Maine – The Yorks: The Historic Southern Coast

Maine is a little miffed this year at being denied her big bicentennial birthday celebration.  Neighboring Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island were included in the original thirteen colonies.  Vermont was welcomed into the union in 1791, but Maine was not granted independence from Massachusetts until 1820…almost thirty years later. 

Don has been exploring and living in this part of the country since 1976, so I have an experienced guide who is always eager to take a drive to uncover new pockets of history.

The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier is a lively historical account of coastal Maine history by Colin Woodard, a native of Maine.  Woodard’s narrative begins, “Nearly a decade before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, European settlers were eking out a living on the rocky coast of Maine.  Their descendants fended off aggrieved Indians, French raiders, English lords, and greedy land speculators to found one of America’s most iconic and compelling cultures: the lobstering communities of coastal Maine. “  

The southern area of Maine was granted to Sir Ferdinando Gorges in 1606 by King James I.   Gorges early attempts to establish a foothold in this wilderness were not successful…ships went astray and never arrived; conditions were too cold and severe for farming; and the Wabanaki population was too strong and hostile for settlers to survive.  In 1620 Georges went back to the king and proposed a “Council of New England” be established.  In theory it granted greater powers than the earlier charter and even extended to taxing the fishermen who had been plying these waters since the 1500s.  By this time the Wabanaki populations had been reduced by European-introduced diseases and were no longer as much of a threat.  Georges’ tracts of land were too vast to oversee, so he focused on the area in the “Province of Maine” that he named Gorgena (which would later become York).  

The plantation that was established in York in 1624 was settled on the site of an abandoned Indian village and was populated by settlers from the West of England.  Many of them were fishermen, sailors and merchants and of a traditional, Anglican mindset.  Others were tenant farmers with strong farming roots who had faced such poverty in England that even the bleak conditions of this hardscrabble shore did not deter their efforts.   These people were distinctly different than the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony…a distinction that would play out in many ways over the years.  

In Massachusetts, towns were more like those in eastern England with central greens, salt-box houses, clearly delineated property rights and close connections to other towns and villages; whereas, in Maine, settlers “scattered themselves across the landscape, creating dispersed ribbon-like settlements of isolated homes fronting rivers or the sea.  Towns were far apart and separated by forests, swamps, and rivers, and almost all transportation was by boat or dugout canoe” (Woodard, 76-97). 

 The death of Gorges in 1647 and the execution of King Charles I in 1649 left the inhabitants of the Province of Maine with no real governance, so the residents essentially operated under self rule. 

With Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers slashing, killing, and burning their way through Ireland to bring those “heathens” into the proper religious fold, the Puritan Bay Colony leaders felt compelled to do the same for sinners on this side of the Atlantic.  They viewed their northern neighbors as “wild English” who needed to be shown the light…coincidentally, the Bay Colony was running out of space to expand their settlements.  The great expanse of Maine became land to be “conquered in God’s name” and for its untapped resources. 

Without strong governance from England, Puritan leaders felt they should take the leadership role in the colonies.  They reviewed their old royal charter and decided that they had “sovereignty over New Hampshire and southern Maine” (Woodard, 102).   Their first step was to send representatives to these areas with articles of submission, which were promptly signed by residents in New Hampshire.  Mainers were less receptive since they had been functioning independently for years and some of them had moved to Maine to escape the rigid and intolerant society in Massachusetts.  After heated debate and a lot of vicious, at times almost deadly, political chicanery, town by town the articles were signed and by 1657, Maine was a colony of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Puritan purification, which had included beatings, jail, branding and death for perceived heretics, was even more severe when dealing with Native Americans.  Whole villages were attacked and the men, women and children were slaughtered.   Puritan leadership felt compelled to bring all their northern neighbors into step.  Strict governing mandates were sent out to Anglicans, Baptists, Quakers and other “religious savages” living in the hinterlands.  They were to follow these rules…or else! 

Mainers found themselves in a tenuous position.  They were unable to fight the many rules and complex land grant issues that were being used to beat them into submission.  At the same time they were being attacked by Indians who were enraged by encroachment into their lands and by the French who were pushing into Maine from the north.  Early Maine history is replete with accounts of Indian raids with survivors scurrying into New Hampshire and Massachusetts for safety. 

The worst incident came during the French Indian Wars.  During the Candlemas Massacre, January 1692, hundreds of Abenaki attached York, killing many townspeople, burning most of the buildings and forcing the survivors to walk to Canada (they were later ransomed and returned).   

Safely back in Massachusetts, Puritan leadership could look on such incidents as affirming their work since this must have been “the hand of God,” invoking his wrath on the heathens.  They also felt secure with Maine and New Hampshire helping to insulate their communities from attack. 

By 1726, after about forty years of conflict with the native population, the mid-coast of Maine was bereft of English settlement with only Wells, York, and Kittery barely surviving in the south.  At this point, English intervention helped quell some of the danger but brought new political struggles. 

