Background for Speculation
The Maine Frontier
IN the course of his extensive travels in the United States in the 1790’s, the French nobleman François Alexandre Frédéric, Due de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, paid two visits to the Maine frontier, the first in the summer of 1795, the second the following year. On each occasion the Duke was the guest of Major-General Henry Knox, who had just finished building an elaborate residence at Thomaston, and who, as the owner of extensive landed property in Maine, was most anxious to create a favorable impression of the country in the mind of his distinguished foreign visitor. Yet when Liancourt came to record his opinions of this part of the United States, he wrote the following appraisal:
In short, of all America, the province of Maine is the place that afforded me the worst accommodation. And, considering how little reason I found to praise the accommodations of many other places, what I have now said of Maine must be regarded as an affirmation that the condition of human life in that place is exceedingly wretched.… this country is still in its infancy, and in a languid and cheerless infancy.5
The Duke’s estimate of this New England frontier region is probably a fair one. Throughout the eighteenth century, the eastern country had suffered from a combination of factors which had rendered its name unpopular among prospective settlers and which had hindered its progress toward a respectable position among its New England neighbors. The region had little enough to offer to the pioneer in actual fact; in addition, since accurate knowledge of the country was scanty, many misconceptions about the geography, soil, climate, and general productiveness had early been formed and had before long crystallized into a hard core of prejudice. The few settlers who had ventured east of Falmouth had found communication with the more settled parts of New England difficult and had in most instances disappeared into the wilderness. In short, for a variety of reasons, Maine had lagged behind other New England frontier areas until the close of the Revolution.
Among several factors contributing to eastern Maine’s backwardness, its unattractiveness to farmers must occupy a prominent place. In comparison with other New England areas open to new settlement in the eighteenth century—for example, the Connecticut River valley and western New Hampshire—Maine’s soil was less rich, its climate colder. The magnificent forests had early attracted lumbermen, but this only served further to discourage agricultural communities, for the lumberman and the farmer seldom settled happily in the same general area. One evidence of the lack of agricultural development down east can be seen from the fact that until close to 1790 it was necessary to import foodstuffs into many parts of the District.6 A characteristic attitude toward eastern Maine as a potential farming country was expressed by Rufus Putnam in 1790 when he wrote:
…And as to the eastern country it is a very fine place for lumber, and in that respect is of great service to Massachusetts: but any considerable number of people more in that district then to cary on this business will be a diservice distroying the timber which ought to be preserved—that country in general is not fit for cultivation and when this idea is connected with the climate, a man ought to consider himself curst even in this world who is doomed to inhabit their as a cultivater of the lands only; however I cannot suppose the Ohio cuntry will much affect the settlement of the eastern lands because those people who have not a double curse entailed to them will go to New York or Vemont, rather then to the eastward.7
The natural handicaps for a farmer in Maine were real enough; yet the reputation of her lands was even poorer than actual conditions warranted. Lack of accurate knowledge of the territory had fostered the widely held opinion that the region was “an immense waste, unfit for the habitation of man.” In particular, the area between the Penobscot and the Schoodic was termed “waste lands.”8 As late as 1816 this opinion persisted, as the following passage indicates:
… the climate has been represented, and believed by many, to be most unfavourable to vegetation, and uncomfortable to man, and the soil barren and fruitless, in an uncommon degree. This was the chief complaint of the emigrants who lately flocked, like their birds of passage, in such numbers to the southern and western states; and … it had, indeed, become quite a prevailing sentiment, among the inhabitants of the District.9
However much supporters of Maine might try to correct this impression, especially by urging that the climate was becoming steadily warmer as the ground was cleared,10 the popular concept of the eastern territory was anything but that of a “Vacation-land,” and with other more attractive frontiers beckoning, it is scarcely surprising that potential settlers should choose to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Another important factor in explaining the backwardness of the Maine frontier was its position as a no-man’s-land during the long struggle between France and England for control of North America. From the beginning of this struggle, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, until the final elimination of France on the Plains of Abraham, Maine had borne the brunt of frontier raids, Indian attacks, and Jesuit infiltration. As one writer put it:
The depredations of the Savages, from the year 1675, to the year 1760, with but little intermissions of their wars, was the greatest injury to the settlement and growth of the country.… The contest between England and France, for territorial possessions, made the country of this District the theatre of savage wars, and for a long time together the principal place of those alarms and distresses, which arise from predatory parties.11
Only the most venturesome of emigrants dared to risk his life and that of his family in such a country.
Another element which contributed to Maine’s lack of progress was the confusion of titles which obtained throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Until 1763 there was always the possibility that the territory east of the Kennebec might become French, with consequent loss to English adventurers. Even without the complications of French claims, the Council for New England, and later in a few instances the British government itself, had made a large number of conflicting and overlapping grants which were not completely disentangled until well into the nineteenth century. Even after 1763, with the French menace removed, this problem continued, with Massachusetts and Nova Scotia presenting conflicting claims to the territory east of the Penobscot; and, throughout the whole colonial period, much acreage was claimed on the basis of vague and generally unsatisfactory Indian deeds. This state of affairs handicapped both the grantees in selling their lands at retail, and prospective buyers, who could never be certain of their titles.12
As a result of these drawbacks, both real and imaginary, eastern Maine had been peopled by a pioneer stock which compared unfavorably with frontier folk in other sections of New England. The confusion of titles led to the growth of the squatter class, later to become an articulate and at times influential political and social force. These squatters did little to improve the reputation of the country, and by their presence discouraged potential buyers of Maine lands, who shied away from the dangerous task of either dispossessing the squatters or making them pay. The lack of well-established institutions of government had bred a disrespect for private property and for law and order generally that was to act as a deterrent to the more law-abiding settler who might develop Maine economically and socially. As will be noted below, the lumberman and the fisherman possessed few qualities that would make for the development of the region as a whole.
