In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

…then came the settlers…

Granite mountains, Mount Desert, 1837
Granite mountains, Mount Desert, 1837

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

While exploring Mount Desert as a place “to carry on the fishing business,” Abraham Somes met the island’s “Indian Governor” near Southwest Harbor, “bought” land from him for a gallon of rum, and documented the deal on a piece of birch bark—which he somehow lost. A “fishy” story, now legendary.

In 1761, Somes built his Mt. Desert homestead between the freshwater pond and the fjord which now carry his name. His family traded with Wabanakis who canoed to the area to fish, trap, and hunt as they always had. Abraham’s son John recalled that during his boyhood Indians camping nearby taught him how to make snowshoes, woodsplint baskets, and a scoop net for fishing.

Other settlers followed. By 1789, they had incorporated the entire island as Mount Desert Township. Several years later, they divided the island in two, marking the area east of Somes Sound as Eden.

Fancy porcupine-weave basket, Penobscot, 1862
Fancy porcupine-weave basket, Penobscot, 1862

Item Contributed by
Abbe Museum

Living in scattered homesteads and small hamlets, these hardscrabble settlers busied themselves with fishing, logging, farming, and boatbuilding. They set up fish weirs and fences. They felled trees to clear land for farming and grazing. They built sawmills to make boards, staves, and shingles needed for boats, dwellings, barns, fences, and barrels. They cut hay in the salt marshes and turned ancient forest trails into paths and dirt roads.

I mean now to give you a history of my discovering of the Island of Mount Desert in the year 1755 at which time the Indians were the only owners of the soil . -Abraham Somes, Mount Desert Island’s first white settler

Beaded purse, ca. 1880
Beaded purse, ca. 1880

Item Contributed by
Abbe Museum

Late in life ca. 1915, Abraham Somes’ great-granddaughter Adelma (“Dell”) Somes Joy penned her childhood memories, including these recollections of Penobscots camping near her family home (documents in the collection of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society). She recollects, “The Indians of the Penobscot Tribe . . . were always camping around the fresh water ponds…. They made beautiful baskets and did beautiful bead work.”