The Passamaquoddy Brass Band

Donald Soctomah, the historian of the Passamaquoddy tribe, send us the above photo. The drum is, we assume, about a hundred years old and an historic treasure. The Tribe has recently acquired the drum and it reminded us of the photos and stories of the Tribe’s connection with the ‘Wild West” shows of the late 1800s and early 1900s of which Buffalo Bill’s was the most famous. While the Passamaquoddies are the most easterly Indian tribe in the United States they often worked the “Wild West” circuit impersonating Western Indians from the Plains. As early as October 7, 1886 the St. Croix Courier reported:

Joseph Soctoma is the name of an enterprising Pleasant Point Indian who has just returned to his tribe after making a tour of America with Buffalo Bill’s great Wild West Show.  Soctoma played the part of a dashing Indian warrior from the Western Plains with great success.

The drum would have been an instrument used by the Pleasant Point Brass Band although the drumhead was specially painted for the “Buffalo Bill” shows. We cannot say when the Pleasant Point Brass Band, often called the “Passamaquoddy Brass Band”, was formed but it was certainly before 1900.

We do know that Bennett Francis, a member of the band in its early days, was born in 1874 and was the leader of the band at a young age. By 1900 he was an accomplished musician and selected to play a clarinet solo at the 1900 Paris Exposition. From the Bangor Daily News. April 16, 1900:


Bennett N. Frances of Quoddy Tribe Will Play Solo Clarinet at Paris Exhibition.

The Passamaquoddy Indian village of Pleasant Point, Perry, five miles above Eastport, Maine, will be represented at the Paris exposition this year by Bennett N. Francis, their talented young musician. Bennett N. Frances was born at the Indian village of Pleasant Point, April 26, 1874, of Indian Parents, both of whom belong to the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Bennett’s father was Newell S. Frances, former Indian representative In the State legislature, and his mother was Sarah Soctoma. Bennett had three brothers and two sisters, all of whom are now dead. He was married about six years ago to Miss Adeline Bernard of Greenville. They had two daughters, one of whom Is now living at the settlement and is about two years of age. It was when about 8 years of age that Bennett N. Frances first began as a musician, playing on a snare drum while he was at Bar Harbor with his parents for the summer months. He began taking lessons in music that summer and worked hard to master the English language before his return to the village late in the fall. The next spring he began on the cornet and took lessons from Prof. Spain, who was located at Eastport at that time. An Indian brass band was next formed at the village of Pleasant Point, and Bennett began to learn to play the clarinet…… The young musician now has four of the best made clarinets and is a solo player of more than ordinary ability. He plays also on every musical instrument in the band. For more than a year past he has been leader of the Passamaquoddy Indian brass band at the village of Pleasant Point, and frequent dances are held under his direction.

By 1901 the band had gained national recognition. It had the honor of performing at the Pan American World’s Fair held in Buffalo in 1901 at which President McKinley was assassinated. The Bangor Daily reported in its Eastport column on April 24, 1901 the departure of the band:

Eleven members of the famed Passamaquoddy Indian brass band, of Pleasant Point, Perry, were in this city Monday en route for the Buffalo exposition, where they will appear during the coming five weeks in their unique entertainment. Other Indian musicians from different parts of the State will also join the Passamaquoddy tribe and help to amuse the whites with their novel music. The former brass band appeared at the Sportsmen’s Show at Boston, during the winter and their concerts were always well attended. While here the Indian musicians purchased a number of articles for their visit and a number of their village friends were at the wharf of the I. S. S. C. (International Steamship Co.) to watch them leaving for the exposition, an event of considerable importance for the members of the party.

The band had returned home before the assassination of President McKinley on September 14. The President was shaking hands with the public when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen. The band’s return was also reported in the Bangor Daily:

The dozen members of the Passamaquoddy Indian Brass band of Pleasant point village arrived here(Eastport) on Tuesday by steamer from Boston. the Indian musicians having been at the Pan-American exposition at Buffalo for a few weeks past. A large delegation from the settlement were here to greet the returning members of the novel band, and a short time later they went to Pleasant Point by train, happy at their arrival home. A few of the Indians were somewhat homesick while away on the trip, but report a big time at the Exposition.

