I’ve read a lot about Maine, but the book that taught me most about the state is “Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820.” It was written by Alan Taylor, a prominent historian of early America and the Thomas Jefferson Professor at the University of Virginia, with two Pulitzers and one Bancroft to his credit. Written decades ago, “Liberty Men” was his first book, appropriately enough for someone who was born in Maine and attended Colby College.
Maine in the 1790s was a deeply divided area. If you’ve ever wondered about why that string of mid-state towns inland from Wiscasset and Belfast came to have politically charged names like “Freedom,” “Liberty” and “Unity,” this book will explain those origins. It is a great story, having to do with a violent struggle that began in the 1790s between rich Bostonians speculating in land and poor Revolutionary War veterans who thought they had helped win the new nation’s freedom and deserved to have some of that land.
These inland farmers led tenuous lives on plots they cleared themselves. Their hardest season was late winter and spring, when food for both people and animals was running low, game had grown sparse and new grass and crops were not yet available. This is one reason maple sugar was such a boon — the trees’ sap began to flow in late winter just as people’s bodies craved food for energy. “Weak and hungry oxen could neither haul lumber nor pull a plow for planting until dangerously late in the spring,” Taylor notes. Essentially, farming in the Maine hills was an annual race to get a crop planted and grown before the first killing frost hit a few months later.
About 15 years after the Revolutionary War, Henry Knox (himself a prominent general of the war) and other people asserted that they had legally purchased title to huge swaths of inland Maine, including places where these poor farmers had squatted and improved the land by clearing forests. The farmers felt this was betrayal of the promise of the Revolution.
When Knox and others sent surveying parties to mark the land into lots that would be sold, the inland farmers dressed up as Native Americans and ambushed them. When some leaders of this resistance to the big property owners were arrested and jailed in coastal towns, their comrades mounted armed raids to free them. At one point they threatened to burn Belfast if their people were not released. Wiscasset’s famous stone jail, still standing on Federal Street, was erected in response to one raid in which the raiders pulled down the town’s old wooden structure.
“The Sheepscot backcountry between the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers was the cockpit of resistance,” Taylor writes.
When the farmers saw that the well-educated clergymen of the Congregational Church were siding against them, they often turned to less learned, more inspirational evangelical preachers, often Baptists. That’s a major reason you still see so many Baptist churches in the inland era, compared to the Congregational churches on the Maine coast.
When the “Indian raiding party” gambit lost its shock value, some of the resisters escalated their violence, assaulting a deputy sheriff in 1807, beating a constable in 1808, and then killing a surveyor in the town of Malta, just east of Augusta, the following year. A jury declined to find anyone guilty for that murder. One of Taylor’s detailed maps shows that the most violent incidents occurred in Unity, where the Common Ground Fair now is held every fall. Alna, just north of Wiscasset, was another volatile town.
Eventually tensions eased, for a variety of reasons. Thomas Jefferson became president, and his followers, some elected to official positions, urged the big landowners to compromise with the settlers, and at least to compensate them for clearing the land. Also, many of the unruly farmers decided to move west to the American frontier, where the climate was milder, the soil richer and less rocky and the land speculators of Boston farther away.
In 1822, the town of Malta, embarrassed by its lingering reputation for violence, adopted the name “Windsor.” Taylor writes that, “The name change marked the demise of agrarian resistance in Maine.”
Thomas E. Ricks, a summertime resident of Hancock County, is a visiting fellow at Bowdoin College. His most recent book was “Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom.”