Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's In A Name?

Maine.” It’s the answer I give when traveling and people ask where I come from. If they know Maine, they ask “What part?”

Lovell,” I answer, then wait for signs of recognition that almost never come. “Near Fryeburg?” Some have heard of Fryeburg. “Near the New Hampshire border in the mountains,” I add.“Ah,” they respond and let it drop.

We don’t know for sure where the word “Maine” comes from, but “Lovell” and “Fryeburg” (where I teach) originate in conflict between English and French colonists and Indian tribes allied to each. Lovell is named for Captain John Lovewell of Dunstable, Massachusetts, who led a group of English colonists to what is now Fryeburg in 1725 to kill Pequawket Indians living there - in retaliation for their raids on Massachusetts towns. “Fryeburg” is named for Colonel Joseph Frye of Andover, Massachusetts. He was another militiaman who fought Indians, French colonists, and regular units of the French Army. One battle was in 1745 at Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where I visited two weeks ago.It was one of only two walled cities on the continent of North America, the other being Quebec, and 20% of it has been rebuilt by the Canadian government. Begun in 1961, Fortress Louisbourg’s reconstruction is the meticulous result of extensive archaeological and historical research. Visitors are challenged by an armed sentry at Dauphin Gate, the landward entrance. He, like everyone else who works there, speaks in the character of an actual individual living there in 1744. All have extensive knowledge of life there, in that year, from his/her character’s point of view. Every building on the site is a full-scale model of the one it replaced in situ. It’s a very impressive national, historic park and I advise anyone visiting the area to take it in if you can. A tour takes at least a full day, and I could easily have spent a week.There are three operating restaurants - two lower-class and one upper-class - and advertise themselves as such. Being a lower-class person, I naturally visited my appropriate eating establishment although the only utensil we got was a large tablespoon - no knife and no fork. Only the upper-class restaurant supplied those. The menu is also from 1744 and I ordered French toast. My wife ordered vegetable soup and both were delicious.

Although Fortress Louisbourg rivaled Gibraltar in its heyday, it was taken by New England militiamen who, like Frye, were mostly from Massachusetts, of which Maine was then a part. Louisbourg was a threat militarily and economically. France was encouraging its Abenaki (of which tribe Fryeburg’s Pequawkets were a part) Indian allies to attack British colonists and they did so savagely - killing, carrying off captives, and taking scalps. Portland, Scarborough, York, Andover, Dunstable and Deerfield were all attacked. Settlers were reluctant to venture any further into the interior as a result. There were wider-world influences on these local events too: France and England were struggling for control of the North American continent, and the Reformation played a part also. France and its Indian allies were Roman Catholic while the British were protestant.

Control of the codfishing industry was the primary economic factor. I had little idea how lucrative that fishery was until my visit. Cod can be preserved by drying and salting more readily than other species and Louisbourg’s location was strategic as the northernmost ice-free harbor near the best fishing grounds. Many of Boston’s richest families made their fortunes in the cod fishery and were rivals with the French for its control. More than 70% of the European fish diet was cod - mostly because of the Catholic ban against eating meat on Fridays or during Lent.

Louisbourg guarded the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where France’s principal colonies were, as well as the primary cod-fishing grounds. So, Massachusetts colonists were doubly determined to take it. This was accomplished by attacking it from the landward side where it was weakest because the fortress was designed to prevent attack by sea.

Joseph Frye’s cousin Benjamin was shot and killed during the 1745 siege, one of about a hundred men lost. The French lost 53. Another 800 Massachusetts colonials died the following winter from sickness, however, and there’s a lonely mass grave further out on the point commemorating them. Their survivors were appalled when the British gave the fortress back to the French three years later. In 1758, Louisbourg was taken again by General James Wolfe, then totally destroyed.

Effects of the protracted struggle between France and England, played out here in western Maine and all of northeastern North America, are felt profoundly to this day. Indeed, it led directly to the American Revolution only twelve years after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to end it. I’ve come to believe we don’t understand ourselves as Americans well enough unless we understand something about that conflict.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history lesson Tom.
I always enjoy learning something new.
Porter, Maine

rhondajo said...

Just now got around to reading this, and very much enjoyed it, along with the pictures. I love history!