Wheeler & Wheeler in 21st Century Perspective:

History of Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell, Maine, By G.A. and H.W. Wheeler

"About 1775 a woman, known as Granny Young, went to Bomazeen [sic] Island after berries. After filling her dishes, she started for home, having only a stave for a paddle. Hearing a noise in the water, she turned and saw that a large bear was swimming after the boat. She plied her awkward paddle as vigorously as possible, but the bear overtook the boat and attempted to upset it. She fought him with the stave, striking him upon the head and nose until he was stunned; then she held his head under the water until he was dead, when she towed him ashore". 1

So reads one of the stories of colonial-era life described in George Augustus and Henry Warren Wheelers' 1878 History of Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell, Maine. Accounts like this, occupying the zone between history and folklore, add color to a book that, despite its age, still has a great deal to offer anyone seeking a better understanding of the Pejepscot region.

In compiling this book, the Wheelers were part of a significant trend in Centennial-era New England: a flurry of documentation and publication that would lead to more than 1,000 town histories being published all across the region by 1900.2  Tossed salads of information, these books were compiled from a wide range of sources. They tend to be part geography lesson, part registry of vital records, and part compendium of local stories and legends. Very often, there's an element of Ripley's Believe it or Not thrown in for good measure.

In approaching texts like Wheeler it is important to understand that they were commercial ventures, generally financed through private subscription. Indeed, the Wheelers themselves acknowledge in the preface the "liberal appropriations [made by the citizens of the three towns] in aid of its publication." Subscribers who paid a certain fee would be assured that space in the book would be devoted to their lives and achievements.3 And while no known details remain on the financial particulars of this publication, the lengthy section of "portraits" of prominent area citizens does provide a clue to the subscriber list. Even a glance suggests that the profiles were written about a very specific group of relatively wealthy, white, mostly male citizens, from an honorific — rather than an objective — viewpoint. The authors admit that for many of the entries, they "depended upon the communications received from the friends of the parties, and from information obtained from such printed sources as were available to them."4 While this does not diminish these sketches as useful sources for genealogical or biographical information, it is important to see them as parts of a story, rather than assuming that they provide the whole tale.

It is important to note that many groups whose stories are invisible in this book played central roles in the region's development as well. The Franco-American community, for example, had emerged by this period as a transformative force in both the area's population and its economy, yet it garners only passing references in the book. Similarly, almost no women are discussed in any detail, and the book's descriptions of relations with the local Indians will certainly seem disrespectful, racist and anachronistic to the contemporary reader.

While the early years of the Pejepscot region were, in fact, marked by years of Indian wars, the Wheelers describe a group of intrepid local settlers who tame the wilderness, and, at great cost, eventually manage to drive the Indians from the area. While the Indians did ultimately move elsewhere, the book approaches this transition from a particular viewpoint, one emphasizing "progress" and "the civilization of the wilderness", typical of this centennial-era genre of history. As with the biographical selections, the Wheelers adopted a resolutely positive and celebratory approach to a story that has many other dimensions.

Wheeler was completed during a period when New England found itself out of the national spotlight. The postwar movement westward of people and capital had coincided on the local level with unprecedented industrial expansion and its associated demographic changes. Life in the 1880's was quite unlike that of the antebellum period, and this book reflects an emerging national interest in celebrating the memories and virtues of the founding fathers and early settlers. It was the start of a national movement now known as the Colonial Revival, a cultural phenomenon of architecture andn ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that spawned numerous historical societies and a nostalgic recollection of early American life. Like any history, this book is a product of the time and place in which it was created, and a twenty-first century reader won't mistake it for a twenty-first century text.

And while there's no evidence that any of the historical "facts" offered in the book are wrong, in many cases, there's simply no way to corroborate them. On page 102, for example, the authors describe how, on June 7th 1814, a "sound was heard in the air, resembling that of a gun and gradually dying away". They go on to note that there was no storm at the time, and conclude that it was "doubtless the bursting of a meteor".

Such cases of speculation being claimed as fact are not uncommon in this book, and they may appropriately raise the hairs on the back of a historian's neck. Yet, who can honestly deny the sheer pleasure of reading about them? Wheeler is a valuable local resource on a number of levels. It has broad appeal for readers, whether they are researching local history, trying to locate a particular fact, or simply interested in area folklore.

And if one can acknowledge and then look beyond its real limitations, Wheeler is a 950-page trove of information for the local historian. Unlike many similar town histories of the period, much of this work is relatively well-documented, and compiled from sources that can still be corroborated. It provides a detailed chronological account of the politics, geography and major institutions in the area. In addition, it offers in a single handy reference, an extraordinary amount of information, from service records of area Civil War soldiers, to lists of large fires and storms, to accounts of businesses, recordings of epitaphs, lists of historical collections, and even information on the local insects, which the authors admit to be "probably of the same variety as is found in the rest of the state". Above all, the book is eminently readable. It is the sort of text that can be picked up, opened to any page, and enjoyed at random. Such a series of short "dips" is as good a method as any for helping a reader new to this book grapple with its daunting size.

And so, it is appropriate that Wheeler is among the first large-scale digitization projects to be undertaken by the Curtis Memorial Library. Long in the public domain, it is now more accessible than ever before.

—Erik Jorgensen

Erik Jorgensen is Assistant Director of the Maine Humanities Council, in Portland. He served as director of Pejepscot Historical Society from 1989-1998.

  1. Wheeler, 1878, p. 89.
  2. Kyvig and Marty, Nearby History, 1982, p. 70.
  3. Ibid., p. 71.
  4. Wheeler, 1878, p.709.