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Discovering Maine New atlas offers a unique perspective on the state’s history by Margaret Nagle
Map of Portland Maine

Courtesy of the Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine A Map of Portland Maine and Some Places Thereabout, 1928.

Maine’s North Woods first called Henry David Thoreau in 1846, when he traveled the West Branch of the Penobscot in a bateau and scaled Mount Katahdin. Over the next 11 years, the philosopher-naturalist made two more expeditions into the Maine woods, both times with Penobscot Native guides. On those journeys, Thoreau discovered the natural wonder of Maine’s wilderness and came to a better understanding of Penobscot culture.

Thoreau died in 1862, five years after his last Maine expedition. His three travel essays, collected posthumously in The Maine Woods, put the state on the map, so to speak, and brought the wilderness movement into focus.

In the century and a half that followed, adventure seekers, travel writers, nature enthusiasts, artists and many others have retraced Thoreau’s steps. Now an accurate account of those three legendary treks is readily available for those who wish to know and appreciate the Maine woods.

The route of Thoreau’s travels in Maine, 1846–57, is handsomely presented on one of 76 two-page plates that comprise the Historical Atlas of Maine, a newly completed volume culminating a 15-year scholarly project led by University of Maine researchers and other scholars, published by the University of Maine Press in Orono, a division of UMaine’s Raymond H. Fogler Library.

Edited by UMaine geographer Stephen Hornsby and historian Richard Judd, with cartography by Michael Hermann, the folio-size book presents a geographical and historical interpretation of Maine, from the end of the last ice age to the year 2000.

The Historical Atlas of Maine is an articulation of Maine. The book comes from Maine’s land grant university and is meant to be a gift returned. It celebrates Maine.”
Michael Alpert
Atlas dustjacket

The 208-page Historical Atlas of Maine includes 76 two-page plates, featuring original maps and charts, and other images — historical maps, paintings and photos — in addition to text.

The atlas tells the principal stories of the many people who have lived in Maine over the past 13,000 years — the history of Native peoples, European exploration and settlement, the American Revolution, Maine statehood, agricultural and industrial development, and the rise of tourism and environmental awareness.

To tell these stories, the 208-page atlas presents a rich array of 367 original maps, 112 original charts and 248 other images — historical maps, paintings and photos — in addition to its text. The result is a unique interpretation of Maine, a rich visual record of the state’s history, and a major achievement in humanities research.

For Maine, the book is a journey of self-discovery.

“The atlas is beautiful and that’s important,” says Hermann, founder and lead cartographer of Purple Lizard Maps, who worked on the project for 14 years. “We paid attention to the aesthetic design in a way some other atlases don’t, letting the data rise to the surface. A lot of atlases are dry and use a cookie cutter shape of a state throughout. We wanted to get away from that format. People are going to be impressed by the atlas’ accessibility. It is scholarly research presented in a beautiful, interesting, readable way that calls you to turn to the next page — and the next.”

Atlas Plate 2 — Early and Middle Archaic Period, 9,500–6,000 BP

Early and Middle Archaic Period, 9,500–6,000 BP. Click for full image.

In 1997, UMaine Professor of English Burton Hatlen had the idea to compile an historical atlas of Maine that would showcase the mission of a land grant institution and the strength of humanities scholarship. But while Hatlen loved historical atlases and maps, his primary scholarship focused on the poet John Milton and on modernist poetry.

That’s when he introduced the idea to Stephen Hornsby.

“I agreed with him that this could be a contribution to Maine and that we could set the bar for other state historical atlases,” says Hornsby, director of UMaine’s Canadian-American Center. “Maine could set the standard.”

Primary funding for the atlas project included $160,000 in seed money from the Maine Legislature in 1999 and a $293,500 National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2003.

Planning for the atlas began with multiple meetings and contacts with scholars — most from UMaine, with others from universities and colleges across the United States and Canada — who focused on those subject areas important to understanding Maine history. With many of the broad areas identified, preliminary research and compilation of historical information, including archival images, were methodically organized.

With Hatlen’s death in 2008, Hornsby and Judd led the final years of the scholarship, largely focused on historical geography, with significant assistance from UMaine graduate students.

Atlas Plate 27 — Settling the Upper Saint John

Settling the Upper Saint John. Click for full image.

Digital files of archival maps of Maine were gathered from archives from Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, D.C., to London, England, and Paris, France. Many important historical maps were made available by the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine.

The two-page, full-color illustrated plates detailing the environmental, economic, social and cultural interactions that shaped the state and the region represent the extensive scholarship of 33 contributors. The atlas is arranged in four chronological sections, starting with the arrival of hunter-gatherers as the ice sheets retreated more than 10,000 years ago and continuing into European contact in the early 16th century and the colonial period. Part II includes Maine’s statehood in 1820, agricultural settlement and the rise of its natural resource-based industries.

With the emergence of industry came urbanization. Part III explores this period of Maine history, including the 1910 federal census that first recorded that a majority of Maine people were living in urban areas. Part IV covers much of the 20th century, with declines in traditional resource-based and manufacturing industries in the state, and the growth of the service economy.

The atlas brings history to life in a truly multidimensional way and will put Maine on the map in more ways than one. This is a pioneering effort in terms of scholarship — a new form of presenting materials.”
Richard Judd

“The Historical Atlas of Maine is an articulation of Maine. The book comes from Maine’s land grant university and is meant to be a gift returned,” says Michael Alpert, director of the University of Maine Press. “It celebrates Maine.”

Early on, Hatlen predicted that the Historical Atlas of Maine would become “a way of defining the culture and history of the region.”

“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 U.S., but rather in the middle of a region. The future of Maine depends on such regional thinking,” Hatlen said in a 2003 UMaine Today magazine story about the atlas.

Atlas Plate 36 — Mercantile Portland

Mercantile Portland. Click for full image.

Three themes run through the atlas: the importance of Native peoples, Euro-American exploration of Maine, and exploitation of its natural resources and rise of environmental awareness in the state — including the shift from being a utilitarian, resource-based economy and society to today’s paired focus on tourism and environmental protection. While those threads also are found elsewhere in the history of the United States, in Maine these three themes “developed their own unique pattern in the particular geographical context of Maine and continue to shape the state,” according to Hornsby and Judd.

The Historical Atlas of Maine will change the way people look at Maine history, says Judd, UMaine’s Colonel James C. McBride Professor of History, and a nationally recognized scholar and author on environmental history. It reflects international scholarship detailing the influence of French-American culture, starting with settlement of the upper Saint John River, and little-known segments of Maine history, including 19th-century Wabanaki petitions and land treaties.

Even on subjects considered well known, the atlas provides intriguing perspectives.

Take Thoreau’s Maine, which Judd says is sure to interest many. Thoreau’s three well-known forays into the North Woods are meticulously mapped, complete with the philosopher’s written reflections at points along the way, and the 19th-century images of wilderness promoters and artists who came after him, inspired and intrigued by his views.

The combination gives atlas readers “a good sense of what Thoreau was thinking,” Judd says.

“The atlas brings history to life in a truly multidimensional way and will put Maine on the map in more ways than one,” Judd says. “This is a pioneering effort in terms of scholarship — a new form of presenting materials, and it will have an impact nationwide.”

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Fall 2014


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