Bangor gets a lot wrong about its origins, such as the date it was officially formed and how it got its name, mainly because folklore is used as the basis for its early history. Real documents from this time period are hard to come by but not impossible to obtain. From my six years of research into Bangor’s origins, I’d like to correct the record.
The city is actually celebrating its 225th birthday this year. “But, wait,” you might think. “You must be confused, as Bangor just celebrated its 175th birthday in 2009. What kind of tomfoolery is this?”
In fact, the official “birthday” of an incorporated area should begin with the date on the original charter of incorporation; and Bangor incorporated as a town in 1791. That makes it 225 years old. (Here’s the original incorporation charter. Here’s a copy of the text of that charter and portraits of the signers.)
To consider 1834 the date of Bangor’s origin is to deny the city its rightful heritage.
Take Lewiston. That city recognizes 1795 as the date of its original incorporation on its city seal. Then it separately specifies the date Lewiston became a city, in 1863. (You can click here to see it.) So why has Bangor confused its incorporation date of 1791 and its city date of 1834?
The original incorporation charter is the most important date. It is the first time a governing body approved the name, granting all the benefits of a town that it couldn’t have as a plantation. After becoming a town named Bangor in 1791, it was incorporated into a city in 1834. It has an original charter date, plus that city date.
How do I know? I requested Bangor’s original charter from the Massachusetts archives in June 2002. After many attempts to find it, a staff member at the archives rescued it in the nick of time from a “to be tossed out drawer” of documents. In a ceremony on Sept. 22, 2003, we read the newly restored charter to the Bangor City Council and the descendants of Rev. Seth Noble, who named Bangor. My husband, Ken Fisher, even dressed up as him.
That day, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Noble presented the framed charter to hang in the council chambers in a place of honor. It was the first time Bangor had seen the document since it was ruined around the time of the War of 1812.
What is it about early American folklore that we seem to hold onto long after the truth is made known? George Washington cutting down a cherry tree; Col. Jonathan Buck and his headstone cursed by a witch; and last, but not least, a tipsy Noble changing the town-approved name of Sunbury to Bangor. Anything for a good laugh.
It is now time for Bangor’s local historians and city officials to step up and set the record straight once and for all — both about the city’s true birthday and how Bangor got its name.
After doing extensive research into Noble’s life, it’s clear Bangor’s early beginnings were anything but laughable. We can’t even begin to understand what it took to survive during the dark ages of Bangor.
Let us follow some of the few written documents from this time period to spread a flicker of light on early founders of this city.
An early known survey of 1786 by Jonathan Stone — hired by Gen. Henry Knox — seemed to have predicted the future importance of a great city and can be understood by all who are familiar with Bangor today. Part of the report is as follows:
“The great falls at head of the tide afford an excellent shad and alewives fishery, and the mouth of the Kendiskeig is the most convenient landing for rafts of lumber which come down of any place in the river. Those advantages, joined to its pleasant situation, and the vast country above, to which it must serve as a seaport, must make it a place of considerable trade in a short time.”
It was at this time that Noble, through the influence of his friend Col. Jonathan Eddy, was engaged to come to the Penobscot River plantation of Kenduskeag to be the settlers’ religious teacher and preacher, for the annual salary of 70 pounds. When he first arrived with his wife, Hannah, and three young children, they stayed with Col. John and Martha Brewer in their large post-and-beam constructed home near the Segeunkedunk Stream (which today is 609 South Main St., Brewer).
Noble and his family were then escorted to their log cabin with all their belongings piled into two canoes. A plantation suffered greatly without being incorporated, because incorporation brought schools, roads and other municipal necessities. (Click here to see the Park Holland survey of settlers prior to 1797.) Noble wrote to his former congregation in Sunbury County, New Brunswick, Canada, to come to a new Sunbury where life could start anew.
Seeking to name this place Sunbury after the county in New Brunswick, which was the first settlement of his ministry, Noble encouraged 20 residents to sign a petition calling for the place to be incorporated as Sunbury.
Dr. Daniel Cony of Hallowell brought the petition to Boston in 1787, but it was rejected by the general court of Massachusetts. It is not known for certain why the court rejected this name, but an educated guess is that naming a Massachusetts town after a county in Canada was unacceptable at a time when the boundaries with Canada were in conflict.
The tall tale that has been passed down depicts Noble, however, as confused and/or inebriated, changing the duly approved name of Sunbury to Bangor. Noble wanted the town to be named Sunbury, but this rejection set the town on a collision course with the outspoken preacher, as they blamed him for the rejection.
Dr. J.F. Pratt found a most telling document from the then Condeskeag Plantation in 1891 in the Massachusetts archives. It was written Dec. 31, 1789, by Jethro Delano, who was appointed as agent for the plantation:
“Poverty at present deprives us from setting a price for what we have for market some think it oppressive, to be taxed for lands which we have no title to. … Being deprived of town privileges, we are deprived of good orders consequently of roads. … Could your honors come to our huts, fare as we do, and look upon our half naked children.”
Clearly the plantation was in dire straits, and, with the rejection of the Sunbury petition, they more than likely held Noble accountable. His new petition of “Penobs – River 18, May, 1790” hints at this desperate situation:
“We labour under many disadvantages for want of being incorporated with Town-privileges; therefore humbly pray, your Honors would be pleased to take our difficult circumstances, into your wise consideration; and incorporate us into a Town, by the name of Bangor.”
