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Big Thunder

Big Thunder

Towering in height and personality, Frank “Big Thunder” Loring, Penobscot, (1827-1906) was a leader among Wabanakis who commercialized their public identities to make a living. Loring was a performer, producer, and promoter of “Indian entertainments,” and his name appeared in dozens of newspapers across New England, especially Maine.

Off stage, he was a hunter, guide, medicine man, and tribal leader. Clever in the marketplace, he boosted sales of Wabanaki relics and crafts by telling captivating stories about the objects and himself.

“Big Thunder, the Indian Guide.” This photo of Frank Loring appeared in the Bar Harbor Record Centennial Souvenir Edition, 1896. (William Otis Sawtelle Collection, Acadia National Park)

Clearly, Loring had special affection for Mount Desert Island, for he spent part of most summers here for several decades. He rented canoes, often with himself or his son Mitchell as paddler and guide.

Every visitor to Bar Harbor knows ‘Big Thunder’ the ancient Indian, who for years has canoed the children of summer visitors, and the parents oft-times themselves when they were children, about the points of interest in the bay. - Bar Harbor Record Centennial Souvenir Edition, July 1896.

Theatrically mixing authentic Wabanaki cultural history with invented traditions, Loring was among the first American Indians to draw public attention to indigenous customs in costumed performances. Like Jay Leno or Jon Stewart who entertain today’s audiences with a clever mixture of farce and facts, he was an Indian showman for his time.

"My great-great grandfather Frank Loring, known as Chief Big Thunder, loved Bar Harbor and spent many years traveling there seasonally and camping on the island. While there, his mind was on finding folks to rent his canoes, sport-hunters he could guide, customers for his traditional wares, and audiences for his stories. Very often, his mind was on the show or pageant he was going to perform in or direct. He was a real showman, a very good one. As much as he enjoyed the limelight, it’s clear that sometimes his mind was also on getting away from the summer crowds of Mount Desert Island, for he frequently headed out on his own or with fellow tribesmen to hunt seals or gulls from the shores of other islands on the Maine seacoast. Perhaps he yearned for the breath of freedom on open water, where he could feel the pulse of nature without having to explain it to anyone." –Donna Loring

The most detailed descriptions of canoeing with Frank Loring and his son Mitchell come from the letters of Caroline Briggs, a Massachusetts widow of relatively modest means who stayed at Rockaway House every summer from 1881 until her death at age 73 in 1895. Her letters, collected in Reminiscences and Letters of Caroline C. Briggs, include numerous paragraphs about the Lorings. A sampling:

“Almost every day canoeing. Big Thunder is always our guide, and one could have no more fitting companion. I wish you could see this charming old man and his son. Two finer types of youth and age you will rarely see.”

“Yesterday we went out with Mitchell and stayed all the morning. The water was gray and the fog was drifting about, and the sea made our little canoe dance like a cockle-shell. Great swells carried us grandly on their backs; the birds swooped and gave strange cries, and the breakers on the islands came in with a voice of thunder. The rocks played with the water, and it dashed back on them with great mountains of spray.”

“We have paddled with dear old Big Thunder, when the waves rocked us in his little canoe, and when we glided like shadows, while twilight fell around us so softly that one felt like a baby in its mother’s arms.”