Last of six parts

They celebrated statehood in gala fashion that first night, March 15, 1820.

In Portland, the provisional capital, cannon were fired off in salute at morning, noon and sunset. Militia companies marched about in full regalia. Ships at anchor in the harbor displayed their signal flags. “We have heard from the various towns, by every demonstration of joy and heart-felt congratulation,” the Eastern Argus reported.

At nightfall the Portland Observatory and adjacent buildings atop Munjoy Hill – then surrounded by grassy slopes – were illuminated. At the old Union Hall in the center of town a grand Independence Ball commenced, graced by William King, the state’s first governor.

“The die is cast; the question is settled; and another glory is added to the star spangled banner,” the Argus, Portland’s pro-separation newspaper, proclaimed. “The long delayed hopes of the people are at last gratified.”

An illustration based on the Maine state seal, published in the 1843 Gazetteer for the state of Maine. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

Or so it seemed.

Maine is celebrating the bicentennial of its statehood this month, but Maine had been an independent colony for decades before being annexed by its more powerful neighbor in the 1650s. This series has told a story of war and betrayal, of clashing empires and ethnic cleansing, of an intra-English civil war and a 170-year colonial occupation. The legacy of these events is still with us, having shaped our culture and outlook, our economic relations and, indeed, the relationship between this land’s real natives and those of us whose families came “from away” at some point in the past 400 years.

The reemergence of Maine as a separate, self-governing place in March 1820 was no panacea, though for a brief time it seemed it might be such.

The first two decades after independence appeared golden. In those days, the commerce of the nation moved north and south along the Eastern Seaboard in the hulls of wooden sailing vessels, and Maine – with its long, deepwater estuaries reaching deep into forests of mast-size pine, seaworthy oak, and pitch-bearing conifers – was a shipbuilder’s dream. Mainers built, owned and manned hundreds of ships that formed the backbone of the national coastal carrying trade, and nearly half of the vessels visiting Boston came from Maine.

Amos Graffte’s lumbering crew in Holeb, Maine, on the Quebec border 10 miles west of Jackman, in about 1904. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

Better yet, Maine was then a storehouse of key materials the burgeoning cities of the seaboard needed: granite to build bridges, monumental buildings and paved streets; wholesale quantities of ice to fill underground ice chambers and keep food cold in places where water never freezes; lumber to frame, sheathe and roof homes; and salt fish to provide protein to the working poor and, in the West Indies and American South, to slaves.

Between 1820 and 1830, the state’s population grew by a third to 400,000, matching the nation’s breakneck rate of growth and outstripping Massachusetts’ by nearly twofold. Portland grew by half to nearly 13,000, making it the 16th-largest city in the country, bigger than Brooklyn, Pittsburgh or Newark. Hallowell, expected to become the state’s capital, was a center of book publishing, home to New England’s second-largest library (after Harvard’s), and its leaders intended it to become the port for northern Vermont, southern Quebec and all places in between.

The funeral procession of Hannibal Hamlin – former Maine governor and U.S. vice president, senator and congressman –  on Main Street in Bangor on July 8, 1891. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

By 1860, Maine had 628,000 people and had achieved what, in retrospect, would be the height of its power and influence on the national stage. We had six seats in the U.S. House, more than California, Texas and Florida combined. Hannibal Hamlin of Hampden was vice president-elect, William Pitt Fessenden was one of the most powerful men in the U.S. Senate and Maine’s early-bird September elections had national influence of the sort the New Hampshire primaries do today, thus the phrase: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

Then it all fell apart.


The warning signs had been there early on, for those who were looking. In 1835 Massachusetts completed railways linking Boston to Providence, Worcester and the model factory city of Lowell, a move that shifted investment capital and settlement flows in those directions. “Prior to that date, emigration had set strongly into Maine from Massachusetts; but from that date the tide gradually turned,” the influential American Railroad Journal reported in 1848. “A frontier state, she has been cut off from all social or commercial intercourse on three sides, and held in commercial subjugation to the State of Massachusetts on the other.”

