Maine, the largest of the six New England states, is filled with natural wonder and beauty. It has more than five thousand lakes and ponds, woodlands cover almost 90 percent of the state, and 2,500 miles of its Atlantic coastline twist from New Hampshire to Canada.

History of Maine

Maine, the largest of the six New England states, is filled with natural wonder and beauty. It has more than five thousand lakes and ponds, woodlands cover almost 90 percent of the state, and 2,500 miles of its Atlantic coastline twist from New Hampshire to Canada. The harsh, brutal winters have always made living there difficult, and the state remains relatively sparsely populated.

As far as it is known, the first Native Americans to settle in the area were members of the Abenaki (people of the dawnland) tribe. They, and the tribes that followed them, were hunters and gatherers, living on fish, deer, moose, beavers, and bears. Like many Native Americans of New England, they lived in wigwams and were generally peaceful–until European settlers began to come.

Early Exploration and Settlement

Viking leader Leif Eriksson and other Norse sailors most likely explored part of Maine during their travels in 1000. John Cabot, sent by King Henry VII of England, claimed Maine as territory for England around 1497. In 1524 explorer Giovanni da Verrazano claimed Maine for France. In 1605 British captain George Weymouth landed in Maine, kidnapped five Abenaki men, and took them back to England. Upon meeting the American Indians and hearing stories of the land, King James I agreed to sponsor a settlement there, sending Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Sir John Popham to lead the expedition. In 1607 the British explorers reached the coast where the Kennebec River meets the ocean. There they began the Popham Colony, where they built the Virginia–the first English ship built in North America. Success was short-lived, however, as a typically bitter Maine winter, combined with attacks from the Abenakis, drove the entire colony back to England in 1608.

Soon, however, both English and French explorers returned and claimed different parts of the state for their kings. The English fought with the Native Americans often. Englishman John Winter founded one of Maine’s first shipyards around 1637, and Maine was on its way to becoming a major shipbuilding center. The ships built in Maine supplied fish, fur, lumber, and masts to England’s navy. The empty ships returning brought more settlers, and as settlers moved inland, farming gained importance. As in most of New England, native corn was Maine’s primary crop. Primarily because of the harsh winters, Maine did not grow as quickly as the other New England colonies. The small population and weak government motivated the colonists there to merge with Massachusetts in 1658, and they remained part of it for nearly 150 years.

Two Wars

In 1754 tension over the colonies between France, which ruled Canada, and England broke into the French and Indian War. Thousands of Maine settlers fought against the French. The French and Indians were eventually defeated, and many of the warring tribes fled to Canada. The victory was costly, however, and it left Great Britain deeply in debt. When the war ended in 1763, Maine was doing well. The colony had twenty-five thousand settlers and nearly fifty towns. Each year, Maine shipped millions of pounds of fish and lumber to cities in Europe. Like the other colonies, Maine started resenting Britain’s meddling. Britain, trying to relieve its war debt, continually raised the taxes of the colonists.

In 1774 a group of men from York, Maine, burned English tea to protest the high taxes in what would be called the York Tea Party. In 1775 the Revolutionary War began in Massachusetts. On June 12 of that year, the first sea battle of the war occurred off Maine, when colonists from Machias rowed out and attacked an English ship. Soon after that the English retaliated, and the city of Falmouth (later Portland) was bombarded and burned. By the time the colonists won the war, about one thousand residents of Maine had given their lives.

After the war, the Massachusetts government sold Maine land to new settlers for less than a dollar an acre. Maine’s population increased significantly, and by 1785 Maine started lobbying for statehood. The new and growing country had other problems, however. In 1812 the United States again went to war with Great Britain. Britain, at that time at war with France, would attack and capture American ships and conscript Americans into service. Maine’s growing dominance as a shipbuilder played a major role in the American success, and after the war, it pushed even harder for statehood.


In 1820, in an effort to diffuse the hotly contested issue of slavery in America, it was proposed that Missouri be admitted as a slave state if Maine were admitted as a free state, thus keeping a balance of proslavery and antislavery states. Known as the Missouri Compromise, this agreement is credited with postponing civil war. Maine then separated from Massachusetts and became the twenty-third state, and the last New England state accepted into the Union. Portland served as the state capital until 1832, when the more centrally located Augusta became the capital. By then, potatoes were replacing corn as the most profitable crop, and lumbering became the state’s largest industry. The city of Bath became the leading shipbuilding city in the country.

Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state, as it had a history of supporting people of African descent: When Bowdoin College opened in Brunswick in 1802, it was the first U.S. college to admit black students. John Russwurm, the college’s first black graduate, cofounded Freedom’s Journal, the country’s first black-run newspaper, in 1827.

Antislavery Maine governor Hannibal Hamlin became President Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in 1861. The Civil War erupted that year, and many Mainers heeded the call to arms. In the election of 1864, Lincoln was in political trouble, and he quietly allowed moderate southern Democrat Andrew Johnson to replace Hamlin as his vice president to ensure his reelection. By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, about 7,500 Maine soldiers had been killed fighting.

Industrial Revolution

In the 1850’s the Industrial Revolution began to influence American cities, and Maine came to operate textile and leather factories. Like the rest of New England, Maine was successful at building factories, and thousands of French Canadians crossed the border to find jobs. Many Irish came to Maine to escape the horrible potato famine that began in the 1840’s. In 1894 the Arrostock Railroad was completed, and trains began to move the wealth of Maine potatoes to the markets of other American cities. During this time Maine became one of the country’s great potato-growing areas.

Economic Decline

In the 1900’s tourists discovered Maine: its mystique, unspoiled beauty, and lack of crowded cities. The upsurge in tourists helped Maine’s economy as the state’s other industries began to falter. The development of iron steamships damaged Maine’s wooden-ship building industry, and the traditional activities of lumbering, fishing, and farming did not provide enough jobs for everyone.

There was a small break in economic decline when World War I began in 1914. Many Mainers did not wait for the United States to enter the war and joined Canada’s armed forces to fight the Germans. The United States entered the war in 1917, and thirty-five thousand Mainers joined the U.S. forces. Maine’s shipbuilding industry sprang back to life, and farmers and fisherman saw a significant increase in price for their harvests. After the war ended, however, times were difficult in Maine. When the country entered World War II in 1941, Maine again sprang back to life. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Air Force bases were built, which employed many locals, but unemployment remained higher in Maine than in the rest of the nation.

Modern Maine

In 1954 Edmund Muskie became the first modern Democrat elected governor in the traditionally Republican state. In 1957 he was the first Maine Democrat elected to the Senate. The popular senator went on to run unsuccessfully for the vice presidency in 1968 and the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1972.

In 1972 Maine’s Native Americans filed a lawsuit against the United States, claiming their lands had been wrongly seized and showing a 1794 treaty as proof. In 1980 the federal government paid the tribes $81.5 million for their land. It was the largest such settlement ever awarded to Native Americans.

In the 1980’s the state’s economy became strong again, particularly in the largest city, Portland, although industry declined to the point that service industries represented 70 percent of the state’s economy. Maine lobster is often referred to as the best in the country, and the state produces 22 million pounds of it each year. Maine also produces 98 percent of the nation’s blueberries.

The state is relatively underpopulated, with only about one million residents. In the northern part of the state, there are few developed cities. In the 1990’s less than 1 percent of the population was Native American, and most Mainers are descendants of emigrants from Great Britain, France, and Canada.