Friday, January 18, 2013

Friday Firsts: First European settlement in Maine

"Friday Firsts" will be an ongoing theme, for posts about notable "firsts" in Maine history. This being the first "First," let's travel back over 400 years. Did you know that the first European settlement in Maine, and one of the earliest in North America, was in 1604? That is before Jamestown colony in Virginia (1607) and Plymouth colony in Massachusetts (1620). You've probably never heard of it because it didn't last, and because it was a French settlement rather than English.
Champlain's 1613 map showing St. Croix Island
(Source: U.S. National Park Service)

The settlement was on tiny St. Croix Island in the St. Croix river along what is now the U.S.-Canadian border. It was an early attempt by France to establish a permanent settlement in their Acadian territory (L'Acadie). The expedition was headed by French nobleman Pierre Dugua de Mons and the group of 79 men included the royal cartographer Samuel de Champlain, as well as a baron, a priest, the apothecary Louis Hebert (ancestor to thousands of French-Canadians), and Mathieu de Costa, a free black man who spoke multiple languages (including Mi'kmaq) and worked as a translator. During the winter of 1604-5, nearly half of the men died - many from "land-sickness," now believed to have been scurvy. The settlement was isolated on the tiny island, iced-in without sufficient access to fresh water or game. The survivors were able to trade with the Passamaquoddy people in the spring for food supplies.  In spring 1605, the settlement moved to Port Royal (now in Nova Scotia), which became the first permanent settlement of New France.

The buildings on St. Croix were burned by the English in 1613, and the island remained uninhabited for a long time. In the 1800s, it was settled for a time, quarried for sand, and a light station was built there. It is now a designated International Historic Site managed by the National Park Service - not accessible to the public.

Who was Pierre Dugua de Mons? 

Dugua (De Gua) was a Protestant French nobleman who was appointed Lieutenant General of L'Acadie and given exclusive rights by the French King to the fur trade there. In exchange, he was to establish colonies and bring 60 new colonists per year. The son of Guy Dugua and Claire Goumard, Pierre Dugua was born circa 1558 on the west coast of France. He married Judith Chesnel in 1597, a Catholic who brought a good sized dowry to the marriage that helped to fund his venture; they had no children. He was about 46 years old when he led the expedition to St. Croix, and he became wealthy through the colonial fur trading business. In 1607, his monopoly on the fur trade was revoked after protests by other merchants, causing him significant financial troubles. He left the Port Royal settlement and returned to France. Though he regained the fur trade monopoly in 1608, he never returned to the New World. He remained involved in the fur trade and the colonization of Acadia from a distance. He died in 1628 in France.

Sources and Further Reading:

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