Tag Archives: Gold

Pirates in Casco Bay in 1817

Marauding under an alledged foreign flag

Mainers have heard stories about pirates Dixie Bull, Captain Kidd and Samuel Bellamy cruising the coast in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but little has been written about the pirates caught trying to smuggle stolen Spanish cargo into Portland, Maine in September 1817.

During the War of 1812, patriotic privateering was a lucrative business for American mariners. The United States Congress issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal authorizing designated ships to attack and pillage enemy vessels. The law required that prize ships be condemned and that booty proceeds be divided between the privateer owners and crew. Goods seized were often delivered to reputable merchants at a lower than usual cost in exchange for financial backing for the privateer. No matter how temptingly profitable it may have been, it was never legal to plunder vessels from countries the United States was not at war with.

When U.S. peace was restored in 1815 some of the privateers and their U.S. merchant partners could not bring themselves to give up the huge profits of privateering. They set up dummy registrations and residencies in South America to subvert U.S. piracy laws.

Buenos Aires was fighting for independence from Spain after the War of 1812 and it proved a convenient location for Baltimore, Maryland pirate, Joseph Almeida, to set up a second home. Whenever necessary to avoid conviction for looting Spanish ships, Almeida would claim citizenship in Buenos Aires even though his family still lived handsomely in Maryland and his 10-gun Privateer El Congresso, was built and armed by Baltimore merchants.

Five American sailors, who had all arrived in Portsmouth, N.H. on the sloop Aurora, out of Portland, aroused suspicion on Sept. 7, 1817 when they each tried to exchange $1,000 in Spanish gold and silver coins at a Portsmouth bank. The purchasing power of $1,000 in 1817 would equate to about $170,000 today; an unusual sum for low-level seamen to receive in payment for a voyage.

The Portsmouth Customs collector was alerted to the suspicious circumstances and he immediately seized the Aurora under the command of a Capt. White from Portland. All her passengers and crew were rounded up for interrogation. As a result of the investigation, three of the crewmembers, John Palmer, Thomas Wilson and Barney Colloghan, all of Massachusetts, were indicted for piracy. The following details of the case were revealed in newspaper reports and court transcripts.

The three accused pirates had sailed the previous May from Baltimore, in the ship El Congresso, under the command of Capt. Joseph Almeida. During the cruise, the Congresso captured several Spanish vessels and after having taken valuables out of them, sank, burned or destroyed them.

On July 4, 1817, the Congresso captured a most valuable Spanish ship, the Industria Raffaelli, as she sailed from Havana to Cardiz. Her cargo included 500 boxes of sugar valued at $20,000; 60 pipes of rum worth $6,000; honey, coffee and hides that together were valued at $6,000; and $60,000 in gold and silver specie.

The Industria’s Spanish crew was replaced by a prize crew under the command of Capt. Diggs. According to the prisoners’ testimony, Capt. Almeida ordered the prize to sail for Buenos Aires, but four or five days later, a Portland man named Davis took control of the Industria and sailed for the coast of Maine. She came to an anchor in Hussy Sound, between Peaks Island and Long Island in Casco Bay. There, a fishing boat met them and carried Capt. Davis ashore. The next morning the captain returned with three sloops. Cargo, sails, rigging and iron salvaged from the Industria was loaded onto the Betsy and the Abby and brought quietly into port without attracting the attention of the customs collector.

The whole crew except for Capt. Davis was put on board the sloop Aurora, with their cut of the Spanish gold and silver. What was left of the Industria Raffaelli was disguised and abandoned. When she was recovered some time later near Cape Elizabeth, it took a while before she was identified. Her name had been blacked out and a piece of canvas with the name John of Norfolk painted on it, had been nailed to her stern.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that an act of piracy had been committed, but the United States piracy laws in force at the time only applied to acts of piracy against the United States. Because El Congresso sailed under the Buenos Aries flag and attacked a Spanish vessel, the American pirates were acquitted. The only action that could be taken was to condemn the sloops Betsy and Abby for knowingly subverting U.S. Customs collection. As a result of the impotence exposed in U.S. Piracy Law by this case, an expanded legal definition of piracy was adopted by U.S. Congress on March 3, 1819.

