Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Windsor

by Mary Grow

This article continues the subseries on how the dozen towns in this history series got their names.

So far, names have been traced up the Kennebec River on the east bank, from Augusta to Clinton, inclusive. There are two other groups: on the east, four towns – from south to north, Windsor, Palermo, China and Albion – that do not have Kennebec River frontage; and on the Kennebec’s west bank, four towns/cities: from upriver to down, Fairfield, opposite Clinton and Benton; Waterville, opposite Winslow; Sidney, opposite Vassalboro; and (again) Augusta, on both sides of the river.

Your writer has chosen next to discuss the eastern towns, starting with the southernmost, Augusta’s eastern neighbor, Windsor. Henry Kingsbury commented in his Kennebec County history, at the beginning of his chapter on Windsor, that the town had “two of its sides parallel with the general course of the Kennebec river,” though it had no frontage.

Windsor’s river is the Sheepscot. The East Branch of the Sheepscot flows southwest from Sheepscot Pond in southern Palermo through northwestern Somerville and forms a short stretch of Windsor’s southeastern boundary. The West Branch flows south from Branch Pond in northern Palermo through southeastern China and the length of Windsor.

(The two branches join in Whitefield, a short distance south of the Windsor town line. The combined Sheepscot continues past Wiscasset into the Atlantic.)

The area that became Windsor, like the future towns of Benton and Clinton (see the June 13 article in this series), was full of mature hemlocks and pines. Kingsbury said “spars” for the USS Constitution were cut here; presumably, they were floated down the Sheepscot to end up on the ship, attached to the mast that had been cut in Unity and floated down the Sebasticook and Kennebec.

The on-line Maine an Encyclopedia dates the earliest Windsor settlers to 1790, when the area was part of the Plymouth or Kennebec claim. Kingsbury agreed, and named the first settler as former Bristol resident Walter Dockindoff.

Linwood H. Lowden, in his 1993 history of Windsor, said the beginning of settlement was Ebenezer Grover’s 1781 claim to a meadow northeast of the junction of Pinhook Stream and Gully Brook, in southern Windsor. Grover had a farm in Whitefield (then Ballstown), which he sold in December 1786; Lowden surmised he moved to the Windsor property before then, and built his Windsor house “sometime before 1797.”

Kingsbury did not explore the town’s various names; Lowden did. In his account, the southern part of present-day Windsor began as Pinhook Settlement. That name overlapped with the name New Waterford Plantation, and was succeeded by Malta, Gerry and Windsor.

“Pinhook,” Lowden wrote, was the name Grover and his associates gave to the area where Grover settled, probably because it was “close to the ‘hook’ in the West Branch.” The hook is a U-bend where the river goes south, west and north before resuming its course; it appears on contemporary maps on the north side of Route 32.

Lowden cited a series of early documents that called the area “Pinhook,” “Waterford” (the earliest was dated 1799), “Waterford alias Pinhook” or “New Waterford” (plus one from 1805 that called the area south of Harlem, which became China, “a plantation called New Sidney”).

He believed “Waterford” recognized Richard Meagher, the Kennebec Proprietors’ agent, who came from Waterford County, in Ireland. Meagher, he wrote, was another ex-Bristolite, who was living in New Waterford by 1802.

This series’ March 7 article about the Malta War summarized Proprietors’ and settlers’ disagreements about settlers’ rights to the land they lived on. Meagher, Lowden wrote, was “zealous” in acting for the Proprietors, spying on settlers and suing them for trespass. They retaliated so forcefully that Meagher “was literally hounded out of town and forced to return to Boston.”

The Proprietors seemed mostly to call the area Waterford, while the settlers preferred Pinhook, Lowden commented.

Lowden says New Waterford Plantation was never formally incorporated. He and Wikipedia say the area (by then extended to present-day Windsor) was incorporated on March 3, 1809, as Malta.

Here is Lowden’s story of that name, condensed.

It began with a January 1808 petition to the Massachusetts legislature, signed by 43 residents of “a Place or plantation called New Waterford,” asking to be incorporated “into a town by the name of Alpha.”

Their petition said that living in an unincorporated area denied them privileges that came with being incorporated. They cited specifically the “very great inconvenience” of having to go to a neighboring town’s town meeting in order to vote for state officials.

This and “many other causes” were seriously retarding “the settlement & prosperity of said Plantation,” they wrote.

Lowden next printed subsequent legislative documents: a Jan. 23, 1808, order to print a petition to incorporate Alpha; two Feb. 22, 1808, committee orders approving the incorporation of Alpha; and an undated “act to incorporate the plantation, called New Waterford, in the county of Kennebec, into a town, by the name of Malta.”

Later, Lowden called Malta a name that had been “foisted on…[New Waterford residents] by the slip of a clerk’s pen.” He did not explain why “Alpha” was the initial choice.

Malta residents wanted to change the name as early as 1811, he wrote. Voters at an Oct. 8, 1820, town meeting were asked to authorize their selectmen to petition the legislature – by now, the Maine legislature in Portland – for a change; and on Nov. 6, 1820, local voters voted to rename the town Lexington. (Lowden offered no explanation for that choice.)

Elbridge Gerry: It was during his second one-year term as governor that the legislature approved new state senate districts that led to the coining of the word ‘gerrymander.’

Again, the legislature ignored their choice: Lowden found a March 10, 1821, act to make Malta into Gerry. This name, he said, was in honor of Elbridge Gerry (July 17, 1744 – Nov. 23, 1814), Massachusetts businessman and politician.

Wikipedia’s long summary of Gerry’s career begins with his service in the Second Continental Congress (May 10, 1775 – March 1, 1781), during which he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence in 1775 and the Articles of Confederation in 1777.

He was also a member of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, one of three who refused to sign the Constitution without a bill of rights. Elected to the first session of the U. S. House of Representatives in March 1789, he served until March 1793 (and helped write the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution).

After several unsuccessful campaigns, Gerry was elected the ninth Governor of Massachusetts, serving from June 10, 1810, to June 5, 1812. It was during his second one-year term as governor, the Wikipedia writer says, that “the legislature approved new state senate districts that led to the coining of the word ‘gerrymander.'”

In 1813, Gerry became President James Madison’s second vice-president, after George Clinton died in office on April 20, 1812 (see last week’s history article). Gerry, too, died in office, on Nov. 23, 1814.

(The next vice-president was Daniel D. Tompkins, of New York, elected with President James Monroe in an election described as extending from Nov. 4 to Dec. 1, 1816. Monroe and Tompkins were in office from 1817 to 1825; Wikipedia says Tompkins was the only 19th-century vice-president to serve two full terms with the same president.)

* * * * * *

“Of course,” Lowden wrote, Gerry was not a name acceptable to Malta voters. On Dec. 29, 1821, a six-man committee was chosen whose members asked the legislature for another change, resulting in a Jan. 9, 1822, act changing Gerry to Windsor.

“There is not even the slightest clue as to why the committee chose (supposing that they did in fact choose) the name Windsor,” Lowden wrote. But it stuck.

Main sources

Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
Lowden, Linwood H., good Land & fine Contrey but Poor roads a history of Windsor, Maine (1993).

Websites, miscellaneous.


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