In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Biddeford History & Heritage Project

Sharing the history of a proud city rising where the water falls

III. An undercurrent of danger: Colonial Biddeford

The village of Winter Harbor - west Saco was an increasingly dangerous place to live in the 17th and 18th centuries. The area of modern Maine was the crossroads of English and French North America, and all the old hatreds and arguments crossed from the Old World into the New with vicious alacrity. Native peoples would be drawn in to these battles by both sides, suffering greatly during what was probably the most violent period of Biddeford history.

From the 1680's to the 1760's, war after war broke over the natives and settlers like the waves crashing along the rocky shoreline. Many lives were lost on both sides, and for some time many of the settlers fled south away from the frontier, and most of the remaining natives fled north to Canada and deep interior places where no Europeans cared to tread. As more Europeans settled here, more of the natives stayed permanently away. This fed into a long-propagated idea that that these native tribes had all died.

One violent battle took place during King Philips's War when the Pigwacket/Sokoki leader known as Squando led a group of warriors against the falls area garrison of Major Phillips. Squando had been turned against the settlers at the death of his child, which had been caused by the intentional overturning of a canoe in the middle of the river by a pair of Europeans. This tragedy was the origin of the legend of the Saco River Curse.

During the fight warriors burned two mills and a house in the area to try and lure out the settlers, to no avail. The natives constructed a cart and filled it with combustibles which they planned on tossing over the garrison walls. The wheel of the cart ended up in a pot hole, however, and the natives were exposed to the settlers' fire. Six natives were killed and 15 wounded.

In 1718 the area of west Saco and Winter Harbor became a separate town with the name of Biddeford, after the town in Devon, England. Most of the homes in the area still ran along the river, and were close by Fort Mary (the local garrison) or the village of Winter Harbor, and settlers continued to farm, fish and trade.

Lady Pepperell's needle case, 1812
Lady Pepperell's needle case, 1812
McArthur Public Library

Fighting with the natives did not cease; however, settlers and entrepreneurs continued to come to the area. Sir William Pepperell, Jr. of Kittery and business associates purchased property in 1716-7 around the falls, and Scots-Irish immigrants arrived in greater numbers throughout the 1740's. The lumber industry was also thriving despite the violence in Biddeford, and a fledgling shipbuilding industry was growing as well. All development revolved around the river. Lawyers, including James Sullivan and George Thatcher, were drawn to the town were here to work on real estate, business needs, and land and water claims.