Tag Archives: Military

Arundel sloop Polly slips away from the enemy

False loyalty wins escape

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.

Peter Colcord’s Pigwacket Adventure

Abduction, captivity and Escape

A Kingston, New Hampshire boy of 18 was working in the fields with his young cousins on May 16, 1724. They were surprised by five Indians from Canada lurking in the bushes and before they could react they were carried away. Little did Peter Colcord or his captors understand the consequences that would follow.

They traveled to Pigwacket, now known as Fryeburg, Maine. From there they continued on for a day’s march to the northeast, stopping at another Indian village on the banks of the Androscoggin River. Peter’s captors “gave him to a Sagamore’s squah” in that village and carried his young cousins on to Canada where they were later ransomed by their father, Ebenezer Stevens.

Peter Colcord lived among the Indian women and children for nearly six months learning their habits and perhaps even earning their trust. On the 6th of November, 15 or 16 men traveled two days’ march down the Saco River, leaving the women behind to shell the corn. When the harvest was secured, the women, children and Peter joined the men.

The following day Colcord was taken in a canoe by one of the Indian men up the Saco River to hunt geese. At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon his captor got out of the canoe and went onshore to hunt. Just as he was about to disappear further into the bushes, the Indian suggested that the boy might entertain himself by eating some cranberries along the river.

Left alone in the canoe, Peter started paddling downriver with all his might. About an hour before sunset he reached the Indian camp and hid himself until dark. He paddled all through the night and when the sun was about two hours high he left the canoe and started on foot through the woods. The next morning he reached the town of Wells.

Samuel Wheelwright, captain of the militia there, eagerly listened to the boy tell about the habits and the settlements of the Pigwacket Indians. His story was reported to the acting governor and a few weeks later published in the American Weekly Mercury.

” Colcord says the Indians go from that settlement frequently to Canada and back again in about 20 days when the rivers are high and that the Canada Indians very frequently pass forth and back through that place, and that those settled there are Pickwaket Indians about 7 or 8 families who are very much inclined to peace, and very seldom come out against the English. A Squah told him that the French Indians said they were not forward for war against the English but that they were obliged to do it by the French Governor, who tells them he would have them kill as many of the English as they can and also destroy their cattle.”

While Peter had been living with the Indians, Captains Johnson Harmon and Jeremiah Moulton, both of York, led 200 rangers to the Indian village of Norridgewock on the Kennebec River. French missionary Father Rale and a leading Indian chief were killed on Aug. 22, 1724 as were some two dozen women and children.

With the Indian war raging, the information Colcord provided was regarded by the colonists as very useful indeed. Within two weeks of his escape he was recognized by the government for his “Ingenuity and Courage” in making his escape and his “account of their Settlement and proceedings which may be of advantage to the Government hereafter.” On November 27th it was voted to award Colcord a sum of 10 pounds. By then the young Colcord had already signed up to pilot Samuel Wheelwright’s expedition against the Pigwacket Indians.

Capt. Wheelwright kept a journal of the expedition. He might have later wished he hadn’t. His entry of November 20, 1724 reads, “I received orders from his Honor the Lieut. Governor  to collect 50 of the posted men at York, Wells and Arundel, with Lieut. Allison Brown of Arundel as my Second, Mr. Stephen Harding and Peter Colcord as Pilots, to go to Pigwacket in search after the Indians.”

The next several days were spent preparing the apparently reluctant soldiers to fight the Indians. They finally set out on the 25th but only covered eight miles that day “by reason of the snow on the bushes.” Three men were sent home sick the next day. On the 27th, four more men went home and 12 more on the following day. Even accounting for illness and the snow, which was not unusual in Maine in late November, the soldiers were moving at a snail’s pace.

On December 1st, when the militia was finally just 10 miles from their destination, Wheelwright was unable to coax his men forward, “some being sick, some lame, and some dead-hearted.” He called his officers together for a conference and contrary to Wheelwright’s inclination, it was decided they would head for home. Illness and snow were far less troublesome on the way back. They made the distance in two days.

Pigwacket was not saved, however. The General Assembly in Boston had raised the bounty on Indian scalps to 100 pounds apiece and there were plenty of Englishmen ready to volunteer to collect. Captain John Lovewell, having learned of the location of Pigwacket, petitioned the government to allow him to lead a company of volunteers on a scalp hunting expedition. In May of 1725 Pigwacket was attacked. There were many casualties on both sides. Neither Lovewell nor Chief Paugus survived the eight hour bloodbath. The Indians that did survive left their villages in Oxford County for the relative safety of Quebec.

High Flying History of Sanford Regional Airport

Baffling pilot error

Unassuming little Sanford Regional Airport sits quietly between the roads from Sanford, Alfred, Kennebunk, Wells and North Berwick. From its understated appearance one would never guess at the history it has seen, in times of war and peace.

