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Colonial Government



Whenever men have developed from the lowest stage of savagery and have attempted to live together in any sort of harmony, some form of government has been evolved. Whatever form it takes, it is forever changing, autocratic, democratic and back to autocratic again; the pendulum is always swinging. Each age and each race develops its own particular genius in government, and the world gains by the experiment.

The four periods into which the government of Maine may be divided are: first, that of the Indians; second, the proprietary; third, that of the control of Massachusetts; fourth our present state government.

When the first settlers came to the state, they found the Indians in possession. The usual government of the Indians was simple. There was a chief or sagamore, whose office was usually hereditary, for each tribe. Sometimes a head chief presided over several tribes with the tribal chief subordinate to him. There were no written laws, but justice was administered and penalties were exacted by the chief and his council, which was composed of the warriors of the tribe. One tribe living near the New Brunswick border developed a very democratic government. The sachem or chief was elected for life by the men of the tribe. At his death another was chosen. The choice did not always fall to the dead chief’s son though it often did so. The sachem’s power was nominal. He had six councillors who he named, but his selection was confirmed by the warriors. He was commander-in- chief of the war forces, but the immediate command was given to another. Such was the government that prevailed among these tribes of savages.

The second period, that the Proprietary Government, extended from 1606 to 1652.

1606. James I gave the charter of Virginia to Gorges and Popham. It created two companies, the London Company (The first colony of Virginia) and the Plymouth Company. A general council in England of thirteen members with one representative for each company in the colony constituted the government. A simple code of laws was formed. Some of these follow:
  1. Each colony could elect a president and councillors for one year.
  2. Land was to descend to heirs as in England.
  3. Trial by jury was established.
  4. All offenders were to be tried by the colony.

George Popham was made president with a council of five assistants.

1620. James I gave to the Council of New England which succeeded the Plymouth Company a charter which confirmed and included nearly all the rights of the charter of 1606. This charter held for fourteen years. From 1623 to 1631 a number of patents were granted in Maine: the 1st Patent of Agamenticus (York), to Ferdinando Gorges, the 1st Kennebec Patent, the 2d Kennebec Patent, the Patent to the planters of Saco, the Lygonia Patent, the Muscongus or Waldo Patent and the Pemaquid or Sagadahoc Patent. Civil control was granted along with the titles to the land and the government varied with the proprietor, who was usually the governor. If he did not govern in person, he appointed a deputy governor who ruled as he pleased, administering justice and making what laws seemed desirable.

1635. The Council of New England dissolved, and control was taken over by the king. The Commissioners of American Plantations were appointed to take charge of colonial affairs. New England was divided into royal provinces. Ferdinado Gorges was granted the region between the Piscataqua and the Kennebec, which was given the name of New Somersetshire. Capt. William Georges was sent over as the first deputy governor. He with six commissioners held court at Saco in 1636; this was the first provincial court in the present State of Maine. In 1637 Gorges went back to England and this governmental experiment was at an end.

1639. Ferdinando Gorges received his long desired charter of the Province of Maine, which included one-sixth the present area of Maine, all the land between the Piscataqua and the Sagadahoc, one hundred and twenty miles inland. Gorges ruled as Lord Palatine after the manner of Lord Baltimore in Maryland. The county was divided into eight bailiwicks or counties and sixteen several hundreds and then into parishes and tithing. The legislative body, consisting of eight members elected by the people, and the council, levied taxes and made laws. The deputy governor , chancellor, treasurer, marshall, judge marshall, admiral, judge of maritime cases, master of ordance and secretary were the standing concillors who met each month as a court of justice. The religion was Episcopalian and no provision was made for schools.

1643. The Lygonia Patent was purchased by Sir Alexander Rigby. It had a deputy president and a general assembly consisting of assistant magistrates and deputies, the latter chosen by popular vote. The deputy president acted under the advice of a commission appointed by the parliament.

