Gov. William King’s Claim to Bingham’s Big Island

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Portrait of William King, first Governor of Maine, by Philip Spooner Harris (Wikipedia, public domain)

In the winter and spring of 1825, there was a quiet tussle over the ownership of the big island in the Kennebec River, located between Bingham and Concord.  Col. John Black, agent for the Trustees of the Estate of William Bingham, traveled there to try to close a sale with three settlers who had been in possession of the island for many years, but had no deed. From them, he learned that General William King, former—and first—governor of the State of Maine, claimed ownership of the island.

William Bingham died in 1804, and in 1807 his Estate conveyed three townships in the first range west of the Kennebec to William King and associates. These were the townships now known as Concord, Lexington, and Kingfield. This sale was evidently the source of confusion over the island’s ownership, at least in the minds of Governor King and the Bingham residents who had possessed and improved it. John Black had no doubt that the island belonged to the Estate.

When William Bingham completed his million-acre Kennebec Purchase in 1793, the settlement on both sides of the river at Bingham and Concord had already been mapped. Samuel Titcomb surveyed the tract in 1790, and used a dotted line to set the boundary between Bingham and Concord in the river channel.

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Detail of the Kennebec River Channel at Bingham – Samuel Titcomb, 1790 [original at Digital Commons, Maine Archives; annotated by the author]

Col. Black did his homework, and wrote to Estate Trustee John Richards outlining the issue, on February 13, 1825:

My Dear Sir,)
       I came down from the Million Acres yesterday afternoon in a snow storm for the purpose of examining the Deeds of conveyance of the three towns to Gen’l King & others. I find that on the 1st June 1807 the Trustees of Mr Bingham’s Estate conveyed those tracts, particularly stating the quantity of land in each Towns’p.
       In Towns’p No. One next the river are 21,682 Acres per survey – this is the actual number of acres in the Towns’p West of the river and exclusive of some islands in the river, which are no where mentioned in the Deed.
       From the whole number of Acres embraced in the three townships, are reserved 2480 Acres sold, & contracted for – Your Deed, and Mr Otis’s to Gen’l King, refers to the original Deed for particular descriptions.
       One of the islands alluded to above is a valuable one containing 35 acres, and lying near the shore of Bingham (the channel of the river being West of it) it has always been taxed in Bingham and improved by inhabitants of this town for more than thirty years, and for that reason, the occupants for some time declined settling with me for it.
       When I was there last summer they finally agreed to settle, but one of the three who improve it, being absent, they requested me to postpone the settlement untill I came again.
        I accordingly have now called upon them, and they tell me that Gen’l King claims the islands & has called upon them to settle with him. When they told him their understanding with me, he said the island did not belong to the Bingham estate, and that I had no business with it, and if they did not purchase of him, he would sell it to some one else – Thus threatened, they gave him their notes for the Island, which in my opinion is no more the property of Gen’l King, than it is mine.

There was a sense of urgency in Black’s letter, as the State was about to implement a statute which would have granted ownership of the tract  to those who had continuously possessed and improved it over a designated period of years.     

       I should not have written you on the subject, untill my return home, did not the necessity of the case require it. A limitation Act of this state goes into operation on the 15th March next, by which all persons become legal owners of the land they occupy & improve, provided they have had the undisturbed possession of the sod for more than twenty years.
       You will perceive that by the operation of this law the claim of the Trustees will be extinct after 15 of next month –

Black went on to suggest a solution he could pursue through the court system, which he hoped would gain some time to deal with King’s claim, and allow him to complete the sale to the gentlemen from Bingham.

      I wish you to direct me what course to pursue, but as there is no time to be lost, I would suggest for your consideration, the propriety of commencing an action of Ejectment against those in possession before the said 15th March –
       The service of the writ may be made, without the knowledge of the Defendants, untill fourteen days previous to the sitting of the Court – and as it can be brought at the term to be holden on the 18 June next, there will be time to make such further enquiries respecting this extraordinary claim, as you may think proper.
       Before I leave this place, I will make such arrangements that should you approve of this course, it can be pursued without delay.

Black was able to reach a settlement with the settlers in possession of “Goodridge’s Island.” The sale was recorded in his account books on June 11, 1825 – just a week before the June court session. The settlers were Ephraim Wood, Edward Hows [Howes], and Abijah Goodridge [Goodrich].

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John Black’s Account Page Showing Sale of the Island in Bingham to Mess’rs. Wood, Hows & Goodridge

According to Col. Black, William King continued to assert his claim to the island as late as 1827, when Black wrote in his trip journal  “He [King] still claims the island in Bingham.”

The 1883 Colby Atlas shows the way in which the island was divided among its later owners, Calvin Colby, David Whipple, and (probably) Charles Bray.

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Detail of Island in the Kennebec at Bingham, 1860

Sources:

 

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