Sanford Town Engineer, Earnest Gallant, oversaw initial construction of the runways in 1930 on land owned by Lela H. Goodall Thomurg. One of the local leaders of the project, Dr. S. H. Cobb, traveled to Portsmouth, N.H. on July 3, 1930 expressly so that he might catch a plane there and return as the first passenger to land at Sanford Airport.

A reception party, including Mayor F. W. Hartford, Frank W. Randall and Major A. Leon Smith, greeted Dr. Cobb as he climbed out of his pilot’s plane. Later that same day Army fliers arrived to look over the facilities. They were already planning to use the airfield during the New Hampshire National Guard annual encampment.

William Campbell, President of the Goodall Worsted Company, founded Sanford Airways in 1931. After several improvement were made during the 1930s and early 1940s, funded primarily by New Deal agencies, the Sanford Airport was leased to the Navy in 1942. By then it boasted three lighted, paved, 3,000-foot runways.

Freeland K. Smith of Kennebunkport was working at the Brunswick Naval Air base during World War II. He recalls that Sanford Airport was used by the Navy to augment the Brunswick Naval Air Station. “Route 109 had to be relocated to accommodate the Navy expansion,” said Freeland. “A hangar and maintenance buildings were built. The air strip was painted off to represent an aircraft carrier’s deck and provisions put in to install the arresting cables just like on a carrier. Of course those cables were only in place during the training,” he continued.

Mr. Smith remembers that at Brunswick and at Sanford, “British Carrier fighter pilots were trained to fly the Vought Corsair fighter plane, the hottest fighter plane capable of landing on a carrier. British pilots were brought here, assigned to a new airplane and after completing their training, returned to England with the plane.”

At a special meeting after the war, the Town of Sanford deliberated whether or not to accept the airport back from the Navy. The meeting was covered in the Portsmouth Herald. “Should the commission accept the airport which contains 300 acres of land, hangers and other buildings, the town would be responsible for its upkeep. Several Quonset huts and a few other buildings, including a mess hall, will not be included in the deal.” The town did vote to accept the airport but it was to be  administered by a state Airport Commission, not the Town of Sanford.

During the transition, Sanford Airways owned several Cessna 140 airplanes for flight instruction and pleasure flying. On Nov. 19, 1947 two Bowdoin College students, Richard E. Eames, 21, of Winterport, and William Campbell Jr., 21, of Kennebunk, took out two of the planes. Eames was a WWII veteran and already had his license to fly. Campbell, a student flyer, was the son of the late William Campbell, president of Goodall Worsted Company until 1944.

The classmates had just taken off from Sanford Airport when they collided in mid-air. Richard Eames did not survive. Cecil Chadbourne told a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald that he heard a crash and turned toward the noise just in time to see Eames’ plane falling in pieces from the sky. It had rammed the side of Campbell’s craft leaving him with a gaping hole in the side of his plane. Campbell managed to set his disabled plane down just off the runway. He told a reporter for the Portland Press Herald that he had no idea what had caused the collision. “Eames took off first and made a turn,” Campbell said. “When I took off Eames was at 800 to 900 feet, 500 feet above me and ahead of me. He crossed ahead of me and about 300 feet above. I continued climbing and turned left. Then I saw him coming at me sideways in a bank. He was right on top of me in an instant and we collided.”

Richard Eames’ death left his parents childless. His only brother had been killed in the war in 1945.

The Navy used Sanford Airport again for a couple of years during the Korean War and Sanford Selectmen took over its administration in 1953. Colonial Aircraft Corporation moved to Sanford to manufacture amphibian planes in 1955. They chose Sanford for its airport and for its large empty woolen mill that served as the perfect inexpensive location for their factory. Colonial was acquired by Lake Aircraft Corp in 1959. A new, larger plane called the Lake Amphibian was built. Several other designs followed until 1970 when Lake Aircraft business offices were moved to Houston, Texas. The Lake factory and hanger at Sanford Airport were later sold at auction.

Sanford Regional Airport is now overseen by an Airport Advisory Committee of the Town of Sanford and a part-time airport manager. It’s the home of Southern Maine Aviation, LLC., which offers flight instruction, plane rentals and scenic aerial adventures. Only two runways remain but they adequately service celebrities, Senators and even Presidents of the United States from time to time.

A Kennebunkport man for all seasons

James A. Benson had a taste for variety

When studying family history, one often finds a character whose experiences earn him the label of family adventurer. The Benson family history is full of strong men and women, but only the mostly documented story of the life of James A. Benson, born in Kennebunkport on Dec. 4, 1840, reads like historical fiction.

Uncle Jim, as family members still refer to him, was reportedly fearless, even as a boy. He starred in a plethora of Benson-family legends beginning in his teenage years. One such legend, submitted to a local paper for publication by Melvin Landon many Halloweens ago, painted a vivid picture of Jim’s youthful bravado. After his chores were done, Jim would walk down to the Port to go see the girl he was smitten with — a girl who was at the time being courted by several young men. She lived alongside the cemetery and Jim was in the habit of cutting through to save time.