A final reason for eastern Maine’s backwardness was its lack of capital and economic organization. A poor country, with few of its people living much above the level of mere subsistence, Maine as a province had never been able to find within its own borders the money necessary for its development. This condition made the eastern country, like other New England frontier areas, dependent on Boston for the capital needed to bring about its economic growth. As a region, it was not an attractive area for investment, and monied men in the rest of New England were slow to provide the means of bringing Maine’s latent resources into active development.13
Immediately after the close of the French and Indian War, a moderate trend to the eastward was started by land-hungry veterans and other restless persons. This movement did not have time to reach significant proportions before the Revolution intervened. During this struggle Maine reverted to type, and became again a battleground of raids and reprisals which culminated in the Penobscot expedition and the British occupation of strategic points in eastern Maine. Again the tide of settlement ebbed, and while there was some immigration to Maine from Nova Scotia during the Revolution, it was not until 1783 that lands to the eastward could offer an attractive field for exploitation and settlement.
Though Maine’s past development had been slow, there were many who had confidence in her future. The District had definite possibilities, once some of the unfortunate conditions which had retarded its growth had been removed. Maine’s forests were already famous; the numerous good harbors together with the many navigable rivers and streams made transportation relatively easy; and, it could be argued, agriculture had not really been given a fair chance. Talleyrand, who must certainly be counted a shrewd observer, was sanguine about the eastern country’s potentialities. On his return from a tour down east in 1794 he wrote:
The general impression which the sight of the country left with us is… in favor of the province of Maine. One can only augur well of a great province, which combines healthfulness and fertility, whose whole coast is one vast harbor of the sea, which is watered by rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, and streams in abundance according to the most fortunate distribution, and whose appearance continually recalls the alternating hills and valleys which form the attraction of Connecticut.14
At the close of the Revolutionary period, the question was whether, at long last, the removal of the threat of foreign encroachment, coupled with expansionist forces in New England, would lead to a Maine boom, or whether the unfortunate reputation of the District, together with its physical disadvantages, would allow it to remain a sluggish backwater of American territory. Before the turn of the century, a sizable number of adventurers had become convinced that the Maine wilderness could be made to blossom like the rose, that enterprises on an extensive scale could be founded in Maine. It is with the most outstanding of these attempts that this volume is concerned.
In the years following the American Revolution that part of the District of Maine lying east of Portland exhibited most of the characteristics of an American frontier region that had recently been opened to settlement. The decade of the 1780’s was one of rapid population growth down east. According to an estimate based on the Massachusetts census of 1784, there were between fifty-five and sixty thousand people in the District of Maine as a whole in that year. By 1790, when the first United States census was taken, that number had increased to 96,540, which represented a gain of over fifty per cent. Of this latter number, it should be pointed out, about seven-eighths lived in the three western counties of York, Cumberland, and Lincoln, while over half resided west of Portland. In the newly created counties of Washington and Hancock, Penobscot was the only town with a population of over one thousand, the average population of each minor civil division in these two counties being 286. On the frontier, as in the District as a whole, the overwhelming majority of the people were of English, Scotch, or Irish descent; in all Maine there were only a little over a thousand souls coming from non-British stock. In 1780 there were forty incorporated towns in the District, not one of which was east of the Penobscot. During the following ten years, however, there occurred a rapid increase in the number of towns, paralleling that in population, with the result that by 1790 another thirty-one had been incorporated, nine of which were in Hancock and Washington counties.15
In 1783 Maine was still under the political jurisdiction of Massachusetts, a position which she had occupied since the middle of the seventeenth century. As the 1780’s wore on, however, several political developments testified to the fact that Maine was becoming a distinct political unit, conscious of a destiny separate from that of the Bay State. With these political developments the frontier areas had little to do: in most cases the settlers to the eastward were too busy struggling to maintain themselves in the wilderness to afford the luxury of political activity; and in those cases where attempts were made to participate in political affairs most of the eastern towns doubtless found themselves in the same position as that of the inhabitants of Blue Hill Bay, who had reported on an earlier occasion “… we are so as it ware out of the wourld that we dont hardley know wether we do rite or rong but we mean to do as well as we can.”16 It would be some years before the people to the eastward would be sufficiently well organized to make their weight felt in local and state politics.
The abortive attempt at separation which began in 1785 was essentially Portland-conceived and Portland-led. As with most movements of this nature, the forces behind the campaign for separation are obscure, and it is doubtful if the announced platform of the separatists represented their real motives. At least some of the strength of the movement derived from the general unrest and economic dislocation that was characteristic of much of the back country of New England during the 1780’s; and the drive for separation was in part Maine’s answer to these distresses, as armed revolt was that of the farmers of western Massachusetts. There was present, also, in both the political and economic spheres, the same resentment of Boston and its ruling classes and of the dominant position which the capital occupied in the new Massachusetts government.17 The mere distance of Maine from Boston, coupled with the difficulties and expense of travel to the seat of government, led to a demand for political and legal institutions which would be near at hand and under local control.18 The time-honored attacks on bureaucrats, high taxes, government spending, and corruption were made with vigor down east, but there is reason to believe that they were voiced more for effect than because of deep-seated grievances.19 Maine’s unique geographical position relative to Massachusetts made separation a possible remedy, where elsewhere in New England such a move could hardly have been attempted; and the Revolution was simply the most striking example of the use by Americans of that day of the technique of separation as a solution for their problems.20
Whatever the forces behind the separatist movement, it received little support—or attention for that matter—east of the Kennebec. When Townships Nos. 4, 5, and 6 east of Union River held a meeting to consider the question, they came to the conclusion that the evils complained of were common to all governments and that even if redress were obtained, it would do little to change their situation. For the present they preferred to remain under Massachusetts jurisdiction, lest worse evils befall them.21 Even in the western counties of the District, support for the movement diminished rapidly after the convention which had been held at Portland in 1786, until at a final meeting there were only three Portland men present; and it soon became clear that Maine was not ready for so drastic a step.22 The failure of the movement was due in part to improved economic conditions throughout New England, to the by no means inconsiderable opposition to the proposal in Maine itself,23 and finally to the remedial measures taken by the Massachusetts government.24 The sentiment for separation remained latent, nonetheless, to be used for other political purposes in the early 1800’s and eventually to be put into effect; and in these later movements eastern Maine would be ready to play a significant part.
