400 years of New Mainers

Text by Reza Jalali, an educator, writer, and scholar, who runs the University of Southern Maine's Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and Tilly Laskey, Outreach Curator at Maine Historical Society.

Images from Abbe Museum, Camden-Rockport Historical Society, Jay Economy, Franco-American Collection, Hubbard Free Library, Lewiston Public Library, Christine Macchi, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, Maine Historical Society, Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media, New Sweden Historical Society, Nylander Museum, and Jan Pieter Van Voorst Van Beest.


Every day we are bombarded with stories of immigration

Immigration is one of the most contentious topics of debate in Maine. Controversy aside, immigration is also America's oldest tradition, and along with religious tolerance, what our nation was built upon. Since the first people—the Wabanaki—permitted Europeans to settle in the land now known as Maine, we have been a state of immigrants.

Learn more about New Mainers

Learn more about New Mainers

Khadija Guled, Portland, 2009. Photo courtesy of Jan Pieter Van Voorst Van Beest

Over the past 400 years, Maine's immigrant population has morphed from Protestant English to today's mosaic of faiths and ethnic heritages. Between 2000-2011, the foreign-born population in Maine increased by 19.6 percent, and in 2013, immigrants made up 3.4 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents. However, the 2014 US Census still placed Maine as the oldest and whitest state in the nation, with 95 percent reporting as Caucasian.

2016 reports indicate a shrinking workforce in Maine--baby boomers are retiring, and there are more deaths than births in Maine--resulting in a growing labor shortfall. In 1870, William Widgery Thomas, Maine's Commissioner of Immigration, was faced with a similar predicament and suggested, "We must augment our population then, by immigration from outside our borders; and this immigration must come from one of two sources—from the other States, or from foreign countries."

This exhibit shares the personal histories of immigrants over four centuries, demonstrating that immigrants have helped to mold the economic, cultural, and social character of Maine. Historic objects are combined with contemporary artwork to help contextualize questions such as, why do people leave their homes? who are the immigrants? and, why do they settle in Maine?

Whether you are from another country, another state, or live in the same Maine town as your great-grandparents, this exhibit is an opportunity to learn about new and old neighbors, to hear each other's stories, to contextualize our commonalities and differences, and to celebrate our shared humanity.

Learn more about the Wabanaki people, the first people of Maine

Learn more about the Wabanaki people, the first people of Maine

Butch Phillips at the Maine Indian Basketmakers Festival, 2015.
Courtesy of Christine Macchi, Photography

If you aren't of Wabanaki heritage, you are an immigrant to Maine

Indigenous people have been living in Maine for thousands of years, and some say, from time immemorial. Oral histories of the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people—known collectively as the Wabanaki—trace their origin from Glooscap, their culture hero. Glooscap shot arrows into ash trees, and when they hit, the trees opened, and the first Wabanaki people emerged.

Glaciers covered Maine 14,000 yeas ago. As the climate warmed a tundra landscape and large game evolved--including wooly mammoths, mastodons, and sabre-toothed cats. Archaeological evidence indicates that between 9,000 to perhaps as long as 13,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians followed the big game and began hunting and living in what is now Maine.

Rivers developed from melting glaciers and forests grew as the environment stabilized, from around 3,500-9,000 years ago. People adapted and flourished in the changing ecosystem, becoming expert stone and toolmakers that enabled successful hunting and fishing. As populations grew, so did technology. 500-3,000 years ago marks the introduction of pottery making in Wabanaki communities, and the ability to easily store and cook food.

Starting around 500 years ago, the Wabanaki began hosting visitors—mostly European fisherman and explorers, and later, permanent settlements. In 1893, Penobscot historian Joseph Nicolar printed ancient Wabanaki prophecies about foreigners coming to Wabanaki lands, saying it was not a surprise to see white people, and that the elders, "decided, that when the strange people came, to receive them as friends, and if possible make brothers of them."

Archaeological and oral histories both signify that the Wabanaki have consistently lived in the territory now known as Maine longer than any other people. If you are not of Wabanaki heritage, you are an immigrant to Maine!

How slavery affected Maine

Not everyone chose to make Maine their home. From the earliest European settlement in the region, slaves were forcibly brought to Maine to work and live. The majority of these slaves were of African descent, although some Native people in Maine were captured for slavery. In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt of the vessel Long-Robert kidnapped American Indians on Monhegan and sold them to Spain as slaves.

Slaves have been recorded in Maine as early as the mid-1600s at Pemaquid. A young black woman named Susannah may have been one of earliest slaves in Maine, when she was brought by her owner, Alexander Woodrup in the 1680s. She was about twenty years old and most likely was born in Africa. Slaves may have come to Maine even earlier, with fishermen, traders, and explorers who visited Maine in the years before permanent settlements. By the early 1700s, African slaves appeared more often, particularly in early southern Maine settlements.

While slaves in Maine never numbered as many as in other regions, they did exist and contributed to the creation of our state. Other Africans came of their own accord, as free people who worked on ships that frequented the Maine ports, or emigrated from neighboring Canada in search of better opportunities.

Seeking a better future

Over the past 400 years, new generations of immigrants have arrived in Maine with different cultures, religions, and sometimes new languages. What they have in common is the hope of making a better life, and possibly, striking it rich.

Mainers are renowned for a hard-driving work ethic. European immigrants added their skills and traditions to Maine society. French and Irish immigrants who arrived in the post-Civil War years of industrial expansion contributed to the growth of urban industries in places like Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, and Biddeford. At the turn of the 20th century, Armenians, Albanians, Chinese, and Italians followed.

