Maine History

The history of the U.S. State of Maine spans thousands of years, measured from the earliest human settlement, or less than two hundred, measured from the advent of U.S. statehood in 1820. The present article will concentrate on the period of European contact and after.

The origin of the name Maine is unclear. One theory is it was named after the French province of Maine. Another is that the name was coined by English settlers living on islands along the coast, who would speak of going to the mainland as “going over to the main.”

Pre-European history

The earliest culture known to have inhabited Maine, from roughly 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., were the Red Paint People, a maritime group known for elaborate burials using red ochre. They were followed by the Susquehanna culture, the first to use pottery.

By the time of European arrival, the inhabitants of Maine were Algonquian-speaking Wabanaki peoples, including the Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscots.

European colonization and the various mappings of Maine

The first European settlement in Maine was made in 1604 by a French party that included Samuel de Champlain. The French named the area Acadia. Later English colonization pushed Acadia north into what are today the Canadian Maritimes, but the French continued to maintain strong relations with the area’s Native American tribes through the medium of Catholic missionaries.

English colonists sponsored by the Plymouth Company attempted a settlement in Maine in 1607 (the Popham Colony at Phippsburg), but it was eventually abandoned.

The territory between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers was first called the Province of Maine in a 1622 land patent granted to Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason. The two split the territory along the Piscataqua River in a 1629 pact that resulted in the Province of New Hampshire being formed by Mason in the south and New Somersetshire being created by Gorges to the north, in what is now Maine. The present Somerset County in Maine preserves this early nomenclature. The failure to colonize New Somersetshire, however, resulted in a second patent, granted to Gorges by Charles I, for what became known once again as the Province of Maine (but now minus New Hampshire). Gorges’ second effort also ended unsuccessfully, but did stamp the name “Maine” onto the territory between the Piscataqua and Kennebec.

One of the first English explorers of the Maine coast was Christopher Levett, an agent for Gorges and a member of the Plymouth Council for New England. After securing a Royal grant for 6,000 acres (24 km2) of land on the site of present-day Portland, Maine, Levett built a stone house and left a group of men behind when he returned to England in 1623 to drum up support for his settlement, which he called “York” after the city of his birth in England. Levett’s settlement also failed—the men left behind were never heard from again—and Levett never returned to Maine. Levett did sail back across the Atlantic to meet with Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop at Salem in 1630, but died on the return voyage.

That part of present-day Maine east of the Kennebec River was known in the 17th century as the Territory of Sagadahock by the English, and Acadia by the French. In 1669, this land and what had been the Province of Maine, were incorporated into another patent, this time granted by Charles II to James, Duke of York. Under the terms of this grant, all the territory from the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean was constituted as Cornwall County, now part of a vastly expanded Province of New York. With the incorporation of Sagadahock, the territory that would become Maine extended along the coast from the Piscataqua to the St. Croix River for the first time, incorporating the entire coastline of the future state in a single political unit (though still only a paper one).

In 1673, part of this territory was partitioned to create Devonshire, Massachusetts. The remainder was lost to the Abnaki in King Philip’s War in 1675, which rolled back nascent English settlement. In 1692 the entirety of the former Province of Maine, from the Piscataqua to the St. Croix, was absorbed into the Province of Massachusetts Bay as Yorkshire, a name which survives in present day York County.

Maine was much fought over by the French and English during the 17th and early 18th centuries. After the defeat of the French colony of Acadia during the French and Indian War (part of the global struggle between France and Britain that is known overall as the Seven Years War), the territory from the Penobscot River east fell under the nominal authority of the Province of Nova Scotia, and together with present day New Brunswick formed the Nova Scotia County of Sunbury, with its court of general sessions at Campobello.

In the late 1700s, several tracts of land in Maine, then part of Massachusetts, were sold off by lottery. Two tracts of 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km²), one in south-east Maine and another in the west, were bought by a wealthy Philadelphian banker, William Bingham. This land became known as the Bingham Purchase.

The American Revolution, the War of 1812, and Maine in the middle

American and British forces contended for Maine’s territory during both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In 1775 a British fleet bombarded and destroyed Portland, occupied Eastport and much of [Downeast] Maine, and in 1779 captured Castine. A fleet from Massachusetts (the so-called Penobscot Expedition) attempted to recover Castine but was decimated by the British, with Paul Revere and other survivors sent scrambling into the woods. The British intent was to carve off the eastern half of Maine as the new British province of “New Ireland”.

