What Maine historians share with Cassandra
When my telephone rang, I had not anticipated such happy news. A friend answered to say his boy was writing a history of Maine. I said that if this world needs anything now more than anything else, it's a history of Maine. He said his boy's schoolteacher had assigned it.
I said the teacher should be recognized for perspicacity and erudition, and her salary raised 50 cents a year. He said his boy didn't know how to start, and he wished I'd help the kid. I said, "Has he ever heard of Cassandra?"
Cassandra was the babe to whom the gods imparted the gift of absolute prophecy, but they also decreed that nobody would believe her. He who would attempt a history of our State of Maine must first accept that nobody is going to believe him.
How are you going to make people believe that Columbus did not discover America, or that many things happened before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock?
Those two historical facts alone are so indelibly engraved on the school-taught American mind that the notion of an honest Maine history is hysterically impossible.
Anyway, my friend brought his boy over, and we sat and reasoned together. He's hard at work and his schoolmarm is about to be astonished.
If you will forget for a moment about 1492 and read a biography of Christopher Columbus, paying attention as you go, you will find something otherwise unnoticed: As a boy, before he became a discoverer, Christopher made a voyage as cabin boy from Genoa to the British Isles.
This was not remarkable. In Genoa, at that time, boys who had done as much were a dime a dozen. Ships from his part of the world had been coming up to Cornwall for tin since the Earth was void and without form. Each had its cabin boy to kowtow to the skipper.
But let us suppose Columbus is listening to the stevedores in Bristol, England, who are talking about a strange land over the ocean, three months away. For better than 400 years, now, codfish from the Grand Bank of Newfoundland had been a staple in Scandinavia. England and France had established fisheries stations: the French at Tadoussac and the English at Damariscove.
Columbus (suddenly proficient in English) asks, "How do you know about this place?" and the chappie says, "How do I know? I been there; I just came back Tuesday!" And if you won't believe Cassandra, go to the University of Freiburg, Germany, and look at the fisherman's charts by which Columbus sailed when he "discovered" America.
Why do our historians insist that the first Thanksgiving was observed at Plymouth? It matters little at this late date, unless you are writing a history of Maine. The first Thanksgiving Day was in 1607 in Maine, without turkey, women, children, or Indians, but with a prayer of thanksgiving by the Rev. Richard Seymour.
The year the Pilgrims set sail for America, 1620, 34 English vessels had been at the Damariscove Islands in Maine to load fish.
The fisheries station there was a considerable complex. It had docks and derricks, a harbor, drying flakes for curing fish, facilities for vessel repairs, and shelter for a considerable crew. A cruise boat from Boothbay Harbor, Maine, will take you out in summertime to see where this was.
In 1620, two of the fish boats had been the Mayflower and the Speedwell. What happened to the Mayflower, we well know; The Speedwell sprang a leak and never set sail with Pilgrims as planned. The captains of both boats well knew the course to America; They'd been here many times.
Truth is, the Mayflower made landfall at Monhegan Island, easterly of the Damariscoves, and laid to while the Pilgrims "took a few coddes" as you can read in their log. Then they sailed on to Plymouth, upwind from "The Mayne."
A true history of Maine begins with fish. The continental shelf of the Gulf of Maine averages the proper depth, in fathoms, to support cod, haddock. cusk, pollock, and halibut, These "banks" have been fished hard since the days of the vikings.
When the Pilgrims arrived to endure the hardships of Massachusetts, the fisheries at Damariscove were supported by a settlement of some 800 people at Pemaquid, then larger even than Quebec City in Canada. The Pilgrims did not really come to an unknown land.
And by the way: That Indian who stepped from the puckerbrush to say "Welcome, Englishmen!" to the Pilgrims learned his English in a most improbable place. Not in the woods of Maine, where Squanto was a resident Patuxet sachem, but in London, where he was houseguest for the winter of l605 with John Popham, Lord Chief Justice.
When he returned to America he cut quite a figure with his smartly tailored London suits and his foppish walking stick. When he heard the Pilgrims had arrived at Plymouth, he said to himself. "I wonder if I know any of them?" and went up from down-Maine to find out. Sort of a Rotary Club greeter.
He also knew considerable French.