One night, after seeing Jim cross the cemetery, one of his frustrated rivals hatched a sinister plan to scare Benson off. He dug a grave right in the middle of the path he knew Jim would traverse again later that night. After sweet goodbyes were uttered, Jim took off light-footed into the night. Before a moment had passed, the ground opened up under our hero, plunging him into the freshly dug grave. Just then his rival jumped out of hiding wrapped in a sheet and in his spookiest voice chanted, “What are you doing in my grave?” Jim reached up, grabbed the ghost by the ankles, pulled him in and scrambled out. “What the hell are you doing out of your grave?” roared Jim, as he shoveled dirt onto his stunned opponent. Like most spooky graveyard tales, this one cannot be verified, but if anyone ever lived such an adventure it might well have been James Benson.

Uncle Jim volunteered, at the age of 20, to serve in the Civil War. He was sent to Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Va. He was working there as a teamster in 1861 when Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and offered Union Army Teamster jobs to many fugitive Virginia slaves.

Letters addressed to Jim at Fortress Monroe from his father in Kennebunkport have been preserved by his descendants. In them and in the regimental records we learn that after his first term as a teamster expired, Benson enlisted in Company D of the 27th Maine Regiment on Sept. 30, 1862.

Enlistment in the 27th Maine was intended to be a nine-month commitment, but as Jim’s relatively uneventful second term of service was coming to an end, President Abraham Lincoln asked members of the regiment to volunteer for an extra week of active service to defend Washington from Robert E. Lee’s army, which had recently invaded Pennsylvania. Less than half of the soldiers volunteered to stay on and the ones that did were promised the Medal of Honor.

By some bureaucratic mix-up, medals were prepared for the entire regiment and many of the medals were distributed before the mistake was discovered. The rest were later stolen from Col. Mark Wentworth’s barn, where they were being stored. In 1917, Congress ruled that only those 27th Maine soldiers who had served the extra week were eligible for the Medal of Honor. James A. Benson must not have been one of them because his name appeared on the list of soldiers whose medals were revoked.

After the war Uncle Jim travelled out west to find his next adventure. He married Irish-born Margaret Kelley in Oregon, but by the time the 1870 census was taken, Jim and Margaret were living in San Francisco, Calif. He listed his occupation as drayman; a drayman was a driver of horse or mule teams that delivered goods and supplies.

Uncle Jim’s descendants still own the whip that he is said to have handled with great skill. On one of his trips home to Kennebunkport, Jim wanted to demonstrate that skill for his family. While his aunt scolded him for wasting her time he shredded her apron with the snapping tip of his driving whip. The Bensons returned to California and by 1880 Jim was a San Francisco policeman.

He was also employed for a while as a dog sled driver in Canada. Family legend says that Benson found himself in dire straights one night having frozen several toes while he was out on a sled run. Rather than let gangrene invade his foot, he instructed a friend to cut off the discolored toes with a knife after he had consumed enough whiskey to render himself unconscious.

Sure enough, records from the Togus Maine Disabled Soldiers Home, where Uncle Jim passed away in 1907 after a thrilling 67 years, indicate he was missing three toes on his left foot and one toe on his right.

Many thanks to Frank Landon for his Benson family records. Like his mother, Ruth Landon, did before him, Frank devotes immeasurable personal time to preserving the history of Arundel and Kennebunkport.

The trials of the Webber brothers from Wells

A Badge of Shame
A Badge of Shame

Counterfeiting was a huge problem in Colonial America, so much so that it was considered a capital offense in the 17th century. By 1752, the year the Webber brothers of Wells were accused of the crime, the death penalty was no longer enforced but the sentence did stigmatize perpetrators for life.

The Webber family of Wells had settled near Kennebunk Beach around 1722, on what is today known as the Sea Road. Neighbors were still few and far between in 1724 when Indians killed three of them at Gooch’s Creek. By 1752, John Webber and his wife, Abigail Harding Webber, had raised at least two daughters and five sons there. Most of the men in the family were mariners, coasting frequently to and from Boston on their own vessels built in Wells. The perils of a frontier and seafaring life must have been acutely familiar.

John and Abigail Webber gained some notoriety with local historians for being shunned by their neighbors at the Second Parish Church. A sailor in their care had reportedly died from injuries he sustained in a shipwreck at Iron Ledge about 1750. Daniel Remich wrote in his “History of Kennebunk” that parishioners judged the Webbers to be neglectful caregivers and therefore responsible for the sailor’s death.

Two of the Webber’s teenage sons, Jonathan and John Jr., sailed to Boston on a new coasting sloop in late October 1752. They spent a few days in Boston and Cambridge “conducting their business.” At dusk on Monday, Oct. 23, they were apprehended for the crime of knowingly passing counterfeit Spanish pieces of eight and were confined to prison in Boston to await trial.

