American History and Genealogy Project


Settlement of the Island

When this island was discovered by Europeans, it was, as before stated, entirely covered with a dense forest of hardwood trees. The trees of this primitive forest attained great size, as was shown by the enormous stumps found throughout the forest by the older inhabitants. This luxuriant growth was, no doubt, due to the large amount of foliage decaying, thus fertilizing the soil. After the first growth was cut off, the land was burned over. This was injurious to the soil where it covered rocky land, and much of its richness was washed into the valleys and thence into the ocean. The next growth on this impoverished soil was much smaller. This can be remembered by many of the older inhabitants.

When this forest was, in turn, cleared, its place was taken by a stunted growth of spruce and fir trees, which now covers a part of the island. The first forest is what attracted the attention of the people from the more populated districts. Lumber was then in great demand to meet the wants of the growing towns and villages along the coast; and to meet these wants. Swan erected a sawmill to manufacture the lumber. This wood also found a ready market as fuel, it being before coal came into use; and although it brought but a small price, often selling for fifty cents per cord on the bank, yet it grew so abundantly near the shore that fair wages could be made. It was the chief employment of the men during the winter months.

At an early date quite a colony of Irishmen completely cut off the wood from that part of the island since called Irish Point, this giving to it the name.

After Swan's purchase, his first work was to build a dam across the millpond and erect his mills. The location was on either side of the little island, near where the lobster factory was afterwards built. He built a sawmill over the stream on one side of the island, and a gristmill on the other. He then built a large mansion which he proceeded to finish up in excellent style. This house was built in colonial style of architecture, the roof being almost flat. This was called by the settlers the "Big House". It was located near the shores of Old Harbor, below where Harvey Bridges now lives.

The state of Massachusetts agreed to exempt Swan's property from taxation for a period of twenty years, provided he settled, within seven years, twenty-two Protestant families on the island, built or caused to be built twenty-two houses at least twenty-two feet square, and built a church and schoolhouse and established a grammar school.

In order to get the required number of settlers. Swan sent out to the surrounding towns that he would give one hundred acres of land to any settler who would bring his family, build a house, cultivate the land, and that, at the end of seven years, he would give him a deed, free of expense, for the land which he had so improved.

Quite a number of families came from Deer Isle, Sedgwick, Mount Desert and other places. There was a great demand for laborers. Many found employment at the mills. A large number chopped logs in the forest, others with ox teams drew them to the mill where they were manufactured into lumber. Many coasters from other places came to take the lumber to market, and Old Harbor took on a lively aspect.

Some of the early settlers made their first visit here in one of these coasting vessels. In the meantime the fishery business began to be developed. But few were employed in this industry at first, for other occupations were more lucrative. In after years, however, the fishery business came to be the chief employment of the whole town. The church and schoolhouse were never built, as Swan, soon after his purchase here, failed in business and left this country before it could be carried into effect, and those into whose hands the property fell did not choose to fulfill Swan's agreement.

Swan had as a confidential agent a man named Joseph Prince, of Beverly, Massachusetts. He came here soon after the purchase of the islands and superintended Swan's business during the early days of their settlement. Prince received $500 a year and his family supported. He settled on Harbor Island and built a house near the cove which still bears his name. Hancock registry, volume 5, page 481, gives the following account, dated February 28, 1798: James Swan, of Dorchester, appointed Joseph Prince resident on Swan's Island, formerly Burntcoat (this is the first time that the phrase Swan's Island was used), with power of attorney to sell and convey to David Smith, Joshua Grindle and Moses Staples one hundred acres of land each; to John Rich, William Davis, David Bickmore, Isaac Sawyer, and Knowlton thirty acres each, all to be taken on the Great Island; and to Samuel Emerson sixty acres on Marshall's Island, and to any other fisherman, who owns his fishing boat and who may settle on the Great Island, ten acres. To be theirs on the following conditions only: They shall live on said land seven years, counting from their actual settlement, with their stock and families; shall pay all the taxes assessed by the town, State or general government; they shall cut no more wood or timber than to make good and farmer like improvements; shall pay the expense of surveying; each shall lay out such roads through his land as the agent shall direct, and keep it in repair seven years.

