Fourth of six parts

THOMASTON — Henry Knox – hero of the Revolution, ally of George Washington, leading man of midcoast Maine – was having another bad day. It was Feb. 11, 1796, and as the rotund retired general read his mail in the exquisitely appointed rooms of his grand mansion, Montpelier, he was likely filled with dread.

The settlers on his vast land claim, a 576,000-acre empire granted to him by the Massachusetts authorities under specious circumstances, had for years been resisting his efforts to collect rent, sell titles or even survey the land. They’d threatened his survey crews with death, stolen their instruments and blocked them from crossing bridges. They’d burned down the homes and barns of neighbors who’d helped the crews in Damariscotta, sabotaged the sawmills of his agent in Northport and left crude drawings for his lawyers depicting their hangings.

Now, a friend of his wrote in warning, they were planning to burn Montpelier to the ground. They have “collected all the powder and lead in the country,” his ally warned, but “fire appears to be their favorite assistant.” Two hundred of them had gathered in what is now Lincolnville and pledged “under the most solemn obligations to extirpate you and your agents from this country … at the risk of their lives.”

Across much of midcoast Maine in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the backcountry settlers were engaged in an armed revolt against Massachusetts land barons like Knox, his father-in-law Samuel Waldo, William Bingham and the Bowdoins, Hallowells, Vassalls and Gardiners. The conflict pitted the most powerful people in New England – past, present and future generals, governors, legislative leaders, congressmen and judges – against some of the poorest, many of them rank-and-file veterans of the Revolution and their descendants, who’d been left with nothing after years of service.

Maine is celebrating its bicentennial, but it is largely forgotten that one of the principal driving forces for statehood in 1820 was this 80-year-long conflict between the aspiring aristocracy of New England and the “squatters” of Maine. The struggle left a deep imprint on the culture of Maine, where things from Massachusetts are often given a far cooler and more skeptical reception than appears warranted, sometimes complicating the state’s economic and social development.

Henry Knox, war hero and detested land baron, depicted in a painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1806. Photo from Wikipedia

LAND BARONS STEP FORWARD

The “squatter revolt” had its origins in the winding down of the Anglo-Wabanaki wars and the expectation that much of what Massachusetts called the District of Maine might soon be open to large-scale settlement. By the close of the fourth Indian war in 1729, a new generation had taken control of the Bay Colony, an elite more interested in commercial fortunes than in building a new Zion.

This new elite had a strategy to transform themselves from prosperous merchants to a New England landed aristocracy. They would first use their political and family connections to gain title to vast swaths of the Maine frontier at astonishingly cheap rates. Then they would induce poor farmers and immigrants to settle on these lands as tenants, allowing the owners to enrich themselves collecting rent and, as land values rose, sell adjacent tracts for many times what they’d paid for them.

“They were people who were very aggressive in pursuing their self-interest,” says the University of Virginia’s Alan Taylor, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-wining historian, Portland native and author of “Liberty Men and Great Proprietors,” a history of the conflict. “They had political power and power in the courts, and they used that to maximum advantage.”

These Great Proprietors, as the land barons came to be known, assembled paper empires of a million or more acres on dubious claims theoretically tied back to Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ century-old feudal grants. The Kennebec Patent alone comprised 1.5 million acres following the river from its mouth in Phippsburg clear to the Wabanaki settlements of Norridgewock. The Waldo Patent comprised 576,000 acres of the midcoast west of Penobscot Bay, and its owners were so well connected they managed to get British authorities to dissolve a three-year-old royal colony called Sagadahoc that threatened to pre-empt their control.

The Proprietors were not the most ethical bunch. Samuel Waldo, a Boston merchant prince who traded in “choice Irish duck, fine Florence wine, Negro slaves and Irish butter,” placed the German immigrant families he lured to Waldoboro in unheated huts without food or clothing, and tried to cheat his own children and siblings out of their shares of his father’s inheritance. A loyalist, much of his estate was confiscated after the Revolution, but his son-in-law, Henry Knox, reassembled it by getting himself appointed as the government’s land agent and then selling the lands to himself for a pittance.

