Maine's past reaches back to the earliest Paleo-Indians, who left traces of a sometimes mystifying culture over the eons. When the Europeans arrived, the rugged, glacier-carved wilderness was a serious challenge for these early colonists, and the region has remained sparsely populated up to the present. Other key facets from Maine's history include the involvement of Mainers in the Civil War and the state's transformation from industrial workhouse to a 'Vacationland' for East Coasters.

Early Human History

In the beginning there was ice. At least as far as the land now known as Maine was concerned. Roughly 20,000 years ago – just as humans were crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia into the Americas – Maine was covered in glaciers, some 5000ft thick. The summit of mile-high Mt Katahdin would have risen just above the ice sheet, with all else a frozen and impenetrable panorama.

As the planet warmed, the ice retreated, and around 11,500 years ago fur-clad Stone Age hunters found their way into the valleys, across boulder-strewn hillsides and over vast wetlands. There were also grassy plains where woolly mammoths roamed and pockets of coniferous forest emerged from the tundra. This landscape would change dramatically over the next 9000 years. The changing scenery brought new food sources (including deer, otter, beaver and bear), and new technologies allowed for the grinding and milling of plants, as well as storage techniques for roots and nuts.

During the Maritime Archaic period, the mysterious Red Paint People flourished in the northeast. Around 6000 years ago, along coastal Maine from the Androscoggin River to Mount Desert Island, this tribal group used huge amounts of red ocher (crushed red hematite) in their burial practices. Curiously, this mineral is not naturally occurring in Maine. They were also quite advanced, hunting swordfish, making animal figurines long before anyone else in North America, and trading with other cultures thousands of miles away. Bafflingly, they disappeared without a trace by around 2000 BC.

The People of the Dawn

As the last glaciers retreated and sea levels stabilized, warming trends continued and central Maine saw the appearance of deciduous mast-bearing trees – those producing nuts and fruit and providing wood for tools and shelter. Human advancements came in leaps and bounds in the Early Woodland Period. Beginning in around 800 BC, humans in the area used agriculture, created clay-fired ceramics and birchbark canoes, and utilized extensive trade networks. The population grew and permanent settlements appeared on the coast and along rivers. These woodland peoples were known as the Wabanaki: the People of the Dawn. They were part of a vast Algonquian Confederation stretching from Maine to the Great Lakes. The Eastern Abenaki (or Penobscot) relied on diverse food sources throughout the year, fishing, foraging and tending to crops in the summer; trapping birds during the great fall migration, and hunting moose, beaver, otter and bear in winter.

The Wabanaki numbered perhaps 20,000 when the first English settlers arrived in the early 1600s. Sadly, many villages would suffer from devastating diseases transmitted by the European colonizers, with an estimated 80% to 90% of the population dying during mass contagions in the 17th century.

The Europeans Arrive

The first Europeans to sight Maine's rugged coastline might have been the crew with John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), an Italian sailing under the British flag in 1497. He made the journey from England to present-day Nova Scotia in an effort to find a northern route to China. He may have reached the coast of Maine on his second voyage, but no record from that trip survives.

A few decades later, in 1524, the Florentine seaman Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing for French king François I, reached the Maine coast on his epic voyage up the Atlantic coast of North America, from Florida to New Brunswick. On his trip, he heard tales of a fabled settlement along the Penobscot River that was full of gold, silver and other treasures. The legendary place was called Norumbega, which was added to Verrazzano's 1529 map of America. (The name was later immortalized in a few place names given by Mainers, including Norumbega Mountain in Acadia National Park.)

Maine remained of little interest to Europeans for nearly a century afterwards. No attempt at getting a foothold into the region was made until the early 17th century. In 1604 of a small group of French colonists led by Pierre Du Gua, Sieur de Monts, and the geographer Samuel de Champlain established a settlement on an island in Passamaquoddy Bay at the mouth of a river they named the St Croix. They also explored more of the Maine coastline, giving names to places such as l'Isle de Monts Deserts (Mount Desert Island). Their island sojourn, however, was a failure, and the brutal cold, disease and lack of supplies put a quick end to the colony, which was moved to Nova Scotia in 1605.

