Wrecked in a Thousand Pieces:
Loss of Martha

The War Years (1775-1783)

June 5, 2014
by Todd W. Braisted Also by this Author


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When the Maryland Loyalists, a Provincial regiment, marched out of Philadelphia along with the rest of the British Army in June 1778, it mustered 370 officers and men, second in size only to the Queen’s Rangers amongst the Loyalist units leaving the city.[1] Five years later, after campaigns primarily against the Spanish forces invading West Florida, the corps mustered less then ninety enlisted men.[2] With preliminary articles of peace in the spring of 1783, their days as soldiers were coming to an end. And if they desired to remain living under His Majesty’s government, then they would need new homes.

Thousands of Loyalists, civilians and soldiers alike, made known their desire to settle elsewhere in British North America rather than return to their former homes. For some there was no choice, either having had their properties confiscated by the states or being deserters from the Continental Army. Their recourse was to remind the British of the promise made to them when they enlisted – 200 acres of land for each non-commissioned officer, and 50 acres for each private, “without Fee or Reward.”[3] With the war over and the colonies lost, that land would be along the River Saint John in what would soon become the Province of New Brunswick.

As the day of departure approached, each corps in the Provincial Forces (by then known officially as “British American” regiments) was supplied with tools for building and husbandry, in addition to a few necessaries (all had received new uniforms over the summer). Those not wishing to leave received their discharges the first week of September, including sixteen of the Maryland Loyalists.[4] Those choosing to depart embarked between 3 and 9 September on what became known as the “Fall Fleet” that left New York carrying over 2,000 Provincials and hundreds of discharged British soldiers along with their families. Among them were 122 men, women and children from the Maryland Loyalists on the transport Martha, John Willis master.

The Martha was not unlike many other transports, worn down by years of wartime service. She had recently been involved in the evacuation of Charlestown, transporting British troops from there to Jamaica. Her sails had been patched, and then patched again, by a crew of just a dozen sailors and boys. But with every available ship needed for transporting soldiers and refugees, the Martha would have to do. Besides the Maryland Loyalists, the Martha carried part of another Provincial regiment, DeLancey’s Brigade. Twelve transports carrying 3,826 men, women, children and servants, under protection of a Royal Navy frigate, set sail. “On the 15th of September, 1783, being all embarked with our proportions of necessary supplies, and refreshments of all kinds laid in for our voyage, we bade adieu to New-York, fell down the river, and the weather moderate and pleasant, gave us hope of a prosperous passage.” So wrote Captain Patrick Kennedy of the Maryland Loyalists, the senior officer on board the Martha.

But trouble befell the ship almost immediately. Being last of the transports in the convoy, the ship had the tide against it and was unable to depart Sandy Hook that afternoon with the rest of the fleet, leaving instead the following morning. The Martha, sailing by itself, passed Nantasket on 21 September; it was hoped to make Nova Scotia in another couple of days. Captain Kennedy’s thoughts turned to worry as they traversed this dangerous patch of ocean: “Here for the first time I began to think of the dangers to which officers and soldiers are frequently exposed, by being hurried on board crazy old vessels, with patched sails and a thousand splicings in the riggings. The vessel we were in was thirty years old; her sails and rigging in bad order, and very unfit for equinoctial weather.” Indeed, the ship would not stand up well to the fall weather, “the few men who composed the Crew…were employed a number of hours in rigging and setting up a New Main topsail, in the place of one which had gone to pieces early in the night, the weather being tempestuous.”[5]

That evening, the 22nd, many of those on board believed they saw land, but the ship’s master was not willing to venture further in the foul night. The stormy weather continued until after midnight, hampering efforts to set a new main topsail. At length the task was accomplished and the officers and men could finally go below to change their wet clothes and attempt some sleep.

