My husband and I have been rowing on the ocean in northern Maine for years. We row on the oldest water trail in the United States, the Maine Island Trail, a 375-mile water trail for small boats extending from the New Hampshire border to Canada. The trail includes 200 islands available to members of the Maine Island Trail Association for day use and camping.
The islands have a rich recorded history dating as far back as the 1600’s. With names such as Hog, Hay, Hurricane, and Little Hen, these islands were used in the 1800’s for pasture, farmland, and granite extraction. Our Maine island journeys every summer have piqued my interest in what it was like to live there 100 or even 200 years ago. Two settlements are particularly intriguing and tell a tale of two communities. In one resourcefulness ruled and a family was able to retain control of their island by taking on the government of Maine. Another community, just as resourceful, had circumstances stacked against them.
Like the rest of America, Maine during the Revolutionary War years was primarily an agrarian society. Farmers in Maine, tending to farms that averaged between 50 and 100 acres, faced formidable challenges: poor soil, dense forest, unpredictable weather, and geographical isolation. “Mixed husbandry”—the cultivation of both crops and animals—helped to overcome these obstacles and became a popular and lucrative form of farming. Supplemental trades such as logging and fishing also complemented traditional farming. A great example of this resourcefulness is found on Baker Island.
John Gilley and his wife Hannah settled 130-acre Baker Island in 1809. John was a fisherman on nearby Acadia Island but aspired to be a farmer and have his own land. In the early 19th century, islands like Baker Island were inhospitable, remote, and often not the property of individuals. They were there for the taking. John and Hannah were able to settle the island and claim it as theirs. Hannah, like all pioneering women during that time, was a highly resourceful multi-tasker. She even home-schooled her 12 children, teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic. (Somewhat unusual for a woman of her times, Hannah attended school until the age of 13.) A biography of the Gilley Family describes Hannah and her first years on the island as follows:
“She already had three little children and she was going to face a formidable isolation for a considerable part of the year; even to get a footing on the island—to land lumber, live stock, provisions, and to build their first shelter—was no easy task.”
Due to good health, hard work, and good luck she and John prospered, owning cows, chickens, and over 50 sheep to provide them with food and clothing. The forests were cleared and flax, vegetables, and wheat were grown. Seafood was plentiful and the family built a successful business smoking herring and shipping it to New York City.
The family’s prosperity enabled them to buy other islands and to endow their children with money with which they built their own careers. Although the Maine government intervened several times to evict the family and take ownership, in the end the Gilley family was granted permanent residence on the island for as long as any family member survived and remained on the island. The last family member left the island in the 1920’s. Today many of the buildings and a family cemetery have been preserved.
On Malaga Island, the outcome for its equally industrious and resourceful residents was quite different. Malaga Island is also 130 acres and is located in Casco Bay. Casco Bay had a wealthy summer home community dating back to the mid 19th Century. Malaga Island is deserted today but was once home to a community which at its peak had 42 residents.
The island was settled in the mid 1800’s, about 40 years after the Gilley Family settled Baker Island. Like the Gilleys, Malaga’s settlers also came from the mainland with a desire to have a better life. But unlike the Gilleys, these residents had obstacles that proved impossible to overcome.
The island they settled was not in a remote part of northern Maine but close to the growing wealth of the Casco Bay mainland. “Malagites”, as they became to be known, were poor with limited education and therefore could not advocate for themselves. Their homes were more “makeshift". And perhaps most significant, Malaga’s residents included people of color, an anomaly in a state that then was 99% white. Malagites did succeed in making a successful community supported primarily by fishing and some farming, but the island was perceived by the state of Maine as a blighted community. In 1917 the governor of Maine declared the island to be a ward of the state, calling it a “no man’s land”.
The state evicted its residents while providing no help with resettlement. Some Magalites strapped their homes to rafts and drifted up and down the coast looking for a spot to resettle. Others, who lacked the means to move, were sent to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded in Pineland, Maine where they remained until their death.
This diaspora of the Malagites remains a dark chapter in the history of Maine and fortunately is the exception. Descendants of the island still live in the state and a formal apology was made to them in a ceremony in 2010.
Both the residents of Baker Island and Malaga Island had the determination and industriousness to succeed. Unfortunately, geography, racial discrimination, and lack of education and social resources posed insurmountable obstacles for the Malagites.