A RIVER DAMMED

The History of the Presumpscot River from 1725 to 1800



1725 -- Col. Thomas Westbrook, in a letter dated May 21, 1725, describes finding Indian fishing stations along the Presumpscot River:

"Wee judge that the greatest part of the Enemy are drawn some distance back, on the great Rivers, this being their time to fish for Salmon & other fish up the fresh Rivers on which the Indians yearly make a fishing voyage. Our winter scouts discovered sundry of their fishing places on Saco, Pesomscott & Amuscoggin Rivers where they made large quantities last Summer. The new recruits are not yet come, notwithstanding wee have had so many Westerly winds. As soon as they arrive, if Arm'd, I will endeavor to visit some of their fishing places." (Trask, p. 111)


1734 -- Construction begins on a dam owned by Col. Thomas Westbrook and others at Presumpscot lower falls, near the present day site of the Smelt Hill Dam. The Journal of Rev. Thomas Smith for Nov. 8, 1734 states: "I rode with my father to see the Colonel's great dam."


1735: The dam at Presumpscot lower falls is completed. Willis (1862) states: "in 1735, Col. Westbrook, Samuel Waldo, and others built a sawmill on the lower falls of the Presumpscot." The October 10, 1735 report of a Falmouth highway committee mentions locating the new road "about ten or twelve rod above the Head of the Falls above the new Mill on Pesumpscot River." (Collection of Maine Historical Society, Second Series, Vol. 6, p. 43.)


1736 -- A Sept. 7, 1736 letter from an unnamed agent of Massachusetts Governor Jonathan Belcher to Col. Thomas Westbrook indicates that local Indians threatened and protested very soon after the dam at Presumpscot lower falls was built in 1735. The letter also indicates the local Indians relied on the Presumpscot River's migratory fish for food. The letter reads:

"His Excellency, the Governor, has lately received a letter, dated the 23rd of May past, from Harrow House, in Falmouth, without being signed by any person, complaining of Insults and Threatenings &c. some of your people have met with from some of the Indians, without giving reason for in said Letter. Which inclosed a letter from Capt. Thomas Smith of the Truck House at Saco Falls, directed to yourself, wherein His Excellency was informed that three Indians were at Biddeford in Order to take Passage on Board a Sloop bound here, and that their business was to complain that the River leading to the Sebagoge Ponds was so dammed and obstructed.
"Fish is their principal Subsistence in the Summer time and that for the want of which they are like to be Starved &c. which is thought to be the reason that they have troubled you. In your letter you speak of sending up Affidavits of the whole affair in a little time. His Excellency thinks it not proper for him to give any order in this matter until the Complaint be more properly laid before him.
"I believe it will be therefore Advisable if the Indians continue their Complaints & Insults to get your evidences sworn & their depositions sent up, with your complaint in form and what Claims you have to make to the River & so as to Justify the stopping the Course and then the affair probably may be fully heard and determined. But you must look upon this only as my private opinion."


1737 -- A letter from Col. Thomas Westbrook, dated August 25, 1737, informs a Mr. William Pepperell of Kittery: "I hope we shall saw some time next month and as soon I can get any quantities I will send word immediately." An undated letter from the same period from Col. Westbrook states: "I received your favours per Mr. John Wilson, of the 9th instant, and am very sorry we have not water to saw you a sloop load of boards as you desire, our dam not being mended at Presumpscut ... " (Trask, p. 183).


Jan. 19, 1738 -- Proprietors of New Marblehead township (Windham) vote to give several petitioners the water rights to any of the falls lying above the "Great Bridge" to build a mill and dam and to have it constructed by no later than August of the year next. Minutes of the proprietor's meeting states that the petitioners "made the choice of the falls next above the aforesaid bridge, Called by the Indians Nagwamqueeg ..." Dole (1974) locates the site of this falls as Horse Beef falls, also called Mallison Falls, the first falls above Saccarrappa. Various sources place the "Great Bridge" just above Saccarappa Falls.


1738 -- Indians protest and do not allow the settlers to complete the dam at Nagwamqueeg (Mallison Falls). The Indians claim the dam will block fish migrations and that they own the land on both sides of the falls site (Dole, 1974). Construction of the dam is halted. A year earlier, the settlers of New Marblehead (Windham) encountered similar protests by Indians when they attempted to build a meeting house in the same area, after voting on June 9, 1737 to build one. (Dole, pp. 20-24).

A petition dated March 16, 1738 states: "... the Indians hath forbid the proceeding of the workmen in Building the Meeting House on said Land hath not only put a stop to said proceeding, but is also of great discouragement to those who designed Settlement on several Lotts this spring (The time being near expiring for said settlement according to the Conditions of the Great and General Court)." (Dole, p. 21).


