In great detail he described sumptuous feasts of wild game and seafood, a "fat and lusty" soil, and forests of "high-timbered oaks" and other valuable trees.
By the mid 1600s English communities from Kittery to Sagadahoc were growing rapidly. This demographic growth, combined with the competition among fur-traders, put the Abenaki in the middle of a competitive war for land titles.
Europeans first arrived in the Gulf of Maine in a series of exploratory voyages lasting roughly from 1524 to 1613. During this century of exploration, three themes emerged with lasting significance for the history of Maine.
First, in almost every instance, initial relations between English and Indian deteriorated quickly from friendship to suspicion and hostility, suggesting a deep flaw in English diplomatic approaches.
Second, these early voyages projected a false and ultimately dangerous impression of Maine as a New-World paradise where little work would yield great wealth.
Third, they laid the basis for overlapping French and English claims to the Wabanaki homeland that precipitated a three-way struggle for supremacy or survival that lasted for another century. These themes – diplomatic failure, false expectations, and imperial claims – explain much about Maine's marginal status as a proprietary colony and later as a province of Massachusetts.
In 1497 Italian explorer John Cabot sailed to Nova Scotia under the British flag seeking a northern route to China. He may have reached Maine on his second voyage but was lost at sea off Newfoundland, and no record of his route survives.
Nevertheless, he established England's claim to the New World and took back stories of fabulous fishing on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, pointing the way for Basque, English, French, and Portuguese fishing ventures within a few years.
The first documented European visitor to Maine's coast was Florentine seafarer Giovanni da Verrazano, who in 1524, sailing for Francis I of France, made landfall off the Carolinas and sailed north to New England, where he heard tales of a fabled city of gold, silver, and crystal on the banks of the Penobscot River.
This heavily embroidered fantasy was inscribed on a 1529 map, making Norumbega –– and the coast of Maine –– a beacon for subsequent explorers. Verrazano's account praises the Algonquian people generally, but those he encountered in Maine were apparently less accommodating: "full of cruelty and vices, and ... so barbarous that we could never make any communication with them." His trip was important for putting Norumbega on the map and establishing a French counter-claim to the North Atlantic Coast.
In 1524-1525, Spain sent Estevan Gomez to northern New England, seeking a route to the orient. On the Maine coast he kidnapped 58 Indians and sold them into slavery. After this voyage European interest in New England dimmed for a time.
In 1604 Pierre Du Gua, Sieur de Monts, and French Royal Geographer Samuel de Champlain established a colony on a small island at the mouth of a river they named St. Croix, at Passamaquoddy Bay. Scurvy, severe cold, and shortages of fuel wood and fresh water caused terrible suffering, and in spring 1605 the survivors moved their post to Port-Royal on the southern tip of Nova Scotia.
On the Penobscot River they cemented a friendship with Abenaki sagamore Bessabez (or Bashaba). On the Kennebec they formed other alliances. Their stay, although brief, augmented France's claim to the region and gave the explorers a more realistic understanding of Maine's commercial prospects. There were no cities of gold, and as their encounter with Maine's winter demonstrated, colonizing would take more fortitude than one would expect for a territory in the same latitude as the Mediterranean.
In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold was sent to find a suitable place for a future colony. Gosnold established a small settlement in southern New England, sailed north into Maine, and returned to England with a cargo of furs and sassafras roots – thought to cure diseases like syphilis – and a record that cast New England as a colonizer's paradise.
In great detail, John Bereton, Gosnold's chronicler, exemplifies a shift in explorative narratives from confirming European fantasies to promoting New England's commercial possibilities. He described sumptuous feasts of wild game and seafood, a "fat and lusty" soil, and forests of "high-timbered oaks" and other valuable trees. His men "pestered" their ship with so many fish, they "threw numbers of them overboard againe." Gosnold first called his summer home "Shole (Shoal) Hope" then tried an even more optimistic name: Cape Cod.
Sensing even greater profits, merchants from Bristol outfitted two vessels under Martin Pring and sent him to Casco Bay in 1603. In Southern New England, while Pring exchanged gifts and initially established friendly relations with Indians, he almost immediately allowed his men to attack the Indians with two large dogs.
