In 1820, Maine's 1st Governor Sent 3 Men On A Special Expedition. Here's What They Found.

Oct 1, 2020

Portrait of William King, Maine's first governor (1820-21), circa 1855, from Gilbert Stuart's 1806 portrait of King as a young Bath businessman.
Credit State House Portrait Collection / Maine State Museum

When Maine became a state in 1820, it inherited a vast land from Massachusetts. Two hundred years ago today, three men assigned by Maine's first governor, William King, were on a special expedition.

"A surveyor from Bangor, Joseph Treat, who headed the expedition, his cousin, Captain Jacob Holyoke, and the lieutenant governor of the Penobscot Nation Lt. Gov. Neptune," says historian Herb Adams.

Adams says their mission was to learn just what it was the new state now controlled.

"They left relatively sunshiny Bangor at the end of September. But by October, these guys are experiencing ice so thick they cannot paddle - they have to pull the canoe behind them on a rope; ice so thin that they all crashed through it and have to dry off around the campfire at night. They must have had muscles like whipcord in order to do all of this. They ran out of food. Many times they would have a hash of very untasty things in the evenings just to be able to survive and get up the next day. They found people at Houlton who would trust them for horses. They found Madawaskans all along the route that would feed them. In that sense it's a human travelogue and remarkable to read."

Adams says Neptune, the Penobscot leader, was invaluable to the mission, helping the three navigate and avoid danger in the woods.  And as autumn took hold, the weather quickly deteriorated.

"To explore the timber resources, the water resources and the human resources that existed upon what would be our northeast border, north of the Penobscot, it would take from the middle of September, to the end of November. This trio covered 500, 600 miles of the roughest kind of wilderness, with a single canoe that had to carry all their survey equipment, all of their supplies, everything needed to make a camp or a measurement, up hills, down hills, through mountains, across rivers, and even into Miꞌkmaq territory - all recorded, just like Lewis and Clark had, in Treat's journal. The maps he drew are still accurate. And the surprises that he found along the route are all recorded in it too."

Gratz: So what are some of the surprises that they found?

Adams:  Treat is always impressed by the mighty stands of hemlock, by the mighty stands of pine. Of course, he's looking at this through white European eyes. What can I make of this that I am finding, you know, where will be the good land? Where can I cut the timber? Where's the best game? Certainly Neptune must have looked at it from a completely different angle, the opposite side of the equation.

Let's talk a little bit about the the journals themselves.

A map always accompanied all the writing - the map on one page, and his accounts on the facing page, the right hand page; sometimes little drawings of houses, but little X's, all along the riverbank and many notes about what stands of timber there are, what kind of rapids there are, and what kind of people they encounter. Now, of course, we're dealing at the onset with at least two cultures - that is the European, the white culture, and the Native American culture. But another culture all of a sudden makes its appearance,  and that's the Acadian culture up in the Madawaska region. He writes very effusively about them. This ragged trio comes dragging in in a battered canoe, and all of these people are very nice to them. They immediately make them welcome, feed them. I wonder if they gave them new clothes, given the state they must have been in. And off they go.

From your description just a moment ago, clearly they did meet a lot of people along the way. This was not really unoccupied land.

The Madawaskans would have been present for maybe 40, 50 years. The native cultures, the First People cultures, of course, lived there thousands of years. So it's an interesting interplay of the white European - relatively Protestant - the native, and the Catholic Madawaskans. And in that sense, it portrays a glimpse of the northern reaches of the state that is still to be found, to an extent. And you wish there were some accounts from the other sides - what these ragged strangers were like to them in their eyes as they staggered in, in a battered canoe, carrying all of this survey equipment and started asking questions.

How do they report back their findings? And what, if anything, did it lead to?

Joseph Treat worked up his journals into clean and readable form and submitted them to Gov. William King, and it's very clear that William King loved it. He was amazed by it. It both reinforced what he believed Maine deserved, because after all, he was a man who'd run sawmills and he knew what resources were and also opened brand new doors that Maine now had on paper.

And thanks to the Maine State Museum, Treat's journals can be read online. There's also lots more about the early history of Maine here. Next month, Adams will return to describe the trio's encounter with Maine's iconic Mount Katahdin.