Evidence against the boys was pretty strong. Some of the suspicious coins were found on their persons as was a lump of the composite metal from which the coins were fashioned. The police told a reporter for the Boston Post-Boy that the material was likely a blend of hard pewter or tin, since with some strain it could be bent. Jonathan, 19, and John Jr., 14, were clumsy counterfeiters. Their coins were not of the proper weight and their artistry was sorely lacking.

“The stamp is thick and obscure and the decoration round the edge very uneven and irregular,” wrote the Post-Boy reporter. Further investigation revealed more raw materials stashed away on their new coasting sloop.

Two months after the Webber brothers’ arrest, it was reported in the Boston Gazette that they had appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to “forging and uttering a piece of pewter and other mixed metals to the likeness of a Spanish milled piece of eight.”

On Jan. 4, 1752, according to the Boston Gazette, “John and Jonathan Webber, own brothers of Wells, were sentenced at Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, to be set in the pillory for the space of an hour to have each of them one of his ears cut off, to be publicly whipped twenty stripes and then to be committed to the house of correction and there kept to hard labor for three months and to give bonds for their good behavior for a year.”

Both young men served their time and were married within a year of their release from prison. Jonathan and his wife moved in with his parents at Kennebunk Beach. No record has been found of Jonathan’s children, but he and his wife still owned the family homestead in 1760. John Jr. and his wife Mary had a large family. They moved for a time to land on the banks of the Saco River, but had returned to Wells before the start of the Revolutionary War. Both brothers were middle-aged in 1777 and of Wells, when together they enlisted in Capt. Daniel Wheelwright’s company to fight for American independence.

Wheelwright’s company marched as rear guard with Col. Ebenezer Francis’s regiment in the retreat from Fort Ticonderoga that left Lake Champlain, the coveted highway between the colonies and Canada, in the hands of the British. On the morning of July 7, 1777, while the colonial soldiers were eating their breakfast, British forces caught up with them and attacked.

The Webber brothers were in the second line of defense. Their company resisted valiantly but in the end the British forces prevailed. Some 300 American soldiers died that day. Among the casualties was Jonathan Webber of Wells. For a time it was believed that his younger brother John Jr. had suffered the same fate. He had in fact been captured by the British and taken to Quebec. From there, he was carried to Great Britain where he remained a prisoner in the goal until Dec. 15, 1781. At that time, he was exchanged for a British prisoner and sent to France. John Webber Jr. arrived home in Wells on April 28, 1782, and filed with the General Court of Massachusetts to have his back wages granted.

Life in Colonial Wells was hard. The Webbers and their neighbors faced harsh treatment from the unforgiving environment, the Indians, the law, the war and each other. If the Webber family was shunned at the Second Parish Church in Kennebunk as has been claimed, the fact that their two sons Jonathan and John Jr. were each missing an ear for their youthful crime of counterfeiting might have had something to do with it.

Special thanks to Hugh Spiers for his assistance with the confusing Webber family genealogy!

Hannah’s Bloody Wedding in Wells

Wedding Party - War Party
Wedding Party – War Party

Queen Anne’s war, (1703-1713) yet another territorial conflict between European monarchies, was played out in the colonies as a battle between pawns. The Indians fought for the French territorial interests. The colonists living on the Maine frontier fought to protect their property and their lives. On September 18, 1712, Captain John Wheelwright’s Garrison at Wells was the scene of a bloody post-nuptial ambush.

Eighteen year old Hannah, daughter of Captain John Wheelwright, was betrothed to Elisha Plaisted of Portsmouth, New Hampshire at a time when reverie and relaxation of vigilance, was ill-advised. Just two months earlier Joseph Taylor had been killed outside the Wells garrison and Capt. Wheelwright’s slave Sambo had been temporarily abducted. Evidence of several other large war parties had been observed in the woods of southern Maine, since. But live goes on, even in a time of war.

Extravagant festivities were planned to celebrate the marital union inside the Wells stockade. The bridegroom arrived from Portsmouth with a large number of friends and relatives, many of whom were colonial soldiers. Great “merry-making” ensued while the marriage was consummated, as was the colonial custom. Several historians have alluded to the liquid nature of the merry-making enjoyed that night.

At 8 o’clock the following morning Sergeant Daniel Tucker, Joshua Downing and Isaac Cole stumbled outside the garrison to find their missing horses. They were ambushed by an Indian war party waiting at the edge of the woods. Downing and Cole were killed. A seriously wounded Sergeant Tucker was captured and carried off.

At the sound of gunfire, Capt Lane, Capt Robinson, Capt Heard, Elisha Plaisted, Roger Plaisted, Phillip Hubbard and Joseph Curtis, all preparing to leave for Portsmouth, jumped on their horses and rode toward the sound. Just as they reached the edge of the woods their horses were shot from under them. Capt Robinson was killed and Elisha Plaisted, Hannah’s groom, was apprehended. A dozen other men were sent out on foot in a different direction to intercept the war party but seeing the fate of the mounted soldiers they quickly retreated to Wheelwright’s garrison.

