In search of the Red Paint People

By David Roper

These red circles denote the shell piles — or middens — left behind by an ancient people. Photo courtesy David Roper

This year’s cruise to Maine was supposed to be a quiet, reflective time spent mostly anchored alone in a bay I’ve always loved. For the first time in many years, my wife would sail with me on the Downeast leg from our homeport of Marblehead, Mass. I usually go alone, as I don’t like to subject her to those long days working our way east. I also usually go alone because I like being at sea alone. For some reason, though, this year my family was skeptical about letting an old guy who’d had quintuple bypass surgery last year head out there by himself. Good point, I guess, though I pride myself on being quite an independent sort who can fix most things – I have all the spare parts from another Yanmar diesel stowed under the forward bunk, for example – but I guess self-administered heart surgery at sea would be somewhat of a challenge, and those Yanmar parts probably wouldn’t help either. So, anyway, she came along.

When it blew 25 from the southeast on the run from Gloucester, Mass., to York, Maine, my wife sat patiently in the cockpit, staring at me while for six hours I steered down big following seas. After several hours, with the same quizzical expression still etched on her face, she ventured: “You really LIKE this, don’t you.”

“I wait all year for this,” I replied, smiling.

“So, what other ridiculous things do you wait all year for? And how far is York Harbor, anyway?”

She had a great time after that, which was only for a few days. Then I was alone by my favorite island in my favorite bay. It was time for quiet reflection, rowing, writing, eating, drinking pinot grigio, and reading. At least that’s what I thought I would be doing until this text came in from my old pal.

“I have an important mission for you,” the text exclaimed. “I’m sending a map.”

“Yikes, what kind of mission?” I replied.

“To find some tools of the ancient Red Paint People of 4,000 years ago.”


I looked at the map/photo he sent. It looked like a bunch of little islands with white shell piles with red circles drawn around each pile.

“What’s with the white shells?”


“I know I’m new at this archeology stuff, and I bet they’re not to keep your hands warm, so what are they?”

“Middens, not mittens. Piles of shellfish and refuse which build up over thousands of years.”

“And what is my “important mission” . . . to clean them up?”

“First you’ll need to row there, to these little islands, then stand in these red circles I’ve drawn and FaceTime me.”

“I do? And then what? You’ll beam me up?”

“That’s when the search begins for ancient tools.”

“Yeah, but I was planning on doing lots of reading and . . . .”

“This is an important mission. Tools of the Red Paint People! Think about it!”

“Yeah, but . . . .”

And so, I became an amateur archeologist assistant to my friend the amateur archeologist. The next few days involved multiple texts and photographs, FaceTime calls, and even Zoom meetings back on my boat. And there were those frequent forays onto the tiny islands – all part of the mission to find tools of the Red Paint People.

So, who are these folks?

Before the first colonists and explorers came to New England, before even the American Indian tribes lived here, there were these Red Paint People. We know little about them, but they did exist in Maine some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago. And we know they hunted swordfish along the coast from Brunswick to the St. John River. Their tools – arrowheads, spear points, knives, gouges – were made differently from those of the later Indian tribes. And the graves were so old that virtually no human remains existed, just tiny bone fragments. Archaeologists still lack answers to questions about these early people who buried red ochre in the ground. They don’t know why they disappeared. And they still don’t know why the red ochre was so important.

And, after my exhaustive mission, neither do I.

But I’ve got this old rock (“tool?”) I finally found, if anyone wants to buy it.

Look for David Roper’s forthcoming book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends.” It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller available on