"And when we would be rid of the Savages company," Pring noted, "wee would let loose the Mastives, and suddenly with outcryes they would flee away." Having left a legacy of ill will, Pring loaded a cargo of sassafras and left for England, enthusiastic about the prospects for colonizing and about the "gaine to us" of furs and other items.
George Waymouth, third in this series of English voyagers, made landfall near the St. George River, a land rich in "Firre, Birch, Oke, and Beach." He remarked on the abundance of the land and the ocean. He kidnapped five Indians from Pemaquid and took them back to England.
After talking with Waymouth's captives, Popham and Gorges, among others, urged the king and Parliament in 1606 to issue a new royal charter. This went to the Virginia Company that gained rights to the coast between the Spanish Main and New France. The Virgina Company accorded London merchants the southern section and Plymouth merchants the territory between the Chesapeake and Bay of Fundy.
In May 1607, four months after the Jamestown colonists left England, Popham and Gorges sent two vessels to the Sagadahoc, as the Kennebec was known. Aboard were George Popham, nephew of John Popham, as president of the colony; and his assistant, Raleigh Gilbert, a son of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, along with 120 "planters."
They stopped first at Monhegan Island, then, guided by one of Waymouth's captives, they sailed to Pemaquid where their attempts at trade were understandably rebuffed.
Sailing south, the colonists were caught in a midnight storm with fierce winds blowing directly onshore. "In great danger and hazzard," they struggled among the perilous rocks and reefs, and in the morning made anchor at the mouth of the Sagadahoc.
On a peninsula on the west side of the river the colonists set to work building their fort and a 30-ton "Pynnace" they christened Virginia. Gilbert sailed westward to Cape Elizabeth, up the Androscoggin, and then east to the Penobscot, trying without success to establish relations with the Indians. By October, Fort St. George mounted 12 cannon and enclosed 50 log cabins, a church, and a storehouse.
The colonists spent the winter half-starved and freezing in their dreary log cabins. In February George Popham died and two months later Gilbert learned he had inherited a family estate in England and decided to return there, abandoning the colony. The two leaders had been poorly suited to their roles, and the colonists were notably undisciplined. They grossly mistreated the Indians, who finally raided the fort and burned the storehouse.
There was little enthusiasm for another colonizing effort, but Virginia's Captain John Smith tried in 1614, looking for whales, copper, and gold. He found none of those, but created an amazingly accurate map of the country he named New England. Expeditions in 1615 and 1617 failed as well.
Still, Smith managed to encourage settlement with his Description of New-England, published in 1616, which included a plan for settlement that combined the quest for empire with the individual colonist's interest in land and self-improvement. Smith's imperial vision, brilliant in many respects, brought with it the persistent English weakness in viewing native inhabitants as one more commodity to be plucked from the land.
Like the English after Sagadahoc, French merchants turned away from the region after the St. Croix disappointment. But two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Pierre Baird and Enemond Massé, in 1613 sailed from Port-Royal to Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island to establish a colony called St. Sauveur.
British Captain Samuel Argall of Jamestown destroyed the colony a few weeks later. The region shifted from French to English control several times over the next century, but keeping the French from establishing a fortified outpost in northern New England allowed the Pilgrims to settle safely in Plymouth seven years later.
The years following Smith's voyage brought a halting movement toward English settlement in Maine. The earliest colonies were semi-permanent fishing stations under the nominal authority of Ferdinando Gorges, who had been granted a monopoly over the region by the Council for New England. By 1623 some 400 vessels plied the banks between Cape Ann and Monhegan, working mostly out of year-round fishing stations on the islands and peninsulas of the central coast.
In 1622 Gorges and his partner John Mason divided northern New England, with Gorges taking the land east of the Piscataqua, and for more than 40 years Gorges directed the colony's development as "Lord Palatinate" of Maine. Fishing and trading colonies appeared at Damariscove in 1622, Piscataqua, Cape Newagen, and Monhegan in 1623; Pejepscot in 1625-1630, and Richmond Island in 1628.
By the 1630s Pemaquid was the center of commercial activity on the New England coast. English, Abenaki, and French traders rubbed elbows on its cobblestone streets, and its merchants sent fur, fish, grains, corn, timber, and livestock to other provincial ports or England.
