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Much of history is characterized by conflict. From the Crusades of Christendom to the American Civil War, nations, groups and ideologies have often decided who will prevail not through pens but through swords. As Mussolini stated when encouraging Italy to enter the First World War, “Blood alone moves the wheels of history.”

Though violence is by no means the only or even the most effective device to achieve a goal, it has often served as a last resort, propping up a cause that might otherwise fail. This method was once used in the very same region where The Republican Journal circulates, Midcoast Maine, back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This area was then a place of great hardship and strife, a place of escape but also of difficulty, a place of struggling yeomen and an elite gentlemen class.

When 13 of Britain’s colonies rebelled against the empire, going on to form their own nation, great intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison encapsulated the spirit of the rebellion with fiery orations about Liberty and Freedom, which Jefferson espoused in America’s Declaration of  Independence and James Madison espoused in the United States Constitution. But though such phrases as “We believe That All Men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights” are high-minded and righteous, at the time,  they were certainly not realized.

America in the 18th century was a land in which one man could own another, and some enjoyed great riches while others suffered in abject poverty. The generals of the Revolutionary War enjoyed a prosperous retirement, while the foot soldiers were abandoned by the government they served.

One example of those generals is Henry Knox, famous for moving artillery from the captured Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights, forcing the British military out of Boston. After the war, Henry Knox obtained, through dubious means, a large quantity of land in Midcoast Maine, thus becoming part of  a group of men known as the “great proprietors,” men who owned large tracts of land on which many others resided. The proprietors saw themselves as natural father figures to their communities, protecting and representing them, and in turn deserving payment from the settlers occupying their land.

The settlers, on the other hand, believed land was something you earned by improving it with farms and buildings, and that men should be equals engaged in mutual trade, not what they saw as quasi-lordship. In addition, the prices asked by the proprietors as payment for their land was often beyond what was possible for many of the destitute settlers.

In order to avoid those payments, men would band together dressed as Wabanaki in rural communities such as Davistown (modern day Montville and Liberty) to harass surveyors sent by the proprietors until they fled,  thus making it impossible for the land to be divided into lots and the people charged for them. They called themselves Liberty men; the proprietors called them White Indians.

Through decades, the Liberty Men fended off the surveyors, trending a careful line of limiting themselves to small parties and avoiding murder in order not to be dismantled by militias, which operated strictly by the law.

Though their strategies worked for a time, this was not to last. By 1810, the Liberty Men’s scare tactics were no longer effective, causing them to resort to more drastic measures. They beat a sheriff, attempted to kill a property agent and eventually murdered a teenage surveyor. Their violent actions alienated their supporters, and the resistance ultimately collapsed. The most hardline members moved to new frontiers in Nova Scotia and Ohio, and the rest gave in to the proprietors’ demands.

Today their story stands as either a horror story of anarchist insurrectionists, or a gallant tale of brave men defending their land and honor, depending on your perspective. Either way, it is a fascinating time and place in history with echoes in the modern day. One of the loudest of these echoes is preserved by several names of towns in this area: Liberty, Unity and Freedom.

Thank You to “Liberty Men and Great Proprietors,” by Allen Taylor,  for providing the information for this column. To see Taylor discuss his book, go to the online section of the Liberty Library webpage, where you can watch a recording for free.

Notices

Friends of Haystack Mountain has until December to raise $500,000 to preserve the mountain. Their first action is a production of “Blueberries for Sal” at Walker Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 18, at 5:30 p.m. Before the play, guided tours that day will explore the mountain starting at 4 p.m. The event is free to the public and donations will be collected. Anyone unable to attend can help save the mountain by visiting haystackmountainmaine.org/donate.

The Liberty Baptist Church will hold a community picnic on Aug. 20 from 4 to 7 p.m. There will be a picnic dinner, lawn games and a slip and slide for children.

Montville will hold a special town meeting on Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m., at the Town Hall.