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August 31, 2010

Parallel 44: Origins of the Mass Effect

by Colin Woodard

Fellow Mainers: ever wonder why it is that if a car cuts you off on the highway and it just happens to have Massachusetts plates our reaction is so much more intense than if they'd been from Ohio or Vermont?

And why is it that, in an effort to upset southern Mainers, Northern Maine secessionist legislator Henry Joy (R-Crystal) proposed that after a split, their part of the state should be renamed "North Massachusetts"?

We don't talk about it much in public-wouldn't be polite-but many Mainers harbor a good deal of resentment and distrust towards all things from the Bay State, the Red Sox excepted, of course. The proximate causes-not using one's turn signals, reflexively talking down to the person behind the counter, badmouthing Moxie-are incidental, an excuse for disgruntled locals to release pent up steam. The real source of Mainers' ire runs so deep, it's been all but lost in the fog bank of Maine history.

And that cause is this: Maine is a post-colonial society, slowly recovering from a century and a half of Bostonian rule.

Most people know Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820. Fewer realize that until the 1650s, Maine was an independent colony, one with legal antecedents predating Pilgrims and Puritans alike. Its owner-governor-the eccentric English knight Sir Ferdinando Gorges-set up year-around fishing stations on our offshore islands years before the Mayflower journey. When the Pilgrims faced starvation in the spring of 1622 they were saved by the charity of Damariscove's well-supplied fishermen. The Pilgrims were actually squatting on Gorges' land and had to apply retroactively for his permission to stay on. They even named their colony after Gorges' hometown, Plymouth.

The Puritans-who arrived en masse at Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s-were another story. For Gorges-a champion of royal prerogative, feudal values, and the established political and religious order-they were a living nightmare. A group of radical Calvinists, the Puritans believed they were God's chosen people, charged with building a New Zion in the New England wilderness. They rejected the authority of the Anglican Church, the King and feudal nobility alike. They tended to come from commercial, "middle class" East Anglia, whereas Gorges and most of his Maine settlers came from the feudal, agrarian West Country.

And when England collapsed into civil war in the 1640s, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Province of Maine found themselves on opposing sides. Many leading Puritans returned to England to fight in Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army, clashing with Gorges' friends, allies and investors serving in the King's army.

In short: early Maine and Massachusetts were divided by mission, religion, economics, ethnography, politics and war. They were separate, mutually hostile societies, rivals if you will.

But when the dust settled at the end of the English Civil War, the King had lost-his head, in fact-and England came under the control of the Massachusetts Puritans greatest allies. Gorges and the Province of Maine were doomed.

As I describe in detail in The Lobster Coast, the Bible Commonwealth's takeover of Maine was accomplished at swordpoint, with one York County town after another voting to join the Commonwealth under the watchful gaze of magistrates and soldiers from Boston. Maine became something unusual in North American history: a colony of a colony. One society had forcibly annexed a rival and, for the next 130 years and more, would rule it in its own interests.

So what's the problem? Mainers exchanged (frankly incompetent) feudal rule for the direct democracy of the New England town meeting, indentured servitude to an absentee lord for membership in an aggressive, self-assured, well-resourced Yankee nation.

Fact is, Maine's colonial period (c. 1655-1820) was an unmitigated disaster for Mainers. First, Boston launched a series of genocidal Indian wars-six of them spanning nearly a century-for which Mainers bore the brunt.  In the first, every town east of Wells was destroyed. In the rest, Midcoast Mainers became boat people, fleeing to Boston and Salem as war refugees. These wars largely account for Maine remaining a frontier territory right into the 19th century

Then, just as the wars were winding down, the other shoe dropped. Boston real estate speculators began grabbing up million acre chunks of Maine's coastal frontier, ready to make bumper profits in peacetime. The speculators were among Massachusetts' leading officials: you'll recognize them because they tended to name parts of their subdivisions after themselves: Waldo, Knox, Gardiner, Bowdoin, or Vassall. Some assembled their land baronies with remarkable disregard for law or ethics.

Their plans stumbled, however, because the lands they were trading on paper were already occupied by English and Scots-Irish settlers. Some had been given grants by Gorges. Others believed they had God-given title to their farms by natural law, having carved them out of an alleged wilderness (pay no attention to those Indian villages and their corn fields!) to create newly minted property.

When land agents started showing up from Boston trying to collect back rent and purchase fees, these backcountry Mainers reacted poorly. The result was an armed insurrection against the "Great Proprietors" that lasted another eighty years. This low-intensity guerilla war-described in detail in Alan Taylor's Liberty Men and Great Proprietors-was essentially successful. In their effort to defeat the settlers of Hope, Liberty, Freedom, and other squatter locales, the proprietors did things that turned more urbane Mainers against them.

Indeed, the squatter rebellion is one of the principle reasons Mainers voted to secede from Massachusetts in 1820. (The other: Boston's refusal to help the U.S. military liberate eastern Maine from British occupation in the War of 1812.) The State of Maine was born out of a long, unpleasant colonial experience.

So use your turn signals, my Bay State friends, and we'll all try to keep focused on the Red Sox.

Colin Woodard is the author of three books, including The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotton Frontier. He can be found in Portland or via

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