TOMAH (Tomas, Tomer, Tomma), PIERRE, Malecite chief; fl. 1775–80 in the Saint John valley (N.B.).
During the American revolution the Malecite Indians seemed important to the European conquerors of North America for the last time. The governments of rebellious Massachusetts and loyal Nova Scotia believed these inhabitants of the Saint John valley and their neighbouring tribes held the balance of power north of the Bay of Fundy. Leaders of both colonies remembered earlier struggles with the Indians and French and, anticipating similarly devastating raids, vied with each other for Indian support. The Malecites, however, were reluctant to enter combat. During the preceding century they had watched Massachusetts destroy tribe after tribe. Demoralized by these defeats and economically depressed by the decline of the fur trade, they sought to preserve what remained of their traditional way of life. The diplomatic situation was difficult for they needed to balance between Massachusetts, with its genocidal methods of warfare against Indians, and the British in Nova Scotia, with their growing presence on the Saint John. The disputes that caused the war were of no concern to the tribe, but after years of fighting colonial neglect it desperately needed the provisions that the warring colonies would furnish in return for support.
In response to a Massachusetts initiative of May 1775 the Malecites moved to establish closer relations with the Americans. Pierre Tomah and Ambroise Saint-Aubin arrived at the Penobscot truck house (Bangor, Maine) in September and dispatched a letter of support to the rebel government. The chiefs asked that goods be sent them and stated that they had no other place to trade. The Massachusetts government responded, and more than a year of close cooperation followed. Tomah and Saint-Aubin led a Malecite contingent which accompanied Jonathan Eddy*’s attack on Fort Cumberland (near Sackville, N.B.) in the fall of 1776. In December Tomah and others met with George Washington on the banks of the Delaware River. Massachusetts did its best to supply the tribe with provisions. Early in 1777 it even attempted to establish a truck house on the Saint John at Maugerville. The British, however, drove the Americans from the Saint John in July. This evidence that the rebels could not protect the tribe on its ancestral territory caused a rift among the Malecites. Tomah’s group was willing to swear allegiance to Britain to forestall hostilities and to try to accommodate both sides. Most of the tribe, however, fled with Saint-Aubin to Machias (Maine).
From this time on, Tomah travelled freely between the British and the Americans, performing occasional services for both. He delivered letters for the American agent John Allan* and in 1778 helped him avoid a split among the Indians at Machias, some of whom, excited by France’s entry into the war, wished to give her their immediate support. He also stopped a threatened assault on James White, the British deputy Indian agent for the area, who was attempting to prevent a Malecite attack on settlements near Fort Howe (Saint John). In September 1778 at a major conference at Menagouèche, near Fort Howe, Tomah signed a treaty with the British and a letter forbidding Allan to interfere with the Indians east of Machias. A year later, however, he was back in Machias, assuring Allan that he had acted out of fear and offering to renounce all connection with the British if Allan would provision the tribe. When the Americans could not meet his demands, he led the Malecites eastward to Passamaquoddy Bay. On 31 May or 1 June 1780 he told the American agent that the tribe appreciated his efforts but that poverty and religious zeal required them to meet Michael Francklin, Nova Scotia’s superintendent of Indian affairs, who was waiting on the Saint John with supplies and an Acadian priest (Joseph-Mathurin Bourg). Tomah’s name subsequently disappears from the records but he probably led the Malecites until after the end of the war. In any case, the policies he devised must have guided them since they “lived at the joint expense of the contending parties.”
Traditional Canadian and American writers saw Tomah’s activities as evidence of the manipulation of the Malecites by the government. That ethnocentric view did not admit that the Indians were capable of designing and executing a policy to meet their own purposes, and it led to castigation of the Malecites for their “weaknesses of Indian nature” and their failure to rally to the proper cause. Tomah’s ability to protect his people and make the war serve their ends, however, clearly confounds such a low opinion of Indian capabilities.
PAC, MG 11, [CO 217], Nova Scotia A, 72, pp.44–45; 74, p.94; 75, pp.24–25, 41–42; 78, pp.83–85; 83, pp.19–24; 87, pp.123–24; 97, pp.209, 228; 98, pp.180–83; 101, pp.134, 268–69; 102, pp.16, 52–53; [CO 220], Nova Scotia B, 12, pp.158–59; 13, p.216; 14, pp.90–91. Documentary history of Maine (Willis et al.), XIV-XIX, XXIV. Military operations in eastern Maine and N.S. (Kidder). J. H. Ahlin, Maine Rubicon; downeast settlers during the American revolution (Calais, Maine, 1966). R. I. Hunt, “British-American rivalry for the support of the Indians of Maine and Nova Scotia, 1775–1783” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Maine, Orono, 1973). R. H. Lord et al., History of the archdiocese of Boston in the various stages of its development, 1604 to 1943 (3v., New York, 1944), I. Raymond, River St. John.