Capt Lane and Captain Harmon rallied a company of 70 men and again fought the enemy at the edge of the woods with but little success. Lieutenant Banks of York was finally appointed to take a white flag of truce into the woods. There he met with 6 Indians that called themselves Captains.  Banks recognized two of the warriors to be Bomazeen and Capt Nathaniel and a third he had met at Casco Bay during an earlier prisoner exchange. The Indian who captured the bridegroom, Banks reported, was a Penobscot man.

Elisha Plaisted was the son of a wealthy Portsmouth merchant and his captors knew it. He would command a handsome ransom. A letter written by Elisha to his father and outlining the ransom demands was sent back to the garrison with Lt. Banks. In it, Elisha wrote that he was being held by a war party numbering 200, consisting mostly of Canadian Indians. His father was to meet Captain Nathaniel at Richmond Island within 5 days time. He was to bring supplies valuing 50 pounds ransom for Plaisted and 30 pounds for Sergeant Tucker’s return. The supplies demanded were to be “in good goods, as broadcloth and some provisions, some tobacco pipes, pomistone, stockings and a little of all things.” The letter also warned “If you do not come in five days you will not see me, for Captain Nathaniel, the Indian, will not stay no longer, for the Canada Indian is not willing to sell me.”

A shallop was sent immediately to Richmond Island to complete the exchange but as of September 25 there was still no word at Wells. Worries grew that the vessel was lost at sea or worse, that they had been duped. The Indians had been tracked southwesterly and had, on September 21, harassed garrisons at Oyster River. Another vessel was dispatched for Richmond Island on September 26th but by then the exchange had already taken place as promised.

Plaisted and Tucker were returned to their families.  A disabled Daniel Tucker, whose injuries never fully healed, received a pension of 20 pounds, less than the ransom paid for his return. Elisha and Hannah Plaisted lived out privileged lives in Portsmouth.

These events were described by Judge Edward E. Bourne in his excellent 1875 History of Wells and Kennebunk. Letters written in 1712 by Capt. Wheelwright, Governor Joseph Dudley and others involved were published in the Documentary History of Maine in 1907, long after Bourne had completed his research. These and accounts published in the 1712 Boston News-Letter provide reliable details that were not available to Judge Bourne.

An unscheduled meeting at Eliot Town Hall

The consequences of an empty tank and gravity
The consequences of an empty tank and gravity

The ground under the tiny wooden Town Hall in Eliot, Maine shook twice on Wednesday, January 7, 1925. Shortly after 8 am the strongest earthquake residents could recall knocked pictures off the walls. Around 12:30 that afternoon a De Havilland bi-plane crashed into the corner of the 1 1/2 story municipal building.

Army pilot, Charles Benning Oldfield, not to be confused with the then famous racecar driver, Charles Barney Oldfield, had been making a run from Mineola, NY to Boston. Flying at an altitude of 2000 feet he suddenly encountered a thick fog that caused him to lose his bearings and drift further north than he had intended.

Aviators navigated by sight in 1925 and Oldfield couldn’t see a thing from his open cockpit situated just behind the wings.  He was spotted flying alarmingly low over Portsmouth Navy Yard just after noon, having dipped below the fog in an attempt to find a place to land. By the time the experienced Army pilot aimed for Everett Hammond’s field in Eliot his engine was dead. He was out of gas.

Gliding in the rest of the way, Charles overshot the edge of the field barely missing a stone wall. He slammed into the corner of Town Hall piercing the Selectman’s Office. Luckily, nobody was in the building when wood, plaster and glass sprayed in all directions. A 300 pound safe was knocked clear across the room, remembered Ralph E. Dixon in the 1988 book A View of Eliot’s Past by Edward H. Vetter. Captain Oldfield was not seriously injured but the impact splintered the propeller and cracked the radiator of the U. S. Army airplane that had been entrusted to him.

Students at the high school 300 yards away heard the crash. Despite a stern warning from his teacher, Carleton Staples jumped out of his classroom window and ran over to get a closer look at the disabled bi-plane. He never regretted that particular defiance and proudly told the story for many years.

Word got around. Before long, people came from all over town and from across the Piscatiqua River to bear witness. One of them was the reporter for the Portsmouth Herald who chronicled the events that followed the crash. Guards were stationed around the plane to keep onlookers at bay while Charles Oldfield went to telephone Captain Louis R. Knight of the Army Air Service.

Arrangements were made for De Havilland expert and daredevil aviator Jimmy Doolittle to fly in from Boston the following day to assess the damage.    Charles retired to Portsmouth for the night where he was greeted as a celebrity. “Captain Oldfield,” wrote the Herald reporter, “in his enforced stay in this vicinity created a good impression with those whom he met he being a genial type of man and an interesting conversationalist.”

