Maine: An Encyclopedia
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

A Brief History of Maine

Table of Contents
Section TimeLink
Origins to 1492
Exploration and Early Settlement 1492-1651
Massachusetts and the Colonial Period 1652-1774
American Revolution 1775-1789
Developing a Maine Identity 1790-1819
Early Statehood 1820-1849
Growth, Civil War, and Economic Change 1850-1899
Reform and Optimism 1900-1929
Depression and World War 1930-1949
Seeds of Change 1950-1974
Challenges of Change and Growth 1975-

This brief sketch focuses on the highlights of Maine History and is not intended to be as extensive as the many available works on the subject. Each of the sections includes a link to the Timeline for the period covered. To view the Timeline for a particular period, in the Table of Contents (left) click on the dates under the TimeLink column.

Origins to 1492

Forming the natural environment

Formed in the wake of the recent ice age, Maine has an interesting geologic history, as noted in the article on geology.

About 25,000 years ago an ice sheet covered all of New England. After 4,000 years “global warming” forced its retreat so that approximately 14,000 years ago the Maine coast was beginning to be exposed. During the next 2,000 years the ice slowly moved north and in its wake dense forests emerged.

Pre-European Inhabitants

As Native Americans moved into Maine from the south or west 11,000 years ago, they initially used dugout canoes to navigate the accessible coastal areas. As the interior became available and the dense forests restricted extensive exploration to waterways, other means of transportation were needed. About 5,500 years ago the birch bark canoe was developed, allowing easy portage from river to stream to lake.

When Leif Erikson explored the Maine coast in 1003, the Native Americans in southwestern Maine had added corn, bean, and squash agriculture to their hunting and gathering economy. They had adopted the use of pottery several thousand years earlier.

Exploration and Early Settlement: 1492-1651

About 500 years have passed since European governments and businessmen became interested in Maine’s resources. After Columbus’ discoveries to the south alerted governments to the potential resources lying across the Atlantic, they dispatched explorers to report. The Cabots arrived in 1497 and returned in 1498 to claim the New England area for Britain. Verrazano did the same for the French in 1524 setting the stage for a two-century struggle for power between the two rival powers.

The early 1600’s brought business interests and associated settlements. The short-lived St. Croix (French) and Popham (English) colonies demonstrated the difficulties of surviving in the New World. The ill-equipped Pilgrims, arriving in 1620, endured through the graces of the local Native Americans and the supplies and food they obtained from fishermen at Damariscove Island. In 1625 they sailed up the Kennebec River near Fort Western in search of trade with the Indians.

As the process of carving up the new territory began, Sir Fernando Gorges and John Mason in 1622 received a royal grant for all the land between the Merrimac and Kennebec rivers. In 1629 the Pilgrims received a patent to protect their trading rights with the Indians on the Kennebec River.

Though he was granted exclusive rights to Maine in 1639 by another English King, Gorges authority was eroded so that the growing Massachusetts Bay Colony eventually claimed jurisdiction over Maine in 1647 and purchased proprietary rights from Gorges’ heirs in 1677. Even from these early times, the origins of the name Maine or Mayne have been obscure.

Massachusetts and the Colonial Period: 1652-1774

In 1652 Massachusetts formally asserted authority over Maine, established York County and approved the incorporation of the towns of Kittery and York.

The succeeding years, however, were marked by a series of wars involving the French and their Indian allies. Specifically these “French and Indian Wars” were King Williams’s War (1689-1697); Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713); King George’s War (1744-1748); and the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years’ War in Canada and Europe, (1754-1763). Whole towns were obliterated, hostages were taken to Quebec, and substantial settlement in the remote areas was effectively ended.

By the 1720’s the tide began to turn in favor of the English colonists with the bloody victories at Norridgewock in 1724 and at Lovewell’s Pond the following year. The capture of Fort Louisburg on Cape Breton Island in 1745 helped speed the outcome, confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, in which France surrendered all claims in North America.

The incorporation of towns increased and the population again began to expand in the District Maine, which had become a distinct geographical identity with the formation of New Hampshire in 1841, thus defining the District’s western border.

As part of Massachusetts, Maine developed early fishing, lumbering, and shipbuilding industries, and was designated (1775) one of three admiralty districts of that state during the Revolution.

