The Abenaki are one of the Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands of Canada and the United States that called Swan Island home. They are an Algonquian-speaking people and part of the Wabanaki Confederacy. The Eastern Abenaki language was predominantly spoken in Maine, while the Western Abenaki language was spoken in Quebec, Vermont, and New Hampshire. While Abenaki peoples have shared cultural traits, they did not historically have a centralized government. They came together as a post-contact community after their original tribes were decimated by colonization, disease, and warfare. Kennebec (also Kinipekw, Kennebeck, Caniba, later known as Norridgewock), lived in the Kennebec River Valley in northern Maine. Principal village: Norridgewock (Naridgewalk, Neridgewok, Noronjawoke); other villages: Amaseconti (Amesokanti, Anmissoukanti), Kennebec, and Sagadahoc. Evidence of human activity on Swan Island dates back at least 9,000 years ago.
In 1750, Captain James Whidden’s purchase of Swan Island represented its first permanent settlement and anticipated the creation of the Town of Frankfort (Dresden) by the Kennebec Proprietors in 1752. Swan Island and Little Swan Island became part of the Town of Frankfort upon its creation. At the same time, the northern two-thirds of the island and Little Swan Island was granted to Dr. Silvester Gardiner. Island residents appear to have been relatively prosperous during the first decades of the 19th century. Several retired sea captains are known to have settled on the island during this period. The American Revolutionary veteran, Major Samuel Tubbs, had a Federal manner house built on the northern head of the island overlooking both channels of the Kennebec. The prominently situated Tubbs-Reed House survives as the second oldest building on the island.
The town of Perkins was incorporated in the mid-19th century and then disincorporated in 1918. During the 19th century, the town was a community of almost 100 residents who engaged in shipbuilding, farming and ice harvesting. The island also attracted summer residents who built summer homes, and its most famous summer resident was Thomas Handasyd Perkins. The town was named for him when it was incorporated in the mid-19th century, after he paid for its incorporation. Besides town government, the town also had a schoolhouse and cemetery. However, the town was disincorporated in 1918, so it became a township managed by the state. By the mid-1940s the Great Depression and ongoing pollution of the Kennebec River led to the decline of the island's industries and the island was abandoned.
Long interested in acquiring land with which to undertake waterfowl management in Merrymeeting Bay, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began buying farms on the island during the early 1940’s. By the 1950’s, the only remaining private land was the Curtis cemetery, which was sold to the Department. The maintenance of the island’s historic land use pattern is in large part due to the protection provided by the Department. Approximately 900 acres on the island are forested while 400 acres remain in open fields, mowed by I.F. & W. This ratio of forested to open land is nearly equivalent to the land use pattern visible in c. 1940 aerial photographs of the island. During the late 1960’s, the Department restored both the Gardiner-Dumaresq and Tubbs-Reed Houses. The Robinson House and Priest House were both used to house Inland Fisheries and Wildlife workers.
Today, visitors can boat or paddle to the island across the Kennebec River for a day or exploration or overnight stay in the first-come, first-served campground. The amenities include:
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