Jimmy Doolittle flew to Eliot on Thursday morning. It took him just a few minutes to formulate a repair plan and he was back in Boston by noon to order the necessary parts. Two accomplished aviation mechanics were dispatched from Boston in a truck with a propeller, a radiator, several sturdy timbers and more than enough fuel to get the damaged plane back to Boston. Local people remarked on the impressive speed and skill with which these highly specialized mechanics installed the replacement parts but they were just finishing up when the January sun called it a day.

A crowd arrived at the Town House on Friday morning to watch Oldfield depart but there was still a major obstacle to overcome. The opening in Everett Hammond’s stone wall was way too small to squeeze an airplane through. All day Friday was spent trying to get the bi-plane back into the meadow for take off. The timbers brought from Boston were fashioned into a ramp of sorts but in the end the plane had to be hoisted over the wall with the help of Eliot men who had gathered to watch.     Finally at 4 pm Captain Charles B. Oldfield boarded his plane and lifted off. He circled the field twice to make sure the engine was sound and with a tip of his wing to the good people of Eliot, he was gone.

When all the excitement died down attention turned to the damaged Town Hall. The little building that had once served as a school was in need of expensive repairs. Two weeks after the accident it was reported in the New York Times that the Town of Eliot was seeking compensation from the Federal Government. The War department forwarded the claim to Mineola, NY and Major Stillwell of the Fifth Infantry stationed at Portland, ME was ordered to Eliot to investigate. Evidence that the damage was caused by the Army bi-plane was irrefutable.

A special thanks to Peggy Elliott at the William Fogg Public Library in Eliot, Maine for her able assistance. She reports that the little Town Hall, which was located across State Road from where Eliot Elementary School now stands, was torn down in the 1970s.

A German Howitzer quietly pleads for peace in Kennebunk

A Trophy Gun of Remembrance
A Trophy Gun of Remembrance

Thousands of people wiz by Kennebunk’s War Memorial every day but few are aware of its significance or its origin.

When the citizens of Kennebunk arrived at Town Meeting, Saturday, August 22, 1908, Saco marble dealer, George E. Morrison had already been commissioned to furnish a 21 foot granite figure of a soldier on a seven by eight foot base. The statue honoring Kennebunk soldiers of the American Civil War was to be paid for by the efforts of the Relief Corps and an appropriation by the town.

A satisfactory location for the monument could not be agreed upon. The vote to place it on Centennial Hill passed by a narrow margin but the meeting was contentious. Disgruntled voters grumbled at their neighbors as they left the meeting.

The following Monday, Henry Parsons stepped forward and offered to purchase the land at the corner of Main and Fletcher Streets for $10,000 and donate it to the town for a war memorial. The lot was the perfect choice. It was right downtown and just across the street from the Kennebunk Free Library, which had been built for the town by Henry Parson’s father, George Parsons. Peace was restored. The $4,000 statue was unveiled on October 24, 1908 amid much prayer and fanfare. All the businesses in town were dressed in their finest patriotic buntings.

In 1911, Kennebunk Legislator, Charles Perkins acquired a battle-worn cannon from the Government to be placed near the statue. After World War One, a plaque listing names of the Kennebunk soldiers who served was added to the park. William Barry donated his grandfather’s old ships cannon that had been fired from Centennial Hill to celebrate Armistice Day. Both of these old guns have since been put in storage.

A June 7, 1924 Act of Congress provided for the distribution of captured enemy artillery as war memorials for American cities and towns. Maine was allotted its share of German WWI field guns and the Harold A. Webber American Legion Post was the first to apply for one. The request was passed over even though Kennebunk had sent more men into the World War per capita then any other town in Maine.

Henry Parsons, a member of Kennebunk’s American Legion Post, stepped forward again. This time he was determined to acquire a piece of German Artillery. In 1928 he became aware of 20 captured Howitzers that had been placed with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. They were being stored on the grounds of War College for lack of space at the museum so Parsons went to Washington DC to examine the collection. He picked out his three favorite guns and wrote an appeal to the Smithsonian Institute on behalf of the Kennebunk American Legion. “The cannons are seriously deteriorating through the rusting of the steel and the decaying of the wood-work,” he wrote.  “The Harold A. Webber Post respectfully request that one of these cannon be donated to the Post as a war memorial – all expenses in connection with such donation to be paid by the Post.”

After many letters between the Post, the Smithsonian Institute, The War Department and United States Congressman, Lister Hill, the donation was finally approved. These letters, which have been carefully preserved in scrapbooks kept at the Webber-Lefebvre Post 74, were graciously shared with your columnist by Commander Brian McBride. In one rather terse letter from the Post to Governor Ralph O. Brewster, the Post Commander complained that as deserving as the large voting membership of the Kennebunk Legion was they had been overlooked to receive one of the original allotment of German cannons. He then suggested that the Governor might want to rectify the situation by applying to the War department on their behalf.

