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Program 12: Land of Liberty

The Betterment Act

"Marble sculpture of Maine's first governor William King by Franklin Simmons at the National Statuary Hall Collection courtesy of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol."In the winter of 1808, William King proposed a legislative measure intended to achieve a compromise between settlers and landowners on the Maine frontier. For years, tension swelled between the two groups because both felt entitled to the wild woodlands of Maine. Discord grew on the frontier and legislators feared that a revolution would break out.

The settlers did petition the government to intervene and sent letters explaining that they could not pay the prices set by the landowners. Proprietors, many of whom were in government, used their influential connections to keep the settlers from achieving success in the courts. But, as more and more settlers flooded the Maine frontier, the political face of Maine changed. When these new citizens began to vote they chose the opposition party – the Jeffersonians or the “Farmer’s Friend.”

The Jeffersonians recognized that their success in Maine government relied on the votes of the backcountry settlers so they sought a way to appease settlers in these land dealings. William King, the lead of the Jeffersonians in Maine drafted the Betterment Act late in 1807. He recommended that:

• Any settler who had been on land for six or more years could petition the court to intervene in a dispute with proprietor.
• Proprietors were entitled to “land’s value ‘in a state of nature’ and the value of the “betterments”
• Improvements upon the land like plowed fields, wells, structures and crops – belonged to the settlers.
• Proprietor had option to accept wild land value and transfer title to settler or could force the settler to leave & proprietor would pay them for the value of the improvements.
• Secure title was given to the settler when they paid the proprietor.
• Settlers could pay the proprietor for the land over a series of years.

When the Massachusetts General Court (legislature) addressed the bill, two sections immediately caused dispute. The landowners wanted their money immediately and were not amenable to a payment plan system. Furthermore, there was great debate over how to price the wild land value. Was it the original price when settler moved there or was it the current going price for wild lands in Maine? A difference of $2-3 was at stake because the price had been about $1 per acre just after the Revolution. The new prices were $4-$5 per acre.

As with any law, there were negotiations and the final act was different than the original proposal. These changes drastically diluted the effectiveness of the Betterment Act to protect the settlers. The landowners benefited because:


• Settlers had just one year to pay.
• Wild lands would be assessed at the modern values and not at the lower values charged at the time the settlers moved onto the lands-a price difference of $3-4 per acre.

Proprietors were hoping this would discourage most settlers from negotiating at all and would either pay immediately or would leave forfeiting all the work they had done to improve the land. But there remained discord on the frontier. Settlers who were more successful and had been able to save a little did negotiate. Those who could not afford to negotiate wanted more radical action and continued with armed resistance. New tensions flared up between neighbors who could afford to pay for their farms and those who could not.

Because the disagreements dragged on, William King submitted an amendment to the Betterment Act in 1810. This change gave settlers up to three years to pay for their land, but more importantly, it imposed strict punishments for anyone agitating against surveyors and proprietors. It allowed that the militia could be called in whenever proprietor’s representatives were threatened. Those arrested could face fines, which could be as high as $1000 and a one-year jail term.

This law had immediate impact. Once settlers had value in the land, they were more and more cautious about jeopardizing their investments. The Betterment Act represented a compromise – a stiff one—that the settlers could not afford to pass up. More and more settlers accepted these terms severely affecting the cohesiveness of the resistance.

Those with less time and money invested in their land, or those who were reluctant to accept the payment terms eventually acquiesced or moved away because the resistance continued to weaken as more and more farmers negotiated with the proprietors.


Source:

Taylor, Alan. Liberty Men & Great Proprietors. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Special thanks: James S. Leamon

THE GREAT PROPRIETERS | BETTERMENT ACT


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