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Europeans in Maine


Maine state house
Maine state house

Norse explorers came to North America about 1100 and settled in regions throughout Greenland and Newfoundland, but whether they ever came to the Maine coast is debatable. The only evidence for their presence, a single Norse coin discovered in Maine in 1961, probably came by way of trade among native people. The 15th-century European explorations proved to be more important in shaping the region’s history.

In 1497 King Henry VII of England sponsored an exploratory expedition to the region. Led by explorer John Cabot, the expedition might have landed on the Maine coast, although the records are unclear. It is certain, however, that the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing in 1524 for the king of France, arrived on the Maine coast and described the land and the people he found there. Also during this time, European fishing vessels arrived to work the rich fishing grounds off the coast. Early in the 17th century England sent several more explorers, including Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, Martin Pring in 1603, and George Waymouth in 1605, all of whom provided further information on the region’s resources.

In the 17th century, both France and England turned their interests from exploration to settlement in the region.

In 1604 French explorers Samuel de Champlain and Pierre du Guast, Sieur de Monts, established a French settlement on Saint Croix Island. However, the small colony had to endure a harsh winter, and in 1605 its survivors moved to Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. In 1607 the Plymouth Company, influenced by Waymouth’s reports, sent George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert to found a colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River, but that settlement also failed the next year. French and English interests soon came into conflict at Mount Desert Island, the site of a French Jesuit mission established in 1613. Word of the mission reached Sir Samuel Argall, commander of a Virginia Company fishing expedition, who sailed north, ordered the French to leave, and destroyed their settlement. This conflict set the stage for intermittent warfare between the French and the English over the next 150 years in Maine.

In 1614 English explorer Captain John Smith traveled the region and later published his observations regarding the local geography and climate. Smith’s information stirred further interest among potential English backers, particularly Sir Ferdinando Gorges. King James I and later Charles I of England granted Gorges a patent for the Council for New England, a charter company with proprietary rights to much of New England stretching to the Penobscot River. Gorges also received a monopoly on fishing rights in the region. In 1629 Gorges and a partner, John Mason, divided their land holdings. Gorges took the eastern part, which he called the province of Maine, while Mason named his area New Hampshire. During the 1620s a number of semipermanent fishing stations were established along the coast, from which evolved the first permanent settlements in Maine. Though Gorges himself never visited the region, he attempted to maintain authority through his emissaries, who were not altogether successful in gaining control.

Besides the lack of a consistently stable government, early settlement in Maine was also hampered by disputes over land titles. Titles that had originated in the royal grants given to Gorges and others included vague and overlapping boundaries and inaccurate knowledge of Maine’s geography. In addition, squatters and Native Americans made their own claims to land, which complicated sales. Settling conflicting claims usually meant lengthy court actions. As a result of these problems, settlement in Maine was slow while neighboring Massachusetts grew rapidly in the 17th century. With a growing population and a more stable government, Massachusetts maneuvered to gain control of Maine’s potential riches. In the 1650s Massachusetts construed its charter as including title to Maine lands and annexed a number of southern Maine towns. The claims of Gorges and his heirs conflicted with the Massachusetts claims until 1677, when Massachusetts bought the Gorges title. Massachusetts assumed control of Maine until 1820. "Maine" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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