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Radical Mainers: From Race War to Class War on the Saco River

The genocide and drug money that made Biddeford/Saco a 19th century industrial hub

by | Dec 12, 2021

On a spring day in 1831, inventor Samuel Batchelder arrived in a stagecoach from Boston after a two-day journey to the roaring falls of the Saco River. Six years earlier, Batchelder  had overseen construction of the Hamilton Company mills in the bustling textile hub of Lowell, Mass. After crossing the old covered bridge from Biddeford to the island in the middle of the Saco River, he surveyed the wreckage of the burned-out cotton mill on the site. Although the Saco Manufacturing Company’s textile mill had been unsuccessful, Batchelder saw great industrial potential in the island, and he had a nice chunk of investment capital to make his vision a reality.

From where he stood on the Biddeford bluffs, Batchelder could still see the ruins of the old colonial fort built in 1693 to protect the English settlement from Indian raids. Prior to the arrival of the English in the 1600s, the Sokoki (or Saco) and Pequawket tribes of the Abenaki people had lived, hunted and fished along the Saco River for thousands of years. Up the Sokokis Trail at Pequawket (present-day Fryeburg), the Abenaki had a permanent settlement where they grew beans, squash and corn in the fertile soil. 

When English speculators claimed vast tracts of land in the Saco River Valley in the 1630s and settlers began invading Indian territories, the region was repeatedly engulfed in violence and bloodshed, as the Abenaki and the French battled English colonists over the land and resources. For the English, there were lucrative opportunities to profit from the Saco River, and they fiercely guarded their claims. As one English engineer observed in 1699, “The Fall of the Cascade makes so great a noise that one can scarce hear one’s self speak. This place is not so much a Frontier [against Indians] as a place of defense for salmon fishing.”

But for the indigenous people, this was a fight to save their ancestral homeland and their way of life. Pequawket/Sokoki warriors led by the war chief Squando first began raiding English settlements in 1675 during King Philip’s War. In the early 1720s intense fighting again erupted in what’s now Southern Maine as the Abenaki and French fought the British over the disputed boundary between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and New France, on the Kennebec River. In 1722, Massachusetts colonial Governor William Dummer declared war on the Eastern Abenacki, who were waging a guerrilla insurgency against the colonists, raiding English settlements, killing their inhabitants and taking captives before disappearing back into the woods.

After decades of unspeakable violence and death in the region, generations of indigenous people and colonists suffered from intense trauma and fear. They developed a bitter hatred for one another, which led to even more brutal atrocities. When the Massachusetts Bay Colony began offering 100 pounds for the scalps of Wabanaki people (members of a vast confederacy that included the Sokoki), scalping became a lucrative industry for hardscrabble white farmers who were otherwise generally idle in the winter, according to historians Alfred E. Kayworth and Raymond G. Potvin.

“Private scalp hunting expeditions were financed by the sale of shares to investors,” they wrote in The Scalp Hunters: Abenaki Ambush At Lovewell Pond — 1725. “Brothers, cousins and friends got together as if to go on a turkey shoot or a deer hunt; it was not only a way to get out of the house, it was patriotic, and besides — 100 pounds was a lot of money!”

The colonist John Lovewell — a farmer from Nashua, N.H. — had grown up in colonial garrisons built to protect white families from Indian raids. Both of his grandparents, in addition to assorted relatives, friends and neighbors, had been killed in battles with natives, and Lovewell learned to use a gun to fight them at a very young age. Enraged over the recent killings of local colonists by French-led St. Francis Indians from Canada, Lovewell led a series of scalp-hunting parties into the White Mountains of New Hampshire and present-day Western Maine, killing and mutilating Abenakis as they went. In February of 1725, his party tracked down and massacred an Abenaki raiding party believed to be headed to colonial settlements on the Southern Maine coast. Lovewell wore a wig made of Abenaki scalps as he and his men proudly marched through the streets of Boston displaying their bloody bounty on poles.

A few months later, on May 9, 1725, Captain Lovewell led another private scalp-hunting party from Massachusetts through present-day Conway, N.H., and Maine to wipe out the Abenaki village at Pequawket, but they were surprised by an ambush led by Pequawket war chief Paugus. During the day-long battle on the shore of Saco Pond (now known as Lovewell Pond), the colonists experienced heavy casualties and both Lovewell and Paugus were killed. The rest of the tribe deserted the village and fled to Canada, where they joined the St. Francis Indians.