Note that the name “Bangor” appears to be written in Noble’s own hand in an underlined spot. Noble appears to have sought a name that would not be subject to rejection. He knew and liked the hymn tune “Bangor,” but more importantly it was a favorite of John Hancock.
Noble was chosen to personally carry the petition to Boston. His diary states as follows:
“1790 — Sailed from Bangor June 1st, arrived in Boston June 5th, attended General Court, June 7th.”
It has been written that “Bangor” was Noble’s favorite hymn tune and was the reason he chose the name Bangor for the 1790 petition, but what exactly made it his favorite tune? In order to understand the music in Noble’s day we must first understand that, while the songs and hymns of today are more or less permanent marriages of poetry and music, the hymns of this period were divorced from tunes and would be mixed and matched to suit the occasion.
The “Bangor tune“ was first published in 1734 in London by William Tans’ur (Tanzer). It was originally set to Psalm 11 entitled, “Bangor Tune – Composed in Three Parts.” (William Tans’ur was born in 1706, in England, to German parents named Tanzer. It was William who changed the spelling of his name to Tans’ur.) He was the son of a laborer who became an itinerant musician, going from town to town teaching music and psalmody, playing the organ and collecting materials for his book of psalm tunes and anthems.
Contrary to popular belief, the hymn tune “Bangor” doesn’t honor Bangor, Northern Ireland, or Bangor, Wales. It marked an attempt by Tans’ur to honor the British Isles.
The reference to “Three Parts” means that this tune was designed as a fugue for three different voices or instruments. One part starts, the second part is developed contra-punctually, and then the third in a strict order to all blend together.
Paul Revere and Josiah Flagg put together their favorite hymn tunes in 1764 and called it, “A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes.” Revere did the engraving, and Flagg printed and published it in Boston. This publication shows the popularity of the “Bangor” tune and qualified it for an early Bostonian version of our current “top 10 list” of popular songs.
To even further confirm its appeal, 107 tunes, hymns and anthems by William Tans’ur were printed in 1771 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, by Daniel Bayley. (Here’s a copy of the Bangor tune). Noble was living in Newburyport around this time, and this is most likely the sheet music he would have used.
The “Bangor” tune was also very popular in Scotland and has been mistaken for a Scottish psalm tune. This may well have been performed with bagpipes and was so popular that Robert Burns mentioned it in his famous poem, “The Ordination.” He wrote: “Mak haste an ‘turn King David owre, an’ lit wt’ holy clangor; O’ double verse come gie us four, An ‘ skirt up the Bangor.”
It has been suggested that Noble went to Newburyport and sang the hymn tune “Bangor” in 1799 at a memorial service for the death of President George Washington. Noble was well known to have a beautiful tenor singing voice. Rev. E. Barrett’s sister, Mrs. Joanna Allyn wrote that Rev. Seth Noble was “an excellent singer; and taught singing-schools in Montgomery (MA). I can even now hear his sweet voice.”
Instead of viewing the hymn tune “Bangor” as being ancient, it may well have been part of a new wave of religious teachings. Tans’ur’s principles of community singing as a gathering together of voices to invite God into one’s heart and soul certainly inspired Noble’s love of music as an integral part of his ministry.
Noble had given much to this early settlement, including its name, religious sermons, music lessons, food from his well-known vegetable garden, the manufacture of wooden shingles and care of the infirm. He was reported to have been an excellent speaker and sometimes gave fiery sermons. He was reported to have been good-looking, medium height, thin, of light complexion and a man of enormous energy who was never afraid to speak his mind. He was always remembered for wearing his powdered white wig, which had long gone out of style.
After giving much time and effort to the poor wilderness settlement’s incorporation, Noble’s only reward was tragedy and heartache upon his return from Boston. Noble’s beloved wife, Hannah, age 31, died while he was away in Boston, on June 16, 1790. She was reported to have been buried the day before he returned home.
Noble was devastated by the unexpected loss. He had the sole care of his five small children, and the small settlement was unable to pay his promised salary.
Things must have felt so desperate. He returned to Sunbury County, Canada, in the summer of 1791. Hon. Stephen Jones of Machias mentioned that Noble stayed with him on his way to the St. John River in July of 1791. This was the fateful trip Noble made to bring his two sons, Joseph, 8, and Benjamin, 4, to be raised by Hannah’s brothers in Canada.
He knew his boys had to receive schooling, which was not yet available in Bangor. His departure from his sons must have been one of great sorrow. They were never to see each other again.
The time spent in Bangor was a period of extremes for Noble. He accomplished the successful incorporation for the future site of one of Maine’s most important cities, and then he returned home to learn that his beloved Hannah had died too soon. By 1797, he preached his final sermon to a community where he had resided for 11 years.
After Noble left Bangor, he was unable to defend his good name. A light-hearted version of early undocumented Bangor “history” started to take hold in the form of oral history. Bangor is left today with an early history that resembles a “Laurel and Hardy” silent film, rather than a semblance of historic truth.
After Bangor’s wealth increased almost overnight, making the city the lumber capital of the world, the history of its poor early beginnings was trampled to make way for the “Queen City.”
Carol B. Smith Fisher was born in Bangor and lives in Camden. She is the author of “Rev. Seth Noble: A Revolutionary War Soldier’s Promise of America and The Founding of Bangor, Maine and Columbus, Ohio.” She has written many articles on the American Revolution in Camden, on Maine native material culture, and the origin of the name Maine.