Although Plymouth, Massachusetts, is generally celebrated at the first permanent European settlement in this country, four years earlier over the winter of 1616-17, Richard Vines and some other hearty souls were already snug in their cabins near Biddeford Pool in Maine. Sir Fernando Gorges had a lot riding on Vines ability to get to Maine and to secure a settlement.
The current exhibit at the Maine Historical Society (MHS) is filled with documents and maps that illustrate over five hundred years of Maine history. “The first documented European explorer to this region was Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who in 1524, heard tales of ‘Norumbega,’ a mythical city of gold and silver on the banks of the Penobscot River. “ The tale excited explorers who sailed into uncharted waters looking to fill the holds of their ships with treasure.
Back in England, Ferdinando Gorges (1566-1647) had been born into a family of minor nobility. He spent years in the military and had a small fleet of boats, but he had never caught the fever to become an explorer until in 1605 when the Archangell sailed into Dartmouth Harbor, England, where Gorges commanded the fort (Butman).
Captain George Waymouth had spent years exploring the Maine coast, and although he failed in his attempts to find a Northwest Passage to China, his stories extolled the abundance of the land and water. He told of delicious berries, vast forests and abundant cod…and even more intriguing, his cargo included five Wabanaki tribesmen he kidnapped and brought to England. When he left Dartmoth Harbor, the Wabinaki were no longer aboard his ship; Gorges took three of them home to live with his wife, Ann, and their two young sons, and his friend John Popham took the other two men.
Gorges taught the men English and he learned to speak the Wabanaki language. From them he also learned a great deal about “the people, the geography, and resources of their Homeland.” Based on this information, he and Popham made plans to develop a settlement in Maine that would be a center for fur and timber trade (Butman).
Gorges received a charter from King James I for lands in Maine. Multiple charters were issued over the years and borders overlapped and were contested, but in essence, “for more than 40 years he [Gorges] directed the colony’s development as self-proclaimed ‘Lord of the Province of Maine.’” It is interesting that his Plymouth Company was “a land speculation or patent company, created to promote non-Puritan settlement” (MHS) This “non-Puritan” population had quite a future in store for themselves once Gorges died for they were to be governed by the Puritans of Massachusetts for the next 200 years.
The first expeditions Gorges sent to develop his wilderness did not succeed and he found himself strapped for cash with nothing to show for his expenditures. He borrowed money and gambled everything to finance one last small expedition. Thanks to Richard Vines and company, this gamble paid off and afterward other settlements took root. It is interesting to note that in spite of his passion for this new land, Gorges never once set foot in Maine. Vines, on the other hand, enjoyed his experience in this wilderness so much that he returned to Maine when he retired from the sea fourteen years later, and he and John Oldham settled the land they had received as a grant from The Council of New England. Vines spent many years living in the area until in 1645 when he sold his property and left for Barbados (Varney).
For anyone interested in reading a fascinating account of Gorges’ big gamble, I encourage you to go to the Maine Boats website to read John Butman’s “Sir Ferdinando Gorges and His Impossible Dream of Maine.”
Biddeford Pool, where Vines spent his first Maine winter, is a tidal pool with an “island” at its inlet. This island is more correctly termed a tombolo, which is an island connected by land. In this case the land is now called Mile Stretch Road.
On one side of the road is the large tidal pool surrounded by salt marshes and the other side is lined with homes facing the ocean.
The area around East Point Sanctuary, a thirty-acre preserve along the rocky coast, is probably more like the landscape Vines and his companions saw when they arrived. The sanctuary is open from dawn to dusk and its shoreline trail is an excellent place to watch marine birds and other wildlife. Looking out at the rock islands, it is surprising that Vines was able to make a successful landing since the U.S. Coast Guard considered this to be one of the “four most dangerous points along the coast,” and many ships and their crews were lost in this area.
In 1874, Fletcher’s Neck Life Saving Station was built at what is now Ocean and 4th Street. The station was manned by paid employees who watched for shipwrecks. When one was spotted, they would drag their long, heavy boats into the water and row out into the cold, threatening waves to try to rescue crew members. The original one-bay station has elaborately detailed woodwork, and in 1938 a larger building added two boat bays and a lookout tower. The station was closed in 1971 and is now a private residence (MHS Maine Memory Network).
Next, we went looking for James Montgomery Flagg’s home on St. Martin’s Lane. Flagg (1877-1960) was a gifted and versatile artist who is probably best known for his Uncle Sam recruitment poster. This 2-3/4” x 4-1/8” print is signed by Flagg in his distinctive style and is dated 1941. The piece may have been given in recognition for a donation at a World War II fund-raiser.
We have since learned that Flagg’s home was demolished and new owners have built on the property (“Flagg”), but our foray was not in vain because it landed us at the steps of St. Martin’s of the Field Church just as the church’s bell tower began playing a series of hymns. We also had a chat with the friendly gardener who was working in the colorful flower beds.
The land around the church is now part of the Abenakee Golf Club, but back during WWII, four circular concrete gun platforms were installed here to protect Flagg’s home and the rest of this coast area from enemy invasion. The greatest danger today seems to be from an errant golf ball or a speeding golf cart.
Biddeford Pool is a beautiful and historic area that is enough out of the way that its shore is populated more by local families and fishermen than tourists, so it makes an interesting drive and a nice place to pause to enjoy the sight and smell of the ocean.
Butman, John. “Sir Ferdinando Gorges and His Impossible Dream of Maine.” MaineBoats.com
“Flagg, James Montgomery, House.” Maine: An Encyclopedia (maineanencyclopedia.com)
“Fletcher’s Neck Life Saving Station, Biddeford.” MHS Maine Memory Network (MaineMemory.net)
“James Montgomery Flagg House.” Wikipedia. April 23, 1980.
Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress Street, Portland, ME 04101
Varney, Geo. J. “History of Biddeford, Maine.” A Gazetteer of the State of Maine. Boston: B.B. Russell, 57 Cornhill, 1886. History.rays-place.com