The Village of Machias Confronts the Royal Navy, June 1775

The War Years (1775-1783)

July 9, 2015
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


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The winter of 1774-75 had been difficult for the colonists nestled near the falls of the Machias River on the far eastern edge of Massachusetts (present day Maine). First settled in 1763, the small village of Machias, just 30 miles from the border of Canada, was a lonely outpost on the rocky coast. Heavily dependent on the export of firewood and lumber to Boston, for which they received food and other provisions to get them through the year, the inhabitants of Machias faced a serious dilemma in the spring of 1775. They had no desire to violate the resolves of the Continental Congress and ship wood to Boston, especially after news of the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord reached Machias, but their food stocks were nearly depleted and the isolated settlers faced famine. In desperation, the inhabitants pleaded with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in May of 1775 for relief:

     We must now inform your honors that the inhabitants of this place exceed one hundred families, some of which are very numerous, and that divine Providence has cut off all our usual resources. A very severe drought last fall prevented our laying in sufficient stores; and had no vessels visited us in the winter, we must have suffered; nor have we this spring been able to procure provisions sufficient for carrying on our business….. We must add, we have no country behind us to lean upon, nor can we make an escape by flight; the wilderness is impervious, and vessels we have none.

     To you, therefore, honored gentlemen, we humbly apply for relief. You are our last, our only resource… We cannot take a denial, for, under God, you are all our dependence, and if you neglect us, we are ruined.1

Before the Provincial Congress could reply, two sloops loaded with provisions arrived off Machias on June 2. The ships belonged to Ichabod Jones, a Machias merchant and sea captain who had recently relocated to Boston. He had assured British General Thomas Gage that he could persuade the residents of Machias to send firewood and lumber to Boston for the use of the British army in exchange for the provisions aboard his ships. General Gage approved of the arrangement but as a precaution sent the lightly armed tender, H.M.S. Margaretta, to escort the two sloops to Machias.

The residents of Machias were divided on whether they should deal with Jones and violate the ban on trade with the British. A lively debate ensued and continued for days. The Reverend James Lyons, the chairman of the Machias Committee, recounted that:

On the 3d instant, a paper was handed about for the people to sign, as a prerequisite to their obtaining any provisions, of which we were in great want. The contents of this paper, required the signers to indulge Capt Jones in carrying Lumber to Boston, & to protect him and his property, at all events…On the 6th the people generally assembled at the place appointed, and seemed so averse to the measures proposed, that Capt. Jones privately went down to the Tender [H.M.S. Margaretta] & caused her to move up so near the Town that her Guns would reach the Houses…. The people…considering themselves nearly as prisoners of war…passed a Vote, that Capt Jones might proceed in his Business as usual without molestation, that they would purchase the provisions he brought into the place and pay him according to Contract.

After obtaining this Vote, Capt. Jones immediately ordered his Vessels to the Wharf & distributed his provisions among those only, who voted in favour of his carrying Lumber to Boston. This gave such offence to the aggrieved party that they determined to take Capt. Jones, if possible, & put a final stop to his supplying the Kings troops with anything.2

Benjamin Foster was one of those determined to prevent this violation of the boycott. He hatched a plan to seize Jones and the British officers of the Margaretta while they attended church. The attempt failed when Foster’s armed party was spotted approaching the Meeting House.3 The British officers escaped to the Margaretta, while Captain Jones scurried off into the woods where he was eventually apprehended.

A 1776 nautical chart of Machias Bay; Machias is at the very top. (Boston Public Library)
A 1776 nautical chart of Machias Bay; Machias is at the very top. (Boston Public Library)

The commander of the British warship, Midshipman James Moore, vowed to protect Captain Jones and his vessels and threatened to burn the town if necessary.4 This threat was ignored and both of Captain Jones’s sloops were seized by the settlers. James Lyons described what happened next:

Upon this, a party of [settlers] went directly to stripping the sloop that lay at the wharf, and another party went off to take possession of the other sloop which lay below & brought her up nigh a Wharf, and anchored her in the stream. The tender did not fire but weighed her anchors as privately as possible, and in the dusk of the evening fell down & came…within Musket shott of the [second] sloop, which obliged our people to slip their Cable, & run the sloop aground. In the mean time, a considerable number of our people went down in boats and canoes, lined the shore directly opposite to the Tender, and having demanded her to surrender to America, received for answer, ‘fire and be damn’d’: they immediately fired in upon her, which she returned, and a smart engagement ensued.5

