A 1696 map of Casco Bay from the Harvard University Archives. Harvard once held one of several conflicting claims to Harpswell Neck.

For those of us who live on the Neck, the word Merriconeag is part of our vocabulary. We see it when we pass the Merriconeag Grange in North Harpswell. We see it again when we pass the “carrying place” sign near the Harpswell-Brunswick town line, and, of course, we see it again when we are heading home from Brunswick.

It is part of what makes us glad to live on the Neck: the knowledge that we are home when we pass through the carrying place and see the magnificent Skolfield barn and fields, or when we are enjoying the monthly pancake breakfast at the Merriconeag Grange.

The name is a gentle reminder that several tribes of the Algonquian people lived along the coast of Maine. In our area, the Annasagunticooks were the predominant tribe. British explorers in the early 1600s claimed the Neck’s Annasagunticook name was Merrucoonegan. To the Native Americans, it meant “a quick and easy carrying place” for taking their canoes from one body of water to another.

Originally, the name applied to the area of the two carrying places on the Neck. Since then, it has been used to describe the entire Neck. The Skolfield family farm is now called Merrucoonegan Farm. The U.S. Coast Survey, founded in 1807, gave the name Merriconeag Sound to the body of water between Harpswell Neck and Bailey Island.

The second carrying place on the Neck passes from Widgeon Cove westerly to Wilson’s Cove. A land surveyor well versed in the interpretation of the topographic features of land can find it. For others, it is much more difficult. It is approximately 3 3⁄4 miles south of the carrying place on the Harpswell-Brunswick town line.

A third carrying place in Harpswell was between Quahog Bay and the New Meadows River, near Dingley Island.

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, several explorers sailed along the coast of Maine, then named Norumbega. Their ship’s logs and journals gave hints at what these explorers found, but those hints were hardly useful to the British crown and merchants, who were anxious to learn of the commercial possibilities of the “new land.”

In 1614, before New England was colonized, British Capt. John Smith (1580-1631) was hired by British merchants to explore and document his discoveries along the Atlantic coast from 41 to 45 degrees north latitude. His first landing place, in April 1614, was Monhegan Island, at “43 1⁄2 of Northerly Latitude.” He had been instructed to “take whales and make tryalls of a Myne of Gold or Copper.” However, it soon became obvious to Smith that the abundance of “Fish and Furres” had a much better chance of making a fortune for the merchants. After exploring, documenting and mapping the New England coast, Smith returned to London. In 1616, he produced a map and book titled “A Description of New England.”

Because of Smith’s book, by the time Plymouth Colony was established in 1620, the area along the Maine coast was well known and highly desirable for its great quantities of fish. It was a favorite place for fishermen to anchor their boats while they dried and salted their fish before shipping them to England and other European countries. That is also why, on Aug. 10, 1622, King James granted the province of Maine to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Capt. John Mason.

The land in the 1622 charter was defined as “lands, woods, lakes, rivers, waters, islands and fishings” situated “upon the sea-coast betwixt ye rivers of Merrimac and Sagadahoc and to the furthest heads of the said rivers.”

The province included what today is known as the town of Harpswell, with its miles of coastline and fishing grounds.

It was not long before fishermen were shipping their fish to the new town of Boston, founded in 1630, where the cargo was loaded onto larger ships bound for England. It was then that the Neck and Boston began their long and symbiotic trading relationship.

Travel to Boston and other settlements along the New England coast was by ship, not by highway. This is the reason the relationship of Merriconeag Neck with other parts of New England and the world was established. The British empire, as well as the continents of Europe, Asia, and North and South America, all saw Merriconeag Neck sailors and ships. This is also why the Neck has such a long history of fishing, shipbuilding, and producing sailors and ship’s captains. By the middle of the 19th century, sailors and ship’s captains with the names Alexander, Curtis, Pennell, Purrington, Skolfield, Stover and many others had sailed around the world. Sailing was their livelihood. The Neck was their home.

A sign marks the location of the historic “carrying place” near the Brunswick-Harpswell town line.

