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An Acadia Timeline: Human History

From 13,000 Years Ago

First Peoples in “Maine.” The first evidence of a human presence in what we now call Maine dates to nearly 13,000 years ago. These first peoples and their descendants and successors create a network of nations linked by language, trade, and belief that encompasses all of New England and most of the Canadian Maritimes. For more than twelve millennia, through periods characterized by archaeologists as Archaic and Ceramic, these hunter-gatherer peoples develop successful material cultures based on an intimate knowledge of the lands and waters from which they live. They move in rhythms set by the seasons, taking only what they need for sustenance from a natural world with which they feel a deep spiritual bond.


From 5,000-plus Years Ago

Wabanaki Island Domain. By at least 5,000 years before the present, the forebears of the Wabanaki Peoples have established successful communities along the coastal regions where some land is now conserved as Acadia. From Naskeag in the west to Schoodic in the east, Wabanaki settlements on the mainland and islands can see the range of mountains on what we now call Mount Desert Island. They call this range Pemetic.



The Origins of a Name. Giovanni Verazzano, an Italian navigator for the French crown, sailed along the North American coast, placing the name Arcadia on areas between New Jersey and North Carolina, evoking the land of pastoral beauty celebrated in classical Greek poetry. That name—with an “r”—subsequently appears on various maps of the east coast of North America. The actual source of Acadia (without the “r”), however, is more likely a Micmac word meaning a piece of land, generally with a favorable connotation. French settlers in what is now eastern Maine and Nova Scotia rendered the word as cadie and called their colonyAcadia (again, without the “r”). The earlier use of “Arcadia” may have prepared the way for the acceptance of “-cadie” from its Micmac source—and satisfied the Anglophile ladies whose 1929 gift of Schoodic Point to the park hinged on changing the national park’s first, French name, Lafayette.


September 1604

The Wabanaki Discover Champlain. In the first week of September 1604, Wabanaki people—well-established hunter-gathers who had lived in and from this area for at least 5,000 years—discover a small sailing ship with a crew of fewer than a score of Frenchmen coasting near the mouth of what we call Somes Sound. The day before, the leader of these explorers—cartographer and geographer Samuel de Champlain—mapped the eastern coast of the island that he named “l’Isle des Monts-déserts,” stove his boat on ledges off Otter Cliff, and took her in for overnight repairs at Otter Creek Cove. The Wabanaki welcome these strange visitors and take them up the Penobscot River to meet their grand leader, Bashaba.


1613 to 1761

Contests for Dominion. During the first 150 years of European presence in North American and on the coast of Maine, the French and English colonial goals and regimes are distinct—but each deeply disrupts Wabanaki life and culture. The French show respect, learn native languages and encourage intermarriage, but their twined goals are conversion to Catholicism and mercantile profit based on a fur trade that turns a part of nature into a commodity. The English take, settle, and plant ever-increasing reaches of land, expel native peoples and often exterminate those who resist. After the Great Dying of 1616–1619, when European germs infect and kill some 90% of the native population in New England, the contest is never equal. During more than a century of conflict, Mount Desert Island is a swing territory loosely subject to the influence of one or another of the contending European forces. At different times it is “owned” by Sir Robert Mansell, Vice Admiral of the British Navy; French nobleman Antoine Lamuet, Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac; and Francis Bernard, the last British governor of Massachusetts. With final French defeat in 1761, lands that will one day be conserved as Acadia are opened to English settlement from the south.


Summer 1613

Jesuit Settlement, Anglo-French Hostilities. With support from high in the French court, Jesuits lead a well-supplied expedition to attempt a permanent settlement in what they conceive as New France. Through plan and chance they come to Mount Desert Island and are encouraged by the Wabanaki there to encamp at the site now known as Jesuit Field, at the southwest shore of Somes Sound. The commander of a well-armed English ship, charged with protecting English interests in “Virginia,” learns of the new French encampment, quickly cannonades them into submission, and disperses the would-be colonizers. So begins—on land now part of Acadia National Park—a century and a half of English-French hostilities in North America.


