Mount Desert Island Heritage

The Early Settlers

For many years it was assumed that there had been no year-round inhabitants of Mount Desert Island prior to the arrival of European explorers and colonists from the south. Conventional wisdom held that Native Americans came here only during the summer months from their permanent villages inland, much like our summer residents do today.

However, more recent and more thorough archeological investigations sponsored by Bar Harbor's Abbe Museum and others have revealed that there were Native Americans permanently living in this area thousands of years ago, with some artifacts carbon dated to as far back as 4000 B.C. These early Indians have come to be known as The Red Paint People, because their graves contained quantities of a red pigment (iron ochre) which they presumably used to decorate their faces and bodies.

The Red Paint People lived in an area stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador south along the coast of Maine. They were seafarers who hunted swordfish and tuna which were found in abundance off Mount Desert Island; and they were skilled at making basic tools from bone and stone.

Fast forward a few thousand years and we come to the period around the time of European exploration and "discovery" - about 400 years ago. Then, it is true that there were no peoples living all year on the island, but they did come here for the summer months to enjoy the pleasant weather and the bountiful supply of culinary delicacies readily available. These Native Americans were members of tribes affiliated with the Wabanaki alliance that included the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquody and Micmac (Mi'kmaq) Nations. The main two tribes visiting Mount Desert Island were the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy. Their shell heaps (middens) have been discovered at several locations around Mount Desert including along Frenchman's Bay, at Fernald Point in Southwest Harbor, and at Manchester Point in Northeast Harbor. They dug clams, picked berries, hunted deer and moose, and used birch bark canoes to fish for tuna
among the offshore islands.

In 1604 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed south from the first French colony in North America on an island in the Saint Croix River and happened upon Mount Desert Island. Seeing the granite, mostly treeless mountain summits from the sea, he named the area "Isle des Monts Desert". In 1613 a small French Jesuit colony was established at Fernald point in Somes Sound and was named Saint-Sauveur. The new colony was short lived, however. English sea captain Samuel Argall soon came upon the new French settlement in his 14 gun ship "Treasurer" and destroyed it. This, among other things, led to a long period of conflict between the English and the French along the Maine coast. Native American tribes generally supported the French during this period.

By 1760, the conflict between the French and English was mostly over, and in 1761 Abraham Somes and James Richardson from Massachusetts felt it safe enough to sail north in search of timber to mill lumber and barrel staves and land suitable for farming. They traveled in an open craft known as a Chebacco and settled at the head of Somes Sound in the area now called Somesville. The next year their wives and children followed, as did several other families.

The early economy of Mount Desert was largely based upon timber and the sea. Ship building was very important, and mills were established along streams and tidal falls to process lumber as well as to grind grain and card wool. These early settlers were quite entrepreneurial and engaged in a wide variety of commercial activity throughout the year as the land and climate would allow. Quarrying of granite, which was found in abundance, became a major source of export, and huge stones were carried by sailing vessels for the developing great cities to our south.

Work was hard, but early island residents also found time to enjoy each other's company, to play games, and to attend church meetings. Life proceeded pretty much in this way until the mid-1800's.