Adventures on Matinicus Island
After a young boy’s father is lost at sea in the mid 1800’s, his mother sends him to grow up on an Island off the coast of Maine.
Author David Jones has gathered teaching and historical resources about Matinicus Island and Maine seafaring
About The Book
When Stephen’s dad is lost at sea in the mid-1800s, his life begins to unravel. His devoted mother Ellen, an Irish wash-woman, can’t keep an eye on Stephen and his brother while trying to make enough for the family to live on.
At her wits’ end, Ellen sends Stephen to a farm upstate, but Stephen doesn’t take to it. Stephen is finally taken in by a family living on an island 23 miles off the coast of Maine: Matinicus. There, Stephen rediscovers himself through adventures and misadventures with new friends. Instead of feeling trapped on the Island so far from home, Stephen finds freedom as he grows into adulthood through the devoted care of his newfound Grandmother and Grandfather.
Toward the end of his life, Stephen recounted this true story to his daughter in law, Marian Wells Cronin. The Island has now been updated for contemporary readers by Stephen’s great-grandson, David Jones.
Combined with historical notes and additional bonus materials online, this story provides a rich window into one family’s history that can help all of us make sense of who we wish to be in the present.
Testing the Limits
A Warm Winter
A Hard Lesson
A New Beginning
At the outset of this book, it is necessary and right to acknowledge that Matinicus Island, Rockland and other locations mentioned in this text are located in the ancestral homelands of the Penobscot Nation, who since time immemorial have hunted, fished, gathered and taken care of these lands. I respect the Penobscot Nation’s sovereignty and their right to self-determination, and honor their sacred spiritual connection with the land and the water.
Refreshing the original version of The Island has been a work of several years, supported by many who have been generous with their encouragement, information and time. I wish to thank the following for their assistance:
- Suzanne Rankin, Matinicus Historical Society, whose knowledge of the history of Matinicus Island spans generations and extends in all directions.
- Warren and Harriet Williams, whose love for the island and its history motivated our many interactions.
- Daniel, at inov8design, who patiently
tweaked the maps in this text to eventually satisfy the author’s seemingly endless requests.
- The team at Edmonds Press, who helped plot this voyage from launch to final arrival, providing hours of consultation and a steady hand that kept the project on course.
And, finally, thanks to my great-grandfather,
Stephen Cronin, whose migration from Rockland to Kansas, from street hooligan to community leader, was shaped by the loving guidance he received while growing up on Matinicus Island. Recognizing the value of those impactful years, at age 89 he took the time to recount the events in this book. I have learned that members of the Penobscot Nation respect and learn from their elders. May all of us follow their wise example.
A Note to the Reader
Matinicus Island sits quietly 22 miles off the
coast of southern Maine, at the entrance to
Penobscot Bay. A scant two miles long and only a mile wide, it rises no more than 100 feet above the ocean at its highest point. It is the furthest inhabited US land off the east coast into the Atlantic Ocean. The name Matinicus comes from an Abenaki word for “far out island.”
Throughout the island’s history, humans have fished, farmed, and grazed their animals, drawing on the natural resources which abound on and around this rise of rock in the Atlantic. Until the mid-1700’s, the native Penobscot people hunted seals and gathered bird eggs on the shores of Matinicus and many other nearby islands. When, in 1750, Ebenezer Hall attempted to become the island’s first permanent European settler, his intrusion onto traditional fishing and sealing sites alarmed the Penobscot people. They wrote to the Boston based representatives of King George II, asking that Hall be removed. After waiting four years, when no action was taken, they raided Matinicus and killed Hall. However, within months of Hall’s death other European settlers arrived on the island, and by 1840 the island was organized as a Plantation. These new white settlers established permanent farms and constructed shacks for drying fish and for boatbuilding.
The events in this autobiography take place in the mid-1800’s, as the island population peaked at 277 hardy individuals. Residents fished for cod, mackerel, or herring; raised vegetables, or planted grains for their cattle. Life was difficult on the island. The isolation from the mainland compounded the rigors of Maine winters, the dangers of fishing in the North Atlantic, and the challenges of farming in rocky soil during short growing seasons. As Stephen remarks, “People on the Island accepted birth and death the same way they accepted the weather–not much one could do about it so you might as well accept it.” This was the indomitable spirit and equanimity that enabled residents to manage life on this tenuous, fog shrouded spot of land far out into the ocean.