March 1, 1739 -- New Marblehead Proprietors vote to give petitioners additional time to build the dam at Nagwamqueeg (Mallison Falls), stating that the delay in the past year was because, "They having been impeded by the Menaces of the Indians." The deadline to complete the dam is "September next," ie. Sept. 1740. (Dole, 1974)


August 10, 1739 -- Chief Polin, with his interpreter Robert Jordan of Falmouth, has conference in Boston with Mass. Governor Jonathan Belcher. Chief Polin tells Governor Belcher that fish cannot pass the dams on the Presumpscot, and asks that fish passage be provided at the dams. Chief Polin states that Indians continue to own all the lands along the Presumpscot River above "Saukarappa", that his ancestors never sold the lands above Saccarappa, and the Indians do not want any more settlers to move onto the land along the river above Saccarappa. Polin states that Colonel Thomas Westbrook had promised two years earlier to provide a passage for fish at his dam at Presumpscot lower falls but Polin says Westbrook has not done so. A letter is sent to Col. Thomas Westbrook on behalf of the Governor requesting Col. Westbrook provide passage for fish at his dam to satisfy the Indians' complaints. (Baxter, Documentary History of Maine; Dole, 1974).


Dec. 14, 1740 -- New Marblehead petitioners report to township proprietors that the dam has been completed at Nagwamqueeg (Mallison Falls). (Dole, 1974)


1741 -- The Mass. Legislature passes a law requiring fish passage at all dams on rivers used by migratory fish. (Mass. Laws, Acts & Resolves, 1741)


1741 -- McClellan describes the destruction of the mill at Presumpscot lower falls by the Indians: "Cloudman was accustomed to run the mill all night, and one night in 1741, he saw an Indian creeping up with his gun, who twice attempted to fire at him, but his gun snapped and missed fire. Cloudman hurled the bar used for placing the log on the carriage at the Indian. It hit him on the head and killed him instantly. He then threw the body into the wheel-pit, shut down the mill and went home. The night following, the Indians burned the mill." (McClellan, p. 433)


1743 -- Dole states that the dam at Nagwamqueeg (Mallison Falls) was destroyed by a freshet in the spring of 1743.


1740 -- First mill at Saccarappa Falls built. (Collection of the Historical Society of Maine, Second Series, Vol. 10)


1751 -- McClellan (1903) states that Col. Westbrook's dam at Presumpscot lower falls was destroyed by a freshet on July 31, 1751. This is corroborated by Rev. Smith's journal entry for that day: "The freshet has carried away many bridges, hay &c. on Presumpscot River. Saccaribig bridge and the Presumpscot great dam broke." (Willis, 1849, p. 147)


1759 -- It appears the Presumpscot lower falls dam was rebuilt after the 1751 flood, since an account of the estate of Gen. Samuel Waldo, who died in 1759, states: "Presumpscot mills -- three saws." (Goold, p. 266).


June 17, 1776 -- Settlers of Gorham vote at town meeting to petition the Great and General Court of Massachusetts for fish passage on the river (McClellan, 1903).


October, 1776 -- Townships of Gorham, Cape Elizabeth, New Marblehead (Windham) and Pearsontown (Standish) file petition with Great and General Court asking for fish passage at Presumpscot River dams.


Nov. 5, 1776 -- Mass. House of Representatives hears petition of four towns "praying that some measures may be taken by this Court to open passages for alewives and other fish to pass up rivers into the ponds to cast their spawns." The court directs Brigadier Palmer, Col. Lithgow, Mr. Choat, Mr. Coddings and Capt. Hosmer to "consider the matter at large." (Journal of the Mass. House of Representatives, 1776-1777).


April 4, 1777 -- House of Representatives passes a resolve appointing a committee of three men to view the mill dams on the Presumpscot River to determine "where proper sluice ways be made for the passage of said fish."


May, 1777 -- Dam viewing committee reports back to the House of Representatives that all of the dams viewed are impassable but that dam owners agree to install sluice ways for fish to pass.


June 25, 1777 -- In response to the 1776 petition for fishways by the four towns, the Mass. House of Representatives approves a resolve that the petitioners notify all Presumpscot River dam owners that they "appear on the third Tuesday of the next setting of the General Court, and Shew Cause, if any he have why he should not make and keep open a sufficient Sluice or Passage Way through and around said Dam for the Passage of Fish up said River and pay the charge arising thereon."


Oct. 30, 1781 -- Towns of Gorham, Windham, Pearsontown (Standish) and Proprietors of Bridgton petition Mass. Great and General Court for fishways at Presumpscot River dams.