Captain Kennedy and the passengers had just drifted off to sleep when disaster struck: “…about 4 o’clock in the Morning, the Martha struck against a Rock of the Tusket River, near the Bay of Fundy, and in the Course of a few Hours wrecked in a Thousand Pieces.”[6] The ship wedged itself into a shelf of rocks from which no effort of the crew or its passengers could dislodge it. With water pouring into the hold, the master was finally prevailed upon to break out the ship’s boats, but still maintained that the Martha could be re-floated. The crew lowered the yawl or cutter, into which five sailors were placed to man her. Captain Kennedy then requested the ship’s long boat lowered, into which the women and children would be placed and towed to shore by those on board the cutter. But this plan was in a moment dashed: “The sailors had taken their station in the yawl, about one hundred yards from the vessel; the long-boat was ready to take the people in; I had just taken post at the head of the ladder to prevent hurry and confusion in going down to the boat, and that she should not be overloaded, when just at this awful crisis, we saw the mainmast loosed from its base, rolling furiously to and fro, threatening terrible destruction in its fall. In a moment the main top-mast yards, sails and rigging, in one several ruin fell over the side, and dashed our one remaining hope, our only resource, the longboat into pieces.”

Only one small craft left on board. “In this situation the Master ordered the Jolly boat to be launched over the side, and to the surprise of every body, after repeatedly proclaiming that he would be one of the last to leave the ship, he jumped into her as she went over the side, round the Cutter which lay off, got into her, and after taking in a few men, who in that moment of desperation swam out to the boat, he inhumanely pushed off for the shore, turning the Jolly boat adrift, and empty, and in full view of the unhappy people on board, who in vain called out to him for relief…”[7]

A three-masted ship and small boat caught by a storm. The painting is titled "De Windstoot" (The Gust) by Willem van de Velde the Younger (ca. 1650-1707). Current location: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
A three-masted ship and small boat caught by a storm. The painting is titled “De Windstoot” (The Gust) by Willem van de Velde the Younger (ca. 1650-1707). Current location: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The storm continued throughout the entire ordeal. The force of the wind and waves broke the ship apart, piece by piece, deck by deck. Discipline, however, did not break down amongst the soldiers as they attentively continued to obey orders; Captain Kennedy later recorded: “If the men had behaved with any degree of disobedience or tumult, I should have gone from them without a pang; nor given myself the trouble of advising or comforting them; but where every action of mine was observed; every word and order implicitly obeyed; when my advice was solicited, even to the last awful, solemn moment of imminent peril, which renders all ranks of mortals to one common level…” Soldiers desperately attempted to lash planks together into rafts, only to have them broken apart within minutes in the ocean. Men, women and children clung precariously to whatever would float – oars, masts, any form of wooden debris. Many in the water grasped ropes still attached to bits of deck. A sergeant was seen to prop himself on the rudder, and was never seen again.

As the hours passed, officers, soldiers, women and children one by one succumbed to the elements and surrendered to the sea. Even those fortunate enough to be on deck pieces were almost continually swept off them by waves, only to gather diminishing strength to once again clamber aboard and await their fate. Further disheartening was witnessing the different parties of survivors drifting in different directions, seemingly leaving all to fend for themselves. Captain Kennedy several times felt himself slipping away, only to be pulled up by William Stafford, surgeon to the Maryland Loyalists. The captain later attributed his survival in part to the warmth of a dog that had somehow managed his way on board the wrecked deck and stayed there throughout the ordeal.