In the early part of August, 1928, the German 150mm sFH13 Lang Howitzer arrived at the depot on a flat bottom car. The 4700 pound field gun was unloaded and hauled behind an auto-truck to Town Hall by Henry Parsons, Elmer M. Roberts and Post Commander A.L. Leach. It was riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes; clear evidence of combat against the allied forces. Mobility and fire power made the sFH13 one of the most important pieces in the arsenal of the German Artillery during WWI.  The Fried. Krupp Steel Company had delivered 3,409 of them to the front lines by 1918 when Kennebunk’s Howitzer was captured off a French battlefield.

At the beginning of WWII the Howitzer was contributed to a war effort scrap drive, to be cut up for bullets. As it turned out, the Biddeford junkman did not own an acetylene torch hot enough to cut the cannon into pieces for smelting. After several years of storage at the junkyard it was hauled back to the American Legion Hall on High Street. There it remained until the new Legion Hall was opened on Water Street.

It was reported in the Star that Kennebunk citizens voted to accept the Howitzer as a donation from the American Legion in 1977 to keep it in town “since other area American Legion Posts wanted it.” It was placed at the War Memorial and there it remains to remind us of the price of war.

USS Constitution has Maine ties

Old Ironsides: A frigate with Maine links
Old Ironsides: A frigate with Maine links
     The historic USS Constitution has been tied to Maine history since 1796, when her original eastern white pine masts were hauled out of the woods of Kennebec County.
     According to an article published in the Bangor Historical Magazine in 1891, trees for the masts were cut in the town of Windsor, on the north side of Augusta Road between Cooper’s Mills and Bryant’s Corner. “Thomas Cooper, of New Castle, and a man named Gray, who afterward moved to Windsor or Whitefield, cut them and got them to salt water by swamping a road to Puddle Dock (Alna) during the winter of 1796/97.” The following spring, the trees were taken to Wiscasset, where they were yoked together with oak mortises and towed down the coast to the Boston shipyard of Edmund Hart.
     Young Edward Preble, of Portland, watched his hometown burn to the ground at the hands of British Navy Commander Henry Mowatt in 1776. On that day he vowed to join the United States Navy to defend his country. By the time the First Barbary War broke out, Commodore Edward Preble was already a seasoned veteran. He was sent to Tripoli in 1803 as commander of the 3rd U.S. squadron, with the frigate USS Constitution as his flagship. The Maine commodore ordered the strategic burning of the USS Philadelphia when it fell into enemy hands.
     The USS Constitution served her country nobly during the War of 1812. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” when fire from the HMS Guerriere literally bounced off her 21-inch-thick, live oak hull.
     On June 2, 1855, Old Ironsides sailed into Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery for repairs. Her arrival caused quite a commotion on both sides of the Piscataqua River. Her Navy sailors, on leave after long, loyal service, enthusiastically drank, gambled and caroused. Petty Officer Edward Welch became intoxicated and fell to his death through the hatchway of Old Ironsides. Other sailors were cheated out of their pay in a rigged card game onboard, and the swindlers were chased all over town. Local reporters wrote that the police would have their hands full until the seamen dispersed.
     On June 2, 1858, an article appeared in the Charleston Mercury indicating that the frigate Constitution was on the ways at Kittery, having been thoroughly repaired and coppered: “Planking inside and out has been taken off and between six and seven hundred timbers have been replaced. She is now as good as new when first launched in Boston sixty years ago.” Old Ironsides was already regarded as the oldest ship in the Navy when she served as a training vessel during the Civil War.
     The old girl returned to Kittery in 1882 after completing her final high seas training cruise and suffered the indignity of being reconfigured into Navy receiving barracks. A large, barn-like structure obscured her graceful lines. On one occasion in 1891, she was adorned with paper lanterns and transformed into a dance hall for the ladies of the G.A.R..
     Congressman John F. Fitzgerald of Massachusetts infuriated Portsmouth and Kittery natives in 1897 when he declared the Navy frigate to be on the verge of sinking at her Kittery pier. Her removal to Boston for her 100th birthday was begrudgingly announced in local papers with the caveat, “they had better return her to her rightful home after the celebration because her deteriorated condition has been exaggerated for political reasons.” Old Ironsides would not return to the Portsmouth Navy Yard for another 35 years.
     The public was outraged  to learn that the Secretary of the Navy recommended the tattered USS Constitution be towed out to sea and used for target practice. Fundraising efforts were undertaken to provide for her complete restoration. Schoolchildren sent in their hard-won pennies and the silent film “Old Ironsides” was produced to raise awareness about the historic ship. Over $600,000 in private funds was raised and Congress approved an additional expenditure of $300,000 to complete the project.
     John Abel Lord of Bath, ME was put in charge of rebuilding the USS Constitution in 1925. He researched 18th-century shipbuilding tools and techniques extensively before handpicking skilled shipwrights from Bath to do the work.
     The new Secretary of the Navy, Charles Francis Adams, recommended that the restored vessel be towed from port to port to show the people of the United States what their pennies had bought.
     Old Ironsides made the first stop of her national tour at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on July 3, 1931. Captain Louis J. Gulliver, of Portland, was at her helm. Some 32,000 people came to see her during the week she spent at Kittery. She was next towed to Bar Harbor and then to Bath, where a huge celebration honored the home boys who had rebuilt her. Old Ironsides spent another week tied up to the Maine State Pier in Portland before being towed away from Maine for the last time.
     Many penny donors were disappointed to see Old Ironsides towed on her national tour. Authorities had not thought it prudent to sail the 134-year-old vessel. On July 21, 1997, she finally did sail under her own power for the first time in 116 years, flying a suit of sails made by Nathaniel S. Wilson of East Boothbay.

