In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Beyond Borders: an historical overview

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.

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.

In the early eighteenth century, Massachusetts merchants, lawyers, and political leaders increasingly saw the Maine borderland as a place to cultivate their own dreams of status and private gain. They formed a bevy of companies to oversee the extension of British trade and settlement into new regions. Land—lots of it—was a means to that end. In 1714, for instance, eight Boston men established the Pejepscot Company, which claimed a large tract stretching four miles on either side of the Androscoggin River. Likewise, in 1719, the Muscongus Proprietors, also known as the Lincolnshire Company, began promoting a million-acre claim (later called the Waldo Patent) to the west of Penobscot Bay. For these proprietors and others like them who spearheaded smaller schemes, landownership was a matter of English law, to be recorded and proved on paper.

But in Maine, as in much of Britain’s North American empire, there was no clear or single source of title. Rather, landownership was an argument: a case to be made before provincial officials, imperial authorities, Indigenous powers, and the colonial public, and to be cobbled together from grants, patents, and deeds of varied origins. For Maine proprietors, “Indian deeds” signed with Native peoples in the seventeenth century became an important element of the argument. Some of these documents were dubious or outright fraudulent. Other agreements had been signed by Wabanakis who sought to establish ongoing relationships with English newcomers, and whose own notions of landownership could lead them to bestow multiple parties with rights to a single place. The eighteenth-century proprietors, however, insisted that such deeds were binding, one-time transactions, which conferred exclusive and alienable land rights. In an era of Wabanaki power, they sought out Native leaders who might endorse that interpretation of their Indian deeds, and they brandished these musty parchments before rival companies, metropolitan officials, and ordinary settlers alike as a strategy for asserting title.

This improvisational system for claiming land as legal property sprouted a thicket of conflicts. In addition to the many instances where multiple colonists claimed Native title to the same tract, seventeenth-century Indian deeds often described vague boundaries. So, too, did the other potential sources of legal title: the patents and grants written by provincial or royal officials who most often were wholly ignorant of the region’s geography. Proprietors seeded yet more conflicts when their surveyors pushed the boundaries of their tracts as far as they plausibly could.

Then came other projectors, championing their own dreams for the region based on different notions of legal title. Organized in 1749, the Kennebec Proprietors, also known as the Plymouth Company, claimed a tract of some three million acres on both sides of the Kennebec River. In their squabbles with rival companies, they rejected what was by then a longstanding custom of rooting Anglo title in Native land rights, arguing instead that royal or provincial grants, not Indian deeds, were the only legitimate source of ownership. Imperial agents, meanwhile, proposed entirely new colonies, advocating the creation of the Province of Sagadahoc in the 1730s and the colony of New Ireland in the 1770s. These promoters saw the region as an underutilized resource for British success and security. Amid expanding imperial warfare, Maine offered a strategic location, diplomatic access to a vast network of Indigenous powers, and timber aplenty to boost Britain’s naval superiority. Such schemes garnered fierce opposition from Bostonian proprietors and the colonial government they largely controlled.

Before the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the land companies’ efforts to coax Scotch-Irish migrants and New England families to the region were halting and often paltry. A series of Anglo-Wabanaki wars, instigated by settler incursions and the proprietors’ own belligerence, soured many potential migrants on Maine. But settlers were important to the proprietors’ designs. Their presence helped to substantiate company land claims, and the roads, mills, and meetinghouses they built helped make the rest of the proprietors’ tracts more appealing to future purchasers. After all, apportioning the land into bustling townships and selling it at a respectable price was the proprietors’ ultimate goal.

Settlers became caught in the mess of overlapping land claims. Moving to Maine in increasing numbers after 1760, many arrived only to find that they were cannon fodder for the proprietors’ legal battles. The companies avoided suing each other directly, fearful of a legal decision that might invalidate their entire title. Instead, they sued settlers who claimed land under rival syndicates. Some settlers came to Maine at the encouragement of proprietary or colonization schemes that subsequently went defunct, leaving them with no legal claim to the land they lived on. Many others came under the auspices of no land company at all. During the Revolutionary War, scores of leading proprietors remained loyal to the British crown; although new leadership soon muscled into control of the companies, many potential settlers nevertheless believed that Maine lands had become free for the taking. Underpaid Continental veterans and indebted farmers from southern New England flocked northward, believing land was the just entitlement of their victory in the Revolution. Between 1775 and 1790, Maine’s settler population tripled.

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.

Further to the east, new boundary issues erupted. At the end of the Revolutionary War, in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, negotiators had sketched an imaginary line through this perpetually contested and poorly understood region. In reality, the northeast border turned out to be quite ambiguous. The confusion grew problematic in the years that followed, as loyalists, loggers, and others converged on Passamaquoddy Bay but disagreed over where Maine ended and New Brunswick began. From the 1790s to the 1840s, this ongoing dispute between the British empire and an increasingly expansionist republic implicated notions of national honor and the United States’ legitimacy on the world stage. It was a new version of a defining problem in the history of early Maine: conflicts sown by vague boundaries drawn on paper in faraway rooms.

Such conflicts form a key context for the documents that visitors and researchers will encounter in the Beyond Borders portal. Deeds, maps, correspondence, diaries, depositions, account books, church records, lists of settlers, minutes of proprietors’ meetings and boundary commissions—all offer insight into struggles over who governed where, who owned what, and how they owned it. They chronicle efforts to draw, dispute, and dispel borders in pursuit of a wide array of dreams for the Dawnland and for early Maine. Amid these sweeping historical processes, these records also offer precious glimpses into deeply human stories: how Wabanaki and European peoples sought to survive, to thrive, to secure their visions for the future, and to find meaning in a contested world.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Michael A. Blaakman, Speculation Nation: Land Mania in the Revolutionary American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023).

Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

S. Max Edelson, The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Allan Greer, Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires and Land in Early Modern North America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Alexandra L. Montgomery, “Projecting Power in the Dawnland: Weaponizing Settlement in the Gulf of Maine World, 1710-1800” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2020).

Ian Saxine, Properties of Empire: Indians, Colonists, and Land Speculators on the New England Frontier (New York: New York University Press, 2019).

Alan Taylor, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990)