The earliest human habitation in what is now Maine can be traced back to prehistoric times, as evidenced by the burial mounds of the Red Paint people found in the south central part of the state. The Native Americans who came later left enormous shell heaps, variously estimated to be from 1,000 to 5,000 years old. At the time of settlement by Europeans the Abnaki were scattered along the coast and in some inland areas.
The coast of Maine, which may have been visited by the Norsemen, was included in the grant that James I of England awarded to the Plymouth Company, and colonists set out under George Popham in 1607. Their settlement, Fort St. George, on the present site of Phippsburg at the mouth of the Kennebec (then called the Sagadahoc) River, did not prosper, and the colonists returned to England in 1608. The French came to the area in 1613 and established a colony and a Jesuit mission on Mt. Desert Island; however, the English under Sir Samuel Argall expelled them.
In 1620 the Council for New England (successor to the Plymouth Company) granted Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason the territory between the Kennebec and Merrimack rivers extending 60 mi (97 km) inland. At this time the region became known as Maine, either to honor Henrietta Maria, queen of Charles I, who was feudal proprietor of the province in France called Maine, or to distinguish the mainland from the offshore islands. Neglected after Gorges's death in 1647, Maine settlers came under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1652. King Philip's War (1675–76) was the first of many struggles between the British on one side and the French and Native Americans on the other, all of which slowed further settlement of Maine.
French influence, which had been reasserted east of the Penobscot, declined rapidly after 1688, when Sir Edmund Andros, royal governor of all New England, seized French fortifications there. After the colonists overthrew Andros, Massachusetts received a new charter (1691) that confirmed its hold on Maine. With Sir William Phips, a Maine native, as governor and the territorial question settled, local government and institutions in the Massachusetts tradition took root in Maine. Maine soon had prosperous fishing, lumbering, and shipbuilding industries.
Dissatisfaction with British rule was first expressed openly after Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765; in protest, a mob at Falmouth (Portland) seized a quantity of the hated stamps. As conflicts increased between the colonies and England, nonimportation societies formed to boycott English goods sprang up in Maine. During the American Revolution Falmouth paid dearly for its defiance; it was devastated by a British fleet in 1775. In that same year Benedict Arnold led his grueling, unsuccessful expedition against Quebec through Maine.
During the war supplies were cut off and conflicts with Native Americans were frequent, but with American independence won, economic development was rapid in what was then called the District of Maine, one of the three admiralty districts of Massachusetts set up by the Continental Congress in 1775. However, the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812 interrupted the thriving commerce and turned the district toward industrial development.
Agitation for statehood, which had been growing since the Revolution, now became widespread. Dissatisfaction with Massachusetts was aroused by the inadequate military protection provided during the War of 1812; by the land policy, which encouraged absentee ownership; and by the political differences between conservative Massachusetts and liberal Maine. The imminent admission of Missouri into the Union as a slave state hastened the separation of Maine from Massachusetts, and equality of power between North and South was preserved by admitting Maine as a free state in 1820, as part of the Missouri Compromise.
With Portland as its capital (moved to Augusta in 1832) the new state entered a prosperous period. During the first half of the 19th cent. Maine enjoyed its greatest population increase. A highly profitable timber trade was carried on with the West Indies, Europe, and Asia, and towns such as Bath became leaders in American shipbuilding. The long-standing Northeast Boundary Dispute almost precipitated border warfare between Maine and New Brunswick in the so-called Aroostook War of 1839; the controversy was settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Great Britain in 1842.
Political life was vigorous, particularly in the 1850s when the reluctance of the Democrats, who had been dominant since 1820, to take a firm antislavery stand swept the new Republican party into power. Hannibal Hamlin was a leading Republican politician and was vice president during Abraham Lincoln's first administration. Antislavery sentiment was strong, and Maine made sizable contributions of men and money to the Union in the Civil War. Generals Oliver O. Howard and Joshua L. Chamberlain were from Maine. For decades regulation of the liquor traffic was the chief political issue in Maine, and the state was the first to adopt (1851) a prohibition law. It was incorporated into the constitution in 1884 and was not repealed until 1934.
State politics entered a hectic stage in 1878 when the newly organized Greenback party combined with the Democrats to carry the election, ending more than 20 years of Republican rule. The following year the coalition was accused of manipulating election returns, a charge sustained by the state supreme court, which seated a rival legislature elected by the Republicans. In 1880 the fusionists were again successful, but from that time until the 1950s the state was generally Republican, providing that party with such national leaders as James G. Blaine, Thomas B. Reed, and Margaret Chase Smith, who in 1948 became the first Republican woman U.S. senator. Former U.S. Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, a Democrat, was elected governor in 1954. In 1964 and 1968 (when Muskie, then a U.S. senator, ran unsuccessfully for vice president) the state voted Democratic in the presidential election for the first time since 1912.
In 1969 personal and corporate income taxes were added to the sales tax within the state. Maine's population grew 13.2% during the 1970s and 9.2% during the 1980s, its largest increases since the 1840s. Environmental issues have occupied the state's attention in recent decades. In an attempt to revive native salmon populations, river logging was banned in the 1970s, and some dams have been removed or slated for removal. Maine voters narrowly defeated several referendum proposals to hasten the scheduled 1997 closing of the nuclear power plant at Wiscasset. The effects of clear-cutting practices in Maine's forests and of large-scale fish farming along the coast were also focuses of debate.