In 1820, about 300,000 colonists called Maine home. They lived and worked from the larger port cities such as Portland to the smaller farm settlements of the St. John River Valley. These were people who had to make a living the best they could from the land, from the sea or from trading goods.
Back then, as they are now, Mainers were tough, self-reliant, independent and, despite sometimes grumbling about their neighbors, always ready to lend a hand when needed.
They were also sick and tired of being under the rule of a government far to their south. For 35 years — since the end of the Revolutionary War — Mainers had been petitioning for statehood. People who lived and worked in what was then a 30,000-square-mile district governed by Massachusetts wanted to break away as their own, separate entity. In the years leading up to 1820, residents of what would become Maine had amassed a lot of grievances against the politicians down in Boston. They were tired of laws that devalued the Maine district’s timber, tired of paying taxes on land or livestock based on values assessed in by politicians who lived hundreds of miles to the south and had never set foot on the land in the Maine district. Things really came to a head during the War of 1812 when the state did little to help or protect the people in the district of Maine against the invading British Army and Navy.
In 1819, voters in the district of Maine approved a referendum for statehood in such overwhelming numbers that the state of Massachusetts could no longer ignore their demands for independence. Soon after that referendum, residents of the Maine district met in Portland in October to craft a state constitution. At the same time, the Massachusetts Legislature reluctantly passed a statehood bill and sent it on to the United States Congress, with the caveat that if Congress and the president did not approve the bill by March 4, 1820, the territory that was Maine would remain part of Massachusetts. Things came down to the wire, but Congress passed the bill in early March 1820. On March 3, it was signed into law by President James Monroe.
Politics, issues of statehood, taxation and legal status aside, the people who lived in the Maine district had lives to lead and food to put on tables. Sometimes these lives were exciting and adventurous. But more often than not, they were the mundane, sometimes colorful lives of people doing the best they could to make a living on land they loved.
Life at home
The typical home for most people in Maine in 1820 was just large enough to accommodate the family. Spare rooms, parlors and separate bedrooms were for wealthy ship captains or lumber barons. It was not uncommon for the less affluent to all sleep in the same room.
But regardless of status, every home had certain things in common and met certain needs. Shack or mansion, hut or farmhouse, everyone needed light at the end of the day. For the very wealthy, gas-powered lamps were a novelty in 1820, and provided steady and reliable light. More often though homes were lit by whale oil lamps or simple candles.
Since Maine had virtually no coal reserves and transporting it into the region was very costly, heat was provided by burning wood. And in 1820, Maine had plenty of wood to burn.
That was a good thing since the average sized home required at least 20 cords of firewood every winter to stay warm.
Fireplaces, wood burning stoves and cookstoves kept homes snug during the winter. But no matter how snug you were inside, sooner or later you would have to venture out when nature called.
Every home had some sort of outdoor bathroom or privy. For some this was the typical one- or two-seater outhouse still seen today in parts of rural Maine. These were small, four-sided structures with a roof and door built over a dug pit. Inside was a dirt or wooden floor and a bench with one or more holes that served as the toilet. Once the pit had filled with human waste, a new outhouse pit was dug, and the structure could be moved to that new location.
The more affluent could remain indoors to answer calls of nature using ceramic chamber pots or commodes. The less-than-pleasant job of emptying and cleaning those commodes fell to the younger children or paid servants.
Without running water, most homes relied on outside wells or streams. Water was carried inside by the bucketload. When the wells and streams froze up in the winter, snow was carried in to be melted down over the fires.
For much of Maine in 1820, self-reliance was key. Most homes also had their own vegetable gardens to feed the inhabitants. Many people also planted medicinal herbs and plants, especially those who lived far from the nearest doctors or medical help.
In the lumber camps
For the men who worked in the deep Maine woods in 1820, a lumber camp was home and his fellow lumberjacks were his family for the five or six dark, cold winter months of the logging season. Camps were a communal setting where the men did everything together. They trudged to the lumber yard in the morning and returned to the camp at dusk as a group. Meals were taken around the single rough-hewn dining table and at night they lay down together in one bed, sharing a single large wool blanket. Bathing and hygiene was not a priority, but there was a communal “sink,” most often a hollowed out log filled with water, in which they could wash up if they wanted.
Trees — some many feet in diameter — were felled by a team effort by hand using two-man saws or giant axes. Once a tree was down, the men used their axes to remove its limbs. They next used their brute strength and their peavies or “can’t dogs” — long wooden levers with movable metal hooks on the end — to roll and load logs onto wagons. These wagons were pulled back to the camp at the end of the day by a team of oxen.