Land baron Samuel Waldo (circa 1748-1750) owned a vast swath of Maine surrounding the town he named after himself, and traded in “choice Irish duck, fine Florence wine, Negro slaves and Irish butter.” He lured immigrants to Waldoboro only to leave them to spend the winter in unheated huts without food or clothing. Portrait by Robert Feke. Image courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, bequest of Mrs. Lucy Flucker Thatcher

Knox moved to Maine and set himself up “in the style of an English nobleman,” as fellow land baron Robert Hallowell Gardiner put it. Montpelier, constructed in 1794, was, according to one of his friends, “a much larger house in every respect than any other private house from Philadelphia to Passamaquoddy.” The 19-room mansion featured French furniture, a 1,600-volume library and marble-faced fireplaces. The entire town was invited to the Knoxes’ home-warming party, held on July 4, 1795, which included an ox on a spit, a piano recital and 500 awestruck guests. “Although hardly worth repeating, the house was so much larger than anything (the Mainers) had previously seen that everything was a subject of wonder,” Knox’s daughter recalled. “The day … will long be remembered in the annals of Thomaston.”

Knox imagined himself a beloved figure along the lines of Lord Grantham in the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” “My relation to the settlers (is) as a father and guardian … close friend and protector,” he wrote. The settlers did not see it this way.

EXODUS TO THE BACKCOUNTRY

There were a lot of them. In the decade preceding the American Revolution, Maine’s population had doubled to 47,000 and doubled again by 1790, as poor, land-hungry residents of southern New England came in search of new places to farm. As the Waldo heirs and the most important Kennebec proprietors had been loyalists, many assumed the backcountry lands in the midcoast were free for the taking, and the army veterans among them felt it was their due. “Are we not as much the owners of this soil by conquest as (the settlers of) Vermont?” asked Samuel Ely, a radical Northport preacher who spearheaded resistance to Knox. “Why should the people yield up their property to the arbitrary disposal of any man on Earth?”

THE ‘SQUATTERS’ REBEL

Others may have had title to the land they occupied, but because their claims were based on grants issued by authorities in short-lived colonies like Lygonia or Sagadahoc, the titles were difficult to enforce, not least because the Proprietors controlled the county courts. Even today, confusion caused by the Massachusetts annexations have driven Maine towns to court to fight for public access to beaches and, in the case of Kittery and York, to clash over the proper boundary between their towns.

COLONY: MAINE’S PATH TO STATEHOOD
Sunday, Feb. 16 – Chapter 1: Dawnland
Sunday, Feb. 23 – Chapter II: Rivalry
Sunday, March 1 – Chapter III: Conquest
Sunday, March 8 – Chapter IV: Insurrection
Sunday, March 15 – Chapter V: Liberation
Sunday, March 22 – Chapter VI: Legacy

Compounding the tensions, many of the backcountry settlers were Scots-Irish, a warrior people whom authorities and land barons alike encouraged to occupy North American colonial frontiers precisely because of their tenacity in holding land against insurgents. Just as Queen Elizabeth I had relied on them to help seize Ulster from the “savage” Irish, Samuel Waldo and Sagadahoc governor David Dunbar looked to them to help take and defend coastal Maine from the Wabanaki. This decision would backfire on them, however, as the Ulstermen imparted a spirit of pride, independence and communal resistance to authority to the culture of the backcountry. While the land barons named towns and counties after themselves, the Scots-Irish named them for their ideals: Freedom, Liberty, Hope and Unity.

By the time Knox was moving into Montpelier, the backcountry was in rebellion. Proprietors’ surveyors were assaulted and their agents’ property burned. A coffin was left on the doorstep of Knox’s son-in-law, Samuel Thatcher, while settlers dressed as Indians kept the town fathers of Belfast in constant fear of attack. Sheriffs were ambushed, stripped naked and beaten by settlers in face-paint when they tried to serve arrest warrants. A mob of ax-wielding squatters sealed off Wiscasset and broke their neighbors out of the wooden county jail by force, an event that prompted the land barons to build the formidable granite stone one that’s now the Old Jail Museum there. One surveyor, Paul Chadwick, was executed by Indian-clad settlers in Windham and his murderers found not guilty by a local jury.

