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August 1, 2005

Malaga, revisited: On a Casco Bay island, a shameful incident in Maine's history comes to light

by Deborah Dubrule

For those who have studied Malaga Island's history and recently attended the first organized tour there in almost 100 years, it was impossible not to recall the ruthless events that unfolded after the last tour.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) bought the island in December 2001 and sponsored the June 25 tour. The nonprofit land conservation organization has been gathering information from interested stakeholders in order to develop a management plan, explained stewardship director Jane Arbuckle, and the field trip was part of that effort.

Led by Maine Gov. Frederick Plaisted, a group of state officials and their wives arrived on the island near Phippsburg in July 1911 to meet residents, survey their homes and visit the red schoolhouse where children serenaded them with a hymn. "The people cannot be forced to leave their poor homes," Plaisted told the Brunswick Record, "and we must not encourage others to go there."

But Plaisted's comments to the community and the press about the need to improve housing as well as the islanders' "moral conditions" were soon followed by state-supported abductions of men, women and children who were forced into various institutions and, in 1912, the mass eviction of the remaining 45-member interracial community.

To discourage residents from returning and re-colonizing Malaga, Plaisted demanded the razing of all houses that were not removed by eviction day and ordered the dead exhumed from the cemetery and reburied at the Maine Home for the Feeble Minded, the former Pineland Center in Pownal.

All but two of the eight islanders, including one healthy infant, who were committed to that institution by court order after the governor's visit, died there.

Private ownership of Malaga Island has changed a few times, but no one has lived or built a structure there since its residents were evicted nearly a century ago.

Diverse interests were represented among the 30 people who joined the tour on a hot, mosquito-rich morning. They included members of MCHT, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the local community, as well as historic preservationists and ecologists, among others.

Nathan Hamilton, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southern Maine, has lectured about Malaga's history for more than two decades and led the tour of one tip of the island where several homes stood. He escorted the group to foundations that once supported homes built and occupied by James E. McKenney, the island's most successful fisherman and community leader, and John Eason, a master mason and carpenter who served as a preacher when weather prevented island residents from attending services at the mainland's Nazarene church.

Hamilton holds up old postcard photographs to mark each location: The island's shoreline and the mainland background across the New Meadows River look unchanged. Eerily, the subjects -- the families who posed and their shiplapped or shingled homes -- are missing.

White, black, and racially-mixed families, whose ancestors had lived on islands off Phippsburg and Harpswell and throughout Casco Bay since the 1700s or earlier, settled on Malaga after the Civil War began, according to the most comprehensive study of the community written in 1991 as a University of Maine master's thesis by John Mosher, who took part in the tour.

Malaga's black and interracial families had been born free in Maine for generations, notes Mosher's research. Blacks and whites had intermarried without any stigma before the late 1800s and, like many Maine island natives, had moved in and out of island fishing communities for almost two centuries.

But rumor-mongers and newspapers claimed a variety of fictionalized origins for the "Malagaites": They were -- and are -- often described as ex-slaves; descendants of escaped southern slaves; or the offspring of African or West Indies concubines and/or slaves who were abandoned on Malaga by married white ship captains.

By 1900, as racial prejudice flourished in concert with the growth of the eugenics movement, and as developers sought islands for the booming summer tourist industry, rumors published by the mainstream press about the islanders' "immorality," poverty and questionable ancestry spread, offending Victorian sensibilities on the mainland and threatening the tourist trade.

Maine annexed Malaga following a five-year ownership feud between Harpswell and Phippsburg: neither town wanted the island or its residents.

Shortly after taking office in 1911, Plaisted learned the state could not evict the islanders. One month before landing on Malaga, he instructed the state's attorney general to find a legal owner who could. While Plaisted and his party toured the island, the AG announced that the heirs of Eli Perry owned Malaga. Three weeks later, the islanders learned their fates.

The state bought the island after orchestrating the eviction for the Perrys. Maine then sold Malaga to a friend of Gustavus Kilgore, a member of Plaisted's Executive Council who attended the 1911 tour and who chaired committees for both Malaga Island and the Maine Home for the Feeble Minded.

The eviction, the forced institutionalizations and the betrayals by state officials did not end the nightmare for the islanders. Shunned by some communities, a number of them struggled for months for a place to live.

Robert Tripp's family of six lashed their home to a scow and attempted to secure a lot to which they could move. Locals and town leaders prevented them from landing in several places, according to a December 1914 news story headlined "Maine's Misery as Dark as Belgium's." Belgium, at that time, was suffering under German occupation.

"He hawsered up to trees on Bush Island," explained historian Bill Barry during a 1999 interview. "His family came close to starving several times.... His wife, Laura, got desperately ill, so Robert rowed three miles in one of the worst winter storms in years. When he got back to the island with the doctor, his wife was dead. She's buried in a potter's field."

Many years later, local Christian churches refused to allow the islanders to be buried in their cemeteries when they died.

People who knew the islanders described most of them as honest people, but a legacy of irresponsible and fictionalized journalism continues to plague the community, its history, and the descendants of the families who lived on Malaga. Even today, the late Gerald McKenney remains the only descendant who spoke on the record, in the 1999 Island Journal.

Alix Hopkins, an MCHT board member on the tour, expressed hope that the partnerships being formed through the group's management plan will "make a real difference in how the history of Malaga is interpreted for the public."

In addition to the foundations that remain on-island, only two relics of the community exist today: the red schoolhouse, which was built by islanders and relocated to Loud's Island, and the small, gray tombstones that rise from the back row at Pineland's cemetery.

click to enlargeA family on Malaga pre-1911, from an old postcard in "The Shame of Malaga"  by Steve Mitchell
A family on Malaga pre-1911, from an old postcard in "The Shame of Malaga" by Steve Mitchell

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