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Lexington of the Seas: A Narrative

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Drisko suggests that Lexington is the main stage and has most of the players, but insists that far-away Machias deserves a little glory because events relevant to the greater drama were being played out there.

That people were beginning to confer precisely that kind of glory on the Margaretta incident can be gleaned from a notice in the Portland Press on April 10, 1909. It concerns the gift of a British naval cutlass to the Maine Historical Society from Mrs. Josephine O'Brien Campbell, of Cherryfield, the great-granddaughter of Gideon O'Brien, Jeremiah's oldest brother.

The article notes that the cutlass was "captured by her ancestor, Col. Jeremiah O'Brien at the capture of the Margaretta at Machias, June 12, 1775. It will be remembered the Col. O'Brien and his five brothers led off in this famous sea battle, called 'The Lexington of the Seas.'"

Pageant of Machias Valley program, 1913
Pageant of Machias Valley program, 1913

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Maine Historical Society

"The Lexington of the Seas" is a phrase that says a great deal about the absorption of the local story into the priority and power of the greater narrative.

Several sources – including O'Brien's will – mention the sword. The markings on the sword given to the Maine Historical Society in 1909 suggest, however, that it is not the same cutlass that came from the Margaretta. It was not made until about 1804, so could not have been captured along with the ship in Machias.

The provenance of the cutlass does not change the significance of the Lexington connection and the continued importance of the Margaretta narrative to Machias and Maine history.

The conceptual ascendancy of Lexington in all things Margaretta is perhaps best revealed a few years later in a historical drama called the Pageant of Machias. It was performed al fresco in August of 1913. Virginia Tanner, who wrote many historical pageants, was author and director.

Episode three of the Pageant concerns the Margaretta. The action begins when "a rider from Lexington" gallops into town to deliver the news about the start of the Revolution. He also delivers the proclamation of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts: "We now have nothing to depend on under God to preserve America from slavery and destruction but our own arms."

The character of Jeremiah O'Brien says: "Cheers for the Minutemen of Lexington," then "I move we raise a Liberty Pole –– the Liberty Pole of Machias." Crowd: "Hooray."

They then sing a liberty song: "Come Join hand in hand, brave Americans all,/ And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty's call./ No tyrannous act shall suppress your just claim/ Or stain with dishonor America's name."

Enter the British in the form of James Moore, captain of the Margaretta. He spies the Liberty Pole, abstract symbol of Machias' defiance. He orders it removed; the townspeople refuse, despite threats of death.

At this point two little character sketches provide some diversion. Ichabod Jones arrives. He is portrayed as a sniveling Tory-sympathizing Boston merchant who is quickly given the bums rush as a sign of the citizens' mounting anger.

Then, the author introduces and dispatches a black servant named London Atus: at the first sight of men with guns he takes off crying "Lord-a-massy, Lord-a-massy."

Tanner arranged the details of the episode to fit a keen sense of dramatic priority, placing the Margaretta in the grand Lexington-centered narrative of the Revolution, and filling in the gaps using literary models of characterization. She created, in other words, a very pleasing narrative.

Naval Battle at Machias
Naval Battle at Machias

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Maine Historical Society

The point of that narrative was to make an important moral statement about the people of Machias.

The Margaretta affair, as presented in the Pageant, shows that resistance to tyranny — the inherent principle of the American Revolution — had already become a full blown flower in the hearts of the people of Machias, a flower blessed and legitimized by the rider from Lexington — even before the ship had arrived.

The erection of O'Brien's liberty pole, in particular, was a sign of the purity of their purpose and their right to be considered true and original Americans. The subsequent battle, in other words, is just the outward sign of an inner conviction.

Historical pageants are collections of vignettes designed to dramatize — usually for an audience that already knows the basic story — the key episodes or peak moments in the creation of a community's history.

The stuff that goes between — the historical context — is usually left out on purpose.

In this the pageant provided for the citizens of Machias mythological signposts in the sacred narrative of identity. The myth is still alive and well today in Machias.

There's some truth to the pageant and the other narratives. But a critical look at the historical record demonstrates that a different interpretation is not only possible but absolutely necessary.

A critical look suggests that local history has been distorted, doctored and simplified in order to make it conform to the greater narrative. Restoring the details must change and in some sense enrich the way we think about Machias. Machias, as it turns out, can stand in the center of its own circle.

There are three main distortions in the story: First, there likely was no liberty pole. A liberty pole was constructed in Machias in 1777 – to commemorate the events of 1775. It was not present to ignite them.

Hand-to-hand battle on 'Margaretta,' Machias
Hand-to-hand battle on 'Margaretta,' Machias

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Maine Historical Society

Second, though the Black slave London Atus was a real historical figure, his role in the Margaretta affair was fabricated. He did serve during the Revolution and bought his freedom.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, the central role of Ichabod Jones and his political sympathies begins to lose significance and focus.

Jones, a Boston merchant who had invested in the sawmill operations that founded Machias in 1763 and sustained it thereafter, controlled the economic life of the town, especially trade by sea with Boston, an exchange of lumber-for-provisions that was the town's lifeline.

His nephew Stephen Jones, one of Machias's leading citizens, ran the family store and looked after his uncle's other holdings. His son and brother were involved in business ventures in what are now Jonesport and Gouldsborough.

By 1775, however, through the Coercive Acts, the British had closed the Port of Boston to teach the colonists a lesson, thus cutting off supplies of every kind. In response, the radical or Whig faction of the Continental Assembly called for a boycott of all trade with Britain.

In the tremendous political tensions of the period, the question of whether to continue dealing with the British — long an absolute economic necessity for the towns of Maine — became a major political fault line and a test of American patriotism.