As far as the case may admit, the cord wood and lumber cut upon these lands shall be carried to market in vessels belonging to Swan or his heirs. In like manner the logs felled on this land shall be carried to the mills erected or to be erected on said island. If the above conditions are not complied with, the land that may be improved by settlers will go back to said Swan. This was acknowledged in Boston before John Vinal.

Soon after the year 1800, Prince moved back to Beverly. His widow was living there as late as 1841, a very aged lady. They have many descendants now living in Beverly and Salem. After Prince's departure. Swan's business was transacted by different parties, as will be noted later. Swan's property was now neglected. The mills, which still ran for many years, were finally closed and gradually fell into decay.

The land was held as of very little value after the timber had been cut off, and settlers who came in made their own selection of lots without consulting anyone. The first permanent settlement was made by David Smith in 1791 He settled on Harbor Island, where his daughter Sarah, afterwards the wife of Benjamin Stinson, was born in 1792. He soon after moved into the "Big House" while building his own, and while there, his son Benjamin Smith was born in 1795. This is said to be the first child born to white parents on the island.

The "Big House" was used as a temporary dwelling by many of the early settlers until a suitable house of their own could be procured. Although there were sawmills here, most of the first houses were built of logs. The crevices were plastered with mortar made from burnt clam shells. These were found in large quantities, and made a good substitute for lime. Moses Staples made considerable quantity in this way when he lived near Old Harbor.

The log houses were small, generally twenty-two feet square; the lower part was all in one room called the "kitchen". This was used as a cook room, dining room, sitting room, storeroom and general workshop. It was the family "home", and very often here large families were reared. The largest of which we have record is David Smith's, before spoken of, who by his first wife had sixteen children, and by his second wife eight, making twenty-four in all.

In the kitchen was a broad fireplace wherein swung a large crane. Upon the crane were pendant hooks of various lengths, upon which the pots and kettles were hung. There was a wide, neatly swept hearth, upon which, before a roaring fire, the bright tin baker was placed to bake the bread or roast the lamb. When a bannock was to be baked, the dough of cornmeal and water was spread about an inch thick upon a piece of sheet iron about eight by eighteen inches and placed upon the hearth edge and a flatiron at its back to keep it up. When its face side was cooked which, with a winter fire, required only a few minutes, it was removed from the iron, turned inside out and again presented to the fire for a few minutes. That gave it a hard, brittle crust on both sides. These bannocks of corn or barley were the only bread used. Wheat flour was very expensive, and could be used only by the more wealthy.

At the side of the fireplace, and quite near thereto, was a cavernous oven which each Saturday was heated very hot, where the Sunday's beans and brown bread and pumpkin pies, or a quarter of lamb were baked. Under the oven was the stockhole, with a capacity of several barrels, into which the ashes from the hearth were shoveled.

In autumn, after the harvest had been gathered and the house banked and all cracks and crannies about the house and barn where Jack Frost might come in were properly tightened to keep him out, it was the correct thing to lay in a supply of pitch wood for winter evenings' light.

The furniture was of the simplest description. Spinning wheels and looms manufactured the wool into cloth which served largely to clothe the family.

During the long, bleak winters, shut off from all communication with the main land, except an occasional sailboat, with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean beating all around them, it must, indeed, have seemed isolated. But it was not so regarded by them. The little log house was built in a sheltered spot in the forest. The sturdy settler, to support his large family, was kept busy throughout the day. In the evening the family gathered before the fire in the huge fireplace, whose genial warmth gave a cheery aspect to the little cabin. During the evening friends would come with their family hauled by oxen, perhaps for several miles. The younger members would entertain themselves by coasting or skating or by games within doors, while with the parents storytelling seems to have been a favorite mode of entertainment, in which a ghost or a goblin would figure as the hero of the tale. A generous supper would be partaken of before they left for their long ride homeward. Notwithstanding the great improvements that have taken place within the last century, I doubt if people enjoy themselves now more than they did at that time. An increase of means brings with it one of wants, and usually the expenditures will keep pace with the income.

