Radical Mainers

A Squatter Revolt in Backcountry Maine

Joseph Pierce was sound asleep at the Marshall Springs lodging house in Montville on the night of September 5, 1815, when a mob of local men broke into his room and dragged him out of bed by his hair. Pierce had been sent to the backcountry town the day before by a group of wealthy land speculators, known as the “Twenty Associates,” who owned vast tracts of the mid-Maine wilderness. It was his job to collect $2 per acre from the hardscrabble subsistence farmers eking out a meager existence there by clearing and tilling the rocky, glacial soils.

The impoverished backwoods settlers complained that there was no way they could afford such steep prices, but the sympathies of the aristocrats at the Massachusetts General Court in Boston were with the land speculators, so the settlers had virtually no legal recourse. When they heard that Pierce had come to town, local farmers Benjamin Tibbets, Doty Richards, William Glidden and Joel Clark made a pact to carry out collective action, swore themselves to secrecy, and signed the pact in their own blood.

After sending out a spy named Stephen to learn of Pierce’s whereabouts, the armed men showed up at the lodging house dressed as Indians, put wooden blocks in their mouths to disguise their voices, and rapped on the door. As they dragged Pierce into the dooryard, Doty Richards cried out, “Don’t hurt the man, don’t kill him!” Their intent had been to merely scare him into giving the farmers better prices for the land.

Pierce was shivering in the cool night air and begged the men to allow him to get dressed, but the mob ordered him to first agree to settle for $1 per acre and promise he would not prosecute them for their actions. Pierce agreed, then rushed back to Wiscasset, where he filed a criminal complaint against the group. Clark was eventually sentenced to three years hard labor at the state prison in Charleston, Massachusetts, but the other men never served time. After all, the authorities knew the majority of the people in the backcountry supported the mob’s actions.

Claiming Their Slice of the Revolution

In the late 1700s, after a century of violence against the Wabanaki people had largely cleared the land of local tribes, there was a massive land rush to the Maine frontier. Between 1775 and 1790 Maine’s population tripled, to nearly 100,000, as Massachusetts veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families came to claim their slice of the new nation and live off God’s bounty — free from bosses, lords and masters.

However, a group of mercantile capitalists already “owned” most of the land on the mid-Maine frontier. Their claims were largely based on patents granted to a handful of wealthy English gentlemen by King Charles I, dating back as far as 1629. Through political connections, heredity, and legal manipulation, three major land companies had secured dubious legal rights to millions of acres.

The vaguely demarcated grants overlapped and conflicted with one another, as well as with smaller patents and claims based on “Indian deeds.” (Unfamiliar with the concept of the exclusive ownership of land, tribes had repeatedly “sold” the same territory to multiple purchasers.) Given these ambiguities, the land barons were reluctant to sue their fellow elites, but didn’t hesitate to bring legal action against settlers who’d bought acreage from a rival proprietor. The subsistence farmers lacked the money to wage drawn-out legal battles, so regardless of the strength of their claim, they usually lost in court.

The Pejepscot Proprietors claimed land on both sides of the Androscoggin River, the Kennebec Proprietors controlled the three million acres along the Kennebec River, and the Twenty Associates claimed the vast Waldo Patent between the Medomack and Penobscot Rivers. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, General Henry Knox, Governor General James Bowdoin, and Colonel Josiah Little wrested control of the Waldo, Kennebec and Pejepscot patents from their loyalist partners and were determined to get premium prices for the land, whether the impoverished settlers could afford it or not.

As historian Alan Taylor wrote in his book, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820, these American aristocrats saw the Revolution as a war to protect private property from arbitrary taxation. They envisioned a new society governed by “discerning gentlemen” who would exercise “their superior judgment independent of popular pressure (except at elections, when they expected the electorate to choose between gentlemen).” These men, Taylor noted, greatly distrusted the common people to have any say in government, and feared the backcountry settlers would become no better than the “savages” they had replaced. High land prices, they reasoned, would not only force farmers to exercise discipline and efficiency, but would eventually generate the capital necessary for investment in factories and other commercial ventures.

“No part of the United States affords such solid grounds of profit to capitalists, as the District of Maine,” wrote Henry Knox (who, incidentally, died penniless in 1806).

On the other hand, wrote Taylor, the “Wild Yankees” and “Liberty Men” who populated the Maine countryside saw the Revolution as a means to protect small producers from parasitical land speculators and aristocrats who lived off the labor of others. After all, it wasn’t the speculators in their fancy houses in Boston who made the land valuable, but the farmers who cleared and farmed it.

These ideas were articulated by agitators such as James Shurtleff, of Litchfield, and Samuel Ely, of Northport, who wrote incendiary pamphlets proclaiming the illegitimacy of the Proprietors’ claims. Basing his ideas on a controversial reading of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, Shurtleff argued that it was only through the hard labor of transforming a plot into productive farmland that a man could take exclusive ownership of it. “Till this is done it remains in the common stock,” he wrote, “and anyone who needs to improve it for his support has a right.”

