By Keeper Tom Hardiman
In 2011, the Portsmouth Athenaeum received a remarkable bequest from the estate of long-time Athenaeum Proprietor Dudley Stoddard (1915-2009). Dudley descended from Portsmouth’s Warner family, and he left to the Athenaeum a collection of over 300 historic documents that had been in the attic of the Macpheadris-Warner House on Daniel Street before it became a museum. Many of the manuscripts are family-related, some are business papers, and some reflect the official service of Jonathan Warner and his father-in-law Archibald Macpheadris on the Province Council of New Hampshire.
Among the many treasures of this extraordinary archive is a lease dated July 27, 1647, from George Cleeve on behalf of Alexander Rigby and the colony of Lygonia to Jonathan Leie (Lee) and Ralph Tristram for Long Island (now Vaughn Island at the mouth of Turbatt’s Creek) and pasture in Cape Porpoise, in what is now the state of Maine. This seemingly boring legal document illuminates a largely forgotten and misunderstood period of northern New England history, and it is one of fewer than half a dozen Lygonia leases known to survive.
Land deed document related to the Province of Lygonia [Ligonia], signed by George Cleves, for land in Dated July 27, 1647. MS107 Dudley Stoddard Collection.
King James I established the Council for New England in 1620 to divide and settle the northern wilderness of the new world. The council granted everything between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers to council members Captain John Mason and Sir Ferdinando Gorges as “the Province of Maine.” The two then subdivided their grant at the Piscataqua, with Mason taking the western portion as the colony of New Hampshire, and Gorges taking the east as New Somersetshire. The two soon sent settlers to the new colonies to confirm the grant “by turf and twig,” as required by English common law.
In early 1630, the Council for New England confusingly issued a series of grants that overlapped and sub-divided the earlier establishment of New Somersetshire. In February, they issued 6000-acre-grants for what are now Biddeford and Saco and smaller grants on Casco Bay. Then in June they issued a 1600 square mile grant for a new colony of Lygonia, named for Gorges mother, Cicely Lygon. The boundary of Lygonia was described as everything 40 miles west of the Sagadahoc River, which was the archaic name of what is now the Kennebec. The problem is that in 1630 there were multiple rivers in the region that were called by the Wabenaki name of Sagadahoc or something remarkably similar. Depending on the interpretation of which Sagadahoc marked the boundary, the grant of Lygonia could eclipse half of New Somersetshire as well as the grants on the Saco and Casco Bay issued by the council just four months earlier.
Screenshot detail of map “Reproduction of 1620 Charter from King James I to the Council for New England, 1885.” Courtesy of the Maine Historical Society via Maine Memory Network. To see the original image, click here.
The obvious conflict was seemingly averted when in 1631 the settlers sent by the proprietors of the Lygonia grant landed in southern Maine and immediately decided to move on to greener pastures in Massachusetts. Legally, this left Lygonia as a broken title without confirmation by turf and twig. Nonetheless, the bungle was clear. The Council for New England resigned its charter in 1635, and the settled towns of Maine formed a Combination for self-government. In 1639, Sir Ferdinando Gorges was granted a new patent to the Province of Maine, and a new government of Maine was formed under Governor Thomas Gorges.
The contentious title to Lygonia reappeared a few years later during the English Civil Wars. The Gorges family was avowedly Royalist, as were many of the west country settlers of his Province of Maine. On April 7th, 1643, Parliament permitted the sale of the Lygonia patent to Col. Alexander Rigby, a puritan associate of Oliver Cromwell. George Cleeve, an early settler of Maine who had been twice evicted for trespassing on the patent of Robert Trelawny on Richmond’s Island in Casco Bay, brokered the sale.
In the fall 1643, Cleeve returned to Maine with a commission as Deputy President of the province of Lygonia and began negotiating new leases for all residents within the bounds of the grant, even those who had royal patents to their land. Because of the on-going war in England, it was unclear to anyone in America whether patents endorsed by Parliament superseded patents endorsed by the King, or vice-versa. The conflict led to an armed stand off between Cleeve and the Royalist Saco militia when Lygonia tried to hold its own court.
Cleeve convinced the Deputy Governor of Maine to let the General Court of Massachusetts mediate the dispute. While the case dragged on in court, both Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Alexander Rigby died, and their heirs had little interest in colonial affairs. Sensing an opportunity, the Massachusetts Court ruled in 1652 that the disputed territory belonged neither to Maine nor Lygonia, but was in fact part of Massachusetts. Their charter set their northern border three miles north of the Merrimack River, which had previously been agreed was the mouth of the river at Newburyport. Massachusetts now claimed that it was the source of the Merrimack, above Lake Winnipesaukee. They sent surveyors to determine the latitude and found that a line carried from that point to the Atlantic encompassed nearly all the settled part of Maine. New Hampshire had already ceded control to Massachusetts in 1641. Except for a brief period of independence from 1679 to 1686, New Hampshire remained under Massachusetts government until 1741.
Over the next several years, all the towns of the southern Maine coast were forced to submit to Massachusetts jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, most of the legal documents relating to Lygonia soon mysteriously disappeared, which is why the 1647 lease between Cleeve and Lee and Tristram is such a remarkable survival. An additional irony is that it is unclear whether the property in question was even within the ill-defined boundary of Lygonia in the first place. When Richard Ball sold the island to Brian Pendleton in December of 1655, the deed notes that Ball had faithfully paid the four-shilling yearly rent to the proprietors of Lygonia. It is doubtful that Pendleton continued the practice, especially since the Massachusetts General Court finally ruled in 1658 that the proprietors had no jurisdiction in Maine and Cleeve capitulated in July of that year. From that point on, Lygonia was a lost colony in more ways than one and remains so today. Maine remained part of Massachusetts until it achieved statehood in 1820.
For more information on the MS107 Dudley Stoddard Collection (1652-1811), click the button below to view the finding aid.