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Old People and Ancient Cellar Holes: Colonial Memory in Late Eighteenth-Century Maine

By Daniel Bottino

Symonds Baker, a thirty-two year old resident of Little River, near the mouth of the Androscoggin River in mid-coast Maine, testified in 1796 that during May of the previous year “I was walking along By a Place (at the Head of the Ten Miles Falls so called on Amorouscoggin River) Where there was an appearance of an old cellar and Chimney and that I found the Blade of a small sword.”  In another deposition taken two days later, Abraham Witney, also of Little River, confirmed Baker’s find of a sword and added that “about twenty four or five years ago there was an old iron hoe with an iron handle ploughed or dug up about fifty rods from Purchases Cellar which appeared to be a garden hoe.”  The “old cellar” mentioned by these two men was the presumed house site of Thomas Purchase, one of the earliest English colonists of Maine, who had come to the area around the mouth of the Androscoggin sometime during the 1620s. 

The depositions of Baker and Witney, along with more than 50 others taken around the same time, were recorded with the object of determining the location of Purchase’s long abandoned dwelling, a subject of considerable controversy and legal import.  A thoughtful historical analysis of these depositions, currently held as part of the Pejepscot Papers at the Maine Historical Society, reveals much more than local disagreements between neighbors in late eighteenth-century Maine.  For through these documents I believe we are afforded a rare glimpse into the processes of colonialist memory creation and perpetuation.  In the multitude of voices that speak from this collection of depositions, a dominant theme emerges: the belief that English colonization could leave an indelible trace upon the landscape, thereby creating a memory that could endure through the generations as a justification for continued possession and colonization of the land. 

The legal case that occasioned the inquiry into Thomas Purchase’s house site was a dispute between the state government of Massachusetts (of which Maine was a part until 1820) and the Pejepscot Company, a land company that had sponsored eighteenth-century English colonization in the region just north of modern-day Portland, Maine.  As the Pejepscot Company’s claims to legal title could be traced back to the original land grant of Charles I of England to Thomas Purchase, it seems that the court put considerable effort into ascertaining where Purchase had lived in the hope of establishing the correct bounds of the Pejepescot Company’s land claims.  Significantly, there seems to have been no extant copies of the land patent held by Purchase by the time of the court case.  As a 1683 deposition in the Pejepscot Papers reveals, Purchase’s personal copy of his patent from the king was lost when his house burned down sometime before 1653.  The loss of this document must have been of great concern to Purchase, for another deposition from 1693 reveals that, aged nearly 100 years, he sailed to England “as he said purposely to look after & secure his said Pattent.”  It is not known whether he found the document, and I do not believe it to exist today.  Thus, after Purchase’s death, in the absence of this written document, it was the disputed and contradictory oral memory of Purchase’s inhabitation that assumed the primary burden of validating his legal claim to colonization in Maine. 

This was a rather dubious enterprise, as the testimony of the deponents, a group consisting for the most part of middle-aged and elderly men, demonstrates that opinion was split between two possible sites of Purchase’s house, with no conclusive proof for either site.  But what all these men did agree on was a shared conviction that “one Purchase,” as he was often termed in their testimony, had at some distant time early in the seventeenth century begun the English colonization of the land, a colonization maintained and continued by the region’s white inhabitants in their own time.

It is in this context that we should understand Baker and Whitney’s discovery of a sword and a hoe at the site where they believed Purchase had lived, for these were symbols of successful English colonization par excellence.  In the minds of late-eighteenth Mainers who saw themselves as heirs to Purchase’s pioneering colonization, he had asserted his land claim through his military prowess (the sword) and his willingness to farm and thus “improve” the land (the hoe.)  Whether these rusty artifacts did really belong to Purchase, or indeed existed at all, the assertion of their existence by Baker and Witney represents the attempted creation of a memory of English colonization tied to the landscape in which they lived.  Indeed, it is the apparently evident Englishness of Purchase’s supposed house site that appears over and over in the depositions.  For example, John Dunlop recounted that “I have seen at the head of s[ai]d falls on the easterly side of the river, a place which appeared to be the settlement of some English planter where a large cellar was dug, and remained still to be seen, which I never saw in any Indian settlement, which appears to be very ancient.”

