The rugged isle of Damariscove is where New england really began.
In late May 1622, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation were starving, and no surprise. Ignoring reports of fabulous fishing resources in the Gulf of Maine, they'd come to New England a year and a half earlier without fishing gear and had survived by raiding Indian grain caches. Several waves of new colonists had arrived without supplies, having foolishly believed the Pilgrims' reports that Plymouth was thriving. "Our store of victuals was wholly spent," Edward Winslow recalled. "Till now we were never without some bread [and] the want thereof much abated the strength and flesh of some, and swelled [the bellies of] others."
Just when it appeared that the colonists were finished, [For the rest of this story, see the July 2008 issue of Down East.]an open boat arrived from the far side of the Gulf of Maine, a tender to the fishing vessel Sparrow, then at a place called Damerill's Cove. The boat's crew explained they had been sent to deliver several letters and seven passengers from England. The passengers were no help - they too brought no food - but from the fishermen they learned of the existence of a year-round English outpost not 130 miles away. The fishermen agreed to show the hapless colonists how to get there, before they all wasted away.
Winslow took the Pilgrims' boat and followed the fishermen northeast across the gulf to a rugged island, three miles out to sea from a vast, forested coast people were starting to call Maine. There were hundreds of people living there: the crews of thirty English fishing ships had come to harvest the staggering cod stocks around what is now Southport, Boothbay, and Bristol. Thirteen more men lived at Damerill's Cove year-round, employees of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the English aristocrat who then controlled all of New England. Wooden platforms called fishing stages had been built all around the harbor, on which dried hundreds of five- and six-foot codfish the men had caught during the winter. Ashore, in the words of Gorges' agent, they had "fortified themselves with a strong palisade of spruce trees of some ten foot high, having besides their small shot, one piece of ordinance, and some ten good dogs" for defense against French or Indian raiders.
"I found kind entertainment and good respect, with a willingness to supply our wants," Winslow reported. The fishing captains gave "what they could freely, wishing their store had been such as they might in greater measure have expressed their love." He returned to Plymouth with a boatload of bread for the colonists, which "recovered and preserved strength until our crop on the ground was ready."
The Pilgrims were saved to go down in history as the founders of New England, their landing at Plymouth Rock celebrated as the symbolic birthplace of America. But Damariscove, the island settlement that saved them, would be forgotten so completely that even the date of its foundation has been lost to history.
Even in late summer, the approach to the harbor can be forbidding. On either side of the entrance, ocean swells crash against the rocky shore with thunderous gravity, while others break over the Motions, nasty ledges that lurk just west of the entrance, ready to tear the bottom out of any boat foolish enough to cut the corner too tightly. The crotch-like harbor is long and narrow, flanked by treeless, forlorn ridges. It looks more like northern Scotland than the coast of Maine, the spruce and pine having surrendered the place to storm-tortured shrubbery. The anchorage opens to the south, suggesting there will be little protection from the yawning void of the open Atlantic.
Indeed, the swells often carry into the entrance by the 120-year old Coast Guard Lifesaving Station, a weathered structure abandoned for decades, but now restored as a summer home. Halfway up the third-of-a-mile long harbor the waves usually flatten out. Shore birds flit through air that smells of wild roses, bayberry, and rockweed. Near the head of the harbor, between the caretakers' cottage and an old fishing shack that now houses a tiny museum, lie the last remnants of the early seventeenth century fishing station: two modest wedges of stacked granite, covered in seaweed, the footings for racks on which thousands of cod once dried. "We're protected from most any weather in here," says caretaker Nick Ullo, who isn't surprised that early fishermen made their base near his cottage. "Even when you do get full exposure and the big rollers come in from the south, it shoals up quickly enough at the end of the cove that they actually break before they get back in here."
Ullo and Tracey Hall have been caretaking here for the past six summers, maintaining the trails and keeping an eye on things first for the Nature Conservancy and then for the Boothbay Region Land Trust, which took possession of the island in 2005. "It started as a thing to do out of college, but now it's become the central element of our lives and has defined so much about us," says Hall, who married Ullo at the old Coast Guard station on a blustery June afternoon two years ago. "The trick is finding out what to do with the other nine months of the year."
Over the years, the couple have become the social glue that keeps Damariscove's disparate users connected: the land trust (which maintains the island as a nature preserve), the lobstermen (who store and repair gear here), the Whitten and Ryan families (who have owned the lifesaving station for the past two decades), and the five thousand annual visitors who come ashore to hike, picnic, or birdwatch. There are few conflicts, and the couple's presence seems to ensure visitors' compliance with the rules (no camping, fires, dogs). Several round-the-world yachtsmen have dropped in, reporting the island to be one of their favorite stops and, from time to time, the couple encounter nudists on the back trails. The lobstermen sometimes hold cookouts on their moored boats, a substitute for the massive volleyball parties of the 1970s. "This island has such a special meaning to so many people," Ullo says. "Six years is just a tiny blip for people who've been coming here for generations."
Damariscove lies just six miles from the bars and ice-cream shops of Boothbay Harbor, but feels a world apart, more remote than Monhegan, more timeless than Vinalhaven. For much of the colonial period, though, the island was at the center of commerce, an English strongpoint lying right on the European shipping lanes and far enough offshore to stand a chance of detecting and resisting Wabanaki war parties.
The island, an elongated hourglass two miles long, was likely the first permanent English outpost in New England, with a skeleton crew of fishermen under Humphrey Damerill staying here year-round starting sometime between 1614 (when the famous John Smith visited) and 1622, when the Pilgrims finally discovered it. "Plymouth wouldn't have succeeded if it hadn't been for Damariscove," says Emerson Baker, a colonial historian at Salem State College. "You probably had to have these fishing stations in place for a permanent settlement to have taken root."
