April 07, 2020

A pine tree visionary UM professor’s new book shines light on Moses Greenleaf, the map maker who helped chart the state’s frontiers

In the first decades of the 1800s, when Maine was still a frontier, Moses Greenleaf and his maps of Maine contributed significantly to the understanding of the district’s interior and the lay of its land, information he hoped would accelerate its settlement.

How Greenleaf, a visionary for the Pine Tree State and its development, accomplished his map-making work, how he sought his fortune as a land agent for Township 6 and made his home in Williamsburg near Milo and Brownville, is the subject of Walter Macdougall’s “Settling the Maine Wilderness: Moses Greenleaf, His Maps, and His Household of Faith, 1777-1834.”

Macdougall, University of Maine professor emeritus, said his impetus for writing the biography stemmed from the fact that Moses Greenleaf was a Freemason and the first Master of the Piscataquis Lodge, where Macdougall is a member. Macdougall also was friends with Lillian Fredin, a Greenleaf descendant who lived at the Greenleaf homestead, visible from the Macdougalls’ house in Milo.

“It grew from there,” Macdougall said. “I became enthralled with the story.” He began writing and researching the book 25 years ago, time for trees to grow tall enough to obliterate his view of the Greenleaf homestead.

“It took me to an understanding of the present situation of the state of Maine and the human adventure and journey … that we are all living on the edge of undiscovered country,” he said of writing the book.

Macdougall also felt a personal affinity with Moses Greenleaf because of his own interest in canals and transportation and surveying.

“I love surveying,” he said, “bringing the North down from the Pole Star.” He also lives by the principles with which Greenleaf imbued his “household of faith” – the belief that “a prevailing and creative process grooves the universe and creates a momentary expression in the life of every man … that breathes in man the urge and the capacity to construct a better earthly home for humankind.”

In addition to creating maps, Greenleaf wrote and compiled two books that dealt with ideas for the marketing and development of Maine’s interior – “A Statistical View of the District of Maine,” published in 1816; and “Survey of Maine: In Reference to its Geographical Features and Political Economy,” with an accompanying atlas of his maps to accompany it, published in 1829.

The “Statistical View” was intended as a reference book for members of the Massachusetts Legislature. It contains information about Maine’s soils, climate, general description and livability, and calls for increased settlement of the District of Maine “before the impulse toward the west [settlement in Ohio and other western lands] shall have grown into a habit,” Greenleaf wrote, a habit that might deprive Maine of its share of settlers. The book also dealt with agriculture, land values, population density and resources, including unsold land and the people who already lived there or who might want to.

The “Survey,” intended as a textbook for the leaders of the new state of Maine, was important because of two issues facing it – recent statehood in 1820 and the northern border dispute with Great Britain. Maine needed “an authoritative work in the state’s geographic resources, historic boundaries and her people,” Macdougall writes. The “Survey” covers such topics as education, roads, climate and commerce.

Greenleaf also had compiled a list of Indian place names, one of the first to do so.

A chapter of Macdougall’s “Settling the Maine Wilderness” sums up Greenleaf’s vision for Maine – population, land use and ownership, transportation, industry and commerce, agriculture, government, education and the spirit of the people.

“He wasn’t afraid to say exactly what he believed,” Macdougall said of Greenleaf. “He was described as very forthright.”

Macdougall believes that Greenleaf’s vision for Maine resonates today.

“Maine is a place where a saner life can happen, but if we lose control of the land to outside interests, that can’t happen. We need to put roots down into the soil, work the soil and become part of it,” he said. “We need to think very carefully about how we use the land. All we have is the land. It’s the place we live,” a view that Greenleaf espoused.

In October 1947, Masonic Lodge members met on Greenleaf Hill and erected a monument to Moses Greenleaf and his accomplishments.

“Moses Greenleaf is a seminal figure in Maine history,” said Yolanda Theunissen, curator of the Osher Map Library and director of the Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine, which published the book. “He is our [Thomas] Jefferson on the hill. The last assessment of Greenleaf’s life was written in 1902 and we felt it needed to be looked at again. Everything he did was always overlaid with a sense of the common good.”

Aided by funding from Masonic Lodges, the book is available free of charge to Maine’s school libraries and public libraries, handed out at conferences and other events. The book carries out the mission of the Osher Map Library to serve as a source of education for all people of Maine, regardless of age or background, Theunissen said.

“We have just enlisted professor Joel Eastman, USM professor of history emeritus, to develop a teacher’s guide to accompany the book. We are seeking teachers who want to work with Eastman to produce chapters for the guide,” Theunissen said. “We hope to develop a tool for educators who teach Maine studies units or the Maine history component in American history. Our goal is for the book to become a classic, indispensable resource on the subject with an accompanying teachers’ guide to ensure that it will be a useful addition to the classroom.”

Fourth-grade to 12th-grade teachers interested in working on the project should e-mail oml@usm.maine.edu to obtain more information.

The book, Theunissen said, was designed to appeal to scholars, Maine history buffs and teachers. Greenleaf and Macdougall “are kindred spirits on so many levels. It was a privilege for us to work with [Macdougall].”

“I made a friend in Moses,” Macdougall said. “In spirit, he’s still up there on the hill.”

Walter Macdougall will give a talk about Moses Greenleaf at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23, at Bangor Public Library. Copies of his book will be available for purchase and signing. Macdougall also is the author of “The Old Somerset Railroad.” To obtain information about the book or to order copies, call Barbara Kelly, 780-4072, or e-mail bkelly@usm.maine.edu.

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