Joseph Almeida, also known as Don Jose Almeida, plundered hundreds of Spanish vessels before he was captured in 1827. He was imprisoned at El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was finally executed for piracy against Spain on St. Valentine’s Day 1832.

The Ogunquit Gold Rush

A stampede to frustration
A stampede to frustration

The vaguest hint of a gold strike turns wise men foolish. Not just in faraway places like the Klondike or California and not just in a simpler time. More than 2,500 amateur prospectors from six states descended on Ogunquit, during the chilly month of March 1960. Armed with kitchen colanders and frying pans they rushed to the mouth of the still icy Josias River upon hearing the news that gravel dredged from Perkins Cove had already yielded some quantity of gold.

The Ellis C. Snodgrass Co. of Portland had been hired to enlarge Perkins Cove. After hauling out thick layers of mud, clamshell and drag dredges hit gravel on the old river bed. The town parking area was in need of resurfacing, so representatives of the Ogunquit Village Corporation instructed Irving Pickering, engineer in charge of the project, to have the gravel dumped in piles on the parking lot. Pickering became intrigued by the texture of the material. This fine alluvial sediment consisted in part of disintegrated rock that had been flowing down the Josias River from Mount Agamenticus for eons. It reminded him of the gravel in which he had once found tiny flecks of gold.

Following a hunch — on St. Patrick’s Day, a Thursday — Irving borrowed the only gold pan in Ogunquit from local rock hound, Frederick E. Kemp Jr. Almost immediately, he sifted out a gold nugget the size of a coffee bean. After panning the rest of the day he collected a half a thimbleful of gold dust. His total take for the day was only $8, but back at his office he jokingly put up a sign over the door that read “Klondike Town Hall.” Fred Kemp got word of the mother lode and quickly retrieved his gold pan from Pickering. He and 200 other eager early birds were at the municipal parking first thing Friday morning.

Police Chief Chris Larsen was alarmed by the crowd and immediately banned all prospecting on town property. Ogunquit Village Corporation Manager, Percival H. Wardwell, reversed the chief’s decision the following evening when Ogunquit business owners pressured him to let the tourists come and spend money in their shops. There was still snow on the ground but the story had been reported by the Associated Press. Ogunquit merchants were not about to miss a rare opportunity to open the season on the first day of spring. “Let them prospect to their hearts’ content,” Wardwell ordered.

Sunday morning, 2,500 prospectors appeared at the parking lot and along the banks of the Josias River. They came for the day from as far away as New York. They brought homemade prospecting tools and wives eager to shop in the village.

In true prospecting tradition, nobody wanted to say just how much gold had been collected. Hoping to maintain the gold fever, some locals insisted they had found “a pretty good amount of the stuff,” but their claims lacked specificity. The following weekend, a couple hundred prospectors were back. There was some talk of trying upriver once the ice melted but nothing ever came of it. It was reported in the Lewiston Daily Sun that “the claims in the parking lot gravel were scarcer than parking spaces on a hot August day.” Disgruntled prospectors complained that the only similarity between Ogunquit and the Klondike was the weather. Most of the money made during the 1960 Ogunquit Gold Rush ended up in the pockets of local merchants who had the good sense to stock up on pie plates and cocoa.

Gold has been found in Maine over the years in the Sandy River, the Swift River, and in the Saint John River, but never in quantities sufficient to make it profitable to mine. That hasn’t stopped myriad businessmen from trying to drum up interest in its promise.

On June 9, 1837, a Maine newspaper announcement read, “A gold mine was lately discovered in Albion, Maine, the gold of which was imported from Mexico, especially for the purpose. The land sold at a very high rate in consequence of this discovery; but is not so valuable now.”