Dunlop’s account stresses what he saw as the non-Indian appearance of the cellar hole—his mention of “some English planter” also emphasizes the fundamental association of English colonization with agriculture.  This “improvement” of the land, as it was often termed in seventeenth and eighteenth-century documents, appears in many of the depositions.  Thus Richard Knowls told the court that as early as 1742 he had seen “a Celler on said Place and the Old People told me that this Celler and Place had before that time been improved by a Mr Purchas…there was likewise a peace of Mowing ground on said Caring place which produced good English Grass which Mowing ground the said Old People informed me was cleared & brought to by the said Purchas while he lived there.”  In describing the site’s “good English Grass,” Knowls marks the abandoned cellar hole as a mnemonically powerful site, whose grass perpetuates the memory of Purchase’s colonization across more than a century.  In doing so, Knowls and the “Old People” who passed on their memories of Purchase to him were participating in the creation of a history of successful English colonization in Maine, a fabricated history that also, critically, aimed to erase the memory of Native inhabitation.

Deposition of Richard Knowles, Collections of Maine Historical Society, Coll. 61, Volume 7, Box, 5, Folder 21, https://www.mainehistory.org/.

However, this process of colonialist memory creation was neither stable nor unchallenged, and the depositions reveal this quite clearly.  In addition to the most prominent flaw in the construction of the memory of Thomas Purchase, namely the disagreement over the location of his house, some deponents even raised doubts over the supposed Englishness of one of the possible house sites (the other site was undoubtably English, and dispute centered around its age).  Most notable in this respect are the words of Timothy Tebbetts, who when asked how he thought the supposed cellar hole had been made, answered “Either by Indians or English it look’d like the work of some human Creature.”  Although other deponents, such as John Dunlop, had testified that this same cellar hole was undoubtably English in origin, in Tebbetts’ testimony we see an element of doubt enter into the picture.  At least for Tebbetts, the mnemonic power of the landscape was insufficient to distinguish English settlement from Indian settlement—if the cellar hole had indeed once been Purchase’s house, in Tebbetts’ estimation the ruins were no longer able to transmit the memory of Purchase’s ancient inhabitation.   

This deposition confirms a fundamental truth about the colonial memory I have explored here: it was rightly perceived as extremely fragile in all of its forms, whether textual, oral, or as physical marks upon the landscape.  This is why so many times in the depositions, as we have seen in the case of Knowls, “old people,” often fathers or relatives, are described as revealing widely held historical memories to young men.  This was a mainly oral tradition whose stories were only rarely written down.  And it is important to remember that written texts were also fragile, especially in the context of life in rural Maine, as we have seen with the example of the loss of Purchase’s original land patent.  As the marks Purchase made upon the landscape were overtaken by nature, the fragile oral memory of his inhabitation slowly faded out.  But despite the tenuousness of the memory of Purchase by the 1790s, it still endured to be recorded in the written depositions that have survived to the present day. 

Above all else, these depositions reveal a deep-seated desire among many male white inhabitants of the region to assert the success of earlier English colonization in Maine, of which they were the symbolic heirs.  For these men, ancient claims of English ownership of the land assumed pre-eminent importance, such that they even dug around in old cellar holes in search of rusted artifacts as proofs.  But it is important to remember that this view was not shared by everyone.  And so I will end with the deposition of Martha Merrill, the only deposition in the archive of the Pejepscot Papers made by a woman alone.  Speaking to an agent of the Pejepscot Company in reference to the company’s land claims, Merrill declared that “I would not give him two Coppers for it all.”


