By Andy O’Brien
People from many different backgrounds call Maine their home. In “Maine Immigration: A History,” a new column, I will tell the story of the arrival of some of these groups of people. My subjects will range from the colonists, who took land from the Indigenous people whose footprints can be traced to the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, to more recent immigrants seeking asylum from war, poverty, and famine. Many Mainers have faced hardships over the years because of their backgrounds, and continue to do so – language barriers, low wages, poverty, cramped and unhealthy living conditions, discrimination, and religious persecution. At the same time, many have sent their children to college, built successful businesses, become community and state leaders, and thrived. Stay tuned to this column for these stories.
Understanding Maine’s history by finding my own roots
If you’ve lived in Maine long enough, chances are you have heard the debate over who qualifies as a “real Mainer.” Where I live in rural Maine, there’s always been tension between those whose families have lived here for generations and others who more recently moved here from somewhere else. You might have moved here 50 years ago, but if you were born in some other state, many Mainers will still think you’re “from away” or a “flatlander” – a derogatory term to denote an “outsider.”
I have exhaustively debated other Mainers about the ludicrousness of the term “real Mainer.” My father’s side of the family has lived here since the 1600s – but my mother is from Illinois, so does that make me “half flatlander?” What if your grandfather was originally from Massachusetts, but the rest of your family has been here since the American Revolution? Is there a way to measure how much of a Mainer you are?
Personally, I believe that anyone who lives in Maine can call themselves a Mainer.
Personally, I believe that anyone who lives in Maine can call themselves a Mainer. But unless you are an Indigenous member of the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseets, or the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, your people originally came “from away,” whether it was six generations ago or six months ago.
For much of my life, I never thought about where my family came from. Like everyone else I knew in my rural community who looked and talked like me, I was simply a Mainer. My parents told me I came from a long line of “swamp yankees” – defined as stubborn, old-fashioned, independent, and less-refined farming people – but that’s as far as I knew.
It wasn’t until my father started doing some deep genealogical research that I learned a number of my ancestors were among the Pilgrims who sailed from England, by way of Holland, and eventually landed in Massachusetts on the famed Mayflower in 1620. My ancestors were members of a Puritan sect known as “separatists” because they refused to attend the Church of England’s services. Instead, they held their own, pastor-led services and encouraged believers to take an active role in the church, interpret and discuss the Bible for themselves, and even speak directly to God.
Without proper shelter and ravaged by scurvy – a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C – nearly half of the Mayflower’s passengers died that first winter. During the previous century, when European explorers first arrived on the East Coast of North America, they kidnapped Indigenous people, and forced them into slavery.
The Europeans also brought diseases that killed people in massive numbers. When Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano had first arrived in Narragansett Bay almost 100 years earlier in 1524, an estimated 100,000 Native Americans were living in New England. However, between 1616 and 1619, epidemics of European diseases wiped out 90 percent of the Indigenous people living on the coast from Maine to Massachusetts.
So when the white settlers arrived they discovered deserted villages with the whitened bones of people who had lived there before – the Abenaki, Wampanoag, Pennacook, and Nauset who had perished in the “Great Dying.” These mass deaths made it easier for Europeans to colonize the region. Some local Tribal nations attempted to negotiate a way to share the land with the Europeans.
The goal of the Pilgrims was to recreate an English village across the Atlantic, far from the influence of the Church of England, but they were ill prepared for the harsh New England winters.
When the Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock, Massasoit – a Pokanoket leader of the Wampanoag people – realized that the white men could be a potential ally in defending themselves from their enemies, the Narragansett Tribe, as the Pokanoket’s numbers had dwindled due to disease outbreaks. So with the help of Tisquantum of the Patuxet Tribe and Samoset, an Abenaki chief from Maine, Massasoit negotiated an alliance with the colonists. My Pilgrim ancestors probably would have all died at Plymouth were it not for the Indigenous people who assisted them and taught them how to grow food.
An uneasy peace between the English colonists and the Indigenous people lasted for 50 years, until further colonization ultimately led to violence and bloodshed. Coming from a feudal society with little chance of ever obtaining land for themselves, my ancestors and others like them had a great hunger for what they perceived to be free real estate in the “New World.” They clearly did not understand or respect Indigenous people and their connection to the land. Coastal colonial settlements grew, and new generations of colonists sought more land for their families and brazenly broke treaties by fishing, hunting, and building homes on Indigenous peoples’ land.
By 1676, tensions exploded and for the next nearly 100 years, the colonists and the tribes were at war. Both sides carried out unspeakable atrocities against whole families, and entire villages were wiped out. Vigilante posses collected cash bounties from the Massachusetts colonial government for the scalps of every Penobscot man, woman and child they murdered. Although this is disturbing and upsetting history, it’s important that we understand it so we can take measures to make amends for the transgressions committed by white colonists, who are the ancestors of many present-day Mainers, against their Indigenous hosts and neighbors.
In 1763, the English overpowered and defeated the Wabanaki Confederacy and their allies, the French, who had claimed the land in Maine east of the Kennebec River. For the Indigenous people who survived, throughout the present-day United States, generation after generation suffered trauma from the colonists’ genocidal efforts to wipe out entire peoples and erase their cultures and traditions. Meanwhile, by betraying and pushing Indigenous people onto reservations, my ancestors were able to build farms on this newly plundered land, on which they eked out a livelihood by logging, fishing, and farming the rocky, glacial soil. They weren’t really “Mainers” at that time because Maine didn’t become a state until 1820, after which everyone who arrived here could claim that identity.