swan’s island history


Recently I finished reading A History of Swan’s Island, Maine by H.W. Small, M.D., which was published in 1898 and is full of incredibly interesting historical detail, giving a kind of ground to the ground that I’m living on.  Here are some of my favorite bits.

About the original Native-American inhabitants:

At that part of the island called the “North” when the first settlers came there were five different places plainly seen where the Indians that their “set-downs” or villages.  There was another at the Middle Head, one in the Reed field near the eastern shore, and several around Old Harbor.  In these ancient shell heaps have been found, by men of our present day, flint arrow heads and hatchets which must have taken much skill and patience in making.  These must have been their implements used in hunting and perhaps in warfare.  The promontory where the light-house stands, near the entrance to Old Harbor, is called Hocomock, a name given to it by the Indians long before the white men came.  It may have been their name for this locality.  Near to Hocomock Head is appoint of land extending into the harbor, called Burying Point.  A large number of Indian skeletons were unearthed by the plow.  They were found most plenty near the Middle Head and near the “Carrying-Place”, which places were their burying-grounds.  The skeletons were found just beneath the turf and were of large size, showing a race of much larger stature than the Indian of today.  This tribe made irregular visits to the island for many years after the white settlers came, but of late, since their number has so decreased, they have ceased altogether.

In Perry D. Westbrook’s Biography of an Island (1958), he speculates that these larger skeletons may, in fact, have been the skeletons of early European fisherman that were buried on the island before it was settled, but I prefer the more fantastic (and far more dubious) idea that these are the skeletons of Vikings.   As Small writes later on, “Traditional accounts say that the Northmen visited all this region as early as 1008.  But if true, they left no traces here to remind us of their visit.”  Unless those large skeletons were Vikings!  Of course, Small’s account of the large-sized skeletons is based on oral history that was already old when he go to it, so it’s unlikely to be particularly accurate in the first place.

I always wondered why this island originally had the name Burnt Coat (there’s still a Burnt Coat Harbor).  Small thinks that this is because the first record of this coast was made during Champlain’s voyage along the coast in 1604.  Champlain’s names dot the area, and include Isle au Haut and Mount Desert.   Here’s Small’s account:

Champlain gave the name of this island on that early map as Brule-cote, “brule” meaning burnt, and “cote” hill — Burnt-hill.  It is supposed that Champlain designated the island by some hill that had been burnt over.  Some later discoverer translated “brule” burnt, but did not translate “cote”, hence on his map he incorrectly gave this island the name Burnt Cote.  Another, more stupid still, thought the former had made a mistake in spelling, and on his map had Burn Coat, by which name it is called in a deed given October 28, 1790, as recorded in Hancock registry, book I, page 28.  Later it was generally known as Burnt Coat or Burnt Coal Island.

Perry, on the other hand, says that there is no record on Champlain’s maps of a “Brule-cote” and that the name must have come from elsewhere.  It’s such a perfect just-so story, however, that I think it should be kept just so.

The area of Acadia National Park, especially around Mount Desert Island, was originally colonized by the French, who referred to the area as “Acadie.”  A Jesuit mission was established on Mount Desert Island in 1604, and the region became a central area of conflict between English claims and French claims, especially during the war that erupted in 1754.  According to Small, the indigenous people of the area ended up siding with the French primarily because the English had treated them so poorly during early phases of contact, including capturing 31 Native Americans from the area and bringing them to Malaga, where they were sold into slavery.  As Small puts it: “Thus we see that in nearly every instance the Englishmen rewarded the trusting and child-like simplicity of the Indians by some act of treachery.  This, no doubt, was the cause of the hatred which the Indians had against the English settlers.”