On April 8, 1880, a reporter for the Lewiston Evening Journal cautioned readers against investing in the many exaggerated claims in Bluehill and Acton, Maine. “We wish to remind our readers that it is not yet determined whether any of our Maine mines will yield gold or silver in sufficient quantities to make it profitable,” he wrote. They did not and many investors were embarrassed.

In 1897, a great deal of money was invested on a mysterious process that promised to extract gold from the seawater near Lubec and Cape Porpoise. (see Nov. 2009 Old News, “Cape Porpoise Gold Rush”)

No matter how many times someone claims to have discovered profitable quantities of gold in Maine, there are always plenty of wise men at the ready with their pie plates and garden hoes.


Cape Porpoise Gold Rush

Extracting gold from seawater
Extracting gold from seawater

Tiny Fort Island, connected at low water to Stage Island, has a rich and colorful history. Cape Porpus Settlers huddled behind the fort there during a 1689 Indian attack. In 1894, Harvard student, Henry F. Knight described colonial artifacts he had collected on the island at a meeting of the Maine Historical Society and again to an audience of summer visitors at the Langsford House.

Melville Freeman, in his History of Cape Porpoise writes “Fort Island was also at one time the scene of considerable granite quarrying”. The Cape Porpoise Land Company purchased it on July 2, 1897. During the year that followed, frenzied activities there were shrouded in secrecy.

The United States had suffered high unemployment rates, recession and bank failures during the 1890s. Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897, offered a glimmer of financial hope to many desperate Americans.

One Martha’s Vinyard born Baptist Minister in Middletown, CT alienated his congregation by making Catholic-like noises from the pulpit and thereby joined the thronging ranks of the unemployed. Reverend Prescott Jernegan saw a solution to his financial woes in the new public obsession with bling. He claimed to have invented a process for extracting gold from seawater by some secret combination of electrical and chemical reaction.

Several capitalists were invited to accompany Jernegan to a little shack at the end of a deserted wharf on the Rhode Island coast. There he promised they would witness the first test of his mysterious “Accumulator”. The apparatus consisted of a box containing mercury. Two platinum wires ran under water from the box to a homemade battery at the wooded shore. In the presence of the capitalists the accumulator was lowered into the water through a trap door in the floor of the dark little hut.

The minister had enlisted the help of experienced diver and childhood friend, Charles Fisher, who hid nearby in his diving suit until candles were lit inside the shack. Then he slipped into the water and using the platinum wires as his guide found the box, replaced the mercury with gold and returned to the shore undetected.

At sunrise the box was examined and a jeweler in the party certified that the accumulator indeed contained grains of real gold. The capitalists in attendance became excited and begged the minister to let them invest in his invention. With feigned reluctance, he accepted enough money to set up a full scale operation in Lubec, Maine. The 20 foot tides at the easternmost town in the United States would maximize their gold collection opportunities, Jernegan said and security would be easier to maintain at such a remote location. The Electrolytic Marine Salts Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $10,000,000 in shares of $1 each.

Several of the capitalists who witnessed Jernegan’s successful demonstration were summer residents of Kennebunkport. Rather than purchasing expensive shares of his company they made plans to reproduce his apparatus on Fort Island. May B. Whiting, regular contributor to Henry Ford’s publication, The Dearborn Independent, wrote about the Stage Harbor Gold Rush in 1926.

“On Fort Island, off Cape Porpoise, they erected a clubhouse but instead of the customary furnishings they installed pumps of the largest and most expensive make. For a week they pumped. They pumped the ocean side and they pumped the harbor side, but mud remained mud and sand remained sand with never a gleam”.

Melville Freeman wrote “The little building which now stands on the island was built around the turn of the century to house the large water tanks belonging to a corporation which was formed to extract gold from sea water. It was found that gold could indeed be obtained in this manner but at a cost of about five dollars for every dollar’s worth of the precious metal”. In the August 1898 Wave it was reported that the furnished cabin at Fort Island was a perfect picnic retreat. Clearly, all gold prospecting had ceased.

