Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Portland’s first European property owner arrived at the tail end of 1623. He made friends with Native Americans here and named the Fore River after himself. Then, he built a fortified house on an island in the harbor. Leaving ten men behind to look after his stuff, he sailed back to England the following summer. That made him Portland’s first absentee landlord, too.
He never saw Casco Bay again and nobody knows what happened to the men he left behind.
Christopher Levett was born 431 years ago this week on April 5, 1586 in York, England. Levett bought Portland, along with 6,000 acres of land, sight unseen, in May 1623. The price was 110 pounds. He bought it from a royal monopoly called the Council of New England. The crown had granted them the land.
Levett was a navy captain and intended to build a city here called York. After returning home, he wrote a book called “Voyage Into New England.” It was a kind of advertisement designed to drum up financial support for his colonial city idea. He’d need money and settlers if it was ever going to happen.
In his book, he described the friendly natives who called the place “Quack.” He said they liked trading with him and even tried to give him beaver pelts for nothing. He also claimed they granted him permission to come back and build his city. Of course, this is a one-sided, sales pitch of a recollection of the events. You might want to take it with a grain of salt.
Levett said there was salmon and sturgeon in the Fore River, not to mention flocks of tasty sea birds to eat. He said there were plenty of trees for ship spars and the soil looked black and fertile. The winters were cold, he said, but short.
The only real fault he could find were the black flies and mosquitos. Levett said they were bad but all you had to do was wear thick stockings, gloves and wrap your face in linen. Then you’d be just fine. No problem.
Levett left ten men behind in a fortified house on one of the islands. It may have stood on House Island but nobody knows for sure. No historical documents mention the souls he left behind. They may have given up waiting and gone back home on the fishing boats that came every year. Or, they may have died here, one-by-one, of hunger, disease or violence. No trace of them or the house remains today.
Despite his glowing recommendations, nobody bit. Levett never raised the capital to return to Portland Harbor. He died making an Atlantic crossing on a ship called the Porcupine, around the age of 45, in 1630. His shipmates buried him at sea, his dream unrealized.
That’s why Portland isn’t called York today. At least it’s not called Quack, either.
Note: If you want to know more about Levett and his adventures read “Maine in the Age of Discovery,” a 1988 Maine Historical Society publication, or “The Maine Reader,” edited by Charles and Samuella Shain. If you really want to go deep, head up to the Portland Room at the Portland Public Library and browse James Phinney Baxter’s “Miscellaneous Papers.”
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.