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Maine History Online
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Peopling Maine

"Now," Glooskap announced, "it is time for me to make human beings." The animals of the forest crowded around. "What I'm about to do," Glooskap said, "is mysterious." Glooskap used a powerful magic that he had saved for this moment.

He waved his arms, smoke flew up from the ground, there was a blinding light so that the animals had to throw themselves to the ground, covering their eyes. They were afraid. But when they next looked up, they burst into laughter. They saw human beings setting out in all directions: north, south, east, and west. "Look!" a bear shouted, "they walk on two feet!" — Penobscot Creation Story


The federal census of 2000 provides this snapshot of Maine: 1,274,923 residents (well under 1 percent of the nation's 300 million), 96.7 percent of whom are white, with less than 1 percent each of African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American descent.

Although population density is 41.3 persons per square mile (about half of that of the United States as a whole), most are concentrated in the relatively urban southwest.

Glimpsed in the form of aggregate data, the state's demographic profile appears singularly monotonous; expressed in the form of a narrative; however, the image unfolds far more vividly.

The view of Maine's people as a monolithic society is misleading. Many strands –– native peoples, immigrants from across Europe and beyond in Colonial times and after, Americans from elsewhere, immigrants, slaves, refugees, migrant workers, and summer residents –– have woven texture and color into the canvas of Maine society.

These strands constitute the peopling of Maine from prehistoric migrations of hunter-gatherer bands to the more recent influx of Somali refugees and Mexican and Central American migrant workers. The resulting portrait may look bland from a distance, but viewed up close and over time many variations appear.

Over the generations, immigrants have come to Maine for a combination of complex reasons: economic opportunities, wars or other conflicts in the homeland, agricultural or economic crises in the homeland, or the appeal of Maine's relative remoteness and wilderness, among others.

As layers upon layers of immigrants moved into and around the state, newcomers adjusted to life in Maine and newcomers and the existing residents made accommodation to each other, although not always easily or peacefully.

Of course the story of the peopling of Maine cannot be told without acknowledging the un-peopling of Maine as well. Acadian expulsion sent refugees far from their homes following British victory in colonial wars. Some later reconstituted around the St. John River valley joining French Canadians to form small farming communities, but many took their talents and culture to New Orleans and elsewhere. Patriot pressures and subsequent victory in the American Revolution compelled loyalists to abandon their farms and homes and relocate to New Brunswick or to Britain.

Other immigrant groups came with the intention of returning to their homes, and some did return. Even now, the outward migration of Maine's rising generation is a familiar if dismaying phenomenon. The largest case of depopulation, however, came at the expense of Maine's native peoples whose numbers were devastated beyond reckoning following exposure to European diseases, and through the colonizing processes of war and settlement.

The First People

Much has been made of the Great Ice Age with its Bering Strait connection to Asia. The eastward migration of people and other large mammals across that land bridge, and the subsequent peopling of the Americas in a one way migration following the glaciers' retreat has been debunked.

Archeologists refer to the continent's earliest occupants as Paleo-Indians, and most agree humans have occupied the region for nearly 12,000 years. That may be, but things look different from the Native American perspective, whose traditions and stories tell them Glooskap, First Mother, or another Great Spirit Creator birthed them in place.

Kennebec, Penobscot, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Androscoggin, Maliseet, and other tribes spread across the eastern Maritimes and related watersheds. Eventually, many of these groups created the Wabanaki Confederation, a loose organization that met as needed to decide mutually advantageous policies, and to better deal with Iroquois threats from the west.

Drawing strength and meaning from their respective territories, and establishing both political and trading alliances with others, Maine's native peoples spent hundreds of years perfecting a way of living that supplied most of their needs most of the time.

Incursions from the north and west occasionally threatened their security, and targeted conflicts amongst themselves sometimes depleted supplies, proved a warrior's mettle, or brought fresh captives to replenish those lost in earlier raids, but the broad integration of people and place fostered tribal and clan identities.

Population estimates based on archaeological surveys and available food supplies suggest that the area housed perhaps as many as 10,000 native peoples by the time of first contact with Europeans. Indeed, all of Maine was claimed and divided among 10 known tribal groups well before Giovanni da Verrazano's 1524 voyage for the French, or England's Popham Colony was built in 1607.

