A History of Clamming

For over 10,000 years, soft-shell clams, quahogs, mussels, and oysters have been found along the coast of what is now called Maine.1,6 Like the clam fishery today, the presence of shellfish has long supported livelihoods for people along the coast. Wabanaki people maintained their livelihoods through traveling along river systems and coastal islands, returning to seasonal camps that supported their way of life, such as inland locations and moose hunting.1,6 Along coastal areas, Indigenous people traveling by birchbark canoes chose camping locations on Islands easily accessible by boat and in close proximity to clam flats.6 The knowledge of resources within these seasonal camps became part of the Wabanaki languages and is evident in their place names. Place names described knowledge of where to camp (keag), good fishing places (coggin), and valuable clam flats (asick).5  The place name for Bar Harbor was Moneskatik or Man-es-ayd’ik, clam gathering place, a material history of place remembered in the more than 60 shell middens on Mount Desert Island.5 In Maine, a shell midden primarily consists of clam, mussel, and oyster shell remains from harvesting and consumption of shellfish.6 Similar to shellfish today, they are not only an important food for consumption but play a role in developing identity in clam places.

The Whaleback and Glidden midden pictured above was created between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago. It was once 30 feet deep and covered several acres near the upper Damariscotta estuary.

The Maine coast has many clam places, such as the islands that shaped Wabanaki mobility and identity. Across the coast, there are more than 1,700 shell middens and the presence of clams is said to have organized people and how they lived in these areas.6 Since Indigenous people moved from place to place depending on season and availability of food, the values of how people lived in these areas mattered for sustaining their way of living. A value shared amongst Wabanaki comes through how they engage in a relationship to food, like clams, where they acknowledge the health of the animal also supports the health of people.1 This health-based relationship becomes evident on the Indiantown Island shell midden that describes people sustaining a massive clam harvest for more than 1,700 years.6 Beyond the presence of clams, vibrant cultures developed around these coastal places. Coastal settlements were important locations for trade networks and where people came together to share tools, information, stories, and shared each other’s company.5 Soft-shell clams have supported ways of living for a long time, which is evident in where people chose to live, the social and cultural practices that developed in these areas, and the values with how they engage in a relationship to this resource. In modern times, this relationship to resources is described through management practices, which began to be shaped in the 18th century.

One of the first changes to management and access to mudflats occurred in the colonial era. When English colonists came to the areas of Massachusetts and Maine, they applied their conceptual understandings of public/private rights, which are based on a king owning all lands below high tide.7 In this, the king of England managed resources and reserved rights for fishing (shellfish too), fowling, and navigation for people below the high tide line. This would later change when the Massachusetts Bay Colony amended this with the Colonial Ordinance that gave landowners property right down to the low tide line to encourage people to build wharfs and develop commerce, while still giving rights to individuals fishing, fowling, and boating in this zone.8 As settlements went north into what is now Maine, actions would be taken that shaped who had access to waterways and resources. Colonial forts such as Fort Pownall at the mouth of the Penobscot River, were built to provide English control over Wabanaki territory, resources, and waterways.2 Being disconnected from key sites of sustenance was a large factor in Wabanaki forming an alliance with George Washington in the Revolutionary War.4 It wouldn’t be until Maine became a state that would change the Colonial Ordinance and shape intertidal management further. 

When Maine became a state in 1820, it adopted and changed how the Colonial Ordinance operated. The State of Maine positioned itself as the responsible power of lands held “in trust for the benefit of the public.”8 For clammers, this benefit was typically using clams for bait and or household consumption. A year later, the State of Maine Legislature would give authority to coastal municipalities to issue permits for shellfish harvesting and impose penalties for violations of permit conditions.8 The management and use of clams wouldn’t change drastically until the end of the century. Clams grew increasingly popular as a food item in clambakes and diners, which led to an increase in canneries in Scarborough, Jonesport, Brooklin, and East Machias, supporting a range of local fishing opportunities.3 In 1894, the Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries would take over enforcement of laws about clamming and how to manage the resource through transplanting, aquaculture, and/or harvesting restrictions and closures.3 The industry would peak in the mid 20th century sparking conversations on the multiple impacts to shellfish populations from water  pollution to green crab predation.7 To address these issues, management shifted back to municipalities through initiating the co-management system that currently exists. The belief was, “… that the fishery should be managed by  individual towns or by groups of cooperating towns in economic or biological areas to cut down this waste in individual flats, and give the diggers, dealers and coastal communities a greater supply of food and income from their resource.”7 


  1. Wabanaki Program. (2002). The Wabanakis of Maine & the Maritimes: A resource book by and about Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac, and Abenaki Indians. Cambridge, Mass: Wabanaki Program of the American Friends Service Committee. 
  2. Bennett, Z. M. (2017). “A means of removing them further from us”: The struggle for waterpower on New England’s eastern frontier. The New England Quarterly, 90(4), 540-560.
  3. Downeast Fisheries Trail (n.d.) Fisheries Then: Clams. Retrieved October 1st, 2020, from Downeastfisheriestrail.org
  4. Founders Online (n.d.). From George Washington to the Chiefs of the Passamaquoddy. Retrieved October 1st, 2020, from https://founders.archives.gov.
  5. Prins, H. E. L., McBride, B., & United States. National Park Service. Northeast Region. (2007). Asticou’s island domain: Wabanaki peoples at Mount Desert Island, 1500-2000 : Acadia National Park ethnographic overview and assessment. Boston, Mass: Northeast Region Ethnography Program, National Park Service. 
  6. Spiess, A. E. (2017). People of the clam: Shellfish and diet in coastal Maine late archaic and ceramic period sites. Journal of the North Atlantic, 1001, 105-112. 
  7. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (1955). Fifth conference on clam research: Boothbay harbor, Maine. 
  8. Underwood, J. (1995). Legal considerations regarding restoration of productive clam flats in Maine. University of Maine School of Law. Retrieved from https://cobscook.org/assets/files/pdf/leglcons.pdf