William King set out on his own at 19 with little more than his portion of his father’s estate: a team of two-year old oxen. Many started with less, but few made more of it.
King was born in 1768 in Scarborough, which was then Massachusetts. His father died when he was only seven. He did not receive the education his brothers had because the estate was tied up in lands that generated little revenue.
William King, Workaholic?
Instead, King began working at sawmills and learning the lumber trades. At 19, with his oxen, King ventured north, offering his service in exchange for room and board. He found few takers, and by the time he reached Bath he had worn the shoes off his feet. But he didn’t quit.
Finding work in a Topsham sawmill, he began a lifelong habit of working and saving. Soon, he found a partner and owned half a saw. Then it was a sawmill. Then he became an incorporator in the first toll bridge at Topsham. The state’s first cotton mill followed, and then a bank. In Bath, Brunswick and Topsham he would build more than 10 merchant ships.
By 1795, he also represented the Topsham area in the state Legislature in Boston. Later he represented Bath. His respect and admiration for hard work showed in his actions. In Maine’s early days, settlers would push to the edges of the frontier, build a farm and then find a land speculator had a claim to the land lying in wait. The settlers would then find themselves evicted.
William King pushed through a law that changed that. The settlers could be evicted from the land, but the owner had to pay fair value for the houses they had built. Or, in turn, they could sell the land to the settlers.
All the while he expanded his enterprises, with a store and wharves and warehouses. By the War of 1812, King was designated major general of the militia, charged with raising troops for the war.
With his war accolades won, King turned his energies toward the one issue that most defined him: Maine statehood. For seven years he fought to liberate Maine from Massachusetts, and in 1819 the Maine Constitutional Convention approved the separation.
The battle then turned to Congress, where southerners didn’t want to create another anti-slavery state. As part of the Missouri Compromise, they agreed to admit Maine and Missouri as states. Maine banned slavery and Missouri didn’t, so the balance of power would remain unchanged.
The people of Maine chose King to be the state’s first governor, but he lasted only little more than a year. He was selected to go to Washington to work in government settling land claims in Florida, which he did for several years.
Throughout his life, King was known as a natural leader in business and politics, but he preferred business. He turned his famously caustic sense of humor against his fellow politicians. He enjoyed telling the story of how one night while in Washington he was walking with a friend. When two gaily dressed young women began following them seeking attention,
King and his friend turned a corner. The women continued following until he turned and told them: “Ladies, I can only say to you that we are not members of Congress,” after which the two young women went off looking for other entertainment.
King’s somewhat dour demeanor did not extend to alcohol, which he served at his table despite Maine’s strong prohibition tendencies.
He was also something of a tyrant and an iconoclast. He led the secession from the Congregational church in Bath, creating a second church with the stroke of a pen on a check. And he frequently won his way at town meeting by shouting down his opponents.
Flaws and all, King nonetheless had the strength of will to lead the creation of a state where none existed.
Special thanks to “History of Bath and Environs, Sagadahoc County, Maine: 1607-1894” By Parker McCobb Reed for this portrait of William King. This story was updated in 2020.