Maine's Acadian Community: "Evangeline," Le Grand Dérangement, and Cultural Survival

Forced Removals and Assimilation in Maine History

Malaga Island Residents, MMN #23859

The displacement of the Acadians was only one expulsion that has affected the course of Maine history. Displacements in Maine and New England history have often gone hand-in-hand with xenophobia and racism. One such displacement was the expulsion of residents from Malaga Island, off of Phippsburg and Harpswell, in 1912. Malaga Island was first settled by non-Natives in 1794 by African American mariner Benjamin Darling and his (likely white) wife. It then grew over the 19th century as a small community of white, Black, and mixed-race households. Many of the men worked as fishermen in the area. As tourism increased in Maine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Malaga Island was seen as an eyesore that no town wanted to claim. Its residents were forced to leave in 1912 following an order from Governor Plaisted, who curiously had, earlier that same year, promised that the residents would not have to move. Despite the forced removal of its residents, Malaga Island was never developed by the Maine tourism industry or either of the towns that could have laid claim to it. Today, it is uninhabited and is classified as a nature preserve. Some local fishermen and lobstermen, many of whom are descendants of the original inhabitants, store their traps onshore. Prior to the expulsion, Malaga Island's cemetery was exhumed by the State and the bodies were reburied, multiple remains to a grave, at the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, where several islanders were also institutionalized and sterilized. The motives for clearing the island and displacing residents was not only fueled by the tourism industry, but by public belief in eugenics: the belief that some genetic traits were superior to others, and that "dangers" to the status quo should be sterilized or eliminated; such a belief primarily targeted people of color, people who were poor, and/or people who were disabled, neurodivergent, or mentally ill. Maine Governor Baldacci offered an apology in 2010. He was the first Maine Governor to visit the island after Plaisted.

"We Walk On; Eternally" by James Eric Francis Sr., Indian Island, 2020. MMN #105625.

James Eric Francis Sr. (Penobscot) is a multi-media artist, a historian, and the Director of Cultural and Historic Preservation for the Penobscot Nation. His deep knowledge of Maine history, Penobscot culture, and Indigenous landscapes informs much of his creative output. In 1755, in an attempt to clear the region for English-speaking settlements, Massachusetts lieutenant governor Spencer Phips issued proclamations that offered bounties for killing Native people. This proclamation required “his Majesty’s subjects of the province to embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing, and destroying all and every” Penobscot citizens. Scalps were used as proof of the genocidal killings, with bounties ranging from £20 to £50 for men, women, and children of any age. By June 1756, the Massachusetts assembly voted to raise the bounty to £300 per person—equal to about $60,000 in 2020. Describing the painting, Francis noted that, "The artwork urges the citizens of Maine to join hands with the Indigenous population of Maine and walk eternally into the future and move beyond the deadly acts of the past. The use of language, color, and symbolism helps to affirm our resilience as Penobscot people historically, presently, and into the future." Francis meticulously painted a recreation the 1755 Phips Proclamation for the background of this monumental five by four foot work, with the Penobscot word for "We Walk On; Eternally" painted over the proclamation in red.

St. Peter's School, Lewiston, ME, Class of 1910, MMN #74893

Xenophobia fueled other issues throughout the 20th century, particularly against immigrants. French-Canadians hailing from Quebec, though not Acadian, were also victims of Anglo-American Francophobia. This image shows St. Peter's School in Lewiston, part of the Little Canada community, which taught its students primarily in French. However, as the flag in the background shows, there was pressure for newcomers to be "Americanized." French was later forbidden from being spoken in Maine schools, except as a foreign language - only the French spoken in France was taught, and not the regional French spoken by Quebecois or the French spoken by Acadians. Some Franco-American families stopped teaching French to their children. French, and Franco-American identities, were later reclaimed during movements in the latter half of the 20th century.

Adult Americanization class, Portland, 1925. MMN #43316.

Portland has been home to several immigrant populations for the past 200+ years, and today more than 60 languages are spoken in Portland-area schools. However, Portland, and other towns, cities, and regions in Maine, historically pushed Americanization rhetoric.

Portland was home to a large Chinese population in the early part of the 20th century, and Maine has had connections with China since the 17th century, when China would export goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain to British North American colonies. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which essentially banned all new Chinese immigration to the United States and denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants already living in the U.S. Chinese immigrants were not guaranteed citizenship or the right to vote until 1943.

In this photo, Clara L. Soule, director of the Americanization program stands at the back of an Americanization class at the Woolson School, also known as the Chestnut Street School. The students are, from left, George Wong, Dan Wong, Henry Wong, Philip Dong, Han Tong and Chee Wong. All were Chinese American waiters at the Oriental and Empire restaurants in Portland.

Americanization Class, Boys Club, Portland, ME, 1923, MMN #122

Americanization spread across all communities in the early 20th century, particularly in the wake of World War I, when anti-immigrant sentiment was high throughout the United States. This photo shows an Americanization class from 1923 in Portland, providing immersion classes for students of various backgrounds. Some people choose not to discuss "difficult" events in Maine history. Should we continue to talk about them? What can we learn from them? Why are these events important not just to the descendants of the communities that were displaced and discriminated against, but to everyone?