With the unanticipated arrival of strangers from across the Atlantic, these largely stable groupings of native peoples, who had developed seasoned strategies for survival, were about to be tested beyond anything they had encountered in the past.

Economic Immigrants

The first groups eager to exploit economic opportunities in the 15th and 16th centuries, the French and English were the most influential in northern New England, each interested in securing raw materials for their respective nations and in furthering their colonial ambitions. The two groups often were in competition.

The process of permanent European settlement began with temporary fishing stations and related coastal explorations in the 16th century. Englishman George Waymouth and his men in the early 1600s began trading small English goods for furs and skins, and eventually risked friendly relations by kidnapping five Indians and taking them back to England along with a variety of goods to reward their backers and stimulate interest in long-term settlement of the territory.

The English quickly latched onto much of the continent's Atlantic coast and rooted themselves in small settlements arrayed along the coastal waterways.

Encounters between Maine's native and European groups typified such meetings elsewhere—mutual curiosity and caution, and a modicum of good will. Sparse settlement was no buffer, since both groups concentrated settlement and subsistence activities near rivers and lakes, major sources of food and ready transportation.

Gifts and diplomacy alternated or sometimes coexisted with conflict and war. More often than not, Wabanaki peoples were drawn into wars of European origin rather than waging wars outright on nearby colonists. To individual settlers and Indians alike, the result was much the same.

The French were already a presence, having vested their interests in the northern fur trade, and ventured up the St. Croix River under Samuel D. Champlain a decade earlier. The French were also more active in establishing early agricultural settlements, concentrated in the northeastern sections of Maine, and fostering favorable relations with native peoples, particularly through Jesuit missionary activities.

Growing friction between French and English over the decades, and the expanding presence of each in permanent settlements and opposing alliances escalated conflicts, resulting finally in the British expulsion of the French from Maine following the French and Indian War in 1763.

The result was to open much of eastern and northern Maine to greater settlement by English colonists and Americans from Massachusetts and elsewhere in British North America.

The Europeans had come to stay. That did not mean, however, that the native peoples were gone. Indians lost many tribal members to European diseases and territory to European settlers. In addition, they lost sovereignty as the new federal government and the state took control of their affairs. Indians often struggled to earn livings as they adapted to the new ways.

Still, Wabanaki traditions remained and those traditions influenced what became the dominant European culture.

Escaping Strife, Seeking Opportunity

Especially after the American Revolution, American farmers and tradesmen from elsewhere in the region migrated into the District of Maine. The new nation's first census lists 96,540 residents in Maine in 1790, 538 of whom were non-white "free persons."

The District of Maine represented less than 3 percent of the nearly 3.9 million Americans in 1790. The following decades were profitable and trying as newcomers continued to arrive in greater numbers and diversity – for economic and other reasons.

All immigrants to the state, whether from other parts of the U.S. or abroad, have helped to mold the economic, cultural, and social character of Maine, even as they have made adjustments to fit into the existing communities.

For some immigrants, the process is more challenging, as various groups – Irish, French Canadians, Eastern Europeans, Africans, Southeast Asians – have faced discrimination based on race, religion, or a combination of factors. The efforts of these immigrants to fight discrimination and to become a part of the communities where they have settled also have helped shape Maine.

African-Americans came to Maine in early colonial days as slaves or servants to Europeans. One of the earliest documented African-Americans in the area is a woman named only Susannah. Alexander Woodrup of Pemaquid bought her in 1686. She and her owner left after an Indian attack in 1689.

While there were other slaves in Maine before the Revolution, the numbers were not great. Maine, like other parts of New England, did not have the staple farming for which slaves provided the workforce in the Chesapeake region and South. In addition, Massachusetts, of which Maine was a part, determined in 1783 that slavery was illegal.

African-Americans presence in Maine has been minimal statistically, but significant in terms of specific cities and towns, and significant culturally.

While African-Americans have lived throughout the state, Bangor and Portland, for example, housed full communities of African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries along with the institutional structures –– civic organizations, churches, shops, and schools –– such communities develop.

Even small communities such as Machias and Ellsworth held a handful of African-American families, some descended from slaves like London Atus who arrived in Machias just before the Revolution. Others came from nearby states or moved north following the failure of post-Civil War reconstruction efforts in southern states.

