from the Monhegan Nature Guide…
Monhegan’s importance as a fishing base dates back farther than recorded history. Evidence that Native Americans used the island for fishing and hunting comes from artifacts, such as arrowheads, that have been found around the island. Some of these artifacts are on display at the Monhegan Museum.
European explorers first visited the island in the early seventeenth century and soon began to use it as a fishing camp. These explorers, and later settlers, were amazed at the abundance of fish they found in the waters around Monhegan. Over the next two centuries the island was inhabited intermittently as land disputes wracked the entire east coast of North America. By the late eighteenth century, with the end of the French and Indian War, relative peace returned to the area and a stable community grew and prospered. In 1839 Monhegan was established as an island plantation. The island’s roughly 500 acres provided fertile land for growing crops, mainly potatoes, as well as livestock, including sheep, pigs, and cattle. Fishing continued to provide an important source of sustenance for the island community.
By the second half of the nineteenth century Monhegan began to see a shift in population. Where previously it had been a community of subsistence farmers and fishermen, it began to see an influx of rusticators, wealthy city people who had the means to escape urban life and enjoy spending the summer months on the peaceful shores of Monhegan. In time, artists started coming to the island to paint its dramatic landscape, and by the early twentieth century the island was considered an artists’ colony that drew many well-known painters and their students.
As tourism on Monhegan grew throughout the twentieth century, hotels and cottages continued to pop up, many built only for summer use. Summer people would arrive in the spring once the snow, ice, and wind of the winter months had disappeared and would close down their cottages in the fall when the crisp, cool air returned. The year-round population maintained a strong community, braving the harsh winter weather to fish for lobster, the island’s largest industry after tourism.
During the first several decades of the twentieth century, one frequent island visitor, Theodore Edison (son of the inventor Thomas Edison), took notice of the proliferation of cottages throughout the island and became aware of plans to divide up the remaining wild land into building lots. Having spent a great deal of time on the island throughout his life, Edison had developed a strong fondness for the island as a wild place and decided to try to preserve some of the remaining wildlands in their natural state. Beginning in 1938, Edison started purchasing as much land as was available. By 1959 he had acquired 23 parcels. Ultimately he donated this land, as a land trust, to a new organization that would manage the land in perpetuity.
This was the beginning of Monhegan Associates, Inc. (MAI), which today is still an active organization that carries out a variety of duties required to keep the almost 350-acre land trust in sound condition so it can be an asset to islanders and the public. Volunteers on several committees take care of everything from education and membership to trail maintenance and invasive species management. Although MAI aims to interfere as little as possible with the natural state of the wildlands, research is occasionally conducted to learn about these natural processes as they occur, attempts are made to remove invasive species, and trails are cleared to ensure that the land is accessible to those who wish to enjoy it.
As Monhegan moves forward in the twenty-first century, the economic realities of life on a small island necessitate a continual process of innovation and adaptation. The Island Farm was started in 2010 to decrease the island’s dependence on food from the mainland and to create jobs for island residents. At the same time, modern technology has allowed some year-round residents to telecommute to jobs based on the mainland. As the fishing industry lags in profitability, new businesses are popping up to fill the needs of island residents and visitors. Above all, time has shown that the resourcefulness and resilience of the Monhegan community are aspects of the island’s human history that have not changed over the centuries.