The Liberty Men feared that the ultimate goal of the Great Proprietors was to make them wage slaves or tenant farmers in a European-style system — “societies of arrogant aristocrats lording over impoverished, landless, and powerless masses.” The names these yeoman farmers gave their new settlements reflected their philosophy: Freedom, Unity, New Canaan, Liberty Mount.

Speculators like Samuel Waldo had encouraged Scotch-Irish immigrants to settle midcoast Maine in the early 1700s in order to colonize the frontier. At the time, the native people were also standing in the way of valuable timber and lime deposits on the banks of the St. George River. To the Great Proprietors, the bellicose and battle-hardened Ulstermen were the ideal fighting force to conquer the tribes of Maine. But when the Indian threat was eliminated and Knox’s men began trying to wring money from the colonists, the Scotch-Irish settlements on the Damariscotta and Sheepscot Rivers became known as “the grand seed bed of sedition and insurrection.”

“We once defended this land at the point of the bayonet and if drove to necessity are now equally united, ready and zealous to defend it again in the same way,” the Sheepscot settlers reportedly told Knox’s agents. “It is as good to die by the sword as by the famine and we shall prefer the [former]. Who can have a better right to the land than we who have fought for it, subdued it and made it valuable which if we had not done no proprietor would ever have enquired after it. God gave the earth to the children. … Wild land ought to be as free as common air.”

To Arms!

Throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, desperate farmers began taking up arms and fighting back against land agents, lawmen and lawyers enforcing the Proprietors’ claims. They sent sketches to Augusta attorneys depicting them hanging from gallows, vandalized property, and dumped an open coffin on the front step of Henry Knox’s son-in-law, the Lincoln County Sheriff. Backcountry settlers repeatedly threatened to burn down Belfast due to the number of greedy creditors in the town. Other times, land agents and surveyors were mobbed, shot at and otherwise driven from the area.

On July 8, 1795, the “New Milford Boys” of present-day Alna rounded up a group of neighbors for a little “frolic,” got them liquored up on rum, and ambushed an agent for the Draper heirs. According to Taylor, when the rowdy band caught sight of the agent John Trueman, they leapt out, dragged him off his horse, shredded all his papers, tore off his clothes, cut his ears with a pen knife and beat him with bundles of tree branches while repeatedly threatening to kill him.

In March of 1797, deputy sheriffs arrested three of the Liberty Men and locked them in the jail in Wiscasset. But soon a mob of 200 to 300 men from the upper Sheepscot and Damariscotta settlements marched into town, burst into the jail, freed the captives and then marched home. Local authorities later had to build a stone jail, completed in 1811, because there were so many White Indian raids to free their brothers-in-arms.

Over in Lewiston, in September of 1800, a mob gathered at the house where the proprietor Josiah Little was lodging, pelted it with stones, and fired a bullet that set the bed where Little had been sleeping ablaze. Settlers at Lincoln Plantation (present-day Thorndike) wounded three of Henry Knox’s agents in an ambush on July 18, 1801, while over in Lincolnville, farmers were rumored to be plotting to burn down Knox’s mansion in Thomaston. On the 25th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, as many as 500 armed men mustered at Reed’s Tavern in Davistown (present-day Montville), filled their canteens with rum and vowed to march to Castine to bust a fellow Liberty Man out of jail. The skirmishes continued well into the late 1810s.

But the Great Proprietors were relentless, and though some farmers were able to negotiate better terms early on, the backcountry settlers could not keep up the fight forever. As the confrontations grew more violent, the Liberty Men also began to lose popular support, particularly after settlers wounded Deputy Sheriff Henry Johnson in Freedom, stripped and brutally beat Constable Moses Robinson in Fairfax (Albion), and killed the surveyor Paul Chadwick in Malta (Winsor).

In 1808, the Jeffersonian majority on the Massachusetts General Court passed the Betterment Act. The act recognized the legitimacy of some of the settlers’ claims to have increased the value of the land, but it also further divided the men. If the removal of a settler were sought, the act gave proprietors the option of either compensating the settler for the improvements he had made, or allowing him to purchase the land at its unimproved, “natural” value. As Taylor observed, this “opened a rift” between the more successful farmers, who were eager to purchase clear title to their land, and the poorer farmers, who could not pay and favored continued resistance.

According to Taylor, some of the holdouts ended up paying three times the prices originally offered them. Meanwhile, the wealth derived from these land payments did indeed give the Proprietors the capital they needed to finance the construction of mills, dams and other commercial investments. In the 1820s and ’30s, shanties full of Irish wage laborers popped up along the Kennebec to work on these projects, fulfilling the prophecy so many Revolutionary War vets had feared.

“The passing of mid-Maine’s resistance was but one of the early landmarks in the steady erosion of the republic of roughly equal small producers, the republic sought by the American Revolution,” wrote Taylor. “Over the course of the nineteenth century, industrial capitalism increasingly concentrated the wealth it created, widening the gap between the richest and poorest. Most laboring people lost their independence as small producers to become the economic dependents of private corporations.”