Daniel Bottino is a PhD student at Rutgers University, where he studies early modern European and early American history.  His dissertation research focuses on the interaction of cultural memory with the law and the physical landscape in early modern England, Ireland and colonial Maine, with an emphasis on the role of cultural memory in the process of English colonization.

Featured Image: Cellar Hole in Vaughan Woods State Park, South Berwick, Maine. Photo courtesy of author.

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In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Durba Mitra about Indian Sex Life and Modern Social Thought

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Durba Mitra, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, about her new book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton University Press, 2020).

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In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Priyamvada Gopal on Insurgent Empire

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani speaks with Priyamvada Gopal (Reader in Anglophone and Related Literature, University of Cambridge) about her new book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso)

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Catalogue Now!: Professional Anthropology and Making the Northeast United States

By guest contributor Morgan L. Green

Mid-twentieth-century anthropology was in crisis. Already influenced by World War II, anthropologists in the 1960s encountered a variety of dramatic changes. The scientific method and the pressure to be “objective” dominated as institutions like the National Science Foundation, ushering in a new wave of research standards. Anthropologists, who had been collecting interviews in the field (among other things), needed to prove their usefulness as the American government demanded clear answers about the world around them. The field was also growing exponentially, in part due to the GI bill and the returning veterans who often sought to better understand the places where they had served. The result: an increasingly large discipline trying to find a balance between understanding culture and receiving funding for long-term projects. Anthropologists stood at a crossroads in redefining their discipline.

This began what Matti Bunzl has described as a profound reorientation of the epistemological and political contours of the discipline in the 1960s. In 1968, James J. Hester described the new methods of “salvage anthropology.” Hester wrote specifically about how archeologists could extract information from sites before they were redeveloped as power plants or reservoirs, for instance. However, American cultural anthropologists quickly adapted this to apply to human subjects. In the Americas, Native people became prime subjects of this salvage mindset, imagined to be on the verge of disappearance. This perceived threat of loss was in many ways a revitalization of a Jacksonian racial theory that assumed the inevitable disappearance of Native people, articulated as an attempt to “save” or “preserve” Indigenous cultures. The 1960s ushered in a growing moral rhetoric that it was the duty of anthropologists to preserve the vanishing knowledge of Native peoples in the Americas. 

Despite their “crisis,” anthropologists continued to return to established sources of knowledge that non-Natives deemed “authentic.” Unlike archeology, within the salvage mindset of cultural anthropology, cultural practice and history were embodied in Native people. Whether they listened to informants to understand linguistic components or observed community relationships, anthropologists mapped ideas of authenticity onto the bodies of Native people. The intimacy of contact, of connecting, listening, and observing Indigenous people had long been established in the twentieth century as an important method, perhaps most clearly reflected in Frank Speck. By the 1960s and 1970s, while cultural anthropology remained wedded to the importance of contact, Native people had to exist in particular ways to be recognized as Native, valuable or worthy of preservation. 

Emerging from this moment was a massive contribution to anthropological canon: The Handbook of North American Indians. Talks began in the late 1960s, but official work began roughly in 1970 with William Sturtevant at the helm.Originally planned as a twenty-volume series, The Handbook was an attempt to catalogue at an encyclopedic level the diverse histories of tribal groups across the United States with. Each volume would act as a large-scale reference work of 500 to 750 pages summarizing what was known of the anthropology and history of Native peoples north of Mesoamerica (William C. Sturtevant, “Preliminary Note for Contributors” [1970], Elisabeth Tooker Papers, American Philosophical Society). The ultimate goal was to present a concise and exhaustive survey of Indigenous peoples in North America that would be accessible to both anthropologists and educated non-anthropologists. I want to focus here on the Northeast volume published in 1978, directed by William Sturtevant and Bruce G. Trigger, not only because it was the first published volume (the whole project faced considerable delays), but because it provides a glimpse into the contradictions and political implications of non-Native anthropological production.  

