American History and Genealogy Project


Introduction Aborigines Discovery

All the subjects of the following biographical sketches have been candidly and impartially treated, nothing withheld that would be of public interest, nor praise bestowed where it is undeserved. I think that everything of importance which has transpired here since its settlement, over a century ago, that would be of public interest, has been here recorded. I have thought best to gain and preserve this historical knowledge before the source from which it could be obtained is gone, when it would have been lost forever. It should be a matter of interest to all of us to preserve a record of our ancestors. These hardy pioneers came to this "island of the sea", cleared the unbroken forests, cultivated farms, built their houses, reared their families, and made it possible for their children to have advantages which they never possessed. Whatever of comforts or of families that we now enjoy is due, in a great measure, to them as a result of their labor. They sowed the seed amid great privation and toil, and we are reaping the harvest. So it is most fitting that their names should ever be held in grateful memory by their descendants.

The location of Swan's Island is in Hancock County, thirty-six miles south of Ellsworth, and is separated from Mount Desert by four miles of water. The island proper contains 5,875 acres, besides a number of smaller islands which are included in the town. It is entirely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, yet several islands intervene between it and the open sea. The surface contains no great eminences, but is generally hilly. The ocean has made great indentations into the island, cutting it into great peninsulas which, in some instances, nearly unite, the enclosure forming excellent harbors which offer safe shelter to vessels of the largest size. Excellent crops reward those who till the soil, yet on account of the rocky nature of the land, farming was never carried out to any great extent. An inexhaustible supply of granite forms the southern part of the island, but the fishing business now, as ever in the past, is the leading industry.


The remote history of this island, like that of all America, is shrouded in darkness. I am not able to raise the curtain and look into the past and see the people whom we know, by unmistakable traces, made their homes here, reared their journey, carried on their ancient mode of hunting and fishing as a means of subsistence. Here, too, they died; and when the men came to take possession of these ancient hunting grounds, they found only the ruins of savage occupancy. This was undoubtedly a favorite resort for the red men. The cool bracing atmosphere of the island tempted them to leave the seclusion of their forest homes, especially during the warmer months of the year. This island then furnished excellent hunting grounds. Sea fowl came in great flocks so near that they could be easily killed by their rude weapons, besides the excellent fishing in the harbor or very near the shore made it practicable to use their birch bark canoes. Also in winter the severity of the weather often drove them to the seashore to secure shell fish for food when all other sources were cut off. In some parts of the island where the primitive forest was cleared and the soil first broken by the plow, the ground for very large spaces would be literally whitened with the remains of Indian dinners. Under huge trees that perhaps had been standing hundreds of years clam shell would be found to great depth in the ground.

In 1614 when Capt. John Smith first visited these shores the number of Indians within the limits of the present State of Maine was estimated at 30,000. The tribe that occupied this section was the Tarratines, the remnant of whom now resides at Oldtown and at present numbers 446. These Indians were noted for the long distances they went in their canoes, and this gave to them the general name of Etechmins.

At that part of the island called the "North" when the first settlers came there were five different places plainly seen where the Indians had their "set downs" or villages. There was another at the Middle Head, one in the Reed field near the eastern shore, and several around Old Harbor. In these ancient shell heaps have been found, by men of our present day, flint arrow heads and hatchets which must have taken much skill and patience in making. These must have been their implements used in hunting and perhaps in warfare. The promontory where the lighthouse stands, near the entrance to Old Harbor, is called Hocomock, a name given to it by the Indians long before the white men came. It may have been their name for this locality. Near to Hocomock Head is a point of land extending into the harbor, called Burying Point. A large number of Indian skeletons were unearthed by the plow. They were found most plenty near the Middle Head and near the "Carrying place", which places were their burying grounds. The skeletons were found just beneath the turf and were of large size, showing a race of much larger stature than the Indian of today. This tribe made irregular visits to the island for many years after the white settlers came, but of late, since their number has so decreased, they have ceased altogether.


The first European who visited this island is not known. The first authentic record was made by Champlain during his voyage along this coast in 1604. He made a map of the whole coast and gave the names to many of the islands on either side of us, such as Isle au Haut, Mount Desert, Petit Plaisants, etc; many of these names, which show their French origin, are still retained. Champlain gave the name of this island on that early map as Brule cote, "brule" meaning burnt, and "cote" hill Burnt hill. It is supposed that Champlain designated the island by some hill that had been burnt over. Some later discoverer translated "brule" burnt, but did not translate "cote", hence on his map he incorrectly gave this island the name Burnt Cote. Another, more stupid still, thought the former had made a mistake in spelling, and on his map had Burn Coat, by which name it is called in a deed given October 28, 1790, as recorded in Hancock registry, book I, page 28. Later it was generally known as Burnt Coat or Burnt Coal Island.

It is quite probable that Champlain visited and explored this island, as would seem likely by the accurate map he drew of this and the neighboring islands. That some earlier explorer even than Champlain visited this island seems likely, as he found a portion of the island burned over. Perhaps the settlers on Mount Desert may have made a harbor here while out on their fishing cruises, but no other traces of habitation of the white man were left. Traditional accounts say that the Northmen visited all this region even as early as 1008. But if true, they left no traces here to remind us of their visit.