At the age of 11, my great-grandfather, Stephen Cronin, was sent by his widowed mother to live with Freeman and Patience Hall to help tend their Matinicus Island farm.
Many years after leaving Matinicus Island, Stephen Cronin recounted these childhood memories to his daughter-in-law, Marian Cronin. In this updated edition of Stephen’s history, I have modernized phrases, removed outdated idioms, and added additional historic references. Despite these adjustments, the core story remains unchanged. This unique treasure is now reprinted for others to enjoy in a more accessible version.
Stephen Cronin’s life on Matinicus Island
illustrates the rural maritime culture of European-background settlers in southeast Maine during the mid-1800’s. Stephen’s account of his life, friendships, and growing pains provides an authentic window into the challenges and the bare-bones simplicity of life on Matinicus and throughout much of the Northeastern United States in the mid-1800’s.
Readers who wish to learn more about the
history or residents of Matinicus Island and the region in general are directed to the “Learn More” list of resources in the back of this book. Suzanne Rankin, of the Matinicus Plantation Historical Society, along with Warren and Harriett Williams, and others who value the lessons to be learned from our past have generously provided rich background on the Island and its remarkable history.
Edmonds, Washington, 2021
The events that made up my childhood took
place many years ago, and my memory is a bit dim when it comes to dates and places, but there is nothing hazy in my mind regarding the great debt I owe to the three people who guided me through the challenging years of my youth. If some of the names of places and people are not exactly accurate, I ask for your understanding, as it has been over sixty years since these events took place. It is my intention to share with you as accurate a history as I can.
Certainly, there is one thing that will always
be accurate—my memory and description of the goodness and kindness of my mother Ellen, and of Grandfather and Grandmother Hall. It is my sincere hope that my children and grandchildren never forget these three. I hope they pass on to others, as I’ve tried to, the sacrifices, care, and love Ellen gave me and the patient guidance and generosity the Halls provided me when I was a homeless Irish boy.
Ellen was a hardworking and God-fearing
woman who put the welfare of her two fatherless boys above everything else, even when that meant giving us away for others to raise. No matter how difficult the challenges and hardships she faced in her life, she never wavered from doing her best for my brother and me.
Grandfather and Grandmother Hall lived
their lives each day guided by their belief in God. They lived up to the principles and teachings of Christ as closely as anyone I’ve ever known. I hope my children will respect the name of Hall and appreciate the impact those two individuals had on my development.
There are two other individuals whose involvement in my life is still very clear. They are Will and Alex, my island friends, who joined me on many outings and adventures while I lived with the Halls.
Finally, I pay my respects to all those on Matinicus Island who made my life as happy as any boy might ever experience.
ESCAPE – 1853
My earliest memories are when I was three
years old, shut up in a small, empty room and longing to be outside, in the air and sunshine. It wasn’t my mother Ellen’s fault that my brother John and I were shut up in this way. Th ere was nothing else she could have done to keep us safe during the day while she was off washing clothes and scrubbing floors in other people’s houses.
Her life hadn’t always been that way. When
we were little and our father was still alive, she was always home, taking care of us. My father, working as a rigger on a ship homeported in Rockland, Maine, spent many months away from home. But, when our father’s ship and everyone on board were lost at sea, our lives completely changed. We never heard a word about what happened to his ship or the crew, but once it was clear that he was never returning Ellen had no choice but to leave home every day to earn money for our food and to pay for a place for the three of us to live.
My father and mother were both Irish immigrants to the United States. They had only been in the US for six months when I was born. They moved from New York City to Rockland, Maine, while I was still very little, and it was in Rockland that my brother John was born.
When my father died at sea, Ellen was left with no source of income and, because she could not read or write, the only way she could earn a living was to find work each day as a cleaning woman.
That change is why John and I were locked up in our small, empty room each day. In those days, other citizens in the town thought that anyone who was Irish was just an ignorant immigrant, only capable of doing the dirty, heavy work that others did not want to do. Often people from Ireland were insulted and sometimes people even threw stones at Irish immigrants like us. But generally, the Irish are a good-natured people, and they responded by laughing at the insults. Over time, Irish immigrants have become an accepted part of this country.
