When we think of Maine’s historical connections with France, what comes to mind are places like St. Croix Island, the Old Canada Road and central Maine towns where French-Canadians settled to work in mills. Castine, the cape of land at the head of Penobscot Bay, does not typically make the list.
But Castine is indeed linked to France, as students at the Adams School know. The students leave early next month for a trip to St. Castin, France, the birthplace of the 17th century baron for whom the Hancock County town is named. Two years ago, students visited the region and last year French students visited Castine.
Castine, despite its diminutive size, has been fought over by the forces that shaped our nation. In 1612, French explorer Samuel de Champlain identified the region on a map he gave King Henry IV, who was enthusiastic about settling it. A year later, French trader Sieur Claude de Turgis de la Tour built a settlement in what today is Castine, and traded with the local Tarrantine Indians. He later built Fort Pentagoet, whose remains can still be seen.
In 1614, Captain John Smith charted the area for the English, who would vie with the French for Castine, finally conquering the fort in 1628. A treaty between England and France in 1667 gave Castine back to France. French officer Jean Vincent d’Abbadie de St. Castin obtained a land grant for the Pentagoet peninsula, and to this day, the area bears his name. The Baron de Saint-Castin, and later his family, ruled over the area through 1703.
The Dutch had their day, occupying Castine in 1674 and 1676. By the mid-1700s, the English controlled the coast of Maine.
In 1779, during the war between the American colonies and Britain, the English decided to rebuild and occupy Castine’s forts. The area was strategically valuable as a source of timber for masts and other supplies.
The Americans responded by sending 18 armed vessels, 24 transports, 1,000 militia men and 400 marines. “What followed is still considered by some historians to be the worst naval defeat in United States history,” the town’s Web site recounts. “The American fleet sat in the Penobscot Bay for several weeks [giving] the superior British fleet time to make its way to Castine from Halifax, Nova Scotia. It advanced on the American ships, forcing them to retreat up the Penobscot River.” The Americans scuttled their ships and Paul Revere, one of the leaders, was court-martialed but later exonerated.
The town figured in the War of 1812, with the British again occupying it for a time.
Castine’s history is rich, and reflects Maine’s place in the struggle between the European colonial forces. The town’s students are renewing a centuries-old connection with their trip. Bon voyage!