In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Swan's Island: Six miles east of ordinary

The lives and stories of a unique community

II. Pinkies, wherries, skiffs and chebaccos: Early Settlement

Photograph of a portrait of Colonel James Swan, 1795
Photograph of a portrait of Colonel James Swan, 1795

The beginnings of European settlement of Swan’s Island are unknown. Many may have passed through the area, taking advantage of the forest and sea. Champlain voyaged along this coast in 1604, naming islands as he traveled. Champlain’s early map gives this island the name “Brule-Cote,” meaning “Burnt-hill” in his native French, presumably due to evidence of past fires on the island. This name was later partially translated into Burnt Cote, and later Burnt Coat and Burnt Coal.

Colonel James Swan purchased “Burnt Coat Island” in 1786, three years after the district of Maine became a part of Massachusetts. Native Scotsman, author, merchant, politician, Son of Liberty, Revolutionary War figure, and all-around interesting character, Swan followed the current trend of wealthy men acquiring large estates. He built a sawmill, a gristmill, a store, and an elaborate mansion for his own residence. According to local history, Swan's close friend General Henry Knox used this structure as a model for the Knox Mansion in Thomaston. Swan sought out laborers (preferably Protestant families) to cultivate the land and work his mills. Coasting vessels transported the island’s lumber, and the fishing business began to expand.

A view of the original Henry Knox mansion, Montpelier, in Thomaston built from a plan similar to the Swan’s Island ‘Big House’of Col. James Swan.

The island adopted Swan’s name, but was deprived of his attention as he continued in other business endeavors. The mills closed and property became neglected. When the next group of settlers moved in, they took lots of land for themselves. David Smith was the first to bring a family to settle the island in 1791. They took up temporary residence in the “Big House”--Swan’s abandoned mansion--a trend copied by many later settlers as they worked to build their own homes. They built log houses with simple furniture, surviving on the island’s resources through long winters with only the occasional sailboat connecting them to the larger world.

After a number of failed speculations, Swan was imprisoned in Paris, France for twenty-two years for a debt he did not acknowledge. He was released from St. Pelagie in 1830, an old man who now knew the prison as his home. After three days of freedom, Swan set out to turn himself back in, but died on the street.

A world away, the Swan’s Island settlers had taken matters into their own hands. Swan mortgaged the island in 1812, and in 1824 settlers were given the option to pay for the land they already occupied. Some paid a little, others did not, and a steady stream of settlers continued to make their way to the island. In 1834, Swan’s Island was organized as a plantation, and in 1847 John Dodge divided unappropriated lands into lots of fifty acres each to be sold at auction or given to settlers. Schools, post offices and churches were established in whatever manner possible—run out of private homes before they had buildings of their own. Settlers were forming their own forms of governance, making do as they did in all other aspects of their lives.

James Joyce II, Swan's Island, ca. 1870
James Joyce II, Swan's Island, ca. 1870
James Joyce II's father came to Swan's Island to fish for mackerel in the early 1800's.
Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

Early settlers supplemented their harvests with fishing to make a decent living. Most early fishing was done in wherries, small rowboats. Chebacco boats were larger, two-masted vessels. These boats were after cod and haddock, the only marketable fish at the time. The market for salt fish expanded in 1800, leading more settlers to rely on fishing as a livelihood. By 1810, the chebacco boats were being replaced by fishing vessels known as "jiggers" and "pinkies." In time, mackerel became profitable, and Swan’s Island fishermen adopted the jig hook. Mackerel fishing could be done from any size of boat. Vessels fit out in early spring, fished for mackerel in southern waters, and returned around the first of July. The Bay of Fundy, the Maine coast, and even the Gulf of St. Lawrence were fishing grounds for the rest of the season.

Aaron Lightfoot gives an account of the hardships of fishing in an excerpt from Dr. Small’s book: “The amount of moral courage and Christian fortitude required for a landsman to get up out of a comfortable bed and struggle up on a cold, wet, cheerless deck to handle cold, wet lines and colder, wetter fish, all for the ‘experience,' will never be known except by those who have allowed themselves to be deluded into the thing. It is diabolical.”

Pinky Ship, Belfast, ca. 1880
Pinky Ship, Belfast, ca. 1880

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

Dr. Small states, “About the year 1850 a decided improvement in the moral and social condition of the people of Swan’s Island took place.” The economy was growing, government money stimulated industry, and the Civil War increased fish prices. Better fishing practices were also adopted; around 1871 the hook and line method was replaced with seining. Small fleets of faster, more expensive vessels fished for mackerel and Swan’s Island fishermen became experts in their field. "From 1874 to 1889 Swan’s Island fishing vessels took either the first or second place every year among the fleet of the whole Atlantic coast," Small writes, "a fact that should awaken an honest pride in the energy and thrift of our fishermen.” Swan’s Islanders owned three out of the ten most successful fishing boats of the entire Atlantic fleet, and mackerel flowed like gold into the island. The island harbors were shaped by fishing, with boat building, cooper’s shops, processing plants, and chandleries.

With its resources of timber, granite, water power, fishing and hunting, Swan’s Island made an attractive settlement site for families and traveling laborers. The harvest of these resources led to companion industries, such as the processing of the fish catch, mills to process timber and grains, and boat building. The increase in prosperity in the mid to late 1800s—with new homes, better roads, and increased travel—made Swan’s Island a profitable enough location to gain a steamboat connection.