Before Ellen went off to work each morning, she moved everything we could hurt ourselves with into the other room of the two-room apartment where we lived. She would leave us a bucket of water, a few cold potatoes, and some bread on the table. She would also leave pieces of string or anything else she could find that we might play with. John and I would spend the day playing and fighting and sleeping. In the winter, the room was quite cold since she was afraid to leave a fire going when she was gone. The heat of summer, however, was worse than the cold of winter. That tiny room would get extremely hot and stuffy, and the days felt never-ending, especially with the sounds and smells of the outdoors reaching us through the locked window.
Evenings and Sundays were better. When Ellen got home from work, John and I would run around and around our two rooms, like young horses released into a pasture. Sometimes Ellen would bring us a piece of cake or pie, saved from her own lunch, if the woman she had worked for that day was generous. This depended on the people she was working for; some homes fed their workers almost nothing, while others provided generous amounts of food.
After supper, John and I would run through
the two rooms and play until we were tired. Then Ellen would pull us up into her lap and tell us stories about her own childhood and share stories about when she was growing up in Ireland. I think that by telling us those stories she felt a bit better about her loneliness and homesickness.
The day always ended with us kneeling beside her, in front of the crucifix, and listening while she said prayers to the Blessed Virgin. Sundays were the nicest days of all. Ellen dressed us in our best clothes, and we went to Mass, where we sat proudly in our own pew. In all those years, no matter how tight money became in our family, Ellen always made sure she had enough money to pay the rent on our family’s pew in church.3 On Sunday afternoons, John and I were allowed to play outside. It was those afternoons outside which always made me feel so cramped up later in the week, when we were locked up in our small, empty room.
The older I got the more I hated being shut up. I remember in particular the day I broke out of that jail. That day was unseasonably hot, even for a Maine summer day. That morning I had kicked over the water bucket when John and I were fighting, so later in the day we were extremely thirsty and miserable. John eventually cried himself to sleep, but I moved around and around the room like a trapped bear in a cage. While circling the room I often peered out the window, and finally, in a frenzy, I started pounding on it with my fists. Looking back, I was like some kind of crazy animal.
Every time I hit the window it rattled in the
casing. All at once an idea came to me. I realized that I could escape if I could just find a way to break out. I tugged and pushed and fi nally, by standing on the small bucket, I pushed the window up enough to crawl through. We lived on the ground floor of a cheap apartment building, so it was not a long drop to the ground outside. First, I dropped the bucket out of the window, to use when we returned. Then I lowered John out of the window and I scrambled out after him to freedom.
We were scared and timid as we slipped down the alley. Fear of being seen forced us to hide behind a shed for the rest of the afternoon, but the sun and fresh cool air blowing on our hot bodies was reward enough.
Before dark we climbed back in and closed the window, so that when Ellen returned home that night, she did not suspect anything.
Each day after that John and I ventured further from our home. We even headed down along the wharfs to see the fishing boats and tall-masted sailing ships riding at anchor in the harbor. Our curiosity and fascination at seeing these new, strange sights made us stay outside longer each day, and finally one day we stayed away too long. When we got home, much after dark, Ellen and the neighbors were all hunting for us. There was no way to hide what we had done; the open window and the bucket underneath told the story all too clearly without our having to say anything.
Ellen, relieved from being frightened at the
thought that we were lost or hurt, hugged us. Then she spanked us hard and made us promise to stay home.
I wish I could say we were good boys and kept our promise, but that was not the case. The next day, that same shut-in, frantic feeling hit me. It was worse, because I had been spending time outside and now I knew what I was missing. In a sudden impulse I got us both out the window again, deciding that all that air, sunshine, and space was worth a hard spanking every night.
In the coming days, sometimes we got caught and punished by Ellen, but more often we fooled Ellen by getting home before her and pretending we had stayed inside all day.
From the experience of being locked up in that small room, I have always had a need for space and freedom and have hated being clsoed in or held down too tightly.
Edmonds Press Edition
About the authors
Toward the end of his life, Stephen Cronin recounted this true story to his daughter in law, Marian Wells Cronin. The Island has now been updated for contemporary readers by Cronin’s great-grandson, David Jones.