First of all, we would like to thank the Merrymeeting Bay Trust for their generous financial support of our project and Quantum Spatial, Inc. for providing high-resolution LiDAR survey data for our study. Thanks also go to the Maine Office of GIS for their interest and assistance. Their support has been a tremendous help to us.
Our project focuses on learning more about the English pioneers who settled on or around Merrymeeting Bay during the 17th century, as well as later English and Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) pioneers who settled in the area during the first three-quarters of the 18th century, when the Pejepscot Proprietors were a primary influence in the settlement and development of the bay area.
English settlement in Maine during the 1600s is sparsely documented and poorly understood. Only a few of the sites where the pioneers lived and worked have been located and studied, and the exact locations of most of the others have been lost over the centuries. Carrying out a careful, systematic investigation of these forgotten sites could yield a wealth of information about the lives of those earliest English pioneers, their interactions with the local Indians, and the effects they had upon the area’s ecosystem over time.
There are also gaps in our knowledge about subsequent settlement that took place in the 1700s. Many English and Scots-Irish settled in the bay area under the auspices of the Pejepscot Proprietors and their massive land development activities. The Pejepscot Proprietors were a key factor in the area's development, particularly during the period from 1714 and into the 1760s. A large number of pioneer sites from this period still remain to be discovered and studied, which should also provide valuable data relating to the area's history and ecology within this time frame.
We believe that our study will add substantially to our knowledge about these historic eras, as well as providing valuable learning experiences for community members and helping municipalities make better-informed land-use planning decisions.
Merrymeeting Bay Prehistory and History - A Brief Summary
While our study focuses primarily on English and Scots-Irish pioneers, it is useful to know something about the situation that existed when they arrived. The earliest pioneers would have been drawn to the Merrymeeting Bay area for many of the same reasons that had been attracting Native peoples to the area for millennia.
The story of prehistoric humans in Merrymeeting Bay centers around the relationship between Indians and marine resources, primarily anadromous fish that swarmed upstream to spawn each spring and summer. Terrestrial animals, as well as plants like berries, nuts, and roots, were also an attraction as an important adjunct to their diet, as well as for their skins, fur, etc., but it was anadromous fish in particular that drew humans to the bay’s shoreline.
The best places to pursue those fish changed over time due to rising sea level. Since the last Ice Age, Maine’s sea levels have been rising, very rapidly at first, but more slowly since around 8,000 years ago. That’s when we see the first evidence of human concentrations along the bay’s shores, specifically on a high terrace just to the east of Little Swan Island in Dresden. There we find spear points and other tools ranging in age from 8,000 to around 5,000 years B.P. The attraction at that site was apparently a falls in the river, probably at or near the head of tide. Such places were ideal for capturing fish that gathered there in large numbers as they fought their way up the falls to their spawning grounds.
What happened after 5,000 years ago at the falls? The falls were probably drowned around this time by rising sea level, making the area much less attractive for fishing. In later millennia, Indians concentrated in other areas around the bay.
Recent research has shown that most of these other sites were at one time also adjacent to falls, and the trend seems to be that one site after another was abandoned as sea levels rose, causing the Indians to move upstream, ever closer to the falls at Brunswick, for example, to pursue anadromous fish. In the early 1600s, as Europeans began to settle in the area, runs of salmon, shad, sturgeon, and alewives caught at this location were said to be the best in New England, so this was likely the last favorite Indian fishing spot on the Androscoggin before the Indians were displaced by English settlers in the area.
It is interesting to note that the Kennebec River was the eastern boundary of Indian horticulture when Europeans arrived. From at least early colonial times, the community of Norridgewock in the town of Madison was the easternmost major outpost of agriculture, with multiple corn-growing hamlets surrounding the principal village. And there may have even been cornfields around the bay, but if so, these were probably abandoned due to raiding Micmacs from the Nova Scotia area in the early 1600s, as evidenced by Indians in the Kennebec River area, who told Samuel de Champlain in 1607 that they had formerly grown corn but stopped because “others came and took it away.”2
By the time enough literate Europeans were visiting and settling around the bay to create an historical record, Indian economic activities around the bay and throughout the region had shifted to trapping and hunting beaver, moose, and other animals, whose pelts they sold to eager European traders at great profit. Unfortunately, this was also a period when European-introduced diseases were devastating their villages, and there is some evidence that these epidemics were particularly severe in the Androscoggin valley.
English Settlement Prior to King Philip’s War (1675)
In 1605, after landing on Monhegan Island, George Weymouth of England sailed up the Kennebec River and viewed what would later be named Merrymeeting Bay. His enthusiastic reaction to the Kennebec prompted Sir John Popham to found a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec in 1607, where Popham's men remained for the winter and explored upstream into Merrymeeting Bay before sailing for home on a ship they built, named the “Virginia.”
