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Lexington of the Seas: A Narrative

(Page 1 of 3) Print Version 

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?

Burnham Tavern, Machias, ca. 1900
Burnham Tavern, Machias, ca. 1900Maine Historical Society

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.