Another example of Maine’s independence, of a growing divergence between her and the mother state, is to be found in the struggle over the ratification of the Federal Constitution in Massachusetts. Here, as with the separation movement, it was the counties of York and Cumberland that played the most prominent part. To a large extent the Maine representatives to the Constitutional Convention were numbered among the opposition,25 and while several of the more important of them were later “converted” and their opposition overcome, the line of cleavage promised more political fireworks in the future. In the debates themselves the down east opposition voiced a fear that was widespread among enemies of the Constitution, namely, that the new governmental system would deprive the people of hard-won liberties, that a strong central power, per se, was something to be dreaded. But there were complicating factors. Those favoring separation tended to oppose adoption, for it was believed that separation would be more difficult to achieve under the proposed Constitution.26 In addition, there is evidence of the first appearance of the Maine squatter class as a political power, the squatters on the Kennebec fearing lest the new Constitution would serve as an aid in dispossessing them of their lands.27 By and large Federalism was strong in the Maine coastal towns, while anti-Federalism flourished inland,28 but the pattern of voting varies enough to make any generalizations about social or economic cleavage, or any attempt to identify opposition to the Constitution with Shaysism, a dangerous business.29 Finally, and perhaps most significant as far as the frontier is concerned, no town east of Thomaston was represented at the Convention at all.30
Economically, the Maine frontier, like the District as a whole, was a poor man’s country. In 1782, according to Greenleaf’s estimate, the relative per capita wealth in Maine was but a little more than half that of Massachusetts, while the total wealth of the region as a whole was little more than one-tenth that of the Bay State. While Maine’s total wealth increased sharply in the succeeding decade, it did so less rapidly than did that of Massachusetts, and no striking change in her relative position occurred.31 Since the three most important occupations down east—lumbering, fishing, and farming—implied individualistic enterprises with a minimum of contact with the business world of the rest of the country, local economic institutions were slow in developing. What trade there was came under the domination of Boston markets and Boston finance. Money was scarce, and barter was the common method of doing business in the great majority of the communities.32 Maine was badly in need of capital if her economic future was to rise much above the level of subsistence enterprise.
The most widely practised occupation of those Maine settlers who lived east of Portland in 1790 was lumbering. If there was one thing which Maine had in abundance, it was timber, and in an era when wood was in high demand for fuel, houses, and ships, such resources provided a livelihood, if it can be called that, for many. White pine planks, boards, and shingles; spruce masts and spars; ash oars; oak staves, ton timber and scantling—all were produced in large quantities and formed an equally large proportion of the District’s exports.33 Here again the price and much of the transportation were controlled by Boston, which in this, as in other matters, kept Maine in a satellite position. A possible by-product of the lumber trade was the manufacture of pot and pearl ashes, but the average down easter was yet to be convinced that it was to his advantage to develop facilities for this production.34
The large number of rivers in Maine provided more than enough mill seats for the sawing of timber, the mills being usually owned in shares and operated as community projects. A good mill might cost as much as four or five hundred pounds, but would produce 500,000 to 600,000 feet of boards annually if the water supply held and it was operated day and night.35 On the Kennebec River alone, there were seventy saw mills, half of them double ones.36 Attempts had been made to establish the cutting, sawing, transportation, and sale of timber on an equitable basis, but without much success. In some parts of the District a system had been developed whereby the woodcutter paid a definite percentage of the profits from the logs he cut to the owner of the land, the operator of the mill, and the owner of the vessel taking the wood to market.37 More often, however, the lumbermen had no respect for the ownership of the lands on which they worked; they preëmpted the best mill sites without possessing title to them, cut trees wherever they found them, and refused to recompense in any way the unfortunate, usually absentee, owner of the property.38 These depredations were to cause not only the landed proprietors, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts itself, a great deal of trouble before they were finally checked.
The Maine lumberman of this period was a rough character at best. With little interest in the future of the country, with a commensurate disregard for property rights, he was content to fell enough trees to keep his family in provisions for a few months and then relapse into an apathetic state of sloth until the prospect of starvation again pricked him into activity. His only interest, according to Talleyrand, was the number of blows of an axe that he would need to use to cut down a tree.39 Restless, hard-drinking, always trying to change his present penury for some dubious future benefit, he and his ilk were one of the largest elements in the frontier population—an element that promised little for the future unless it could be controlled and organized. Timothy Dwight, writing at a later date and with a strong antipathy to the frontier as such, found the lumbermen a breed of men seduced by their life to “prodigality, thoughtlessness of future wants, profaneness, irreligion, immoderate drinking, and other ruinous habits,” and was convinced that self-respecting New England farmers had been deterred from emigrating to Maine because the region was dominated by lumbermen.40 When the wood on one hundred acres of land could keep a family alive for many years, why worry about clearing and tilling, reasoned the lumberman. Such an element could only lower the reputation of the District and discourage the establishment of a more civilized way of life.
