Kennebunk (ken.ne’bunk) is a Native American name of ancient origin. It means “long cut bank” and is believed to reference a Great Hill, a grassy promontory that drops sharply to ledges at the mouth of the Mousam River.
The Kennebunks are located on the southern Maine coast. The first settlement was in the “Cape Porpus” area and was established in 1610.
There have been four phases to the development of the Kennebunks.
The Early Settlement Years
Maine’s native people were the Wabanakis-Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet Indians-whose history predates the written historical record by thousands of years. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that 11,000 years ago Northeastern Paleo-Indian hunters traveled seasonally to the Kennebunk Plains to hunt bison and caribou.
The first European explorer of significance was Bartholomew Gosnold, who, sailing from Falmouth, England, reached land in the spring of 1602 in what is now Kennebunkport. In 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited the islands defining Cape Porpoise harbor, naming it “Le Port aux Isles” (Island Harbor).
In 1614, famed Captain John Smith, the English adventurer of Jamestown, Virginia explored the Maine coast. It was Smith’s publication in England “Descriptions of New England” that is credited with attracting fishing parties to the region.
By the 1620s, forty to fifty vessels were fishing in New England waters, many along the Maine coast. It was seasonal and eventually year round fishing stations during the subsequent decades that led to permanent settlements from Europe who were seeking both new economic opportunity and religious freedom.
The first settlers in the Kennebunks are believed to have arrived in the 1620’s and 1630’s at Cape Porpoise Harbor and today’s Goose Rocks Beach. As with other Maine settlements, habitats were “strung out in long, ribbon-like patterns, with no real center. Jurisdiction over the early settlements originated in England under various patent holders.
Not until 1653 did western Maine, including Kennebunk and Cape Porpoise, fall under the official control of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Colony promptly ordered the new Maine townspeople to build roads, schools, a militia and to compute taxes.
These early settlers lived in log houses, and farmed field and forest to then barter goods from one another. Mills were soon established along the natural river falls. The production of wood products harvested from the plentiful Maine forests were used locally and exported on small vessels down the Mousam and Kennebunk rivers.
After years of coexistence with the Native Americans, dissension arose in 1675 with King Philip’s War, the first in a near century of Indian conflicts. A massive French and Indian attack on Casco Fort in Portland in 1690 resulted in “all people killed or taken”.
The Cape Porpoise residents retreated to a harbor fort on Stage Island where they were miraculously rescued by vessels from Portsmouth New Hampshire.
The three to four hundred inhabitants of Kennebunk fled to the Storer garrison in Wells. The men, women, and children were safe inside the garrison by the time the 500 Indians and French attacked. The invaders destroyed miles of houses, mills and livestock. It took decades for the spared colonists to resume their normal lives as the attacks, raids, and killings continued from 1690 to 1760.
Cape Porpoise was uninhabited except for a few fishermen who were killed or driven out by 1703. In 1718, descendents and new settlers petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to re-establish a small fishing community there. As a result, the town of Arundel was incorporated in 1719.
In a final Indian raid on the Kennebunks in 1726, the Baxter and Durrell families were invaded while the men were away. The Indians took Mrs. Durrell and her four children captive. All their possessions were taken and the houses were burned. When the Indians realized they would be pursued, and the family was slowing them down, they killed the family just miles from their home. The following spring the Baxter family Bible was found and is to this day a treasured possession of the Brick Store Museum in downtown Kennebunk.
During the wars, farming communities and mill centers grew slowly along the Mousam River banks. Farming was expanding out to the Alewive Pond, the Plains, and inland on the Mousam. In 1750, the townspeople of Kennebunk District of Wells finally received recognition as the town’s Second Parish, an important step toward becoming the Town of Kennebunk.
Development on the Kennebunk River was slower until the early nineteenth century. However Captain Thomas Perkins, Jr. built his house in 1724 and his gristmill along the river in Kennebunkport village was built in 1751.
As the Indian wars subsided, the settlers were faced with another conflict, the War of Independence. The Kennebunk people sent delegates and ammunition to Boston to support the colonies. A company of men formed by Captain James Hubbard marched to Cambridge. Many of these men fought the bloody battle of Bunker Hill. The list of Kennebunk and Arundel men who served and died is long.
The war went on but the patriotic spirit was high. A copy of The 1776 Declaration of Independence was sent to each town to be read from the pulpit of every church. Attendance at Arundel and Well’s churches was unusually large for the readings. The proclamation was received with joy, and also worries for the potential consequence it would bring.
