Were somebody (fortune forfend!) to ask me what the good folks of my state of Maine are like, I would answer airily that I suppose they are very like other people anywhere else, except. . . . Then I would retire for a considerable session of meditation, to decide just what I meant by except.
Could it be origin? The million (about) Mainers are made up of just about everything. Their beginnings are exciting and amusing to contemplate, and they have been coping with sea, land, and forest longer then any other states.
Origins go back to times before Columbus's discovery, and the very name of the place derives from ancient mariners who stood offshore and referred to the main(land). Dim in fog and haze, or looming in a summer sun, ''the Mayne'' was already well known to European fishermen some hundreds of years before anybody thought to come ashore for more than food and water.
When George Weymouth came in 1605 to find a place for a first English settlement, his scribe, James Rosier, tells about exploring into ''the Mayne.'' The English, who came in 1607 and attempted to live at Popham at the mouth of the Sagadahock River, were come-latelies.
Because, by 1602, the French were well established in their Acadia with fisheries and peltries, and while the English faltered and quit, the French hung tough and prospered. But the French, too, were come-latelies.
The Scandinavians did not appear in the Maine sequence until the days of long-log lumbering, when they arrived in great numbers to be grouped as ''square-heads,'' in the lingo of the choppers, but their ancestors were here a thousand years ago to look around - Leif Ericsson made no effort to settle, but he certainly brought back to his Viking land the news of the Newfoundland and the great codfish that could be had offshore. From his time, The Bank was fished by Europeans - Norse, Irish, French, Portuguese.
As a boy, Columbus made a voyage to the British Isles - where he first heard from Grand Bank fishermen about the great continent to the west'ard that he would one day discover. For some hundreds of years the offshore islands of Maine served as fishery stations where salt fish was prepared and then loaded into boats for Europe - particularly Monhegan, and Fisherman's Island of the Damariscove group in Sheepscot Bay. There were between 80 and 100 families resident in the Sheepscot Bay area before the Pilgrims came. These were English people for the most part, but a few Huguenots, and there are not particular records of their arrivals. Obviously it takes people to catch fish and cut and cure them before they can be loaded on boats for shipment.
The first reference to these earliest settlers came in 1556 from the pen of Andre Thevet, a French scholar who decided he would like to visit America. He was astonished to find people living there, because St. Augustine in Florida had not yet been settled and everybody knows that is the oldest American settlement. He was also astonished to see some Indians arrive, and they were rowing, not paddling, a double-ender lapstrake round-bottom boat common to Brittany. Further , these Indians were wearing European clothes. Later, up our Penobscot River at Islesboro, Thevet writes about a place where ''the French formerly had a fort.'' Forts are to protect people, places, and investments. What was there that the French needed to protect? Shall we assume Maine had people living at Islesboro a good century before Elder Brewster came into history?
In 1616 Capt. Samuel Argal, governor of South Virginia (Jamestown) and a rascal, came to Maine and drove the Frenchmen out. He also sacked Port Royal in Nova Scotia and stole all the French cows, taking them to Jamestown. Thus Jamestown had the ''first'' cows in the colonies. Argal's was a discourteous act no historian has ever defended, and perhaps his just reward is that today some 300,000 state of Mainers are of French descent. I'll tell about them soon.
The Pilgrims, bless 'em, gave piety, probity, fortitude, and numerous other virtues to American history. So did the Penn settlers, with their high principles. The search for liberty and freedom to worship God. Noble purposes. 'Las and fearful alack - nobody can make such high claims for the people then living in Maine. We were just plain no good. Under the business purposes of the Plymouth Company (nothing to do with Plymouth, Mass.), the folks who had been persuaded to settle in the Maine were not recruited on the basis of moral probity. They hired out to cut fish. So here is a description of them by John S. C. Abbott in his ''History of Maine'' (1875):
''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. . . . The Indians were cheated and outraged in every way to which avarice, appetite, or passion could incite depraved hearts. There was no sabbath here; no clergy to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, with its alluring promises and its fearful retributions. Some royal commissioners were sent out to investigate affairs. Their report was appalling. This led the Plymouth Company to adopt rigorous measures to reduce society to some condition of law and order.''
