Aroostook’s First Human Inhabitants
Dena L. Winslow
Copyright 2020 – All Rights Reserved.

Man has lived in what we know today as Aroostook County for the past 12,700 years.  At that time the remains of the last ice-age glacier were still present.  Evidence uncovered at the Munsungun – Chase Lake area just outside the present-day borders of Aroostook County, indicates that Paleo (meaning “old” or “ancient”) Indians were living here on the margins of the ice – which was up to two miles thick in places.  Why would they choose to live in such an environment?  They were here to mine and make stone tools from the magnificent fine-grained chert stone that is found in the Munsungun Lake area.

The chert and the tools made from it have been found as far away as Pennsylvania, evidence that it was either traded or carried that far and that it was highly prized.  Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans continued to use this area until recent times.

The Aroostook and St. John Rivers were the major highways in those early days.  Numerous artifacts along both waterways, and other waterways as well, indicate the extensive use of these rivers by early man.  According to DeRozier’s map dated 1699, there were  eight Native American villages in what is now Aroostook County at that time.

In the early 1600’s the first Europeans arrived.  These early Europeans were priests sent here by the King of France to Christianize the Native Americans.  One of these priests, Father LeBrun, is said to have planted a cross and a flag on Mars Hill Mountain in 1607.  A week later he visited Grand Falls, and then traveled up the Aroostook River.

By 1691 the value of the numerous huge “Pumpkin Pine” trees was discovered.  These trees were described by some early settlers as “so tall they tore the clouds as they passed over.”  Englishmen arrived in our forests and marked the largest, straightest trees in the forest with the King’s Mark – the broad arrow.  These trees were to be used as mast pines – reserved only for the Royal Navy.  Few early lumbermen paid much attention to these restrictions and continued to cut down these tremendous and valuable trees – to the point that almost none of the species exists today in the woods of northern Maine.  An example of a Pumpkin Pine marked with the King’s Arrow can be seen at the Ashland Lumberman’s Museum in Ashland, Maine. 

When the Broad Arrow Policy restrictions  were ended at the close of the Revolutionary War, even more timber was cut in Aroostook County and floated down the Aroostook and St. John Rivers to the markets in St. John, New Brunswick.  These early lumberjacks were primarily British subjects living in New Brunswick.

There were also countless messengers traveling through Aroostook County to Quebec and back, as well as several mapmakers who arrived to chart the land.  Hunters and fur traders also began arriving to hunt and trade with Native Americans.  There was a trading post near today’s Madawaska in the early 1690’s.  As early as 1756 the French had established outposts along the river routes at convenient places, to serve travelers and the mail.

In June, 1785, Joseph Daigle planted a cross on the South bank of the St. John River.  The party he was with were a group of families, all Acadians, who had traveled up the St. John River and founded the present-day Aroostook County town of Madawaska.  They settled two miles from a large Native American village and were welcomed by these Native Americans.  These few families were followed the next summer by more and the settlement grew rapidly.

In the early 1800’s the first settlers from New Brunswick, Canada and southern Maine began arriving to settle along the Aroostook River.  In 1820 Maine became a state separate from Massachusetts who formerly had control over Maine.  At that time, the British in New Brunswick (which was still under British control at that time) began to be concerned about their “Communication Route” which passed through what was then the State of Maine.  The border established by the Treaty ending the Revolutionary War put the boundary of northern Maine up near the St. Lawrence River.  The “Communication Route” basically followed the St. John River and cut across to Quebec City from there.  This Route was used as a major highway by the British for moving troops and goods, mail, supplies, etc. to and from Quebec, and is today the location of the Trans-Canada highway. 

While England had control of North America prior to the Revolutionary War, the location of the Communication Route didn’t matter – it was all British soil.  But, after the Revolutionary War the location of this strategic and important route – now located in the middle of northern Maine, was a big concern for the British.  This proved even more of a concern during the War of 1812 and, realizing that something had to be done to protect that important route, the British politicians in New Brunswick came up with a desperate claim which they knew to be false, that the Treaty actually intended to make Mars Hill Mountain the extreme northern point of the US.

It was a huge gamble on the part of the British because everyone understood, and all the maps showed, that the border was located near the St. Lawrence River, but in the end, their gamble did succeed in protecting the Communication Route when the present day border was settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842 following the Aroostook War.  That settlement cost Maine and Aroostook County 5.500 acres of land – about the same amount as the entire state of Connecticut.

On May 1, 1839 – during the Aroostook War period, Aroostook became a separate County in Maine.  After the border settlement occurred in 1842, it still remains the largest county east of the Mississippi, and the second largest county in the US – with over 6,400 square miles.  The name was originally requested as the name of what was to become Masardis, as the first town incorporated in the new County.  However, the State appropriated the name the town requested for the County name, and named the town Masardis instead.

Maine/Aroostook County lost a huge amount of land (46.2% of Aroostook County was lost) to the British/Canadians as a result of the British ploy to take control of the area that was to become central and northern Aroostook County – which they did in order to protect their important communication route.  However, the Aroostook War also brought a lot of good to Aroostook County.  Roads were built, towns sprung up, soldiers were given land for their service in the conflict and having seen Aroostook County they came here to live in droves.  Settlement increased dramatically in the region as a direct result of the Aroostook War.

Aroostook County pioneers were a hardy lot.  Even trying to imagine the hardships they endured is difficult.  Mrs. Eunice Bull and her husband Peter Bull came from New Brunswick and were the first settlers in Maysville, which is today the north half of Presque Isle.  They later moved to Mapleton and became the first settlers there. 

In an interesting undated newspaper clipping the family retains, it describes Mrs. Bull not seeing another woman or hearing another woman’s voice for the first three months after she arrived.  When she heard a Native American woman coming down the Aroostook River, singing as she paddled her canoe, Mrs. Bull said that was the sweetest music she ever heard.

Another incident involved the John Knowlen family who were early Masardis settlers.  The family had run out of provisions in the summer of 1839 and Mr. Knowlen set out for Presque Isle, then called Fairbanks, in a boat to obtain supplies.  Mrs. Knowlen and her four children had only one pint of Indian meal in the house and a cow which gave enough milk for the children.  Her oldest son caught fish for the family.  Mrs. Knowlen herself ate only boiled chocolate root for three days before a neighbor, William Coperthwaite, brought her some flour and tea when he learned of her situation.  Mr. Knowlen was gone ten days, much longer than he expected to be, and his family feared he had perished.  When he had reached Fairbanks, he could not get flour and was forced to go to the mouth of the Aroostook River where he bought flour for $22 a barrel and herring for $18 a barrel.  Those were extremely high prices for that time period.

Aroostook County residents today are a strong, independent people who take pride in their strong work ethic and their generosity towards their neighbors.  The following undated and unsigned poem from an early Aroostook County newspaper is the reply to a traveler making his first trip to Aroostook County when asked how he “would know when Aroostook County began…”

Up where the hand clasp’s a little stronger,
Up where the smile dwells a little longer,
                        That’s where Aroostook begins.
Up where the sun is a little brighter,
Where the snows that fall are a little whiter,
Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter –
                        That’s where Aroostook begins.
Up where the skies are a trifle bluer,
Up where friendship’s a little truer,
                        That’s where Aroostook begins.
Up where a fresher breeze is blowing,
Where there’s laughter in every streamlet flowing,
Where there’s lots of reaping and lots of sowing,
                        That’s where Aroostook begins.
Up where the world is in the making,
Where things are new – ideas are shaping-
                        That’s where Aroostook begins.
Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s lots of giving and lots of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying –
                        That’s where Aroostook begins!