In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Beginnings

Glooskap and Keanke spearing the whale
Glooskap and Keanke spearing the whale

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

The human history of Mount Desert Island began thousands of years ago when the ancestors of the Wabanaki people came to the place they later called Pemetic (pemotonet in Passamaquoddy), which translates to “range of mountains.” Rising sea levels over the past 10,000 years have flooded older village sites, but a combination of archaeology on sites from the last 3,000 years, Wabanaki traditional knowledge, language, and other natural sciences create a picture of Wabanaki life here before the arrival of Europeans.

Native people who made their lives on or near Mount Desert Island lived in groups of several extended families, in houses made of birch bark. They traveled the ocean, rivers, lakes and ponds in birch bark canoes, making seasonal journeys to hunt and gather wild animal and plant foods. Using tools made of stone, bone, wood, and natural plant and animal fibers, they harvested an incredibly diverse range of mammals, birds and fish, and gathered plants for food, medicine, and raw materials. And while local resources were the focus of their subsistence, they also traded with neighbors both near and far for things like special stone for making tools or dried corn from groups to the south and west that grew crops where the climate was more favorable for horticulture. As hunters, gatherers, and foragers, the Native residents of Mount Desert Island had a relatively comfortable life, with time to make jewelry and play music, as evidenced by the shell beads and bone flutes found by archaeologists on Frenchman Bay. They also had, and continue to have, a rich oral tradition that explained the world around them, told of their history, and even warned them of the arrival of Europeans, something that would change their lives forever.

Wabanaki encampment, ca. 988 BCE
Wabanaki encampment, ca. 988 BCE

Item Contributed by
Abbe Museum

While great change came to the Wabanaki on and around MDI over the next several hundred years, they are still here, and have played an important role as members of the community into the present.

In the fall of 1761, Abraham Somes arrived on Mount Desert Island, looking for a place to settle. Like all immigrants he wanted a better life. Other Europeans had come before Somes, of course -- explorers with names like Verrazano, Gomez, and Champlain. Champlain had renamed it Isle des Monts Desert, "Island of Barren Mountains" -- a name that stuck. And various European powers had squabbled for a century and a half over their competing claims -- including the island.

Lumber Mill at the Mill Pond, Somesville, ca. 1905
Lumber Mill at the Mill Pond, Somesville, ca. 1905
At Somesville, the presence of flowing water meant that mills, such as this lumber mill, could be sited there. Nearby, the deep and protected harbor of Somes Sound provided a means of shipping goods to market.
Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society

But all that was over by the time Somes arrived. He was a cooper, a maker of barrels, and the sheltered harbor near the head of Somes Sound offered running water and plenty of hardwood. He pitched his camp there. Then he returned to Gloucester for his family and set to work. Soon more settlers arrived, including James Richardson, who settled just to the east of Somes. Within two years there were nine households on Mount Desert and three on the Cranberry Isles. And two years after that the island's first road stretched from Somesville to Southwest Harbor, by way of Beech Hill.

Everyone cleared land and planted fruit trees and grew vegetables. They hunted. They made their clothing at home, beginning with raising the sheep and then weaving the wool. They caught cod from small boats and salted it. When they caught more than they could eat, they traded it for flour, sugar, soap, molasses, and oil. They eventually shipped fish to markets in Boston and New York and to Europe. So they built their own ships. There was plenty of timber on the island -- enough, in fact, for them to ship that, too.

With the fishery and the trading, men were gone for long periods. So women ran the households. They cut and split firewood. They pickled, smoked and dried meat and fish. They tended the livestock. They planted the crops and harvested them. Women cared for the sick and dying. Even when a doctor was eventually nearby, they continued in this role. They helped babies come into the world, and they laid the dead to rest. Women's lives were hard and they often died young. Men frequently died at sea, and often children did not survive to adulthood. This kind of hardship bred a kind of interdependence often seen on islands. When troubles came, everyone pitched in.