Only a month after Weymouth’s arrival at the Kennebec River, Sieur de Monts and geographer/cartographer Samuel de Champlain visited the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers, spurring more French interest in the region. Both the English and French saw that the Kennebec might provide a trade route to Quebec and access to the bounties of the Maine and New Hampshire forests.
Over the next 20 or so years, a few winter fishing camps were established in the Merrymeeting Bay region, and by 1623 there was a village at present-day Bath.
There is good evidence that an entire community of English pioneers grew up on or near Merrymeeting Bay during the 1600s. We know that some of these people were engaged in the fur trade with local Indians, mostly for beaver pelts and moose skins. We also have evidence that others were engaged in fishing, farming, and various trades, such as cooperage (barrel making). However, our understanding of the details of these activities and other aspects of their lives is still very limited.
This period of Maine’s history is sparsely documented and poorly understood. Only a few of the sites where these earliest pioneers lived and worked have been located, excavated, and studied, and the exact locations of the others have become lost over the centuries.
We may ask: “How did these early pioneer sites become lost?” The answer is in the events that befell these early colonists. Initially, relations between these settlers and Indians in the Merrymeeting Bay area were relatively peaceful, until a complex series of events and rising tensions between Native Americans and colonists led to a deadly conflict in 1675 known as King Philip’s War, named for the Wampanoag chief Metacom, known also as “King Philip.” Numerous towns and smaller settlements in New England came under attack by forces aligned with Philip, a great number of people were killed, and many communities were destroyed and totally abandoned, including the Merrymeeting Bay community.
King Philip's War left many of the original English settlers dead, disheartened, or financially ruined, and political changes between England and the colonies, continued strife with Indians, and the outbreak of King William’s War (1688-97) discouraged resettlement of the Merrymeeting Bay area until several years after King William’s War, when the area had stabilized just enough to encourage new plans for resettlement.
The land divisions in the new settlements would bear little, if any, resemblance to the previous settlements, which would leave the locations of the original settlers’ homes and workplaces essentially undisturbed and largely forgotten.
One obstacle in finding these lost sites is the paucity of the material remains and the subtlety of the alterations to the landscape. The majority of the dwellings and other structures would have used “earthfast”3 construction, with wooden sills placed directly on the ground and/or wooden posts sunk into the ground, causing them to quickly rot away, leaving only faint traces.
Stones were sometimes used under sills or placed at the bottom of post holes, but full stone foundations were a rarity in this period. In terms of cellar holes, most dwellings would have had only small root cellars under a portion of the dwelling. These small holes were often unlined and would tend to silt in with soil over the years. The early pioneers also would have had less in the way of domestic or work-related possessions than later settlers, and many of those items may have been taken away by Indians during King Philip’s War and King William’s War, leaving even less material evidence of an occupation at those sites.
The Pejepscot Proprietors and Further Settlement (1714 – 1800)4
During King William’s War, 1689-1697, Indian and French forces drove settlers out from all English settlements in Maine from Pemaquid to Wells. Four years later, the outbreak of Queen Anne’s War in 1701 led to occasional skirmishes throughout the Merrymeeting Bay region. None of the original English settlements were reestablished around the bay during this period.
After the Treaty of Utrecht ended Queen Anne’s War in 1713, Massachusetts sought to strengthen its eastern frontier by repopulating the Maine coast under the protection of newly-constructed forts. First, though, the court had to determine who legally owned each land plot. Some original owners had died, others had been killed in the conflicts, and some had passed their titles to others. A commission was formed to review evidence from witnesses and claimants as to legal ownership prior to 1713. Around Merrymeeting Bay, the earliest major landholder had been Thomas Purchase, but many others held deeds from local Indians or simply squatted on unoccupied tracts.
To expedite resettlement, Massachusetts allowed entrepreneurs to purchase legally recognized titles within a contiguous area around Merrymeeting Bay, establishing a vast landholding suitable for redevelopment. Eight prominent Boston and Salem men, incorporated as the Pejepscot Proprietors, bought titles from Purchase’s heirs and others, thus acquiring title to approximately 500,000 acres of land, from the coast to Richmond, and from Dresden to Lisbon Falls. In 1715 they began selling or transferring the new lots. Very few of the earlier English pioneers were among the new owners. Altered land boundaries, combined with the Pejepscot Proprietors’ desire for defensible communities, meant that many of the new landowners would have settled and built in new locations, leaving many, and perhaps most, of the previous owners' sites undisturbed and forgotten. The following map shows a few of the first lots created by the Pejepscot Proprietors.
This 1718 map shows some of the earliest lots created by the Pejepscot Proprietors, who purchased the lands from the first English settlers or their descendants and re-subdivided the land into new lots that generally bore little or no resemblance to the previous land ownership boundaries.
