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Scarborough: They Called It Owascoag

Scarborough Marsh: "Land of Much Grass"

aerial view of marsh
aerial view of marsh

Text by Bruce Thurlow
Images from Scarborough Historical Society, Bruce Thurlow, Friends of the Scarborough Marsh, Maine Audubon and Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center

To the Sokokis Indians, the area we call the Scarborough Marsh was known as Owascoag, the “land of much grass.” It is the largest contiguous salt marsh system in Maine, covering more than 3,000 acres and accounting for 15 percent of Maine’s total tidal marsh area. The marsh includes five tidal rivers, several smaller streams, some coastal freshwater marsh, tidal flats and less than 200 acres of upland habitat.

Salt marshes began to form many thousands of years ago when glaciers from the last ice age receded as the climate warmed. Silt from rivers and streams washed into low-lying, protected tidal estuaries and began to build up. Various organisms, plant life and marine animals were attracted to the resulting mudflats and seed from salt-tolerant grasses took root and began to spread. Thus began the growth and development of the marsh we know today.

The Scarborough Marsh is a very valuable, rich ecosystem. It is home to a variety of birds, fish, shellfish and mammals that either live their entire lives or live parts of their life cycles in the marsh; it is a food production and distribution system for marsh inhabitants; it is a nursery for various fish and shellfish; it is a resting place for migrating birds; and it acts as a filter or sponge for both the salt and freshwater meeting within it.

fish weirs
fish weirs

Life in a salt marsh depends upon the grass. Through photosynthesis the Spartina grasses (known variously as cordgrass, salt hay, marsh grass, or salt meadow grass) convert the energy of the sun into usable food for the many creatures in the marsh. As the grasses decay, the rotted material forms a nutrient-rich “soup” that feeds the plankton, clams, mussels, worms and some fish. These creatures in turn feed larger animals such as raccoons, striped bass and ospreys. Waste from animals living and dying enters the marsh to be recycled as fertilizer for bacteria and plants. In its twice-daily movement, the tide sweeps nutrient-rich water into the ocean and feeds offshore fish and their young. Additionally, the grass plants provide temperature and humidity control among their stems and act as a buffer against wind and currents.

Great Egret

In his book Secrets of a Salt Marsh, author John O. Snow beautifully describes life in a salt marsh, “a world of many different creatures as green crabs scurry among the shaded plant stalks, marsh wrens weave the grass blades into swaying nests, insects chew the leaves for their sugar before becoming food for hungry birds, and microscopic plants and animals drift with tide and feed siphon eaters, such as clams, and worms tunnel through the root-laced mud.”

The Scarborough Marsh has long been important to the people living near it. Here the Sokokis Indians found an abundance of fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other natural resources as they hunted, trapped, clammed and fished in the marsh. When European settlers arrived in the early 1600s they, too, quickly learned the value of the marsh. It was a source of food for themselves as well as their domestic animals. They harvested salt hay as fodder for cattle and sheep and used the marsh for summer pasture. Many settlers were often assigned a marsh lot (or lots) for grazing their animals, later deeding these lots to their heirs. A 1784 survey of the marsh by Moses Banks noted owners of marsh lots at that time.

Salt hay continued to be important to the people of Scarborough well into the 1800s, as it became a source of income for owners of marsh property. Abundant salt hay, which required no cultivation, was used to feed cattle. Once cut, horses and oxen, shod in bog shoes, hauled the harvested hay to staddles. To increase acreage yields, large-scale diking was undertaken. Ditches were dug to drain wet, mosquito-breeding areas; pannes were filled; and tide gates (sluiceways) were constructed to prevent tides from flooding areas of the marsh. Five different diking companies were formed during this period.