“The early subjugation of Maine to Massachusetts placed her in a position of colonial dependence which was perpetuated by the force of circumstances long after its nominal separation took place,” the Journal continued, with Boston interests seeking to keep Maine’s commerce moving by sea, ensuring it came to Boston rather than linking up with the national railway system. “The superiority of Boston over any town in Maine enabled her to control not only the course of trade, but the opinions of her people. This has been most fatal to her actual advancement.”

A settler’s cabin on Chesuncook Lake in the 1870s. The photographer who took this photo, A.L. Hinds of Benton, titled it “The Palace of the Pioneer.” Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

The dynamic would be familiar to scholars who study postcolonial societies. “To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved,” the late Edward Said, founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, once wrote. “Poverty, dependency, underdevelopment, various pathologies of power and corruption … this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level but who remained victims of their past on another.”

Sunday, Feb. 16 – Chapter 1: Dawnland
Sunday, Feb. 23 – Chapter II: Rivalry
Sunday, March 1 – Chapter III: Conquest
Sunday, March 8 – Chapter IV: Insurrection
Sunday, March 15 – Chapter V: Liberation
Sunday, March 22 – Chapter VI: Legacy

By 1850, leading Maine entrepreneurs such as John A. Poor and Edward Hamlin were begging the Massachusetts legislature to appropriate money from the sale of the Bay State’s land holdings in Maine – it received 4.3 million acres of land as part of the separation deal – to help build the state’s railway system. “The trade of Maine can never seek New York or a more southern market without giving to Massachusetts the first offer of her trade,” they wrote. “Is it not in the interest of Boston, therefore, to build up and foster industry in Maine …?”

While the rest of New England was then crisscrossed with railways, Maine’s system extended only to Bath on the coast and as far as Bangor on the interior route. Population growth trends had reversed vis-a-vis Massachusetts and property values fell. “Many had perceived the silent but gradual withdrawal of much of the wealth and business talent of Maine to Massachusetts, while there was also a strong tendency among the farming interest to emigrate west,” Poor and his colleagues lamented.

The Civil War then dealt a terrible blow, cutting off the ice and salt fish trade with southern markets and forcing many cotton mills and rum distilleries to shutter for lack of raw materials. Shipyards in Bath went from building an average of 23 ships a year in the 1850s to just nine in 1861. Maine’s sea fisheries – the largest in the nation in 1861 – were hobbled by geometric increases in the costs of marine insurance, salt, canvas, anchors, chains and other supplies.

Eighteen thousand Mainers were killed or wounded on the battlefield, and many others – having seen the deeper topsoils of the mid-Atlantic and Mississippi regions – decided not to return home. The state’s population actually shrank between 1860 and 1870.

Waldo County’s “once teeming fields that bore bounteous harvests now show a deplorable state of deterioration,” an 1873 account reported. Portland, with 31,000 people, had fallen to the 41st-largest city in the country, and Hallowell remained a village of fewer than 3,000. The national economy’s shift to cement (over granite), fresh fish (over salted), refrigeration (over ice shipments) and steamships (over sailing ones) left much of the state an economic backwater on the sidelines of national commerce.


Ironically it was in the late 19th century, when coastal Maine was deindustrializing and large, out-of-state paper conglomerates were seizing control of Maine’s rivers and woodlands from homegrown loggers, that the outside world discovered the pleasures of the Maine summer. The development brought economic alternatives but further buttressed the postcolonial tendencies in Maine’s culture.

How could it not? Most rural Mainers, whether in coastal hamlets or stream- and lakeside backcountry towns, were poor. The guests filling the new sportsmen’s lodges and grand summer hotels in York Beach, Boothbay and Bar Harbor, Rangeley and Greenville, were affluent. They were soon joined by the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet, the plutocrats at the height of the Gilded Age, who built grand mansions with staff and amenities to rival the Crawleys of “Downton Abbey.” John D. Rockefeller had a 107-room Tudor mansion at Seal Harbor. J.P. Morgan arrived at Bar Harbor in a massive yacht and compelled applicants for summer jobs at his “cottage” to race to meet him in their rowboats. There were Vanderbilts on Mount Desert Island, Roosevelts on Campobello, and Walkers at Kennebunkport.