— Map, Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net, item 12631.
Despite sporadic conflicts between England and France that continued after 1715, more settlers began to populate the Pejepscot Proprietors’ lands.
In 1718, a robust and determined group known as the Ulster Scots (aka, Scots-Irish) arrived, whose expanding settlements would add fuel to the tensions between Indians, and their numbers would increase through the first half of the 18th century.
This flood of new colonists alarmed Indians from the large upriver fortified village of Norridgewock, who insisted that new settlements must be restricted to the coast. The settlers' refusal to honor these demands sowed the seeds of the next great conflict, Lovewell’s War.
In June of 1722 Norridgewock warriors swept south and attacked homesteads and settlements on the northern shores of Merrymeeting Bay, following up with attacks along the lower Kennebec and on the town of Brunswick.
These raids devastated the isolated hamlets and farms of the new Ulster Scots settlement of Cork on the bay’s east shore, where many settlers were killed or taken captive. The area’s keystone community of Brunswick was mostly destroyed.
Only a handful of residents remained in the area, and most of these, according to McKeen (MSS, lecture) had garrison houses. Atrocities were committed by both sides during the war. A devastating English raid on Norridgewock in 1724 precipitated an end to this conflict in 1725.
Lovewell’s War was followed by a period of general conciliation and open trade, which was disrupted by the outbreak of King George’s War in 1744 between England and France. This American phase of the War of the Austrian Succession involved the disputed boundaries of Acadia (Nova Scotia) and northern New England, as well as control of the Ohio Valley. The war in New England was characterized by bloody border raids on both sides by soldiers and their Indian allies. The first such raid in the Merrymeeting Bay region took place in July of 1745.
By that time, Indian populations in the entire region had been greatly reduced by warfare, disease, and emigration to Quebec, so hostilities were generally confined to sporadic raids on remote settlements, but not on larger communities. These tactics nevertheless kept the growing English population on edge, and the Pejepscot Proprietors sought to allay these fears by building a new fort upriver at Richmond and sending out militia patrols in search of hostiles.
In 1748, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle led to a shaky truce between France and England but failed to reduce local tensions.
One source (Wheeler, 1878) mentions Indian attacks in Topsham ca. 1749-50 that reduced Topsham’s population from “25 inhabitants” to “18 families,” a confusing statement that invites further scrutiny and research for substantiation.
In 1750, a band of seamen with local connections murdered an Indian chief in Wiscasset, which nearly led to open warfare, were it not for Massachusetts taking prompt legal action against the Pejepscot Proprietors.
After a short-lived peace, the last in a series of Anglo-French wars for control of the frontier broke out in 1754. Known as the French and Indian War, it preceded the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in Europe and could be considered the North American phase of that war. At its outbreak, the remaining few Indian forces in the Merrymeeting Bay region were able to mount only ineffective guerrilla-style attacks, and by 1760 the area around Merrymeeting Bay was securely under the control of the settlers.
The war years were followed by legal battles for control of the land between the Pejepscot Proprietors and the newly-formed Kennebec Proprietors, a group of prominent Boston investors who had purchased the 1630 New Plymouth grant to the Kennebec and claimed that their territorial rights in the bay extended south to the Cathance River on its western shore. The contest was fought in the Massachusetts courts, as well as on the frontier, with each side waging a “pamphlet war” against the other and demanding loyalty oaths from settlers to bolster their claims. Ultimately, the final approved compromise agreement in 1766 favored the Kennebec Proprietors. In this agreement, the Pejepscot Proprietors released to the Kennebec Proprietors the lines between the New Meadows and Kennebec Rivers (now Phippsburg and Bath) and the southern line of Bowdoinham became the line between the two companies. This final “compromise,” when taken together with the granting of independent township status to towns within the Pejepscot Proprietors' territory by the Massachusetts courts, could be considered the turning point at which the Pejepscot Proprietors were effectively reduced to playing only a very minor role in the bay area’s ongoing settlement and development.
As the bay communities grew in number and economic vitality, their citizens applied for township status from the Massachusetts General Court. Once townships were granted, local town governance effectively ended proprietorship-based authority. By 1800, the towns bordering Merrymeeting Bay were essentially those that we see today.
Fortunately for the purposes of our project, the Merrymeeting Bay area has experienced less urban and suburban development than many other areas of early settlement. This has helped to preserve many of the early sites that we hope to discover and study. To locate these lost sites, we will employ a combination of existing evidence and high-tech tools. Refer to the Research section for more information about our research methods and materials. Refer to the Technology section for more details on the technologies that we are employing to provide new evidence of the locations of these lost sites.
References - Partial List - Under Development
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