Here, then, was a chance to bring the wicked people of Maine to social salvation, and there seems to be a ray of hope, but Dr. Abbott resumes:
''Three gentlemen were sent over - Herbert Gorges as governor, Francis West as admiral, and Rev. William Merrill - invested with authority to manage public affairs. Their power was quite absolute. They were instructed to ''do what they should think just and fit in all cases, capital, criminal, civil, and military.'' Mr. Merrill, an Episcopal clergyman, was commissioned to try to establish the institutions of religion among these rude people, who were more difficult to be influenced than the Indians. Mr. Merrill met with such a reception that he soon abandoned the effort as hopeless and returned to England in disgust.''
It was indeed fortunate that shortly after this the Pious Pilgrims and the Perfect Puritans came to Massachusetts and became an influence for good Colonial affairs. There is an interesting American word - maverick - that developed shortly, about which our dictionaries are wrong. Samuel Maverick had settled in the Boston area before 1630, so he was holding land before Boston was settled. A condition of the Boston charter was that such settlers, already in residence, should have their rights and privileges protected. Samuel Maverick thus became the only Bostonian permitted to engage in public affairs without being a member of the accepted church. He was the odd one. The Massachusetts Historical Collections tell about this, and in Boston today there is a Maverick Square. Later in that century the Massachusetts Bay Colony became dominant, held Maine as a province, and land commissioners who came up here to enforce the religious requirement found Mainers reluctant and called them ''mavericks.''
As to the French: After Pirate Argal sacked their settlements in 1616, a few French remained in Maine but offered no influence on affairs. It was the grand derangement of 1755 that brought displaced Frenchmen (Acadians) to Maine's St. John River Valley. There they lived very much apart until the early 1880s, when English-speaking folks moved into Aroostook County to grow potatoes.
In addition to the Acadians of the St. John Valley, Maine had two separate migrations of Habitant French from Quebec - giving us a taste of the ''jooal.'' People in Beauce County say jooal for cheval, we're told, and the term refers to the dialect spoken in that county. First came the canucks, a term for a French-speaking Canadian working in the Maine woods. The term canuck was not at first discourteous. It derived, some say, from an Indian word meaning ''of another tribe,'' or ''stranger.'' (Confer the German Fremde.) The canuck was just one of the lumber camp stalwarts along with squareheads, bohunks, PIs, micks, and assorted Fremden who made up the work force back before niceties prevailed. Today none of those words are heard, and all have been assimilated into ''Maine Yankee,'' which is perhaps the only term of its sort you can use today without making anybody mad. Today, ''Canadian labor'' usually brings forth the word Kaybecker, and coming over the line to work the Kaybecker is mighty important to our woodland harvest.
The Quebeckers who came down to work in our Maine cotton mills were never properly, or unkindly, known as canucks. They were recruited in the mid-1800s by employment agents, and came in numbers to weave in Augusta, Waterville, Brunswick, Lewiston, Biddeford, and Sanford. Clannish, they held to their jooal and their church, kept church schools, and were a long time joining the Yankee communities around them. But today their children go to college and join the professions, and they make up about a third of Maine's Down East Yankee total. You can still hear French just about anywhere in Maine, and the city of Lewiston has bilingual traffic signs.
That's about how the people of Maine came to be. Fishing, farming, seafaring, lumbering, industry; Swedes, Finns, Poles, Scots, pirates, smugglers, woodsmen. All for one and one for all. And then came the ''summer complaint.''
The seasonal vacationist is called a summer complaint, or a summercater, along the coast, but inland he becomes a ''sport.'' Soon after the Civil War the vacation resort boomed in Maine, and scenic property took on a new value as ''nonresident.'' The resort hotels flourished as folks came ''from away'' to enjoy a Maine summer. Summer cottages began to appear. In those days before automobiles there wasn't a roadside cabin in Maine, so folks came by steamboat and train with great trunks to stay at places like Poland Spring, Rangeley, Old Orchard, and Moosehead Lake. The very wealthy, for which the resident Mainers had special words, built great seasonal mansions at Bah Hahb'h, which they called Baw Hawbor, and an era of annual summertime prosperity accrued which ended Labor Day when, the word runs, we fumigate and settle in for winter.
Don't discount Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Michigan, and such improbable places as influences on Maine people. Today, after the automobile perfected tourism, those folks who came to hunt, fish, and rest are now returning to retire. Cottages have been winterized, and Down East, the magazine of Maine, devotes a page each month to a new kind of Fremden who come to Maine and succeed: ''Making it in Maine'' is the headline. Have you priced any property along the Mayne lately?
Well, the state of Maine is about the same as anybody else any other place - except that everybody else from every other place came to Maine and got all mixed up. Which is all right, except . . . .