American Revolution: 1775-1789

More details may be found by entering “revolutionary war” in the Search box.  Also see the timeline of the American Revolution.

In the year, 1775, the battle of Lexington and Concord in April marked the start of the American Revolution. Maine immediately became involved in the conflict. In the east, on May 9, 1775, the British ship Margaretta was captured by Maine citizens in Machias.

On October 18, 1775, British Captain Mowatt conducted a naval bombardment of Falmouth (Portland), which resulted in a great fire that decimated the town. Earlier Mowatt had removed all guns and ammunition from Fort Pownall in Stockton Springs. Benedict Arnold and his expedition reached Swan Island in the Kennebec River, and moved through the state to Quebec. The British-built stone Fort Frederick, in the town of Bristol, was destroyed by American forces in 1775 to deprive the British of its use against the Revolution.

In the latter part of April, 1775, Captain Nathaniel Larrabee and Lieutenant Isaac Snow went to Condy’s [Cundy’s] Harbor, at Harpswell, with a company of men from Brunswick and Harpswell. They were employed in erecting a fort there and in building barracks.

On July 17, 1776, the Massachusetts government decreed that copies of the Declaration of Independence be sent to all Maine towns to be read aloud by their ministers at the next church service. It was clearly not popular to be anything other than a patriot.

In 1777, the Ranger, first American Warship, was built at Kittery, now the site of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The American Penobscot Expedition suffered defeat by British vessels in Penobscot Bay on August 14, 1779.

By 1783 the Treaty of Paris confirmed the end of the war, American independence, and set Maine’s boundaries (to be finally resolved sixty-years later in the context of the Aroostook War and disputed territories) with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842).

With its population growing (65,000 in 1780), in 1785 the first movement to separate Maine from Massachusetts began though soon faded. However, internal communication, binding the District together continued to develop, symbolized by the opening in 1787 of a stagecoach line between Portland and Portsmouth, later extended to Augusta.

Developing a Maine Identity: 1790-1819

Commerce expanded rapidly after the war, followed by industry after commercial activity was interrupted by the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812 when imports were restricted.

In 1792 the first official election was held on the question of Maine’s separation from Massachusetts. A low turnout and a narrow majority against separation did little to encourage the advocates of statehood.

But the incorporation of over 150 towns during this period institutionalized local loyalties, developed networks of communication, and increased awareness of being part of Maine. A non-binding referendum in 1797 on separation from Massachusetts this time favored separation, but again in a low turnout vote.

The War of 1812 gave major impetus for statehood as Maine was attacked but got little support from Massachusetts. In that year the U.S. Congress declared war on Britain in protest over their interference with American shipping, and the British and Americans fought naval battles off the Maine coast. In 1814, the British attacked and occupied the Downeast coast beginning at Eastport.

Memories of the conflict were still fresh in 1819 when a Constitutional Convention held in Portland drafted Maine’s state Constitution. It went into effect with congressional approval of the Missouri Compromise in the following year. By then the new state’s population had ballooned to nearly 300,000.

William King was the leading force behind the movement for separation of Maine from Massachusetts heading the Democracy of Maine movement. In 1819 he was made president of the Constitutional Convention.

Early Statehood: 1820-1849

The convention of 1819 nominated King for governor, an office he won with 21,083 votes of the 22,014 cast in the first such election in 1820. After the passage of the Missouri Compromise in the U.S. Congress, Maine achieved statehood on March 15, 1820.

The state’s special identity continued to develop with the establishment of the Maine Historical Society in 1822 and the Kennebec Journal newspaper in 1825.

In 1827 Augusta was officially established as the future State Capital, moving to a more central location than Portland, which served as the first seat of government. The cornerstone of the State House was set in 1829 and the new administration began operations in 1832 as the population surges to 400,000.

The northern portion of the state demonstrated its political significance in 1838 with the beginning of the bloodless “Aroostook War.” The end of the Revolutionary War left the northern border ill-defined, causing local conflicts and controversies. The new government constructed a military road from Bangor to Houlton to aid the movement of troops. It major impact was to open that part of the state to increased settlement.

