Colonial Maine – Earlier Than You May Have Imagined

Cellar of Two-room Colonial Pemaquid Home

Lea Wait, here, very excited about one of the latest additions to the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site.

But – first — after that hook – a little backstory. Early history of European settlement of the Americas focuses on the French colonizing the area that is now Canada, the Spanish settling Latin America, and the English establishing towns in what is now the United States. Jamestown, settled in 1607, and Plymouth, in 1620, are the two early English settlements that appear in most history books. But they weren’t the only ones.

In 1605 George Weymouth came to the Pemaquid Peninsula and kidnapped five Native Americans (Wabanakis) who lived in what is now New Harbor and took them back with him to London. In 1607 colonists from England looking to settle in the new world stopped at Pemaquid, but ended up founding the short-lived Popham Colony in Phippsburg. By 1610 English and Native American fishing villages co-existed on Monhegan Island and at Pemaquid, and were noted by John Smith when he explored and mapped the area in 1614.

Then, sometime between 1615 and 1617, the Wabanaki village at Pemaquid was destroyed or abandoned during native wars.

In 1621, Samoset, one of the native Americans who’d been captured in Pemaquid and taken to England, and was then later brought back to New England and left on Cape Cod, greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantations. speaking in English. In 1622 Pemaquid area fishermen gave Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims, supplies to help sustain their settlement at Plymouth.

Typical Home in 17th C Pemaquid - With Thatched Roof

And sometime between 1625 and 1629 a permanent, year-round settlement of families was established at Pemaquid based on fishing and fur-trading. It wasn’t an easy life; the settlement was small, and  attacked by the pirate Dixie Bull in 1632; but by 1640 the families were also farming and had become more self-sufficient than many other settlements.

Over the year the settlement was attacked again and again — by Native Americans during King Philip’s War in 1676 and again in 1689 and then, with the French, in 1696 during King William’s War. In 1677 those at Pemaquid had built Fort Charles for protection; in 1692 it was replaced by Fort William Henry. When that fort was destroyed, Fort Frederick was built on its ruins. Fort Frederick was successfully defended twice during the French and Indian wars, and was then decommissioned.

Settlements at Pemaquid continued, and prospered.

Building Showing Wattle and Daub Construction

Beginning in 1901, the cemetery at Pemaquid (which dates back to the early 1700s) was first inventoried, it was recognized that the area was valuable historically. In 1902 the site of the Fort was given to the State of Maine. And in 1908 its tower and wall were reconstructed.

Beginning in 1923, parts of the original village were excavated, and from 1965-1974, foundations of fourteen of the original buildings from the 1600s were located. In 1970 the village area was purchased by the State of Maine.

Close-up of Thatched Roof

In 1993 Colonial Pemaquid was dedicated as a National Historical Landmark.

Today the site is open in the summer from 9:00 to 5:00 daily, and you can see current archaeological work being done near Fort William Henry, visit the museum and see the stone cellar holes showing where the old village was. The Burying Ground is also open.

But when I visited recently, what I was most excited about was the newest addition to the site: a replica of one of the houses that might have been lived in by one of those first English residents of Pemaquid. The entire house is about the size of a small bedroom today, and would have housed a family of 6 to 8. Constructed of “wattle and daub,” as English homes were at the time, (basically, a mud and stick construction) with rough clapboards on the outside, the roof is thatched with natural grasses – marsh grasses similar to those colonists would have had access to in Maine at the period.

The thatching was done this summer by Master Thatcher Colin McGhoe, the only master thatcher in the United States. He was trained in England, and is one of very few master thatchers in the world today.

The thatching is approximately a foot thick, and it took an acre of grasses to thatch this one small house.The grasses are bundled, tied, and then secured to the framework on the roof — only a simple frame is between the thatch and the inside of the building — so the thatch acts as insulation as well as protection from the elements. Such a roof is said to last up to 50 years.

Visiting Colonial Pemaquid is a special experience; seeing and being able to walk in and around the wattle and daub thatched house is a very special addition to the site. It is one more step to bringing us closer to the world of those who risked everything they knew to come to a fearsome new land.

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10 Responses to Colonial Maine – Earlier Than You May Have Imagined

  1. Gram says:

    Why didn’t I know about this place? I have lived in New England all my life. All we hear about is Plymouth Plantation. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Dee

  2. John Clark says:

    Great history lesson Lea. This is the kind of narrative and illustration that gets kids (and older folks) excited about our past. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Fascinating, Lea. Did you get a chance to watch the thatcher?

  4. Lea Wait says:

    And – no – I didn’t see the thatching — although I wish I had! I didn’t hear about it until it was over. It only took about a week — which I thought was rather amazing. And — the next job for this talented and unusually trained man? An Irish pub in Times Square!

  5. Jody says:

    Fascinating! I love learning about things historical that we were never taught in our classes.

  6. Barbara Ross says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of Maine history to make up one for my fictional Maine town. It is fascinating! One of my favorite side benefits of writing a Maine-based series.

  7. Lea Wait says:

    When I was in my 20s I had the idea that someday I’d write a series of books set in one place, showing how the place might stay more or less the same .. but how the ways people lived in it changed. I chose Pemaquid as my place, because its history was so fascinating, and I started doing research. I have binders to prove it. But when it came down to writing …I chose the town of Wiscasset for an assortment of reasons. Maybe someday I’ll go back and write about early Pemaquid, though. Its story still haunts me.

  8. Lil Gluckstern says:

    I wish I had known about this place when I lived in New England. Just fascinating.

  9. Suzanne McGuffey says:

    Thanks for the update, Lea. I shall have to trek up there this summer. I have read that thatching is a very cost-effective, green and high R value roofing technique. Now to overcome its flammability…

  10. Lea Wait says:

    Actually, Suzanne, I thought that, too, and thought that was why most cooking was done outdoors during this period. But I was told the flammability factor from thatching was very low, because the grasses are wound so tightly no air gets between them. The biggest danger of fire in wattle and daub buildings is from the daub .. which traditionally was a mixture of mud and cow manure, with a heavy percentage of manure. The ethane in the manure is flammable.

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