Dr. Robert Southgate built the first dike between 1803 and 1804, soon followed by a corporation formed to dike the marsh area of the Spurwink River. After the Civil War Seth Scamman and partners formed the Cumberland Diking Company, the Little River Diking Company and the Southgate Diking Company. Moses Banks’ 1784 survey map became the basis for all marsh lot purchases, work and disputes involving these companies. (Corporation meeting notes and minutes were kept by George Boothby. These and other company papers, known as the “Boothby Papers”, are archived at the Scarborough Historical Society.)

Haying declined in the 1900s and some looked upon the marsh as a wasteland, an inexpensive place to fill and build. Reportedly the marsh was even proposed as a possible site for the town dump. The delicate ecosystem of the marsh had already been threatened by activities of the diking companies during the 1800s. Rail lines, roads and a pipeline across the marsh also negatively impacted the area, disturbing the hydrology, soils and natural vegetation and creating opportunities for establishment of invasive plant species.

Realizing that this significant coastal wildlife habitat was severely threatened, in 1957 the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) began a twenty-year process of acquiring the marsh. The Scarborough Marsh is now owned and managed by the MDIFW. In 1972 Maine Audubon initiated a partnership with the MDIFW to create a nature center at the edge of the marsh. The Audubon Center offers a variety of guided and self-guided walks and canoe tours as well as canoe rentals, a nature trail and exhibits. There are also an aquarium, mounted birds and animals, and interactive exhibits. Today the Scarborough Marsh is a classroom for school children, a delight for birders, a laboratory for biologists and naturalists, and a prime territory for fishermen and hunters.

In 2000, a group of volunteers and representatives from town, state and federal commissions and agencies organized as the Friends of Scarborough Marsh (FOSM). This group is dedicated to the conservation, protection, restoration and enhancement of the Scarborough Marsh watershed. These concerned individuals and groups continue to be successful stewards in assuring that the Scarborough Marsh will remain a highly productive ecosystem and wildlife habitat.


Dunstan River
Dunstan River

Acts and Resolves of the Legislature of Maine.
------“An Act to Establish a Corporation for the Purpose of Diking a Certain Tract of
Marsh in the Towns of Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough.” Chapter 174, 1821
------ “An Act to Incorporate the Cumberland Dyke Company.” Chapter 451, 1870
------ “An Act to Incorporate the Little River Dyking Company.” Chapter 533, 1871
------ “An Act to Incorporate the Southgate Dyking Company.” Chapter 223, 1876

Boothby Papers. A collection of diking corporation meeting minutes and notes recorded by George Boothby. (1870s). Scarborough Historical Society archives

Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. Book 100, page 571.

Domingue, Robert. The Village of Cockell: An Illustrated History of Pine Point, Maine. Wilmington, MA: Hampshire Press, 1988.

Fogg, John D. “Recollections of a Salt Marsh Farmer.” Seabrook, New Hampshire: Historical Society of Seabrook, New Hampshire, 1983.

Fogg, John D., and Anne Bridges. “Salt Marsh Dykes as a Factor in Eastern Maine Agriculture.” Maine Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 21. No. 4. Spring, 1982

Hodgdon, Frank. “Scarborough the Way It Was.” The Current, 18 November 2004

Karr, Paul, and Jeff Clark. “Oasis of Wilderness.” Down East, September 1995

Lamson-Scribner, F. “Grasses of a Salt Marsh.” Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895.

Moulton, Augustus. Grandfather Tales of Scarborough. Katahdin Publishing Co., 1925

Robinson, Brian. “An Inter-tidal Survey of the Scarborough Marsh.” (Copy of article provided by B. Robinson.)

Sebold, Kimberly. “Transforming the Garden of the Sea; The Individual Place in the Manipulation of the Scarborough Marsh.”

Snow, John. Secrets of a Salt Marsh. Portland, Maine: Guy Gannet Publishing Co., 1980

Van Cott, Leslie. “A Brief Scarborough Nature Center History.” Audubon Nature Center Collection, 5 May 1983.

Wilson, Emily. “Marsh People.” Salt Magazine, No. 45