1761 to 1861

First Century of European Settlement on MDI. During the century between the first permanent European residence on MDI in 1762 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the first five generations of white settlers create four towns, four or so churches, several roads, two bridges, twenty-two elementary schools, and 4,000 people on the island. They survive the American Revolution and the war of 1812, free their homesteads from the claims of landed gentry from away, help win Maine statehood in 1820, and move with the rest of the nation toward the inevitable contest over slavery and the union. They sustain themselves from sea and land and through coastal trade that sends timber, fuel, fish, feathers, and cobblestones south to markets in exchange for cash, some food staples, and manufactured goods. Ships made on this coast follow wider trade winds to the West Indies, Europe, and Asia. Long before summer colonies and calls for conservation, this stretch of Maine’s coast is a successful part of the growing American economy. Acadia National Park will emerge from confident communities 150 years in the making.


1840 to 1860s

Artist Discover Acadia. During the two decades before the Civil War, leading American artists in search of sublime nature find their way to Mount Desert Island. The paintings of Thomas Cole, Frederick Edwin Church, Fitz Henry Lane, and others bring the extraordinary land and sea vistas of this place to the widening attention of resourceful residents in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and stimulate the interest of those who will become pioneering Rusticators.


1855 to 1916

Summer Colonization. A few intrepid visitors to MDI come from away in the 1850s, but soon after the Civil War many more arrive via regular steamship service and, eventually, railways reaching from the great East Coast cities all the way to Hancock Point. Local entrepreneurs build large hotels to support the influx of tourists. Soon wealthy summer visitors begin to build grand summer cottages along the shores of Eden (Bar Harbor), Northeast Harbor, Seal Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Somesville. Distinct summer colonies grow up in each village. Most summer colonists and year-round residents develop a healthy mutual respect based on mutual dependence. Summer colony demand for skills and services support an economy that stagnates elsewhere in Maine. Still, thousands of people on MDI find employment independent of the seasonal economy—especially through fishing, forestry, and the quarrying of granite.


1871 to 1916

Rustication through Pathmaking. The MDI summer colonies generate a high-season society of teas, dinners, and balls to rival Newport, Rhode Island. But many summer people prefer vigorous enjoyment of land and sea, especially treks to mountain vistas and the lakes and ponds of the interior. These hardy folk pioneer some 70 miles of paths in the 1870s and 1880s and then organize with dedication from 1890 onward in the path committees of four village improvement societies. Working with skilled local artisans, they plan, construct, and maintain a path network that eventually exceeds 200 linear miles on MDI.


1880 to 1888

Champlain Society. In 1880, a group of Harvard undergraduates begin an annual summer encampment, first on Somes Sound and then at Northeast Harbor. They are dedicated to careful scientific observation and documentation of the natural history of Mount Desert Island, especially in botany, ornithology, and geology. It is Charles Eliot, son of Harvard president and Northeast Harbor summer colony leader Charles W. Eliot, who first leads the group. In the Champlain Society’s first annual report, “Botanical Department” members Edward Rand and William Dunbar write: “Is it possible to protect the natural beauty of the island in any way? … A company of interested parties could buy at small cost the parts of the Island less desirable for building purposes. To these they could add from time to time such of the more desirable lots as they could obtain control of either by purchase or arrangement with the proprietors. … This park should be free to all on the condition that no rules of the Association were violated.” Today, many believe this and other Champlain Society statements to be the initial inspiration for the conservation of Acadia.


1901 to 1916

Reservation and Conservation. By the turn of the century, resource extraction and resort development threaten to degrade the MDI landscape and exclude the public from the most pleasing seaside lands. Inspired by the pioneering work of his late son (who died in 1897, at the threshold of a brilliant career in landscape architecture) President Eliot convenes resourceful rusticators and key local leaders as the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations (HCTPR), a body dedicated to acquiring and conserving a growing reserve of MDI land to be held in trust for public enjoyment and for protection of the lakes that serve as public water supplies to island communities. Guided by Bar Harbor summer colony leader George B. Dorr, a visionary planner and tireless advocate, the HCTPR acquires 5,000 key mountain and coastal acres, on which trail development continues. By 1914, Eliot, Dorr and the HCTPR have concluded that the best future for their lands and mission is as a part of the emerging national park system.


Geologic History | Human History | Park History