The fishing industry was second in importance to lumbering. Proximity to the Grand Banks was theoretically an advantage, but in most places large numbers of fish could be taken close to shore. In addition to the sacred cod and the herring, such fresh water fish as the salmon and shad were taken in great quantities, though the construction of mills on most of the rivers caused alarm among the fishermen and brought them into conflict with the lumbermen and farmers. Like most of Maine’s economic activities, fishing was carried on on a share basis. Usually the captain or owner of the ship would provide the lines, bait, and food, and in return get half the catch. Once caught, the fish would be taken to some specified area for drying—for example, the Fox Islands—where the driers might get one sixteenth of the proceeds. The remaining seven sixteenths would go to the fishermen themselves. Maine fish, dried and salted, found its way to Europe and the West Indies and provided a source of revenue second only to that of the lumber trade.41 From October, 1790, to September, 1791, over two thousand tons of fishing vessels, most of them small craft of fifteen or twenty tons, are reported as entering Maine ports.42
The fisherman was hardly a more estimable member of society than the lumberman. Needing only an arm to hang over the side of a boat, he followed the line of least resistance, satisfied, like the lumberman, to depend on nature for his needs. Attempts to organize the Maine fishing trade on a solid foundation, which had been made by Boston merchants, had met with failure, to a large extent because of the unwillingness of the fishermen to fulfill their contracts or to put forth the necessary effort to bring success to the venture. Like the lumberman, the fisherman was tied to no one spot for which he had any real affection; he was ever ready to pull up stakes and move on to a part of the country that promised better fishing. Thus he, too, was an unstable element in the population.43
Most of those interested in the development of Maine were convinced that a stabilization of the region’s economic and social life could be accomplished only by the establishment of traditional New England farming communities down east. Yet a survey of Maine’s agricultural system in 1790 would reveal little to encourage such promoters. The Maine farmer of this period lived a grubbing existence. Except in the older and more set-tied parts of the District, the returns on what work he managed to get done were discouragingly small. His crop usually consisted of wheat, barley, rye, oats, or Indian corn, which provided his bread. This was supplemented by game and wild fowl, which were very plentiful. An occasional plot of ground for flax helped provide his clothing. While cattle, sheep, oxen, and a few horses were generally found, ignorance of stock-breeding, coupled with the difficulty of providing winter quarters and fodder for the animals, kept the herds at a low level. The majority of visitors to Maine during this period comment on the backwardness of the agricultural system, the hand-to-mouth existence of the farming folk. A few of the more enterprising produced surpluses, which were occasionally exported to Boston, the West Indies, or Europe, but for the most part a down east farmer was fortunate if he and his family could get through the year on what they produced.44
Typical of the more successful agriculturist of this period was Farmer Nicholson of Belfast. An old-timer—he had lived in the same spot for thirty-four years—he had cleared eighty acres, had five under good cultivation, and cut one hundred and fifty cords of wood a year. His sons had caught a hundred barrels of salmon and cod, while his daughters spun wool from his sheep to make the family clothes, and made shoes from the hides of his cattle. Full of the prejudices of the old husbandman, he refused to grow wheat, depending on rye and corn for his bread, which Liancourt thought would have been given to dogs in other parts of the country. Twenty head of black cattle, as many sheep, and an acre of potatoes completed the picture. An occasional mug of grog made from rum or whisky, or the local spruce or birch beer introduced a little variation into the plain fare. Nicholson was content with his lot and had the reputation of being a good farmer, but Liancourt failed to see how his reputation had been acquired.45
A more romanticized character sketch of the Maine farmer—one that would have warmed the heart of Rousseau himself—is given by the Italian traveller Luigi Castiglioni in his description of the Gregory family, who lived near Camden. The Gregorys lived in a log cabin thatched with hemlock bark. The dwelling consisted of one room, which served as both kitchen and bedroom, with a shallow attic, reached by a ladder, overhead. Outside, a straw fire was kept burning in the summer months to keep away the gnats, which, added to the July heat, gave the travellers a great deal of discomfort. The numerous Gregorys worked from morn to night, getting plenty of butter and cheese from their eight cows, making unleavened bread, slaughtering an occasional calf. On Sunday Father Gregory read the Bible to his children, and the family as a whole were virtuous and pious. Despite the many discomforts, Castiglioni could not see why these people should not be the happiest of mortals, practising the useful and pleasant business of agriculture, unacquainted with the worry of poverty and in possession of the most enjoyable comforts of life.46
Maine’s foreign trade, in company with that of the rest of New England, had suffered in the years immediately following the peace, but by the late 1780’s it was well on the road to recovery. Despite the British closure of the West Indies to American shipping, a thriving, if illicit, trade developed in that quarter, in which Maine products and Maine ships had their share.47 As early as 1784, Colonel Christian Febiger, making a tour of inspection to report on the supply and quality of masts and spars for a merchant in Copenhagen, described the whole Maine market from Portsmouth to the Penobscot as being glutted with mast timber. Since the English had adequate resources in Nova Scotia, and since the French fleets had stocked up during their recent tour of duty at Boston, almost unlimited supplies were available. The difficulty in carrying on this trade, thought Febiger, arose from the lack of an organized market to the eastward. Rum, sugar, molasses, and possibly metal goods were acceptable in exchange for lumber down east, but most of the trade passed through Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. Febiger commented on the practice followed by the Maine skippers of selling their goods in the West Indies, bringing West Indian produce back to New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, and finally heading east with cash in their pockets and their ships in ballast. Furthermore, Maine products were brought to market in Liverpool, Bristol, and Hull, as well as Belfast and Dublin.48 For the year ending in September, 1791, over 30,000 tons of shipping had entered the District from foreign ports, with an additional 10,000 tons in coasting trade. While Portland, Wiscasset, and Biddeford had the lion’s share of this trade, entries were recorded at Penobscot, Frenchman’s Bay, Machias, and Passamaquoddy as well.49
Maine’s returns from her foreign and coastal trade would always be limited so long as the vessels were owned and built outside the District. To meet this challenge, enterprising down-easters began a shipbuilding industry which was to crowd that of Massachusetts herself fifty years later. By 1790 the customs district of Portland had close to fifty vessels owned there which were engaged in foreign trade, while the district of Bath boasted five ships and four schooners totalling 1,364 tons.50 Charles Vaughan, one of the most enthusiastic boosters of the Kennebec region, saw shipbuilding as one of the coming Maine industries.51 A ship built down east at an average cost of thirty dollars a ton would sell in Boston for from forty to forty-five.52 Though the great days of Maine shipbuilding were still some years away, a promising start had already been made in this profitable form of enterprise.
