Witness: For Elsie

Donald Wellman

Acting on long repressed instinct, I pulled into the yard of a small house in Otter Creek, a house vague memories insisted that I had visited at least once long ago with my Aunt Sadie. In that house on the Bar Harbor Road, now lacking the shade trees of memory, lived a man without legs who sat in a wheelbarrow. Today, I find two women and a man in or near their 90s, who, like me, call Elzada Swenson, Aunt Sadie. Their sympathetic intelligence and knowledge of family lore expressed itself with caring and sensitive inquiries about the health of various relatives or the manner of their passing. One naked light bulb illuminated the kitchen. Memories and ignorance conspired to awaken human feelings of kinship that were unfamiliar to my experience. Why had I not known previously of the interest these folk took in so many of the same circumstances that affect me. Each detail of family history is precious to them and now me: how Everett nearly fell when shingling the roof of the Longfellow School on Cranberry, how Elsie thought Lulu was haughty with her cousins.

Elsie and Everett, descendents of Samuel M. Walls (Feb 7, 1863 – Apr. 14, 1948) and Emma A. Walls (May 15, 1889 – Feb 10, 1974), lived then in their Otter Creek home. Elsie and Everett have since passed. Anita and Anita’s daughter, Rosanne, were also there on the day that I visited, June 28, 2004.

Elsie WallsSamuel J. Walls (1835-1917), the father of Samuel M. Walls, was the brother of Amanda Malvina Walls (1844-1910) who married John Gilman Bunker of Cranberry Island. Aunt Sadie, Elzada Swensen (1877-1951), was the daughter of Amanda and John Gilman Bunker, and therefore a first cousin to the father of Elsie, Everett, and Anita. I have seen the photograph of Samuel M. Walls in his wheelbarrow-chair, but my memories do include not this image, only a sure sense of having been taken up, welcomed and fed by the people of that house. At most I was four years old then; an impulse from that age now had led me again to the house of Elsie Walls, an over-determined impulse, I am sure, possibly scored by glints of repressed childhood trauma. Still, for fifty-five years I had passed by that house at various times and often felt prompted to stop, never doing so although feeling the pull of partial memories originating in those visits with my Aunt Sadie to this home of her mother’s people, mixed racially and ethnically, our Native American relatives to my understanding.

"Aunt" is an honorific used generally for an older female relative or acquaintance, a usage common to many ethnic groups. My mother was the daughter of yet another "nephew" of Aunt Sadie, my mother’s father, Charles F. Bunker having been raised by Elzada on Cranberry after his parents early deaths, his father having drowned, his mother dying soon after in house fire with her young children by a second man.

At different times over the years, I had asked Lulu Alley, Sadie’s daughter about her childhood, hoping to hear of Amanda Walls, her Grandmother, and confirm stories of native American heritage, Penobscot or Passamaquoddy ancestry. Lulu would not comply. Once lying on her bed in the nursing home, she told me instead how she and Ruth and Ethel Stanley had played with dolls in the attic of the house that Sonja Wedge owns today. From the attic, looking out over The Pool, there is a view eastward to the Life Saving Station, far end of Little Cranberry, where her Uncle Long John was employed, a play it was in her mind of people of status against those without. How did it happen then that Aunt Lulu’s second husband, Uncle Lewis, also had cousins intermarried with the Walls?

At the time of my visit to Otter Creek, I had been writing about William Carlos Williams and his references to the Ramapo Mountain People in his poetry, famously in "To Elsie" from Spring and All, but also developed as one of the major themes in his Paterson. I had presented a paper on that topic at a conference, The Poetries of the 1940s, that same week, at the University of Maine in Orono. The Ramapo Mountain People, living in the rocky or "ribbed north end of Jersey" are a people of mixed, Dutch and African origin, who began to live in the northern New Jersey as freed slaves in the 17th century and appear to have intermarried with Native Americans and other immigrant peoples. Today they possess a still distinctive ethnicity and have sought tribal recognition from the federal government, unsuccessfully. Now in the backyard of my memories I was in the process of recovering my own Elsie. For Williams, his Elsie figures as a "pure product of America," one of the "native" people. I use "native" with a certain amount of signifying irony. Williams, himself of mixed ethnic and racial heritage (Caribbean French and Spanish family roots), employed a similar irony in his poetry, although his introspective intent has remained obscure to many readers. My work on Williams’ mixed ethnic heritage was one of many nudges that had led me at last to visit my "ancient" cousins; the most significant nudge, however, was that Rose, my daughter, was engaged in anthropological research among the Penobscot in Old Town and had become close friends with James Neptune, the curator of the small Indian Island Museum. Rose had also met Sam Francis, an important member of the nation. Sam told Rose that, as a boy, he had traveled around off-reservation and worked as a laborer in different boatyards. It turned out that Sam had steamed the oak ribs for the Island Queen, the first boat that Wilfred Bunker had built on Cranberry. I had also leant a hand to the project over the winter school vacation of 1965 or 1966.