With peace, the District of Maine was confirmed to be part of Massachusetts when the United States was formed, but the treaty was ambiguous about the boundary between Maine and British North America. This all but guaranteed that Maine would be a battleground in the next war as well.

Maine suffered more in the War of 1812 than anywhere else in New England. British army and naval forces from nearby Nova Scotia captured and occupied the eastern coast from Machias to Castine, and plundered the Penobscot River towns of Hampden and Bangor (see Battle of Hampden). British authorities incorporated this region into New Brunswick. Commerce all along the Maine coast was largely stopped—a critical situation for a place so dependent on shipping. Claims to “New Ireland” were dropped in the Treaty of Ghent, but Maine’s vulnerability to foreign invasion, and its lack of protection by Massachusetts, were important factors in the post-war momentum for statehood.

Statehood and the Aroostook War

Maine gained its statehood in 1820 as the result of the Missouri Compromise, in which free northern states approved the statehood of Missouri (as a slave state) in exchange for the statehood of Maine (as a free one). In this manner northern representation remained in balance with southern pro-slavery influence in the Senate.

The still-lingering border dispute with British North America came to head in 1839 when Maine Governor Fairfield declared virtual war on Britain over the incursion of lumbermen from New Brunswick into northern Maine. Four regiments of Maine militia were mustered in Bangor and marched to the border of British North America, ready for a fight. Known as the Aroostook War, the dispute was settled by Federal intervention before any blood was shed, although the final border between the two countries was not established until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

The passion of the Aroostook War signaled the increasing role lumbering and logging were playing in the Maine economy, particularly in central and eastern sections. Bangor arose as a lumbering boom-town in the 1830s, and a potential demographic and political rival to Portland. Bangor became for a time the largest lumber port in the world, and the site of furious land speculation that extended up the Penobscot River valley and beyond.


“Industrialization” in 19th century Maine took a number of forms, depending on the region and period. The river valleys, and particularly the Kennebec and Penobscot became virtual conveyor belts for the making of lumber beginning in the 1820s-30s. Logging crews penetrated deep into the Maine Woods in search of pine (and later spruce) and floated it down to sawmills gathered at waterfalls. The lumber was then shipped from ports such as Bangor, Ellsworth and Cherryfield all over the world.

Partly because of the lumber industry’s need for transportation, and partly due to the prevalence of wood and carpenters along a very long coastline, shipbuilding became an important industry in Maine’s coastal towns. The Maine merchant marine was huge in proportion to the state’s population, and ships and crews from communities such as Bath, Brewer, and Belfast could be found all over the world. The building of very large wooden sailing ships continued in some places into the early 20th century.

Cotton textile mills migrated to Maine from Massachusetts beginning in the 1820s. The major site for cotton textile manufacturing was Lewiston on the Androscoggin River, the most northerly of the Waltham-Lowell system towns (factory towns modeled on Lowell, Massachusetts). The twin cities of Biddeford and Saco, as well as Augusta, Waterville, and Brunswick also became important textile manufacturing communities. These mills were established on waterfalls and amidst farming communities as they initially relied on the labor of farm-girls engaged on short-term contracts. In the years after the Civil War they would become magnets for immigrant labor.

Other important 19th century industries included granite and slate quarrying, brick-making, shoe-making, and of course fishing, which had been one of Maine’s oldest pursuits.

Starting in the early 20th century the pulp and paper industry inherited the Maine woods and most of the river valleys from the lumbermen, so completely that Ralph Nader would famously describe Maine in the 1960s as a “paper plantation”. Entirely new cities, such as Millinocket and Rumford were established on the upper-most reaches of the large rivers.

For all this industrial development, however, Maine remained a largely agricultural state well into the 20th century, with most of its people living in a myriad of small and widely-separated villages. With short growing seasons, however, along with rocky soil and relative remoteness from markets, Maine agriculture was never as prosperous as that in other states, and the populations of most farming communities peaked in the 1850s, declining steadily thereafter.