Partial series of The Handbook on North American Indians 

Faced with myriad troubles, ranging from missed deadlines to massive rewrites, The Handbook limped along until November 1972. Many of those contracted specifically for the Northeast Volume were gathered for the annual Conference on Iroquois Research, originating in 1945, to discuss the state of anthropology and hear work related to the Iroquois. This particular conference, however, was a kind of watershed moment for Bruce Trigger. Seizing this moment Trigger organized a meeting at the conference to establish the Iroquois as the centerpiece of The Handbook. The enmeshment of the Iroquois conference with the production of the Northeast volume suggests that the content of The Handbook would not be as broad as promised. This became even more clear when Elisabeth Tooker from Temple University was recruited to coordinate the Iroquois chapters, a move that would help secure her promotion. Following 1972, The Handbook began looking more like a professional opportunity for Iroquoianists rather than an encyclopedic reference of the myriad of Indigenous nations who called the Northeast home. 

As authorship skewed toward Iroquoianists, The Handbook relied on already established connections between anthropologists and the Iroquois to serve as its foundation. While there were moments that challenged what was often extractive information gathering, collecting stories from Native peoples still continued to shape anthropological literature. The seventy-three chapters included linguistic studies, historical surveys of acculturation, and examinations of religion, to name a few topics.Despite the range, twenty-five chapters, or roughly 34% of The Handbook related to the Iroquois in some form. This distortion exposes one of the oversights in salvage anthropology, namely that assumptions about who and where Native people were corresponded to the work that anthropologists had already been doing throughout the twentieth century. Anthony F.C. Wallace, for example, assisted Tooker in her emerging work on the Iroquois, and William Fenton’s intimate relationships with interlocutors shaped chapters on the Mohawk. This is not to say that information was not important; rather, by the second half of the twentieth century many Northeastern Indigenous peoples were ignored as sources of knowledge because they had few intimate connections with non-native anthropologists and their cultures were thought to have not survived colonization. Wallace captured this sentiment at a session on culture and personality at Dartmouth College in 1968, using the Lenni-Lenape as an example, saying they were acculturated beyond recognition – unlike the Iroquois, he was quick to add. In this moment, non-Natives elevated their intellectual authority by determining who and where Native people were based on anthropological methods of cultural recognition and disciplinary security. In the process, Iroquoianists continued to shape anthropology in the Northeast, thereby preserving their professional opportunities. The Northeast volume was published in 1978 and the remaining volumes continue to be released.

Non-Native anthropology organized itself around gathering knowledge before an assumed rapidly approaching disappearance, which meant that the Native peoples within anthropology’s gaze were often those imagined to be less changed by colonization. Not only did this lead to the ignorance of many other Native peoples; this thinking ignored the historical realities of settler colonialism and the various survival strategies that Indigenous people, including the Iroquois, engaged in to navigate a rapidly changing world. The seventeenth-century Northeast was ground zero for a settler project that would quickly metastasize. Indigenous peoples in the Northeast have navigated, resisted, succumbed, and reimagined the relationship to Euro-American colonization for centuries. To make a lack of change the litmus test for Indigenous authenticity grossly misunderstood the continued power and resourcefulness of Native peoplesBearing this in mind, we must rethink the role of the archive and what we as scholars consider canonical. Holding onto, cataloguing, and the encyclopedic impulse of the archive(s) are all functions of desire; desire to possess, dictate, and stabilize subjects of study. This process, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, brings with it multiple silences that can limit our understandings of history and its legacies.The anthropological archive contained in The Handbook, despite its claims of breadth, limited its scope while defining itself as a totalizing and objective source of knowledge. Taking this as one of many examples of settler knowledge production, we must remain critical of the very categories of analysis that shape our work. To not would be to risk a reproduction of that arm of settler colonialism that claims non-Native knowledges as objective and position settlers always already “experts” of the world and its histories. Paying attention to the epistemology of indigeneity allows us to produce work that enacts the decolonial strategies we theorize.

