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Program 9: Rolling Back the Frontier

TRANSCRIPT of ROLLING BACK THE FRONTIER

Narrator:

In the 1600s, European settlers left everything they knew to take advantage of Maine's abundant resources. Despite back breaking work, a harsh climate and cultural clashes, they successfully carved out a new life for themselves. But by the end of the century, most of them would leave Maine in fear and live for years as war refugees. How Maine's first Europeans survived on the frontier - next, on HOME: the Story of Maine.

Emerson Baker - History Department Chair, Salem State College:

I think most people don't realize that in the 17th century Maine was the edge of settlement and in fact once you got more 5 or 10 miles on the coast of Maine the next European house would be in Canada. When we tend to think of our American settlement of frontier always expanding westward, the frontier of the 1600's and 1700's was right here in Maine.

Ed Churchill - Maine State Museum Chief Curator:

For the first Europeans who showed up here the frontier was the forest which they looked into and they really could see nothing except trees and imagined animals and monsters and so on. And interestingly for the Native American it was exactly the opposite. For them the frontier was the ocean and that's where they put their monsters, because they knew what was in the trees. And of course for them it was even more of a shock because the Europeans come right to them out of this ocean, this area that they don't know, the unknown, and suddenly show up on their shores.

Bruce Bourque - Maine State Museum Chief Archaeologist & Bates College Professor of Archeology:

I think the first reaction of Natives throughout North America, to be honest, was that these are supernatural beings. Their technology, their general appearance, their arrival on huge ships, and their powerfulness. As soon as they interacted with them, they understood that these were humans, but humans of an unusual sort.

Narrator:

In the early 1600s, Europe's teeming populations have exhausted many natural resources. Land is scarce and there are few economic opportunities.

Baker:

In England in the 16th and 17th century it is almost impossible to get land. You have a growing population. You have high unemployment rates and unless your family, is a family of substance and position you have little or no land.

Churchill:

Here, all of the sudden I could have my own land. I could have my own house. It must have seemed pretty neat.

Narrator:

In the late 1580s, European Explorers become interested in the Maine coast and report back to their patrons about the incredible timber, the thick and plentiful beaver pelts and especially, the abundant fish. As a result, English merchants begin to set up seasonal fishing stations.

Churchill:

The fishermen would come over. They'd come in large ships and they'd carry along their little fishing shallops, which were usually two to three man vessels and they would fish there. They'd set up on the shore. They'd put up staging for dressing the fish and flakes for drying them and they would work there for the season. And come fall, pack everything back up and head back to England. Well obviously this was not the most convenient or efficient way to do it. And so the idea of fishing stations, year-round fishing stations, were obviously the next place to go.

Narrator:

A wealthy English knight, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, sees tremendous economic opportunity and decides to establish a royalist colony in Maine. In 1616, he sends Richard Vines and a company of men to spend the year here. When Vines arrives, he finds thousands of Native Americans dying from European diseases that they contracted from traders and fishermen.

Churchill:

The great dying was probably fundamental to the English settlement. The Native population was, went down as much as 90%. Some places absolutely, totally gone. Everyone died. And so the English really moved into areas that were almost deserted. Well the English were just as dumbfounded as the Natives were because they knew about the disease but they didn't know what caused it. Both they and the Natives came away with the feeling that this was somehow or another the work of a higher being. In other words the work of God. For the English they just assumed that God wanted this to be their territory and this is his way of opening it up for them to settle.

Narrator:

In order to take advantage of the resources in New France, which they call Acadia, the French build a series of forts, which serve as trading posts.

Alaric Faulkner - University of Maine Archeologist:

Most of us when we think of Downeast Maine think of some sort of well spring of Yankee wit and humor. But as it turns out most of the coast of Maine, which we call Downeast, was in fact under French habitation, French and Native American habitation, through most of the colonial period. Acadia was governed by a bunch of minor noblemen, people who were land poor. And, they had many a noble in France who had no prospect of wealth or anything of that, and as a result, one of the few things that these noble, noble individuals could do that was respectable was to engage in the fur trade and maintaining the fisheries and so forth.

Narrator:

The capital of their new colony is at Fort Pentagoet, in present-day Castine, located on the southwestern edge of New France.

