windham” by Frederick H. Dole, courtesy of the Windham Historical Society.

Site of first capture of Joe Knight near Inkhorn Brook, circa 1935.