March 14, 1785 -- Massachusetts Legislature passes "An Act for Opening Sluice-Ways in the mill-dam or dams which have or may be erected on Presumscut River, in the County of Cumberland, and upon any Stream or Streams which fall into the same river."

The Preamble of the Act states: "Whereas it appears to this Court that the people who live in the neighborhood of the Presumscut River in the County of Cumberland, have heretofore, and still may, derive extensive benefits from the fishery on the said river and streams which fall into the same, unless prevented by the mill-dams which have or may be erected across the said river and streams, the increase or even continuance of which unregulated, for any considerable length of time, must inevitably destroy the annual course of the fish up the said river."


July 29, 1785 -- The three man fish committee created by the March 14, 1785 Act places a public notice in the Falmouth Gazette and Weekly Advertiser stating that it has viewed the mill dams on the Presumpscot and found none of them have passage for fish.


October, 1785 -- A fall freshet destroys bridges, mills and dams on the Presumpscot River. The Falmouth Gazette states: "Most of the bridges and mills, within a circle of between twenty and thirty miles, are entirely destroyed; and immense quantities of mill-logs, boards, and other lumber swept away, and gone irrevocably."


1789 -- Massachusetts Legislature passes "An Act to Prevent the Destruction and to Regulate the Catching of the Fish Called Salmon, Shad, and Alewives in the Rivers and Streams in the Counties of Cumberland and Lincoln, and to Repeal All Laws Heretofore Made for that Purpose."

This law specifically mentions the following rivers: "The Rivers of Presumpscot, Androscoggin, Merrymeeting Bay, Kennebec, Sheepscot, Bristol, Muscongus alias Medumcock, St. Georges & Penobscot ..."


1794 -- Massachusetts Legislature passes "An Act, in Addition to An Act, Intitled, An Act to Prevent the Destruction and to Regulate the Catching of the Fish Called Salmon, Shad, and Alewives in the Rivers and Streams in the Counties of Cumberland and Lincoln, and to Repeal All Laws Heretofore Made for that Purpose."

The Act states: "Whereas the time during which provision is made by said Act that good & sufficient sluice-ways & passages for the said Fish shall be kept open has been found too short, with respect to the Presumpscut-River, & the several rivers & streams communicating with & running into the same."

The act extends the time fishways must be open on the Presumpscot from May 1st to July 20 to April 15 to July 20.


1798 -- "An Act for the Preservation of the Fish Called Salmon, Shad & Alewives in the Rivers, Streams & Waters Within the Counties of Lincoln and Cumberland and for Repealing All other Laws Heretofore Made for That Purpose, So Far as Respects Their Operation in the Said Counties."

This law, requires fishways or sluices on, "Any River, streeam, bay, cove, pond or water within the Counties of Lincoln and Cumberland, in, up or through which the fish called Salmon, Shad or Alewives or either of them do have been used and wont to go & pass into the ponds & lakes annually to cast their spawn ..."

The law adds this language: "Be it Further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, that no passage or sluice-way shall be deemed sufficient, within the meaning and intent of this Act, unless the same shall be so constructed & made as that any of the fish aforesaid can & do actually pass through or over the same with ease and convenience, & unless such passage or sluice-way is at or or near the passage, route or place in which fish prior to the erection of such dams or obstructions used to pass, as that said fish do find such way."


References cited:

Baxter, James P. Documentary History of the State of Maine. Collections of the Maine Historical Society. Second Series. Vols. 1-24.

Dole, Samuel T. 1974 reprint. Windham in the Past. Windham Historical Society. Windham, Maine.

Falmouth Gazette and Weekly Advertiser. 1785. Falmouth, Maine. On microfilm at Maine State Library, Augusta, Maine.

Goold, William. 1997 reprint. Portland in the Past with Historical Notes of Old Falmouth. Heritage Books. Bowie, Maryland.

Journals of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1776-1777. Maine Law Library, Augusta, Maine.

The Laws, Acts and Resolves of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 1780-1820. Maine Law Library, Augusta, Maine.

McClellan, Hugh D. 1903. History of Gorham, Maine. Smith & Sale Publishers. Portland, Maine.

Pierce, Joshua. 1862. A History of the Town of Gorham, Maine. Foster & Cushing and Bailey & Noyes. Portland, Maine.

Trask, William, editor. 1901. Letters of Colonel Thomas Westbrook and others Relative to Indian Affairs in Maine, 1722-1726. George E. Littlefield. Boston, Mass.

Willis, William. 1849. Journals of the Rev. Thomas Smith and the Rev. Samuel Deane. Joseph S. Bailey. Portland, Maine.

Willis, William. 1862. History of Portland. Maine Historical Society. Portland, Maine.


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