German Protestant Cemetery

photograph and text by Tony Oppersdorff

Pale weather-washed headstones on the slope above the bone-white clapboard, 18th-century church testify to short, hardscrabble lives: children, women, men who first immigrated here, where the freshwater portion of the Medomak River meets the salt. Among the craggy maples and closely cropped groundcover, this cemetery complements the adjacent Waldoboro Town Forest with its historical setting. It’s no wonder that this time-worn graveyard has been called “a monument to disappointment,” a window into the nature of early New England settlers whose experience was shaped by deprivation and fueled by determination.

According to Maine’s Coastal Cemeteries by Karen Wentworth Batignani, Samuel Waldo’s plans for developing what was to become Knox and Waldo Counties fell hard upon the would-be settlers. Recruited by his son, Samuel Jr., in Germany in the 1730s, the first wave of hopefuls arrived in 1739, only to discover a howling wilderness for which they were totally unprepared. A few survived; many suffered and died from starvation, disease, exposure — or attacks from the Native Americans whose land they now occupied. Some tried to escape by volunteering for the 1745 English expedition against the French in Louisburg, Nova Scotia. They were never seen again.

Undeterred, Waldo Jr. returned to Germany in 1748 to entice a second wave of pioneers. He represented Waldoboro as an established community and offered specific pledges to those hoping for a better life in America. Settlers would be given deeded ownership of 120 acres fronting navigable waters. No payment would be required by any family remaining on the land for seven years. Six months of supplies would be provided to get them started, as well as all necessary tools for homesteading. Religious protection was guaranteed, as was representation in court and exemption from military service. It was a hard offer to refuse.

What the immigrants did not know — were not told — was that the cost of transportation from Europe to the colonies would force many of them to indenture themselves for four to six years, one step from slavery. Waldo also may not have revealed much about the Native Americans — for example, that a bounty of £40 for every Penobscot scalp was still being offered by the Massachusetts Legislature, a fact that might have dissuaded a few of the Germans from venturing forth.

Sixty families arrived in September 1753, just as winter began. The most fortunate lodged with established families. Others were forced to shelter in a 60-foot shed, surviving the cold by eating whatever they could beg or forage — clams, eels and wild tubers, and anything else they could scratch up in this harsh and hostile place. By springtime 17 had died. The promised supplies did not materialize, while the “equipment” turned out to be one crude hoe per family with payment due to Waldo’s deputy. The 120 acres was also a hoax — unless a settler could pay for it, which none could. One humiliating alternative remained: a man could send members of the family into service to a more established family, sometimes at a considerable distance, say the dozen miles to Damariscotta, then a long way through unfamiliar forest.

Despite these hardships, the community gradually prospered. In 1772 they built a meetinghouse, which they dismantled 23 years later, using the timber to construct the church existing today, a structure so stripped of the inessential that there is not even a steeple. Martin Luther would have approved.

Upslope from the church are a few winter-scarred maples that look as old as the hemlocks in the town forest. In winter their branches wave like thin, fantastical arms against the gray sky; in summer their leaves shelter and soften this sombre landscape, turning it into an 18th- century painting.

The cemetery entrance in Waldoboro is on Route 32 (Bremen Road), a mile south of Old Route 1 (Main Street).

“German Protestant Cemetery” is taken from Best Nature Sites: Midcoast Maine, a collaboration between writer and photographer Tony Oppersdorff and writer and editor Kyrill Schabert.