American History and Genealogy Project


Maine's First Governor

A stalwart country lad, in a crude homespun suit of his mother's weaving such as all New England boys used to wear in the days when America was young, stood one bright autumn morning a century ago at a cross road of the high-way which leads from Portland to Portsmouth. Two coal black steers were nibbling at the grass along the roadside near the boy and showed as little haste as he to be on their way. The lad was young William King of Scarboro, who had that morning left his mother's home at Dunstan's Landing and had set out to make his fortune in the world, accompanied only by the two black steers, which were his share of his dead father's property.

Just where he should go to seek the fortune he was so confident of finding, was the problem while young King was facing there at the cross roads. Both highways invited him. On one hand, the road lay through long aisles of cool forest trees, while on the other a dusty brown ribbon of broken turf reached out through fertile fields and flowering meadows. Low-roofed farm houses were visible here and there. Cattle were feeding in the fields and newly-planted crops of corn and potatoes gave promise of a splendid harvest.

Governor William King

Suddenly a loud "Caw! Caw!" aroused the boy from his thoughts and, flying just above his head, he saw a huge black crow, looking for his breakfast among the tender, green tips of the corn. He watched the bird until it faded in a small black speck in the distance along the highway leading towards Portland.

"I'll follow the crow," decided William King, and, driving his steers before him, he took the route which led him first to Portland and eventually to Bath.

The young man, scarcely twenty-one years old, whose destination was decided by the crow, later became the first Governor of Maine. Had not the crow pointed out the way, William King might have taken the Portsmouth Pike and a great statesman have been lost to the Pine Tree State.

William King was born in Scarboro in 1768 and his family was one of the most illustrious in the State. His grandfather, Richard King, came from England and settled in Massachusetts in the 18th century. William was one of the younger members of the family and because of his father's early death did not have the educational advantages of his brothers. He entered the sawmill business in Topsham shortly after he was twenty-one and soon extended his business to large ship-building ventures. At the age of twenty-seven he had made a name for himself in politics.

In the War of 1812, he took an active part in the defense of Maine against the English. For years he was the Maine representative to the Massachusetts Legislature and it was due largely to his efforts that Maine was separated from the mother state in 1820. His people honored him by electing him their first governor and he filled the office for a year with honor and dignity. In 1821, he was called by President Monroe to make one of a commission to settle the United States claims in Florida and left Maine for a time. He died at his home in Bath, July 17, 1852, at the age of 85. In that city, Maine has erected over his resting place an imposing granite shaft.

Such is a brief history of the great man's life, but side by side with these bare events are innumerable stories and incidents which give illuminating side-lights on the character of the State's first Governor.

These personal touches, which give him the place he deserves in the hearts of Maine people of later generations, have escaped the pages of history and are to be learned only by sympathetic poring over old records and letters handed down by friends and relatives of the splendid old Governor's own day.

A story of interest deals with the bringing of his bride to Bath by young William King, who had then become one of the most promising citizens of that city which he had adopted for his home. On a Sabbath morning near the close of the 18th century, the first families of Bath were calmly making their way to the Old North Church. The ladies in elaborate, flaring silk gowns and quaint beribboned bonnets seemed to be occupied with other than their usual Sunday thoughts. They were talking excitedly in half-suppressed whispers, while to the right and left strict watch was kept for the approach of some looked-for stranger.

"She was the belle of the season in Boston society last winter," murmured a stately dame to her companion as they paused at the entrance of the church.

"Indeed, she is the greatest beauty of the year," commented a serious-faced gentleman to a group of his fellows.
''And as charming as she is beautiful," added another.

''And as wise as she is charming," remarked a dignified citizen in a military coat, who had just joined the group in the church-yard.

"Her gown should be of the latest Boston style," hopefully suggested a fashionably attired girl, whose thoughts seemed to have strayed to worldly subjects.

The church bell tolled its final summons and the curious crowd passed indoors and settled down for morning worship. William King was that day to bring his bride to Bath and, as was the custom of the times, her first appearance was to be at the Sabbath service at the Old North Church. King was one of the most sought-after young men in Bath, while his bride was hailed as one of the beauties of the decade. The young statesman had been in Boston on state business when the charms of young Mistress Anne Frazier had captivated him. He had pressed his suit with ardor and had sent home glowing-accounts of his bride's loveliness.