A mob of ax-wielding squatters sealed off Wiscasset and broke their neighbors out of the wooden county jail by force, an event that prompted the land barons to build the formidable granite stone jail that is now the Old Jail Museum, shown here in a 1936 photo. Photo courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Association

A hallway in the three-story Old Jail in Wiscasset, built in 1811, where defiant “squatters” were confined by granite walls and floors and iron doors. Photo courtesy of the Lincoln County Historical Association

The settlers repeatedly threatened to burn Montpelier, including after the mass 1796 meeting in Lincolnville. “I am not apprehensive that they have any intention to take the life of a person,” one of Knox’s agents advised, “but I very much doubt whether they would have the politeness to wake you or myself previous to their firing of the house.” In the end, however, they chastised the general at the ballot box instead, turning him out of his legislative seat in 1805 in favor of the local blacksmith.

By the time Montpelier was razed in 1871, it was falling into ruin, as this daguerreotype attests. Today’s museum of the same name is a 1929 replica. The home was one of the models for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables.” Reversed-image photo courtesy of the Knox Museum

By that time, the insurrection was having political reverberations well beyond Thomaston. The defeat of the French and the consequent destruction of large stretches of the Wabanaki’s resource base meant Maine settlers no longer had to fear for their security. “Until the 1760s, Maine was very much a war zone. It’s underpopulated, it’s poor, it’s vulnerable to attacks by native people in alliance with the French,” Taylor, the historian and author, said. “So you don’t find any elements in Maine who want to be independent, because they really needed Massachusetts’ protection.”

By the 1790s, the squatters embraced and were embraced by Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans, a party of independent, self-employed landholders, and with each passing election they came closer to replacing the ruling party of Massachusetts, the Federalists. “Shall the squatters of Maine impose a Governor on Massachusetts?” the editors of Boston’s leading Federalist paper, the Columbian Centinel, asked in 1806. The following year they got their answer, as the Federalists lost the governorship.

BIDS FOR STATEHOOD

A lot of people in both the District of Maine and Massachusetts proper were beginning to wonder if the two should separate. “The squatter resistance means that there are hundreds of unhappy people who feel that Massachusetts and its courts and its legislature are under the influence of wealthy outsiders,” Taylor said. “So there is this substantial group of people in Maine who affiliate with the opposition party.” Massachusetts Federalists started to think that maybe it would be better to amputate the state’s gangrenous limb before the infection spread.

This is where an up-and-coming Bath merchant named William King enters the story. Recognizing the anger in the backcountry, King stepped forward to lead a campaign for statehood. He bankrolled a pro-independence newspaper, the Eastern Argus, which editorialized against the public sale of lands “to supercilious Lordlings whose haughtiness, folly, and vanity (are) insufferable.” He tried to introduce the question for debate in the Massachusetts legislature and, when that failed, pushed through a measure that allowed for a nonbinding referendum to be held on the issue on Maine’s 1807 ballot.

William King painted in 1806 by Gilbert Stuart. Image courtesy of the Maine State Museum, Maine State House Portrait Collection 72.19.93

The link to the squatters’ revolt was clear to both sides. “The squatters are about to manage their own affairs,” Federalist Moses Greenleaf lamented. “Who knows amidst the revolutions that are impending what may await us. Governor King?” Congressman Orchard Cook of Wiscasset, a close ally of King, asked. “Are we always to be a kind of sub-colony to a sub-state? … If we wait till land Holders … be in favor of it, far distant will be the era of our freedom and independence.”

But anger at the land barons was not by itself sufficient to win over those fearful of the economic consequences of independence, which would force an impoverished, infrastructure-deficient colony to fend for itself. The ballot question was defeated by a resounding 9,404 to 3,370, with two-thirds of the District of Maine’s 150 towns opposed. Only the squatter strongholds were in favor.

Boston’s Federalist newspapers mocked King and his allies, saying they were “to be pitied” for thinking they could persuade Mainers to “make a new little Empire” for them to rule.

But a new war with Great Britain was on the horizon, and Massachusetts’ actions during that conflict would completely transform the politics of statehood.

Next Sunday: Liberation


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