An aerial view of the University of Maine campus in Orono. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

We get lots of emails at the Bangor Daily News, asking all sorts of different questions about everything from major news stories to the name of a sandwich that used to be on the menu at a cafe that closed 30 years ago.

That’s one of the reasons why today we’re launching this new weekly column, in which we’ll try to answer the burning questions you have about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and Maine history, both long ago and recent.

What’s the deal with that odd-shaped building in your downtown? Why is something where it is, and not elsewhere? What’s the story behind that statue in the park? Was the whoopie pie really invented in Maine? Was there any truth to the way Maine was portrayed in that movie you love?

We want to hear your questions, which you can email to me, Emily Burnham, at We’re calling this new column Hard Telling Not Knowing, because that’s as Maine a saying as there ever was, and, hopefully, we can provide an answer to the things you don’t know about our beautiful state.

Here’s our first question, one that I know I’ve been asked before.

Why is the University of Maine on an island?

You may not even notice most of the time that UMaine is on an island — Marsh Island.

The island itself is named for John Marsh, a surveyor and settler who in the 1760s became somewhat friendly with the local Penobscot people, who at the time had their main settlement on Marsh Island, in what is now downtown Old Town.

“This is a time where there aren’t many settlers around, and Marsh developed a relationship with the Penobscot — he learned the language, he worked with them,” said Darren Ranco, chair of Native American programs at UMaine and a member of the Penobscot Nation.

In 1770, Marsh approached the tribe to ask if he could acquire a deed granting him access to 2,000 acres on the southern half of the island — roughly where UMaine and much of Orono is today. They agreed to let Marsh have that land for 99 years, with the clause that if they ever wanted it back, he’d have to give it to them.

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As with many of the dealings white settlers had with tribal peoples, however, the terms of the agreement quickly began to change. Marsh built a sawmill on the river on the eastern side of the island, which the Penobscot weren’t thrilled about. Nor were they happy about his encroachment on territory outside of his agreed-upon 2,000 acres. Tensions increasingly began to flare.

In 1792, Marsh went to the governor of Massachusetts — remember, Maine was part of Massachusetts at that time — requesting they give him a very clear and specific deed stating that he did in fact own those 2,000 acres — and not just for 99 years but permanently. Swayed by Marsh’s service in what is now Washington County under one of George Washington’s colonels during the Revolutionary War, the deed was granted.

Four years later, in 1796, a treaty was drawn up between the Penobscot and Massachusetts, stating that all the islands in the Penobscot River north of Orono belonged to the tribe. That treaty and a second treaty in 1818 remain in dispute to this day, and are at the center of the long-running legal battle between the Penobscot and the state of Maine over who has jurisdiction over the river itself.

University of Maine students and community members enjoy free boat and stand up paddle board rentals on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, during a Paddle Fest on the Stillwater River in Orono. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

So how did Marsh Island — right on the border of the lines drawn by that 1796 treaty, and which for centuries was home to a thriving Penobscot village — end up entirely in the hands of colonists?

That goes back to Marsh and his descendants, who kept expanding their development of the island as the decades passed and pushed the Native people onto nearby Indian Island, today the reservation for the Penobscot people. And it goes back to the shady nature of the treaties themselves, which were drafted without the full participation of tribal people.

It’s also because the local white residents decided that they could more easily take control of Marsh Island by simply renaming part of the Penobscot River. They named the part of the river that flows along the western and northern shores of Marsh Island the Stillwater River — despite it clearly being part of the Penobscot.

“That’s a common colonial strategy to cheat Indians out of their land — renaming things to get around treaties and other agreements,” Ranco said.

Signs added in July 2019 around the University of Maine campus include Penobscot translations for each building. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

By the middle of the 19th century, Marsh Island was entirely out of Native hands and belonged to both private landowners and the state of Maine. When the Morrill Act was signed in 1862 creating federal land grant universities, Maine lawmakers vied to have the new university located in the areas they represented. After much wheeling and dealing, in 1865, 660 acres of Marsh Island became what is today known as the University of Maine.

For most of its existence, the university made little acknowledgement that it sat on Native land, or that the land had been acquired through unfair and in some cases illegal tactics. In the past decade, however, that’s started to change.

UMaine now includes a land acknowledgement in its press releases and public documents, noting that it is located on the homeland of the Penobscot Nation, and a 2018 memorandum of understanding includes standards for how UMaine interacts with the Penobscot Nation. A few years ago, signage was erected across campus showing names of buildings and roads in both English and Penobscot — the language of the people who were, unequivocally, there first.

Got a question about Maine history and culture you’d like answered in Hard Telling Not Knowing? Email and we’ll see if we can figure it out.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.