Mount Desert seems to have been resorted to by European discoverers at a very early date, probably for the reason that its hills can be seen some sixty miles at sea, thus making it a prominent landmark. In 1556 drew Trevit, a Catholic priest, sailed in a French ship along the coast. He landed and had many conferences with the natives, among whom he tried to establish the Roman Catholic religion, but we do not learn that he met with any success. There was great rivalry in Europe about this time between the Catholics and Protestants in spreading their respective faiths into new lands.

The French sent De Monte in 1602 to further explore these islands and adjacent mainland, which he took possession of in the name of the king of France, and in true Catholic style set up a cross and called the land he discovered "Acadie", by which name all this region was known until the capture of Quebec by General Wolf in 1759.

The French again passed this island and went to Mount Desert and established the first Jesuit mission in America in 1604.

The patent of Acadia to De Monte was, two years later, surrendered to Madame de Guercheville. This lady was a zealous Catholic and wished to convert the Indians to that faith. Her colony landed on Mount Desert on May 16, 1613, where they built a fort, erected a cross, celebrated mass, and founded a convent. They named the place Saint Sauveur. The French, as we have seen, were getting a strong foothold in this region, but the English Protestants, in the meantime, had not been idle.

In 1603 Capt. George Weymouth visited these shores. He found a great number of Indians on the shores with whom he carried on a brisk trade, receiving rich furs in exchange for worthless baubles which pleased the savage mind. He took possession of the land he visited in the name of the English sovereign. Weymouth was treated with kindness by the Indians, but their friendship was rewarded by kidnapping five of their number, and carrying them to England, three of whom he delivered to Sir Ferdenand Gorges, who in 1639 received a royal charter of" the Province of Maine.

The next Englishman of whom we have record who visited this coast was Capt. John Smith, of Virginia, in 1614. He sailed along and explored the coast of Maine with the intention of forming a settlement. He reported having found a settlement, which was the French at Mount Desert. So he must have come very near this island, if he did not explore it; for it is separated from Mount Desert by only four miles of water.

Smith built several boats during the summer, thus becoming the pioneer shipbuilder of Maine. Some of his men were engaged in fishing; others more thoroughly explored the coast. Late in the summer Smith returned to England in one of his ships, while another, in charge of Thomas Hunt, tarried behind, captured thirty Indians who were carried to Malaga and sold into slavery. Thus we see that in nearly every instance the Englishmen rewarded the trusting and childlike simplicity of the Indians by some act of treachery. This, no doubt, was the cause of the hatred which the Indians had against the English settlers.

The French, on the other hand, held out the olive branch to the simple natives. They established missionary stations among them. The Indians took kindly to the Catholic faith, and ever after became the faithful allies of the French.

Various Europeans visited this coast for trading and fishing. Hundreds of vessels, even at this early date, visited the waters from Newfoundland to Cape Cod. The entire coast was dotted with temporary habitations for the accommodation of the fishermen. We do not know that there were any permanent settlements here during the voyages of these European discoverers, but there is no doubt that Old Harbor was frequented by fishermen from the neighboring settlements on account of the excellent harbor it afforded, and so conveniently near the fishing grounds. Fishing must at this time have been the leading occupation of the inhabitants of all the seaboard towns, and, in fact, led to their settlement.

In the year 1688, the French king gave to a French gentleman named Cadilliac a tract of land in Acadia embracing the whole of Mount Desert and a large strip of mainland, and all the islands in front of this on the seaboard. He held it until 1713, styling himself Lord of Donaqua and Mount Desert. After the Revolution, one M. Gregoire claimed the whole island for his wife, Maria T., granddaughter of Cadilliac. In consideration of a request made by Lafayette in favor of the Gregoires' claim, Massachusetts recognized it as valid. This is the only French claim sustained in Maine. The heirs of Cadilliac, therefore, received a quitclaim deed of 60,000 acres on the mainland; this included the present towns of Trenton, Lamoine, Sullivan, Ellsworth, Eden and Mount Desert.

In 1754 Spain joined France in a declaration of war against England. As soon as it was heard of in America their respective countrymen took up the quarrel here. The Indians of Canada and Maine aided the French, and for long years this sparsely settled country was the scene of much bloodshed and distress from want. This was the final struggle in America for supremacy between the French Catholics and the English Protestants.

The French claim was founded on the discovery of the coast by Verrazzano in 1524, on the discovery and occupancy of Canada by Cartier in 1535, on the grant of Henry IV to De Monte, and on the voyages and discoveries of Champlain. The English based their claim on the discovery by Cabot, in possessing Newfoundland by Gilbert in 1553, and by the voyages of discovery of Gosnold, Pring and Weymouth, by the royal charter of 1606, by the occupancy of the country by Popham, and subsequently by Gorges and others.

