Kennebunkport was one of the earliest European settlements in North America. In its four hundred-year history it has been important as a battlefield for skirmishes between Europeans and American Indians, as a fishing and trading center, and as a summer resort area.
Kennebunkport Historical Society
P.O. Box 1173
Kennebunkport, ME 04046-1173
ph.: (207) 967-2751
fax: (207) 967-1205
Web site: www.kporthistory.org
Kennebunkport was first used by Europeans and Indians alike as a summer fishing area, but it eventually gained prominence as a center for shipbuilding and fishing. These industries produced great wealth, and the Kennebunkport historic district features many grand homes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later, the town became a popular resort area and a colony for artists and writers. During the presidency of George Bush (1989-1993), the town attracted new attention as the Bush family’s summer residence.
The area in which Kennebunkport now lies was heavily forested and a rich site for fishing in the sixteenth century. Although about forty thousand Pequots, Abenakis, and others lived there, Martin Pring, a British explorer on the Kennebunk River in 1603, found evidence of Native American fires but no permanent settlements and no people. The British established small summer fishing camps along the coast and alternately enjoyed the hospitality of the Native Americans and quarreled with them, while the French also made settlements and managed to remain on good terms with the Indians. The French were driven away by 1613, and the British and the Native Americans continued to compete for the land.
In 1614 Captain John Smith came to Maine to trade and survey. Seeing a school of porpoises while he was standing on a cape, he named the land Cape Porpoise. In 1620, when the Pilgrims were given a charter to lands that included Maine, Cape Porpoise was a thriving spot for fishing and trading, but only in the summertime; men would sail to Cape Porpoise during warm months and return to England for the winter. The settlement soon became a permanent town.
After Cape Porpoise and its neighbors tried unsuccessfully for a few years to govern and protect themselves, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts assumed control of Maine in 1652. For the next hundred years, however, the area suffered greatly from a series of battles with the French and the Indians. Many people died on all sides from war, brutality, and disease. After the town was nearly wiped out in a battle with Indians, it was reorganized in 1719 with the new name Arundel.
After the Revolutionary War, Arundel became an important center for fishing and shipbuilding, and the port was important for the lumber industry. Fortunes were made, and shipbuilders, merchants, and sea captains were able to build large homes, many of which still stand. Maine was granted statehood in 1820, and Arundel officially changed its name to Kennebunkport in 1821, hoping to attract more notice because the Kennebunk River was already well known as an important shipping route.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the need for shipbuilders had decreased dramatically because of the spread of railroads and industrialization. Kennebunkport took on a new status as a summer resort area for wealthy New Englanders who were attracted to the beautiful coastal scenery, the ocean breezes, and the lovely homes already there.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Kennebunkport was discovered by artists and writers. Booth Tarkington, author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, did his writing on his schooner Regina, floating just off the coast. Kenneth Roberts, another resident, wrote a series of historical novels about the area that are set during the Revolutionary War.
Although it has many beautiful mansions built for wealthy residents, Kennebunkport was a quiet and little-noticed town for most of the twentieth century. When one of the summer residents, George Bush, was elected president of the United States in 1988, Kennebunkport became famous again as the Bush family’s summer residence.
Kennebunkport still has many visual reminders of its history and former prosperity. Its post office bears a sign proudly proclaiming that Kennebunkport is “the only town in the world so named.”
Several old houses stand in the town’s historic district, including the Captain Lord Mansion, begun in 1812, with a distinctive octagonal cupola and widow’s walk, and the Nott House, a Greek Revival house from the early eighteenth century.
The Kennebunkport Historical Society, which has its headquarters in the 1899 School House, offers exhibits of history and art, and also makes available guided and self-guided walking tours of important architectural landmarks. The Clark Shipwright’s Office, formerly a shipyard office on the Kennebunk River, contains a museum of maritime history. The buildings are generally open mid-June through mid-October, Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Bearse, Ray. Maine: A Guide to the Vacation State. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Arranged alphabetically, with generous passages on local history. Kennebunkport section identifies several historical sites. Bradbury, Charles. History of Kennebunkport: From Its First Discovery by Bartholomew Gosnold, May 14, 1602, to A.D. 1837. 1837. Reprint. Kennebunk, Maine: Durrell, 1984. This narrative is largely compiled from quotations in original documents. Butler, Joyce. Kennebunkport Scrapbook. 2 vols. Kennebunk, Maine: Rosemary House Press, 1989, 1998. Collections of photographs and documents. Muse, Vance. The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: Northern New England. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989. Travel guide focusing on historical attractions, with many color photographs and maps. Rich, Louise Dickinson. The Coast of Maine: An Informal History. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1956. Well-researched history narrated in a highly readable, conversational tone. Roberts, Kenneth Lewis. Arundel: A Chronicle of the Province of Maine and of the Secret Expedition Led by Benedict Arnold Against Quebec. 1933. Reprint. Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 1995. Highly regarded historical novel of Kennebunkport during the American Revolution. Scott, Connie Porter. The Old Photographs Series: Kennebunkport. Augusta, Maine: Alan Sutton, 1994. Over two hundred well-annotated photographs dating from the 1830’s through the 1950’s.