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Detailed History

Extract from Maine Almanac (1980) by Jim Brunelle

Maine is a product of the Ice Age. The last glacier was responsible for cutting what had been a relatively straight coastline into the hundreds of bays, inlets and picturesque harbors we know today. The receding ice sheet formed the 2,000 or so islands found off the Maine coast.

EARLY INHABITANTS.  The region's earliest inhabitants were descendants of Ice Age hunters. Little is known of these "Red Paint" people - so named because of the red clay with which they lined the graves of their dead - except that they flourished and hunted in Maine long before the coming of the Micmac and Abnaki Indian nations.

Burial grounds for these earliest Maine dwellers are thought to date back to 3000 B.C. Huge oyster shell heaps on the Damariscotta estuary testify to the capacious appetites of Maine's aborigines. 

Of Maine's two earliest Indian nations, the Micmacs of eastern Maine and New Brunswick were largely a warlike people, while the more numerous Abnakis (or Wabanakis) were a peaceful nation, given to farming and fishing as a way of life.

Although dozens of tribes once inhabited the land, only two remain today*. The Passamaquoddies (1,500) live on two reservations, the largest of which is located at Pleasant Point near Eastport. The Penobscots (1,200) live on Indian Island in the Penobscot River at Old Town. 

*With permission from the author, the Secretary of State adds the following information on Maine's Indian tribes:  Four tribes remain today.  In addition to the Passamaquoddies and Penoscots, the Micmacs (482) live in Aroostook County, with headquarters in Presque Isle and the Maliseets (554) are based near Houlton at their 800 acre tribal center. (March 8, 2000)

DISCOVERY AND COLONIZATION.  Five hundred years before Columbus "discovered" America, Leif Ericson and a crew of 30 Viking sailors are believed to have explored the Maine coast and may have landed and tried to establish a settlement here.

In 1498, six years after Columbus landed in the West Indies, John Cabot, an Italian sailor in the employ of King Henry VII of England, sailed into North American waters and may well have explored the Maine coast, although there is no concrete evidence of it.

A century after Cabot's voyage a number of European ships briefly visited the area, some of them putting ashore to make repairs and process fish catches.

The first settlement was established by the Plymouth Company at Popham in 1607, the same year of the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. Because the Popham colony didn't survive the harsh Maine winters, Jamestown enjoys the distinction of being regarded as America's first permanent settlement.

A number of English settlements were established along the Maine coast in the 1620s, although the rugged climate, deprivations and Indian attacks wiped out many of them over the years.

As Maine entered the 18th century, only a half dozen settlements still survived. By then, Massachusetts had bought up most of the land claims in this wilderness territory, an arrangement which lasted until 1820 when Maine separated from Massachusetts to become a separate state. 

FRENCH AND INDIAN WARS.  The question of Maine's ownership was a matter of continuing dispute between England and France throughout the first half of the 18th century.

The period was also marked by a series of Indian raids on white settlements, forays which had the active support of the French interested in seeing the English settlers driven from the land.

One of the significant military developments of the French and Indian Wars was the capture of the French fort at Louisburg, Nova Scotia, in 1745 by a contingent of forces led by William Pepperell of Kittery. The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended all French claims to the territory.

After the Indian threat lessened in the mid-1700s, the population of Maine began to grow, encouraged by an open offer by Massachusetts of 100-acre lots free to anyone who would settle the northern province.

The population doubled from 12,000 to 24,000 between 1743 and 1763. By the end of the century, the number of Maine settlers had grown to more than 150,000.

REVOLUTIONARY WAR.  Resistance to the oppressive colonial tax policies of the British Parliament began early in Maine.

In 1765 a mob seized a quantity of tax stamps at Falmouth (now Portland), and attacks on customs agents in the province became common.

A year after the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, Maine staged its own version of that incident when a group of men burned a shipment of tea stored at York.

When open warfare finally erupted at Lexington and Concord, hundreds of Maine men actively joined the struggle for independence. The province saw plenty of action during the Revolution.

