The Hidden (well, not super-evident at first glance) History of Damariscotta


Every once in a while I discover a topic that gets me going on the ol’ History Research bus again.  This has gotten a bazillion times worse now that I actually have a history degree (read: access to a library, some sleuthing skills, and knowledge that most archives have at least a bit of a digitized collection these days).  This time it’s about the Pemaquid area – so interesting I didn’t even know what I was missing.  I’m about to go all history nerd on you, so you should be forewarned.

I’m going to Maine for vacation in a bit here.  My Mum has a house on Rutherford Island in South Bristol.  I’ve only been there during the off-season, so I’m used to there being nothing closer to us than the grocery store in Damariscotta 45 minutes away.  Unless you count the Pemaquid lighthouse, and nearby fort.  They’re a quick 20 minute drive down the road.  This is my husband’s first trip to the area, and we will definitely go to the lighthouse.  But I wondered about the fort… I thought maybe if I did a quick Google search I may find out something cool about a battle that was fought there, or something.

What I found was a CRAZY wealth of information that sent me on a research spiral involving most of that area.

Pemaquid was colonized before Plimoth was colonized.  It wasn’t supposed to be, but they think that a few people may have stayed on when Francis Popham’s failed colony went back to England in 1607.  The colony failed due to infighting, not so much due to starvation and disease, so a few families moved farther inland to the rich waters near Pemaquid and stayed.  How do we know this?  Well, mostly because Helen Camp found skeletons in the 1960s.

Yup, three of them.  They were wrapped in animal skins, laid with their knees up and their palms on their shoulders like most natives at the time, and each had a brass plate on their chests.  Brass wasn’t available in the New World, only in the old, so probably a melted-down kettle? Warriors, you would think.  Right?  One might have been – a male under 40.  But the others?  A woman of European descent with a baby on her shoulder.

At first people wanted to scream Vikings, but radiocarbon dating says early 1600s (not 1000s).  There are a bunch of these skeletons that have been found on the coast, too.  There’s even a Longfellow poem about one found in Fall River Massachusetts. He definitely thinks it was Vikings: (

The best thing I found was the newspaper articles.  You gotta love online archives.,1050454&hl=en,4761052&hl=en

As if that wasn’t cool enough, there was a successful settlement there of almost 200 people between 1620 and 1680; situated perfectly to take advantage of the awesome fur trade in the area.  It was going so well that they decided to build a wooden fort in the 1670s to help protect them from pirates.

Yup, they needed protection from pirates.

Dixie Bull famously sacked the town in 1623, sailing into the harbor with three ships and burning the town.  Dixie disappears from all records in 1633, and there’s a local legend that one of the Damariscotta fishermen killed him in a duel in retaliation.  There’s also an AWESOME rumor that there’s buried treasure on Damariscove island.

The town was sacked and burned further during King Phillips War.  They tried to re-settle again, but it just never really worked out.  The French thought their Canadian holdings stretched all the way down to the Kennebec river.  Massachusetts was certain their border stopped at the St. Croix river.  The French put a whole bunch of catholic missions into the region to try and hold it, but it didn’t work out for them so well.  Damariscotta built a crazy-expensive stone fort to see if that would help. It didn’t.  In conjunction with the local Wabanaki tribe, the French sent the military in and contrived to make the area unlivable.

It was resettled again in the early 1700s.  They built another wooden fort and fortified it with a bunch of earthworks.  This one they were able to defend, but the town voted to pull it down themselves in 1775 so the British couldn’t occupy it during the war.  In the 1910s, the locals decided to rebuild the old stone fort as a curiosity.  That’s the one you can go visit now.

The lighthouse itself is another trip.  One of the first lighthouse keepers was Nathaniel Gamage.  Yup, forefather of the famous Gamage brothers with the internationally known boat building business (which you can see out the window from my mum’s).  Nathaniel Gamage was ousted so that President Harrison could install his own guy.  But Gamage had paid the former keeper quite a lot for the farm around the lighthouse, and the interloper wasn’t interested in doing the same.  Huge legal battle over funds ensued.

The most interesting thing is the skeletons, of course.  And some of Helen Camp’s discoveries throughout the 1980s.  Evidently, everyone had forgotten about the first settlement here in the early 1600s.  Camp (amateur archeologist) noticed that a local farmer’s fields had weird, square-shaped depressions in them.  He thought it would be cool to let her investigate, and she unearthed a village.

That’s where I’ll be in a few days, watching the lobster boats chug up the Gut, and thinking about all those amazing things that happened in the beautiful sleepy backwater.  Obviously all of this needs MUCH more research.  I am gleefully searching Worldcat and pulling up the interlibrary loan forms, starting with everything Helen Camp ever published.  The history bus is chugging along.

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