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Pied piety

A recent letter to our "Readers Write" column restated a sturdy American myth: "People first came to America in order to practice religion without intervention from the country they lived in. Their flight from England was a search for religious freedom."

This interpretation perforce denies that anything happened until the Pilgrims came in 1620. It will be difficult to correct history at this late date by presenting some facts, and I'm sure most everybody will continue to applaud the pious fervor of ye Plimoths in ye Maffachuffetts at the expense of earlier settlers who neither fled England in the first place nor cared a hoot or two about church-and-state in the second. There isn't much of a shine to cutting fish, but the lowly cod had much more to do with founding our Republic than did the spiritual Faith of the dissenters.

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In 1602 the French had some settlements here in Maine, which they called Acadia, and at that time the English hadn't been paying attention. One of the settlements was on Ste. Croix Island, and we might as well note that the Sieur de Monts, who led the company, was a Huguenot. On the first Christmas, a religious service was held, the first such in America, and the devotions were conducted jointly by a Jesuit priest and a Protestant chaplain. The Ste. Croix settlement did fairly well, and eventually its people, driven out of Maine in 1613 by the English, became the nucleus of the Port Royal community in Nova Scotia, which was dispersed to give us the "Evangeline" story. In 1605 the British woke up, formed a trading company, and sent George Waymouth over here to find a location for an English colony. That led to the Popham settlement in 1607 -- which was accompanied by a Church of England vicar, the Rev. Richard Seymour. That colony failed, but not all the people returned to England; an unknown number of them moved from the unfavorable location at Popham and went around Pemaquid Point into the Muscongus River to live at what was to become Bristol, since these Englishmen were from Bristol. Accordingly, since 1607, there were Englishmen in Maine, on the islands and along the coast, and they became numerous enough to give the French stiff competition and eventually to remove them. When Captain Argall with an English fleet sacked St. Saviour on Mount Desert Island and sent the French to Nova Scotia, 1613, New France became New England. Maine fisheries and peltries flourished, and it was to be seven years before the Mayflower.m In 1620, the year of the Mayflower,m six English vessels came to Maine to load salt fish -- hardly to escape religious persecution. In 1622, the number of English vessels coming to Maine increased to 30. That was the year the languishing Pilgrims came to Maine for food.

By 1628, two years before Boston was founded, the most important place in America was Pemaquid, Maine. With 500 souls, it was larger than Quebec. But "settlement" is a misleading word. In addition to permanent homes, the Maine mid-coast area had its seasonal residents even then. People came and went with the summer. Consider Dixy Bull, a pirate, who scourged the coast of Maine and even pillaged Pemaquid. When four warships set out to get him, he moved along, and eventually made his way to the gallows back in England. Well, there is some evidence that piety wasn't unanimous.

What kind of people were the early Mainers, predating the Pilgrims? We do have some information. One historian wrote:

"These men were generally reckless adventurers. Some were runaway seamen, some fugitives from justice, and some those vagrants of civilization who, by a strange instinct, seek seclusion from all civil and religious restraints. The state of society was distinguished for its lawlessness. Every man followed his own impulses unchecked. The grossest immoralities prevailed. There was no sabbath here; no clergy to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, with its alluring promises and its fearful retributions."

In 1623 things were so bad that the trading company that sponsored Maine activities sent agents with strict instructions to institute law and order. They were supported by the Rev. William Merrill, Episcopalian, whose duty was to in- still religion into these rude people. He tried, abandoned the effort as hopeless, and returned to England in disgust.

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