The merry dancers of Massabesic
The would-be Town of Alfred, Maine was known by its Indian name, Massabesic, when Simeon Coffin arrived in November of 1764. The Wabanaki name, roughly translated, means either “land of much water” or “ponds with many suckers,” depending on which translation you believe. It was part of the vast tract of land that Saco mill man, William Phillips, had purchased from the Indians in the 1660s.
The area was known by its Indian name because there wasn’t another white man within seven miles. Indians were still the only inhabitants of Massabesic. Their wigwams were situated on the land between Massabesic Pond and Bunganut Pond. One family’s wigwam sat high atop a hill between the two ponds.
Local historians didn’t write much about what happened to the Indians of Massabesic, just that after Coffin arrived they “soon disappeared.”
Simeon Coffin was a Newbury shipwright. He had been commissioned to build a ship on the Merrimac River that year but the purchaser went bankrupt and Coffin was left financially embarrassed. He had struck out into the Maine wilderness to find a new home. The Indian wigwam already standing on the Massabesic hilltop suited him well.
Simeon’s father and two brothers joined him in the spring of 1765. Within the year, several other families had also settled nearby. The first sawmill in town was built in 1766 and the first school in 1770.
John Cotton arrived from Durham, Maine in 1781 and married Simeon Coffin’s daughter, Eleanor. John Barnes came with his family from York a short time later. Barnes and Cotton would play an important role in the future of the little wilderness settlement.
A religious awakening was occurring at that time in New England — against what was called “antichristian bigotry.” Towns were required by law to hire a Congregational minister, whose salary was to be paid by the citizens of the town. A growing number of poor settlers preferred to be preached to by unaffiliated, volunteer preachers whose beliefs and practices tended toward the radical.
In Gorham, where John Cotton had come from, followers were called “come-outers” or “new lights.” In Massabesic, they were called the “merry dancers” for their wild midnight reveling.
Dr. Parson’s wrote in his History of Alfred: “One of their practices was to hoot the devil, as they called it, in which they would march around the Shaker Pond, raving like maniacs. Barnes would wear a baize jacket over his clothes, a wig upon his head, with a cow’s tail attached to it, and Cotton an un-tanned cow hide, and in these garbs would scream woe! woe!! woe!!! audible in the stillness of evening nearly the distance of one mile. After this they all took to intoxicating drinks, and for months were hardly ever sober, and in their midnight revels were guilty of revolting practices. Barnes’ explanation of his conduct in hooting the devil, drinking to excess, and indulging in indecent and immoral practices was that they were a sort of carnal slough through which he was doomed to pass, preparatory to spiritual regeneration.”
The merry dancers began building a house for public worship in the summer of 1786 but it was never completed. Twelve rough-hewn, 12-inch square timbers were raised but left open to the sky.
The North Parish Congregation had also been organized in 1780 by Rev. Daniel Little of Kennebunk and Rev. Mathew Merriam of Berwick, but most of the congregation was swept away by the merry dancers. Barnes and Cotton went to great lengths to disrupt every religious meeting held by Congregationalists. At one point the ministers had them taken outside and tied to a tree for the duration of the service. A Congregationalist meeting house was built in 1784, but there was no minister settled there until 1791. The Town of Alfred was incorporated in 1794.
John Cotton traveled to Enfield, N.H. in 1793. There he became acquainted with the teachings of Mother Ann Lee, the leader of a small religious sect called the Shakers. Cotton was moved to convert to Shakerism by an experience he had after confessing all his sins.
His life-changing experience was described in “A Concise History of the United Society of Believers called Shaker” by Charles Edson Robinson. Cotton was seated with his host one morning after breakfast. They were discussing the teachings of Mother Ann when suddenly “he was raised up from his chair by an all controlling power and spun round like a top for the space of half an hour, when he was whirled through the open door and down to the waters of Mascoma Lake, some rods distant, and then was whirled back again with the same force and landed in the same chair he was taken from.” He perceived this to be his Shaker baptism and proof of its authenticity.
He rushed back to Maine to share his revelation with fellow merry dancer, John Barnes. Shaker doctrines were quite a departure from the midnight reveling they were accustomed to. Alcohol was forbidden as was any physical interaction between members of the opposite sex. Shaker sisters and brothers were considered equals but kept separate to avoid temptations of the flesh. Merry dancers converted nonetheless.
The Shaker Society of Alfred was organized in March 1793 under the charge of John Barnes. The following year another community was organized at New Gloucester, Maine.
The Shaker Community in Alfred grew in the 19th Century, at one time encompassing more than 50 buildings between what is now called Shaker Pond and Shaker Hill. Their numbers eventually dwindled and in 1931 the 21 remaining members left to join the Sabbathday Shakers in New Gloucester.