HOME: The Story of Maine

"A Part of the Main" - European Settlement of the Mainland


Deb Wilson, Archaeologist:

We occupy a minute of time in a long space of time. There are an enormous number of footsteps that have traveled in the very same places that we walk today. I think that we are in essence, stewards for everything that has ever happened in the place where we live. And the more that we know about it, the more that we can appreciate the place that we live and be better stewards be better you know people that occupy one little spot in the continuing story of a place.


The history of Maine is really nothing more than the story of its people. And it's a story that began 12,000 years ago with the state's oldest inhabitants, the Paleoindians, who were the first human beings to call North America home.

Ann Trefethen, Maine Studies Teacher Mt. Blue Middle School:

We have a tendency to think that our history begins with the discovery of America by the Europeans which in reality it doesn't.

Donald Soctomah, Passamaquoddy Representative to the Maine Legislature:

European history is totally different from the Native history. How can you discover something when there's people already present? I always look at history that way. It's in the context where you're looking at from.

As Passamaquoddy, we feel our roots run deep in this land and that we were from here originally but other people will say there were different groups that came before you. But it was our technology change, our main emphasis of life changed during different periods of history.


The study of prehistoric peoples -- those whose culture predates the written record -- is the domain of archaeology.

While historians work mostly with written documentation, archaeologists interpret clues found in the material remains of vanished cultures.

The material remains don't contain the complete record of a culture, because not everything remains. Lightweight materials such as fabric break down over time, leaving only the more resilient items behind to work with.

Deb Wilson:

I think that's really the challenge. You can dig a site. You can find all kinds of artifacts and it's what you make of that information and that's really the crux of archaeology and we all come at if differently.

Bruce Bourque, Chief Archaeologist, Maine State Museum:

I think every culture has an interest in the past. In fact, I can think of no culture that with or without archaeology doesn't have a story about the past. We tend to be so divorced from our environment today -- living in central heated buildings, driving on highways. I think to understand pre- history lets you understand how humans really depend on the environment and how they have interacted with the environment how they've gotten along with what seems to us to be a very harsh environment, how they seem to do it with some grace and some prosperity.


Maine has long been recognized by archaeologists as a key to understanding early human settlement in North America.

The bounty of the sea supported the needs of native people and allowed them to thrive, leaving a rich archaeological record behind.

And, since contemporary Maine is not heavily populated, the disturbance of archaeological sites has been less intense than in other places.

As a result, the Maine State Museum is home to one of the country's largest collections of Native American artifacts.

Bruce Bourque:

So we've been able to put together a pretty clear chronology of the occupation of Maine.


"Paleoindians" simply means "old Indians" and these first inhabitants of Maine probably hunted caribou and musk ox, which thrived in the tundra environment of the time. Once the Ice Age ended and gave way to a newly forested environment, the caribou herd could no longer survive. Many archaeologists surmise that it was this change in game that led to the demise of Maine's Paleoindian culture.

Whatever their diet, the climate that emerged after the Ice Age had profound effects upon their culture, and they disappeared. Following the Paleoindians, the two groups that produced the greatest number and variety of physical remains were both coastal cultures: The Red Paint People, named for the color of the ocher used extensively in their grave sites; and one of the groups that replaced them, the people from the Susquehanna Tradition, named for their presumed migration from the great valley of the Southeast. Unlike the Red Paint People, they didn't venture far from where they lived near the shore.

Bruce Bourque:

The Red Paint People so-called are these swordfish hunters who developed these contacts with people far away you know regularly hunted these dangerous creatures of the sea engaged in all kinds of fancy ritual activities, made just stunning artifacts out of stone and bone. We can tell from their tools that they're making large rugged boats and you need a fairly large rugged boat to hunt a swordfish and these are not the kind of swordfish we see staked out in stores. These were big fish. 1,500 - 1,600 pounds and they attack when harpooned very, very frequently.


Although we have much to learn about Maine's prehistoric peoples, it's clear that they lived within the same parameters of landscape and climate as the European colonists did thousands of years later.

Donald Soctomah:

The tribe had villages set up for different times of the season to coincide with the migration of animals. And when the Europeans came they thought of us as a migratory people, nomads. Nomads are people that don't have a place to go. But we had different villages.

Deb Wilson

You know I think they probably moved around for a number of reasons. One would certainly and that very logical one would be for resources whether those be sweet grass for basket-making when sweet grass was available or going for codfish, that sort of thing. But they may have also moved around for social reasons there may have been big gatherings and likely were big gatherings.

Donald Soctomah

The tribes of Maine had a special relationship with the animals of the forest so special that families formed clans that respected an animal and that animal became their helper and during medicine ceremonies that would be their animal that helped them through trouble times. The Europeans on the other hand didn't understand that the closeness that we had with the animals. In their mind it was just to shoot the animal. It was a food and it was in the way of progress. As more Europeans moved into the area they started exploiting the beaver and other fur-bearers and it wasn't like the way the Native tribes of Maine captured the fur bearers. You'd always leave something behind you try not to take the young or you leave a few behind but as the settlers continued on areas we'll say beaver disappeared because they were over-trapped and there was no thinking ahead. He tribes saw this happening and their livelihood disappearing.