Captains Kennedy and Sterling, along with a sergeant and three others, were all that remained on their part of the main deck. With night of the second day coming on, and no other rafts or survivors in sight, three sails appeared on the horizon. By sunset, the six were on board one of three Massachusetts fishing boats returning home with full cargoes. To their relief, three other rafts were soon spotted and the survivors distributed amongst the fishing vessels. Captain Kennedy continued his description of the rescue: “The men were supplied with messes of chouder – a well-known favourite dish among fishermen – made up of cod-fish stewed with spices and wine by those who can afford it. A little remnant of tea was boiled in a kettle for the supply of the women. Though weak, fatigued and enfeebled as I lay, I was rejoiced to hear the detail of their several sufferings, while floating on the sea, after separating from the body of the wreck, for we had on board our sloop men from different rafts. Nor were they wanting in offices of kindness to me. I had my feet, legs, and arms fomented with warm spirits, and wrapt in flannel – for during the long tremendous conflict, I had neither shoes nor hat on, and my other cloathing was rather thin for the season; and I had not the thought to get on warm cloathing before the vessel filled.”

Others were not so fortunate but survived nonetheless. One officer wrote: “I had the good Fortune to get upon a Piece of the Wreck with three more Officers, viz. Lieut. Hanley, Lieut. Sterling, Dr. Stafford, and two Soldiers, (all of the Maryland Loyalists) and floated on it two Days and two Nights, up to near our Waists in Water, during which Time Lieut. Stirling, and one of the Soldiers died. On the third Day we were drifted on an Island up the River Tusket, where we remained seven Days without Fire, Water, Victuals, or Cloathing, except the Remnants of what we had on, about one Quart of Water per Man, (which we sipped from the Cavities in the Rocks,) and a few Raspberries, and Snails.” Captain Kennedy and the others on board the fishing boats were likewise taken to an uninhabited island where they remained for two days until setting sail for Yarmouth. Here they were reunited with Dr. Stafford and the others, who had been taken up by an Acadian settler who had been out fowling and discovered them.[8]

It would appear that the officers and men of the Maryland Loyalists and DeLancey’s were not the first survivors of the Martha to make it ashore. “It appears…by the testimony of Officers who were taken up by a Frenchman of the bay (vizt. Lieut. Laffan, Lt. Hanley & Dr. Stafford) that the Master of the Martha had called at the settlements below and declared that he believed every soul on board to have perished, and that he rather inclined to discourage their intentions of going to look out for the wreck to save any persons who might have survived, than to push them forward to so charitable a deed, or to offer his assistance to effect so good a purpose.”[9]

Indeed, Captain Willis, late master of the doomed Martha, had safely reached shore and was quick to tell his story to anyone who would listen. Tales of the wreck, and of course his personal bravery, were first to reach New York, before the actual facts could be ascertained. A published letter from New York to an officer of the Maryland Loyalists in England was dated 6 October 1783 and began “With inexpressible grief I inform you, that not a man, or child, of your corps, who embarked for Nova Scotia, are now in existence. The unhappy fate of so many gallant friends tortures me with the most heart-breaking anguish; and the loss of my poor dear child, overwhelms my very soul with sorrow and despair.”[10] The information had been relayed by a Philadelphia Loyalist who had been at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where Captain Willis had been deposited by a fishing boat of that place. Willis had claimed to all that he personally led the ship’s crew in a small boat to try and heave the Martha off the rocks, but the main mast’s crushing of the long boat and the subsequent breaking apart of the ship had killed everyone instantly while they sadly watched “the horrid scene” from about 100 yards distance.

So much was this account credited, that the initial British casualty return of the incident was done before official word had come from the fleet’s commander that the Martha had even been wrecked, let alone the casualties ascertained. The return appears to have been created simply by listing the numbers embarked, along with the names of the officers. Those supposed to have perished included Captain Kennedy, Lt. Laffan and Surgeon Stafford, all of whom were quite alive in Nova Scotia. The return did mention that six soldiers of DeLancey’s survived, doubtless those that were pulled into the jolly boat that Captain Kennedy alluded to.[11] When just some of the truth came to light however, the commander in chief took steps to see that justice was served. Writing to the officer commanding at Halifax, Lieutenant-General Sir Guy Carleton stated, “From the Narrative of Captain Kennedy, You will perceive it is highly proper he should make a regular Protest against the Master of the Martha for the loss of that Ship, which I beg You will direct him to do, and You will transmit it to the Secretary at War, as it may be too late to send it here to the principal Agent of Transports.”[12]