In 1775, British warships under the command of the notorious Capt. Henry Mowatt shelled and burned Falmouth, an act intended to punish residents for their opposition to the Crown, but which only served to stiffen Maine's ardor for independence.

The first naval battle of the Revolution occurred in June 1775 when a group of Maine patriots captured the armed British cutter "Margaretta" off Machias.

Later that year many Maine men accompanied Col. Benedict Arnold on his long march through the north woods in a valiant but fruitless effort to capture Quebec.

An ill-planned expedition by the American naval fleet to regain the British-held fortification at Castine in 1779 led to the most disastrous naval encounter of the war.

The Revolution cost Maine dearly. About 1,000 men lost their lives in the war, the district's sea trade was all but destroyed, the principal city had been leveled by British bombardment, and Maine's overall share of the war debt amounted to more than would later be imposed upon it by the Civil War. 

STATEHOOD.  Following the Revolution, frontier settlers who resented being ruled from Boston pressed for separation from Massachusetts. 

Coastal merchants, who held the balance of political power at the time, resisted the separation movement until the War of 1812 showed that Massachusetts was unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection for the people of the district against British raids. 

With popular sentiment unified behind statehood, the separation movement went forward. Congress established Maine as the 23rd state under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This arrangement allowed Maine to join the Union as a free state, with Missouri entering a year later as a slave state, thereby preserving the numerical balance between free and slave states in the nation. 

By this time the population of Maine had reached nearly 300,000. The new state had nine counties and 236 towns.

Delegates met for three weeks in October of 1819 in Portland to hammer out a state constitution, a document strongly rooted in political independence, religious freedom and popular control of government.

The president of the convention was William King, a prominent Bath merchant and shipbuilder who subsequently became Maine's first governor.

Portland was selected as the state capital, but this was only temporary. In 1832 the capital was moved to Augusta, a more centrally located site.

NORTHEAST BOUNDARY DISPUTE.  The precise boundary line between Maine and New Brunswick remained a matter of often-heated argument for years after the close of the Revolutionary War.

The dispute festered and smoldered until 1839, when it threatened to erupt into open warfare. The Maine Legislature that year raised funds to support a military force of 10,000 to protect the state's border claims at Madawaska.

Several hundred British regulars were dispatched to the scene from Quebec. At this point the U.S. Congress entered the picture, approving $10 million for military expenses should war break out. 

Nearly 50,000 troops were readied for action, and Major General Winfield Scott was dispatched to the scene. Scott managed to work out a temporary agreement between the two parties before the so-called "War of the Aroostook" reached the point of  bloodshed. 

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, hammered out in 1842 by U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster and English special minister Lord Ashburton, finally settled the question of where Maine's northeast boundary lay. 

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.  Once Maine became a separate state there followed a period of tremendous economic growth in which a number of important mining and manufacturing industries emerged. 

In addition to lumbering, the traditional fishing and shipbuilding pursuits entered a boom period. Ice harvesting, granite and lime quarrying also developed as important industries.

Water-powered factories began to spring up beside the numerous sawmills already located along Maine's important rivers. Textiles, paper and leather products all became primary sources of manufacturing employment.

Fishing and farming were also important, but were subject to greater economic fluctuations. The overall economic picture - although periodically disturbed by such developments as the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution - continued on a relatively prosperous course throughout the remainder of the 19th century. 

"THE MAINE LAW."  The temperance movement had its origins in Maine, and to one degree or another dominated the political life of this state for more than a century.

The world's first Total Abstinence Society was founded in Portland in 1815.  A state organization of temperance societies was formed in 1834, and within a dozen years had developed enough political clout to force the enactment of a state law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic spirits except for "medicinal and mechanical" purposes.

Under the fiery leadership of Portland's Neal Dow - known internationally as the "Father of Prohibition" - Maine approved a total ban on the manufacture and sale of liquor in 1851.

This so-called "Maine Law" remained in effect, in one form or another, until the repeal of National Prohibition in 1934. 

CIVIL WAR.  Maine, which was admitted to the Union as a free state under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise, had a strong anti-slavery tradition.