The drum just acquired by the Tribe was probably not the one used by the band at the World’s Fair but it is possible the drumhead was simply painted over for the Wild West Show. It appears to have a date of 1920 on the drumhead but it is difficult to read from the photo.

The Buffalo Bill Wild West shows were still popular in the east during the early years of the 20th century and continued to tour in Maine even though Buffalo Bill died in 1917. It seems likely the recently acquired drum traveled the Wild West circuit with the band about that time.

In 1922 the band was traveling the Chautauqua circuit with Bennett Francis as its leader. Chautauqua was an educational and social movement of the late 1880’s and early 1900’s.  Its mix of arts and entertainment was an instant hit especially in rural areas where the events were usually week-long affairs of music, dancing lectures and dramatic performances. Chautauqua was in Calais on several occasions including a four day event in 1919.

As late as 1931 the Passamaquoddy Brass band entertained citizens from throughout the State at the American Legion Convention held that year in Calais. The band can be seen above on Main Street, the library is to the far right.

We will end with two vignettes related to the Passamaquoddies, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Shows:

The humorous recollection below is taken from the notebook of Wallace Brown, a merchant and well-known Calais Historian in the late 1800s. He was also the local Indian agent for many years. Having gotten to know the Passamaquoddies rather well over the course of his service, he was very surprised to meet some of them in Philadelphia one evening. 

From the Boston Advertiser newspaper, date unknown but probably about 1900:

The Passamaquoddy tribe of Indians, from their location upon the border line between Maine and the Provinces, have much to do in a business way with the merchants of Calais and vicinity, so that in their frequent intercourse with these gentlemen all formally is thrown aside, and the Indians often call the parties addressed by their Christian names. A company of gentlemen representing the locality spoken of visited Philadelphia, and among other attractions there that interested them was an announcement that not far from the Centennial grounds “a band of wild Indians, fresh from the prairies of the far West,” were on exhibition. It was decided to visit this novel combination, and, following the directions given, the Maine gentleman soon found themselves within an extensive pavilion, at the farther end of which was a group of red men gaily decked with paint, feathers and other trappings, causing them to present a wild and savage appearance. As the visitors gazed upon the scene, suddenly one of the Indians started from the platform where he and his companions were placed, and, making his way through the crowd, approached the delegation from the “Pine Tree State” and much to their surprise, and, slapping in a familiar way one of their number upon the shoulder, shouted out “How you do, Wallace? How all folks down Calais? Ugh !” It is hardly necessary to add the Indian proved to be an old acquaintance, and that the entire company were from the Passamaquoddy tribe, hired and painted for the occasion. —Boston Advertiser.

Buffalo Bill – A Washington County Man (From the Historical Newsletter)

     The story of “Buffalo Bill” Cody is well known. During his youth Buffalo Bill was, it is claimed, an Indian fighter, buffalo hunter, gold miner, scout and Pony Express rider.    With the assistance of eastern newspapers, Buffalo Bill developed into a true western legend whose “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show” toured the country for many years around the turn of the century. Historical records say Buffalo Bill was born in 1846 in Le Claire, Iowa. However according to an article in the Calais Advertiser dated August 19, 1903, Bill was actually born in 1840 in an old frame house in Columbia, Maine on Foran hill. His father was James Cody and his mother Bridget Foran who died during childbirth. James married twice more and finally moved to Cincinnati with his son and third wife. The author, L. Cassidy of Calais, is very specific about many details of Bill’s early life, including the location of his mother’s grave, the location of the homes where the family lived and their religious preferences. Cassidy claims he had many long conversations about Buffalo Bill with a nephew of Buffalo Bill’s mother, one Patrick Foran, who was still living in 1903.

     Intrigued by the detail in the article, we did some research on the web and eventually contacted the curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. After a very pleasant exchange of emails, we sent the director of the museum the article.  She found it interested but pointed out that her organization had many official documents, including a birth certificate, indisputable historical records and  lengthy interviews with Buffalo Bill, his mother and siblings to substantiate their claim that Bill was not a Yankee. We had only the article which we gather she judged to be a complete fiction.  She was, however, kind enough to promise to give the article a place of honor in the museum’s “Imposters” file.

     Anyone interested in pursuing the local claim to Buffalo Bill could investigate the information contained in the article. We would do so but are hot on the trail of the gold at Moneymaker Lake and don’t have the time.  

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