Cape Porpoise in the American Revolution

Gun smoke on Goat Island
Gun smoke on Goat Island

The people of Arundel were for the most part in support of American independence from Great Britain. King George III had levied taxes that threatened Arundel’s maritime trade economy. When 400 buildings at today’s Portland were burned by Captain Henry Mowat on October 18, 1775, the threat of war was too close to home to be ignored.

More than a month before the declaration of independence was signed Arundel citizens voted to “engage their lives and fortunes” to support independence. And that they did. Arundel boys were lost at Quebec, Halifax, Valley Forge and Lake Champlain as well as in the disastrous Penobscot Expedition of 1779.

Coastal Cape Porpoise residents, who were engaged in seafaring trade with merchants from Essex County Massachusetts, were particularly vulnerable. In October of 1780 three vessels were captured just outside Cape Porpoise Harbor and their captive crews were carried to Penobscot. The following year three more vessels met the same fate just outside the harbor though a few crewman made it to shore.

A bold attack inside Cape Porpoise Harbor was described in a New-England Chronicle article on October 3, 1782. On the morning of August 8, 1782 sheep and cattle were grazing on the islands as usual and two Newbury Massachusetts vessels were safely anchored in the harbor. One was a large sloop loaded with lumber and fitted out with a canon to protect her cargo. The other was a wood schooner that sailed with her.

An enemy brig of 16 guns suddenly appeared outside the harbor. She sent in a boat with 3 dozen men to capture the armed sloop but the men were surprised by the sloop’s American canon and landed the boat on Goat Island instead. The brig then sailed into the harbor and fired upon the Newbury sloop while an enemy top-sail schooner fired at her from just outside the harbor. The sloop’s crew was forced to evacuate and the enemy took possession of the two American vessels, sending the schooner off to Penobscot. The sloop was driven ashore by a sudden breeze as she left the harbor and was burned by the enemy where she lay at the southwesterly point of Goat Island.

James Burnham Jr., Captain of the Arundel militia, called his men to Trotts Island. From there he successfully advanced on the enemy, still at Goat Island, by ordering his men to wade across the channel under a hail of fire from the top-sail schooner. Wind and tide conspired to keep the Brig from escaping the harbor but she managed to get out just before nightfall by towing and warping her way. The Arundel Militia exchanged fire with the enemy for five or six hours and suffered the loss of one life, that of Captain James Burnham who at the close of the engagement took a musket ball to the chest. According to a witness whom the enemy had taken some time before, and who was on board the schooner during the battle, over 25 of the enemy were killed.

When Charles Bradbury wrote about the battle of Cape Porpoise in 1837, he relied heavily on the memories of his older neighbors to piece together the harrowing events of August 8, 1782. Some of his details varied from the contemporary account and he added a personal story. “Samuel Wildes, who was partially deranged” wrote Bradbury “paddled into the harbor in a small canoe and ordered them to give the vessels up and leave the port.” When he refused to board the brig he was fired upon seven times causing him an injury that lamed him for the rest of his life.

Regardless of his mental health, Samuel Wildes, Sr. had a right to be incensed by the enemy. He knew that his 16 year old son, a privateer crewman, had been imprisoned in England for 15 months. What he didn’t know was that Samuel Wildes, Jr. was at that moment two days out of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Benjamin Franklin had negotiated the release of all American prisoners and they were on their way home.

Most of the British forces had already left Penobscot by August 1782 but the loyalists stationed there were infamous for raiding coastal Maine harbor towns for sheep, cattle and coasting vessels laden with badly needed supplies. Most notable was Loyalist, Richard Pomroy and his 16 gun Brig Meriam.

A few weeks after the attack at Cape Porpoise, the Meriam was cut out of her anchor at Penobscot by Captain George Little in his American Navy sloop Winthrop. The Brig Meriam was triumphantly sailed into Boston Harbor on Sept 16, 1782 along with 3 other prizes. Among them were, privateer schooner Hammond commanded by a Penobscot Loyalist named Doty and an unnamed Newbury wood schooner that was a recent prize of the Brig Meriam.

A letter from the Governor, published in the Massachusetts Archives, relates to the success of Little’s six week cruise. It says “I considered that he had most essentially prevented the depredations on that coast by capturing & sending into this Port near the whole of the armed force they possessed at Penobscot.”

Definitive proof that Cape Porpoise was attacked by loyalist brig Meriam and schooner Hammond, has not been found but if the Governor was correct in his assessment of the remaining Penobscot forces the circumstantial evidence is strong.

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