A number of Mainers channeled escaping slaves outward through the state in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Some African-American families in Maine have relatives in the Maritimes as a result of surreptitious activities among the approximately 75 homes, churches and other sites recognized as likely stops along the Underground Railroad in Auburn, Portland, Brunswick, Orono, Eastport, Fort Kent and elsewhere.

From colonial days on, African-Americans arrived from neighboring states and Canada, and by way of sea. Many African-Americans moved to Portland and, to a lesser extent, other port communities, because of their work in the maritime industry. About a quarter of all U.S. seamen in the first half of the 19th century were black. At least 67 black mariners lived in Portland in 1850. The black community built the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland in 1826, an indication of the growing community and its effects on the economy and social structure of the city.

Other black churches, as well as organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, active in many Maine communities, have focused the attention of all Mainers on issues that people of color face in the state. Especially visible during the 1920s and the Civil Rights era of the mid 20th century, the groups and have worked to eliminate discrimination in housing, employment, accommodations, and education, much like efforts in other parts of the country.

African Americans as well as immigrants from the African nations of Somalia and Sudan have continued to migrate to Maine, albeit in relatively small numbers, arriving with the Navy and Air Force, coming for other types of employment and educational opportunities, and following family and resettlement efforts.

Immigration in Large Numbers

The largest numbers of 19th century immigrants came from Canada and came at a time when industry provided job opportunities in the United States and farms and small communities in Quebec and New Brunswick offered lives of struggle to many residents.

In addition, a fluctuating border along the St. John and St. Croix Rivers had stranded relatives on both sides for decades; many French Canadians came to join their American kin.

Overwhelmingly of French Canadian origin, as much as 75 percent of the population in some northern and eastern sections of the state were either foreign-born or first generation American by 1910. Most of these Franco-Americans populated rural areas in northern towns and border communities, accounting for a 50 percent increase in Aroostook county population between 1900 and 1910, or moved to mill towns like Lewiston-Auburn, Waterville, Biddeford, Rumford, and Sanford, among others.

At the same time, events like the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 drove many thousands of Irish men and women to the United States, including Maine. Irish immigrants settled in many communities, working in mills, on the waterfront, on construction projects and other concerns.

While the first French and Roman Catholic presence in Maine was recorded in early Colonial days, the early 19th century immigrants solidified both connections. New Roman Catholic parishes sprang up throughout the state, with French-Canadians and Irish building separate churches and separate communities. Parochial schools taught French-Canadian children in French, at least for part of each day, helping to preserve more than religious traditions.

Even though the earliest French explorers and settlers in Maine brought Roman Catholicism to the state, and converted many Indians, the dominant religion in the state was Protestant, and discrimination on religious grounds, among other reasons, affected both the French-Canadians and the Irish immigrants.

The height of Protestant, nativist sentiment was during the years after World War I when the Know-Nothing party and the Ku Klux Klan were active in anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic activities, complete with very public rallies, women's auxiliaries, and cross burnings.

Protests against their arrival aside, European immigrants added their skills and traditions to Maine society, many arriving in the post-Civil War years of industrial expansion that continued well into the 20th century. Irish immigrants contributed to the growth of urban industries in places like Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, and Biddeford that helped fuel national economic and industrial prowess following the Civil War.

Many single Irish women came to Portland and other communities, in both the pre and post Civil War waves of Irish immigration. They worked as domestics, one of the few jobs open to them, and in fish canneries and other industries, as well as in tourism, especially in hotels and restaurants. Irish and other nuns through their religious orders offered educational opportunities not otherwise available to immigrant women.

Other immigrant groups came as well, driven out of their homelands by poor economic conditions and drawn by potential opportunities and, often, relatives in Maine. Finns left difficult economic times in their country in the last quarter of the 19th century, many coming to Maine to work in the granite and slate industries.

Chinese immigrants came, in relatively small numbers, but were spread across Maine by the 1920s. Many had gone first to the west coast and found their way east. Restaurants, laundries and other businesses bore the name of Chinese entrepreneurs.

Italians joined the Finns in granite quarries, and moved to Portland and other cities where they worked in construction, among other jobs.

Promoting, Discouraging Immigration

The Swedish migration to Aroostook County offers an interesting example of late 19th century thinking about immigration. William Widgery Thomas, a Bowdoin College graduate, spent three years as a consul to Sweden. His job was to promote immigration to the U.S.