In a final battle for freedom in August of 1782, an English brig of eighteen guns and a schooner of ten guns attacked Cape Porpoise harbor and seized an anchored schooner and sloop. News spread rapidly through the town while Samuel Wildes, thought locally to be partially deranged, paddled out in his canoe and ordered the English to release the vessel. The English laughed with Wildes, ordered him aboard, and when he refused they fired upon him. Wildes managed his way back to shore, lamed for life by a bullet in his knee.
In the meantime, townspeople armed with muskets gathered on Trott’s Island prepared to cross to Goat Island to surprise the English. Seventeen British were killed, as was Arundel’s Captain James Burnham. The Battle of Cape Porpoise occurred a year before the peace treaty was signed that recognized the independence of the colonies.
In 1820, when Maine declared it s own independence from Massachusetts, the Kennebunk District of Wells at last became Kennebunk. Arundel then petitioned to be Kennebunk, but settled for the name of Kennebunkport.
The Ship Building Era
From the early seventeenth century, small vessels plied the harbor of Cape Porpoise for the prime fishing. As mills began to appear on the Mousam River, shipbuilding for trade and for lumber export became a primary industry. Soon the shipyards and their large constructed vessels outgrew the shallow, tidal waters and the sandbar at the river’s mouth. The Kennebunk River was found to be more suitable for such navigation at the end of the century.
Shipbuilding operations, including that of Captain Tobias Lord, were moved to the Landing area, above Durrell’s Bridge. From 1790-1867, hundreds of ships were built at the half dozen major shipbuilding yards. These ships were then launched to Kennebunkport, the busy harbor where the masts were stepped and cargo was loaded in preparation for their voyages. As the trans-Atlantic voyages became more common, ships of greater tonnage were built. A lock was built and used for nineteen years by a group of Landing builders to provide better passage of large vessels down the river. Between 1854 and 1918, shipyards moved closer to the mouth of the Kennebunk River, towards lower village and the port, where hundreds more wooden sailing vessels were constructed.
The close of the nineteenth century brought the eventual end of the successful shipbuilding era. Many landmarks throughout the Kennebunks remain as a tribute to the prosperity of the maritime industry. The steeples of the churches and the architecture of grand homes lining Summer Street and in Kennebunkport’s village reflect the wealth of shipbuilders, merchants and sea captains.
The Resort Development Era
Following the Civil War, Americans sought to enjoy their leisure time and their newly acquired wealth. Entire summer vacations became the fashionable thing for city folks. The oceanside communities of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport provided the ideal setting for these affluent visitors looking to boat and swim, enjoy picnics and walks in the woods.
Kennebunk beach farmhouses were accepting summer boarders, until a group of what we know call developers bought 700 acres of land. The purchase included five miles of coastline, which the farmers considered unsuitable for farming or fishing, where they would build a cottage colony. In 1873, the first grand hotels were built to accommodate the arrivals of the seven trains a day at the Kennebunk depot.
One of the grandest, “The Nonantum,” opens in 1884. One of only two of the Kennebunks Grand Hotels that survive today.
As more visitors were attracted to the desirable Kennebunks, the towns evolved in to year round communities ripe with services and an economy that including manufacturing in addition to maritime and tourism related business. The popularity of the region was also a beacon to artist and writers, such as Abbot Graves – the Boston artist and novelists, Booth Tarkinton and Kenneth Roberts.
The shipbuilding era has gone, leaving behind the magnificent Colonial and Federal homes that dot the Kennebunks. The Mousam river-powered mills had their heyday in the mid-eighteen hundreds manufacturing everything from shoes, twine and building materials. Now Lafayette Center, the remaining brick mill in downtown Kennebunk, has been revitalized with offices and shops.
The almost 400 hundred year old tradition of fishing among generations can been seen daily in the harbors of Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport. Tourism, which began over a century ago, flourishes in Kennebunkport, in the Lower Village of Kennebunk and Kennebunk Beach.
The Kennebunks today remain a tribute to the seafaring heritage of the past, while the splendid natural setting and elegant development appeal to artists, conservationists and tourists alike. Kennebunk’s Summer Street was Maine’s first National Register Historic District.
Now Kennebunkport is as well known for its vibrant past, as it is for the “summer Whitehouse”, the summer retreat of 41st U.S. President George Herbert Walker and his son, President George W. Bush.