Faulkner:

These early Frenchmen more or less kept Native Americans at bay at the gates and they traded with them and dealt with them. But inside Pentagoet was their own world, a little taste of France. As it turned out, all of the French were interested in keeping up with the latest fashions...and so, you see the folks, as we've learned, from Fort Pentagoet, the commanders going around dressed with a gold braid on their shoulders and swords slung by their sides, although it's an obsolete weapon. Spurs on their heels, although there were no horses to ride in Acadia. Everybody traveled in Acadia by boat. There were no roads to ride them on.

Narrator:

Periodic wars between France and England throughout the 1600s lead to uneasy relations between French and English settlers.

Baker:

The French and English, is a wonderful, another one of these love, hate relationships. Because, of course, there are several episodes where the French and the English were at war with each other. In fact, Maine will be contested ground between the English and French in the 1620's and the 1650's and again in 1680's and 1690's. So we tend to naturally think of these two sides constantly being at each other's throats. At the same time we know that these two sides are clandestinely trading with each other. These people really needed each other, you know? There weren't that many people living in the area. There weren't that many merchants coming by. So if a French trading vessel happens to come around the coast and you need a new chamber pot, well you're gonna buy the chamber pot. You're not gonna wait for the English vessel to show up two months later.

Narrator:

The Swedish Cavalier's slouch hat is the height of fashion in the 1600s and Europeans desperately need a new source of beaver pelts. Then, traders discover North American beaver, which have much thicker pelts because of the colder climate. Trade with Native Indians begins immediately.

Faulkner:

Fur, very important; and for that they required access to the Native Americans. For a long time Europeans thought that the beaver came from some mysterious lake way in the interior that only Native Americans knew how to get to.

Baker:

The fur trade here is incredibly important in the 1600's. Matter of fact, it's so important that in the 1620's the Plymouth colonists come up from Plymouth and establish several trading posts in Maine.

Jay Adams - Curator, Old Fort Western:

Economically, the Pilgrims don't make it in Massachusetts; they make it in Maine. They had come here as part of investment venture, and they had a certain number of years in which to pay back the costs of that venture, and hopefully make a profit for everyone. And it turned out that the Kennebec Valley provided them with the best opportunity to do that.

Baker:

It's a wonderful opportunity to get rich on the fur pelts, because essentially the fur trade is one of these situations where both the Indians and the Europeans benefit. The Indians just give a few sort of scruffy old beaver pelts, which the English can sell for a tremendous profit in England. On the other hand the, the Indians get these incredible goods, this high tech stuff of the day. Steel knives and fishhooks and woven textiles and sometimes even guns and alcohol, that they're not supposed to get. But these are things that they can't get anywhere else. So both sides does very well in the fur trade because I think they are really taking advantage of the other side.

Adams:

The Pilgrims really don't threaten the Indians the way, perhaps, European settlement did in southern New England because you don't have Pilgrims as farmers moving here. You're not trying to clear forest. You're happy for the forest because it's where the beavers live. Only later, when the emphasis switches to permanent agricultural settlement, do you really find those same kinds of tensions breaking out in northern New England that had been long part of the situation in southern New England.

Narrator:

In 1639, Sir Ferdinando Gorges obtains a charter from the English King to build a city in present-day York. Gorges becomes Maine's proprietor, in charge of distributing land to settlers.

Baker:

Maine has an entirely different form of government that we would think of in other colonies. Maine is a proprietary colony. Essentially, Maine is given out by the English king to a series of different proprietors who are given entire townships. And it's up to the proprietors, the owners of those townships to bring over settlers and give them land.

Churchill:

They would all get little plots. The biggest plot would be like 50 acres and yet there's thousands of acres around them, but each person got just this little piece of land because they were still kind of under that English influence. And for them 50 acres must have seemed like you know, a ranch.

Narrator:

Because there are few roads, most travel takes place on Maine's waterways. As a result, the settlements stretch along the coastline, like a ribbon.

Baker:

We have houses sort of strung out along the river valleys with house lots fronting on the water. And often times the rear boundaries are never 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.

