A party of French explorers under Samuel de Champlain, who sailed up the Kennebec River in the summer of 1605, were some of the first known Europeans to see Swan Island.
In the 1750's, the northern two-thirds of Swan Island and Little Swan Island was granted to Dr. Silvester Gardiner. A loyalist at the time of the American Revolution, he abandoned Maine and found temporary shelter in Halifax. In 1778 he settled in Poole, England. and his property in Boston and Maine was confiscated and all goods that could be found were sold at public auction. Dr. Gardiner returned to the United States in 1785 and died at Kingston, Rhode Island in 1786 in his 80th year. The town of Gardiner was named in his honor.
By the 1840’s residents of Swan Island were reportedly dissatisfied with the high tax rates levied by the Town of Dresden. While there seems to have been significant opposition from the “mother town” to the secession, the inhabitants of Swan Island prevailed, and in 1847 Swan Island and Little Swan Island became the Town of Perkins. The town was named after Col. Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Jr., a wealthy Boston china merchant who married Jane Frances Dumaresq.
The Kennebec tribe, part of the Abenaki Indians, had summer hunting camps on Swan Island for centuries. They also harvested wild rice from the fertile area at the southern terminus of Swan Island.
While Swan Island is only four miles long and about 1,500-acres, never housing more than 100 residents, the people of the Town of Perkins built seven sea going vessels in the mid 19th century.
At one time, Swan Island housed three ice houses during the ice harvesting era of the early 1900's. The three ice houses were named Consumer's, Underwood's and Deering's with Underwood being the northernmost and Deering being the southernmost, all located on the eastern banks of the island.
You may think the name Swan Island is named after Swans, but, it is not derived from that kind of bird. Bartholomew Gosnold sailed the Maine coast in 1602 and recorded, in detail, the natural resources he observed, including “Fowles”. Swans are not among the fifteen species of birds listed. Another tradition claims that “Swan” is a slightly shortened version of the Indian name “Swango”, close to the word “sowangan”, meaning the bald eagle. “Eagles” top Gosnold’s 1602 list of Maine birds. Swan Island has been, and is, one of the more important breeding areas in the northeast of the bald eagle.
In the 1940's, when Swan Island first became a Wildlife Management Area, a wire fence exclosure was built for experiments with various types of deer repellents. As you pass by the fenced 4-acre plot, take notice of the number and variety of trees and shrubs growing inside. When you get to the end of the fence, compare what you see inside with what is growing outside the fence.
Today, Swan Island is home to an amazing riverfront campground that is free to access on a first come, first served basis. The campsite consists of:
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