Railroads shaped Maine’s geography as they did that of most American states. The first railroad in Maine was the Calais Railroad incorporated by the state legislature on February 17, 1832. It was built to transport lumber from a mill on the Saint Croix River opposite Milltown, New Brunswick two miles to the tidewater at Calais in 1835. In 1849, the name was changed to the Calais and Baring Railroad and the line was extended four more miles to Baring. In 1870, it became part of the St. Croix & Penobscot Railroad.

The second railroad was the Bangor & Piscataquis Railroad & Canal Company incorporated by the legislature on February 18, 1833. It ran eleven miles from Bangor to Oldtown along the west bank of the Penobscot River and opened in November, 1836. In 1854-55, it was extended 1.5 miles across the Penobscot River to Milford and the name was changed to the Bangor, Oldtown & Milford Railroad Company. In 1869, it was absorbed into the European and North American Railway.

The third railroad in Maine was the Portland, Saco and Portsmouth Railroad, incorporated by the legislature on March 14, 1837. This was a crucial railroad in the development of railroads in Maine because it connected Portland to Boston by connecting to the Eastern Railroad at Kittery via a bridge to Portsmouth. This railroad was opened on November 21, 1842 and was 51.34 miles in length.

Portland in particular prospered as the terminus of the Grand Trunk railroad from Montreal, essentially becoming Canada’s winter port. Portland Company built early railway locomotives and Portland Terminal Company handled joint switching operations for the Maine Central Railroad and Boston and Maine Railroad. A railroad pushed through to Bangor in the 1850s, and as far as Aroostook County in the early 20th century, fostering potato growing as a cash crop.

The Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad, Bridgton and Saco River Railroad, Monson Railroad, Kennebec Central Railroad and Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway were built with the unusually narrow gauge of 2 feet (60 cm).

“Ohio Fever”, the California Gold Rush, and westward migration from Maine

Even before the tide of settlement crested in most of Maine, some began to leave for The West. The first large-scale exodus was probably in 1816-17, spurred by the privations of the War of 1812, an unusually cold summer, and the expansion of settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in Ohio. “Ohio Fever” as the lure of the West was initially called, emptied out a number of fledgling Maine communities and stunted the growth of others, even if the overall momentum of settlement had been largely restored by the 1820s, when Maine achieved statehood.

As the American frontier continued to expand westward, Mainers were particularly attracted to the forested states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and large numbers brought their lumbering skills and knowledge there. Minnesota was particularly thick with migrants from Maine, including three 19th century Mayors of Minneapolis.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 and after was a major boost to the lumber and coastal shipbuilding economies, as building lumber needed to be “shipped around the Horn” from Maine before the establishment of a West Coast sawmilling industry. Maine ships also carried gold-seeking migrants, however, and thus were many Mainers (and aspects of Maine culture, such as lumbering and carpentering) transplanted to California and the Pacific Northwest. Three 19th century Mayors of San Francisco, two Governors of California[16], a Governor of Oregon[, and two Governors of Washington were born in Maine.

Maine in the Civil War

Maine was the first state in the northeast to be captured by the new Republican Party, partly due to the influence of evangelical Protestantism, and partly to the fact that Maine was a frontier state, and thus receptive to the party’s “free soil” platform. Abraham Lincoln chose Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin as his first Vice President.

Maine was so enthusiastic for the cause that it ended up contributing a larger number of combatants, in proportion to its population, than any other Union state. It was second only to Massachusetts in the number of its sailors who served in the U.S. Navy. Maj. Gen. (then Col.) Joshua L. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment played a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg, and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment lost more men in a single charge (at the Battle of Petersburg) than any Union regiment in the war.

One legacy of the war was Republican Party dominance of state politics for the next half-century and beyond. Moreover, Maine was so reliable a state for the Republicans, and a bellwether at that (“as Maine goes, so goes the nation” was a familiar phrase) that its politicians enjoyed inordinate national influence. In the 50-year period 1861 to 1911 (when Democrats temporarily swept most state offices) Maine Republicans served as Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury (twice), President pre tempore of the Senate, Speaker of the House (twice) and Republican Nominee for the Presidency. This synchronization between the politics of Maine and the nation broke down dramatically in 1936, however, when Maine became one of only two states to vote for the Republican candidate, Alf Landon in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide re-election. Maine Republicans remain a force in state politics. The most nationally-influential Maine Republican recent decades include former Senator William Cohen, and Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Immigration of the Irish, French-Canadians and other minorities

Like much of the rest of the East Coast, Maine experienced a wave of Irish immigration in the 19th century, though many came to the state via Canada, and before the potato famine. There was a riot in Bangor between Irish and yankee (nativist) sailors and lumbermen as early as 1834, and a number of early Catholic churches were burned or vandalized in coastal communities, where the Know-Nothing Party briefly flourished. After the Civil War Maine’s Irish-Catholic population began a process of integration and upward mobility that was only complete in the later 20th century.