1647. After the death of Gorges, the inhabitants formed a compact “to see these parts of the country and province regulated according to such laws as have formerly been exercised, and such others as shall be thought meet, but not repugnant to the fundamental laws of our native country.” Edward Godfrey was chosen governor. This government lasted until 1652.

1652. Gorges’ heirs did nothing for a time in regard to their property. Massachusetts had long viewed with disfavor the growth of an independent government in Maine, and even the inhabitants felt the need for some co-ordinate government. Massachuetts, therefore, took over Maine as a county under the name of Yorkshire. Two delegates were sent to the General Court at Boston. The inhabitants were allowed to vote without becoming members of the Puritan church, but entire freedom of worship was not allowed to them. This date marks the beginning of the third period in Maine’s government.

1660. The grandson of Gorges claimed Maine. His commissioners visited the country and set up a form of government, but Massachuetts refused to yield and they were soon recalled.

1668. Massachusetts resumed control.

1676-78. The claim of Gorges was revived, but Massachusetts quietly purchased the Gorges claim for £1250 and held Maine as a proprietor.

1680. Massachusetts reorganized the administration of Maine. A provincial president and deputy president were chosen annually. The legislature was composed of a standing council of eight members and a lower house of deputies chosen from the towns. Thomas Danforth was the first president.

1684. The charter of Massachusetts was annulled and for seven years Maine, as well as Massachusetts was governed directly by the crown. Dudley was made president of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. He had fifteen councillors appointed by the crown to assist him. His administration was very unpopular and lasted only five months. In 1688 Sir Edmond Andros as appointed captain general and vice admiral of New England, New York and the Jerseys. He formed a council of twenty-five members, five of whom constituted a quorum. All legislative, judicial and executive functions were vested in this department. It was a despotic government without constitutional limits.

1689. Andros was deposed and a provisional government was set up. “A council for the safety of the people and the conservation of the peace” was chosen. Delegates from the towns were chosen and a meeting of the General Court was advised. This was held in Boston in Maine of this year and it was decided “to resume the government according to the charter rights”. Danforth was restored to his office as president of the Province of Maine.

1691. William and Mary granted Massachusetts her second charter, which gave her control of Maine as far as the St. Croix River. Massachusetts's government at this time resembled the English. The governor, lieutenant governor and the secretary of state were appointed and commissioned by the crown to hold office during the pleasure of the sovereign. The governor had supreme executive authority. The legislature consisted of two branches, and upper, called the council or board of assistants, and the lower called the house of representatives. The council was chosen by the old council and the new house of representatives. By charter, three of the council were always from the Province of Maine, and one from Sagadahoc. The representatives were elected by the towns. Eight were from Maine. All laws had to be approved by the king.

1774. General Gage dissolved the General Court. From 1775 Massachusetts was governed by the provincial congress composed of delegates from the principal towns of Maine and Massachusetts. They managed the political affairs but made no laws.

1778. Massachusetts was divided by the Continental Congress into three districts. The northern, composed of York County, Cumberland County and Lincoln County, was called the District of Maine.

1780. The constitution of Massachusetts was adopted in 1780 changed the government greatly. The executive power was vested in the governor, lieutenant governor and an advisory council of nine members. The General Court of two branches, the Senate and the House of Representatives, met annually. The voters had to have an income of $10 or an estate worth $200. The senators were chosen from counties or districts and the number was in proportion to the property. Maine had eight senators. The representatives were chosen by the corporate towns, one to every one hundred and fifty taxable polls, and one for every additional number of three hundred and seventy-five polls.

1787. When the United State Constitution was adopted. Maine was made a representative government.

1820. Maine separated from Massachusetts and was admitted into the Union as a sovereign state, entering upon the fourth period of her government, with which we are all familiar.



Source(s) for narrative on this page: The Maine Book, by Henry E. Dunnack, Librarian of Maine State Library. Augusta, Maine 1920. pages 64-67.

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