Service had begun in the old church when its darkened hush was broken by a silken rustle and William King and his lady appeared. Down the aisle they moved, observed by all the eager watchers, the bride, indeed, in her grace fulfilled all expectations. The bridegroom, his tall figure clad in the famous military coat with its vivid scarlet lining, and his face alight with pride, looked every inch the "king" his name proclaimed him.

The young people took their places in their pew and service continued. At its close, on the church green, the ladies and gentlemen of the congregation, prominent in the civil and social life of Bath, welcomed Mrs. King to the place of leader, which she filled so graciously until her death.

The years following the War of 1812, in which William King played a valiant part, were years of political strife for him. In the Massachusetts legislature, he put up a vigorous fight for the separation of Maine from the mother state. In 1820, when Maine became a commonwealth in its own right, he was one of the members of the legislative body which drew up its constitution and his personal genius as a statesman is responsible for some of its leading articles. At the first state election he was the one logical candidate for Governor and his election was practically unanimous. Everyone in Maine knew him, his political record was an open book and his personal popularity was phenomenal. For one year he served Maine as her first magistrate.

Though entirely happy in his home life and successful in politics, with the church he was always out of harmony. His religious views were too liberal for Maine in those early years. The card parties held often in the big house were a source of never ending controversy between him and the ministry. The Governor frequently invited a group of intimates to the big house for a hand at cards, and thus, in the long parlor of the King mansion with the breeze from the Kennebec blowing gently through the room, many a quiet afternoon was passed. The old Governor was passionately fond of the game and would clap the cards down on the table with a thunderous noise, but never was he known to be other than a perfect host. Always there was refreshment for the gentlemen and tea for the ladies. After the cards were put away, the huge coach of the Kings would be called and the guests whirled away to their homes behind the Governor's own fast horses.

Some worthy member of the Old North Church, considering it his sacred duty to remonstrate with the Governor on his evil ways, took him to task with the remark: "Card playing means cheating. I could never refrain from it were I, perchance, to play."

Quick as a flash came the retort from Gov. King whose temper was never of the smoothest: "I dare say that's true, but never fear, I never allow myself to play in such company as yours."

Matters went from bad to worse until the Governor severed his connection with the Old North and with a sudden shifting of course joined the rival organization, the Old South. He tried in vain to induce his wife to join with him, though in later years he himself returned to the church of which he had first been a member. In explaining his difficulties with the church, he was wont to tell the following story:

"It's about like this," his Excellency would say. "Once there was an obliging young chap of a wood-chuck who had dug a hole for his winter home and stored it full of nuts. The storms came on and it was bitterly cold. A shiftless skunk came along and, seeing the woodchuck's warm home, asked to be let in. Little woodchuck gave him a hearty welcome. The skunk got warm and when the time came when he should have thanked his host and left, he refused to go. He stayed and stayed. He slept in the woodchuck's bed and ate the woodchuck's food, and pretty soon the woodchuck began to smell like a skunk and things got so bad that Mr. Woodchuck had to move out and spend the winter as best he could out in the cold and snow. That's about the way it is with me and the church."

A huge tract of land in that portion of Maine where the village of Kingfield now flourishes, came, during his active political life, into Gov. King's possession. He made frequent visits to it, and there under his patronage a settlement was made. On one of his visits, Mrs. King accompanied him and as she and the general were approaching the village, he called her attention to the beauties of the country-side and asked her what she thought would be an appropriate name for the town. Glancing over the fertile fields and across the hills, she quickly replied, "Why not call it Kingsfield?" The village was so named, though in later years the "s" has been dropped.

Towards the last of his life the mind of the splendid old Governor lost much of its brilliance and his later years were darkened by poor health, an enfeebled intellect, and a long series of domestic sorrows. It was on July 17, 1852, at the age of 85 years that he passed away in his home city.

A visit to Bath reveals much of interest relating to the old Governor. The mansion by the Kennebec is now the site of King's Tavern, while, a few miles from the business section, a quaint stone house, with tall cathedral windows and with the gay garden and spreading trees of olden times, is still standing just as it was when Gov. King and his lady so royally welcomed their guests to their summer home.

Ione Fales Winans

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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