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Lexington of the Seas: A Narrative

Text based on an essay by Richard D'Abate

Images from Maine Historical Society

History is made up of narratives – or stories. The stories that we hear and repeat, or those that we tell are based on people or things in the past.

The stories, however, are constructed to make a particular point and so choose which information to share and how to share it. In addition, as the stories are told and re-told, they often take on new information or begin to stress points that might not have been important before.

In other words, narratives reflect contemporary concerns as well as relating information about the past.

One long-told story that helps illuminate issues that might arise from narrative is that of the capture of the British ship Margaretta by a group of Machias men on June 12, 1775. The event sometimes is referred to as the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War.

The incident clearly was important in Revolutionary War history and also significant to the town of Machias. The Margaretta narrative, especially as constructed in the early 20th century, altered the basic story in several ways, linking Machias with Lexington and the "center" of Revolutionary activity, adding several characters and an important symbolic element.

All seemed to be efforts to heighten the drama and increase the importance of the actions of Machias men.

The basic story: Armed revolt against Britain had begun at Lexington two months earlier. The British had strangled all shipping and trade by closing the port of Boston and the Americans had retaliated with a boycott of their own.

Nevertheless, Ichabod Jones, an American merchant with close ties Down East was allowed to sail from Boston to trade at Machias. He went under the protection of the British ship Margaretta. He regularly delivered supplies from Boston to Machias and filled his ship with lumber for the return journey.

The arrival in Machias of the Margaretta, a symbol of oppression to some and succor to others, together with a series of diplomatic blunders by Jones, created a charged situation in a charged time. It stimulated a number of the most militant locals, led by Jeremiah O'Brien and his brothers, to organize themselves, seize the ship, kill the captain, and turn it into an American fighting vessel. The British took this provocation very seriously.

Those details, over time, were turned into a narrative that, like other local and personal narratives, helped to make the town's experiences in 1775 important and meaningful for later residents. How and why did this happen?

An eight-volume work, A Narrative and Critical History of America, by Justin Winsor, published 1884-1889, offers some insight into what narrative is and its function in history.

For each historical period, Winsor provides two separate sections, one narrative and one critical. In the narrative section, the events and activities of the past are organized into a story: a clear, cause and effect, forward-moving account of what happened. The narrative provides clarity and certainty.

The critical section, on the other hand, presents an essay on the sources of the narrative account. It is argumentative and messy: multiple interpretations and scenarios, skepticism about the evidence, contending schools of thought, and a constant shuttling backwards and forwards in time. The critical section is often inconclusive, doubt-shadowed, and sometimes confusing.

The narrative and the critical are the two key poles of historical activity. In one we make stories: flowing, intelligible, satisfying, somewhat simplified accounts of the past. In the other we interrogate and analyze the historical evidence in order to test the value of the very stories we have been telling ourselves.

That said, several early 20th century treatments of the Machias Margaretta story are instructive.

The first gives an indication of what the Margaretta incident and its positioning in the greater story of the American Revolution meant to the people of Machias. It was, to say the least, a matter of terrific pride.

Lura Beam, in A Maine Hamlet (1957), wrote about the effect of the heroic Margaretta story on people who lived in Marshfield/Machias in about 1900.

"This long-ago conquering of the enemy had somehow stiffened the life of every individual in the hamlet," she wrote.

"The blaze still held over, burning in adult pride and endowing children with haughty self-confidence. … The single Battle was in everybody's bones: the Liberty Pole, the oppressor's hand, the leap over the brook, the bullets and scythes, the night sail up the river…[all] were part of the local calcium."

In this last list Beam is referring to the key episodes of the Margaretta story that every person in Machias knew. The jump across the brook refers to Jeremiah O'Brien's supposed Rubicon — his dare to the men of Machias to join him in armed violence.

George Drisko, in his Narrative of the Town of Machias, written and compiled in 1904, writes in more explicit historical terms how we should think about the place of the Margaretta incident in history:

"Taking all the circumstances of the occasion into view, especially the remote position of Machias from any place where assistance could be obtained, the capture of the Margaretta must be considered as one of the most bold, energetic and extraordinary occurrences of the times.

"The people at Lexington or at Bunker Hill united to resist oppression by the King and they could afford to, surrounded as those places were by a large population; and well as the heroes of the 19th of April and the 17th of June deserve the honors which posterity has bestowed upon them, equally with them should be honored and remembered the heroes of the 12th day of June, 1775."

Historian Alan Taylor contends that America's nationalist narrative centers on the Boston to Washington corridor. It is clear from Drisko's comments that he is following this line. For him the center of the American Revolutionary narrative is Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first shots were fired and where the true spirit of radical resistance seemed to be born.

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.'"

"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.

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.

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.

Those who tried to sustain commerce, as many in coastal towns like Falmouth did, were considered by some to be the traitors and by others to be prudent men, whether they were loyal to the Crown or not.

Jones seems to have consistently aligned himself with the British, and apparently did whatever he could to assist them. Dealing with Ichabod Jones, then, was like touching lightning, and this was the dilemma he brought to Machias in June of 1775.

Jones planned to take provisions to Machias, where people were desperate for them, and take back the lumber so essential to the British war effort, enriching himself in the process. His arrival in town, and especially his effort to get written safe-passage agreements from those he was willing to trade with — creating, in effect, a kind of loyalty oath — ignited the town.

The history of Ichabod Jones leads into the thicket of Colonial ambiguity, where loyalties are divided, commercial motivations abound, law is unclear, and countrymen are pitted against each other in a fierce intramural political struggle.

Revolutionary patriotism was not nearly so clear cut, heartwarming, and unanimous as the Pageant and its whole Lexington-centered agenda suggests. Gone is the neat opposition between Liberty Pole–loving Americans on the one hand, and evil British oppressors on the other.

The truth is there were conflicting political allegiances throughout the colonies, within towns, and even within families.

But how to explain this complicated fact? It is no wonder that the role of Ichabod Jones was softened and downplayed throughout the 19th century, eventually resulting in his bit part in the Pageant. Better to get rid of him than to unearth the historical complexity needed to understand him.

But it is precisely the context that gives meaning to the actions of Ichabod Jones that also helps explain what was truly important in the Margaretta affair, and hence reposition the significance of Machias in the founding of our country.

As James Leamon noted in Revolution Downeast, the taking of the Margaretta and other shipping in the area was not overlooked by the British. In fact, the Commodore of the Royal Navy in North America was so incensed by the incident that he ordered Captain Henry Mowatt to burn the Falmouth as a kind of retribution. This he did on October 18, 1775.

Regardless of the unsteady political motivations that may have led to the taking of the Margaretta, the fact that some people in Machias acted decisively, and followed it up with other military actions, confirmed the revolutionary agenda throughout the population of the town in a way it did not in many other Maine towns.

Machias became radicalized. And this was very important, particularly after the British captured Castine in 1779 and much of the region adopted a policy of accommodation and neutrality with the British occupiers, who, for the most part, worked from their base in Nova Scotia.

Machias, however, stood firm and continued to use its borderland position at the edge of America but in the middle of an international conflict zone to provide a staging area for raids against the British.

Machias does not deserve attention because it was a mini-Lexington; rather it deserves our admiration because it fulfilled a unique historical role at one of the world's other cross roads. Machias may not be the center of the universe, but history, local history can return it to its own true circle of importance.