Historical correctness and political correctness are squaring off in one of the oldest towns in America and, given Castine’s history of conflict, perhaps it’s not surprising.
Castine, Maine, is older than Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony by seven years. As a prime early trading center with Native Americans, the French, the Dutch, the English and ultimately the Americans all fought and died to hang their flag in Castine.
Is it any surprise, then, that Castine once again finds itself at the center of an epic struggle? Fortunately this time, the stakes are not nearly so high and should be resolvable without bloodshed.
The current dispute started simply enough in the spring of 2013, when the Castine Historical Society suggested a slight modification to the sign that welcomes visitors to Castine. For as long as anyone can remember, the sign has read that Castine was “Settled in 1613.” Should it not read, “Incorporated in 1796?”
The 1613 date, note its critics, suggests that it was undiscovered prior to that. In fact, the Native Americans were well aware of Castine, and even French Explorer Samuel Champlain noted their presence as early as 1604 when he sailed past looking at real estate in the neighborhood.
So, in March, the selectmen decreed the sign would change. Oh boy!
The fallout started immediately with the erection of a satirical sign denoting Castine, “unsettled 2013.” The Castine Patriot has done excellent work in keeping up with the fight, covering both the decision and the fallout. The selectmen, it was said, were peeling off 183 years of town history with the stroke of a pen. Like a used car salesman turning back the odometer, disguising the true age of the town. Why would you do this?
In July, the town’s Emerson Hall was packed with more than 100 people ready to argue the point. All combatants were willing to concede the point that the Frenchman Claude de St. Etienne de la Tour set up a trading camp on the peninsula in 1613. They also agreed the pushing and shoving among the British, the French and the Dutch over control of the town would continue for 100 years.
The disagreement begins
During the 17th century, the French designated Port Royal in Nova Scotia as the capital of Acadia – for the most part. Port Royal was unstable in those days due to disease, war and indifference. So the French moved their Acadian capital around, and from 1670-1674, it was at Fort Pentagöet, now Castine.
But what were these early outposts? Were they settlements at all? The advocates of 1796 point out there were no women in the fort and none of the men who were there at that time ultimately stayed. Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, for whom the town is named, wasn’t even born until 1670, and he was sent packing by the British, who built their own fort there in the 1770s.
It was only after the Revolution, the 1796ers argue, that the town was formally incorporated as an American town. That is the year to put on the sign. But the town fell out of American control again in 1814, during the War of 1812. The British landed and took control of their fort once again, just long enough to levy some taxes on their former cousins and head back to sea. It was at this point the town began its contiguous run as part of America. Is this the date? Is Castine really only 199 years old, then?
The matter has been laid aside for further debate and discussion. Once the second wealthiest town in America per capita, there are few places in New England we’d rather be on a hot July day than Castine, Maine. While the marketers will say it about everyplace from Disney to Williamsburg, it truly is the case that when you walk down the street in Castine, you feel as if you may have actually stepped back in time. Perhaps the current hostilities will add to that experience.