The first Europeans to visit these waters were probably Scandinavian fishermen, who could make the northern transit of the Atlantic and never be more than a few hundred miles from shore. John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, passed through and charted Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:
“One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band…. They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend…They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco, which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”
As far back as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, arriving to the west of Casco Bay near Ogunquit, got a reception from the Indians that suggested possible previous contact with Europeans. The Indians insisted on standing on a cliff and trading with Verrazano’s crew by use of a rope. “We found no courtesy in them,” Verrazano complained. Worse they rounded out the transaction by “showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately.”
Captain John Smith may have been the first person to put in writing the attraction the Maine coast would have to centuries of later arrivals:
“Here are no hard landlords to racke us with high rents; no tedious pleas in law to consume us with their many years deputations for Justice; no multitudes to occasion such impediments to good order, as in the popuar States. So freely hath God in his Majesty bestowed his blessing on them that will attempt to obtaine them as here every man may be master and owner of his own labor and land; or the greatest part in a small time.”
Recent archeological work suggests that the Indians first came to these parts as early as 8,000 years ago. Beginning in 1675 they retrieved much of the land along the western Maine coast from the European usurpers in a series of bloody clashes that were part of King Philip’s War. By 1703 there were no European settlers east of York County. Although King Philip’s War doesn’t get much attention, it was actually the most costly American war based on the percent of male casualties among the colonists. Not until 1715 did Europeans return to these parts and reassert old land claims settled by a committee in Massachusetts.
As late as 1870 Indians summered on Great Chebeague Island. But they were long gone by the time we arrived although for many years you could still find some of their shell heaps. The past was everywhere on the neck, but it was not the musty, stuffy past of ancestors staring down at you in the candlelight, but the past of Indians, of an Italian stone masons’ shack paneled in pieces of packing crates, strange rusty iron tools in the barn, and a broken sign in the attic that read, BEWARE THE FIERCE LAMB resting near boxes of stationery and mailing tags from a long forgotten fish company.