Lovewell and his men were heralded as heroes and martyrs in New England lore and immortalized in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was, in the words of historian Robert E. Cray, “early America’s version of the Alamo.” In 1764, Pequawket was renamed Fryeburg for Col. Joseph Frye of Andover, Mass., who was granted the township for his service in the French and Indian Wars.

With the Indians driven out and defeated, colonization began in earnest as ambitious colonial merchants and entrepreneurs took control of the land on and around Saco Island. The settlement’s first industrial complex, a water-powered sawmill and an iron forge, was built in 1653, and for nearly 300 years, lumber milling was a major industry. When the American Revolution began in 1775, the settlement incorporated as the town of Pepperellborough, named after English merchant capitalist and slave trader William Pepperell. In 1805 it was renamed Saco, which more easily rolled off the tongue.

A local merchant and former Continental Army officer named Thomas Cutts was one of the most prominent members of the community during this time. Born into a wealthy Kittery family in 1736, Cutts was used to living a privileged life on the family’s “lordly island” in the Piscataqua River. His childhood included rides on the family’s pleasure boat and “Sunday soirees by invitation only,” according to the Saco Museum. With a loan from his father, Cutts settled in Pepperellborough at the age of 22 and began buying up land on the island in the river that divides what would become the cities of Biddeford and Saco. He first built a house and a store, then established a lumber mill, founded Saco Bank and, in 1811, co-founded the Saco Iron Works, which produced cask hoops, nails and other iron products. 

A real estate ad for the auctioning of Saco Island.

By the time he died, Cutts had left an industrial legacy that would shape the economic and cultural life of the region for many years to come. By 1825, when the 30 acres of Cutts’ Island (later known as Factory Island) went up for sale, it had three sawmills, a gristmill and a busy wharf. After purchasing the property, the Saco Manufacturing Company built a seven-story cotton textile mill — the largest such mill in the U.S. at the time. The investors spent a quarter million dollars and built a canal to generate water power, but the mill failed and burned in 1830.

A year after his visit in 1831, Batchelder established the York Manufacturing Company mill on the island, and it paid its first dividends to shareholders three years later. According to the company’s official history, published in 1945, it never failed to pay a dividend over the next 100 years, even when finances compelled management to force workers to make wage concessions.

By 1841 the company was capitalized at a million dollars and employed 800 female and 200 male workers operating 17,800 spindles and 500 looms.  Three years later, the Maine Legislature granted Batchelder the charter for Biddeford’s Pepperell Manufacturing Company. As Dane York wrote in the company’s history, shortly thereafter, the first steam locomotive came “puffing” into Biddeford at 20 miles per hour. The rail connection enabled locals to reach Boston in five hours, a fraction of the travel-time by stagecoach.  

The year Batchelder received the Pepperell charter, the first telegraph line was being strung between Washington and Baltimore, and the first formal trade treaty between the U.S. and China was signed following Great Britain’s victory in the First Opium War. British and American smugglers notoriously flooded China with opium, which not only sickened its population, but also reversed its once favorable balance of trade. When the Qing Dynasty attempted to abolish the drug trade, Great Britain used its military to protect the drug trade and ultimately forced China to open ports and provide favorable trading terms for the export of sought-after goods like silks, porcelain and tea.

American traders like John Jacob Astor, one of the richest people in modern history, along with John Perkins Cushing, of Boston, made fortunes smuggling opium. A substantial portion of this drug money, along with profits from the slave trade, were invested in New England’s textile industry. A year after the first Pepperell Manufacturing mill was built in Biddeford in 1850, the company began exporting blankets and sheeting — bearing its iconic, Chinese-inspired, Welsh Dragon logo — to China.

By this time, Batchelder had established five mills in Biddeford and Saco, employing 9,000 workers. Industrialization produced phenomenal economic growth for the area, but it brought with it a new system of exploitation that created social and wealth inequalities that had never existed there before. Over the next century, there would be many bitter struggles between workers and capitalists in the Twin Cities.


Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at and

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