Not to be outdone by the French, the English had also made early (and equally ill-fated) efforts to establish a colony. In 1607, George Popham, Raleigh Gilbert and 120 other Englishmen set up a colony at Phippsburg. A tough winter led to many deaths, including Popham's, and Gilbert abandoned the colony. One notable success was the building of the 30-ton ship christened Virginia, which would be used on subsequent voyages back to the New World.

Colonization

The Massachusetts Bay Colony (established by the English in 1630) provided a suitable launchpad to search for promising new regions for settlement. By the 1640s, a number of new colonies had been set up in southern Maine, including York, Saco, Kittery, Falmouth and Wells.

As with earlier endeavors, the hardships were substantial. Colonists were just barely surviving amid the harsh winters and challenging planting and fishing environment. Tensions flared regularly with local Native American tribes, who were rightly suspicious of the European newcomers – known to kidnap indigenous people to put them on display back in England.

In contrast, the French took a different approach with the indigenous people. From early on the French had developed diplomatic ties with the Wabanaki, and developed friendly trade for lumber and furs. French Jesuit priests had notable success converting many indigenous people to Catholicism. The French base of operations was set up at Fort Pentagöet in present-day Castine, which provided a strategic position at the mouth of the Penobscot River.

Trouble simmering between the two dominant colonial powers erupted into full-scale war both in Maine and in other parts of the continent by the middle of the 18th century. With the French and British facing off, the Wabanaki were caught in the middle of what was later known as the French and Indian War. Peace didn't arrive until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, which gave the British victors control over French Canada and Acadia.

Revolution

The peace that followed the end of the French and Indian War proved to be short lived. In the 1770s tensions were rising between colonists and the British government, with bloody skirmishes leading towards inevitable war in the American Revolution. Most of the action in the conflict took place elsewhere, though the district of Maine (still part of Massachusetts at the time) did see some action. In fact one of the first naval engagements in the war happened in Machias Bay, when Maine militiamen captured the British warship HMS Margaretta in 1775.

Maine was also the launchpad for taking control of Québec, on an expedition led by Colonel Benedict Arnold – a man whose name later went down in infamy when he betrayed the Americans. In the fall of 1775, Arnold and a band of over 1000 men headed up through the Kennebec River Valley. Trudging through inhospitable wilderness, battling cold, hunger and disease (thanks to a bad outbreak of smallpox), over 200 men died and 300 deserted by the time they reached the town. The siege, begun in late December, was a complete failure, with 100 of Arnold's battalion killed and another 400 captured. The survivors retreated to New York.

Boom & Bust

In 1820 Maine at long last separated from Massachusetts and gained its statehood. 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 not to last, as sawmills collapsed and the seas became devastatingly overfished. By the turn of the 20th century, population growth stagnated and Maine became a backwater.

Maine Goes to War

American confederates attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861 – the first salvo in what would become the country's bloodiest conflict. When Governor Israel Washburn Jr put out the call for volunteers, thousands of Mainers eagerly signed up. Throughout the war, more than 70,000 Mainers joined the cause, an astonishing figure considering the state's population was a little over 600,000 at the time (it was the highest figure in proportion to its population of any state in the north).

According to a letter written by Union soldier and former school teacher Walter Stone Poor, his reason for fighting was to put an end to slavery, and he was even willing to give his life if it helped to forever abolish the abominable practice. Another who served with honor was Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College graduate who was a professor of rhetoric and modern languages when he enlisted. He proved a gifted leader and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He fought in over 20 major battles, was wounded six times and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Battle of Gettysburg. He was extremely popular and served as the governor of Maine after the war.

Vacationland

Maine's rustic, undeveloped landscape later became 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. High-end summer colonies sprang up in places like Bar Harbor, Scarborough and Isleboro, catering to wealthy urbanites from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Massive homes were built here that were only used for two or three months a year. Later as travel became attainable for the middle class, Maine's tourism boomed, though it was (and remains) highly seasonal. Today, tourists spend about $6 billion per year, supporting around 106,000 jobs – roughly 16% of the state's work force.