I sometimes dream that long lost relatives are seeking me, rolling me in my sleep and asking for news, often concerning the lives of Amanda’s descendants. Other dream-time experiences have taken the form of whole poems whispered in my waking ear, sometimes in a language other than English. In 1994, inspired by such sense of significant impulse, I went with my son, then 25, on an extended camping trip to Cape Breton Island: staying in Chéticamp and Arichat, visiting also the Chapel Island Mi’kmac Reservation. I was 50. Tadhgh and I ate freshly caught salmon and slept one night at Meat Cove. Remember the grass on the cliff top, the eagles in spiral gyres overhead at sunset, the expanse of half-height evergreens, mixed with slices of tropical rainforest, carried there on a fragment of continental shelf long ago detached from Africa. After visiting Louisburg and traveling along the shores of Lake Bra’d’or, we stood eventually at the end of a dirt track with Chapel Island some 100 meters off in the lake. A toy village, it appeared from that little distance, chapel and houses that hardly two could stand up in or lie down in. Then to our left, like mushrooms that appear unexpectedly in the morning on a newly mown lawn, was the beginnings of an encampment, white tents in teepee shape being erected nearby with much fussing and greeting of friends and relatives. Revival or powwow or both I wondered. Stopping in a little store on the reservation, I felt personally ashamed of the poverty in that place: a grandmother, two young mothers, several suckling babies, one with a melted chocolate bar smeared on her face, one of those light and creamy Aero bars. For all the store that it proclaimed itself to be there was only an old dysfunctional refrigerator, a rug, and sofa that smelled of dog and babies. No cold drinks.

Clem Walls, relation to the Otter Creek Walls uncertain, was a native American story teller, living in the late 19th century, who traveled from settlement to settlement with the news of each family with whom he stayed as he made the rounds of his large itinerary through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the Maine woods and coast where his home was at Seal Cove. Prompted by similar voices as before, now identified in my mind with the ghostly presence of Clem Walls, again asking news of Amanda’s children, in 1996, I traveled with my daughter, thirteen then, and second wife, Irene, to New Brunswick: Campobello Island, Deer Island with the large tidal Charybdis, known as The Old Sow, off its western shore, St. Andrews, and St. Croix. Periplum: crossing by rusted ferry from point of land to island and again from island to point of land, experiencing Passamaquoddy Bay at eyelevel, skirting the famous whirlpool and observing the large net enclosures for the breeding of salmon.

Near the Pleasant Point land of the Passamaquoddy tribe, we stopped at a gift shop, a not remarkable place, except that while we were there, a confrontation seems to have occurred between a girl who was the daughter of the owners and a resplendent man who wished the store to handle his wares. To those who observed him his skin seemed a remarkable copper-gold, forged in the sun. Apparently the girl could not act as an agent for her parents, but the man responded to this with a level of frustration that frightened her. It is said that the man turned to me for assistance. The most curious fact is that although I remember the girl’s anxiety, I did not at the time see its cause and have no personal memory of the altercation or of the golden warrior. What I have written has been supplied by other observers who insist that a Native American male was making extraordinary gestures to gain my attention. What I am writing here in this species of autoethnography is, from the first paragraph to the present paragraph, marked by experiences for which I lack clear images. Seemingly the material in these threads has also been capable of high-energy mental imprinting. Does it make sense to say I feel an instrument of my own unconscious or preconscious designs?

I do not feel comfortable with the racialist desire that you might think I have expressed here, the romance of feeling connected to the land in a special "native" way, but I cannot deny its presence. My subject is not some wonderment related to a mixed, partially Native American, heritage, so I would have told the red-gold warrior, if we had spoken. I identify with mixed peoples: the Ramapo Mountain People, the Walls of Otter Creek equally, people of the borderlands and those from isolated communities, by-passed as new construction routes traffic differently. Possibly James Neptune, whom I recently met on Indian Island, might understand my meaning. Mixed people live, often as outcasts, without pride in their heritage because they are neither white nor indigenous peoples. An acclimated people dating back to the times of earliest colonialism, they have formed outsider communities, with profiles that meet neither the standards of the Calvinists in the white villages of squarely framed clapboard houses or the standards of native peoples. In writing this, one of my intentions is to offer a supplementary chapter to William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain.

