[On October 1st, 1890, Congress established California’s Yosemite National Park. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Yosemite and four other amazing National Parks, leading up to a special weekend post on their counterparts, National Historic Sites.]
On a few telling moments in the strikingly French history of the Maine National Park.
French explorer Samuel de Champlain named Maine’s Mount Desert Island when he sailed past it on his second voyage to the Americas, in September 1604; Champlain noted that “the tops of [the island’s mountains] are bare of trees, because there is nothing there but rocks,” and so Mount Desert it was. Nine years later, in 1613, the Jesuit priest Father Pierre Biard and forty settlers established the first French missionary colony on the island, in the area of Southwest Harbor; but later that same year, the English Captain Samuel Argall sailed north from Jamestown and destroyed the settlement, taking two priests back to Jamestown as prisoners. As that last hyperlinked article illustrates, the early 17th century was full of such back and forth conflicts between the French and English up and down the Eastern seaboard, and the earliest history of what would become Acadia was defined largely by those shifting European American winds (while the region’s Wabanaki people were of course an established part of that history as well and remained a vital part of it through each evolution).
The island changed hands between the two nations at least a few more times over the next century and a half, but a late 18th century moment reflects a very different international relationship as of the period of the American Revolution. Mount Desert Island had been under the control of the English Royal Governor of Massachusetts, Sir Francis Bernard, since 1760, and in 1780 the newly independent state of Massachusetts granted the western half of the island to (or, I suppose, kept it in the possession of) Bernard’s son John. But the eastern half was granted instead to Marie Therese de Gregoire, a Frenchwoman and granddaughter of the French explorer and island’s 17th century titleholder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Both John Bernard and Marie de Gregoire were of course the descendants of elite families, reflecting a continuation of landed gentry roles even in Revolutionary and post-Revolution America. But at the same time, this joint US and French ownership of the island was from what I can tell a first in its history, and illustrates both France’s vital role in the American Revolution and the ongoing relationship between the two nations (one that, of course, would be severely tested before the end of the 18th century).
When much of Mount Desert Island was first preserved by the federal government in the early 20th century, the two initial such efforts overtly honored these Franco-American histories. In July 1916 President Woodrow Wilson established Sieur de Monts National Monument, naming it after an early French explorer and compatriot of Champlain’s (Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons). Three years later, when the area was upgraded to full National Park status, it was named Lafayette National Park in honor of the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Even Acadia, the name given to the park instead in 1929, is a tribute to the French legacy in the area, as Acadia was a French colony in northeastern North America that included Maine. But Sieur de Monts and Lafayette more directly highlight and embody those Franco-American figures and stories, and better remembering them as part of the establishment and development of Acadia National Park helps us keep those contested, conflicted, crucial Maine and American histories in our collective memories.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other National Parks you’d highlight?
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