A postcard depicts The Eyrie, summer home of John D. Rockefeller Jr., in Seal Harbor. Public domain

Summer people needed to be fed and entertained, their cottages built and maintained, their gardens tended and lawns clipped, their canoes carried and guided to the best trout spots. The “natives” added these tasks to their seasonal rounds for survival, alongside woodcutting, farming, clam digging, wreath making, hunting, fishing and berry picking. “They hired us to be their servants, and I suppose we were, for we did the work of servants and were paid for it,” an elderly Mount Desert woman told an interviewer in 1920. “Still, they needn’t have made our lower social level so obvious. … We were never invited as ‘guests’ to anything (and) of course we didn’t invite them to our doings either. We were just different.”

In 1906, the cottagers – or “rusticators” – created a swim club in Northeast Harbor. Local people were not allowed to use it or become members.

Tensions between locals and cottagers were greatly increased by the fact that the latter wanted Maine to remain as it was: a bucolic playground free of the hustle and bustle of modern life, of automobiles and industry, of pollution and non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants. The summer residents of Islesboro threatened to leave forever if the islanders introduced motorcars to the 14-mile-long island. Cottagers lobbied against the construction of the first bridge across the Kennebec at Bath, saying the midcoast would be destroyed. They fought electrification in Bar Harbor and lobster canning factories on Somes Sound.

Workers build a stone wall on Isle au Haut, circa 1905. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Harvard University president Charles Eliot and others bought up thousands of acres of Mount Desert Island to protect their mansions from development, renamed many of the mountains after themselves and their friends, and in 1919 gave the lands to the federal government to create what is now Acadia National Park. “What needs to be forever excluded from the island is the squalor of the city, with all its inevitable bustle, dirt, and ugliness,” Eliot explained. “Not even the appropriate pleasures and splendors of city life should be imitated at Mount Desert.”

Local people were often unhappy with engineered underdevelopment. “If we have any industry in the town, the rustikaters don’t favor it, because it spoils the look of the place and makes it harder for them to get help in the two months when they want it,” a Monhegan islander told a reporter in 1914. “The rustikaters are gradually squeezing us out of our independence and into a dependence on them.”


That Maine was being kept in an underdeveloped state, a resource and recreation colony of the East Coast megalopolis, wasn’t lost on Frederick Jackson Turner, the author of the famous “frontier thesis” that argued the uncivilized conditions of the American West created the American character. Turner, a native of western Wisconsin and an avid outdoorsman, summered in Hancock for decades. “That long blood-stained line of the eastern frontier which skirted the Maine coast was of great importance,” he wrote in 1920. “It imparted a western tone to the life and characteristics of the Maine people which endures.”

Young child laborers, still holding their knives, take a break at an unnamed fish processing plant. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine

To a degree many people today may not realize, Maine was an extremely poor place right up into living memory. Maine’s per capita income in 1966 – $2,477 – was 38th in the country and, if you factored in the cost of living, fell to at or near the bottom of the list year after year. In the late 1960s, two-thirds of rural Maine families were classified as poor and one in five lived in outright poverty. In 1979 Maine’s personal income was 46th in the country. People who grew up in the “rim counties” in that era can remember plenty of actual tarpaper shacks.

Many characteristics of our culture come out of this long colonial and postcolonial experience: self-sufficiency and hard work; pride and defiance; self-doubt and an aversion to risk, maybe even to success itself. Owing to the Puritan takeover, Mainers have a long tradition of having and supporting public schools but also to not believing they can go on to bigger things. In 1957, Maine was still one of the poorest states in the country but ranked 15th in the number of young people graduating from high school. It ranked 39th, however, in the number finishing college, one of the greatest gaps in the country. Even in 1990, after extensive in-migration of college-educated families, the gap had only closed to 18th and 27th. With few professional jobs available in their hometowns, many high school graduates believed that going to college would be tantamount to permanent exile.