Markets changed abruptly and the fishing stations frequently disappeared when a scarcity of bait or timber undercut the operation. Still, the little hamlets gradually acquired the fundamentals of stable communities, holding informal "combinations" to elect local leaders, enforce moral codes, and settle land disputes.
By 1635 Gorges's Maine included several small communities: York, Saco, and Cape Porpoise established in 1630, Kittery and Scarborough the following year, Falmouth in 1633, North Yarmouth in 1636, and Wells in 1642. In 1640 he sent his nephew, Thomas Gorges, to Maine to establish a capital at Agamenticus on the York River. Gorges prescribed an elaborate system of government, set the local church on an even keel, and adjudicated several disputed land titles.
When the Puritans won the English civil war of 1642-1649, they encouraged Massachusetts's expansionist tendency, annexing most of southern Maine. A dispute over the ownership of the Casco Bay region, claimed by 1632 settler George Cleeve, who persuaded English merchant Edward Rigby to purchase the area, and by Gorges, eventually allowed Massachusetts to lay claim in 1652, winning some local support by offering secure land titles, local rules, freedom of worship, and protection from rival French claims.
The Massachusetts General Court purchased the Casco Bay region from the heirs of Ferdinand Gorges in 1677. By this time, the province was engulfed in war with the Wabanaki, and the Commonwealth received Maine at bargain prices. After several other English political upheavals, William and Mary granted Massachusetts Bay a new charter in 1691 that included all of Maine.
Massachusetts rule brought some political stability to Maine, and its economy matured under the influence of the fur trade, which expanded after 1600 due to a demand for luxury furs. In 1628, merchants from the Plymouth colony built a trading post at Cushnoc in present-day Augusta, and by 1631 they were operating several stations between Rhode Island and Machias. Other merchants located at Monhegan Island, Pemaquid, Pejepscot, and Richmond Island.
At its peak, the Plymouth traders found the Kennebec trade profitable, but business declined as the competition increased. Companies clashed over territorial claims, dragging Indians into the fray. They sold contraband muskets, shot, and liquor and cheated their Indian clients to boost profits. Attempts to regulate this far-flung frontier were all but futile.
Despite the economic chaos, fur trading sped the process of settlement as hard-pressed merchants diversified into other sources of income. Boston merchants Thomas Clarke and Thomas Lake established a post on Arrowsic Island near the mouth of the Kennebec River, and when rival posts eroded their profits, they began raising cattle and exporting livestock, meat, hides, and hay to Boston, which was becoming an important economic center. Settlers cut timber, built a sawmill, grew crops for food and export, processed fish, and manufactured implements.
These strategies – diversification and agricultural self-sufficiency – encouraged others to clear farms and build gristmills, blacksmith and cooper shops, and boatyards, much of this activity financed by Clarke and Lake. The company also sold land along the river, often at a loss, on the principle that more settlers meant cheaper labor for their various enterprises and more customers for their merchandise.
By the 1650s, the small settler society between the Piscataqua and the Kennebec was beginning to develop a distinctive culture, more diverse, more secular, and more democratic than the Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay to the south.
Maine's government remained weak, partly because of the continuing disputes over land, and partly because occupations like lumbering, fishing, and trading encouraged mobility and rootlessness. Communities – sometimes mere scatterings of farms – sprawled along the coast or rivers in long ribbons, with no town centers and little purchase for those who hoped to control this growing society.
Coastal settlers exported, in addition to fish, furs, and produce, a variety of products like clapboards, pipe-staves, ship timbers, planks, pitch, and turpentine. Their markets were other colonies, the West Indies, and Europe. Small shipyards appeared in the coves, and water-powered mills on the rivers.
Farmers took advantage of coastal salt marshes to expand their herds, and they worked in seasonal trades like fishing, lumbering, milling, seafaring, and trapping. Women stayed closer to home in the kitchen, garden, barnyard, orchard, and milk-house. Some specialized in producing yarn, fabric, dairy products, or crafts, which they traded with neighbors.
French Maine also experienced competing claims to jurisdiction and authority. Following the destruction of St. Saveur and Port-Royal by Samuel Argall in 1613, Acadia, as the easternmost extension of New France was called, was left to a few French traders working out of Indian villages.