The Walls provided me with a photograph of John Gilman Bunker, to whom Amanda was second wife and mother of six children, including the almost universally respected and sometimes despised Aunt Sadie. There are photographs also of Sadie and Chris Swenson, her second husband, with his boat drawn up into the head of Otter Creek and others of the businesses and industries that then made Otter Creek a commercial center very unlike the desolate stretch of highway outside the National Park Campground that it is today. Apparently Sadie owned a sawmill and timber here as well as houses and other properties. On Cranberry, she held title to much of the property either side of the Lane as well as the pastures and woodlands associate with the Bunker Homestead that her father had built. In my Cranberry Island: Remembered Histories, there is a photograph of her and Chris making hay on those fields.

I went out to Cranberry that Sunday after visiting the Walls to stay with my friend the composer Bill Goldberg. Flushed with the excitement of my discoveries, I shared my stories with those who were sitting in front of the store. Later in the library and little museum in the Longfellow School. Ruth Westphal reported that she was the public health nurse who helped to care for legless Samuel M. Walls and found a place for his son, Samuel W. Walls, in the Veterans hospital. Chris White told how he and other children of his generation in Bar Harbor learned to think of people like the Walls as different from themselves, not the people with whom his parents encouraged him to associate. One May Day morning, 60 or more years ago, a group of 5 and 7 year old island girls, following the custom of leaving baskets on doorsteps at dawn to signify romantic attachment, filled one with turds and left this at Sadie’s door as she was reported to be the ugliest looking person that anyone had ever seen. Other women of Cranberry Isles, now in their 70s and 80s, have made similar remarks on Sadie’s appearance.

Melinda, an older sister of my Elsie, had started to gather family records and genealogical material prior to her death. Rosanne has taken an interest in the topic. She tells me that the family of the Samuel Walls living at the time of the American War for Independence removed itself to Deer Island in New Brunswick because it was unsure of the sympathies of the residents of Mount Desert Island, then a borderland between the newly independent former colonies and the Tory haven of New Brunswick to the east. Rosanne reports that it was in this period that several intermarriages of record occurred between mixed peoples like the Walls and indigenous Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet.

The panel below describes the general situation on the New Brunswick Maine frontier, dating from a time just after the American War of Independence.

Loyalists to the Crown of England, who were fleeing the newly-formed United States, arrived in the area now known as St. Andrews. Eventually, the Loyalists displaced the Passamaquoddy, who settled on Indian Island, just to the south of Deer Island. After a time, Loyalists once again displaced the Passamaquoddy, who moved to an area of what is now Pembroke, and eventually settled at Sipayik (zih-'by-ig)--known by English speakers as Pleasant Point, between Eastport and Perry, Maine. This location, and Indian Township, just above Princeton, Maine, were in modern times designated as state Passamaquoddy Reservations.

Rural poverty on the coast of Maine is not a new topic. Walker Evans photographed interiors of impoverished homesteads in the Rockland area. He was in Havana and in Maine, prior to working with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the late 40s or 50s, he was a guest of the Story family on Cranberry. There is gossip in that regard that I have heard from summer residents like John Heliker. Jack, in turn, inspired me with his way and with his stories to extend my personal horizons beyond mill town or rural poverty. My photographs of Elsie and of the house on Cranberry are, I hope, in the documentary tradition pioneered by Walker Evans. Les modified the large black kitchen woodstoves of the 1940s similar to the stove in Elsie’s kitchen by adding oil fired burners to one end, supplying both hot water and "modern" heat to the home.

Woodstove with End Burner
in the Les Rice House


I have come to understand why my Grandfather distanced himself from the hardship and poverty that he associated with Cranberry Island. I may have blamed him as a child, seeking a connection to a lost heritage. In several poetic senses, I identify the island, especially the landscape, with my soul. The years following World War One must have been exciting times for a young sailor. I understand the desire to be elsewhere, off island; I do not go ‘home’ that often myself. My tie was through Aunt Sadie, who favored my mother with the gift of a house that stands just to the south of the Ladies’ Aid Society Building and me with memories of her relatives, encamped on shell heaps in The Pool of Great Cranberry. Polly Bunker has similar memories of John Snow and his family camped near the Pool. When, as a child, I asked my grandfather about family origins, he answered that we were "Yankees," meaning Dutch and French and Indian and English. As a result of meeting Elsie, Everett, and Anita, I have come to understand the full import of mixed ethnic heritage such as implied by his use of "Yankee."

