- Historic Sites
The Persistence Of Portland
Small, handsome, and often beleaguered this surprisingly cosmopolitan Maine city has had a history of clawing its wav baclk from oblivion—and today,it’s on an upswing again
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
Following Fore Street today up the hill to the Eastern Promenade, you’ll find the town’s best view of the bay and the islands, plus an obelisk that honors the first white settlers and notes the names by which the city has successively been known: Machigonne, Casco, Falmouth, and finally Portland. Offshore to the east you’ll see a circular island fort built to defend the harbor in the nineteenth century and named for Gorges. Beyond it lies Peaks Island, Portland’s busiest and most populous offshore locale, first settled in 1636 by the Cleeves’ daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Michael Mitton, and today the home of a thousand residents year round and some fifty-five hundred in summer.
While the early English settlers fished, farmed, cut trees, milled lumber, and appropriated the land, the Indians who had initially helped them became more and more disgruntled. Eventually, incited first by their own leaders and later by the French, they fought back, and murderous Indian attacks became a sporadic but horrifying reality for settlers over the next hundred years, until the capture of Quebec in 1759 broke the power of the French.
The first destruction of Portland’s scattered settlements came in 1676 as an extension of the uprising to the south known as King Philip’s War, and the second occurred in 1690, when the French and Indians laid siege to Fort Loyall at what is now the intersection of Fore and India Streets. William Willis, Portland’s leading historian in the nineteenth century, lamented that almost all records from the seventeenth century were destroyed. After 1690, Willis wrote, the whole territory, “which before the war was covered with an active and enterprising population, was a perfect blank, a thoroughfare for the savage and a resort for beasts of prey.”
After the Treaty of Utrecht between Britain and France in 1713, settlers began to return again, and by 1717 there were enough old and new proprietors on the peninsula and in the surrounding territory for them to petition Massachusetts to incorporate it as the town of Falmonth. Falmouth had an excellent harbor, many mills, and a still-plentiful supply of lumber, but it needed much in the way of agricultural and other goods from the colonies to the south. The Royal Navy and British merchant marine had already discovered Maine’s “great sticks,” the largest and straightest white pines, which were reserved for the king’s use as ship masts.
Today the best place to get a feel for the eighteenth-century settlement is in the Stroudwater section, close to the Portland International Jetport, where waters from the Stroudwater pour into the placid Fore River. In the 1720s Col. Thomas Westbrook and his family saw this confluence as the perfect place to farm and carry on their other businesses, which included a sawmill in Stroudwater Falls, a small mast landing on the Fore, and later, Maine’s first paper mill. The Westbrooks’ house does not survive today, but several other well-tended eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century houses line Westbrook Street, including the Tate House, built circa 1755 for George Tate and his family. As mast agent, Tate oversaw every step of a lucrative operation. Woodsmen felled huge trees, weighing as much as eighteen tons, and delivered them during the winter by ox-drawn sleds to Stroudwater, where they were rafted down the Fore to the deeper harbor. There they were sorted, trimmed, loaded onto specially built mast ships, and escorted by the Royal Navy to England’s western ports.
The Georgian Tate House, the only pre-Revolutionary structure in Greater Portland open to the public, is well worth a visit. It may look simple to our eyes, but it represented considerable comfort for its time and place, with two front rooms, a spacious hearth room in the back, and four upstairs bedchambers, all with glass windows, a luxury then. Today the house is furnished with period antiques and such reminders of daily life as cast-iron pots and tongs, paddles to beat the straw beds into shape, and children’s cards and games. A strange tragedy haunts the place. In 1770 thieves broke into the storeroom (now the gift shop), and Mary Tate, then sixty, is supposed to have asked her son, William, to prevent a recurrence. He rigged a trip line to a handgun, and either his mother didn’t know about the trap or she forgot, but on September 30 she opened the storeroom door and was shot to death. Although William admitted setting the gun and was found guilty in 1772 of “feloniously killing and slaying one Mary Tate,” he was granted a King’s Pardon later that year.
Back at the harbor, houses and business establishments were springing up, concentrated on lots close to the water and eventually climbing the hill toward Back (now Congress) Street. In 1727 the Harvard-educated Thomas Smith was ordained as the city’s first permanent preacher and recorded in his diary on his arrival in 1725 that there were about fifty-six families in Falmouth, among them “some very good” men, some “mean animals.” Sea trade was Falmouth’s lifeblood. Ships took lumber to England and brought back such necessities as cloth and pots and scissors. Staves for barrels and salted fish went to the West Indies, and sugar and rum returned. Merchants would build a ship, fill its brand-new hold with fish and lumber, and at its destination sell both vessel and cargo.