News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, July 18, 2013
Castine Community meeting raises complex questions

by Sharon Bray

Was Castine “settled” in 1613 as a welcoming sign announces at the town line on Route 166? Year-round and summer residents packed Emerson Hall to standing-room-only Wednesday afternoon, July 10, to share information and opinions.

For the past several months, differing opinions have resulted in letters to newspaper editors, sometimes heated public encounters, and posting of another welcome sign stating that historic Castine is “unsettled 2013.”

J.R. Phillips, former director of the Maine State Museum moderated the discussion sponsored by Castine Historical Society and the Board of Selectmen.

While historians seem to agree that Baron de St. Castin set up a trading camp on the peninsula in 1613, scholars and variously educated citizens have argued about whether the temporary post should be called a settlement.

The town was officially incorporated in 1796 after the American Revolution. From its earliest recorded history, the area fell sporadically under French, Dutch and British control. American patriots took charge after the revolution and again after defeating the British in the War of 1812.

Many Castine signs and business logos display a “four flags” version of the town’s history. Speakers at the public forum noted the lack of a fifth “flag” or symbol of Indian tribes who inhabited the region before European invasions.

Phillips described history as “evolving” and involving science to analyze artifacts and data.

“Clearly this community cares about history—the room is full,” he noted.

Resident Frank Wiswall said his research and use of Internet sources included observations of Samuel de Champlain, who sailed the Maine coast in 1604. Champlain had noted “a great number of canoes” on the peninsula’s shore, according to Wiswall.

He also referred to the French Fort Pentagoet and to Plymouth colonists’ attempts to trade with Maine Indians.

The “logical inference,” said Wiswall is that Europeans “came here because there were people here to trade with.”

Perhaps an Abenaki “tourist” site or non-European settlement predated Castin, according to Wiswall.

Historical Society member Sally Foote talked about Fanny Hardy Ekstorm’s account of Indians eating their fish along Castine’s shore before leaving the area.

Raising a question of why Europeans might have visited Castine, Bob Scott referred to his sailing experience. The harbor’s prevailing wind, current and passage between ledges, left visitors with a more difficult exit process from the sheltered location, he said.

Jack Macdonald noted the abundance of trees for making spars for sailing ships. He compared the Penobscot to Hudson and Delaware rivers as trade routes.

Historical society member David Adams suggested “occupation” as a better word than “settlement” for what happened in Castine. He listed European problems of religious persecution and wars that could have driven early colonists to Maine shores.

Lynn Parsons, history professor, author and historical society member, acknowledged being one of the first to raise issues with the 1613 settlement claim. He said no one disputes the presence of Europeans in the area in the 17th century. “But what was their intent” for being here?

He could find no evidence of more than two dozen European people in Castine at any one time in that century. They were all male and “they all left. So much for settlement.”

Phillips, who worked with archaeologists and others studying the Popham colony in Maine, defined “settlement” as involving an “intent to stay and live off the land.” Sailors fishing who did not stay, Phillips noted, were not settlers.

Local author Rusty Bourne referred to the work of Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett and her description of settlements from the sea.

“No one thinks of anything like continuous, planned settlement in the early 1600s,” said Bill Lovett. But by the early 1700s he noted “considerable stepping stones” to settlement.

Archaeologists Alaric and Gretchen Faulkner wrote of extensive research and excavations in their 1987 book, using words “colony,” “settlement,” and “habitation,” said resident Al Boyer.

Anyone looking for documents related to early observations of Castine, said Bob Scott, should ask to see copies of charts made in the 1500s and delivered to the Maine Department of Marine Resources as it considered aquaculture applications for Smith Cove and nearby.

Phillips and Wiswall talked about many ways for documents and artifacts to be lost over the centuries from fire and sunken ships to war and thievery.

The point of the discussion, Phillips said, is to determine what kind of signs the community wants, whether “provable” or “desirable.”

“I kind of like the sign” as it exists now, said Gene Spinazola. Several others raised voices in agreement.

“If we change 1613, do we have to change the 4 Flags?” asked Janis Bobb.

Sign suggestions included “Castine 1613” and “found in 1613.”

“Was it lost?” asked Phillips, adding, “Did the Indians who found it first not count?”

Resident and a founder of the historical society Jim Day said he found consideration of how to “include or exclude” native populations to be “an exciting discussion opportunity.”

Dealing with Maine’s tribes, nations, or bands of indigenous people opens room for “great disagreements within themselves.” In addition, Phillips noted, archaeologists “have a hard time getting along with each other.”

He encouraged future discussions between the historical society and selectmen as well as among Castine inhabitants.

Castine is unlikely to celebrate a 400th anniversary this year, said Phillips, but “we have to do the best we can with what we know now” to honor the town’s history.