Two centuries on, however, the world has changed. The internet makes geographical proximity less important in many industries. The world is growing short of many things Maine has: natural landscapes; clean, fresh water; productive seas; unspent farmland. We have deepwater ports, civic-minded people and strong schools. Many of our towns and cities lacked the money to properly bulldoze their downtown cores in the mid-20th century, which means they still have the walkable 19th-century physical landscapes that have become so critical to 21st-century urban vitality.

There’s no reason to be colonial people any longer. Nor to colonize others.


Statehood did not improve Maine’s relationship with the Wabanaki. On the contrary, it freed the state to behave in an abhorrent fashion that it’s only recently begun to recognize. The Passamaquoddy experience provides a case in point.

In 1794, Massachusetts negotiated a treaty with the Passamaquoddy by which the tribe agreed to surrender most of its land in exchange for unimpeded fishing rights on the St. Croix, a group of islands and reservations and a trust fund that, had it been simply left alone, would be worth over $1 billion today.

Under the separation agreement with Massachusetts, not only was Maine required to uphold the 1794 treaty obligations, but they were written into the new state’s constitution. They were found within Article X, Section 5, and remained in force. In 1875, the people of Maine ratified a constitutional amendment forbidding this article to ever be published, an amendment that is still in force today as Article X, Section 7. If the change was meant to ensure these obligations were forgotten, it was effective. Trust lands were confiscated, flooded, seized to build roads or handed over to white owners. The trust fund was looted and, under a notorious 1890 state court decision, the tribe was denied the right to hunt on their own land because they were deemed to no longer exist as a sovereign entity. The Passamaquoddy were treated as wards of the state, denied the right to vote or serve on juries, and excluded from having their hair cut by local barbers. When one was murdered, nobody made much effort to bring their killers to justice.

When their idealistic young attorney, Don Gellers, discovered all this in the mid-1960s, he began preparing a lawsuit to compel Massachusetts to force Maine to rectify the situation, a case that would eventually result in the historic 1980 land claim settlement with Maine’s four tribes. Immediately upon his return from filing the suit in 1968 he was framed and arrested for the “constructive possession” of six marijuana cigarettes as part of an elaborate undercover operation organized by the Attorney General’s Office and the Maine State Police, and sentenced to two to four years in prison. He fled to Israel.

Tensions have simmered since 1980, when the Maine tribes agreed to settle their claims to much of the state in exchange for a cash payout and an agreement to curtail some of the rights they had enjoyed in the late 1970s as federally recognized tribes. Through administrations of all political stripes, Maine has sought to restrict tribal sovereignty. At a low point during the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, three of the tribes withdrew their representatives from the Legislature.

Penobscot elder Donna Loring, a tribal affairs adviser to Gov. Janet Mills, has a theory as to why Maine’s modern relations with its tribes have been so much worse than those of just about any other state in the country. In the Great Plains or Pacific Northwest, the wars between European-Americans and Native Americans lasted a few years or decades. In Maine they lasted for a century – two if you count the earlier skirmishes at Pemaquid and Popham Beach – leaving deeper psychic and cultural scars.

“When you’ve been warring with another group for 200 years and you finally win and take control, you are going to make sure that group doesn’t come back strong again,” Loring says. “You do things to keep them small and keep them poor and not let them grow, which is exactly what the state of Maine has been doing.

“But it’s not the 1700s anymore, so in my view it’s time for the state of Maine to take the foot off our neck and say, ‘Look, we can be partners, we can do things productively together, and we can enhance Maine.’”

At the dawn of Maine’s third century of statehood, there are signs that relationship may be shifting. On Jan. 7 Mills granted Gellers the state’s first posthumous pardon and expressed profound concerns about how the state had handled the case. A 13-member state-tribal commission tasked with revisiting the terms of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in January recommended sweeping changes that would enhance the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the tribal governments.

A story that began with a kidnapping in 1605 has come full circle. Dawnland’s people have a chance to renegotiate a way to all live here in peace and prosperity.

End of series

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