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Archaeology in the Saco Area

Little archaeological work has been done in Saco. This article, prepared in 1987 for the Saco Comprehensive Plan by Dr. Emerson Baker, overviews the field.

Prehistoric Archaeology
From documentary evidence and preliminary archaeological work, it is clear that the lower Saco River was a center of native American activity, both in prehistoric times and during the contact period (the time of initial encounters between Europeans and Indians in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). From the writings of the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, as well as other French and English observers, we know that there was a series of large native villages near the mouth of the Saco River in the first decade of the seventeenth century. A 1605 map drawn by Champlain shows a large native American village near the present-day campus of the University of New England in Biddeford. The map also depicts Indian cornfields on both sides of the river. The name "Saco" itself is attributed to the Abenaki people's word for "flowing out" or "outlet" and to the word "Sawacotuck" meaning "mouth of the tidal stream."

Native Americans did occupy Saco in both prehistoric and historic times. The York Institute Museum owns a collection of Indian artifacts which were discovered at various places throughout the City. Some of these artifacts may be as much as 4-5,000 years old. More recently, in the 1600's and 1700's, Indians lived in several areas of Saco. The most notable location was Factory Island, which was known in colonial times as Indian Island. Few contact period sites have been found in Maine, so these sites along the Saco River may provide important data for understanding early Indian- European interaction.

History and Historical Archaeology
The lower Saco region has a long and rich history. English occupation began as early as 1618, when Captain Richard Vines and his expedition spent the winter at Winter Harbor (Biddeford Pool). Starting in 1630, just ten years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the mouth of the Saco became a center of English settlement which included fishermen, traders, lumberjacks, and farmers. By 1636 at least 37 families had settled in the area. Thus Saco became one of the first English settlements in northern New England.

The little settlement grew gradually throughout the seventeenth century, until it was abandoned in 1690 at the outbreak of King William's War. It was not until the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 that any significant effort at resettlement was made in Saco. After 1713, the Sac side of the river quickly returned to prosperity as a farming, fishing, and lumbering community. By 1762, the population of the east side of the river became so great, that the east side split off from Biddeford to form the town of Pepperrellborough. The name would later be changed to Saco.

While archaeological sites in coastal Maine from the colonial period are all important, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has determined that those from the seventeenth century are the most significant. Very few documents are left to tell scholars the history of the very early settlement of Maine. In addition to those few documents, scholars rely on archaeology to learn about the seventeenth century in Maine. To date, very little archaeological work has been done in Saco. Only one site in Saco has been placed in the Maine Historic Preservation Commission's Maine Historic Sites Inventory. This site, designated as ME379-01, and named "Goosefare Brook #1," is a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century homestead site located on the bank of Goosefare Brook.