May 27, 2018
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Whales, furs, fish and history: Monhegan marks Capt. John Smith’s 1614 settlement

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine — In the spring of 1614, Capt. John Smith sailed up the coast of Massachusetts and Maine, dubbing the region of beaches, pine trees and rocky cliffs New England.

When his two ships found Monhegan Island, located about 10 miles from the mainland, Smith decided to stop for awhile.

“Our plot was there to take Whales and make tryalls of a Myne of Gold and Copper. If those failed, Fish and Furres was then our refuge,” he wrote of his explorations. “I made a garden upon the top of a Rockie Ile … in May, that grew so well, as it served us for sallets in June and July.”

Smith was far from the first person to appreciate Monhegan’s beauty, as Wabanaki Indians had come to the island for many centuries prior to his journey up the coast.

But a group of enthusiastic islanders are marking the 400th anniversary of Smith’s voyage this summer with pomp and circumstance, art and history.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to recognize the role that Monhegan has played in American history and really look at all the things that have happened here over the years,” said Jenn Pye, a member of the general committee for the quadricentennial celebration. “We’re using John Smith’s arrival to mark this event, but also trying to look at what happened here before.”

European settlers were attracted to establish a fishing community on the island after the English explorer published glowing reports about its bounty, Pye said.

Ed Deci, a longtime summer resident who also is very involved with the quadricentennial events this year, said that the European settlers would catch and dry fish on Monhegan and then send boatloads back to England.

Cod was a major catch, he said, adding that the colony helped to send supplies to the Plymouth colony so that the Pilgrims could get through their first long, cold winters.

That fishing community on Monhegan lasted until the 1670s, although the people living there came and went, Deci said.

In the 1700s, the settlement made a sea change.

“It tended to be more stable. There are people on the island now who are descendants of families from the 1700s,” said Deci, director of the Monhegan Museum. “It was really one fairly large extended family that bought the island, and they continued, many of them, living here for generations.”

In the 1800s, artists discovered Monhegan and its huge headlands and dark, interior forests. More and more of them came to paint there in the summers, and by the 20th century the island boasted famous artists, including George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper and three generation of Wyeths.

By 1914, the islanders wanted to celebrate the tercentenary of Smith’s settlement in style. They held an art exhibition, which Deci believes was the island’s first-ever organized art show, music from a brass band comprised of local fishermen and a formal ball.

This year, the Monhegan Museum has replicated that 1914 exhibit, and Deci said that the effect is of walking into the past and being dazzled by the colors and the art on the walls.

“Wow — this is amazing,” he said. “The quality of the art that existed here 100 years ago.”

The special anniversary exhibit will be open until Sept. 30, Deci said.

Other important events will include the Coast Guard Barque Eagle passing by the island at noon on Tuesday, Aug. 5, and a symposium that afternoon on Maine’s early Native American and European history at the schoolhouse. That night, there will be a ball on the lawn of the Monhegan House.

“I don’t think everyone will be in tuxedos, but it will be a wonderful evening dance,” Deci said.

On Wednesday, Aug. 6, there will be a parade, a convocation featuring U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Angus King, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and John Bear Mitchell from the Wabanaki Center at the University of Maine, and then fireworks over the island.

Deci said he expects hundreds of people to make it over from the mainland for the festivities.

“For us, we’re interested in the whole nature of what history is,” Deci said. “And trying to be respectful of it all.”

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