Kennebunk clergyman Rev. Nathaniel H. Fletcher wrote a letter to the Humane Society of Massachusetts recommending that Capt. James Perkins Sr. and Capt. James Perkins Jr., of Arundel, be decorated for heroic efforts in rescuing and reviving six people from drowning in the Kennebunk River. His letter described the harrowing events of November 29, 1800 and was later published in its entirety in the Salem Gazette.
A few days before Thanksgiving, six members of the Card and Trefethen families of New Castle, N.H., sailed up the Kennebunk River to visit relatives living in Lyman, or Coxhall, as it was then called. Mr. Trefethen, his 15-year-old son, Mr. and Mrs. Card and two of their children, navigated up the river in a small two-masted schooner. They got as far up as the bridge near the head of the tide — about where route one crosses the Kennebunk River today. There they tied up the boat and continued on foot to Coxhall, 12 miles further inland.
Saturday afternoon, Nov. 29, they returned to the boat with an additional child added to the party. One of Mr. and Mrs. Card’s children had been living in Coxhall and was returning home to New Castle with the rest of the family. They sailed downriver — to about where the locks would later be installed — but grounded out on some rocks on the eastern bank. There they sat in a colder-than-usual November wind, waiting for the tide to float them off.
After about two hours the stranded travelers got restless and decided to cross the river and await the tide with their friends, the Webbers, whose house was on the western bank. They all climbed into their canoe, which was way too small and unstable to hold seven people. It immediately tipped all seven of them into the freezing water, just a bit upriver from the Perkins house.
James Perkins Jr. had been butchering meat at his father’s house when the sound of an unfamiliar female voice in distress set him running through four inches of ice and snow toward the river, throwing off his outer wear and calling to his father for help.
The younger Capt. Perkins waded into the river up to his chin to reach the nearest floating person. Mr. Card, who was “in the agonies of drowning,” grabbed Capt. Perkins with such violence that when he finally disengaged himself from the drowning man and made it to shore, his shirt was ripped to shreds. James Perkins Sr., who was by now at river’s edge, took charge of Mr. Card while James Jr. returned to the depths of the river to rescue another victim.
One by one, five more downing persons were brought to the shallow water by the younger Capt. Perkins and dragged onshore by his father. The last to be rescued was Mrs. Card, who, with her two-year-old baby clutched to her chest, had sunk to the bottom for the last time. Every one of the victims were “senseless and speechless,” except Mr. Card.
Capt. Perkins asked him repeatedly “if six were the whole number” and repeatedly he answered in the affirmative, even after seeing his unconscious family members laid out on the bank. Apparently, in the fright of the moment, he had forgotten that they brought an additional child home from Coxhall.
According to Rev. Fletcher’s letter:
“These six were conveyed to the house of Capt. Perkins, Sen. where their wet clothes were taken off and dry ones procured. But, alas, three of them, Mr. Trefethen, Mrs. Card, and one of her children, upwards of two years old, were apparently dead and irrecoverable. To resuscitate these, the upmost exertions were made by Messrs. Perkins, and the likeliest means used that lay within the sphere of their knowledge and recollection. The persons were gently rolled, bathed with brandy, rubbed with warm flannel, and the like till the whole were joyfully restored to life. Before this took place, the means were incessantly continued till 3 o’clock, Sabbath day morning.”
The last victim to be revived was Mrs. Card. She immediately looked around the room and discovered that her eight-year-old daughter was missing. Young James Perkins rushed back out to the river and eventually found the girl but not soon enough to save her.
The various methods used to resuscitate the Cards and the Trefethens were precisely those recommended by the Humane Society of Massachusetts thus making the heroes eligible for commendation by the Society. Capt. James Perkins Jr. and Capt. James Perkins Sr. were each awarded a silver can and their names and remarkable deeds were published.
This was not the first time that sacrifices had been made by James Perkins Sr. for the good of others. In 1787, he had volunteered his house for use as an inoculation hospital. It had been his vessel that brought Small Pox to Arundel from the West Indies. When Dr. Thatcher Goddard asked him to offer up his house to the cause, Perkins willingly complied, even though most people in town were horrified by the idea of purposely infecting their loved ones with the dreaded disease.
The Perkins house, site of resuscitations and inoculations, still stands set back from Oak Street by the Kennebunk River. Built by Captain Thomas Perkins Jr. in 1724, it is said to be the oldest house in Kennebunkport.