Lewiston-Auburn College

Rebecca Graham

Rebecca Graham

The search for the lost Cork settlement

USM LAC student, Rebecca Graham, researched the location of a group of Scots-Irish settlers along the Kennebec River through her Arts and Humanities program.

Maine has, per capita, the highest percentage of Scottish descendants in the United States, and ranks third in the country for Scots-Irish descendants, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), a federal agency which relies on self-reporting of ancestry. Many Mainers, including Maine Acadians, counted the Scots, the Irish and the Scots-Irish among the groups labeled as English. They believed that the French and the English were incompatible.

Students, faculty, and groups interested in Scots-Irish heritage hope to dispel these myths. Rebecca Graham, notes that the significance of researching the Scots-Irish and their original settlement along Merrymeeting Bay is that, “It provides a snapshot of the Scot-Irish immigration to the frontiers of the Americas, their importance, their exploitation, and the larger lack of historical focus on their accomplishments.”

The ambiguity of what is meant by “Scots-Irish” or “Scotch-Irish” has helped to erase Ulster immigration to Maine from the history books. “Because of the changes to the political geography of Ireland, the Scots-Irish or Ulster-Scots, as they are known in Ireland, are erased from historical accounts or confused with Irish or English. Historical records often have them labeled as 'Irish' because that was where they came from,” Graham explains.

Graham received her bachelor's degree in Arts & Humanities and Global Studies at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston Auburn College. She attended classes part-time while working full-time, and is a mom to three children. Her original goal upon enrolling in college was to get a Ph.D. in Celtic history from an international university; the first step would be to obtain a bachelor's in history through a local college, which is why she chose USM – it is close to her home.

Why Celtic history? “It's something I've always been interested in, particularly Bronze Age archaeology in Ireland. Originally, I enrolled at USM as a history major thinking that I could later pursue a master's degree in a focused area of history. I was looking for a vehicle that would get me into an international university,” says Graham, who has made three trips to Ireland.

In 2004, Graham and her family went to Ireland on vacation where they rented a house which was situated at the edge of a Bronze Age archaeology site. They spent a lot of time hiking trails through this site which was vacated by its inhabitants in 40 A.D. “This area had been raided by the Vikings who traveled down the western side of Ireland. Remnants from the Bronze Age have been discovered at the site.” Graham notes that the landlord of the rental house had grown up in the area and had cut peat for fuel from the land surrounding the house.

“Over the years, he accumulated boxes and boxes of Bronze Age relics that he discovered while cutting peat. He didn't realize the historical value of the pieces until University College Dublin became interested in the site and started digs there.” The artifacts include cloak ties, instruments, pieces of weaponry, and stone arrowheads that date back to 2500 B.C.

During her first visit to Ireland, Graham was instantly drawn to the culture of Ireland, its people and the land. She made a second personal trip to Ireland in 2007. In 2010, as a student working on a research project, Graham once again returned to Ireland. “Between visits, I transitioned from a history major at USM in Portland to the Arts & Humanities program at USM's Lewiston Auburn College. I was thinking about focusing on anthropology in general - archaeology specifically - and cultural field work is an important element of those studies,” says Graham.

As a result of taking an Arts & Humanities course with USM LAC Professor Barry Rodrigue, who is a geographer / archaeologist, Graham became involved in a research project to locate a Scots-Irish settlement, known as the Cork settlement, that had once existed on the banks of the Kennebec River in Woolwich and Bath, but which had disappeared without leaving apparent traces. The area was once a major trading post in the seventeenth century.

The project began with Rodrigue telling Graham the background of the Cork settlement, people to connect with in that area, and a bibliography of items to read on the subject. “We began doing field work which included walking seven miles from Chops Point to the Eastern River to connect with, and get a feel for, the land and the settlements that were currently there,” says Graham. She also did a deed search and history, and talked to the people living in the area; some of them had lived there since the early 1930s and some had family history there going back even further.

The Scots-Irish left the area that is known today as Northern Ireland, after life there became unbearable due to crop failure and rent increases. Land ownership became completely impossible for them in Ireland and they hoped to find a better life in the Americas. Like the Franco-Americans, the Scots-Irish were skilled in weaving and textile work. Yet there are few published historical accounts of the Scots-Irish, which is ironic, considering the fact that, depending on the purity of heritage, there are at least 16 U.S. presidents who are of Scots-Irish descent.

In an article written by Graham and published in the Pine Tree Highlander, she answers the question of why this project is important: “The historical significance is elusive when weighed against the lack of written history. Its story is the story of a group of people written out of most of the histories of Maine.”

The Cork settlement was a short-lived settlement of Ulster Scots who were planted at the frontier edges of Native-claimed land along the Kennebec River. “The Ulster Scots were essentially brought in as cannon fodder, a human barrier against the frontier, to protect the English settlers. They were also used to further improve the land and push further inward to French-controlled territory.” Graham says that the Ulster Scots were Protestant which made them marginally accepted in a Puritan society, but they were not welcome in the main parts of towns.

When the Scots-Irish arrived in Boston, they were forced to leave the city. “Boston minister Cotton Mather saw value in using them on the frontier.” Not only were the Scots-Irish unwelcome by the Puritan English, they were under attack from the Abenaki on whose land they were sent to live. Graham notes, “The area’s indigenous people, the Abenaki, warned them to leave their Native land. They protested that Scots-Irish livestock trampled Native plantings and consumed the food needed for migratory birds.”

During the Abenaki attacks, Scots-Irish men were abducted and taken to Quebec. The women and children fled to Boston where they were called traitors for leaving their homesteads during the raids. Puritan society considered them unruly, anti-authority, and they were told to leave Boston by the governor of Massachusetts. During this period of displacement, the actual location of the Cork settlement disappeared. Graham says, “Due to conflicts with French and Native peoples at the border regions, this area was not re-settled for nearly 30 years.”

The research project by Rodrigue and Graham has become linked with the John Mann and Bill McKeen Maine Ulster Scots Project. Graham explains, “Their joint efforts brought in Director John Wilson of the Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies at the University of Ulster, as well as the St. Andrew’s Society of Maine. A conference on Scots-Irish in Savannah, Georgia in 2009 closed with a commitment by those present to put the Scots-Irish back into history books.”

Graham organized a conference on Maine's Scots-Irish, held at USM LAC in April 2010. By this time, the Cork Settlement Archaeology Project had gathered local and international attention. Graham notes that this project “exemplifies cultural cooperation without borders. The Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies has supported an oral history collection of Maine’s Scots-Irish residents and continues to link cultural projects in Maine and Northern Ireland, most recently with Maine-focused museum displays within the Monreagh Ulster Scots Heritage Center just outside of Londonderry, NI. The Maine Ulster Scots Project and St. Andrews Society of Maine are continuing to raise funds to support excavations, conducted by historical archaeologists Pam Crane and Peter Morrison.”

Maine’s connections with Ulster was strengthened by former Senator George Mitchell’s involvement in the Irish Peace Process, according to Graham. “Perhaps this has aided the increase of residents reporting their Scots-Irish origins. All of these possibilities should be examined, beginning by recognizing the role Scots-Irish played in creating the communities we live in today. When we seek to understand the history of Maine, we must insure that the Scots-Irish are included in the narrative along with Maine’s Indigenous peoples and Franco-Americans.”