NORTH YARMOUTH — It was a document born against the bloody backdrop of war, when America pronounced itself independent of Great Britain.
And, more than two centuries after the American Revolution ended, it was still causing quite a stir in North Yarmouth.
July 4 marks 239 years since the Declaration of Independence was ratified. North Yarmouth’s copy, one of the only ones in Maine, is stored at the Maine State Archives for safekeeping.
But it wasn’t always that way.
North Yarmouth was incorporated nearly a century before the Declaration’s signing in Philadelphia. It encompassed seven modern-day towns, and was dubbed “North” in reference to Yarmouth, in the colony of Massachusetts, which still included Maine.
Copies of the Declaration were printed in Salem, Massachusetts, and sent throughout the colony’s towns, including North Yarmouth. The town’s copy, which can be viewed at mainememory.net/artifact/6049, was logged into the town record as item No. 16, and noted on the back of the document.
Once it reached North Yarmouth, the Declaration was read by Pastor Tristram Gilman in what is now Yarmouth (it broke from North Yarmouth in 1849), at the Church Under the Ledge, North Yarmouth’s only church at that time, according to Katie Murphy, president of the North Yarmouth Historical Society.
“We can assume that after the pastor received the document and read it, it was then eventually turned over to the town as part of the town’s official record, especially after an official town house was built,” she said last week, noting that it was treason at the time for such a document to be written, distributed or read.
Yarmouth’s secession settlement called for the new town to allow North Yarmouth to possess all “ancient” records, including its copy of the Declaration, Murphy said. Although North Yarmouth built the still-standing Town House on Route 9 in 1853, a place for town meetings to be held and documents to be stored, some records ended up in private homes and were lost to time.
But not the Declaration.
North Yarmouth has “had town clerks who were very careful about keeping town papers together, and North Yarmouth Historical (Society) has worked really hard to preserve them for the town,” Murphy said. “This has involved rescuing early records from the attic of the Old Town House, and locating and gathering any papers and documents we could find that were in private hands.”
A movement to compile those records occurred in the 1980s, led by lifelong resident Nellie Smith Leighton, one of the historical society’s founders and its first president.
“For many years she studied the town’s history,” Murphy recalled. “She wrote and researched continuously, using many sources, including town documents, to which she had full access. And she sometimes brought records to her home to copy and safeguard.”
When Leighton died in 1999, her family gave a society member a box of old documents. Auctioneer Kaja Viellieux discovered the Declaration in the box, “folded over several times and tucked in between some other old papers,” Murphy said.
Viellieux, hired to appraise Leighton’s estate, said he arrived at her home to find a trash bin had already been filled with items from her attic. Among the items waiting to be thrown out was the box containing the Declaration and other historical items, including an announcement about the first Thanksgiving in America.
“If the Dumpster hadn’t been full, (the document) would already have been in the Dumpster and gone,” he said.
Viellieux advertised the Declaration in a pre-sale catalog, and also notified the Maine State Museum of the find, Murphy said. State Archivist Jim Henderson saw the listing, and “immediately warned Viellieux that any sale of the Declaration would be put on hold until ownership of the document were resolved,” she said.
Twenty-four hours before the sale, Viellieux received word from the state that it was claiming title to the Declaration, he said, noting that “I don’t know how they could feel that way, because there was no state of Maine then, there was no United States then.”
The auction proceeded. Would-be buyers had to sign a document stating that if they bought the document, it was pending a clear title; in other words, it had to be determined who in fact did own the Declaration, Viellieux said.
A Pennsylvania man offered $99,000 for the Declaration, and the matter went to court, drawing national attention. Leighton’s family said the document was part of her estate, while the state, arguing on behalf of the town, claimed otherwise, according to Murphy.
“In fact this case was really important, because it was the first time that a Maine 1989 state statute was used in court to challenge the sale of such a document,” she said. “The law required that any buyer had to prove the document was not public property.”
The case was resolved in March 2001, with the Declaration secured from a Lewiston safe deposit box, where it had been held during the case. The document went to the State Archives on the town’s behalf, Murphy said.
The state possesses only two copies of the Declaration; the North Yarmouth copy is on permanent loan at the Archives, while the Maine State Museum holds the other, from Hallowell, according to archivist Samuel Howes of the Maine State Archives.
Once the Declaration had been read at the churches in 1776, it was to be written into the town record by the clerk and then destroyed, Viellieux said. Which explains why the North Yarmouth copy is so rare.
Murphy noted that Virginia courts faced a similar case in 2009, concerning a copy of the Declaration found in a Wiscasset house and sold to a Virginia resident. In that case, the court ruled in favor of the buyer, and that copy remains out of state.
Maine now recognizes any document having historic value as being the property of the state, county, or municipality unless the government has “specifically relinquished” it, Murphy said.
A high-resolution photo of North Yarmouth’s Declaration, created by the State Archives, is framed and displayed in the meeting room at the modern Town Hall. An open house was held there following the court case’s settlement, so residents could view the actual document.
“The open house was really impressive, since we then finally knew of the document’s value and importance,” Murphy said. “There were security guards, and there was a carefully planned presentation.”
That significance only grows with each passing year. A rare, Philadelphia-printed copy of the Declaration sold at auction for $8.1 million in 2000, she noted.
North Yarmouth’s copy of the Declaration of Independence is one of only two possessed by the state. The North Yarmouth copy is on permanent loan at the Maine State Archives, while Town Hall displays a high-resolution photo of the document, held here by Katie Murphy, president of the town’s historical society.