Mixed peoples like the Ramapo Mountain People or the Walls and the Bunkers have an intensely local presence and yet they are also found everywhere, representing some kernel truths tying economics to history and blood to human frailty. In her video, Andar conmigo, Julieta Venegas displays a range of peoples of mixed ages and ethnicities, as well as a general poverty, very much like that on which I am reflecting. Does the poet or storyteller ever stray all that far from the subject of identity?

Champlain and Winthrop: Other Historical Notes

"In September 1604, Champlain," according to Samuel Eliot Morrison, "with twelve sailors and two Indian guides, cleared Quoddy narrows and sailed along the Maine coast." Morrison’s source is Champlain’s journals which record the first sighting of the island that he named l’Ile des Monts-deserts, because of the appearance of the mountains. "The island is very high, and cleft into seven or eight mountains, all in a line. The summits of most of them are bare of trees." These barren summits, visible in their rough pink, rounded presence from Elsie’s front step, have been scoured by glacier, wind and fire, polished by the winter sun. Champlain’s boat hit a ledge off Otter Creek Point, to which he was drawn because of smoke rising from cook fires there. Repairing the damage to the patache, he took on two indigenous people as guides and continued up Frenchman’s Bay, circumnavigating the island. This reference establishes a Native American presence at Otter Creek in 1604. Rosanne would argue that this presence has been continuous except for a period of exile on Deer Island in Passamaquoddy Bay, following the American War of Independence, the people seeking refuge at this time of uncertainty as to their safety because of possible misunderstandings concerning their loyalties and allegiances. It is from this time on Deer Island that Rosanne has located records of intermarriages between the Walls and other indigenous or mixed peoples.

John Winthrop visited the region too. He sketched the mountains of Mount Desert from the Lady Arbella in 1630. At this same time, the Bunkers left their hill farm in Charleston to settle in Dover Point and Madbury or Oyster River, New Hampshire, stages in the migration of the family to Machias and Cranberry. When Governor Bernard sailed to the region in 1762 to view the holdings granted him by the crown, he discovered squatter families, Spurlings and Bunkers already in residence on Cranberry, in addition to the first families that had been granted homestead rights, Somes and Richardson (both from Gloucester) at Somesville and Bass Harbor. Even earlier, in 1755, Abraham Somes and Ebenezer Sutton had visited. It seems unlikely that there were Bunker homesteads on Cranberry in 1740 when the Grand Design ran onto Long Ledge, stranding its passengers, but it is also possible that by this date island forests had been burnt in order to establish sheep pasturage, an Acadian practice, equated by the English with piracy on the theory that the sheep had been stolen from English homesteads in Massachusetts. At a yet earlier date, English warships visited the Harbor of Mont Desert to replenish supplies of fresh water. The conclusion is that Bunkers like John or Joseph, the first of record to settle on Cranberry, may have begun to mix with "indigenous" or "native" families that were themselves already mixed, several generations prior to the marriage of John Gilman Bunker and Mary Amanda Walls by Justice of the Peace, A.C. Fernald in 1869.

With each rereading of this text, I become increasingly aware of how difficult it is to get down the facts in an unambiguous manner. A brother to Elsie, Everett, and Anita, Charles had passed in the interim since my previous visit. Charles owned The Burning Tree Restaurant. Now Everett has passed. His small house stands just to the right of the restaurant, facing south, roughly shingled, with a bedroom on a second floor. It is the classic architectural instance of design accommodating poverty in coastal Maine. Odd bits of machinery and unfinished projects litter the yard, the upstairs window, sealed against the weather by two watercolor sketches of lilies and other flowers, paintings that Everett acquired from an amateur artist who was about to discard them.

Melindy, not only wrote, family history and poetry, she also painted. Everett said she liked to paint rocks, the pink ovals of the region, flecked with black mica, also the smooth, shelving ledges of gray schist. One of her paintings was accepted for the State of Maine Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. I wanted dearly for Everett to have been the painter of those watercolor sketches in his bedroom window, instead I make him out to have been a bricoleur, a finder who assembles incompatible material into small machines. He told stories about steamboats and hotels that used to be found in the region. Green Mountain, as it was then called, not Cadillac, only across the road, rising bald and naked, blocks out the setting sun, turning the fields black with its shadow. He described the lay of the village prior to the setting of current National Park boundaries, which properties were Sadie’s or Sam’s, where the wharves and stores had been situated. Only randomly will a fishing boat today go in under the causeway into Otter Creek Harbor.

The stories that we need speak to spirit. The language that I speak seeks to envision worlds differently situated than this one, painted worlds and maps etched in memory. Story telling and design impulse are my true kinship with my relatives.