Morgan L. Green is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research examines relationships between white settler, Indigenous, and African-American communities in Northeastern urban spaces, both literal and rhetorical, in the late 20thcentury.

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Professor Adom Getachew on Worldmaking After Empire

Disha Karnad Jani and Professor Adom Getachew discuss her new book, Worldmaking after Empire The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, 2019)

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Should we “just keep swimming”?

By Contributing Editor Luna Sarti

Several recent publications in the environmental humanities discuss the need for new ways of experiencing and imagining the world around us, with the aim to free ourselves from what Ursula K. Le Guin called the “one-way future consisting only of growth” (A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be). In the hopes of forging a new (possibly less gloomy) future, scholars across disciplines, from art and landscape studies to field biology, call for slower practices of knowledge that can train us “to pay better attention” and to recover “those pasts we need to see the world more clearly” (Arts of living on a damaged planet G1-2). Walking has become an increasingly popular practice for fostering slowness and for attuning individuals to new ways of experiencing the world and to the forgotten histories embedded in our physical landscapes, particularly in socially engaged art. Less common, but equally interesting, is the idea to turn to swimming as a way to explore waterscapes and regain the perception of our environments as terraqueous assemblages. In Waterlog (2000), filmmaker and writer Roger Deakin provides readers with a wonderful example of what it means to re-imagine life from inside waters.
Deakin Waterlog (American cover)
It is an intriguing vision which exhorts us to recognize how learning processes train us to see certain things, while others are assigned to the background and thus remain blurred. Compared to other practices, swimming certainly allows us to unsettle the contemporary land-centered attitudes that tend to dominate institutional education and scholarship. However, one might wonder how to translate the concept of swimming into practice. Contemporary swimming techniques are, in fact, another byproduct of modernity and were developed in order to make the human body move as fast and efficiently as possible when in water.

Swimming seems to be an unusual object of history, but it is indeed a product of history. In its most common understanding, leisure swimming in pools and the sea, using standard techniques such as breaststroke, free style, backstroke, and butterfly is actually the result of specific political and cultural processes. Although humans have a long history with waters and references to swimming appear in different civilizations and throughout various sources, contemporary techniques have only recently been standardized according to criteria that are largely based on modern re-readings of Roman swimming traditions and that foster ideas of speed and efficiency when the human body is placed in water.

Nicholas OrmeA few scholars have engaged in recovering ancient and pre-modern cultures of swimming, most noticeably Ralph Thomas (1905), Nicholas Orme (1983), Richard Mandell (1984) and Jean-Paul Thuillier (2004). Historian Jean-Paul Thuillier discusses how only the Romans, and not the Greeks, practiced swimming, drawing on Grimal’s suggestion that “a transformation in the sporting habits occurred in Rome, with swimming taking over from racing or wrestling”, as the presence of water in training fields seems to indicate (421). According to Orme, there is no doubt that swimming was in use among the Germanic peoples during the years of Caesar and that it was not only practiced but also praised across Roman, Germanic, and Norse civilizations. From the evidence and the analyses presented in the works on the history of swimming, it seems reasonable to state that in most cases swimming was given a higher status when associated with martial practices.

The most extensive references to swimming do, in fact, occur in texts describing military history or training, most noticeably in Plutarch and Suetonius, who both recount episodes in which Caesar’s heroism and strength emerge through his extraordinary swimming skills. Such a connection between swimming and heroism characterizes also Vegetius’ Epitoma Rei Militaris, in which the ability to swim is described as necessary for soldiers, not only to cross rivers in the absence of bridges but also in the case of sudden floods (Book 1, chapter 10).

There certainly is an incredibly high number of references to swimming practices across authors as different as Caesar, Horace, Cato the Elder, and Seneca. In most cases, swimming does imply a specific way to engage with waters which is associated with what we might describe as ‘Promethean undertakings’, either over the physical environment or against less skilled enemies. At times, one can deduce swimming practices of the time, for example in his Astronomica, Manlius seems to describe something similar to butterfly and breaststroke (Vol. 5, p. 422).