For the survivors, living through the shipwreck was only the beginning of the ordeal. Carving out a new life in the wilds of Nova Scotia would prove difficult for those who had a safe, easy transit; for those who lost all their money and possessions, it was doubly so. The loss of legal papers for some would prove most troublesome, as proof of the value of property lost during the war would be required if they expected compensation. Such was the case of Sergeant Major William Owens of the Maryland Loyalists, who wrote in his claim “That your Memorialist in the Course of his Services having acquired property to the Amount of Two hundred pounds and upwards, intended to settle in that Country [Nova Scotia] and was embarked with his wife and Child, on board the Martha Transport for that place, & on the 23rd Septr. 1783, had the misfortune to be Shipwrecked in the Bay of Funday, where the Greatest part of the Crew perished, As also your Memorialist’s Wife & Child, with all his property & papers of every kind, Your Memorialist with the Greatest difficulty escaping with his Life, having been dreadfully bruised against the wreck & the Rocks. That your memorialist, since his return home to Ireland has Laboured under great Afflictions from the Bruises & wounds he received when the Vessell was Shipwrecked, & has been prevented by almost continual Illness from coming to England sooner to Lay his Case before this Honourable Board.”[13] The British provided each of the survivors with a new blanket, but Captain Kennedy bemoaned the loss of all the arms, accoutrements, ammunition and camp equipage which he felt would be needed for their new settlement.[14]

When all was said and done, 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 ensigns, 1 surgeon, 8 sergeants, 6 corporals, 2 drummers, 53 privates, 15 women, 13 children, and 10 servants, for a total 113 lives, were lost. All were passengers; none of the crew was lost. A total of 68 miraculously survived, excluding Willis and the sailors. The survivors scraped together £60 to subsist at Yarmouth and then travel to Saint John, where they finally joined the others from British American regiments who had officially disbanded on 10 October 1783.[15] The troops and their families trudged up the River Saint John to their new homes, which were of course un-built on un-cleared, un-surveyed lands. The troops from DeLancey’s would settle amongst the parishes of Northampton and Southampton, while the Maryland Loyalists drew lots on both sides of the mouth of the River Nashwaak, a tributary of the Saint John. As for Captain Kennedy, he eventually made his way to Ireland, where in 1800 his detailed account of the ordeal was written down and sent to a friend in America. In turn, the account made its way to a New York City newspaper, The New York Weekly Museum, where it was published in four weekly installments.[16] No information has been found on what became of John Willis, master of the late transport Martha.

Special thanks to LTC Don Londahl-Smidt, USAF (Ret.) and Mr. Robert Brooks for their assistance in the preparation of this article.


[1] “Return of the Number of Men Wagoners Women & Children victualed at Monmouth the 27 & 28th June 1778 inclusive.” Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 36, Item 5, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library. Hereafter cited as CL.

[2] “Strength of the Maryland Loyalists, New York August 29th 1783. RG 8, “C” Series, Volume 1904, Page 8, Library and Archives Canada. Hereafter cited as LAC.

[3] Proclamation of Sir William Howe for the recruiting of Provincial Forces, New York, 21 April 1777. The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, April 21, 1777. The actual amount of land granted to each private was 100 acres, plus 50 acres for each women and child, enabling families to amass a large amount of land.

[4] “State of His Majesty’s British American Forces (Embarked for Nova Scotia on the 3rd & 9th Instant) New York, 15th Septr. 1783.” MG 23, B47, LAC.

[5] “An exact copy from the Original Journal or Relation of Capt. Kennedy, Commanding the troops on board the Martha, St. John’s, Nova Scotia 10th October 1783.” Frederick Mackenzie Papers, CL.

[6] “Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman that was on board, to his Friend in this City, St. John’s, (Nova Scotia) Oct. 11, 1783.” The New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury, October 20, 1783.

