European explorers were drawn to Maine by — among other things — the promise of plentiful precious metals. Once the province was settled along the coast, the quest for silver inspired sight-unseen land purchases and Indian-guided treks into the unsettled interior forests. Speculators were still hunting for Maine silver during the 1870s and 1880s when the fresh lessons of the California Gold Rush went unheeded.
A legendary Indian city called Norumbega appeared on early 16th century European maps of North America. Its location and size varied depending on the map, but it was generally understood to be wealthy and highly civilized. Several explorers went in search of Norumbega at Penobscot.
English sailor David Ingram claimed to have seen the city of Norumbega while walking the Indian trails from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine in 1568. Upon his return to Europe, Ingram reported dazzling riches in the new world. How much he embellished the facts for entertainment value is uncertain, but according to Ingram, the men wore hoops of gold and silver on their arms and legs. He spoke of pearls as big as a thumb and described Indian abodes flanked by pillars of crystal and silver.
In 1580, John Walker sailed into the river Norumbega in the service of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He did not see the glittering splendor that Ingram had described but he did discover what he believed to be a silver mine. Samuel de Champlain was disappointed in 1604 when all he found on the banks of the Penobscot River were simple Indian villages.
Richard Vines settled near Biddeford Pool by 1630 on a tract of land granted to him under the condition that one-fifth of the gold and silver ore discovered there be reserved for the King of England.
Major William Phillips settled in the same area around 1660. During the decade that followed, Phillips bought tens of thousands of acres of land in southern Maine. One parcel that he purchased from the Indian Meeksombe, also known as Captain Sunday, included three “hills of rocks” on the west side of the Saco River some 40 miles from the sea. When Phillips later conveyed shares to gentlemen of Boston, the rocky hills were described as a silver mine.
Captain Sunday’s Rocks were said to have a shining appearance, but by 1727 they still had not been located by the English settlers. One Englishman had searched for the mine many times and had finally persuaded the great Indian warrior Assacombuit to escort him to the very spot in 1727.
Assacombuit (aka Escombuit, Nescombiouit) had killed more than 150 English settlers during his career. In 1706, he had traveled to France to meet King Louis XIV at Versailles. The King knighted him, presented him with an elegant sword and promised him a pension for the rest of his life.
No record survives that explains his surprising decision to reveal the location of the silver mine, but according to a report in The New England Weekly Journal of June 19, 1727, he and the Englishmen were but a few miles away from the mine when Assaconduit fell ill in the woods and died.
A more precise location of the mine was sought again in the 1780s when lot lines were in dispute. Numerous depositions were preserved by the Maine Historical Society. Jonathan Dore testified that he had learned the location of Sunday’s Rocks while held prisoner by the Indians from 1745-1760. John Stackpole testified that in “about 1758 I went a soldiering up Saco river with Cap. Charles Gerrish, that near about opposite or back of the great falls so called on the west side of the river there was a large ridge of rocks chiefly white but mixt with ising glass. They are about two or three miles above great Ossipee River so called.” The location of Sunday’s Rocks, in what is now Hiram, Maine, was finally indicated on a map in 1791.
In his 1895 book “Saco Valley Settlements,” G.T. Ridlon wrote about Captain Sunday’s silver mine. “The early inhabitants were deceived by the glistening of the ‘isinglass,’ or sheets of mica, in the rocks on the cliffs of the mountains and supposed these to be rich in deposits of silver.”
Some silver-bearing ore was found in 1878 in Acton and Lebanon, Maine by a New Hampshire man named Wiggins. His find, among others around the state, inspired a Maine silver rush that lasted from 1878-1892. Speculators opened 12 mines in Acton and Lebanon and published very optimistic predictions.
On April 8, 1880, a reporter for the Lewiston Evening Journal cautioned readers against investing in the many exaggerated claims. “We wish to remind our readers that it is not yet determined whether any of our Maine mines will yield gold or silver in sufficient quantities to make it profitable,” he wrote. They did not and once again, many investors were financially embarrassed.