Maine February 23, 2017
The Tragic History Of This Little-Known Island In Maine Will Break Your Heart
Maine is a beautiful place to spend time, but we’re not without our troubling history. What most people see today hides the sad story of an island community forced to leave their homes and resettle elsewhere with little to no help from anyone. Already a marginalized group of people, finding acceptance was not easy. This is the story of Malaga Island in Maine.
The story of Malaga Island begins on the half mile long and quarter mile wide land mass off the coast of Phippsburg.
It was a slight bit of land that existed within sight of the Phippsburg coast.
Beginning around 1860, a small, racially mixed community existed there.
Many incorrectly believed (and still believe) that the community was made up of runaway slaves, but this is not true.
Many of those living here were descendants of families in the area, some going as far back as the 1700s and The American Revolution.
The island community worked in areas such as fishing, masonry, or carpentry.
In the late 1800s, immigration to America increased giving rise to the dangerous, pseudoscience known as "eugenics."
Those who believed in eugenics believed that anyone who was not white was a threat to the Anglo Saxon heritage in America that was believed to be superior.
The economic situation in Maine became dismal in the late 1800s as well.
Jobs in coastal towns, including nearby Phippsburg, disappeared and resources in the area became scarce. Families were forced to rely on assistance from the towns in which they lived. At the time, there were no federal programs for welfare or help for those suddenly unemployed. In order to care for people in need, individual towns needed to raise taxes or take people into homes. Phippsburg residents felt that they couldn't afford to assistant the Malaga Islanders, which left the community in bad circumstances.
Malaga Island began to be seen as a bad place, unfit for real life and it was unfairly documented as such in papers from Maine to Boston.
Despite the work of two missionaries to start a successful school for children on the island, the press continued to paint the area in a negative light and the community living under terrible conditions.
In some ways, the school aided in the island becoming bigger news in the press.
The positive to come of this negative coverage is that Malaga Island became one of the best documented accounts of rural Black American life in the early 1900s. This group is mentioned in history books, but the newspaper coverage allowed for their experience to be shared. It is this power of the press to share stories and true experiences that has never gone away.
In 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted visited Malaga and decided that the community must be moved.
The island was bought by the state of Maine in a reportedly illegal deal. The 33 inhabitants were forced to move.
While they received a small amount of money, the move was hard for all. Many tried to move their homes to new areas via raft. But, the eugenics movement had already done enough damage and they found very few places willing to welcome them.
Any buildings that remained on the island were demolished, with the exception of the schoolhouse which was moved to a new place to become a church.
8 residents who were black or Native American were institutionalized at Pineland, The Maine Home for the Feeble-Minded.
Nobody seemed to care that 6 of these people were of normal intelligence and mentally competent. These people never left the institution.
Sadly, it wasn't just living residents that were forced to go through a terrible relocation.
18 graves on Malaga Island were excavated and combined into five coffins and moved to the Pineland cemetery.
Many believe that the state did this as a way of covering up any signs of life having ever existed on Malaga Island.
Each of these graves bear the same date in 1912 - the one on which they were excavated.
A small marker exists today to commemorate those that were moved after death to the cemetery.
Despite plans, Malaga Island was never developed and it sits empty even today.
Historians have worked to uncover more history of Malaga Island.
Eugenics has no place in our world and the hope is that by telling this story, history will not repeat itself. For now, it's a dark stain on Maine that we can only hope will be re-told to keep the memories of those that lived there alive.
For more history, please view
this video which includes the work uncovered by a team at USM.
Sadly, this isn’t the only story of Mainers losing their homes at the hands of larger entities.
Click here for the sad story of Flagstaff Lake and the underwater ghost town that exists today.