Mapping Maine: The Land and its Peoples, 1677–1842


A Bicentennial Exhibition
On view in the Bernard and Barbro Osher Gallery, September 10, 2020 to March 20, 2021.

Let us acknowledge two truths: 

1) on March 15th, 1820, the Eastern District of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts became the independent state of Maine; and

2) the building in which you stand, reading these words, occupies land whose reclamation from the sea in the nineteenth century destroyed the inshore waters that had once sustained the Wabanaki peoples of Aucocisco.

We cannot celebrate the first truth without commemorating the second. Wabanaki mapping was largely oral and ephemeral §6, so that a spatial history of Maine must trace multiple paths through the maps made by European colonists and then Americans. The collections of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education allow us to indicate some of the wider spatial patterns of Wabanaki and Maine history over the last four centuries by following, in particular, the displacement and persistence of the Penobscot.

The Exhibition’s Six Sections

§1 [1677] The seventeenth-century French and English interacted extensively with the Wabanaki, and the Wabanaki presence is evident in the colonists’ maps, even as the English sought to impose colonial boundaries on the landscape. But those boundaries were necessarily ambiguous — what did the English actually know about the interior other than the little information they had gleaned from the Wabanaki? — and allowed the colony of Massachusetts Bay to claim lands far to the north, lands that the Wabanaki still occupied and defended.

§2 Peace treaties between the English and the Wabanaki allowed active colonial settlement along the coast of the Maine after 1720. With independence, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts aggressively constructed a new “frontier” by actively mapping out and denying the presence of the Penobscot.

§3 The continued push of the Maine “frontier” up the valleys of the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers drove grand arguments and new visualizations of the economic value of interior lands. From this perspective, Maine statehood appears as a divorce, with both the commonwealth and the new state seeking a fair division of their joint assets. In the process, Penobscot lands were redefined as American farms.

§4 Some privileged sites — Augusta, Bangor, Portland — developed as villages and cities, sites of commerce and industry. The mills of Augusta exemplify the conversion of falls, prime areas of fishing and habitation by the Wabanaki, into industrial dams.

§5 [1842] The territorial bounds of the new state were finally set with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, a treaty finalized only after the USA and Britain almost came to blows in the Aroostook War.

§6 The removal of the Penobscot from the plans and maps of Maine did not mean that the Penobscot themselves disappeared. Their persistence is evident in their continued practices of place naming and verbal mapping, and in the recent reassertion of their rights over their traditional lands and waters.


The exhibition was curated by Prof. Matthew Edney, Osher Chair in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine. He would like to acknowledge the particular assistance of Dr. Libby Bischof, executive director of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, and James E. Francis, Sr., Penobscot Tribal Historian and Director of Cultural and Historic Preservation, for contributing his thoughts and his assistance in selecting the maps.

We thank the kind permission granted by Dr. Neil Safier, director and librarian, and Ian Graham, associate librarian, of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, R.I., and Bonnie Burns, head of geospatial resources, and by David Weimer, librarian for cartographic collections and learning, Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library, Cambridge, Mass., for the loan of unique items from their collections.

The works were imaged by OML’s digital team: David Neikirk and Adinah Barnett. The web version of the exhibition was implemented by Renee Keul and Hope Mowry.

The exhibition was installed by Kevin Kimball, of Kimball Street Studios, Lewiston.