An example of a successful mercantile venture in Maine at the close of the eighteenth century can be seen in the careers of two immigrant Irishmen, James Kavanagh and Matthew Cottrill. These two adventurers from the Emerald Isle arrived in Boston in the early 1780’s and after disappearing into the Maine woods for ten years, emerged as successful merchants at Newcastle on the Damariscotta. Starting business as proprietors of a general store or truck house, the two partners before long were prosperous enough to buy property along the river, open saw mills, found shipbuilding yards, and eventually watch vessels built at their yards, freighted with lumber cut on their lands and sawed at their mills, sail down the river for the West Indies.53 Another example is that of the two Alma brothers of Ducktrap (now Lincolnville). While one brother took the family ship to England, the West Indies, or along the coast to the westward with lumber or fish, the other remained at Ducktrap, buying up supplies, building ships, and dabbling in land jobbing. Yet despite a profitable business, the Almas lived in a miserable house and lacked many of what would be considered the barest essentials for comfort in Massachusetts.54 For every Alma, Kavanagh, or Cottrill, there were hundreds of would-be merchants who never emerged from the obscurity of the frontier.
Many of the travellers who visited the District of Maine during this period bore testimony to the fact that a large majority of the people living east of Portland were characteristic of the frontier type at a very primitive level. Talleyrand wrote of them: “Ignorant and grasping, poor but without needs, they resemble too much the natives of the country whom they have replaced.” And the noted Frenchman went on to comment unfavorably on what he called the “moral disposition” of the population as a whole. The lack of specie, which made barter a necessity, bred a habit among almost all the people of making cunning, if not fraudulent bargains at the drop of a hat. Once a man could collect some rum, cloth, and a few tools and household utensils, he set up as a merchant, proceeded to encourage his neighbors to go into debt to him, and before long was able to dominate his immediate area economically, dictating to the unfortunates who had become enmeshed in the system. Nor did the debtors feel under any compunction to refrain from selling their wood or fish to the master of some vessel, newly arrived from the westward, who might offer more rum than their creditor. This system encouraged deceit and fraud among all classes and made everyone more interested in buying and selling than in producing. Once the bare essentials had been produced through a few days’ labor on corn and potatoes, the settler would turn to the less onerous business of buying and selling, and would eschew further productive work. The result of this unwillingness to produce anything beyond their own most immediate needs was an almost complete absence of specialized craftsmen and a great superfluity of would-be merchants, contractors, and salesmen. And in the long run this meant debts, bad business, tedious law suits, and insolvency. Any traveller down east with a little hard money in his pocket could buy anything from anybody. “They wish to sell,” said Talleyrand, “because they have done too little work around them to have placed their affections there.”55
The young Englishman, Alexander Baring, on the other hand, after having spent the summer of 1796 down east, could return with a very different impression. In contrast to Talleyrand, Baring was pleased with the “disposition and character” of the inhabitants and found less of the “wild and savage” than he had expected. He was gratified to discover a general respect for private property and a widespread interest in religion, though he was disturbed by “a pack of fanatical itinerant Methodist preachers” whom he thought “obnoxious.” Even Baring, however, could find little good to say about lumbering and lumbermen. The lumbermen, he noticed, had no constant occupation, no tie to the country, no fixed homes; and he stressed the fact that they added no value to the land by their labor and thus could be of little benefit to a proprietor. Even so, Baring was convinced that the country and its inhabitants were developing rapidly and that a more balanced economy which would combine agriculture and shipping with lumbering would soon emerge.
Baring’s testimony is perhaps less disinterested than that of Talleyrand and Liancourt. He had just finished investing a large sum of money in Maine lands for his principals in England, and his report to them would naturally want to justify what he had done; furthermore, his impressions of eastern Maine were gained while he was on a specially conducted tour, during which every effort was made to have him see the country at its best. While Baring’s account must certainly be used to qualify those of Talleyrand and Liancourt, the chances are that the judgments of the two Frenchmen are the more accurate ones.56
Exceptions there certainly were to these general characterizations. When the British naval officer, Lieutenant Bartholomew James, explored the Kennebec River in 1791, he found the people charming and the accommodations good. He had lodged at the home of Captain Parker in Phippsburg, where he was captivated by the “graceful, bewitching, angelic creatures,” the Captain’s nieces. At Rittle’s tavern in Pownalborough he “sat down to as comfortable a meal as I ever remember to have fed on.” Even when allowances are made for the bad food of the British Navy and the charms of the Parker girls, there is no question of Lieutenant James’s favorable impression of the country.57 Further up the Kennebec the Gardiner-Hallowell-Vaughan families had stately houses, landscaped grounds, and most of the amenities of the more established regions of New England.58 Down the coast at Thomaston Henry Knox was about to build Montpelier, probably the most handsome mansion in the District and an oasis of comfort, relatively speaking, among the establishments of Knox’s less fortunate neighbors. It should be noted, however, that these exceptional families had all inherited their estates from ancestors who had been men of wealth and prominence in Massachusetts. East of Montpelier there were few families whose mode of existence had risen much above the bare subsistence level, nor would there be many until well into the nineteenth century.