The Lubec Gold Plant proved no more successful. Reverend Jernegan and large amounts of his stockholder’s money disappeared In July of 1898. He was never tried for his crimes but paid for it in a bizarre twist of poetic justice. The swindler discovered a British company that claimed to have found the secret of extracting gold from seawater. Believing the process to be genuine, Jernegan invested his entire fortune in the fraudulent company.

Kennebunkers in Gold Rush p2

Farrington McIntire answers his calling by Frank Handlen
Farrington McIntire answers his calling by Frank Handlen

Farrington McIntire of Fitchburg, Mass., was called to preach at Kennebunk’s First Parish Church in 1848 but his preparation at Harvard Divinity School had not imparted in him a pleasing manner or doctrinal views compatible with the Unitarian congregation.

When the not quite handsome minister became engaged to local girl, Caroline Frost, her girlfriends whispered that she would do better to remain in single-blessedness. McIntire set out to become more marriageable by seeking his fortune in the gold mines of California.

The ship Crescent City left New York at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 30, 1849 with 250 passengers. Farrington could only afford the most meager accommodations and disabling seasickness took hold of him shortly after departure. As the only clergyman on board, McIntire was asked to preach for the passengers on the second day at sea. He eagerly complied. Exhilarated by attentiveness of his makeshift congregation he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Fitchburg Sentinel, “That gently undulating ship was as holy to me, and I think to all, as St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s could be.”

After the sermon the captain offered him the finest stateroom on the ship to call his own for the duration of the voyage. On his ninth day at sea he spotted the highlands of the Isthmus of Panama.

Eastern travelers to California had several routes from which to choose, each with its pros and cons. One could ride across the untamed land in covered wagons, sail all the way around Cape Horn, or sail to the Isthmus of Panama, cross over the land there and then board another vessel for the last leg of the journey in the Pacific Ocean. Farrington McIntire would come to regret his choice of the latter.

Once on the Isthmus most of his fellow travelers navigated the narrow Chagres River in small, primitive canoes hewn out of logs with little or no protection from the elements. McIntire chose to wait at the mouth of the river for a larger more commodious canoe that took a day longer to get to the town of Cruces.

Farrington complained about the lack of service he received aboard the river vessel.

“I have never seen loafing brought to so near perfection before,” he wrote.

Upon his arrival at Cruces on Sunday, July 15, Farrington hired mules to carry his luggage over the chain of the Andes. Bemused by the fuss made about crossing the Isthmus, he called anyone who had complained about the hazards “effeminate in his feelings and resolutions.”

McIntire bragged that he had kept perfectly healthy simply by taking minimal precautions and maintaining virtuous habits. Those of his fellow travelers who died of disease had obviously not followed a prudent diet.

In a short letter to the Sentinel dated July 27, 1849, Farrington, who had contracted Panama fever, apologized to readers for his earlier account of the journey which had “represented the dangers in too favorable a light.”

The fever nearly killed the minister and he missed the steamer that was to take him from Panama City to California. He was nursed back to relative health by two ladies from Philadelphia before embarking on the two-week sail to San Francisco on Aug. 27, 1849. In his final letter to the editor dated Jan. 21, 1850 the holy adventurer still had not found gold but was supporting himself by transporting provisions to the men working the mines.

A year later, on Jan. 7, 1851, Kennebunk’s Town Clerk and diarist, Andrew Walker reported that McIntire returned to Kennebunk on that day a rich man.

“In company with a few others he went to the mines for the purpose of digging gold,” wrote Walker. “They succeeded in building a dam on the branch of a river and turned the water into a new channel. In a few weeks, the company took out of the bed of river between 70 and 80 thousand dollars worth of gold.”

The Rev. Farrington McIntire married Caroline Frost on the bride’s 32nd birthday, April 23, 1851.

Andrew Walker wrote “he had improved wonderfully not only in the opinion of the girls but by people generally.”

One girl, Miss Smart, remarked, “if Caroline had not accepted poor Mr. McIntire, she could not have obtained rich Mr. McIntire.”

