The celebration of the birth of a municipality is a means of coming together to honor the heritage of the place we call home. It is incumbent upon us to respect what few historic documents we now have available. A town’s original incorporation charter was immensely important, because it brought roads, schools and other municipal necessities. It was vitally important to our founding and should be honored, not forgotten.
Bangor’s hastily planned 175th birthday celebration is a sad commentary on how little we value our past. Bangor should really be celebrating its 218th birthday. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of a more pervasive confusion in the current dating of our municipalities.
Hanging in the Bangor City Council Chamber is a copy of Bangor’s original incorporation charter, signed into law Feb. 15, 1791 by none other than John Hancock. In 2003, this document was presented to the Bangor City Council by direct descendants of the Rev. Seth Noble, the man who named Bangor. Thus, a document that has been missing since the War of 1812 has now been returned. Our municipal birth is dated from our original charter of incorporation and not the later city incorporation.
It has been a custom in the past to date our municipalities with the arrival of the first European colonial. This custom not only denied our Native American heritage, it is a date that is not really knowable. Camden historian Barbara F. Dyer has fought for years to remove the two signs between Camden and Rockport, which have different dates for “settled by.” Not only are these dates incorrect, but Camden and Rockport were then the same town.
Brewer celebrated its centennial in 1989, and now the Brewer Historical Society wants to right this wrong by considering a bicentennial celebration of their real birthday, Feb. 22, 1812. My list of mistaken Maine municipal birthdays is, unfortunately, very long. A laudable exception is Lewiston, whose seal correctly states, “Lewiston, Incorporated in 1795 — Became a City 1863.”
Our history is important and what we don’t know could hurt us. Maine should now consider an “Act to Standardize the Dating of Municipalities” to ensure that the neglect of our historic record will not continue into the future. I have learned a valuable lesson from Bangor. A John Hancock signed legal incorporation act hanging on the wall of the City Council Chambers is not enough. Every municipality in this state should be made to display, in a prominent place, its date of original charter for incorporation and where appropriate, its secondary city incorporation. Here is a start:
Welcome to Bangor, Maine
Inc. 1791, Became a City 1834
Bangor may continue to cling to the belief that promotion to the status of a city should be the celebrated date of birth; this would be analogous to celebrating our graduation from school rather than our real birthday. Happy 218th Bangor!
Carol B. Smith Fisher lives in Camden and has written a biography of the Rev. Seth Noble that will soon be published.