Mainers engaged in the slave trade

From East Africa to Paris Maine
From East Africa to Paris Maine

An act of Congress made foreign slave-trade illegal in 1794 and a federal law passed in 1820 made it a capital crime of piracy but some Maine mariners managed to profit from the abhorrent business in a shell game of Brazilian intermediaries and falsified documents.

Juries were reluctant to convict traders while slavery was still legal in the southern states.  In fact, when Captain Cyrus Libby of Scarborough appeared before the Portland, Maine Circuit Court in 1846, no American had ever been hanged for the crime.

As captain of the Brunswick brig “Porpoise,” Libby had sailed to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and remained onboard as master while the vessel was chartered for a year to notorious Brazilian slave dealer, Manoel Pinto da Fonseca.  Defense attorneys presented evidence at the trial that a lease signed by both parties, included a clause prohibiting any contraband trade.  Captain Libby claimed he had only been following the instructions of the vessel’s owner, George F. Richardson, a merchant born in Limington, Maine, who had since passed away.

Libby was acquitted by the First Circuit Court, even though the “Porpoise” had been seized with two East African boys aboard. The branded young slaves, Pedro, and Guilherme, testified that the Maine brig had sailed along the eastern coast of Africa as tender to the slaver, “Kentucky”.  They told the jury that their job had been to serve Captain Paulo Rodrigues, agent to Fonseca, who sailed aboard the “Porpoise”.  The crew had not been told they would be working for a slave-trader until they had no other way home.  They testified that Captain Libby often accompanied Captain Paulo to the African slave factories.  He had clearly been aware of the true nature of the voyage, they said, when the “Porpoise’s” boats were used to load slaves onto her sister vessel. Cyrus Libby denied any knowledge of the cargo on the brig “Kentucky” and claimed he had been shown official documents indicating that Pedro and Guilherme were free.

While on the outward voyage, some of the 500 slaves aboard the “Kentucky” revolted.  The armed crew easily regained control but forty-six African men women and children were publicly executed and dismembered to discourage further rebellion.  The “Kentucky,” hailed from New York but was built in Prospect, ME.  She avoided capture by the over-painting of her name with “Franklin of Salem”.

The “Porpoise” was seized when a disgruntled member of the crew slipped a note to American authorities at Rio de Janeiro.  George W. Gordon, American Consul to Rio, on board the U. S. Frigate “Raritan” fought the Brazilian Government for jurisdiction over the slave-traders.  For the sake of international diplomacy, Secretary of State James Buchanan insisted that he release the crew but the Consul refused to hand over the “Porpoise” or the slave boys onboard.

After the trial, Cyrus Libby was a free man but the “Porpoise” was not returned to her owners.  It had already been sold by the government for court costs.  A decade later, a Boston Court ruled that the vessel had been rightfully seized.

The slave known as Guilherme moved to Milton, Massachusetts and became a well respected barber.  Pedro was taken in by the U. S. Marshall for the District of Maine, Virgil D Parris, Esq., of Paris, Maine.  Pedro Tovooken Parris learned to speak English with his new family.  He studied reading, writing and arithmetic at public school and joined the debating society to hone his public speaking skills.  During the 1856 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Campaign he worked for candidate George W. Gordon, telling voters how the former Consul had rescued him from slavery.

Pedro died of Pneumonia in 1860, while still a young man. Almost everyone in Paris, Maine attended his funeral.  His adopted brother, Percival J Parris wrote an account of the former slave’s life and illustrated it with drawings by Pedro himself.  The article was published in “Old-Time New England” in 1973. (digitized by Historic New England)

The first American ever to be convicted and hanged for the crime of trading human beings was also from Maine.  Nathaniel Gordon of Portland was convicted for carrying 897 slaves aboard the 500 ton merchant ship Erie.  Half of Gordon’s captives were children.  Lieutenant Henry Todd, of the U. S. Navy reported that the main deck was so crowded that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on their naked bodies.  Abraham Lincoln sealed Nathaniel Gordon’s fate.  After a long, horrific career he was executed in New York City on February 1, 1862.