Penobscot Indians (derived by Vetromile from the Pānnawānbskek, ‘it forks on the white rocks,’ or Penaubsket, ‘it flows on rocks’; Godfrey and Ballard practically agree with Vetromile, the name applying directly to the falls at Oldtown, but Ballard says it has also been rendered ‘rock land,’ from penops [penopsc] ‘rock,’ and cöt [ot] locative, applied to the bluff at the mouth of the river near Castine. Gerard gives the aboriginal form as Pěnobskât, lit.’ plenty stones’). They are a tribe of the Abnaki confederacy (q. v.), closely related in language and customs to the Norridgewock. They are sometimes included in the most numerous tribe of the Abnaki confederacy, and for a time more influential than the Norridgewock.
They occupied the country on both sides of Penobscot bay and river, and claimed the entire basin of Penobscot river. Their summer resort was near the sea, but during the winter and spring they inhabited lands near the falls, where they still reside, their principal modern village being Oldtown, on Indian island, a few miles above Bangor, in Penobscot county. A band living on Moosehead Lake, Maine, was popularly known as Moosehead Lake Indians. That Indians of this tribe were encountered by navigators before the middle of the 17th century appears to be certain. Kohl says that Norumbega on the Penobscot was often visited by French navigators and fishermen from the Great Bank and that they built there before 1555 a fort or settlement. When more thorough exploration began in the 17th century the Penobscot chief, known as Bashaba (a term probably equivalent to head-chief), seems to have had primacy over all the New England tribes southward to the Merrimac. The residence of Bashaba at this period appears to have been somewhere in the region of Bangor, possibly at the Norunibega of early travelers. Champlain, who sailed up the Penobscot (called by hint Norumbega) in 1605, says: “Now I will leave this discourse to return to the savages who had led me to the rapids of Norumbega, who went to inform Bessabes, their captain, and gave him warning of our arrival.” His residence must therefore have been in the neighborhood of the rapids. The Penobscot at this period seem to have been distinct from the “Tarratine,” or Abnaki of Norridgewock, and at war with them, although since the English occupancy of the country they have always been known as a part of the Abnaki and have sometimes been specifically designated as Tarratine. The principal village, from which the tribe derived its name, seems to have been identical with Pentagouet of early French and English writers, situated on or near the site of Castine, Me. The various forms of Pentagouet and Penobscot are constantly confused in literature.
Other settlements at that period were at Mattawamkeag, Olamon, and Passadumkeag. All of these appear to have been temporary stations until the French gave a permanent character to Penobscot by the establishment of a mission there in 1688. The Penobscot took an active part in all the wars on the New England frontier up to 1749, when they made a treaty of peace, and have remained quiet ever since.
This treaty brought them into disfavor with the Abnaki of St Francis, who continued hostilities in the French interest, for which reason very few of the Penobscot ever joined their emigrant tribesmen in Canada, and they now constitute the only important body of Indians remaining in New England excepting the Passamaquoddy. Different estimates gave them about 650 (1726), 1000 (Chauvignerie, 1736), 700 (1753), 400 (1759), 700 (1765), and 350 (1789). Most of the estimates within the present century give them from 300 to 400 souls. They now number about 410.
The Penobscot nation was a member of the Wabanaki Confederacy that controlled much of New England and the Canadian Maritimes. The Penobscots themselves are original natives of Maine. They still live there today, on a reservation at Indian Island.