In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Beyond Borders: an historical overview

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All these newcomers would quickly learn that it was a common experience in Maine to be harangued for payment by the agent of an absentee proprietor, or to be sued for ejectment—from land one had already bought—by another proprietor clinging to a stack of conflicting deeds. Above all, settlers feared that they might be forced into tenancy or wage labor. For them, freehold landownership promised independence from overweening landlords or employers. Legal title would secure their ability to subsist off the land and to produce for markets, and it would assure that they could pass that prosperity down to future generations. But in pursuit of those ambitions, settlers also articulated a separate understanding of property: a belief that ownership was made not through royal seals, Indian deeds, or any deeds at all, but instead through possession—applying one’s labor to improve the land. This manner of claim did not rely on century-old parchment proof, and it could not be adjudicated by courts stacked with the proprietors’ cronies. From the late eighteenth century through Maine statehood in 1820, these competing notions of property fueled widespread settler resistance, often violent, against the demands of elite proprietors.

Meanwhile, U.S. independence ushered new visions and conflicts onto the scene. After a costly war to secede from the British empire, the state of Massachusetts hoped to fund the public coffers by selling vast swaths of Maine lands. Positioning itself as the sole source of legal title to “unappropriated” land, the state government itself began to compete with the great proprietors. From the 1780s into the early nineteenth century, it sold millions of acres to ordinary settlers—as well as to a new set of speculators from New York and Philadelphia, who saw land as a financial commodity more than anything else.