OCEANFRONT MARKER ON PEMAQUID PENINSULA noting peaceful settlement of a century and a half of conflict between Penobscot Indians and English settlers. Photo by Tom Lamia.

By Tom Lamia

As the State of Maine heads into its annual state of hibernation, I leave you with a few odd facts (culled from the internet, an unreliable source). For example, did you know…

That well into our nation’s existence, Maine was an orphan:

  • Neither its borders nor its sovereignty were established;
  • Those contesting ownership included not only nation states, such as England, France, the United States and the Wabanaki confederation of American Indian tribes, but also (a) a private citizen, and (b) the State of Massachusetts;
  • The private citizen’s claim originated with a hero of the American Revolution;
  • A plebiscite among Maine residents freed the state from Massachusetts. 

That Maine agriculture, industry, trade and finance underperform:

  • Throughout its history and continuing to the present day, Maine has been and is among the poorest of American states;
  • A century and a half of near constant warfare between and among European and Native American nations left its population and economy undeveloped;
  • Its winters are long and severe; its land rocky; its soil poor; and its rail and highway transport challenged by mountains, rivers, forests and granite ledges;
  • Its logical trading partners, Canada’s Maritime Provinces, are its principal competitors in its leading industries of lumber, fishing and shipbuilding;
  • Of these, the first two are non-renewable and threatened, and the third is obsolescent in the age of steel ships and high-tech motive power.

That immigration is its greatest strength:

  • Maine’s respected place in national affairs is the product of several extraordinarily talented immigrants and immigrant communities;
  • The wealth of the nation’s elite has been transported to Maine by its “Summer People”—seasonal residents who have built their cottages (called such whether 20 rooms or one) along Maine’s long, picturesque coastline from Penobscot Bay (Bar Harbor) to Muscongus Bay (Port Clyde and Monhegan Island) to Casco Bay (Portland) and the hundreds of offshore islands along the way;
  • A continuing flow of the world’s poor and shunned—Poles, Russians, Jews, Lebanese, Somalis, Rwandans—have come because there are jobs for them; it’s cheap to live here; and, most importantly, because they are welcomed;
  • Immigrants have found their place in state politics not because they are joined together as representatives of foreign cultures, but because they are not. Although all were born and raised in Maine, this limited roster exemplifies the point: Ed Muskie, son of a Polish immigrant father and a first generation Polish immigrant mother, Governor from 1955 to 1959 and U.S. Senator from 1959 to 1980; John Baldacci, son of Lebanese-Italian immigrants, Governor from 2002 to 2008; George Mitchell, son of a Lebanese immigrant mother and a father who was adopted into a Lebanese immigrant family, U.S. Senator from 1980 to 1995, Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995 and later a peacemaker in Ireland and the Middle East; William Cohen, son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, U.S. Representative from 1972 to 1978, U.S. Senator from 1979 to 1997 and U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2001.

Now, with that as backdrop, allow me a moment of family reflection about what I regard as a consequence of this Maine history lesson. I am not a native Mainer, but I married into a family that has deep roots here. For the 40-plus years of my close association with this family, I have been hearing the legend of Lois Ellis, a full-blooded Penobscot member of the Abenaki Nation who married into the family some four or five generations back and who produced offspring whose genes would have passed into the present generation. 

Several firsthand accounts of Lois were given to living relatives in the 1940s that gave credence to these stories when I first heard them in the 1970s. Some particular interest surfaced among my children when their high school counselors noted set-aside opportunities for college admission or financial aid. Various back-of-the-envelope calculations of sanguinity indicated that eligibility was possible. Someone went to 23 and Me for a definitive answer: plenty of European DNA and traces of others, but no trace of Native American. Elizabeth Warren has a ton of sympathy in my house for her assumption that family tales are a reliable basis for ancestry.

The overlapping presence in Maine of prerevolutionary European and Native American cultures, and the subsequent impact of immigration to Maine from outside of New England, have their own impacts on present-day life in Maine. A further family story comes from the 1980s: Cousin Barry, making a summer visit from the West Coast with his family, spent an afternoon with us at our farm in South Bristol. Our household at the time included our six children and two African-American teenagers. After a few hours of swapping family stories, the visitors left. During the ride back to Newcastle where they were staying, the eight- or nine-year-old son of Barry is reported to have said, “The Lamias seem like nice people, but why do they keep slaves?” And that’s the best I can do to illustrate the temporal proximity of the onset of Somali and Rwandan immigration into Maine history.

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