In 1755 an expedition of English forces (2,000 men) was sent to drive the French from Acadia.  They succeeded, and about 2,000 local residents (there were about 18,000 residents of French extraction living in the area at the time) were forcibly resettled along the eastern seaboard from as close as other areas of coastal Maine, to as far south as Florida.  “Upon this event was founded the beautiful poem ‘Evangeline’, by H.W. Longfellow.”  When Quebec fell in 1759 the Acadia area was permanently taken from France.  After the American Revolution, many soldiers who served in the American army became settlers in the wilderness of Maine, including Henry Knox, who was the United States Secretary of War under Washington during the American Revolution.

Burnt Coat Island, as it was called, was bought by Col. James Swan, of Massachusetts, in the year 1786.”  “The territory was offered for sale for three reasons: first, that Massachusetts might derive revenue from its sale; second, to ensure its settlement, and thus increase the state’s population; and third, that only Protestants might become owners of this land, and thus prevent the encroachment of the Catholics.  This prejudice against the Catholic religion, formed in those times, still exists to the present day.

Swan early on established a sawmill on the island, and the lumber industry was the first major industry on the island.  The fishing industry began to grow after this, and for a while the quarrying of granite — exceptionally uniform on the island — was a major industry.  The fact that the granite in this part of Maine was formed in sheets that were easy to separate made the rock here easy to quarry, and the plentiful harbors meant that ships could easily take the granite to growing urban areas along the eastern seaboard (especially New York), long before there was an adequate rail network in the area (as I learned from Steven Haynes, founder and curator of the Maine Granite Industry Historical Society Museum).

Although early settlers did farm here, growing wheat and barley and raising farm animals in addition to hunting, the primary industry over the years has been the fishing industry, which has centered on various types of fish over the years, including cod, sardines, herring,  and mackerel.  The current fleet concentrates primarily on lobster, which originally was a secondary catch and didn’t pick up steam as an industry until the late 1800s.  Here’s what Small writes about the lobster industry:

 After the mackerel industry had become unprofitable, the class of fishermen who had been there employed turned naturally to some other branch of the fisheries.  The most profitable inducement was held out in the lobster fisheries.  Few of these fish had been caught previous to 1857.  They were then very abundant, especially near the shore.  They were of no value except as a fisherman would occasionally catch some for use in his own family.  Only the small ones were used as food; the larger ones were thrown away as unfit to be eaten.  The superior quality of the lobster as a food began to be appreciated.  So about the year 1857 a smack ran between Swan’s Island and Boston, but she could not carry and dispose of in the market what three or four men at Swan’s Island caught.  Generally it was older men, who were unable to go far from home, who were engaged in catching lobsters.

The difficulty of transporting live lobsters long distances in sailing vessels, led to the establishment of canning factories at various points, one of which was built at Old Harbor.  This somewhat stimulated the business.  A large number of shore fishermen forsook their former mode of fishing, and turned their attention to catching lobsters for the factory.  Prices were low and the supply was usually in excess of the demand.  By 1870 prices had to be raised to secure enough for the canning factories, and by 1880 the supply had been reduced so much that the canning factories to some extent were abandoned.  Increased steamboat facilities made it practicable to ship live lobsters to the Boston market.  In 1890 the demand had greatly exceeded the supply, and prices were consequently raised.

At first only small boats were used, as lobsters could be caught in abundance near the shore.  As they grew scarcer larger and larger boats were required to go farther from shore.  Now the fishermen have a fine fleet of boats, valued from $100 to $600 each.  O.B. Whitten, State commissioner of sea and shore fisheries, informs me that in 1876 there were one hundred and eighteen men engaged in the lobster fisheries some part of the year.  The catch was 688, 628 lobsters, valued at $56,008.14.  In 1897 there were one hundred and forty-two men, who caught 740,967 lobsters, valued at $75,208.56.  At the former date all sizes of lobsters were caught and sold, but now it is prohibited by law to sell any less than ten and one-half inches in length.

