Maine’s first inhabitants were descendants of Ice Age hunters, a hardy lot comprising dozens of tribes before the arrival of Europeans. They were collectively known as the Wabanaki (‘people of the dawn’), and numbered perhaps 20, 000 in Maine when the English set up Popham colony at the tip of the Phippsburg peninsula in 1607. Unlike Jamestown (Virginia), which was founded in the same year, the early Maine settlement failed and dispersed.
Over the next several generations, other English settlements sprang up in the Province of Maine, though settlers there faced enormous hardship from harsh winters and attacks by Native Americans. Adding insult to injury, Maine lost its sovereignty when Massachusetts took over the failing colony in 1692.
Bloody battles raged for many generations, destroying entire villages in Maine, with settlers facing attacks from Native Americans, the French and later the British. This didn’t end until after the War of 1812, when the British finally withdrew from Maine. After ridding itself of the royal yoke, Maine focused on freeing itself from its Boston rulers, and in 1820 it gained its independence, becoming the 23rd state in the union.
The 19th century was one of tremendous growth for the new state, with the emergence of new industries. Timber brought wealth to the interior, with Bangor becoming the lumber capital of the world in the 1830s. Fishing, shipbuilding, granite quarrying and farming were also boom industries, alongside manufacturing, with textile and paper mills employing large swaths of the population.
Unfortunately, the boom days were short-lived, with a collapse on land (sawmills couldn’t compete with larger, more accessible forests out west) and on sea (brought on by devastating overfishing) as nearly every major industry in Maine foundered. By the turn of the century, population growth stagnated and Maine became a backwater.
Ironically, Maine’s rustic, undeveloped landscape would later become part of its great appeal to would-be visitors. Maine soon emerged as a summer cottage destination around the time the slogan ‘Vacationland’ (which still adorns Maine license plates) was coined in the 1890s. Today, tourism accounts for 15% of the state’s economy (compared to the 6% average elsewhere in New England).