Many thanks are due to retired Fitchburg, Mass., teacher, Marilyn Zavorski. She transcribed all of Farrington McIntire’s letters to the Fitchburg Sentinel for the Teaching American History federal grant program and graciously shared her scholarly work with us.

Kennebunkers in the Gold Rush

Robert W. Lord goes West by Frank Handlen
Robert W. Lord goes West by Frank Handlen

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 opened the Golden Gate to fevered fortune hunters who arrived by land and by sea.

Between 1848 and 1856, $465 million in gold was collected but most prospectors went home empty handed if they could pay their way home at all. Fifteen sons of Kennebunk caught the fever. Entrepreneur, Robert Waterston Lord, who would later conduct the very profitable Twine Mill in West Kennebunk for 45 years and serve as director of the Ocean National Bank for 24, had the business acumen to diversify his efforts in California thereby ensuring at least moderate success.

The 540-ton Kennebunk-built ship Henry Ware, was loading for California at Long Wharf when a reporter for the Boston Daily Atlas extolled her virtues:

“She is one of those substantially built vessels, which have made the State of Maine so famous for the strength of its shipping. She will not only carry a large cargo, but sail fast with it at the same time. She is just the ship for those who wish to have a safe and speedy passage to California.” Captain Noah Nason and his Kennebunk crew were to sail the Henry Ware by way of Cape Horn. Robert Lord was one of three Kennebunk prospectors aboard when she departed for San Francisco at 4 p.m. on Oct. 30, 1849.

They crossed the equator on Dec. 3 and for a month, until he spotted the Falkland Islands, Captain Nason fought strong headwinds. He was forced to drop anchor overnight at the entrance of the Straights of Le Maire to await more favorable winds. The following morning the Henry Ware, in company with several other California-bound vessels passed through the Straights. They rounded the Horn at midnight Dec. 16. The passengers spent the next two uneventful months in the Pacific, playing cards and watching dolphins frolic alongside the ship. The Henry Ware sailed into San Francisco Bay at daybreak on March 16, 1850.

Robert Lord wrote about his experiences in an article “Five Years in California in its Early Days,” published 15 years after his death in two 1938 issues of The New England Quarterly.

“I purchased and took with me a portable steam engine and various pieces of machinery suited for the manufacture of building material,” he wrote. “I had previously made arrangement with a practical and experienced house-builder and carpenter to join me in business in San Francisco, on his arrival there, by way of the Isthmus of Panama route, by which route he proposed to go to San Francisco and meet me on my arrival there.”

His partner, delayed by calamity, was not waiting in San Francisco.

Lord set up his portable steam engine on the deck of the Henry Ware and used it to help unload her cargo of house frames before selling his machinery. Most of the passengers and some of the crew left immediately for the mines. Robert and fellow passenger, Henry Howe, a watchmaker from Massachusetts, stayed in San Francisco and began manufacturing scales for weighing gold. For the first month the businessmen’s prospects seemed promising as their precision equipment was very much in demand.

On May 4, 1850, 300 buildings in the central part of the city of San Francisco burned. The scale manufacturing store was one of them and the partners were unable to save their equipment or most of their stock. They did manage to drag a couple of trunks of finished work out of the burning building and bury them in the sand at a nearby construction sight. After the fire, Lord sold his share of what was left of the business to his partner for jewelry the watchmaker had brought with him from Massachusetts.

The Kennebunk man ran a store in Oregon for a while and then made trips through the wilderness to sell supplies to prospectors at remote mines, often encountering unfriendly animals and humans. Eventually, the call of gold was irresistible and Lord mined several claims with varying success, in one instance finding a piece of gold weighing 1 ½ pounds.

While mining deep in the wilderness he learned by word of mouth that two banks in which he had deposited gold had failed. Taking this as a sign that it was time to go home, he sold his claims, managed to recover his deposits and boarded the steamer Falcon bound for Kennebunk by way of Nicaragua.

When Robert W. Lord returned east in 1855 he had been away for five years and six months. With a healthy nest egg and a honed business sense he began a long and successful career in his home town of Kennebunk.