Claude de La Tour built a post at Pentagoet (present-day Castine) in 1625 and one at the mouth of the Saint John River. When New Englanders captured Pentagoet in 1626, he returned to France and left his Acadian ventures to his son, Charles.
In 1635 another French merchant, Charles de Menou d'Aulnay, took control of Pentagoet as a result of a treaty between France and England. It was not long before d'Aulnay and La Tour, both energetic and ambitious men, were at loggerheads. Indeed, the story of Acadia in Maine is largely a record of their strife, with territory passing from French to British control and back again.
In the 18th century, Acadia remained mostly under French influence, offering the Abenaki a strategic and commercial counterweight to the much more aggressive English and their Mohawk allies.
Before contact, about 20,000 Indians lived in Maine. As the "People of the Dawn," they shared language, culture, and ancestry with the larger Wabanaki confederation across New England and eastern Canada. In southern Maine, the Abenaki economy included corn, beans, and squash along with fish, shellfish, and game. Men hunted, trapped, and traveled on diplomatic and military excursions, while women farmed, foraged, made clothing and baskets, fished, and cared for the home and the children.
During winter, families dispersed into small interior camps to hunt, and in summer they traveled frequently to the coast. Since the Abenaki had no large domesticated animals, no fertilizer, and no plows, they farmed only as long as the natural fertility of the soil held out, then moved to a new location. Their semi-permanent villages included up to 160 bark-covered houses built on frames of saplings bent into a dome. The larger villages could hold a thousand individuals or more.
The fur trade brought some economic stability to the English settlements and initially benefited the Indians as they gained copper kettles, metal hatchets, knives and arrow points, colorful cloth and beads, and firearms for traditional stone, bone, or ceramic tools that made their lives easier.
By the third decade of the 17th century, however, the fur trade had profoundly changed the Indian economy as it disrupted their hunting and fishing routines, altered gender relations, and changed traditional hunting territories. It also introduced new forms of status based on European goods.
In the mid 1600s, English settlers depended more on their farms and became less interested in trading for furs, leaving the Indians without a source for the English goods on which they came to depend, particularly muskets. Because of cultural differences, Indians were unable to distinguish dishonest from honest traders and were vulnerable to abuse.
Fur trading continued farther west and in Canada, however.
Besides issues related to fur trading, Indians experienced other disastrous events in the first half of the 17th century. Between 1616 and 1619, virulent diseases transmitted by Europeans swept through the Abenaki villages killing 75 to 90 percent of the inhabitants. The plagues interrupted the transmission of traditional skills, political practices and wisdom passed down by elders, leaving survivors more dependent on European technology.
By the mid 1600s English communities from Kittery to Sagadahoc were growing rapidly. This demographic growth, combined with the competition among fur-traders, put the Abenaki in the middle of a competitive war for land titles. Like the fur trade, these transactions had little effect on the Indian way of life at first, but there were subtle changes.
When populations were sparse and game abundant, the Abenaki had no need for exclusive rights outside relatively small horticulture regions, and thus they considered these sales simply a means of granting access to the land. While Abenaki continued to reside on the lands they "sold" to settlers and trading companies, the hasty transactions laid the groundwork for later tensions.
As settlers flooded into the Kennebec Valley in the second half of the century, the Abenaki lost access to hunting territories, coastal foraging areas, communal gathering spots, and transportation corridors, and they began complaining of "hard dealing" in land transactions. This breakdown in communication led ultimately to tension and war.
The fur trade was one among many causes of tension between the English and Abenaki in Maine. Beginning in 1675, a series of five wars, most of them extensions of conflict between France and England in Europe, tore through the fabric of English, French, and Indian society.
These wars posed a dilemma for the Abenaki, who were tied strategically and spiritually to the French in eastern Maine and Quebec. Caught between two belligerent European nations, and facing constant English encroachments on their territory, the Abenaki response was not uniform.
Some favored accommodation; others, a military alliance with the French; and a third group counseled withdrawal to the French settlements along the St. Lawrence. Survival depended on holding a middle ground between two colonial powers, a nightmarish path with no discernable end in sight.