And just in case you thought overfishing was only a contemporary problem:

The porgy fisheries for a time engaged quite a number of our fishermen, and offered luring inducements to invest capital.  They were chiefly valued for the oil they contained.  Suitable vessels were built, expensive nets bought, buildings and wharves were erected to provide for trying out the oils.  Although these fish were so abundant, yet they were so persistently followed and caught by hundreds of small steamers, as well as by boats and vessels of every description, that they suddenly disappeared from the coast, and have never returned.

Swan himself is a fascinating character.  Born in Scotland in 1754, he emigrated to the Massachusetts Colony in 1765 and was soon employed in Boston where he wrote an early anti-slavery book (published in 1772) called “A Dissuasion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade.”  According to Small he joined the Sons of Liberty, took part in the Boson Tea Party, and fought with the Revolutionary Army at Bunker Hill.  “He was at the evacuation of Boston by the British on March 17, 1776.  The next day he witnessed the entrance of Washington into Boston amid great rejoicing, as the inhabitants had been besieged for eleven months.  Afterwards Swan became secretary of the Massachusetts board of war.  He was elected a member of the legislature and adjutant-general of the state.”  Plus, his wife’s name was Hepzibah, a name that should definitely be a candidate for popular revival.

But Swan didn’t just participate in the American Revolution, he also was in France during the French revolution:

In 1787 he went to Paris, and through the influence of Lafayette and other men of influence, made a fortune through government contracts by supplying their army.  Here he lived through all the dark days of the French Revolution.  During this period he made every effort to colonize the proscribed French nobility on his lands in America.  He had induced a number to immigrate and received on board his ships a vast quantity of their furniture and belongings, but before the owners could follow their furniture on board, the relentless guillotine had caught them in its hungry jaws.  The laden ships put to sea and safely arrived in Boston.  One of these ships was commanded by Capt. Stephen Clough, of Wiscasset, Maine.  He was an eye-witness to the execution of the French queen, which fiendish act remained indelibly impressed upon his memory.  He gave to his youngest daughter the name of Antoinette in memory of her.

Swan went back and forth between the U.S. and France, eventually dying in Paris in 1830:

Mrs. Swan accompanied her husband on several trips to Paris.  But on his last trip Colonel Swan came to grief.  He had contracted a debt in France claimed to be 2,000,000 francs.  This indebtedness he denied, and refused to pay it.  He was caused to be arrested by the French government and confined in St. Pelagie, a debtors’ prison, from the year 1808 to 1830 — a period of 22 years.

Swan steadfastly denied the charge brought against him, and although he was able to settle the debt, he preferred to remain a prisoner rather than secure his liberty on an unjust plea.  He proposed, by a lifelong captivity if necessary, to protest against his pretended creditor’s injustice.  He gave up his wife, children, and friends, and the comforts of his Parisian and New England homes for a principle.  He made preparations for a long stay in prison.

Here in prison for long years he remained, until, on July 28, 1830, on the ascension of Louis Philippe to the throne of France, he was forced out of prison with the other debtors at the age of seventy-six years.

Still, he flaunted his wealth even as he stayed in his cell at St. Pelagie:

With funds sent to him by his wife in America, Swan hired apartment in the Rue de la Clif, opposite St. Pelagie, which he caused to be fitted up at great expense, in which were dining and drawing-rooms, coaches and stables and out-houses.  There he invited his friends and lodged his servants, putting at the disposal of the former his carriages in which they drove to the promenade, the ball, the theatre — everywhere in his name.  At this Parisian home he gave great dinners, but as in that beautiful play of the “Lost Man” in which William Rufus Blake was so grand as Geoffrey Dale, there was always a place left for the absent one at the table.  Swan seemed happy in thus braving his creditors and judges.  He allowed his beard to grow, dressed a la mode, and was cheerful to the last day of his confinement.

After his freedom his one desire was to embrace his friend Lafayette, and this he did on the steps of the Hotel de Ville.  The next morning Col. Swan was dead.  He is said to have been a fine-looking old gentleman, greatly resembling the great philosopher and statesman, Benjamin Franklin.


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