Thomas believed Swedes were the perfect immigrants to help populate Aroostook County – and keep less desirable immigrants from settling there. He saw the Swedes as hard working, pious and suited to the climate. Thomas screened the applicants for immigration to insure they were appropriate.

Swedish immigrants, who began arriving in 1870, received tax-free land to establish their farms. By 1873, 600 Swedish immigrants had built 130 homes and barns and cleared 1,500 acres for their farms.

The official sanction to immigrate suggests one way in which public policy, laws, and the dominant cultural norms helped to determine the ways in which Maine developed. Federal restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s pertained primarily to émigrés from southern and eastern Europe and Asia, and had minimal impact on Maine.

Likewise, in the late 20th and early years of the 21st centuries, officials have sometimes attempted to influence the nature of immigration. For instance, former Lewiston mayor Laurier T. Raymond in 2002 sought to dissuade an even greater influx of Somalis from joining their compatriots in Lewiston, stressing the city's efforts to absorb the transplants and its limited finances to do more.

Somali elders expressed their disappointment with the mayor's tactics, then stressed their legal status and the benefits their residency conferred on Lewiston: "Our presence has turned Lewiston into a multi-ethnic, multi-racial city, which has embraced diversity and change. A city of 36,000 people, in the middle of the 'whitest' state in the country has suddenly become an international city."

While some tensions remain, Somalis, Sudanese, and others have found a place in Maine, expanding the cultural repertoire of the communities where they reside.

A surprising immigrant group made up mostly of older White Russians exiles set up a thriving community in Richmond on the Kennebec River in the 1950s. They brought with them religion (they built three Russian Orthodox churches), cultural traditions, and various businesses to support their community.

This glimpse into the peopling of Maine does not begin to capture the multiplicity of cultural and social influences that colored Maine over the years – the state even housed German prisoners of war during World War II, a few of whom stayed behind to marry into nearby communities – but it does indicate the variety of such influences, and contextualizes the census figures that provide bone, but not flesh.

Continuing the Influx

Maine's natural attributes, relatively unspoiled even now, have attracted artists and alternative life stylists of all stripes. Many arrived as part of the back-to-earth movement of the 1970s. The trend has continued in the ensuing decades. A variety of writers, organic farmers, painters, artists, and others have migrated to the state either as part-time residents or as transplants, contributing to its culture and economy.

The resort industry early in the 20th century built on visitors' interest in experiencing Maine's natural beauty. Many who visited over the years came to stay, while others became seasonal residents. People "from away" have strengthened the culture and society of Maine communities, not to mention the tax base, as they serve on school boards, start local theater companies, and contribute their expertise to towns throughout the state.

Modern day Maine has also absorbed, sometimes reluctantly, a variety of newcomers from abroad. While modest compared to the numbers entering other states, concentrations of immigrants from abroad exist in selected cities in sufficient numbers to alter the social landscape, even cause alarm among some.

The flinty New Englander – rustic, taciturn, and individualistic – occupies a notable place in American cultural sentiment as the quintessential Yankee. Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett captured one such Maine personality in The Country of the Pointed Firs.

A newcomer to the small community was about to be introduced to an old-timer. Jewett wrote of the indirect and cautious nature of Mainers:

"This is the young lady who is stopping with Almiry this summer," he explained, and I approached as if to give the countersign. She offered her left hand with considerable dignity, but her expression never seemed to change for the better. A moment later she said that she was pleased to meet me, and I felt as if the worst were over."

The state and its peoples are far more diverse than popular perceptions or census data suggest – and diverse in more ways than census data can capture, yet diverse on a smaller scale than some communities.

Cities like Portland, Lewiston/Auburn, and Bangor host a variety of newcomers who bring fresh customs, ideas, and energy with them, and longtime residents who sustain cultural and social traditions. Rural communities similarly embrace a combination of multi-generational residents and people "from away."

These varied strains—old and new, immigrant and long-term denizen, native and Euro-American—entwine and root Maine's past to its present. Popular location designators reflect alternate conceptual perspectives: "Down East" is a legacy of British and American shipping interests while "Dawnland" reflects Wabanaki perceptions.

Maine encapsulates both these dynamics and more. There are far more than the "two Maines" that geographic and socio-economic forces have transcribed. There are, indeed, many Maines grounded in historical encounters, coexisting alongside those that continue to emerge from a diversity of experiences.