Ownership of the land was not the same as settlement. Ferdinando Gorges never settled on his land in the province of Maine during the 25 years he owned it. He never set foot in the New World, even though he was often referred as the “father of English colonization in North America.” Ferdinando Gorges and his cousin Thomas Gorges conveyed tracts of land throughout the province. However, few of them were settled.

One of the first written grants of land in the Harpswell area was conveyed to the hot-headed Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Endicott, and his wife, Elizabeth, on May 6, 1657. About a year later, Boston merchant John Hull purchased the grant from the Endicotts and requested that it be laid out on Merriconeag Neck.

The boundaries of the province had never been laid out, and after Ferdinando Gorges died, his cousin Thomas Gorges administered the estate. Claims to the land within the province were made without his knowledge or approval. Some of those claims were never documented, but were made simply by squatting on the land. That seems to have been the case with Richard Potts, a fisherman who, with his wife and children, settled at the southerly end of the Neck in 1671-72, in the area now called Potts Point.

A written claim was recorded on Nov. 26, 1672, when Annasagunticook Sagamores Robin Hood and Sagawatton made an agreement with Nicholas Cole and John Purinton. In it, they bargained and sold “all the land laying and between the two carrying places upon Merecanneg.” Cole and Purinton built homes on the Neck and lived there for approximately four years.

The Potts, Cole and Purinton families were driven off the Neck by Native American raiders in 1676.

Questions of who owned and governed the provincial lands arose when the British kings authorized conflicting grants with such vague descriptions of their boundaries that many overlapping claims existed. For more than 100 years, no surveys were performed, boundaries were not marked on the ground, and property plans were not drawn. In addition, written records were not kept in one place. London, Boston, and York County, Maine, all had separate records of land granted in Maine. 

Merriconeag Neck was claimed by Ferdinand Gorges, the Massachusetts Bay colony, Harvard College, the Pejepscot Proprietors, and several individuals, all at the same time.

Perhaps one of the best examples is when, in 1682-83, the Massachusetts Bay colony granted the entire Merriconeag Neck, plus 1,000 acres off the Neck, to Harvard College. The conflicting ownership claims were finally settled in court in 1739, when Harvard lost all of its claim to the Neck. During that time, Harvard administrators sent several men to investigate. At one point they found Johnson Harmon, of York, and 22 other men on the Neck, cutting and shipping firewood, timbers and spars. In November 1727, Harmon had leased the entire neck below the Widgeon Cove carrying place for seven years, and he spent approximately 13 years on the Neck cutting firewood and ship’s timbers, which he shipped to ports between the Neck and Boston. Harmon and his wife, Mary, finally moved to the Neck from York in 1735, and lived there for six years before returning to York in 1741.

The 1740s and 1750s saw the beginning of permanent settlements on the Neck. During this time, the Pejepscot Proprietors claimed title to the land and their surveyors divided the entire Neck into lots. Their plans documented where some previous settlers had lived, but did not recognize their ownership of the land.

Wooden shipbuilding began on the Neck’s shores around 1760, with ships of approximately 35 tons. From 1760 to as late as 1907, more than 180 vessels were built, ranging from 10 tons to more than 1,500 tons. The shipbuilders and master carpenters had names like Jordan, Skolfield, Pennell, Wilson, Curtis, Allen, Merritt and Stover. They built many types of vessels; schooners and brigantines were the most common. The biggest share of the Neck-built ships had home ports in Boston, Portland and New York. They sailed to Liverpool, Honolulu, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Gambia, Australia, Japan, India and many other places, in all of the world’s oceans.

Today the town of Harpswell, including the Neck, has about 5,000 residents, including many who fell in love with the town and retired here. In the summer, it swells to thousands more. Catering to summer residents and tourists provides a great deal of income to small businesses. Shipbuilding has long since gone. Fishing and farming are still carried on. We now travel to Boston by automobile, train or bus.

The community is still a closely knit and hardworking one. Just go to a pancake breakfast at the Merriconeag Grange to see and hear it.

David C. Garcelon, a retired land surveyor and historian, lives in Harpswell.