The formal fishing station petered out by the 1640s because it was unable to compete with fishermen settlers on the mainland and because cod were harder to find, says Edwin Churchill, longtime curator of the Maine State Museum. "Their catches spiraled upwards each year and then, all of a sudden, plummeted," he says. "They'd fished out everything within a day of sailing and had to start going to the outer banks."
Even so, Damariscove remained one of the most important settlements in what is now Maine. The 1672 tax assessment showed it was tied with Monhegan as the wealthiest place on the midcoast. During the course of the century-long Indian Wars (1676-1763), it was the only settlement to survive. Hundreds of mainland refugees found shelter here until transportation could be secured to Boston, while the fishermen and farmers on the island repeatedly fought off Indian attacks. One of their casualties was Richard Pattishall, the island's owner, who was beheaded while overseeing the evacuation of Pemaquid in August 1689. His body and that of his dog are said to have later washed ashore on the island.
Pattishall's ghost haunted the island for the next three centuries. The Italian stonecutters brought in to help build the Coast Guard station in the late 1890s fled en masse after a headless apparition told them to leave. Early twentieth-century station personnel dreaded their compulsory night patrols to the far end of the island. "It was a scary place, and he said you could feel the presence of something dark and eerie," says June Elderkin, of Southport, whose father, John Peabody, served there in the late 1930s. "It's a strange place, especially at night and in the fog," agrees Dan Kaler, who fished from the island in the 1980s. "At night I'd pull the shades; I didn't want anyone looking back at me."
Kaler recalls one caretaker leaving the island after encountering a ghost in the abandoned Coast Guard station, but Pattishall has since found peace. Ullo and Hall have summered here undisturbed, as has Chub Whitten, co-owner of the station, which he and college roommate Barry Ryan rehabilitated in the late 1980s. "I'll always remember camping out there as a kid and being terrified of the ghost stories the older kids told," he recalls. "But I was alone out here in 1989 on the three hundredth anniversary of his death, and I didn't see him then, or any other time."
Pattishall's children survived the 1689 attack, and the island remained in the family's hands for another 156 years. Fortunately for us, his daughter, Frances, moved to Boston, and begat Paul Revere's mother, unknowingly facilitating a later warning concerning redcoats. The island ultimately wound up with granddaughter Mary Pattishall, who married Daniel Knight of Boothbay. They and their descendants continued cutting down the island's trees for firewood and building supplies, and their sheep and dairy cows chewed up the saplings. By 1894 a visitor reported that even the remote northern lobe of the island - Wood End - had been deforested. The island's "boulder-dotted slopes are strewn with fallen trunks, now little more than brown mold; and here and there a huge forest giant stands alone, its nude limbs sticking out like sabers, and its top surmounted by a fish hawk's nest."
The family didn't have it easy. Indians attacked the island in 1689, 1697, and 1725. The pirate Paulsgrave Williams came ashore in 1717, stealing boats and livestock. In 1775, Henry Mowatt, commander of the HMS Canceaux, burned their house to the ground, a rehearsal for torching rebellious Portland a few days later. During the War of 1812, they watched the USS Enterprise and the HMS Boxer fight it out, and commandeered the latter's mast as a flagpole when it washed ashore. Still, they kept subsistence farming, while an ever-changing cast of fishermen squatted in shacks at the head of the harbor, a tradition that continued, practically unabated, until 2003.
"There were always people living under the radar here more or less year-round," says Boothbay Harbor attorney Chip Griffin, author of a history of the island. "I don't believe they paid rent to anybody. From the 1600s on, it was just culturally understood that people could use this island freely for fishing."
Isaac and Chester Poole were the island's last farmers, shuttling milk to customers ashore while their children filled the island's one-room schoolhouse. They moved ashore in 1922: Isaac founded Poole Brothers Lumber, which still exists today; Chester ran a thriving fish market in Boothbay Harbor on what therefore came to be called Fisherman's Wharf. The Coast Guardsmen followed them in 1959, abandoning the lifesaving station for the fast rescue boats in Boothbay Harbor.
The fishermen held out longer. John "Weasel" Sargent was the informal king of the island for thirty years, determining which of his fellow lobstermen could keep traps here. Weasel's four-year-old son drowned in the harbor in 1953, as Weasel himself did in 1976. His one-room camp still stands next to the caretakers' house. "It's sixty years old, but its still much sturdier than ours," Ullo says. "You go in there and its windproof, quiet, and warm."
Another lobstermen, John Hammond, lived year-round in the harbor with his wife, Robin, aboard a dismasted thirty-two-foot sailboat for sixteen years. When they first arrived, she was pregnant, and their son spent the first fifteen years of his life on the island. They came ashore in 2003 - their son was growing up, and lobster regulations were tightening - leaving the harbor without permanent residents for the first time in nearly four centuries.
That's brought the island full circle, back to a time when visitors were seasonal, fishermen came and went for short periods, and seabirds held sway over the land. Today, human visitors are prohibited from the northern half of the island from April 15 to August 15 so as not to disturb the thousands of nesting eider ducks, guillemots, and cormorants. In stormy weather, gulls cover the "bottomless" freshwater pond at the head of the harbor (maximum depth: three feet) until things calm down.
"You really feel a connection to what's around you: the cycles, the seasons, the birds, the flowers, cloud formations, which way the winds are blowing," says Hall, as she says farewell to a party of day visitors. "There's just something about this place that's truly magical."
- By: Colin Woodard