Narrator:

This is the first time many of the settlers own their own land. And despite the long hours and back-breaking work, they are grateful for the chance to create and control their own wealth. But their enthusiasm is quickly stemmed by a force they cannot control.

Churchill:

I think the thing that caught them totally unexpected was when they suddenly found out about winter. They were not prepared for winter in Maine. This is the period of the little ice age, when temperatures all over the northern hemisphere and, especially, we know, in this area were extremely cold. And we hear stories of people losing their fingers and toes. Just not having enough clothes. One of the things they had to try to do was to build a house that would somehow help, and so you'd build a house, but basically what that did was slow down the wind a little bit. One individual, a Reverend Samuel Sewell in Boston, was writing, and this is like 1698, 1699, talking about sitting next to the fireplace writing and he had to quit because the ink kept freezing. In Philadelphia in the 1750's, when Benjamin Franklin finally invented the stove, which this is way towards the end of the ice age. Things are warming up. He bragged that now that they had this wonderful new stove they could bring the room all the way up to 55 degrees.

Narrator:

In order to heat their home for the winter, each family must cut approximately 20 - 30 cords of wood. They use unbalanced, ineffective axes to chop down trees that are up to 5 feet in diameter. In addition, the settlers must produce enough food during the short growing season to last through the winter.

Baker:

Everybody in Maine, regardless of whether you were a fur trader, or a fisherman, or a lumberjack, pretty much everybody in Maine had to have some kind of farming. You had to have a garden. You had to have livestock. And that was the most difficult thing of all, was to sort of carve out that daily existence.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich - Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University

It's really almost impossible to survive in this period unless both men and women work and contribute. But this is not about working for pay. This is not a cash economy or a wage economy. You're not going to find these women in town meeting records, but you can find them in diaries, you can find them sometimes in religious records, you can find them sometimes in court records. People who stand up for one another, who barter and trade with their neighbors, and share their talents with others.

Churchill:

If the unit is broken and one of these two people die, very, very frequently these people will remarry almost immediately, within months of the death of the spouse. It seems like that's terribly crass to get married so soon, but you didn't have a choice.

Ulrich:

One of the things that I think families would pack when they left their old home to come to the new would be seeds of all kinds. And some of those seeds would be for medicinal herbs. It would be very important that, at least a few people in the community know how to grow the basic English herbs that were the foundation of medicine.

Churchill:

Women were very often the ones who were in control of medications. They were the ones that carried down the old remedies. In terms of medicine, one of the most important roles women played was in midwifery because bearing children was by far the most dangerous thing that could happen to a woman at this time. And, as I have seen the figures, something like 1 in 5 woman died in childbirth. So it was an extremely serious thing to deal with.

Baker:

Most people who come to Maine end up staying, because there is opportunity here, because there is land and because even if you're a poor fishermen you're better off, probably, as a poor fisherman living in Maine - where you have your own house; you have your own land; you own your own boat - then you are back in England, where you were probably living in even more reduced circumstances then you would here. We do know that a lot of people came to Maine as indentured servants, rather than as free men, who, in return for having their passage paid to New England, would serve a term of anywhere from five to seven years working for a master. When you've served your term you're given a piece of land and the basic tools to establish a farm; and there's your opportunity. So you don't mind being in someone's service for a few years because you can see that opportunity, that light at the end of the tunnel. But, in fact, some of them were forced to do slavery. There are a number of Scots prisoners, who were taken captive during some of the English Civil Wars, who ended up in Maine as forced labor and ended up being the progenitors of some of Maine's founding families.

Narrator:

To make a living, many of the settlers turn to lumbering. By the 1630s and 40s, Maine is known as the best source of timber.