Many of the more prosperous soon built timber houses, some of large dimensions. Most of the houses were built near the shore so as to be convenient for fishing, which, since the departure of Swan's agents, had been their chief reliance for the support of their families. The first work of the settler, after providing for his family, was to procure a boat. These were of small size at first, as an abundance of fish could be caught near the shore, but after a time larger boats and vessels were built, not only for home use but also to sell. Land was cleared around the house and barley, corn and potatoes were raised. Barley and corn were ground at the gristmill and made into bread.

Although farming was never carried on to any great extent, crops were good. It is said that some of the farmers raised a thousand bushels of potatoes per year.

A large amount of kiln wood was sold during the winter months. At first this wood could be cut anywhere except on land actually settled. Later the plantation required a small price per cord on all wood cut on wild lands. Fish were plenty, but they brought a small price. Yet they served as an article of food, and were exchanged for corn, barley, and articles of clothing. Shoes of a rude kind were made at home. The settlers at once stocked their places with cattle and sheep, the latter being more profitable on account of the dry, hilly pastureland.

There were no roads, only paths through the woods. If anyone wished the use of a road he had to build it himself. On account of the rocky character of the land through which roads must pass, they preferred, when visiting another part of the island, to go in boats, rather than incur the heavy expense necessary to construct roads. Later, paths were converted into wood roads, and these at a much later date into highways, all of which had gates across them. No horses were kept for seventy years after the settlement of the town. But the roads at this writing have vastly improved, in fact, none better can be found in the county.

During the long bleak winters hunting was a favorite pastime. Game was abundant, but so many hunters came from other places that it became necessary for the inhabitants to pass a vote not to allow nonresidents trapping, hounding or laying poison for any furbearing animal; and still later no man was allowed to hound game except upon his own premises.

Among the furbearing animals found here by the settlers were quite a number of bears, some of which were so bold as to come to the barns and eat the food put out for the hogs, and nights they would often prowl around the houses to secure anything left around the door that would tempt their appetite. Two bears were killed here by personal encounters. The first was killed by Abel E. Staples. A large party of men, as was customary in those days, gathered at John Cook's place to assist him in clearing his lot of the bushes and stumps, so as to enable him to cultivate the soil. While so employed, several dogs, which had accompanied the workmen, began to bark furiously in the forest near them. Soon, much to the surprise of all, they drove a large bear into the clearing. The bear made a desperate attempt to escape by attacking those who surrounded him. At this, Mr. Staples, using a long stick which he had been using prying stumps, struck the bear on the head. This only enraged the beast the more. The second blow, given with tremendous force, split open the bear's head, and he fell over dead. A long time subsequent, a bear came out on the shore where John and David Stinson were working on a boat near their home at the north. One of the brothers started for the house to get a rifle, while the other kept watch. Presently the bear began to move towards the woods, when Mr. Smith seized a broken oar that lay near his boat, and after a severe battle came off victorious. Several other bears were killed with firearms. This game was so persistently hunted that it was entirely exterminated.

There were also large flocks of seabirds which served as food, and the feathers were made into beds. Seabirds still come in large flocks at certain seasons of the year.

There were no traders then on the island, but supplies were usually laid in before winter. The mails came occasionally, when a boat went to the mainland, but there was no office here nor any regular place to receive the mails.

The war of 1812 made itself felt among the few settlers here, not only in the depression incident to warfare, but the British cutters harassed our coasting vessels and captured and detained many of the fishing vessels, taking from these vessels any man whom they chose to regard as a British subject and impressing him on board of an English ship of war. In a similar way the father of Moses Staples, who came here in 1793, was impressed on board of a British war ship during the Revolution. He was never heard of after that, and probably died or was killed while in the service.

It is related that while one of the British cutters was near our harbor, a boat came ashore, and her crew espied several women and girls returning in a boat from one of the islands where they had been berrying. The cutter's boat went in pursuit, and soon overtook the party of frightened women. They, however, did not detain them, but on leaving them an officer in the boat kissed one of the young girls. "Go home,'' said he, "and tell your parents that you have had the honor of being kissed by a British officer."

