History of Kennebec & Moose River Valleys

Thousands of years before the first European settlers arrived in the Kennebec River Valley, the region was inhabited by a tribe of Native Americans known as the Red Paint People, so called because their discovered graves contained a brilliant red ocher (iron oxide). The Algonquian-speaking tribes later inhabited the region and called it Cushnoc; meaning “the consecrated place." When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1600s, it was the Native Americans of Maine who kept them alive by sending gifts of food.

The Kennebec Valley was rich in furs, fish, and timber. Trade began in the area in 1628 when the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts gained the Kennebec Patent. Fur trading between the Natives and Pilgrims became highly profitable; for more than thirty years an amicable trading relationship existed until the outbreak of the French and Indian Wars, at which point English settlers abandoned the region for almost one hundred years.

English settlers returned to the region in 1754 with the erection of Fort Western in what is now Augusta on the Kennebec River. When the English defeated the French in 1759, settlers began moving into Fort Western and what would become Hallowell to the south.

In 1775, the now infamous Benedict Arnold, led an expedition from Massachusetts, up the Kennebec River and through the Maine woods to join General Philip Schuyler in an attempt to defeat the British at Quebec, under orders from General George Washington.

The 1,100 man army arrived at Fort Western in Augusta on the September 24th. After passing through Winslow and Skowhegan, the expedition remained at Norridgewock Falls for a week, due to bad weather, until October 9th. Two days later they reached the Great Carrying Place; this provided a link from the Kennebec to Dead River via the Carry Ponds, where “formidable number” of the soldiers got sick, and many died.  

The main force finally crossed into Canada on October 25th and by November 14th, Arnold had reached and crossed the St. Lawrence River with about 500 men remaining. On December 31st the battle for Quebec began and quickly became a disaster. Markers are still displayed along the Kennebec noting the expedition’s progress.

In 1832 the city of Augusta became Maine's state capital. By 1840 thriving river traffic saw a fleet of schooners traveling weekly between Augusta and Boston added to the city's prestige.

The 1830s saw the first major damming of the Kennebec. By the middle of the decade, there were four dams between Skowhegan and Waterville. River towns situated by major falls, like Skowhegan, Waterville, Augusta and Gardiner, harnessed waterpower to run sawmills, factories, and textile mills.

Between river towns, the banks of the Kennebec are dotted with farms. Along this section of the Kennebec, agriculture has a long history. Archaeological excavation at Dresden reveals early Native American settlements. The Kennebec Indians were the first to farm the land along the river, growing corn and beans. Farming remains an important part of life in the valley today.

In towns such as Bingham, classic clapboard homes still line the streets and harken back to the boom days of the 19th and 20th centuries, where lumber barons reigned over the surrounding forest and logs were dropped into the Kennebec River to float down to the saw mills. Lumber soon became an important source of wealth; in many instances pine boards took the place of currency.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, such natural abundance was viewed as a resource to be exploited. By the early nineteenth century, lumber and textile mills sprang up along the river, taking advantage of plentiful woods and waterpower. Lumberjacks laboring with bucksaws, axes and draft horses, worked all winter to cut trees and readied them for spring log drives, when thousands of logs were floated to mills downriver. River drives continued until 1976.

Early settlers throughout the region transformed the landscape into farmland and mill towns. Many of the early French Canadians who came to work in the mills were farmers. At the end of a long day in the mills, people went home to tend their gardens. For generations, life in the river towns revolved around home, church and mill or factory. Tightly knit families and cultural traditions were closely linked. Franco families often gathered for soirées, where people would talk, tell stories, sing and cook.

By the twentieth century, paper manufacturing took hold in Maine and along the Kennebec-Chaudière Corridor; Bingham became the social and industrial center of an area devoted to logging. Even today, logs are trucked through Bingham on their way to pulp mills in Skowhegan and several nationally known paper companies keep offices in town. Towns along the Kennebec have had to redefine themselves, turning industrial areas into downtowns that attract people with historic architecture, specialty shops and a manageable scale of living. In the past decade, in defiance of “sprawl” and big-box consumerism, many of these river towns have staged a comeback.

The future of this broad and historic region has yet to be written. Come and explore.