There was no danger of gaining weight working on a lumber crew, no matter how many gallons of beans, rashers of bacon, piles of flapjacks, pots of stew or ovenloads of pies the cook turned out in a single day.
Overeating was a concern for the land owners or mill managers far away in Bangor or up in Patten — men who spent their days behind a desk tallying up the products of the lumberjacks’ labors. Working at a desk allowed for growing rotund and soft.
In the camps, months of sawing trees, swinging axes and wrangling oxen kept a man fit, lean and strong.
At day’s end, the lumbermen would trudge inside the camp, pulling off boots, hats, gloves, coats, shirts, trousers and socks as they did so. Every garment was soaking wet from sweat and melting snow — and reeking of body odor. The clothes had been reasonably clean when the men arrived at the camp in the fall, and would be again only when they left five or six months later. Then their wives, mothers or sisters would wash the filthy clothes. In between the only attention given them was to hang everything they could on the “stink pole” suspended high above the fire on two forked sticks driven into the camp’s dirt floor. It didn’t take long for the pungent smell of unwashed clothes to fill the camp’s single room.
All conversation came to a halt the moment they got inside and sat down to eat. That was an unbreakable rule in the camp — the cooks demanded complete silence at meal time. And in the camp, the cook’s word was law.
Chatting men, the cooks knew, took longer to eat. The faster they plowed through the morning flapjacks, coffee and ever-present beans and biscuit, the faster they would be out the door and working. Time was money, afterall. In the evening, the quicker they ate meant the sooner the cook and his helper could clear off the dishes and be done for the day.
The hard work not only gave the men that hearty appetite, but made them tired enough to sleep in the single “bed.” Only a man completely worn out and exhausted could sleep sharing a single large rough wool blanket on a “mattress” of balsam fir boughs and shavings. Like their clothes, that blanket was washed only once a year — assuming the camp’s owner remembered to have it done.
Settling in their balsam-lined nest, the men drifted off to sleep with their heads resting on their boots for pillows. The air was soon filled with their snoring, sleep-mumbling and the passing of gas compliments of the ubiquitous baked beans. The next day, they would do it all over again.
On the farm
In 1820, there were around 55,000 farmers in Maine. The lucky ones were working land that had long been cleared of trees and brush by previous generations. But for the ones looking to start up new farms on virgin land that had never been cultivated, there was a lot of work to do before a single seed could be planted.
The draft animal of choice for the job of preparing the soil for crops was oxen. These massive beasts could “twitch” or haul the cut trees out of the future fields. The downed trees were used to build a home, make fencing for livestock and as firewood for the winter. Once actual farming could begin, the oxen pulled the implements that tilled the ground, plowed the rows and cultivated crops.
Farming was a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-of-the-year job. The new year started with men and the older boys tramping out over the frozen ground and snow to cut trees to get the 20 or so cords of wood an average homestead required for heating. Extra wood could be sold or bartered for the things the farmers could not grow or make themselves such as spices, coffee, tea and sugar.
By March, things were warming up a bit, and the family could start tapping maple trees for sap to boil down for syrup for their own use or to sell.
In April or May, assuming it had gotten even warmer and the ground was thawed, it was time to plant the crops. For those who had not yet removed the stumps of the cut trees from the fields, this meant broadcasting their seeds by hand onto the ground. Then they would hitch the oxen to a triangular shaped harrow that the animals could pull over the ground and around the stumps to cover the seeds with dirt.
Summers were spent weeding, hoeing and cultivating those crops as well as shearing sheep and cutting more timber. In late summer, it was time to head back into the fields with the curved bladed scythes to cut, pile and gather the hay for winter feed. Then it was on to other grain harvesting like rye and oats.
And harvesting was just getting started.
Soon the whole family was out digging potatoes by hand. Next came the picking of corn, squash, pumpkins and cabbage that grew so well throughout Maine and churning milk into butter for the winter.
By November, everything that could be harvested and preserved for the winter had been, and all that was left was to plow the field under. Unless it was one of those tracts still full of stumps. For those, the farmers would hook the oxen up and pull those stumps out one by one.