[7] Kennedy Journal, CL.

[8] The New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury, October 20, 1783.

[9] Kennedy Journal, CL.

[10] “Extract of a Letter from New-York, dated October 6, to an Officer of the Maryland Loyalists, now in this City.” Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle; or, Weekly Advertiser, November 22, 1783.

[11] “Return of Persons who were lost in the Martha Transport Captn. John Willis the 23d. Septr. Near the Seal Rocks Nova Scotia.” Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 111, Page 151, Great Britain, The National Archives. Hereafter cited as TNA..

[12] Carleton to Fox, New York, 21 October 1783. Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, PRO 30/55/9409, TNA.

[13] Memorial of William Owens to the Commissioners for American Claims, August 1786. Audit Office, Class 13, Volume 94, folio 382, TNA.

[14] The Nova Scotia Gazette: and the Weekly Chronicle (Halifax), October 28, 1783.

[15] Carleton ordered this money to be reimbursed. Likewise, the officers and men received an additional muster’s full pay (61 days.) Carleton to Fox, 21 October 1783. PRO 30/55/9409, TNA.

[16] A full account of Captain Kennedy’s piece may be found on-line at: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Account+of+a+Shipwreck+on+the+Coast+of+Nova+Scotia.-a086470790

as taken from Edward W Pitcher and D. Sean Hartigan, Sensationalist Literature and Popular Culture in the Early American Republic (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), 251-265.



  • Thanks, Todd, interesting episode. I’m trying to learn more about the “British American” regiments, too often the loyalist element of the Revolution is obscured.

  • Todd,
    Thank you for the most interesting article. It is remarkable that so many Americans continued to suffer so much after the War had ended. Many Loyalists from different parts of the country ended up in Canada (I am sure you already know all of this). Those in upstate New York left for Ontario. Their descendants are there today. When reenacting the Revolutionary War in upstate NY I met a number of people from Ontario belonging to the Royal Regiment of New York otherwise known as the “Royal Yorkers” whose ancestors had been American Loyalists in NY state. A few expressed that they felt their families had been terribly wronged – so the sentiments experienced back then during and after the War continue to this day!
    Thanks again for the article and look forward to more on the history of American Loyalists.

    1. Hi John

      Gavin Watt and the recreated KRRNY do a wonderful job of keeping alive their Loyalist heritage. When this article posted, I was actually in Toronto speaking at the annual meeting of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, of which I am an honorary vice president. The UELAC is the Loyalist equivalent of the SAR & DAR: http://www.uelac.org/


  • Hi Todd,
    As a member of the Maryland Loyalists re-enacted unit and the wife of the late Major Bruce McNeal, I really appreciated reading this article. I portrait a campfollower of that unit and am constantly asked about what happened. I give out the condensed version, but now I have the exact numbers and more substance for the discussion. Thanks so much for the great article.
    Gracie McNeal

  • Do you know how many Black Loyalists or specifically which rock ledge she foundered on? I am a Black Loyalist descendant and originally from Shelburne. This story has passed into folklore. My grandparents knew about it from handed down stories, but by that time had conflated the story with the origins of Cape Negro.

    1. Hello Graham. Thanks for your question. Like most ships transporting Loyalists to Nova Scotia, there are no lists of who was on board. However, that being said, the famous Book of Negroes did list blacks leaving New York on the various ships. I will post a link below, but I imagine you have already searched, as I did. They list no one embarking on board the ill-fated Martha. Certainly none of the soldiers themselves would have been black, and in a return of those lost, no servants are listed, just seamen, soldiers and their families. So it would appear no blacks were on board, at least that we can determine from existing documents. As to the exact rocks she foundered on, I know nothing more than what was said in the documents I used to write the article. Perhaps some local historians in Nova Scotia might know better. https://blackloyalist.com/cdc/documents/official/book_of_negroes.htm

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