News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, July 3, 2014
The American Revolution and the Penobscot River
UMaine professor of history gives lecture at Wilson Museum

The American Revolution and the Penobscot River

Liam Riordan of the Department of History at the University of Maine at Orono gave a talk about the Penobscot River region during the American Revolution on June 24, 2014 at the Wilson Museum in Castine, Maine.

Photo courtesy of Wilson Museum

by Tevlin Schuetz

“Does the American Revolution look different from the Penobscot River?”

This was the provocative title and subject of a lecture presented on June 24 at the Wilson Museum in Castine by Dr. Liam Riordan from the Department of History at the University of Maine, Orono.

Over 30 people attended the talk, in which Riordan explored the complex nature of Maine’s history regarding its involvement—and lack of involvement—in the American Revolution. His focus was on Castine, once known as Bagaduce, and the area surrounding the Penobscot River.

In short, the answer to the question posed is “Yes.” But historical events are always more complicated for the participants.

Riordan identified overarching themes at work in the history of the region: ambiguous allegiances, loyalism and revolution, and the effects of the Penobscot Expedition on the “Eastern Country,” or the territory northeast of Massachusetts that included Maine.

“Ambiguous allegiances” and questions of loyalty

Riordan suggested that the academically accepted estimate of colonists who were loyal to the British crown during the revolution—30 percent or so—is likely a significantly smaller number than was the actual percentage.

The choice between remaining loyal to the British Empire, staying neutral or casting one’s lot in with revolutionaries was not only difficult for most colonists but was also attended with the risks of financial ruin and personal harm. The desire to avoid conflict likely played a more prominent role in the decision-making of colonists than we may commonly acknowledge today, Riordan said.

And the situation was even more tentative for indigenous inhabitants. The Wabanaki Indian groups of the Penobscot River region had one thing in mind: to survive and, as Riordan put it, to “try to avoid over-committing to either side of a civil war between English-speaking people who were close [and] those [who were] quite distant.” The Penobscot Indians, who had sided with the French during the French and Indian War, aided the patriots during the Revolution, but they were deprived of their lands and lived on reservations from about 1800 onward.

Riordan challenged the traditional summation of the Revolution, which leaves people with the impression that there were 13 colonies, the residents of which were all of single purpose in their shared desire to rebel against Britain: “On the eve of the Revolution there were actually 26 colonies in North America and the British West Indies,” so only half of the colonies sought revolution, he said.

Riordan also stated that “a dominant experience of a New Englander being a settler in a new land,” was possessing no strong ties to any one area or to any long-established organized governing bodies in a local sense. In fact, most American settlers were living “frontier lives,” certainly those living in what is now Maine, he said.

The British victory in the Seven Years War, in which French-speaking settlement efforts were thwarted significantly in North America by the British colonists and military, had a net positive effect on English-speaking colonies, being what Riordan called “a boon” to English settlement. During the 1760s most people were celebrating British rule, law and empire. Adding to the fervor was the safety that British military victory afforded to the people in the Eastern Country. So when revolutionary zeal flared up in Boston and spread through the Massachusetts governing body, Eastern Country people felt largely ambivalent, Riordan explained.

British occupations of Penobscot

Early in the Revolution, the “Eastern Country” was what Riordan called a “marginal borderland.” It wasn’t until 1778 when the French declared their support for the American revolutionaries that things changed for the Penobscot River region.

As Riordan explained, anticipating that the war was going to encompass a larger theater than just New England, the British pulled back to protect not only Britain but its sugar colonies in the West Indies, which were worth far more economically than the continental North American colonies. As part of their defensive strategy and to protect Nova Scotia from American privateers, the British occupied Bagaduce (now Castine) with a significant military force beginning in 1779. Refugees, mostly loyalists who were expelled from Massachusetts, moved into the area, and many locals swore an oath of loyalty to Britain.

Following the failed attempt to reclaim the occupied territory, known as the Penobscot Expedition and undertaken by the government of Massachusetts, the British occupation continued for a few more years until the end of the war. For people of the region, the Revolutionary War was “a bitter civil war with no clear outcome,” Riordan said.

This British presence—combined with another episode of British control over the Penobscot River during the War of 1812 that endured until 1815—deeply affected allegiances of the citizenry, as most people tried merely to survive, Riordan explained.

Looking back

In the question-and-answer session following Riordan’s presentation, popular notions of our nation’s birth and lesser-known historical realities were discussed.

Riordan posed the question: how is the American Revolution remembered in Castine? Local loyalism and defeat were viewed as being a disgrace and a dishonor. Only in recent times have the mixed loyalties that existed before and during the Revolution been studied and appreciated for their true complexity, Riordan explained.

With respect to the Revolution at large, initially the concern of colonists was that they were not being treated as proper British subjects, but this was “not ultimately a good battle cry,” Riordan maintained; it wasn’t until the colonists desiring independence changed the message to one of human and natural rights being violated by British tyranny that the sparks of rebellion caught fire.

When asked by a member of the audience why Maine isn’t a part of Canada, given multiple British occupations and the disinterest of the fledgling federal government regarding the area and its inhabitants, Riordan explained the dynamics as being a combination of two things: the political savvy of the delegation sent by the United States to negotiate the treaty with Britain ending the War of 1812 and the conciliatory stance of the British, who ceded territory to the U.S. based on their perception that the democratic experiment in North America would likely fail within 20 years anyway.

With well over 30 percent of the population during the Revolution having been neutral in the conflict, Riordan maintains, the colonists’ victory over the British occupation was based in part upon boycotts, conscription and other means of coercion by the revolutionary leadership. Perhaps ironically, the “coercive force of government makes [a] patriot success,” he observed.