Kennebunkport was attacked by enemy vessels near the very end of the Revolutionary War. The story of the Arundel Militia adroitly overcoming the British in the 1782 Battle of Cape Porpoise has often been told with pride. But Kennebunkport was deeply embroiled in the war from the very beginning. Another Cape Porpoise incident that occurred just a few weeks after the first military engagement of the war has received far less attention from local historians.
The Arundel-owned coasting sloop Polly sailed from Ephraim Perkins’ wharf at what is today Dock Square on May 13, 1775. Her cargo was delivered to Plymouth, Mass. where she was loaded up again for the return trip. She set sail for Arundel on May 15, but a cutter of His Majesty’s Naval Forces would alter her course that day.
Boston was under British control at the time. Learning that the colonists had gathered an arsenal at Concord, Mass., British Military Governor, General Thomas Gage had ordered 700 soldiers to destroy the weapons depot. Admiral Samuel Graves had ferried the British soldiers across the Charles River sparking the Battle at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When the sloop Polly sailed from Plymouth less than a month later, both British military men were stationed in Boston.
On her way home, the Polly was seized by one of Admiral Grave’s cutters, forced into Boston Harbor and into the custody of General Gage. The Polly’s cargo was immediately confiscated by Gage’s men, though top dollar was paid to the captain for them. The Polly and her crew were “detained” in Boston for some time. To escape the clutches of the British Navy, the captain of the Polly cleverly pretended loyalty to the crown, agreeing to sail to Nova Scotia to pick up supplies for the forces at Boston.
There was some confusion in preserved documents whether Ephraim Perkins captained on this voyage or if Samuel Smith of Arundel had been at the tiller. A contract to charter the Polly was drawn up between Perkins as owner and master of the said 88-ton vessel and Major William Sherriff, the King’s Deputy Quartermaster. The contract read in part, “The Above said Majr Wm Sherriff, Doth promise to pay to the said Perkins for the Run or Voyage of said Vessell, One Hundred and Eighty Dollars.”
Captain Samuel Smith testified before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress at Watertown on June 9, 1775 that as captain he had been solicited by Admiral Graves’ Secretary to enter into His Majesty’s Service. “Knowing no other way wherein I Could Possibly make my escape I entered into service to go to Winsor in Nova Scotia for hay & other things.”
Loyalists Josiah Jones and Jonathan Hicks were put onboard the Polly as supercargo to look out for His Majesty’s interests just in case the mariners had been less than honest about their allegiance. The captain was to take orders from Jones who carried with him a packet of letters, orders, and other papers that were later published in Baxter Manuscripts of the Maine Historical Society.
According to his testimony, Captain Smith received orders not to leave for Nova Scotia immediately but to wait to sail in a convoy of a number of vessels the following morning at ten o’clock. Supercargo Jones was apparently not aware of that order because when Captain Smith suggested they get an early start that night, Jones agreed.
Jones was apparently also not familiar with features of the Maine coast. He did not realize that Capt. Smith had opportunistically set a course for Cape Porpoise Harbor under the cover of darkness. Along the way, Jones ordered Capt. Smith to clean and prepare the firearms that had been placed onboard in Boston to defend the charter from the “Rebels who might attack them on their passage.” As it turned out, the rebels to fear were already onboard the Polly.
She arrived at Cape Porpoise Harbor on June 2. The loyalists, their papers and their arms were immediately turned over to the Arundel Committee of Correspondance to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, namely, Benjamin Durell, Jonathan Stone, Thomas Wiswall, John Hovey, a notorious Whig, and James Burnham, who later became the only American casualty of the Battle of Cape Porpoise. A letter to the Provincial Congress was drafted by the committee. While they awaited a response, Jonathan Hicks and Josiah Jones were confined at Arundel.
A week later, master and mate were sent with their prisoners to Watertown, in the Polly, to be examined by the Provincial Congress. After various depositions from June 8 through June 10, Jones and Hicks were delivered to the Concord jail where they remained for several months. The Arundel Committee received special thanks from the Provincial Congress for their clever handling of the whole affair.
Loyalist Jones had a sister, Mary Dunbar, living in Concord while Josiah was imprisoned there. According to the journals of Mary’s grandson, Henry David Thoreau, she helped the prisoners escape by bringing them baskets of food in which files were concealed.