Doubtless some of the comments made by visitors to eastern Maine during this period should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Many of the most detailed accounts were written by foreigners who may well have been deceived by appearances, if not actually hoodwinked by the natives. Present-day conditions in many parts of Maine give a superficial impression of being much worse than they actually are, and this same state of affairs probably obtained one hundred and fifty years ago. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine to what extent conditions down east during this period were typical of any frontier region in any part of the country, and to what extent they were characteristic of Maine alone. On the other hand descriptions of the District written by men who were bent on “puffing” Maine are so obviously prejudiced as to be almost useless in presenting a fair picture of the land and the people to the eastward.59 Even when one makes allowances for the inexperience of the foreign commentators, however, it is clear that the inhabitants of the eastern country represented a backwash of Yankee migration, with a standard of living and a sense of law and order below the average of that of other sections of New England.
Except for a few areas, then, eastern Maine was in the early stages of frontier development. The country was not a promising one; sparsely populated by a poorer than average pioneer stock, with a climate and natural resources appealing for the most part to lumbermen and fishermen, this region was, and is, a hard land. Its past history as a province had been one of bloodshed and confusion; its future prospects, when compared with those of other sections of America, were not auspicious.
On the other hand, there were favorable aspects, from the point of view of a land speculator, in the Maine scene. Lands down east were extremely cheap; thus a would-be adventurer could acquire large holdings for a relatively modest initial investment. Once such holdings had been acquired, additional capital would be needed to turn the tide of emigration—or at least part of it—from the westward to the eastward. But if, through man-made improvements and artificially forced “hothouse” settlements, a boom in Maine lands could be stimulated, the opportunity for profit to the speculator could be great indeed.
The Land Policy of Massachusetts
At the close of the Revolution, the Massachusetts Treasury was nearly empty. Although as a colony, Massachusetts had extinguished her debt in 1774, the expenses of war, with concomitant economic dislocations, now placed a heavy burden on her people. With a combined state and federal debt of close to three million pounds, with some twenty per cent of her taxes uncollected, with the poll tax bearing heavily on the poor and helping to produce the unrest that was later to flare up in Shays’s rebellion,60 the state officials were naturally eager to explore and utilize if possible any additional sources of revenue which might ease the burden of the cost of government. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that John Hancock, in his first message to the legislature in 1783 should have called attention to land sales as a substitute for taxation, or that early steps should have been taken to capitalize on the wild lands in Maine, a virtually untapped source of revenue.
Massachusetts was fortunate, in comparison with many of the other former colonies, in her land holdings. Though she agreed to surrender her claims to jurisdiction over land in western New York, she retained the soil, which she was able to dispose of to Phelps and Gorham, and later to Robert Morris and his associates for a considerable sum.61 As for the lands in Maine, there was no such trouble about title. True, the northeastern boundary of the District was still undefined and a confusion of grants to individuals was bound to retard development in some sections. Still, it was estimated that there were some seventeen million acres of land available for sale—sufficient to supply the demand for some time to come.62 Though at a later time Massachusetts was criticized by other states for not ceding these wild lands in Maine to the Federal government, there seems to have been no attempt to force her to do this in the 1780’s.63 These Maine lands had not been included in the territory proscribed for settlement by the Proclamation of 1763, nor were they in any sense in the same category as the transmontane territory claimed by other states.
In 1781 the first step toward developing a policy for the lands in Maine was taken when a committee of five was appointed by the General Court to check the trespassing on unappropriated public lands and was empowered to prosecute interlopers. The committee was instructed to run lines so as to separate the unsold lands from those already sold, and to make maps of the tracts that could be put on the market.64 Though this committee struggled manfully with its difficult problems, by 1783 it was clear that the task was too big for it. Accordingly, in October of that year, a new committee was appointed to deal with land affairs in the County of Lincoln, which then included all land east of the Kennebec, leaving the counties of York and Cumberland to the old body.65 In the meantime, in an effort to preserve timber on these lands, it was made a penal offense to cut down white pine trees on public tracts, and the General Court acted to regulate the size and shape of boards and shingles exported from the District.66
The Committee for the Sale of Eastern Lands in the County of Lincoln, composed of Samuel Phillips, Jr., Nathaniel Wells, and Nathan Dane,67 was to carry the major part of the responsibility for the sale of these lands in Maine for the next ten years. Early in 1784 it reported to the legislature a comprehensive scheme for disposing of the Maine territory: it recommended that townships be laid out between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers; that alternate townships on the rivers be sold in five-hundred-acre lots at at least six shillings per acre; that the other half of the river townships be sold in one-hundred-and-fifty-acre lots at whatever the traffic would bear; and that three thousand acres in each of the non-river townships be given away in hundred-acre lots to actual settlers.68 After hearing this report, the legislature, in July, 1784, ordered the Committee to lay out as many townships as possible, to dispose of them either by private sale or public auction, and to receive in payment Massachusetts consolidated securities or Massachusetts notes to veterans.69 Apparently dissatisfied with the Committee’s progress, the General Court, in November, 1784, urged the members to hurry with the surveys, ordered one of them to be in Boston at specified times each month to facilitate sales, and appointed Rufus Putnam surveyor.70 Later resolves ordering the state commissary to furnish the Committee’s surveyors with pork, axes, soap, and other supplies show that a start had been made in that end of the business,71 and the Committee later reported that some hundred thousand acres had been sold in 1785 and 1786.72
Since sales were still not rapid enough to please the revenue-hungry legislators, a new device was tried in 1786—namely, a land lottery. Lotteries had been frequently used in New England to raise money for charitable, educational, and similar purposes in the past; indeed Harvard College had conducted several. It was hoped that an appeal to the gambling instincts of the inhabitants of the Bay State might succeed, where a mere advertising of land had failed. Accordingly, in November, 1786, the General Court passed a land lottery act which, it was hoped, would bring into the state treasury the sum of £163,200.73
The scheme devised by the legislators was a relatively simple one. Fifty townships of land, most of them the conventional six miles square, were set aside as prizes. These townships were located behind the coastal settlements in the area between the Penobscot and the Schoodic and were henceforth to be known as the “Lottery Lands.”74 In keeping with the usual New England tradition, four lots were reserved in each township for the support of religion and education. Two thousand seven hundred and twenty tickets were to be printed and sold for sixty pounds each. Whenever a sale was made, the purchaser automatically acquired a tract of land, but the size of each tract was to be determined when the drawing of the lottery was held, presumably after all the tickets had been sold. The prizes varied in size from a whole township of land to a lot one half mile square.
