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Program 9: Rolling Back the Frontier

Massachusetts Bay Colony : Emerson Baker

Excerpts from Interview with
Emerson 'Tad' Baker (April 21, 2003)

"Maine in the 17th century was contested ground. It was a place where we have French, English and Native American cultures intersect and collide. So it's a really multicultural frontier where we have numerous peoples living side by side and also fighting side by side."

"Maine was seen very much as a howling wilderness as, as the edge of nowhere. And a land occupied by Native Americans, who were considered heathen, uncultured. It was also occupied by the French who were considered to be Papists and almost as bad as being heathens. Even the English who lived here were somewhat beyond the pale because they tended to be non-Puritan and some were relatively godless fishermen. So even respectful people down in Massachusetts Bay considered Maine to be a place apart, a dark corner of the English world."

"At the same time while people in Massachusetts didn't, didn't like the situation in Maine, even people in Massachusetts were drawn here by the incredible bounty of natural resources. It is the fish, the timber, the furs of Maine that drives the New England economy in the 17th and 18th century providing the raw materials that fuel Boston's role as a part of the English Empire."

"Well there's been a lot of scholarship written on this and revisionist scholarship is to, how wild and untamed the frontier Maine was in the 17th century. Certainly the people in Massachusetts constantly claimed that it was a wilderness place where there was no sort of border, where there were drunkards and all sorts of sexual encounters and lack of religion, and was a place that needed to be controlled. You have to realize that Massachusetts was saying all these things in an effort to gain control over Maine and to justify its annexation of most of the English settlements in Maine. They certainly weren't disinterested parties."

"In reality, it's clear that the people who lived here in Maine wanted order. They wanted stability. They even actively encouraged ministers. Even though they weren't Puritans, these were not really irreligious people at all. They wanted a well ordered society and, unfortunately for most of the 17th century, the government in Massachusetts is an absentee form of government with very little authority and control here. And that probably creates the sort of frontier wilderness that we do see rather than any sort of lack of moral conviction."

"You have to realize too that Maine has an entirely different form of government than we would think of in other colonies. Maine is a proprietor colony. Essentially Maine is given out by the English king to a series of different proprietors who are given entire townships. It's up to the proprietors, the owners of those townships, to bring over settlers and give them land. So it's a different sort of model then we might think the settlement."

"People would come over and of course the prime locations that we see in the 17th century are people clinging to the waterfront. Virtually all houses in the 17th century in Maine were within very close distance to navigable water. Why? Because there were no roads. People used their boats and sailed up and down the coast and, in general, we talk about a whole settlement that is clinging to the margin of the shoreline and there's very little settlement in the early era that's above the falls of the rivers because that's above navigable water"

"So we have houses that are strung out along the river valleys with house lots fronting on the water. And often times the rear boundaries weren't even marked out. The most important piece of real estate ownership in Maine in the 17th century was like today, was having that oceanfront home."

"In the early 1630's we see settlements all along the coast of Maine from Kittery all the way up to Pemaquid. About a dozen communities carved out within a 10 or 15 year period."

"[There were] no more then probably 2 or 3,000 English settlers here in the 17th century and at the time they were out numbered considerably by Native American. So we're talking about individual towns, York, Kittery, Wells, all the way up to say to Pemaquid, probably not having more then 2, 3, 400 residents maximum."

"York is the seed of the colony of the Province of Maine. It's the sight of the first Anglican Church established anywhere in New England because the Province of Maine was an Anglican colony. It's not a Puritan colony."

"York was charted as a city in 1642 and this kind of was remarkable because when you see the charter it lists 42 officers, Lord, Mayors, Constables, Treasurers, down the line. We suspect that in the 17th century at the time there weren't even 42 adult males in Maine, in York to hold those offices. So there was sort of this grand vision. It never really achieved it."

"York starts off as the capital of the colony of the Providence of Maine, which is the personal domain of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Gorges is an Anglican and a Royalist, a favorite of the king and he envisions creating a Maine the that is really a return to feudal England. This is absolutely the opposite of what most Englishmen wanted at the time, who were beginning to take up arms against the King over such issues. But Gorges wants to sort of maintain that feudal hold, that royal hold on Maine and he comes to carve that Empire out and to restore royal authority in Maine. Unfortunately, he remains in England and never comes over to really get the colony going and it never really had the resources it needs to thrive and the community goes through sort of a series of periods without effective government, without settlers arriving, in fact with people leaving. And when Sir Ferdinando dies in the late 1640's the colony is really sort of cast adrift and left to it's own devices.

A couple of years later, in 1652, Massachusetts comes in and, under threat of military intervention, essentially forces York and the surrounding towns to join Massachusetts Bay. It's what we call the Massachusetts' usurpation or annexation of Maine."

"In 1651 when Massachusetts first came up and they, they came to the town, which has been called Agamenticus, and they asked people who wanted to join Massachusetts and people said, 'no thanks, we're doing fine on our own.' So Massachusetts left and came back the next year with the Calvary sitting in Portsmouth saying, 'well, do you want to sign up now or do we have to bring in the troops?' At which point people said, oh sure, what a wonderful idea. We'd love to become part of Massachusetts,' and there of course we would remain under what some people call the yoke of Massachusetts until 1820, until Statehood."

"That's something that people don't realize, Massachusetts comes in and takes over Maine and Maine [already] was it's own colony with it's own government. And again, in the 1630's, from an economic point of view, Maine had everything going for it and it was Massachusetts that had all the people but didn't have the natural resource that Maine had. It's a wonderful opportunity for Massachusetts when the government here really sort of fails because they can come in and control the region and with it control the natural resources."

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FERDINANDO GORGES | FUR TRADE | MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY | POPHAM COLONY | FEATURED INTERVIEWS | TRANSCRIPT


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