In the shipyard
By 1820, craftsmen had been designing and building vessels in Maine for 200 years. It all started with the 51-foot Virginia of Saagadahoc built in the winter of 1608 at Popham Beach. Over the next two centuries, Maine’s vast tracts of strong, tall timber, its deep rivers leading to bays and out into the ocean and the numerous deep water coves had established the new state as a center of maritime vessel construction.
Dozens of the shipyards were scattered along the coast in 1820. These shipyards fostered a sense of anticipation whenever a new construction project was about to be unveiled.
The new ship could be a brig, a massive two-master with four sails and with a solid reputation for speed and maneuverability. Brigs were favored by the Navy and the merchant seamen who traded with Europe. Or perhaps it would be one of the smaller and swifter three-masted schooners. Any fisherman or merchant who worked the waters up and down the Atlantic seaboard knew the value of a schooner. Grandest of all, and the one that would require the most work and materials, would be a four-masted barque, those sleek windjammers that sped across the oceans.
As a new day dawned in a shipyard, lamps would already be blazing in the mold loft, a large, wooden building in which the men would fashion the components of the new vessel. Those components would then be taken down to the wharf for assembly.
Nearby, but not so close to creating a major fire in the event its own furnaces got out of control, the blacksmith’s shop would also be opening for the day. A new ship meant new fittings from hinges to bolts to the large grates that could be opened to allow access below decks. All were made from metal and all would be made right there on site.
The Smithy would leave the tending of the fires to his apprentices — he would want to hear for himself what kind of ship he would be outfitting. He would join the crowd of men outside the mold loft.
Soon, the shipwright would appear and show off a scale model of the proposed ship, or at least half of the ship. If the shipwright turned the model around, the other side would flat and devoid of any detail. Since the ship’s components mirrored each other port and starboard, only one half was needed for the model.
The engineers and draftsmen would grab their measuring tools and chalk and head into the model loft where the floor had already been swept clean. After conferring with the shipwright as to the exact scale of the model, they could begin drawing out the patterns for the keel, the ribs and other parts of the ship’s structure on the floor.
The carpenters would then get to work with planks of oak, fastening them together with iron spikes as the caulkers used “oakam” — hemp that had been treated with tar — to seal up any cracks between the planks, making the entire hull watertight.
In time, as the brig began to take shape, miles of rope would be positioned by the men who worked as riggers. Some of those ropes secured the masts to the deck, while other rope controlled the raising, lowering and positioning of the sails.
It would take hundreds of craftsmen to complete the project, each working from dawn to dusk for around $1 a day. It didn’t matter if it was the longest day of the summer or the shortest day in the winter — every worker was expected to get the same amount of work done every day all year.
Some of the more valuable workers were the “Jacks of all trades,” the ones who could move from caulking the hull to rigging the sails to the finer work of finish carpentry in fabricating the doors and cabinets.
It was work that required skill, dedication and a commitment to excellence. It was also the work that exploded in 1820, taking shipbuilding in Maine from the smaller coves and bays of its peninsulas into the growing towns such as Bath and Portland that would become synonymous with Maine shipbuilding around the world and into the next centuries.
Statehood certainly was not a panacea for Maine and did not bring instant solutions to every economic, social or political challenge facing its residents. It did, however, bring them the independence to chart their own course and work together to address these issues head on as they saw fit.
Want to learn more about what was going on in Maine in 1820 and Maine history in general?
Check out these books, online sites and physical resources in Maine:
The Land In Between: The Upper St. John Valley, Prehistory to World War I by Beatrice Craig and Maxime Dagenais. Tilbury House Publishers, Gardner, Maine. 2009.
A Midwife’s Tale – The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Vintage Books/Random House, Inc., New York. 1990.
Ships, Swindlers, and Scalded Hogs: The Rise and Fall of the Crooker Shipyard in Bath, Maine, by Frederic B. Hill. Down East Books. 2016.
The Bangor Historical Society, 159 Union St., Bangor, Maine. 207-942-1900. bangorhistoricalsociety.org
The Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress St., Portland, Maine. 207-774-1822. mainehistory.org
Maine Maritime Museum, 243 Washington St., Bath, Maine. 207-443-1316. Mainemaritimemuseum.org
Maine Statehood and Bicentennial Conference, University of Maine, May 30-June 1, 2019. digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/me200/
Special thanks to Dr. Liam Riordan, professor of history, University of Maine; Matthew Bishop, curator and operations manager at Bangor Historical Society; and Jamie Kingman Rice, director of library services at the Maine Historical Society who all shared some wonderful and amazing insights and information about life in 1820 Maine for this piece.