In 2013, with the majority of immigrants hailing from Canada, the United Kingdom, Asia, and Africa, there is a similar entrepreneurial spirit where immigrants make up 3.6 percent of Maine's workforce and own 3.2 percent of businesses.

Becoming "American" in Maine

From 1922 to 1945, the Portland Public Schools offered daytime "Americanization" classes for adult and school-aged immigrants, led by veteran teacher Clara L. Soule. Americanization was a national movement that gained traction during World War I, when some Americans questioned the loyalty of immigrants to their adopted land.

In response to the charge that immigrants could never become American, leaders like Clara Soule used education as a way to restructure the lives of immigrants inside and outside of the classroom.

Children were natural attendees of Americanization classes, but Soule expanded the classes to include adults. She targeted immigrant women after the passage of the Cable Act in 1922, which separated a woman's naturalization status from that of her husband. Soule believed that if a woman did not work outside the home, she was less likely to learn the English language and American customs.

Historical pageantry was incorporated into the Americanization curriculum as a way to teach immigrants about the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. Students acted out "iconic" patriotic scenes like the First Thanksgiving or the creation of the American Flag, which demonstrated their grasp of both national history and democratic ideals.

While Americanization classes indoctrinated students into Maine's culture, this type of education required immigrants to surrender their language, ethnic culture and identities. The program ceased in 1945, although the Evening School still offered English and citizenship classes.

House Island: Ellis Island of the North

House Island quarantine station, Portland, 1941

House Island quarantine station, Portland, 1941

Item Contributed by
National Archives at Boston

The U.S. Government used House Island, located off the Portland coast in Casco Bay, to process overflow immigrants from New York's Ellis Island from 1907 to 1937.

As individuals and families arrived from other countries, many were sent through the Immigration Inspection or Quarantine Station at House Island in Casco Bay, where in 1913 alone 26,421 people first landed in the United States. The island was busiest after the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, passed to restrict immigration to the United States. The act cut immigration nationally by about two-thirds in one year, giving preference to professionals, and to people from northern European countries.

Grand Trunk Station, Portland, 1938

Grand Trunk Station, Portland, 1938

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Roberta Randall Sheaff (1909-2004) was born on House Island; her family lived there until 1924. Her father, Benjamin Randall, inspected incoming vessels and managed the quarantine station. Roberta’s remembrances detail some of the invasive quarantine techniques, and that when the newly arrived immigrant men were forced to take showers, "they could not possibly escape the overhead water. Their clothes had been taken and put through a fumigating system and were returned to them as they came out."

Once cleared through House Island immigration, the majority of immigrants boarded trains at the Grand Trunk railroad station on the mainland in Portland, and traveled to western states or northward to Canada.

Nativism, the Know Nothings, and the Ku Klux Klan in Maine

Challenging economic times combined with an influx of immigrants can cause stress for a community. In boom times, Maine openly received immigrants to add to the wealth of the state by working in mills, the lumber industry, and agriculture. When finances became lean, competition for resources and jobs between those born in America—so called "native born"—and anyone considered a foreigner, turned intolerant.

Third phase, burning of Old South Church, Bath, 1854

Third phase, burning of Old South Church, Bath, 1854

A mob of "Know Nothing" members burned the Old South Church in Bath in 1854 because Irish Catholics were permitted to worship there.

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Know Nothings
The Native American Party, renamed in 1855 as the American Party, and commonly known as the "Know Nothing" movement, was a political party that operated on a national basis during the 1830s to the 1860s.

Irish, French-Canadian, and Italian immigrants who came to Maine brought with them their Roman Catholic faith. The "Know Nothings" were empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values, and as being controlled by the Pope in Rome.

The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing". Outsiders called them "Know Nothings" and the name stuck. Membership was limited to Protestant men.

Ku Klux Klan
When a new Ku Klux Klan formed in 1915—a time of heightened patriotism, nationalism, and anxiety about the future—Maine residents joined in the secret movement. The participation of a predominantly white northern state in this nativist movement was not out of context.

The 20th century Klan continued to oppose the rights of African-Americans. But, as with the earlier organization of the same name that emerged after the Civil War, the Klan also targeted Roman Catholics, Jews, and others who were not Protestant or "native" born.

The Ku Klux Klan in Maine grew in the 1920s under the charismatic leadership of F. Eugene Farnsworth, who toured the state appealing for better government and stronger adherence to patriotism, Protestant values, white supremacy, the Bible, and Holy Scripture. By 1923, the Klan reported a statewide membership of 20,000, though some sources cite it as larger.

The Klan largely disappeared nationally and in Maine by 1930. Its rapid decline can be attributed to serval scandals involving bribery, adultery, embezzlement, and bootlegging and to the fact that Maine people generally did not respond to its hate campaigns once the organization’s goals were widely known.

Learn more about the Mainer Project

Learn more about the Mainer Project

Orson Horchler, AKA Pigeon, with his "Mainer Project" installation on Maine Historical Society's facade, 2016

What does it mean to be a "Mainer"?

Immigration is an issue that has long been debated in Maine. Who should settle in Maine? How many people? How can they be welcomed into the community? What support will they need? These issues are still hotly debated today.

Contemporary artists often explore issues through art, making statements and sparking discussion. Through his "Mainer Project," Orson Horchler, known as Pigeon for his street art, portrays Maine residents, some who are asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants—people who are often marginalized through state and federal policies—to ask questions about the dynamics of power in society, and who gets to call themselves a "Mainer."

Pigeon's portraits could easily have depicted Chinese immigrant Hop Ling, who lived in Augusta in 1890, or residents of Berwick's Irish neighborhood who were turned out of their homes by a mob in 1853.