In 1755 an expedition of two thousand men was sent to drive all the French from Acadia. This movement was demanded by the English governor, Lawrence. When this army arrived, it was placed under the command of Lieutenant-colonel Monkton, who added to his own number about two hundred and seventy regulars and a small train of artillery. This expedition set out in May, and before the first of September every stronghold in Acadia was in the hands of the English. There were eighteen thousand inhabitants of French extraction who, though by the treaty between France and England, were considered neutral, vet were indissolubly attached to the nation from which they sprang. They took no part in all the wars, but they secretly afforded aid, harbor and recruits to the enemy, so the resident authorities demanded that those about the Basin of Minas and in Cumberland county adjoining should be removed. Accordingly nearly two thousand of them were transported and distributed along the coast from Maine to Florida. Upon this event was founded the beautiful poem "Evangeline", by H. W. Longfellow. Constant warfare was thus kept up, inflicting severe injury to all the inhabitants of Maine, until the fall of Quebec in 1759, when this country was forever wrested from the domain of France.

The extinction of French authority in this country was the beginning of a new and prosperous era for Maine. Deserted towns were re-peopled, new ones sprang up along the coast, and the sound of the woodsman's axe began to be heard in the interior. From this time until the Revolution the tide of immigration set towards Maine, and the progress in wealth and population was marvelous; but the breaking out of the war put a stop to this progress for many years. Those who were preparing to come here went into the army. During the Revolution the inhabitants along the coast suffered severely for their patriotism. The English took Castine, burned Falmouth, now Portland, and harassed and destroyed our fishing and coasting vessels.

The war closed in 1783, after which there was a large accession to the population of Maine, a move from the older states to this newer district whose resources were now beginning to be developed. Soldiers who had served through the war and were now discharged sought homes in these eastern lands. This island was purchased about this time, and many settlers came directly from Massachusetts. In fact, Maine's population is made up almost wholly from the descendants of the settlers in the older states, receiving few foreign emigrants.

The district of Maine in 1783 became a part of Massachusetts and remained under its jurisdiction until Maine became an independent state. Shortly after the close of the Revolution the question of separation came up for discussion, and several towns voted upon it; but as most of the inhabitants were from Massachusetts, their attachment for the old commonwealth was not weakened. In 1787 an effort was again made and carried by so small a majority, and the entire vote was so small, that it was thought best to abandon it for the present. The position of Massachusetts during the war of 1812 in opposing the measures of the President and Congress was highly distasteful to the patriotic inhabitants of Maine, and doubtless influenced voters in bringing about the desired result. Maine was admitted into the Union as an independent state in 1820.

The census of Maine in 1789 showed 96,540 inhabitants; in 1800 there were 151,719, and in 1810 there were 228,334 people. We can thus see how rapidly Maine was becoming populated. Burnt Coat Island, as it was called, was bought by Col. James Swan, of Massachusetts, in the year 1786. Many of the wealthy men of the older states were buying up property in Maine, investments which promised good returns. This island, as well as the other islands included in Col. Swan's purchase, was covered with a valuable forest of timber, which undoubtedly attracted the purchaser. Manufactured lumber found a ready market at the many towns and villages that were building up along the coast. Burnt Coat, at the time of its purchase, was in the county of Lincoln (where many of the early records relating to this island may be found), until Hancock County was formed June 25, 1789.

Hancock County has a more extensive seaboard and more numerous harbors than any other coast of equal extent in the United States. When Massachusetts came into possession of this territory, the mainland was divided into townships and the islands into groups convenient for classifying, such as the Deer Isle group, the Burnt Coat group, the Mount Desert group, etc. The Burnt Coat group extended from Isle au Haut on the west, near Flye's Point on the north, to the Mount Desert group on the east, and the Atlantic Ocean on the south.

This territory was offered for sale for three reasons: first, that Massachusetts might derive revenue from its sale; second, to ensure its settlement, and thus increase the state's population; and third, that only Protestants might become owners of this land, and thus prevent the encroachments of the Catholics. This prejudice against the Catholic religion, formed in those times, still exists at the present day.

Usually the conditions that Massachusetts imposed were: if granted a township six miles square, that it should be settled by sixty Protestant families within six years, and each family have a house at least eighteen feet square; to fit for tillage three hundred acres of land, and erect a meetinghouse and settle a pastor.

Col. Swan, soon after the purchase of these islands, erected a saw and a grist mill. He built a store and erected for himself a large mansion, which he finished up in a most expensive manner. Many of the wealthy men of that day still favored the English custom of owning large estates; this was seen especially in the great plantations of the South. This seems to have been Swan's object.

They began at the saw mill to manufacture the great logs, which at first were cut near the shore and rafted to the mill. The grist mill manufactured the barley and corn, which the settlers were now raising on their cleared land, for bread. Coasting vessels were being built to carry the lumber to market, and return laden with supplies for the settlers. The woodman's axe and the carpenter's hammer were heard on every side. New houses grew as if by magic. Everything for the new settlement was now in readiness. The mills were in operation. Settlers with their families were rapidly accepting the lucrative employment which was here offered them, and all indications promised this to be one of the most thriving towns of the East.


Source: A History of Swan's Island, Maine, by H.W. Small, MD, Ellsworth Me, Hancock County Publishing Company, Printers, 1808



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