Samuel Phillips, Nathaniel Wells, John Brooks, Leonard Jarvis, and Rufus Putnam75 were appointed managers of the lottery, were authorized to receive in payment for the tickets currency or securities of either Massachusetts or the United States—or specie, if anyone should be so foolish as to use coin for this purpose—and to give deeds after the drawing had been held. They were further instructed to advertise the scheme widely in the newspapers.76 Finally, the act included provisions against counterfeiting and other kinds of fraudulent activity and threatened lawbreakers with such punishments as being publicly whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes, or being forced to sit on the gallows for one hour with a rope around the neck.
Despite the hopes of its proponents, the lottery failed to achieve its purpose. Only 437 out of the available 2720 tickets were sold, even after the date for the drawing of prizes had been advanced three months. The records of the managers of the lottery show that Harvard College led the list of purchasers, with nine tickets, followed by John Tudor, with seven, while the name of the Reverend Elisha Fuller of Ludlow on the roster shows that even the clergy were not averse to taking an occasional flier. When the drawing was finally held in June, 1787, a certain William Dall won the largest prize—a tract of 5,440 acres—but most of the ticket holders received much smaller quantities, the total amount of land disposed of in this scheme amounting to a mere 165,000 acres. The managers of the lottery were now faced with a vexing problem; since the “fortunate adventurers” held land scattered throughout the lottery townships, sales of large tracts in the future would be the more difficult because of these encumbrances. Accordingly, the winners were urged to transfer their lots to four townships in the Passamaquoddy area, so as to free the other townships for unencumbered sale, but this the winners were slow to do.77 As a result the General Court was still extending the time limit for such transfers in 1790,78 and less than half of the acreage had been transferred when the Committee attempted to sell these same lottery lands in a single tract, a state of affairs which could cause troublesome complications in the future.79 Writing in 1835, a committee of the Massachusetts Senate appointed to review the land policy of the state, gave the following reason for the failure of the lottery:
The partial success of this project was a striking instance of the high moral feeling of the community in regard to lotteries, as gambling institutions; and this rebuke of the plan of sale … successfully prevented the renewal of a project, at once fascinating and demoralizing.80
However high the moral feeling of the Commonwealth in the 1780’s, it is probable that the hard times of 1785–1786, and the poor reputation which the lottery lands had, played an important part in explaining this failure. In any event, the Committee for the Sale of Eastern Lands never again resorted to the lottery as a means of disposing of the wild lands in Maine.
With the failure of the land lottery, the committee turned again to the sale of lands by more orthodox methods. It busied itself with the nightmarish problem of untangling the confusing claims in the Kennebec region, defending its actions before the legislature, and surveying and preparing maps of the tracts at 1 its disposal.81 The following Resolve, instructing the committee, may serve as a convenient summary of the legislature’s policy at this time:
Resolve on the subject of unappropriated lands in the counties of Cumberland and Lincoln March 26, 1788
Resolved, That a Committee be appointed to examine and adjust the accounts of the Committee on the subject of unappropriated lands in the counties of Cumberland and Lincoln to the time of the passing of this resolve.
Resolved, That John Read, Esquire and Doctor Daniel Cony82 be joined to the said Committee, which Committee are also hereby appointed a committee on the subject of the unappropriated lands, belonging to this Commonwealth, in the county of York, for the same purposes, and with like powers, as have, by the several resolves of the General Court, been assigned to the said Committee for the counties of Cumberland and Lincoln, and their commission shall extend to each and every of the said counties: And that the said Committee be, and they are hereby directed to complete a plan or plans, as soon as may be, of all the located lands in the counties aforesaid, agreeable to a resolve of the General Court, of November the 5th, 1784, and as far as practicable to mark out the unlocated lands in the aforesaid counties, into townships or plats of six miles square, as near as may be, and where they shall think it to be for the interest of this Commonwealth, the said six miles square into lots.
Resolved, That there be reserved in each township four lots of three hundred and twenty acres each, for public uses, viz., one for the first settled minister; one for the use of the ministry; one for the use of schools; and one for the future appropriation of the General Court; the said lots to average in goodness and situation with the lands in such township, and to be designated in such way and manner as the said Committee shall judge proper.
Resolved, That there be, and hereby is appropriated to the building and supporting a public seminary of learning, upon such conditions as the legislature may hereafter direct, a tract of land six miles square, to be laid out to the northward of Waldo’s Patent, and nearly central between the two rivers Kennebeck and Penobscot, as good a tract of land for that purpose, as may be found there; the same to be surveyed under the direction of the said Committee, and report thereof made to the General Court.
Resolved, That any of the lands belonging to this Commonwealth, in the counties aforesaid, may be sold to any foreigner or foreigners, who shall contract to settle thereon, within three years from the purchase, one or more families to each mile square of land; and any foreigner, having resided for the space of two years on such land, may, on application to the legislature, be entitled to an act of naturalization, he producing a certificate from any two justices of the peace, of the same county, or from the selectmen of the town nearest to such land, or from three respectable inhabitants of the same county, that such foreigner has, in their opinion, behaved himself during that time, as a good member of society, and is a proper candidate for naturalization.
Resolved, That each settler who settled on any lands belonging to this Commonwealth, before the first day of January, 1784, and who has not already been confirmed in his settlements, and who shall pay the said Committee for the use of this Commonwealth, before the first day of June, 1789, five Spanish milled dollars, shall be entitled to a deed of one hundred acres of land, the same to be surveyed, and laid out so as to include his improvements, and be least injurious to the adjoining lands; such survey to be under the direction of the said Committee and at the expense of such settler.
