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Surry by the Bay

Spectacular Landscape, Spirited People

History of Surry

Surry Historical Society

Text written by Lynn Bonsey, with sections adapted from Surry, Maine: An informal History by Osmond C. Bonsey

Images contributed by the Surry Historical Society and the Maine Historical Society

First, unbroken, primeval forest, stretching back from the rugged shores of a beautiful bay. No echo of human industry to break the silence of the savage region, only the red man and his wild beast companions wandering in undisputed possession through the pathless forest depths. Then a rude wigwam village on a little fertile plateau where the fires built a niche in the forest close by the banks of a beautiful bay. Then the coming of the English settler, bearing the ax as well as the musket. Then the calm of peace and the growth of log huts, the ring of the ax in the great forest, and the hum of life in the home of the hardy pioneer. Then, as the years fly by, the growth of the settlement to a village and a town; roads and houses on the hillsides in place of the retreating forest. Then, at last, a beautiful town, the center of a prosperous region, the happy home of hundreds, and above the trees, the tapering spires of churches.” (Surry's Centennial Souvenir, 1903)

At the cusp of the 20th century, thanks to generous natural resources and determined citizens, Surry truly had become "the happy home of hundreds.” Despite occasional economic, political, and cultural differences throughout the past century, this coastal town's diligent, diverse, and talented residents had developed a strong communal pride and a spirited approach to life's problems, qualities which helped sustain them through the many challenges of the 20th century.


Contention Cove, Surry, 1936
Contention Cove, Surry, 1936
Surry Historical Society

Legend has it this spirit was alive and well early in the 17th century, when potential settlers first sailed up the pretty little bay searching for a safe harbor to start a new life. As they lay at anchor surrounded by forested hills near a serene cove, the crew had long, contentious discussions about settling in this particular spot. Some wanted to continue westward toward the more sheltered part of the bay, while others wanted to turn eastward and establish themselves on the more open area where they could more easily protect themselves from Indians. A majority finally won out and they hoisted sail, turning eastward, settling in in Ellsworth, and leaving as their legacy the name “Contention Cove.”

Contention characterized the early settlement of this area. For many years, Acadia, the land between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers, was inhospitable to settlement due to disputes and battles between Great Britain and France. From 1613 to 1759, Acadia changed owners eleven times, five times in possession of the French and six times in the hands of the English.The British prevailed at the Battle of Quebec, which opened this area to a flood of English settlers.

The Massachusetts General Court, anxious to see the "eastern lands" settled, readily made grants of land to individuals or larger groups. In January 1762, David Marsh and 359 associates petitioned to be allowed to settle between the Penobscot and Union Rivers. The petition met the King's approval, so on March 2, 1762 the petitioners were granted six townships between the Penobscot and Mt. Desert rivers, each to be six miles square. At the same time, six other townships were granted east of the river. The future Surry was number 6. Although surveyor Samuel Livermore was instructed to lay out each of the six townships, “six miles in extent on the sea coast, and no more,” Surry's coastline exceeded 20 miles. For many years after the survey, Newbury Neck was viewed as an annex, rather than a part of the original township.

The original grant stipulated the grantees settle 60 Protestant families, build 60 dwelling-houses and a meeting-house, and settle a minister within six years, or failing this, by March 1768, they would be required to “yield one-fifth part of all unsunned treasures dug from the bowels of the earth.”

Even with a few years of grace, many of the the stipulations were not met and the grants did lapse, leaving the settlers bereft of legal rights except that of possession.


After the Revolutionary War, deeds and titles were still not clear, so the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had to straighten things out. In 1789, they commissioned Leonard Jarvis, Sr., et al. to do so. Jarvis was a prominent Massachusetts citizen who had served as the Treasurer of the Commonwealth. Those who could prove they'd lived on the land and had made certain improvements were given deeds, and the rest of the land in western parts of Hancock County went to public auction, where it was purchased by Jarvis and his brother, Phillip, who became among the largest landholders in Maine.
Anxious to have a more stable organization, Massachusetts urged the inhabitants to be incorporated. During a plantation meeting held on January 10, 1803, at the house of Isaac Lord in East Surry, Nathaniel Coffin was chosen as an agent to petition that Township #6 be incorporated as a town to be called Peru. This vote was certified by M. Hammond, Plantation Clerk and forwarded to Massachusetts.

On January 25, 1803, John Ross, an agent to General David Cobb, wrote a letter to General Cobb who was then President of the Massachusetts State Senate. “Our plantation has sent a petition to be incorporated; the name I can not like very well, nor am I alone in my opinion,” Ross wrote. “Could you get it called Kent or Surry or indeed a short name of your choice, twould be more acceptable.”

Surry it became and the town was incorporated on June 21, 1803.