The Pilgrims who established Maine’s first colonies in the early 1600s set the state’s reputation for its hard-working, fiercely independent citizens. Their autonomous spirit-Maine, for example, is the only state to declare war on a foreign power, the Aroostook War against England in 1839-guided it to early support for the abolition, women’s suffrage and temperance movements. Embrace the spirit of your Original Down East ancestors (so-called because mariners sailed east downwind from Boston to Maine ports) by diving into these Pine Tree State resources.
Before European explorers arrived in what we now call Maine, American Indian tribes including the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet lived there. Though Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and Italian sailor John Cabot may have landed in Maine on journeys to Nova Scotia, Pierre du Gast Sieur de Monts established the state’s first European settlement, in 1604 at the mouth of the St. Croix River. Three years later, Pilgrims with the Plymouth Company started the Popham Colony on the Kennebec River. Both hamlets were short-lived.
Despite the initial setback, European colonization continued, and by 1622, Sir Fernando Gorges and Capt. John Mason had secured royal patents to the Province of Maine. Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ jurisdiction crept northward until that colony annexed Maine in 1652 as a buffer against French and Indian attacks. Gorges’ grandson sold his interest in Maine to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1678 for 1,250 pounds sterling, and Maine remained in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until statehood in 1820. Remember that year when researching Maine ancestors: Before this, records may be grouped with those of the Commonwealth; see <www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arcgenl genidx.htm#maine> for information on the Massachusetts state archives’ Maine holdings.
Down East deeds
Even though England and France bickered over Maine during the early 1700s, settlers continued to put down roots along its rugged coast and in the rich forests. You’ll find some of their names in the York Deeds collection, an 18-volume set of transcribed pre-1737 deeds – it’s available in print or on film at the Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org>, most of Maine’s state and university libraries, and the Maine Historical Society <mainehistory.org>. (Rent FHL film through a branch Family History Center; see FamilySearch to find one near you.) Also search for early Mainers in the Directory of Maine Pioneer Ancestors by Mary H. Dormer (Downeast Ancestry), available at many large libraries.
By 1763, England had gained control. As the threat of Indian raids ebbed, immigrants from Ireland, England and Scotland settled in southern Aroostook County, while Acadians (French who’d been forced from Canada’s Nova Scotia and New Brunswick provinces) made homes along that county’s northern border. Massachusetts gave 100-acre lots to anyone who’d settle in Maine, doubling its population between 1743 and 1763. Later, Massachusetts authorized the Committee for the Sale of Eastern Lands to settle war debt by distributing Maine land through lotteries, grants, patents and auctions. The Massachusetts archives holds original deeds, titles and correspondence through Maine’s separation and statehood. Maine’s archives has microfilm of these and later land records; see <www.maine.gov/sos/arc/archives/land1.htm> for a listing. You’ll also find microfilm at the FHL; run a keyword search on maine land and property. For land sales between private citizens, check with the county clerk where the sale happened.
War of 1812 veterans and widows also received land grants in lieu of pensions. See the Maine archives’ index to Revolutionary War land grants and pension applications <www.maine.gov/sos/arc/archives/military/grants>, which has images of some documents. The archives staff will mail you copies of these bounty-land applications for a fee, or you can view them on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> and the FHL. The records are abstracted on a $19.95 HeritageQuest CD and searchable via libraries offering HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com>.
Massachusetts’ failure to protect Maine during the War of 1812 tipped popular sentiment toward separation. As part of the Missouri Compromise, Maine became the 23rd state in 1820 (but its northeast border wasn’t set until 1842, after the Aroostook War). Its population hovered near 300,000, due to Huguenot, German, Irish and French Canadian immigrants lured by jobs in the textile, shoe and lumber industries. Even today, you’ll hear French spoken in much of the St. John Valley and many cities. You can learn more at <www.francomaine.org> and get tips on researching your French Canadian roots in the June 2006 Family Tree Magazine.
Portland spent 12 years as the state capital before Augusta took the helm. To trace the evolution of towns, townships, plantations and cities since 1652, search Maine Archives Interactive <www.informe.org/sos_archives> (check the box next to “Maine Towns Legal Histories dates of incorporation …”). Familiarize yourself with Maine’s 16 counties at <rootsweb.com/~megenweb/counties.html>.
Forest of records
Even though Maine wasn’t yet a state during the first federal census in 1790, its citizens were enumerated as part of Massachusetts. The schedules are grouped separately under Maine. You’ll find censuses through 1930 on microfilm at NARA and its regional facilities, the FHL and Maine’s state archives, or search censuses using HeritageQuest or the subscription site Ancestry.com <ancestry com>. In 1837, Maine took a head-of-household census, but only records for Portland, Bangor and unincorporated townships survived. You can use the 1864 town-by-town poll list as a kind of census. Both enumerations are on microfilm at the state archives.
Despite its early statehood, Maine didn’t require statewide vital-records reporting until 1892. Many towns, however, had been recording births, marriages and deaths since the 18th century. About a fifth of them (listed at <www.state.me.us/sos/arc/archives/genealog/vrtowns.htm>) sent copies of their pre-1892 vital records to the state; the archives has these on microfilm. The FHL has copies, or you can contact the town clerk where the birth, marriage or death occurred.
The state archives’ online databases <www.maine.gov/sos/arc/databases> index marriages from 1892 to 1996 and deaths from 1960 to 1996. Birth records aren’t indexed online, but you can order copies of those and other vital records up to 1922. Visit the archives to view vital records from 1922 through 1955 on microfilm, or request copies from the Maine Office of Vital Statistics <www.maine.gov/dhhs/bohodr/odrvs.htm>. Contact that office for post-1892 divorce decrees, too.
Mainers in the military
The War of 1812 cost Maine nearly 1,000 men and almost destroyed its sea trade. The Maine archives holds records of state militia who fought in this conflict and others through World War I – see <www.maine.gov/sos/arc/archives/military.htm> for details. The archives’ Civil War records include muster rolls, a veterans burial card index and correspondence. Some Maine military records are on microfilm at the FHL. NARA keeps service records of Mainers in the US military.
Although no repository covers all of Maine’s newspapers, the Maine Newspaper Project <www.maine.gov/sos/arc/newspapers/mnphome.htm> is the next best thing. There, you’ll see titles and publication locations of papers dating to 1785; a downloadable Word document lists repositories that hold each title and the years covered. The historical society or library in your ancestor’s town also may have local papers. The Portland Public Library’s Maine News Index Online <mni.portlandlibrary.com/ics-wpd/mniquery.htm> offers abstracts of articles from 15 papers dating mostly to the 1990s- useful for obituaries. At the library, you can see abstracts back to 1945 and search the Jordan Index of Maine newspapers since the 1780s.
Pine Tree State pilgrimage
Should you be able to voyage to Maine, don’t miss the library at MHS. Records include immigration and naturalization papers, historical newspapers, Maine city directories, and business, town and church records. Then make your way to the Maine State Library in Augusta (see holdings at <www.maine.gov/msl/servlces/reference/gen_resources.htm>). Using these resources as a beacon, you’ll sail smoothly on course toward your Down East ancestors.