In the year 1810, just previous to our second war with Great Britain, an embargo was laid on flour to prevent it being exported to England or to the English colonies. Accordingly flour in Canada brought a very high price, and made smuggling into that country profitable. So in this year, two brothers named Prudy, who were Tories, brought a load of flour in a Chebacco boat, and stored it in the cellar of the "Big House", awaiting a favorable opportunity to smuggle it into Canada, but some patriotic citizen, knowing the character and business of the Prudy boys, notified the customs officer at Deer Isle, who came and, with the aid of David Smith, took charge of the flour, put it on board of a vessel and carried it to Deer Isle, where it was confiscated. The Prudy boys were naturally enraged, especially with Mr. Smith, whom they accused of betraying them to the customs officer. One day, meeting Mr. Smith alone, they both attacked him, but, much to their surprise, this old Revolutionary hero administered to them a sound thrashing, which all of that class so richly deserved. Prudy had Mr. Smith arrested for assault. He was carried to Deer Isle for trial, and, strangely enough, he came for trial before the very customs officer who had made the seizure, and by whom Mr. Smith was discharged on the ground that he was justified in the act as the means of self defense.

Swan's Island Plantation was organized in 1834. Previously there had been no municipal organization, and had been taxed only by the State. In State and national elections it was classed with Mount Desert, later with Bluehill, and now with Deer Isle. At present Deer Isle, Swan's Island and Isle au Haut form one representative district.

During the first half century after its settlement, there were no public schools, but instruction was furnished the young more or less regularly and supported by private donations. These schools were kept in the room of some dwelling, and the teacher "boarded around". The usual price paid the teacher was nine shillings per week.

The people in those times seem to have made good use of the advantages which were offered them, for most of them had a good common school education. The first schoolhouse was built near the Carrying Place in 1834. This building was afterwards moved and used in district No. I until the new schoolhouse was built in 1894. The schoolhouse on the east side was built soon after. The first public winter term of school was taught by Miss Sophia Dodge, of Sedgwick. Among other early teachers were John Adams, Hon. William H. Taylor, a justice of the supreme judicial court of Maine, and Danforth P. Marcyes, of Eden. The wages for a winter teacher was about $14 per month and board, often as low as fifty cents per week. The island was first divided into the west district and east district. In 1839, the east district voted to support school for three months in the summer, and two and a half months in the winter.

In 1842, the west district was divided into two other districts - the southeast district, the line of which was to run between Joseph Gott and John Gott's house, and the Irish Point district, the dividing line to run between Abel Lane's and David Smith's places.

This year the districts were numbered, west district to be known as No. I, east district as No. 2, southwest district as No. 3, southeast district as No. 4. Later, district No. I was again divided; all north of the Carrying Place to be formed into a new district known as No. 5; and last, a portion of district No. I was united to a portion of district No. 2, the union forming district No. 6. The last district, however, was soon abolished. The other districts remained until all district lines were abolished by the new school law of 1894.

There were five principal settlements. The most numerous families were the Smiths, Stinsons and Kents at the north; the Joyces, Staples, Torreys and Stockbridges at the east side, the Gotts and Stanleys in No. I, and the Spragues, Sadlers and Bridges in No. 4. Most of the settlers in each section were related to each other. And a large percentage of the population of this island today is descendants of the above named families.

These people, although surrounded by many disadvantages, have reared a hardy, industrious, intelligent class of people. A general appearance of prosperity prevails. The homes are neat and elegantly furnished. The grounds and lawns are tastefully kept. The roads are kept in a good condition of repair, with sidewalks built in two of the villages. Schools have been liberally supported, offering to the young thirty weeks of instruction in the year. All schoolbooks are furnished free, so that the poor can enjoy equal advantages with the wealthy. A new two story schoolhouse has just been completed, and the schools for the first time graded (1894).

Seldom has there been a pauper to call for public charity, and the town is without debt.

We of the present day, who now occupy comfortable homes, with all these advantages, with mails and steamboats that daily connect us with the neighboring towns, can scarcely realize the great changes which have taken place for the better within this century.


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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