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Beyond Borders: an historical overview

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Essay by Michael A. Blaakman, PhD, Fall 2022

Michael A. Blaakman, PhD, is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University. His scholarship focuses on politics, political economy, empires, and borderlands in early North America. He is the author of Speculation Nation: Land Mania in the Revolutionary American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023).

The Beyond Borders portal makes accessible three of the Maine Historical Society’s most significant archival collections: the Plymouth Company Records, the Pejepscot Proprietors Papers, and the Thomas Barclay Collection (also known as the Northeast Boundary Collection). Combined, these collections document a series of dreams—dreams of power, profit, and advancement, of imperial glory and patriotic achievement, of flourishing communities and personal liberties—two and a half centuries’ worth of dreams, all projected onto the region we now know as Maine. From the early years of European invasion to the late nineteenth century, these records reveal what different groups from various backgrounds and cultures understood this region to be, what they wanted it to become, and how they worked to make their dreams into reality. The collections illuminate in vivid detail the strife and disruption that could ensue when those divergent ambitions collided across a landscape that was and remains at once alluring, inspiring, and challenging.

Androscoggin River area map, 1771
Androscoggin River area map, 1771
Maine Historical Society

At the heart of all three collections lie conflicting ideas about land and property. As Lisa Brooks and Darren Ranco detail for Wabanaki peoples, the original inhabitants of the place they call Ckuwapohnakiyik—the Dawnland—land and waterways were and remain embedded in a web of reciprocal relationships among people, animals, resources, and kin. Individuals and communities had rights to particular places, but those rights were typically impermanent and nonexclusive.

During the early and mid-seventeenth century, English settlers with very different notions of property arrived in the Dawnland, forming coastal outposts devoted to fishing, logging, and fur trading. Wabanaki leaders hesitantly welcomed many of these colonists and sought to incorporate them into existing relationships with land and resources. The uneasy coexistence that resulted occasionally gave way to violence and became bound up in escalating imperial competition between the English and the French.

Although the Wabanaki Nations remained a formidable power until the 1760s—their strength augmented by French support from Québec and Acadia—the Massachusetts Bay colony claimed jurisdiction over the region. The New Englanders’ ambitions to dominate the Dawnland frontier gained imperial backing in 1691, when a royal charter allowed the government at Boston to absorb what the English called the Province of Maine.