Baker:

Lumber is a key export, as unfinished as well as finished goods. Lumber is, early on in the 1640's onward, is exported out of Maine, just like it is today, primarily going to southern New England, going down to the Caribbean. Much of it is going down in forms of pipe staves or barrel staves. Barrels were the 17th century equivalent of a cardboard box. Everything was transported in barrels, and it was in places like Maine that you had the hardwood necessary to make barrels to carry things. So, Maine was important in producing containers. Some of the first prefab houses were made in Maine. Timber frame would be built together, taken apart, put on board a ship, sailed down to the Caribbean and reassembled there. Down in the Caribbean the islands had been completely cleared for sugar production, and so they'd buy their houses in Maine. We have also the Naval stores and the mast trade in Maine as well too. In the mid-to-late 17th century Maine becomes an important place for the king's masts for the Royal Navy and for Naval stores and those are being exported out as well too. So you see a wide range of lumber and timber products going out, and even more remarkable is increasingly they go out on ships made in Maine. Right off the bat you need a sawmill, you need a blacksmith shop. Unfortunately, that also means you need lots of skilled help, and that's hard to do. You have to import people from England with trades. You then have to convince them that they should continue to work for you rather then to go get their own land and set off on their own. We have the surviving records from Thomas Gorges, who ran the colony of Maine, and one of his chief headaches is clearly to keep the sawmills running. He's constantly writing back saying, you know, "this shaft or this piece broke and our blacksmith can't fix it. It's too big a job. On the next ship available please send us these pieces." So that you might have months, in the beginning you might have months on end where the sawmills had down time, or weren't working at full capacity, because you had this problem of supply. Those mills are here, again, as a part of that economic engine that's going to fuel the drive of Maine's economy throughout the colonial period.

Narrator:

In the mid-1600s, approximately 5,000 English colonists live in coastal settlements from Pemaquid to Kittery. The economy is thriving, their relations with Native Americans are generally good, and there is an atmosphere of religious tolerance.

Tom Johnson - Curator, Old York Village:

There's a wonderful quote by Thomas Gorges where he states that, "we force no men to the common prayer book or the ceremonies of the Church of England, but allow the liberties of conscience in this particular." In other words, he's saying we have religious freedom here. We're not forcing anyone to do anything, but we just simply also ask that you respect our religion. So it was a remarkably permissive society for that time.

Narrator:

In 1642, an English Puritan named Oliver Cromwell challenges the English monarchy and England collapses into a series of Civil Wars. Eventually, Cromwell succeeds and becomes the ruler of England. Now Cromwell's Puritan allies in the Massachusetts Bay Colony are in a position to expand their territory. For a long time, they have wanted to control the Province of Mayne.

Baker:

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 usurpation, Massachusetts usurpation or annexation of Maine. Before that, Maine 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 resources that Maine had. And it's a wonderful opportunity for Massachusetts when the government here really sort of fails because then they can come in and control the region, and with it control the natural resources.

Narrator:

With the problems of a growing population, Maine's first jail is built in York in 1653.

Johnson:

There was a whipping post by the York jail and there were prescribed numbers of lashes for different crimes. There was also, of course, the ultimate punishment: the gallows. There were also less severe forms of punishment. York actually had a ducking stool, which means you're strapped into a chair and ducked into the water and soaked as a punishment. It was again a public punishment generally reserved for women who gossiped.

Narrator:

While local crimes are handled by local magistrates, conflicts about trade, or issues involving the French or Native Americans, must be addressed by the new government in Boston. With the Massachusetts Bay Colony in control, Maine has an absentee form of government, and laws passed in Boston are hard to enforce locally.

Bourque:

The elders are forever and ever trying to tell the Massachusetts government, "we want an appointed person on the ground, someone appointed by you to conduct the trade fairly and to control it." Massachusetts also wanted the same thing but it was the frontier, they didn't have the assets or the diplomatic skills to pull that off...it's the frontier, it's not a very well structured situation.

Narrator:

In 1675, King Phillip's War begins in Massachusetts because Native Americans are being crowded off their land. The conflict spreads north and ushers in nearly 50 years of intermittent warfare on Maine's frontier. By the end of the 1600s, most Native Americans flee their villages and almost all of the English settlements in Maine are abandoned.

Baker:

There's a tremendous amount of suffering. There's a tremendous amount of migration out. And, for years at a time, people from Maine find themselves as war refugees living in Massachusetts and New Hampshire with, living a sort of hand-to-mouth existence depending on the public welfare of relatives and foreign governments. I don't think, in some ways, that Maine ever really recovers from those economic lows of the 17th century. It makes it a very different place today than Massachusetts. But for the most part, there seems to be sort of this spirit to live here and to try to remain here, this enduring effort that lasts for decades.

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


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