Dr. Jean Hankins, archivist for the Otisfield Historical Society, talks about Otisfield during the era of Maine’s quest for statehood, which began in 1785 and was not realized until 1820. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

OTISFIELD — The Maine movement to separate from Massachusetts and become its own independent state was realized in 1820. However, the road to statehood was neither straight nor brief.

According to Dr. Jean Hankins, archivist for Otisfield Historical Society, the town’s position on statehood went from one extreme to the other during the 35-year period it took for Maine to become a state independent of Massachusetts.

Hankins addressed Otisfield’s early support and later apathy, at a presentation at the Bell Hill Meetinghouse on Sunday.

Local efforts began around 1785, during The United States’ Articles of Confederation government, with the launch of the Falmouth Gazette, a periodical largely dedicated to the cause. While newspapers were the driving force of many causes, including American independence from Great Britain, interior communities like Otisfield had to rely on eventual word of mouth news that traveled by foot or wagon.

According to Hankins, The Falmouth Gazette touted three guiding principles for separation. The first was that even as a district of Massachusetts, Maine had experienced a different history and had different governmental needs than that provided by faraway Boston. Maine leaders also claimed that independence from Massachusetts would mean lower taxes for Maine residents. And later on it became apparent that Maine would also provide leverage to the abolition movement as an anti-slave state.

Federalist leaders in an around Portland (then still called Falmouth) were early proponents of statehood. That position eroded in the late 1780s in the aftermath of Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising against tax collection in western Massachusetts that went for several months before a military force raised from the Boston area marched west and squashed it. Coastal Federalists became suspicious of the “dangerous elements” of Maine’s western interior.


The 1789 Coasting Law all but collapsed Maine’s separation movement. The law dictated that merchant ships had to clear customs in each state they did not share a contiguous boundary with. Massachusetts bordered New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York; if Maine was an independent state it would have to clear customs with every other state except New Hampshire. Independence would be a harmful economic move.

The first statewide separation ballot was held in 1793. Otisfield voted in support of separation by a margin of 22 to 1, opposite the larger Maine population, which voted it down, 2,524 to 2,074. Interior communities like Otisfield favored statehood while coastal communities whose economies relied heavily on shipping and commercial connections to Boston no longer saw the benefit of statehood.

A second referendum for statehood was held in 1797. Otisfield once again went for independence with a vote of 32 for and zero against. Officials in Massachusetts, citing the referendum’s low turnout compared to Maine’s actual population, ignored the results. Separation could only be realized with the acceptance of Massachusetts’ state government. The movement was largely dead, although proponents continued to call for independence conferences and more referendums were held on the matter.

By 1807 Otisfield voters were no longer interested in statehood, voting it down by 47 to zero.

“Otisfield’s population had grown to about 700 in 1807,” said Hankins. “With only 47 voting that year, one might conclude that most of the men in the town simply didn’t much care.”

Proponents of state independence would have to wait until events during the War of 1812 brought the realization that Massachusetts considered Maine to be its colony for exploitation rather than a region of equal importance. After several downeast ports were invaded by British warships, Maine called upon Boston to send troops for defense, a request that was denied. The tide began to turn then for coastal communities who felt betrayed by their state government, although it would take several more years to achieve statehood.


Interior towns like Otisfield who did not feel the pain of foreign invasion felt little urge to join the movement. In 1816 Otisfield’s vote on two separate independence ballots were 80 against and 4 in favor in May and 95 against and 15 for separation in September. But significantly, in the second election Maine as a whole finally had a majority vote in favor, but just under 53.5% the General Court required.

Revision of the Coasting Law in 1819 provided the impetus that Maine’s separationists needed to get residents behind their movement.

“After Congress passed a revision of the Coasting Law, lumping all the Atlantic Coast states from Massachusetts to Florida into one coastal district. Except for a few die-hards, all opposition to separation melted away,” said Hankins. “Statehood followed rather quickly, albeit with some difficult complications caused by the compromise combining the admission of Maine to the Union along with a slave state, Missouri.

“I expect that on hearing the news, most of Otisfield voters probably shrugged their shoulders and went back to spring planting.”

On March 15, 1820, Maine was admitted as the 23rd state of the United States.

“We have separationists like William King, Maine’s first governor, Massachusetts politician John Holmes who supported the movement and even Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a letter endorsing the Missour Compromise,” said Hankins. “Now, 200 years later, I hope that we Otisfielders can act today to correct the historical errors of our forebears who usually seemed to vote the wrong way, on those occasions when they bothered to vote at all.”




Comments are not available on this story.