Today, “The Yorks” is actually a collection of four communities: York Village, York Harbor, York Beach and Cape Neddick an area that spans from Kittery to Ogunquit.  York Village stands out because of its distinct historic feel with its collection of 17th– and 18th-century homes and buildings.  The Museums of Old York is an assemblage of eight buildings that present a picture of coastal village life in earlier times.  Elizabeth Perkins House is especially interesting because its restoration began in 1898 when Elizabeth and her mother chose to buy “a decaying property on the banks of the bucolic York River” rather than build a grand summer home on the shore as their fellow New York friends were doing (Calhoun, Maine, 41).    Elizabeth set out repairing the home and restoring it to Colonial Revival period condition, which was quite novel at the time.  She also created gardens and landscaped the grounds to complement the home.

Other buildings that are part of the Museum complex include: the Emerson-Wilcox House, a 1742 building that served as a tavern, general store, tailor shop, post office and private residence over the years and Jefferds’ Tavern was built by Captain Samuel Jefferds in 1750 in nearby Wells and moved to this site in 1939. 

The taverns’ new site is across the street from The Old Burying Yard and First Parish Church, which was established around 1670.  

A strole through the graveyard gives an interesting glimpse into former residents of the community like Abigail Carlile who’s stone tells that she died in 1797 at age 40 “without issue, a lively Christian.”  Some of the graves are even from victims of the Candlemas Massacre in 1692.

The Old Goal was established in 1656 and used as a jail for over two hundred years.  The 1719 structure is furnished according to the inventory of William Emerson, who was the “gaoler” in 1790.

Another museum building just a short drive away is the John Hancock Warehouse.  It is situated on a bank of the York River and was owned by the famous Declaration of Independence signer until 1794.  It is one of the oldest surviving commercial buildings in Maine.

Although the museum complex is closed for now, we are eager to return when it reopens.  As with much travel these days, it is necessary to call before planning a visit.  Many websites are not up to date and hours and closings are subject to change, so be sure to check before starting on any museum visit.

A drive or walk along the streets of York take visitors back in time and give testament to the resourcefulness and resilience of those who settled and continued to dwell and make a living in this beautiful yet harsh environment.  Watch for placards with names and dates on the older homes to discover some of the history that is wrapped within the lovely white wooden sided walls many of them wear today. 

Driving up the coast through York Harbor, you see some of the grand summer “cottages” that Elizabeth Perkins’ friends and others from Boston and Philadelphia were building in the late 1800s and early 1900s.   Maine’s beautiful coastline and its cooling breezes gave them the opportunity to escape the heat of the city in the summer.  Now these old rambling two- and three-story Victorian structures have more contemporary and still grand neighbors that continue to be built whenever a suitably sized piece of land comes available. 

Summers were a very social time back at the turn of the century with friends and family gathering for events at places like the York Harbor Reading Room.  The club was established 1897 in a rented facility, which it quickly outgrew.  Their “new” clubhouse was built in 1910, and this still private venue is now a popular for weddings and other celebrations.

The Sayward-Wheeler House, built in 1718, is an interesting home we had previously visited.  Jonathan Sayward was a third-generation Mainer (born in 1713) who acquired the property from his father and lived there until his death in 1797 at the age of 84.  Jonathan was elected to be the town constable when he was 28 years old, and he commanded the Sea Flower for his Majesty during the 1745 British raid of Louisburg, Nova Scotia. 

He continued to prosper in his business enterprises and rose in community status, serving as a judge and in other appointed offices as well, but in later years he lost his financial and community status because of his loyalty to England; although, unlike many others, he was still allowed to live in the community (Historic New England property sign). 

In light of his political viewpoint, it is not surprising that I spotted this quote among some photographs on display.

Beyond York Harbor the rocky shoreline changes into one of the few long stretches of sandy beach in Maine.  York Beach is a situated on Long Sands and Short Sands Beaches with the colorful Nubble Lighthouse (Cape Neddick) at something close to its midpoint.  The light stands dramatically on its rocky, wave tossed island and has been a beacon on the shoreline since 1879. 

The beaches have long been a summer playground for locals and a popular destination for tourists from across the country, Canada, and around the world.  The Union Buff Hotel built was built in 1875 to help provide lodging for the growing influx of tourists.  The original wooden structure was destroyed by fire in 1987 and rebuilt and reopened in 1989.  When visitors are not swimming or sunning, they can walk the colorful streets that are full of shops selling saltwater taffy, ice cream and souvenirs or spend some time in air-conditioned comfort at the Seaside Bowl and Fun-O-Rama. 

As inbound visitors are promised when they cross into the state over the Piscataqua River Bridge, Maine is a “Vacationland.”

2 thoughts on “Maine – The Yorks: The Historic Southern Coast

  1. Interesting as always, with just enough information that flows smoothly. Good advice, too, about checking before embarking. Many websites and their inherent information ARE outdated, so it can ward off frustration to call first.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We love  this area.  Use to have the best cookies and pies!  They had a fun antique show in the Museum.   You caught the best of the area and loved the history!  I even went out and bought the Maine stamp last month.  Stay healthy!

    Liked by 1 person

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