Now lifting one arm after the other to make slow sweeps he will catch the eye as he drives a furrow of foam through the sea and will sound afar as he thrashes the waters; now like a hidden two-oared vessel he will draw apart his arms beneath the water; now he will enter the waves upright and swim by walking and, pretending to touch the shallows with his feet, will seem to make a field of the surface of the sea; else, keeping his limbs motionless and lying on his back or side, he will be no burden to the waters but will recline upon them and float, the whole of him forming a sail-boat not needing oarage (Translated by G. P. Goold).

Although no Latin author appears to have written a major work of instruction on the subject, and thus it is hard to assess what the word swimming (natare) meant at the time, the examples above seem to suggest that the concept was often associated with strength, conquest, and human mastery.

Interestingly enough, in medieval times there seems to emerge a tendency to depreciate the status of swimming for the same reasons that make it valuable in most Latin texts. It has also been observed how the section on swimming in Vegetius’ treatise is sometimes omitted in medieval copies (Chaline 101). Such a tendency is particular evident in both the tradition of biblical commentary and in courtly literature. Authors such as Gregory the Great and Bartholomeus Anglicus stress the dangers of water and minimize the human ability to survive in the element by his own exertions whether one can swim or not. Moreover, while Caesar and the heroes of Northern sagas are described as excelling in this practice which plays a significant role in their heroic achievements, the heroes of the chansons de geste and the romances are rarely or never depicted as swimming. According to Orme, swimming is rarely attributed to the knightly heroes of medieval tradition, and “was indeed seen rather as alien and incompatible with their usual behaviour” (33).

de arte natandi 2
A woodcut from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi.

Historians of swimming agree in identifying a significant change in attitudes towards the practice during the 16th century when swimming is mentioned in educational literature and manuals on the subject start to circulate.  Swimming is variously discussed in treatises such as The governor by Sir Thomas Elyot (1531), Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano (1528), The schoolmaster by Roger Asham (1564) and Richard Mulcaster’s Positions (1581). According to Thomas and Orme, the first work to be entirely devoted to swimming was Wyman’s Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi: dialogus et festivus et iucundus lectu (1538), in which Wyman explains how to swim using the popular form of a dialogue between two characters, Pampirus and Erotes. However, the first illustrated treatise on the practice is considered to be Everard Digby’s De arte natandi, which appeared in England in 1587 and describes both how and where to swim.

Although it has been observed how 16th-century swimming theories targeted literate nobility and gentry, and largely evolved as analytical speculation on the ‘ideal forms of swimming’ which might have had little influence on contemporary swimming practices, it is still significant that such a theoretical interest developed in the first place. European theorists began, in fact, to publish treatises on swimming in a time that is marked by overseas expansion, human mastery, and colonialism.

In an essay entitled Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World, historian Kevin Dawson has recently demonstrated how the interest in swimming that characterizes the 16th century is entangled with overseas expansionism, extraction economy, and violence. Not only did Europeans employ a high number of ‘enslaved divers’ in the Americas to collect pearls and to recover goods from sunken ships, drawing on native populations first and later on Africans, but they also looked at the swimming techniques of these skilled slaves who adopted variants of the freestyle which were unknown to Europeans. Such a connection between colonialism, slavery, and the development of swimming techniques casts another troublesome shade on the process that lead to the formation of standardized swimming styles.

It is perhaps ironic that a practice which is now associated either with leisure or forms of ‘returns to ecological statuses’ seems to have been fostered into higher social status and standardization not only in relation to conceptions of health and physical force, but also in association with practices of conquest and dominance, either over the physical world or other populations. As a swimmer and a strong believer in practices of care (as theorized for engaged environmental humanities), I wonder what implications this history has in the way we approach swimming and if this affects what we see from and inside the water. Perhaps it is an irrelevant question, but – should we be reconsidering the way we swim?