The Pilgrims who established Maine’s first colonies in the early 1600s set the state’s reputation for its hard-working, fiercely independent citizens. Their autonomous spirit—Maine, for example, is the only state to declare war on a foreign power, the Aroostook War against England in 1839—guided it to early support for the abolition, women’s suffrage and temperance movements. Embrace the spirit of your Original Down East ancestors (so-called because mariners traveling from western ports sailed downwind to reach the area) by diving into these Pine Tree State resources.
Before European explorers arrived in what we now call Maine, American Indian tribes including the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet lived there. Pierre du Gast Sieur de Monts established the state’s first European settlement in 1604, at the mouth of the St. Croix River. Three years later, Pilgrims with the Plymouth Co. started the Popham Colony on the Kennebec River. Both hamlets were short-lived.
Despite that initial setback, European colonization continued, and by 1622, Sir Fernando Gorges and Capt. John Mason had secured royal patents to the Province of Maine. Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ jurisdiction crept northward until that colony annexed Maine in 1652. Gorges’ grandson sold his interest in Maine to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1678 for 1,250 pounds sterling, and Maine remained in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until it became the 23rd US state in 1820.
Portland was the state capital before Augusta took the helm in 1827 (though the legislature met in Portland until the state house was completed in 1832). See a database on the history of towns, cities and other places at the DigitalMaine Repository. Note that Maine’s northeastern border (with New Brunswick) was set only in 1842, after the Aroostook War.
Though England and France bickered over Maine during the early 1700s, settlers put down roots along its rugged coast and in its rich forests. You’ll find some of their names in the York Deeds collection, an 18-volume set of transcribed pre-1737 deeds—it’s available in print or on film at most of Maine’s state and university libraries, the Maine Historical Society (MHS) and the Family History Library (FHL).
By 1763, England had gained control. As the threat of Indian raids ebbed, immigrants from Ireland, England and Scotland settled in southern Aroostook County, while Acadians (French whom the British had expelled from Canada’s Nova Scotia and New Brunswick provinces) made homes along that county’s northern border. Massachusetts gave 100-acre lots to anyone who’d settle in Maine, doubling its population between 1743 and 1763. Later, Massachusetts authorized the Committee for the Sale of Eastern Lands to settle Revolutionary War debt by distributing Maine land through lotteries, grants, patents and auctions. The Massachusetts archives holds deeds, titles and correspondence through Maine’s separation and statehood. Maine’s state archives has microfilm of these and later land records. You’ll also find microfilm at the FHL. For land sales between private citizens, check with the county clerk where the sale happened. Digitized deed books are on FamilySearch for Aroostook (1865-1900) and Piscaquis (1838-1902) counties.
Maine also granted bounty land to Revolutionary War and War of 1812 veterans. Find records at the Maine archives and digitized on FamilySearch, with indexes at Ancestry, Archives.com, and HeritageQuest Online (a genealogy service that’s free through subscribing libraries). Free downloadable indexes are available through the Maine State Archives. Maine archives staff will mail out copies of bounty-land applications for a fee, or you can view them on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration and the FHL.
After statehood, Maine’s population hovered near 300,000 due to Huguenot, German, Irish and French Canadian immigrants lured by jobs in the textile, shoe and lumber industries. Even today, you’ll hear French spoken in much of the St. John Valley and in many cities.
Boston was the most common port of immigration for New England settlers. Arrivals also might’ve sailed to New York City or to Canadian ports. Search passenger lists for US ports on Ancestry and FamilySearch. Both sites also have records of border crossings from Canada starting in 1895. Canada began keeping ships’ passenger records in 1865; you can search and view them on Ancestry (1865-1935) and FamilySearch (1881-1922). Library and Archives Canada has research guidance and links to its free online databases of passenger
indexes and/or record images.
Censuses and vital records
Mainers were enumerated in the 1790 US census as part of Massachusetts, but the schedules are grouped separately under Maine. Search decennial census records through 1940 on Ancestry and FamilySearch. In 1837, Maine took a head-of-household census. Not all records survived, but FamilySearch has an online index of those that did. You can use an 1864 town-by-town poll list as a kind of census. Both enumerations are on microfilm at the state archives.
Maine didn’t require statewide vital records until 1892. Many towns, however, have recorded births, marriages and deaths since the 18th century. About a fifth of them sent copies of pre-1892 vital records to the state. They’re at the state archives and online in FamilySearch’s collection called Maine Vital Records, 1670-1921. You also can request records from the town clerk where the birth, marriage or death occurred.
Visit the state archives to view vital records from 1892 through 1922, or request copies for 1923-present from the Maine Office of Vital Statistics. The Maine Genealogy site has online indexes to marriages (1892-1966 and 1977-2009), divorces (1820-1903) and deaths (1955-2009). Find more vital records indexes for Maine at Ancestry, Archives.com and FamilySearch.
The Maine archives holds records of state militia who fought in the War of 1812 and other wars through World War I. Federal service and pension records are available through the National Archives, with some on microfilm at the FHL or digitized through FamilySearch, Ancestry.com and Fold3.
Although no repository covers all of Maine’s newspapers, the state library’s Maine Newspaper Project lists titles, publication locations and library holdings for papers dating to 1785. It also links to a list of free digitized papers. The Portland Public Library’s Maine News Index Online offers abstracts of articles from 15 papers dating mostly to the 1990s—useful for obituaries. Also check subscription sites Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank.
Onsite research repositories
Should you be able to travel to Maine, visit the MHS library for immigration and naturalization papers, historical newspapers, city directories, and business, town and church records. Then make your way to the state library in Augusta. Using these resources as a beacon, you’ll sail smoothly on course toward your Down East ancestors.