The Abenaki Indians called the area Webhannet, meaning "at the clear stream," a reference to the Webhannet River. In 1622, the Plymouth Company in England awarded to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Lord Proprietor of Maine, territory which included the Plantation of Wells. His young cousin, Thomas Gorges, acting as deputy and agent, in 1641 granted to Rev. John Wheelwright and other settlers from Exeter, New Hampshire the right to populate the land from northeast of the Ogunquit River to southwest of the Kennebunk River. Following the death of the elder Gorges in 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony laid claim to Maine. In 1653, Wells was incorporated, the third town in Maine to do so, and named after Wells, England, a small cathedral city in the county of Somerset. It then included Kennebunk, set off the year Maine became a state in 1820, and Ogunquit, designated a village within Wells by the legislature in 1913, then set off in 1980.
Wells was the resilient northeastern frontier of English settlement. Other early attempts to colonize Maine above Wells, including the Popham Colony in 1607, and Pejepscot (now Brunswick) in 1628, were abandoned except for a few forts and garrisons. Beginning with King Philip's War in 1675, Native American attacks destroyed many incipient towns. New France resented encroachment by New England in territory it considered its own, and used the Abenaki inhabitants to impede English settlement. During King William's War, when Wells contained about 80 houses and log cabins strung along the Post Road, the town was attacked on June 9, 1691 by about 200 Native Americans commanded by the sachem Moxus. But Captain James Converse and his militia successfully defended Lieutenant Joseph Storer's garrison, which was surrounded by a gated palisade. Another sachem, Madockawando, threatened to return the next year "...and have the dog Converse out of his hole." A year passed when cattle, frightened and some wounded, suddenly ran into the town from their pastures. It was a recognized sign that a Native American attack was imminent, so residents sought refuge. On June 10, 1692, a force of 400 Native Americans and some French troops commanded by La Brognerie marched into Wells, knowing that Converse would be in Storer's garrison. But with a 15 soldier militia and an approximate number of townsfolk, Converse resisted assaults during a 2-3 day siege. The attackers alternated between attacks on the village and the narrow harbor, where Captain Samuel Storer, James Gooch and 14 soldiers, sent as reinforcements, were aboard 2 sloops and a shallop. Native Americans shot flaming arrows onto the boats, but the crews extinguished the fires. The attackers fastened a wall of vertical planks to the back of a cart, then pushed it toward the vessels at low tide. La Brognerie and 26 French and Native Americans huddled behind the shield, but the cart got stuck in mudflats within 50 feet of the nearest boat. When La Brognerie struggled to lift the wheel, he was shot through the head. The remainder ran, some dropping in the hail of bullets. Next they towed downstream a raft of about 18-20 feet square and covered with combustible material, expecting the ebbing tide to carry it ablaze to the boats. But the wind shifted and the raft drifted to the opposite shore.
Running out of ammunition, the attackers retreated, although not before burning the church and a few empty houses, shooting all the cattle they could find, and torturing to death John Diamond, who had been captured at the outset trying to escape the boats for the fort. They left behind some of their dead, including La Brognerie. The victory of so few against so many brought Converse fame and advancement. A granite monument in Storer Park now marks the site of Lieutenant Storer's garrison.
During Queen Anne's War, the town was attacked on August 10, 1703, when 39 inhabitants were slain or abducted, with many more wounded. Rebuilt houses and barns were again burned. As historian George J. Varney writes:
But Wells was never abandoned, and each time rebuilt stronger. The Treaty of Portsmouth in 1713 brought peace between the Indians and English, but it wouldn't last. In 1722, the Abenaki village of Norridgewock, which was a hotbed of Indian hostilities, was again raiding settlements. Then during Dummer's War, on August 23, 1724, a Massachusetts militia of 208 soldiers traveled up the Kennebec River and destroyed Norridgewock. The region became less dangerous, and after the Battle of Louisburg in 1745, Indian incursions ceased altogether.
The town was a farming community, producing hay and vegetables. Other industries included shipbuilding and fisheries. In the 19th century, with the arrival of the railroad, the town's beautiful beaches attracted tourists. Many inns and hotels were built along the seashore. Today, tourism remains important to the economy.
Wells celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2003. The year-long celebration included a New Year's Eve party with fireworks, parade, a visit by the traveling Russian circus, concerts, historical reenactments, and more. The town commissioned a member of the celebration committee, Kristi Borst, to design a town flag. Her design portrays historic aspects of the Town's settlement and agriculture as well as the 2003 Town Hall and focus on tourism represented by a train. Also included is the motto she penned for the project: "Proud of our Past, Ready for our Future."
There are several ways to get into and out of Wells, including:
According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 58.2 square miles (150.6 km²), of which, 57.6 square miles (149.3 km²) of it is land and 0.5 square miles (1.3 km²) of it (0.88%) is water. Wells is drained by the Webhannet River.
As of the census of 2000, there were 9,400 people, 4,004 households, and 2,690 families residing in the town. The population density was 163.1 people per square mile (63.0/km²). There were 7,794 housing units at an average density of 135.2/sq mi (52.2/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 98.18% White, 0.23% African American, 0.20% Native American, 0.48% Asian, 0.01% Pacific Islander, 0.14% from other races, and 0.76% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.64% of the population.
There were 4,004 households out of which 25.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.7% were married couples living together, 6.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 32.8% were non-families. 26.3% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.35 and the average family size was 2.85.
In the town the population was spread out with 21.0% under the age of 18, 5.6% from 18 to 24, 26.4% from 25 to 44, 30.2% from 45 to 64, and 16.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43 years. For every 100 females there were 94.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.0 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $46,314, and the median income for a family was $53,644. Males had a median income of $39,682 versus $28,463 for females. The per capita income for the town was $23,130. About 3.1% of families and 5.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 3.8% of those under age 18 and 5.6% of those age 65 or over.