Meet Maine Here.
Malaga Island is located at the mouth of the New Meadows River in Phippsburg. Bear Island lies 100 yards to the west and the small fishing village of Sebasco is about 300 yards to the east.
Like much of the Maine coast, 42-acre Malaga Island is rocky and rugged. The shell beach on the north end was the location of several settlements, beginning with Native Americans who inhabited the island within the last 1,000 years. Little is known about how these first inhabitants lived; considerably more is known about Malaga’s later residents – the mixed-race community that occupied the island’s north end from the 1860s to 1912.
The probable origins of Malaga Island’s historic community trace back to one African American man, Benjamin Darling. He purchased Horse Island (now known as Harbor Island and located near Malaga Island) in 1794. Darling’s descendants and their families soon settled on numerous islands throughout the New Meadows River. Although records are not clear, Henry Griffin and Fatima Darling Griffin, with their family, were most likely the first to live on Malaga Island, setting up house on the east side in the early 1860s.
In the early 1900s, the Malaga Island community found itself caught in a time of great change for Maine. A poor economy, the decline of the fishing and ship building industries, a boom in real estate prices, and thriving social reform efforts all affected Malaga. At the same time, the island residents became victims of the eugenics movement, a popular theory that the poor, immoral, or criminal were born that way due to heredity. The eugenics movement was widely accepted as fact throughout the early 1900s and included many advocates such as heads of state, teachers, religious missionaries, journalists, and scientists. The press publicized a common belief that the only way to help Malaga Island’s residents, and improve tourism and property values on the Maine coast, was to dismantle the community.
Christian missionaries from Malden, Massachusetts, Captain George and Lucy Lane, began to visit Malaga Island during the summer of 1906. The Lanes focused their missionary efforts on educating the children of Malaga Island. They actively raised funds to build a permanent school on the island and help pay for food and clothing.
Although efforts were well underway to improve living conditions on Malaga Island, the notoriety of the island community in statewide and regional newspapers gave Phippsburg a bad reputation, just as the tourism industry was beginning to grow in Maine. Newspaper headlines such as “Homeless Island of Beautiful Casco Bay – Its Shiftless Population of Half-breed Blacks and Whites and His Royal Highness, King McKenney” and “Queer Folk of the Maine Coast” put forth commonly held beliefs that the individuals living on Malaga Island were degenerate and needed assistance in order to survive. The stories of Malaga Island, and the actions of both the town of Phippsburg and State of Maine to evict the community, were reported throughout the New England region and in nationwide publications such as Harper’s Magazine.
As early as the 1890s, efforts were underway in Phippsburg to rid itself of the Malaga Island community. Legal disputes continued until Maine’s state government became involved. In 1905, all of the residents on Malaga Island were named wards of the state and under the jurisdiction of the Governor’s Executive Council. George Collar Pease of Phippsburg acted as the state agent to oversee the supply of food, clothing, and medicine to the island community.
Governor Frederick Plaisted visited Malaga Island in 1911, along with his Executive Council, to see the island for himself. The governor reported he was encouraged by the progress of the children in school, but was not convinced the community would ever accept a middle-class style of living. During his visit, Plaisted remarked, “the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all their filth. Certainly the conditions are not creditable to our state, and we ought not to have such things near our front door, and I do not think that a like condition can be found in Maine, although there are some pretty bad localities elsewhere.” (Brunswick Times Record, July 21, 1911)
In 1911, the State of Maine ruled that Malaga Island was owned by the heirs of Eli Perry, formally of Phippsburg. The Perry family filed papers to have the islanders evicted. On December 9, 1911, a doctor and member of Governor Plaisted’s Executive Council signed papers committing eight Malaga Island residents to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.
Early in 1912, the State of Maine purchased Malaga Island from the Perry family heirs for $400. Residents were told they must vacate the island by July 1, 1912. No alternative homes were provided or suggested, but when Agent Pease arrived on Malaga Island on July 1st, he found all the houses were gone – dismantled and removed by the residents themselves. To complete the eviction, the state exhumed the cemetery remains on Malaga Island, combining seventeen individuals into five caskets, and moved them to the cemetery at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.
For decades, generations of descendants felt the need to hide their Malaga Island ancestry. The term “Malagite” became a racial slur commonly used on Maine’s coast. Descendants experienced prejudice and slander through the years since 1912, causing many to deny any connection to the notorious island. As time passed, attitudes shifted among both the Phippsburg community and descendants. Now scattered across the nation, current generations are discovering their family history and connecting with one another through social media.