"Kennebec" has gone through a lot of spellings before finally coming to us in its present form, for example Kenebeke, Cinebaque, Quinbequey, Kinibecki- and there have been nearly as many "interpretations" as names. There was an Abanaki chieftain named Kenebis who lived on Swan Island in Richmond in the mid 1600's, but whether he was named after the river, or the river named after him really is not clear. One of the Abanaki clans residing around this area of the river were known as the Canabis, and as many tribal names derived from the area where the people resided, this may have been the origin. The river was known by 4 names in its early history, with the section from Merrymeeting Bay to the sea being known as "Sunkerdahunk" to the Abanaki, literally "mouth of the river". The English colonists corrupted this to the Sagadahoc we know today. From Richmond to Skowhegan was referred to as the Kennebec, from Skowhegan north to Madison it was known to the Abanaki as Moloujoak. Finally the upper reaches were known as the Arransoak. Eventually "Kennebec" came to be used for the entire river.
Once again, spellings abound- Koussinok, Cusinok- eventually changed to the more easily spelled (and pronounced) Cushnoc. The meaning is the same, "head of tide", or where the tidal action of the sea on the Kennebec stops. You have probably noted the fluctuating levels of the river due to tidal action from Augusta south. Colonel Lithgow who ran the trading post near Fort Western noted in 1767 the name given the area by the Abanaki. Cushnoc it was, until the area was incorporated as part of Hallowell in 1771, then split off as "Harrington" in 1797, finally becoming "Augusta" later that year.
Who were the Abanaki?
The name Abanaki itself has many spellings, appearing in the histories as Abenaques, Abanakis, Abenaquiois, Wapanachkis, Wabenakies, and Wobanakis. Today the spellings Abanaki or Wabanaki are the most common. Translated, the term means "person from the land where the sun rises", or "the dawn people". Today "Abanaki" is often used to refer the the Indians of New England in general, but 300 years ago, it was more narrowly used to refer to the Indians west of the Penobscot. The Abanaki nation used to extend from Vermont to the Penobscot River. It has been estimated they numbered about 13,000 people before the coming of the Europeans, with about 5000 residing in the Kennnebec Valley area. The Abanaki of the Kennebec valley used to plant squash and corn in the smooth flat intervales on the river's edge. These planting areas were so extensively worked by the Abanaki that the Europeans who came later often found no plowing was necessary! After the planting, most of the Abanaki went to the sea to escape the heat, black flies and mosquitos. The Kennebec and all its feeder streams made great natural highways for the Abanaki to use for their canoes, and it was no great effort to pack what few possessions a family might have and head for the sea. Once on the coast, fish and clams were taken, and were a welcome change form the usual diet of deer and moose.
When harvest time came, the Abanaki would head upriver, gather the crops, and prepare for winter. Winters were hard of course, imagine spending a Maine winter in a bark wigwam, with only furs to keep warm with? No camp stoves, no down sleeping bags, no fancy nylon tents.
The Abanaki who resided near the Kennebec had four tribal groups, the area around Skowhegan-Waterville-Augusta-Richmond was inhabited by the Canabis clan, which through history came to be known as the Kennebec. They often camped where feeder streams intersected the river, ensuring supplies of water, fish, and natural highways for canoe transport.
Written by: Don Vickery, 1997. Please email questions and/or comments to