In the late 19th century, many French Canadians also began migrating to Maine and other New England states from Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada to work in the textile mill cities such as Lewiston and Biddeford. These new arrivals were often forcibly assimilated into Anglo-American culture; notably, children were subjected to corporal punishment for speaking French in schools. In response the French Canadian community in New England determined to preserve some of its cultural norms. This doctrine, like efforts to preserve francophone culture in Quebec, became known as la Survivance. In recent years the state has sought to address its legacy of intolerance against French Canadians by embracing bilingual signs and actively promoting French Canadian culture in schools and local festivities.

Largely because of Irish and French-Canadian immigration, 40% of Maine’s population was Catholic by 1900, and the Catholic Church ran its own school system in the cities, where almost all Catholics lived. This demographic and its resulting social and political ramifications led to a backlash in the 1920s, as the Ku Klux Klan formed cells in a number of Maine towns, and contributed to the victory of Republican Gov. Owen Brewster in 1924. The immigrant population was largely responsible for the steady growth of the Democratic Party, however, which gave Maine a true two-party system in the years after World War II. The election in 1954 of Gov. Edmund Muskie, a Catholic Polish-American tailor’s son from the mill-town of Rumford was a major watershed. The current Governor, John Baldacci is an Italian-American from Bangor.

Less well-recognized, because they were more culturally assimmilable, were a very large number of English- and Scottish-Canadian immigrants from the Maritime Provinces. Called with slight derogation Blue Noses, Down Homers or PIs (after Prince Edward Island), this group also included a certain number of African-Canadians.

Summer people

Maine’s natural beauty and proximity to the large East Coast cities made it a major tourist destination as early as the 1850s. Summer resorts such as Bar Harbor, Sorrento, and Islesboro sprung up along the coast, and soon America’s wealthiest citizens were building “summer cottages” (actually huge wooden mansions) in what had formerly been shipbuilding and fishing villages. Referred to by natives as “Summer People” or “Cottage people”, Maine’s seasonal residents not only changed the economy of large areas of the state but its culture, especially when they began staying all year round.

The Bush family and their compound in Kennebunkport are a notable example of this demographic. The Rockefeller family were conspicuous members of the summer community at Bar Harbor, while the Roosevelts preferred the remoteness and privacy of Campobello Island, so far east that it was actually in New Brunswick, Canada.

A generally poorer class of summer people—painters and writers—began to create images of the state (particularly its coast) that would come to define it.

De-industrialization and Vacationland

By the mid-20th century, the textile industry was establishing itself more profitably in the American South, and some Maine cities began to de-industrialize. Shipbuilding also ceased in all but a few places, notably Bath and its successful Bath Iron Works, which became a notable producer of naval vessels during the Second World War and after. In recent years, however, even Maine’s most traditional industries have been threatened; forest conservation efforts have cut down on logging and restrictions on fisheries have likewise exerted considerable pressure along the coast.

The last “heavy industry” in Maine, pulp and paper began to withdraw in the late 20th century, leaving the future of the Maine Woods an open question.

In response, the state attempted to buttress retailing and service industries, especially those linked to tourism. The term Vacationland was added to license plates in the 1960s. More recent tax incentives have encouraged outlet shopping centers such as the cluster at Freeport. More and more urbanites and suburbanites began to visit Maine to enjoy its vast area of relatively unspoiled wilderness, its ski-friendly mountains, and its hundreds of miles of coastline. State and national parks in Maine also became loci of middle-class tourism, especially Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.

The growth of Portland and areas of southern Maine and the retraction of job opportunities (and population) in the northern and eastern areas of the state led in the 1990s to discussion of “two Maines”, with potentially different interests. Portland and certain coastal towns aside, Maine remains the poorest state in the Northeast, ranked 34th in per capita income (2000 census), while neighboring New Hampshire ranked seventh.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the Maine Lottery was created, although it was not until 2004 that Maine joined Powerball