Abolitionist societies were active throughout the state 25 years before the outbreak of the War Between the States.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, wife of a Bowdoin College professor, wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at Brunswick; the book inflamed anti-slavery sentiment throughout the northern states in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities.

Thus, Maine's commitment to the Union cause during the war was considerable, both philosophically and materially. Some 73,000 Maine men served with the Union forces, and 10 percent of them lost their lives during the conflict.

Maine contributed the services of two great generals, Oliver Otis Howard, who performed brilliantly at Gettysburg and Bull Run, and Joshua L. Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top. Chamberlain commanded the Union troops to whom Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  After the war he was elected governor of Maine.

Both generals were scholarly men. Howard was a principal founder of Howard University and served as its first president. Chamberlain became president of Bowdoin College. 

THREE GIANTS.  Prohibition and the abolitionist movement gave the Republican Party its start in Maine in 1854. Hannibal Hamlin, a Democratic U.S. senator who broke with his party over the slavery question, was instrumental in forming the Republican Party in Maine, and served as the state's first GOP governor. In 1860 Hamlin was elected the nation's first Republican vice president under Abraham Lincoln.

Also during this period there emerged Maine's most influential 19th century political figure, James G. Blaine. From the mid-1860s to the end of the century Blaine virtually dominated state and national Republican politics, as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a powerful U.S. senator, and secretary of state in three Republican administrations. He was the GOP presidential candidate in 1884, but lost narrowly to Grover Cleveland.

Thomas B. Reed served continuously in Congress through the final quarter of the 19th century, and was its most powerful political figure during much of that time. A three-term House speaker, Reed was a masterful parliamentarian who used his position so vigorously to bring about vital reforms in House rules that he became known as "Czar Reed." He literally rewrote the book on parliamentary procedure: Reed's Rules of Order are still used in the Maine Legislature. 

INDUSTRIAL GROWTH.  Maine's textile and leather industries enjoyed a dramatic upward surge following the Civil War, while farming activity correspondingly decreased.

Responding to Thomas Edison's discoveries in the 1890s, Maine began utilizing its vast river resources for the development of hydroelectric power.  Plants for the production of electricity were built principally on the Androscoggin, Kennebec, Penobscot and Saco Rivers.

Maine's industrial growth continued, although at a much slower pace, into the 20th century. Expansion of the pulp and paper industry offset the loss of textile mills to the South. Large potato-growing, dairy and poultry farms replaced the decreasing number of small family farms.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the state's economy to a grinding halt along with the rest of the nation.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Maine has struggled to find a proper balance between resource-based industrial development and environmental protection. The state has come to rely heavily on tourism, small manufacturing enterprises and defense-related activities and installations for much of its economic base.

MAINE POLITICS TODAY.  With only rare lapses, the Republican Party dominated Maine politics for a full century, from the birth of the GOP in 1854 until the election of Edmund S. Muskie as governor in 1954.

Muskie and a small band of young progressives broadened the base of Democratic strength and began to convert Maine into a genuine two-party state.

Muskie was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. He became an early leader in the fight for a clean environment and also distinguished himself as an expert in urban legislation and budget control. In 1968 he was the Democratic nominee for vice president on a ticket headed by Hubert Humphrey, and four years later was a major contender for the presidential nomination.

Muskie was appointed secretary of state by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He was succeeded by George J. Mitchell of Waterville, who went on to serve as Senate majority leader from 1988 until his retirement from Congress in 1994.

Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan achieved fame as the first American woman elected to both houses of Congress. She was first elected to the Senate in 1949 after nearly a decade in the House of Representatives. Noted for her political courage, integrity and independence. Smith was the first Republican senator to speak out openly against the excesses of McCarthyism in the 1950s. In 1964, her name was placed in nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.

Perhaps the most important political phenomenon of modern Maine is the emergence of independent voters as a dominating force. Independents outnumber both enrolled Democrats and Republicans and provide the swing vote in most elections today.

In 1974, they helped elect the nation's only independent governor, James B. Longley of Lewiston. Longley was succeeded first by a Democrat and then a Republican, but in 1994 Maine elected another independent governor, Angus S. King, Jr. of Brunswick.