The U.S. government, fearing the Maine forces would spark a new war, appointed Daniel Webster to negotiated a solution to the controversy. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty (Lord Ashburton was the British negotiator) settled the matter in 1842, further encouraging migration to the area.

Foreshadowing the development of Maine’s tourism industry, Henry David Thoreau left Concord, Massachusetts in 1846 for “Bangor and the backwoods” to explore and write about his observations. In 1848 Mount Kineo House, a tourist hotel in Greenville, was completed, beginning a century long resort tradition.

Growth, Civil War, and Economic Change: 1850-1899

With a population exceeding 580,000, the state declared its political independence by passing “The Maine Law,” the first strong prohibition law in the United States.

The agricultural sector was given a boost when the state government established the Department of Agriculture in 1852. The next year the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad, joining Montreal and Portland, began service.

At the outset of the Civil War in 1861 Maine’s population was about 628,000, 73,000 of whom (11.6%) would served the Union cause in that conflict. In deed, at the end of the war the state’s population actually decreased for the first time as the 1870 census reported 627,000 residents.

Joshua Chamberlain and his troops defense Little Round Top at Gettysburg symbolized the many efforts and sacrifices Maine people offered during the war, by whose end in 1865 7,322 Maine soldiers (ten percent of those who served) were reported killed. A series of “War Governors” pledged their allegiance to the Union cause and provided resources to support the state’s troops.

After the War, Maine shared in the industrial boom that affected the nation while still remaining a largely agricultural society. The University of Maine was established in 1865, following the federal Morrill Act of 1862.

As many Mainers moved west to settle the frontier, efforts were made to attract immigrants to the state. The Swedish Colony of the 1870’s in Aroostook County was one of the notable successes.

The first wood pulp was produced in Topsham in 1868, marking the beginning of paper making in the state. Originally characterized by smaller companies, the industry consolidation to come accelerated with the formation International Paper Company and Great Northern Paper Company in 1899.

The Battleship Maine, sunk in Havana Harbor, sparked the Spanish-American War and the country’s first global conflict, creating U.S. outposts as far away as the Philippines.

Reform and Optimism: 1900-1929

After the turn of the twentieth century, the new global presence, progressive politics, a world war, and the influenza epidemic punctured Maine’s once isolated environment.

Progressive reforms made their way into the state, changing both its political and economic arrangements. They included the formation of many labor unions (1902) , including the Houlton Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Augusta Loomfixers’ Union, and the Skowhegan Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers’ Union; Initiative and Referendum provision allowing citizen initiated ballot questions (1907); and direct primary elections for nominating candidates (1911).

World War I began in 1914 but no American forces were committed until 1918, the year it ended. Over 35,000 troops from Maine served, 1,026 of whom lost their lives. Ironically, machine gun inventor Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, of Sangerville, died in 1916 in London during the conflict. That weapon was a major contributor to the substantial number of deaths suffered in the war.

In 1918, theaters closed statewide to limit spread of influenza. Health and mortality records of the time report the persistent loss of children to the disease.

The 1920’s, a time of economic growth, was also a period of threatening intolerance. The resurgent Ku Klux Klan claimed at least 20,000 members in Maine as it targeted Catholics and immigrants for discrimination.

Depression and World War: 1930-1949

The economic downturn soon affected the state’s politics as well as its economy. Louis J. Brann of Lewiston in 1933 became first Democratic Governor in twenty years. The same year, Maine received its first quota of 1,800 men for the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), beginning a ten year presence in the state peaking in 1935.

Although Brann was reelected, the political impact was temporary. Only Maine and Vermont voted against reelection of President F. D. Roosevelt in 1936, and no Democrat was elected governor until 1954.

World War II began in Europe in 1939, with U.S. formal military involvement beginning after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the same year that Maine Maritime Academy was established. The state sent nearly 113,000 service people to war over the next four years, losing 2,551 killed during the conflict that ended in 1945.

During and after the war, the major industries, paper and power, continued to expand. In 1941, International Paper Company, and in 1943, Kimberly-Clark Tissue Company, also known as Scott Paper Company, both out of state corporations, first filed to do business in Maine. The state’s electric power supply was enhanced in 1949 as the town of Flagstaff, after a complete relocation of its population, was inundated with water from the Central Maine Power Company Dam on the Dead River.

