Mapping the History of Maine
New historical atlas uses traditional and high-tech tools to provide
a unique perspective on the past
Salt of the
Throughout history, most salt marshes along the Eastern Seaboard
have been transformed by human activity, according to historian
Kimberly Sebold, whose research has focused on the coastal wetlands.
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The Abenaki peoples called it Owascoag,
the land of much grass. In these expansive salt marshes — estuary
ecosystems as important to the Maine coast as the rainforests are to
South America — the Native Americans found an abundance of fish,
shellfish, waterfowl and other natural resources.
The earliest European settlers quickly learned the value of the coastal
wetlands as a source of food for themselves and their domestic animals.
Even before forested areas could be cleared for pastures, settlers
grazed livestock and harvested salt hay in the marshes. Well into the
19th century, salt hay remained important to farmers' subsistence and
increasingly became a source of income for entrepreneurial salt marsh
Today, many of Maine's salt marshes remain as microcosms of wetlands
history. Through the years and their different landowners, places like
Scarborough Marsh, the largest in the state, underwent large-scale
diking to increase agricultural productivity, and some filling in to
expedite early development. But unlike highly developed areas like the
Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware coast regions, most of Scarborough Marsh
did not succumb to economic pressures. Today, its 3,000 acres are
overseen by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as
part of the Scarborough Wildlife Management Area.
The role of salt marshes in the state's history soon will be highlighted
in the Historical Atlas of Maine, an upcoming 240-page volume
culminating a seven-year research project built on rigorous historical
and geographic scholarship. In full-color, two-page plates, the atlas
details the environmental, economic, social and cultural interactions
that shaped the state and region, from deglaciation 14,000 years ago to
the 21st century.
Drawing on a range of academic disciplines, the atlas incorporates new
ways of thinking about human history. The perspectives are presented
visually through a diverse combination of traditional, age-old methods
(historical records, drawings, charts and photographs) and new digital
technologies (three-dimensional computer-generated maps and satellite
imagery). In these respects, the atlas will differ radically from all
previous historical atlases of Maine or works on Maine history. The
multi-year research project that is bringing the atlas to fruition also
"We hope to bring together insights from a variety of approaches —
history, ecology, geology, politics, marine sciences, ethnography, among
other fields — in a way that will make the presentation in each and
every plate truly interdisciplinary," says historian and University of
Maine professor Richard Judd, one of the project's leaders. "This is
something no historical atlas to date has accomplished. We see the
Historical Atlas of Maine as offering a template for future state,
regional and even national historical atlases."
Earlier this year, UMaine was awarded a two-year, $293,500 grant from
the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue the atlas
project's research and design. More funding is needed in order for the
volume to be published in 2006 by the University of Maine Press. The
project started with $160,000 in seed money from the Maine legislature
in 1999, followed by $100,000 from the University of Maine System.
"The NEH grant, the largest (humanities grant) to the University of
Maine in recent years, is national recognition of the quality of
scholarly research and cartographic design contained in the atlas," says
Stephen Hornsby, a geographer on the project and director of UMaine's
The Historical Atlas of Maine is designed to interest a variety of
readers. It is expected to appeal to a popular audience with an interest
in Maine and its history. In addition, the atlas will have a primary
role in education, including use by school and college students learning
about the culture, history and geography of Maine. Teaching modules
based on the atlas are being developed for K-12 teachers.
Following print production of the atlas, researchers hope to develop an
interactive CD and Web-based plate modules.
"This is a project requiring a huge amount of time, money and
commitment, but the potential is enormous," Hornsby says. "It makes an
important point about how we can contribute to the understanding of
Maine and its people. We have a strong sense of place in Maine and this
will reinforce it."
The Historical Atlas of Maine project began in 1998 with the formation
of a steering committee at UMaine, led by Professor of English Burton Hatlen. Joining him in the initial planning process were six other
university scholars: Hornsby, Judd, Northeast regional and Canadian
studies expert Jacques Ferland, Quaternary studies scientist George
Jacobson, cultural and New England historian Martha McNamara, and
19th-century U.S. historian Marli Weiner. The cartographer on the
project is Mike Hermann.
More than 70 historians from throughout Maine are contributing their
scholarship to the project. Their wide-ranging expertise provides the
social, economic and demographic information, as well as the history of
cross-border connections with Canada. Much of the research in the atlas
has never previously been published.
"Cartographically, we're illustrating Maine at a level of detail that is
unprecedented in previous works," Hermann says. "We're using Macintosh
computers to design, produce and publish the entire atlas. We're
designing with detailed GIS data to visualize history within the unique
geography that defines Maine and its people."
To date, 40 of the 100 atlas plates, each defining a key development in
Maine history, are approaching completion. The plates will focus on such
chapters in history as cultural change in the colonial era, patterns of
land ownership, religious history and French-Canadian migration.
Maine's new atlas is modeled after three successful historical atlases
published in recent years: the Historical Atlas of Canada, the National
Geographic Society's Historical Atlas of the United States, and the New
Zealand Historical Atlas. At the heart of such volumes is the
presentation of information about the past using images, such as
photographs, drawings, historical maps, three-dimensional renderings,
topographical and other maps, charts and graphs, and satellite imagery.
The Historical Atlas of Maine begins with an ecological and cultural
examination of the state, and its regional, national and international
context. It will bring into focus Maine's history as a borderlands
region and will illuminate the perspectives of women, and those of
cultural, religious and ethnic minorities. In particular, it will
emphasize the continuing role of the Native American community in Maine.
"The atlas will be a way of defining the culture and history of the
region," says Hatlen. "In school and through the media, we learn to
think of Maine as the northeastern-most appendage of the U.S. However,
the cultural, ethnographic, economic and religious links to Canada,
particularly Quebec and New Brunswick, are strong. Even the landscapes
are similar. Maine is not at the end of the road in the U.S. but rather
in the middle of a region. The future of Maine depends on such regional
by Chris Smith
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.