As English and French explorers began coming to the region in the 1500's, misunderstandings and conflict oftentimes stemmed from a lack of respect for the native people. One example of this is a memorable encounter during Giovanni da Verrazano's voyage of 1524.

Ed Churchill, Chief Curator, Maine State Museum:

When he got to Maine, he ran into some natives that were really fairly standoffish and one of the reasons they were probably standoffish is because Verrazano and his people had gotten off and walked inland several miles and quote unquote visited their homes. In other words he went tramping through their wigwams without their permission and just generally made a real pest out of himself. And his statement when they finally traded with these people is they handed the stuff down in baskets to him off the rocks and he put in what he thought they might want and they'd take it out take out what they want and put some furs in and send it back down to him. And as they were pulling away with their little boat he was already feeling that these people were not treating him with the respect that he deserved so as they were pulling away with the little

boat, he looked back and they were all up on the rocks mooning him and this was the first mooning in Maine as far as we know and he left the place in a real huff at that point and knick-named it the land of the bad people. So it was always a very edgy relationship. They could get along but there were always reasons and both sides felt they had reasons not to trust the other which ultimately did evolve into full-scale warfare by the middle of the Colonial Period.

Donald Soctomah:

The Europeans didn't understand that the Tribe held all the land in common

The Europeans had to put a fence around something and claimed ownership to it. The Tribe said this land is everybody's. We need to share but not destroy.

Ann Trefethen:

The Native Americans saw at first a people that they had probably wanted to get to know. When the St. Croix colony started in 1604, the Europeans wouldn't have made it through the winter without the help of the Natives. The Natives provided them with food and provided them showed them how to protect themselves against the elements and things like that.


Even with help, this colony did not last. Winter came early and it proved to be severe. The French colonists quickly consumed most of the wood on the island and ice churning in the tides kept them from crossing for more on the mainland. As the winter deepened, the harsh conditions took a fierce toll and the colony was abandoned. Three years later, when the English settled Popham Colony, the native people were more leery than before. By this time, they'd heard about natives being captured and taken back to England and, in fact, the Popham colonists arrived with two captives who had been taken from Maine. Understandably, they received a cool reception from the captive's kin.

Ann Trefethen

So when Popham came and set up his colony in 1607, the Natives were going "Whoa. You know let's kind of hang back here and see" and the you know colony didn't make it.


There were many reasons the Popham Colony failed. The fact that the Natives were suspicious and reluctant to trade was coupled with internal feuding, a shortage of supplies, and the untimely deaths of both the Colony's leader and financial backer.

After this, Europeans came to the region mostly on a seasonal basis and it was some time before serious attempts were made again at settlement.

Ed Churchill

Let's say by 1610 we begin to see a few full-scale fishing voyages sent over and by the time you get to the 20's and 30's there's a large number of fishing vessels coming over and about the 20's they start putting up year-round fishing stations and then it wasn't long after that by the 30's that you actually have people coming and settling. When we look at that period we have to understand that it was a different world in the sense that there were very defined female-male roles in the economic structure of how it operated.

And if someone died a man or a woman almost immediately they would be remarried to somebody else because you had to keep both sides of the system operating. Until the women showed up you just don't get communities. I mean you have fishing stations or you have trading posts you don't have towns.

Donald Soctomah

What we learned we furnished to the early settlers and they learned it from us, the growing of corn, the trapping, the life in the woods, the canoeing, they learned all that and to not share that aspect of it would be wrong.

Bruce Bourque

Europeans operating the fur trade had to use canoes. Europeans moving about in the winter had to use snowshoes. In terms of technology, the Europeans were amazed at the things the Indians made. The Europeans were manufacturing goods. That means they were anticipating that people out there would have use for certain categories of objects so they could make them in large volumes. Natives made articles for their own use or for the use of a small group of usually relatives. So for example a hunter would have his own equipment his own bow his own spear his own snowshoes make his own arrows. A family or a small group of people would make a canoe that would be used you know by the kin group. Birch bark canoes were the European favorites. Everybody either asked for or stole a birch bark canoe to take back home.

Deb Wilson

European contact very quickly had I guess a devastating effect and probably the first aspect of that would be the diseases that just were rampant especially between 1615 and 1617.

Bruce Bourque

The devastation among the native peoples was fairly astonishing even to the Europeans. Because of course no one had a very clear idea of what caused the diseases in the first place. We had no germ theory of disease in 1600 when the voyages began to become regular to this part of the world.


The native people had no immunity to European diseases and the most populated regions were devastated. Some tribes lost as much as 75% of their people as the new settlers moved in.

