The pipes and lines that mark our property weren’t always so clear-cut. Two hundred years ago, in 1808, a group of frustrated Northeasterners rose up against the unjust border decisions of The Great Land Proprietors. These rebels, whose efforts began right in Lewiston, called themselves “The White Indians.”

The trouble started in 1629.

The Pilgrims, still full of faith but with empty stomachs, petitioned the Council for New England for additional hunting and trapping areas in the New World. The Council, safely seated 3,000 miles away in London (and concerned with profits more than boundary lines), granted the Pilgrims access to an enormous tract of land extending well up the Kennebec River.

Revenues increased and London was pleased.

But there were other folks wandering through the woods in the 1630s, most of whom had little concern with fuzzy boundaries drawn by authority they didn’t recognize. Native Americans, the French, and New World Revolutionaries snubbed London and continued to hunt and trap where the pickins were best.

Even the Puritans weren’t above battling their Pilgrim brethren over land access. In 1634, devotion gave way to disagreement and John Hocking, an agent for the Puritans, shot and killed Pilgrim Moses Talbot after Talbot ordered Hocking off some disputed land. Hocking, too, was later shot dead.

Skirmishes continued, but with fur-bearing animals dwindling in the late 1630s, London granted much of current mid-Maine to three giant land proprietors – Pejepscot, Plymouth and Waldo. These new owners, the first Great Land Proprietors, set boundaries and encouraged settlers. Land prices escalated.

But problems remained.

These new land proprietors couldn’t quite agree on boundaries. Moreover, the notion of land ownership was inconceivable to Native Americans. Their lack of access to the best hunting grounds became too much to bear.

From 1675 to the early decades of the 1700s, the Kennebec area was front line to Indian versus Pioneer. Settlements were destroyed and new arrivals were few. Hastily drawn treaties with the Indians were seldom obeyed by settlers who felt entitled to generations-old land arrangements. As a result, self-determined boundary lines were decided with little more than a gun and a “Git off my land.”

So who really owned what?

Lawyers, guns and land

The lawyers arrived in 1749 but the disputes and disorder continued.

Adding to the confusion was the land was never really “owned” by the settlers working and living on it, but rather, “granted” by the Great Land Proprietors. And since these proprietors couldn’t agree on the edges to their property, settlers were sometimes granted the same land by different proprietors. Consequently, families had to frequently “rent” their land from more than one company. As expected, this situation only furthered the frustration.

Tempers boiled in the 1760s, but the colonial fight for independence from England took men and minds elsewhere.

During the 1780s and 1790s, Maine’s population tripled. Good news for Josiah Little, an ornery land proprietor who gobbled property and influenced legislators in the Lewiston area.

As a result, lawsuits from settlers were routinely dismissed and in May 1800, Lewiston residents were fed up. While surveyors roamed the Lewiston woods, there was a “sudden appearance of a dozen ‘sons of darkness’ garbed in old ragged blankets…and speaking in the ‘Indian tone.'” Brandishing muskets and clubs, they warned head surveyor Lothrop Lewis that if “we coud catch him in the woods he shoud not get out again.”

Four months later, the mob went after Josiah Little himself, firing shots into the air and threatening to burn “the bones” of both Little and his family. These Lewiston residents ran off, but word of their sedition moved eastward and up the Kennebec. The “White Indian” movement had begun.

‘Devils, rouges and Deceivours’

Convinced of their righteous intent, God was added to the mix.

An economic depression coupled with continued pressure from the Great Land Proprietors convinced these Christian settlers they were nearing the Biblical end times. Good Christian believers throughout mid-Maine had to respond. The “White Indians” recognized a moral duty to right the wrongs of the “demon” Great Land Proprietors by interfering with surveys and refusing to pay unfair land rents.

Feeling a divine mission, these White Indians, “…maintained a strict secrecy, adopted elaborate costumes, composed songs, designed their own flag, chose chieftains, executed complicated military maneuvers, displayed striking discipline, and crafted a distinctive ideology.”