In a blow to the eastern Maine tourist economy in 1947, the Bar Harbor area was decimated by fire, most buildings were lost, and the scenic grounds of Acadia National Park burned almost completely.

Seeds of Change: 1950-1974

In the post World War II period, a concerted effort to return to peaceful, prosperous times seemed to dominate. Unfortunately, the Korean “conflict,” not an official “war,” broke out in June of 1950, again taxing the military resources of the state. Over 40,000 Maine people served and 233 were killed.

On the day the Korean conflict began, Margaret Chase Smith, elected two years earlier as the first woman U. S. Senator, made her “Declaration of Conscience” speech against McCarthyism and its dangerous attempts to infringe on civil liberties in the name of anti-Communism.

In 1954, the first Democratic Governor elected since 1937, Edmund S. Muskie, broke the iron grip the Republican Party had on the state for almost one hundred years. That victory, and his later election to the U.S. Senate in 1958, spurred a resurgence of the Democratic Party in Maine.

Maine established first state sales tax in 1951, adding the income tax in 1969, setting the resource base for expanded state government programs.

Interstate 95 was completed to Portland in 1956 and extended to Houlton in 1965, the year that the Boston & Maine Railroad’s passenger service from Boston to Portland was ended, signaling the triumph of the automobile over mass transportation.

Environmental concerns became more important as development began to conflict with residential and recreational interests. The influx of new residents, including “back to the land” young people in the early 1970’s, added to the political constituency. In 1972 the Department of Environmental Protection was established, followed by the Department of Conservation in 1973.

Possibly the “final seed of change” in the period was planted in November of 1974 when James B. Longley, Sr. was elected the first independent (belonging to no political party) governor in the state’s history. Among other factors, a major element in his election apparently was the public disaffection with “politicians,” as a result of the Watergate political scandal and resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Challenges of Change and Growth: 1975-

In January of 1975, the state government was confronted with a unique situation: an independent Governor, a Republican-controlled Senate, and a Democratic-controlled House.

To modernize the governmental system, in 1975 constitutional changes were approved in which annual sessions of the Legislature were established and the legislatively elected Executive Council was abolished.  According to Kenneth Palmer,

The Executive Council, consisting of seven members elected by the legislature, had been created by the 1819 constitution. Although the council was meant to “advise the Governor in the executive part of government,” it provided one of the most significant restrictions to early gubernatorial power in Maine. The Executive Council was a vestige of Revolutionary suspicion of centralized power, and Maine “inherited” its council from the Massachusetts Constitution.

The political landscape continued to change. In 1978 Democratic voter enrollment outnumbered that of Republicans for the first time since records were kept. However, by 1982, officials reported more unenrolled (“independent”) voters than either Democrats or Republicans. Clearly, no party could assume it had a natural advantage in political contests.

Women, regardless of party, made political gains during the period, possibly seen as not the typical “politician,” in whom faith had been seriously eroded. Among the firsts for women: Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, Secretary of the Senate, State Treasurer, and State Auditor. Women membership in the legislature also climbed to historic heights.

Economic and population growth accelerated in the 1970’s as new highways attracted commuters and industries to the southwest from the nearby Boston area. Maine’s population grew by 13.2% in the 1970’s and 9.2% in the 1980’s, the largest increases since the 1840’s.

The economy received a boost when longstanding land claims against the state by Native Americans were settled (1980) for $81.5 million, and the tribes began to buy land and make investments.

A ballot tampering scandal involving an aid to Speaker of the House John L. Martin erupted in 1992. Although Martin resigned in 1994 hoping to limit damage to fellow Democrats, Angus King, Jr. was elected as the second independent governor in Maine history that year, successful in part for the same reason that brought Mr. Longley to power: political scandal.

More recently, the post-Cold War international environment and the impact of the global economy have again stirred Maine to seek a new identity based on its past and its current challenges.

Additional resources

Palmer, Kenneth. Maine Politics and Government. Lincoln, Nebraska. University of Nebraska Press. 1992., p.60




This entry was posted in History, A Brief History, Revolutionary War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
This entry was last modified: May 04, 2017 01:39 AM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *