Before Europeans arrived the Casco Bay region of Maine was home to the Abenaki tribe who, along with the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, and Penobscot tribes, were members of the old Wabanaki Confederacy. The Eastern Abenaki, who might justifiably be considered the original North Yarmouth settlers, farmed the fertile plains of the Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers, and lived in small family and tribal settlements along the land west of Casco Bay.
It is a bit confusing when historians refer to North Yarmouth being settled three times, but it actually was. By the early 1600s, Massachusetts was attempting to settle points in Maine, as the Province of Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820. In 1636 William and Phoebe Royall came to the Casco Bay region from Salem, Massachusetts, and they settled on the eastern side of the Wescustogo River. The Royalls built a house and farmed land between the Wescustogo and Cousins Rivers, in the present-day towns of Yarmouth and Freeport. As more settlers arrived they referred to the Wescustogo River as “Royall’s River,” and today the river still carries the Royal name.
Following the initial settlement, and throughout the French and Indian War of the 1750s, many European settlers were captured, killed, or burned out of their homes. For a short time after 1758 peace prevailed, and the settlement of North Yarmouth grew. As the population steadily increased and more land was claimed by settlers, tension with the Abenaki people also increased. In 1675 the tension erupted into King Philip’s War and the Wescustogo colonists were driven from the land they had settled. Although some returned, they were again driven away after a series of attacks known as King William’s War.
The second Wescustogo settlement occurred in 1680, when the original plantation became the 8th town incorporated in the Province of Maine. It became Ancient North Yarmouth, and included all or parts of the current towns of Brunswick, Harpswell, Freeport, Pownal, Cumberland, Chebeague Island, North Yarmouth, and Yarmouth. Like much of northern New England, North Yarmouth continued to struggle with its indigenous neighbors, and in less than ten years hostilities between settlers and the Abenaki forced the abandonment of the second settlement.
In 1713 Massachusetts ordered the resettlement of five Maine towns, and a determined group of twenty families returned to renew their claims.This would be the third, and final, settlement of Ancient North Yarmouth.
Establishing Boundaries and Lots
In 1727, the plantation of North Yarmouth was divided and mapped, setting out land lots and ownership and establishing a boundary with neighboring Falmouth. Falmouth then included large parts of Portland as well as the present-day town of Falmouth, and a large boulder known as the “white rock”was used as the separation point between Ancient North Yarmouth and Falmouth. The boulder is visible from the water today, but is on privately owned property.
Settlers who had been driven out during the Indian Wars were given first choice of the home lots, and newly arriving settlers chose from what remained. Home lots of ten acres near the coast were purchased by 103 original proprietors. If the new developers or their designees improved the lots and kept them occupied for five years they received an additional 100 or 120 acre back lot , located in the interior region, away from the coast. These back lots and their 64 landowners were the foundation of present-day North Yarmouth.
Back lots were densely forested, and the huge trees that grew there were a valuable commodity as ships’ timbers. The trees were cut down, then dragged or carted to the Royal River where they could be moved to the harbor. There they were loaded onto ships and sold at a good profit to English merchants.
Aside from providing income, harvesting the trees allowed the settlers to clear their property and establish farmland. This was especially important according to an early diarist who lamented that people were too busy lumbering to farm, and as a result there was a great shortage of food.
By 1733, the steady and deliberate development of its coastal and interior regions resulted in Ancient North Yarmouth finally achieving official town status.
From One Town, Many
If you enter present-day North Yarmouth on any main road you have probably noticed a sign that says “North Yarmouth, The Town Where Others Began.” These signs refer to the fact that Ancient North Yarmouth included all, or parts, of seven present-day towns: North Yarmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, Pownal, Freeport, Harpswell, and Brunswick.
In 1680 the sprawling town’s center was in present-dayYarmouth, and from 1729 when construction of The Old Meeting House Under the Ledge was begun, people worshipped and conducted town business there. But as more settlers established homes in far-flung corners, residents weren’t happy traveling long distances to attend Sunday worship and town meetings. For Harpswell’s inhabitants especially, this meant a difficult and often dangerous twelve mile trip over the waters of Casco Bay. It is no surprise that Harpswell was the first town to secede from North Yarmouth. In 1750, the settlers there established their own parish and, eight years later, incorporated as a distinct town.
Freeport set off as its own town in 1789, followed by Pownal in 1808 and Cumberland in 1821. Cumberland claimed Chebeague Island when it seceded. In 2007 Chebeague became its own town when it seceded from Cumberland.
The Final Split
Coastal Yarmouth split off from North Yarmouth in 1849, and this was the most traumatic separation for what remained of Ancient North Yarmouth. There had always been strong ties between Yarmouth village and the interior, but also strong disagreements. By the 1840s, townsfolk living on Main Street and along the waterfront were increasingly angry that those living near Walnut Hill opposed their efforts to build roads and modernize. After a heated argument about the purchase of a fire engine, Yarmouth village finally petitioned the legislature to separate from North Yarmouth.
Yarmouth retained the Town Hall, Masonic Lodge, North Yarmouth Academy, the militia, the town band, the fire company, and the Abolitionist organization. North Yarmouth retained the original plantation’s name, and legal possession of the area’s earliest records dating back to the 1600s, including a signed copy of the Declaration of Independence. Most of these important records are currently housed in the North Yarmouth Historical Society vault, and some are available for research.
Development of North Yarmouth as We Now Know It
By the time North Yarmouth was a separate and independent entity there were three well-established villages: Crockett’s Corner, the modern-day intersection of Route 9, Mountfort Road, and West Pownal Road; East North Yarmouth, the modern-day intersection of North Road and Route 9; and Walnut Hill, first settled at the modern day corner of Routes 231 and 115, and later at the intersection of Routes 9 and 115.
In 1853 the town built its own town hall, presently sited between the two villages of East North Yarmouth and Walnut Hill. Old Town House still stands on Memorial Highway, but is now owned by North Yarmouth Historical Society. It will soon be moved to the former Wescustogo Hall site in the center of Walnut Hill.
Since its founding in 1680 and its establishment as an independent town, North Yarmouth has grown from a small backlots settlement to a beautiful rural town known for its spacious open lands, historical character, and growing town center. We are proud to retain the name of the original ancient plantation.
Part of this historical overview is extracted from the history written for the Maine Community Heritage Project (MCHP), funded by Maine Historical Society.