It is difficult to place ownership for the area now called Bowdoin during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1620 King James I granted to the Council of Plymouth “All land from 40 degrees North latitude to 48 degrees North latitude, and from sea to sea”.
We know that in 1779 James Bowdoin had a legal claim to the area of West Bowdoinham Plantation and was granting deeds on land he claimed to be two miles in width and fronting on the Cathance River and Merrymeeting Bay and extending to the Androscoggin River. Some of the early Bowdoin settlers held Indian deeds. There is also a record of James Bowdoin finding squatters in North Bowdoin as he had a horse path cut through his claimed territory in 1750, and family genealogies claim their forefathers to have been in Bowdoin by that time.
In 1788, when the area became incorporated as the town of Bowdoin, it covered nearly 90 square miles and encompassed present-day Lisbon and Webster. After incorporation, Bowdoin’s town records show a constant move toward civilization. In 1791, the Town voted 40 pounds to maintain three school districts. In 1798 the first meeting house was used for church services and town meetings, and by 1808 town meetings were being held in the “Old Meeting House”–an indication of the North Church having been built in 1805.
In 1797 James Rogers and Ebenezer Temple of Bowdoin paid the Selectmen of Bowdoinham $2,000.00 for the privilege of building a road from Bowdoinham’s Cathance landing to the Bowdoin line. This road gave Bowdoin residents access to the Kennebec River and hence to the world, opening up possibilities for trade and travel.
With 88 votes for the division and 30 opposed, it was voted in 1798 to “incorporate westerly part of the town of Bowdoin, in the County of Lincoln, into a separate town by the name of Thompsonborough”. On June 22, 1799, this move was approved by the Legislature of Massachusetts, and in 1840 this area of Lisbon was again divided and Webster was formed.
During the years of 1836-37, the West Bowdoin Brick Meeting House was built by Nathaniel and Albert Purinton. In 1837 a Town House was built on the hill of the Widow Jane Smith, with the low bid of $590.00 going to Mr. Lincoln Maloon. Between 1836 and 1837 the South Meeting House was built on land once owned by Elder James Potter and overlooking his grave across the road in the South Cemetery.
In 1837, despite the growth of churches, the town voted on the method of supporting the poor. It was voted that the poor be set at auction separately (mothers and children not necessarily kept together) and the town agreed to pay the doctor bills and funeral charges. Whoever bid off one or more of these poor was obligated to return the person the next year with clothes in a condition comparable to when they had assumed care. They were to receive payment for the amount bid at auction. For many years town meetings included the setting up and auctioning off of these unfortunates to the lowest bidder.
Also in 1837, John Ridley was sworn in as Pound keeper for the ensuing year. Three people were licensed as Innkeepers to retail spirituous liquors, and four gentlemen were licensed to maintain retail stores, presumably with spirituous liquors as a sideline. Small wonder that the 1838 town meeting voted that all ardent spirits be removed from the townhouse — forcefully, if need be, by Johnson Jacques, Esq.
The Civil War had a powerful impact on Bowdoin. One hundred and twenty-eight of its young men marched off to fight and many lost their lives on Southern soil. The strong Baptist leanings of the people fostered a desire to eradicate slavery. Since the 1840’s the Baptist clergy had been strongly abolitionist and after years of sermons on the evils of slavery, the call to arms found the young men of Bowdoin eager to answer. These were hard and heart-breaking years for all, and many Bowdoin cemeteries contain stones inscribed with the service records of those who died during this war.
Bowdoin has suffered fluctuations in growth. A population peak must have been reached in 1850 with 1,861 residents. The 1850 census shows large families, usually with a hired man and a hired woman, and the wage earners listed as farmers or laborers. These people were content with a simple life. Along the old country roads and in the wilds of Haig Mountain you still see the abandoned cellar holes, the lilac bushes, and the apple trees row on row.
Then came the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Life looked easier, richer, and more exciting in the towns and cities with their factories and job opportunities. As the famous World War 1 song said, “How Are You Going to Keep Them Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?”. By 1870 the population had dropped to 1,345; in 1880 to 1,361; in 1903 to 940; with an all-time low in 1940 of only 466 Bowdoin residents.
Then came cars, phones, electricity, and better schools, plus the lure of cheaper property values and lower taxes. The country living, so scorned for fifty years, again became enticing. Bowdoin’s population rose again, from 638 in 1950 and 668 in 1960 to 884 in 1970. The biggest increase came between 1970 and 1980 when the population rose to 1,629. The 1990 U. S. Census listed Bowdoin’s population at 2,207.