Ed Churchill

Many of them were coming as families. They were trying to set up. They were leaving England. Land was a real draw. They were also looking at lumber possibilities for the lumber trade. So that's what was bringing your settlers.

Obviously you have the entrepreneurs who were into the fur trade or into fishing who were sending vessels over just for those things but the settlers were coming, I think looking for a better life in a sense.

You had in Maine early on development of what they call ribbon settlements. So these are little settlements that literally hugged the coast and hugged the shores of the rivers and really don't have much of a nucleus. And which of course made it really tough when you got into the normal public problems that you have for example transportation. How do you move a bunch of grain from one end of the town to the other end of town when the town is seven miles long or and then one house deep and you have no roads.

We have the image - the old mythological image - that most of your early people and even settlers here were either fishermen or lumber or fur traders. Well in point of fact probably 80 or 90 percent of your early settlers in Maine in the 1600's and since well right through the Colonial period were farmers.

I think then what happens, though, is people are gradually trying to make a living they've invested themselves in the land that they've cleared the houses they built and it's probably the only place they have to go and so they stay and try to make the best of it and making the best of it could be a real challenge. I would suspect a number of them ended up in the woods in the wintertime doing a variety of things. Some of them probably went lumbering, some of them may have gone trapping.

They may have had other small industries that they carried on. There's a series of maps in the 1794-95 period when Massachusetts told every town to make a map of itself which they all did and those maps almost every one of every community you'll find you know three four half a dozen sawmills on little streams.

And also when you study the history of these places you find that many of the local people have acquired large tracts of land interior tracts of land so they could go up and lumber them off. And so they were facing these trees that were like three to four feet across and having to cut those babies down. That was a lot of work.

And what's really kind of funny about this is for the Native Americans at that time this was a good deal because what they had been doing fairly extensively in this area is they periodically would burn the land because after it's burned you have this dramatic lush undergrowth come up of saplings and shrubs and so on which deer and other game love and so it would bring the game into the area.

Well, now you have some European come up here and this guy is offering to cut all this stuff out would leave all of this the twigs the branches and all of that stuff behind and not only that, he was paying the native to do it and I don't care who you are that's a good deal and I'm sure they went back and thought the Europeans were pretty dumb people because they really were getting what they wanted out of it.

Unfortunately what happens of course is as you move into the 18th century and you have speculators picking up these deeds they come back in with the idea of developing this and of course getting the natives out of there. I think there was a systematic effort to tame the land much more than had been going on prior with the Native Americans to give it bounds to give it dimensions and to find ways to move through it and bring it under control. And I think that's probably the major change that went on is that type of thing.


Lumber quickly became the most valuable of Maine's resource-based products. And Maine contributed substantially to the formation of American logging techniques and folklore.

The forest economy enjoyed an important advantage in the even distribution of Maine's five thousand or so rivers and streams. Rivers offered a cheap means of moving logs to tidewater and also served as arteries for carrying supplies north into the remote logging camps.

Bangor, settled in 1769, thrived on the lumber trade and quickly became the world's most productive lumber port.

Sandy Ives, Director Maine Folklife Center:

there are these men who were career woodsmen you might say they'd worked in the woods in the wintertime then they'd come down to Bangor then they'd go back up into the woods for the river drive, come down on the river drive and probably be in back down here by the early July. Well, they could get a job on a farm you know haying whatever it might be. They could get a job at a lumber mill. They could work on the boom where the logs were sorted there were jobs they could keep that up until the time came to go back up into the woods in the fall. There were many men who followed this pattern of things.


Lumber, agriculture, and Maine's other key export industries of granite, ice, and lime enjoyed spectacular growth throughout the first half of the 19th century. During this time, Maine out-produced almost every other state in each of these industries.

But what was a golden era for the new settlers was an era of continued displacement for Native Americans. As lumber production increased, native people entered into agreements in which they lost much of their traditional homelands and were settled on reservations.

Indian Township, a Passamaquoddy reservation in eastern Maine was reserved to the tribe by a Massachusetts treaty in 1794.

By 1965 some 6,000 acres of Passamaquoddy land had been sold off, much of it by the state of Maine acting as trustee for the tribe without actually consulting the Passamaquoddies. This sale sparked what eventually became known as the Indian Land Claims Settlement.

Donald Soctomah:

Major changes came in the 1980s when the Maine Land Claims was settled. People wanted to get the land back to the tribe because one thing we were missing was that interaction with the forest and this was one way for us to get back in touch with the forest. The tribes now have that interaction a healing process has started, people are learning, that knowledge is coming back we're getting back in touch with the forest we're learning our roots but we're also learning business development. We're learning economics. We're continually changing just like we have from day one. If you don't change but respect your roots you fail to exist as a people and the Passamaquoddy have always changed based on the environment that we live in.


How are Native People continuing their way of life in Maine today? Find out more by visiting our website at www.mpbn.net.

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