Dressing up as Indians was nothing new. Word of the successful Boston Tea Party “Indian” revolt some 30 years earlier offered resolve and justification to the new “tribe.” But as with the Boston scuffle, the White Indian’s mission was to shock, not harm.

The settlers soon found a leader in Daniel Brackett, a fiftyish Revolutionary War veteran and a religious renegade. Recruiting notices went up from Lewiston up through the Kennebec, all signed by “Tekcarb Leinad” – Daniel Brackett spelled backwards. His notices ended with the following warning:

“And every (white) indian that is absent and dont Come into a leigence with the rest will be Lookt upon as an einimy to the Cause of Justice and a trator to our indian king and a destroyer of our indian rights and privilidges and an einimy to his Indian brethren and a desertor from the indian Crown and Countrey and a spy among the indians friends where they trade for tobacco and other nessasereys: Calld English subjects: and a friend to poopery Viz policy and Deceit and a support of the devil and a brother to rogues and is a decivour by looking like an indian in the face and pretences and aynt in their alleigance to abide by their king in the Defenc of Justice and helping his friends and English subjects to keep their rights and privilidges and libertyes from the Devil and rogues and Deceivours.”

The White Indians were soon estimated at more than 1,000 men. They covered their heads, painted their faces, and wore animal hides, but their screams and “war whoops” were their fiercest weapon, designed to scare the wits out of anyone walking in the woods and laying out boundary lines.

In her famous diary, The Diary of Martha Ballard, Ballard chronicled several times her surveyor husband, Ephraim, was driven off a surveying job in the middle of the night. Said Ephraim of one particular incident, “I was awaked by the firing of guns around my head, & one gun presented to my breast. Four armed men coming, or pressing towards me, & my Assistant & uttering the most horrid Oaths …”

Another surveyor, this one working for the Kennebeck Land Proprietors recounted:

“[I] lay all night on the cold earth without sleep on acct. of the expectation of being discovered and being fired upon…and shurly it is impossible to describe the feelings of one’s heart in such situations to any person who has not experienced the same.”

Mischief, solutions, equity

Ironically, the White Indians complained they were as maligned by settlers as were true Native Indians, apparently overlooking that it was their forbearers who had driven the original Indians off the very land over which they were now wrestling.

Other than roasting a horse or two, the White Indians’ actions were seldom more than an exaggerated fuss. However, their efforts for land parity were somewhat successful. Many a surveyor tossed his equipment aside and scampered to safety at anything resembling a war whoop. And since the White Indians’ tactics were mostly non-violent, the Great Land Proprietors could never get local or national support to prosecute the rebels.

There was one victim, however. Paul Chadwick, himself a White Indian, accepted the offer of 100 free acres if he would assist in an equitable and fair survey around Windsor. A group of men “all in disguise” jumped from the woods and spied Chadwick, who they determined as switching sides. “Damn you, how came you here? This is good enough for you!” And they shot him dead.

At this point, even sympathetic settlers began to question the mission and the tactics.

Yet as the movement crumbled, the White Indians had evidently caused enough mischief to convince authorities to find a solution to the boundary disputes. The Betterment Act, a sweeping proposal to set land prices and boundaries, was proposed in 1808. Any settler on his or her land for more than six years could petition the court for a fair hearing of value, generally resulting in a per-acre price of $2 to $4 paid to the Great Land Proprietors. There was an appeal process, but the Commonwealth made the final call.

Not everyone was happy with the Commonwealth’s decisions, especially the Great Land Proprietors who felt their interests were pushed aside when forced to accept below market value for their land.

But starting 200 years ago in 1808, reliable surveys were performed, payment was made, and deeds were issued. Centuries of boundary disputes were pretty much at an end.

In some ways, the uprising that began with “Indian” war whoops in Lewiston was responsible for the lots of land and the placement of many homes that we have throughout mid-Maine today.

John Blois is a Humanities instructor at Central Maine Community College. He lives in Boothbay Harbor.

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