1814: South Berwick Comes into Its Own
by Norma Keim
February 12, 1814 was a momentous day for the village of Quamphegan. Located on the site of an ancient Indian village still bearing its name, it was the commercial center of the town of Berwick, which then included today’s South Berwick, Berwick and North Berwick.
James Sullivan, Massachusetts’ governor from 1807–08, had apprenticed at Quamphegan as a law clerk, and in his 1795 "The History of the Province of Maine," identifies Quamphegan Landing as the "great Landing place," located at what is now the Counting House Park on Liberty Street in South Berwick.
By 1713, the Landing was crowded with stores and businesses, gundalows unloading goods from Portsmouth, others being loaded with Berwick and Lebanon food and wood products (clapboards, shingles and lumber). Masts bound for England were drawn by oxen on mast roads extending into Lebanon and Sanford, on "highways" such as Cranberry Meadows Road and today's Route 4. They passed through the center of town (which didn't exist then as it does today) to the "great Landing place," and were rafted down the Salmon Falls River to mast ships waiting in Portsmouth. An extensive area of interior southern Maine was serviced by the commercial interests at Quamphegan.
The settlements at the falls line of the Salmon Falls River (visible from the Counting House Park), were the earliest in Berwick. Documentation dates from 1631, when Ambrose Gibbons was writing to his English employers. Plans for a saw mill and a grist mill date from that time. The key was access to salt water. The tidal Salmon Falls River was all important, the means of transportation of goods and people.
In 1713, the largest commercial settlements in northern Kittery were at Quamphegan (the future South Berwick), Salmon Falls (in Berwick), and Doughty Falls (North Berwick). The bulk of the land mass in northern Kittery reached all the way to Lebanon and Sanford and was called Kittery Commons. Kittery parceled out sections of land to freeholders (male voters) who agreed to develop it. Lumbering and farming was carried out by independent-minded farmers and lumbermen.
In 1713, the seat of government was in Boston, of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820). Communication between Boston and the people of the Province of Maine was through the meeting house. It was "the law" to attend Sunday meeting, for proclamations and discussion occurred there on a regular basis. Freeholders could be fined for not attending meeting. At the time, Kittery had three meeting houses, in Kittery, today's Eliot and today's South Berwick. The three parts of Kittery had different economies -- fishing and commerce in Kittery, farming and fishing in Eliot, and lumbering, agriculture, saw mills and commerce in the northern part of the town. That section finally separated from its mother town in 1713 and was renamed Berwick.
In 1814, the separation process occurred again. By then, there were two separate parishes in Berwick. In 1754, the agrarian north of the town had wanted a separate parish and meeting house. The North Parish of Berwick was formed at the new Blackberry Hill meeting house, with Quamphegan becoming the South Parish. The new South Parish meeting house was located on Old South (Parish) Road as seen on the accompanying 1795 map. It would be an easy step for the South Parish to become a separate town, for boundaries were already drawn.
According to Berwick Town Records, two previous attempts had been made by South Parish people to form a separate town. In 1812, there were town meetings about the controversial War of 1812. One group, presumably the merchants and sea captains of the commercial villages, did not support the war; the loyal and patriotic agrarian group supported it wholeheartedly. Those seeing the war as reckless and unnecessary were likely branded unpatriotic and were outvoted. A second supportive resolution passed at the meeting of 6 July 1812, ending with the statement, "Firmly resolved (as were our Fathers), to die as we have lived, citizens of a free sovereign, and independent Nation."
Two years later, Berwick became a separate town, with the blessings of the Massachusetts Court. Berwick Town Records of Jan. 23, 1815 state, just for the record : "South Berwick Incorporated Feb. 12, 1814." Quamphegan became the village of South Berwick, of the new Town of South Berwick. The first town meeting was held at the South Parish meeting house on March 14, 1814.