Resolved, That the Committee aforesaid, or the major part of them, be, and they are hereby authorized and directed to sell the aforesaid unappropriated lands, in any of the said counties, for the consolidated notes of this State, or otherwise in specie, and in such quantities, and on such terms as they shall judge most for the interest of the Commonwealth, any resolve to the contrary notwithstanding. And the said Committee, or the major part of them, are further authorized, to appoint such agents in the counties aforesaid, as they may judge necessary, to expedite the sale of the said lands; and the said Committee shall be allowed two per cent, in the same sort of pay as shall by them be received for lands they may sell as aforesaid, in full compensation for their services in the said business, and that of the agents which they may appoint; the expense of surveying to be borne by the State, and all the lands the said Committee shall sell as aforesaid, shall be exempt from taxes, for the space of ten years.
Resolved, That where a minute description of the quality and circumstances of any of the said lands cannot be ascertained without a greater expense, than would probably compensate the profits that may arise therefrom, in such case, the said Committee may dispose of the same, any resolve to the contrary notwithstanding.
After 1790, business picked up. As will be noted below, a speculative fever took possession of the country, and after the possibilities of the new government securities and the new bank stock had been exhausted, men with capital to invest turned to wild lands as an attractive field for speculation. Lands in the Georgia back country, Ohio, western New York, and Pennsylvania all boomed, and interest in Maine revived. As a result, the Committee, from 1791–1794 was able to sell some 2,300,000 acres for nearly 90,000 pounds and contract to sell about 1,300,000 more for close to 22,000 pounds. This burst of enthusiasm for Maine lands soon subsided, and in 1795 the General Court, dissatisfied with the Committee’s conduct, especially their sale of land in very large tracts, took over the sale of wild lands themselves.83
One other feature of the land policy of Massachusetts deserves mention—the practice of using wild land as a means of rewarding veterans, assisting educational and charitable institutions, and promoting industry and commerce. In line with this policy, for example, the General Court granted a township on the Passamaquoddy to John Allan and a group of his veteran associates, gave those inhabitants of Portland who had suffered from Mowatt’s bombardment in 1775 two townships, and helped out Alexander Campbell of Narraguagus, who had fought hard in the Revolution, worked hard for the State since then, and was still in financial difficulties. In 1801, a blanket resolve gave all Revolutionary noncoms and soldiers who had enlisted and served three years two hundred acres apiece on the upper Schoodic. Educational institutions profited even more: Williams and Bowdoin Colleges, Hallowell, Fryeburg, Leicester, and Marblehead Academies, to name but some, were given sizable grants, while one township was to be used to endow a chair in natural history at Cambridge, and the Boston hospital and the Massachusetts Medical Society were also beneficiaries. Industry and commerce came in for their share of help when land was granted to the Beverly Manufacturing Company, the proprietors of the Middlesex Canal, a group who proposed to improve the navigation of the Taunton River, and an agricultural society to establish a “botanic garden.” One Lemuel Cox received a thousand acres for inventing a cardwire cutting machine, building the first powder mill, and suggesting that the criminals on Castle William make nails. Occasionally, special favors were meted out, as in the case of Joseph Inman, who had “suffered long confinement in close gaol on suspicion of having murdered one Oliver Holmes,” and William Eaton, who collected ten thousand acres for his exploits in Tripoli.84 By 1821 over 1,200,000 acres had been thus granted away to foster objects believed to be of public concern.85 And this, it must be remembered, was in addition to the public lots regularly reserved in each township sold. There can be no doubt that these wild lands were a great boon to politicians; without directly increasing the tax burden, the Massachusetts legislators were able to reward the faithful and promote institutions which were bound to be popular with the public. Still, this policy had an adverse effect on general land sales. The individuals and institutions that benefited from these public grants were nearly always anxious to turn them into cash as readily as possible. Speculators found it easier to acquire land from these sources than direct from the State. As a result, the market became gorged, values declined, and the State land sales suffered.86
After being deprived of most of its powers in 1795, the Committee for the Sale of Eastern Lands languished. In 1801 it was replaced by two agents, who did little until about 1811, when speculative interest revived slightly. In 1816 these two agents were replaced by three commissioners and a surveyor-general, and these officials remained in office until the separation of Maine from Massachusetts. At this time, the remaining unsold wild lands were divided between the two states. Of the 17,000,000 acres of public land available for sale in 1783, some 4,700,000 had been sold for a little over $ 800,000 by 1821, not counting the 1,200,000 granted for public objects. The land sold had thus been disposed of at an average price per acre of a little less than twenty cents.87
The policy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts towards its Maine lands lacked the consistency which would have helped to encourage the growth of the District. Political pressures interfered time and again to prevent the adoption of a program designed to develop the eastern country. The insistence on the performance of settling duties—bringing a certain number of families on a given tract within a certain term of years—shows the Commonwealth desirous of encouraging emigration to the eastward. The reservations in each township for education and religion, as well as generous tax-exemption for ten years or more are further proof of an enlightened policy which envisaged the establishment of typical New England agricultural communities in Maine. On the other hand, the temptation to use the Maine property as a means of paying off the State debt, of distributing political favors, and of rewarding veterans seriously crippled attempts to adhere to the long-range policy which had the interests of Maine and its settlers at heart. The practice of selling land in huge tracts to speculators, initiated after 1790, further complicated the problem. The speculators were saddled with onerous settling duties, usually impossible of fulfillment, and no adequate provision was made for the squatters actually living on the land sold. With the assumption of State debts by the Federal government, some of the pressure on the Massachusetts financial structure was removed, but the Commonwealth made no serious attempt to revise its policy toward the Maine lands with an eye toward the needs of the inhabitants themselves. In short, the opportunistic course followed by the Bay State was to retard the progress of Maine and involve both settlers and speculators in endless difficulties.88