Nathaniel Godfrey, a pilot aboard the Margaretta who was pressed into service by the British, described the exchange between the British sailors and the Massachusetts coloniests:

Mr. Moore…was hailed on Shore by the Rebels, once more desiring him to strike to the Sons of Liberty, threatening him with Death if he resisted, upon Mr. Moore’s replying he was not yet ready, they fired a Volley of small Arms, which was returned from the Schooner with Swivels and Small Arms. The Firing continued about an hour and a half, Mr. Moore then cut the Cable, drop’t down Half a Mile lower, & anchored near a Sloop laden with Boards. In the Night they [the colonists] endeavoured to Board us with a Number of Boats & Canoes, but were beat off by a brisk fire from the Swivels & obliged to quit their Boats, four of which in the Morning were left upon the Flats full of holes.6

By daybreak of June 12, the British commander, having re-assessed his situation, abandoned Machias (and Captain Jones) and set sail for the open sea. The Margaretta was peppered by musket fire from the shore as it slowly sailed down the river towards Machias Bay and open water.7   The incident may have ended there, but the determination of Jeremiah O’Brien and Benjamin Foster to capture the Margaretta prompted a daring pursuit by the colonists. James Lyons described what happened:

Our people, seeing [the Margaretta] go off in the morning, determined to follow her. About forty men, armed with guns, swords, axes & pick forks, went in Capt Jones’s sloop, under the command of Capt Jeremiah O Brien: about Twenty, armed in the same manner, & under the command of Capt Benjamin Foster, went in a small Schooner. During the Chase, our people built them breast works of pine boards, and anything they could find in the Vessels, that would screen them from the enemy’s fire. The [Margaretta], upon the first appearance of our people, cut her boats from the stern, & made all the sail she could – but being a very dull sailor, they soon came up with her, and a most obstinate engagement ensued, both sides being determined to conquer or die: but the [Margaretta] was obliged to yield, her Captain [midshipman Moore] was wounded in the breast with two balls, of which wounds he died next morning…. The Battle was fought at the entrance of our harbour, & lasted for over the space of one hour.8

Nathaniel Godfrey, aboard the Margaretta, also described the engagement:

A Sloop & Schooner appeared, we immediately weighed Anchor & stood out for the Sea, they coming up with us very fast, we began to fire our Stern Swivels, & small Arms as soon as within reach. When within hail, they again desired us to strike to the Sons of Liberty, promising to treat us well, but if we made any resistance they [would] put us to Death. Mr. Moore seeing there was no possibility of getting clear, [swung] the Vessel too and gave them a Broadside with Swivels & Small Arms in the best manner he was able, and likewise threw some Hand Grenadoes into them; they immediately laid us Onboard, [mortally wounded Mr. Moore and] took possession of the Schooner [carrying] her up to Mechias, in great triumph….9

The bold actions of the people of Machias, which resulted in the loss of a handful of men on both sides and the capture of a British warship and two sloops, was a humiliating defeat for the British navy. Isolated on the Maine coast with virtually no assistance from Massachusetts or the other colonies, the vulnerable and desperate inhabitants of Machias displayed a degree of determination and bravery in just the second naval engagement of the Revolutionary War.10


1 John Howard Ahlin, “Petition from the Residents of Machias to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, 25 May,

1775,” Maine Rubicon: Downeast Settlers during the American Revolution, (Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1966), 15-16.

2 Clark, ed., “James Lyons, Chairman of the Machias Committee, to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, 14 June, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: 1964), 1:676-77.

3 Clark, ed., “Pilot Nathaniel Godfrey’s Report on the Action Between the Schooner Margueritta and the Rebels at Machias, 11 June, 1775,” Naval Documents, 1: 655.

4 Clark, Naval Documents, 1:655.

5 Clark, ed., “James Lyons, Chairman of the Machias Committee, to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, 14 June, 1775,” Naval Documents, 1:676-77.

6 Clark, ed., “Pilot Nathaniel Godfrey’s Report on the Action Between the Schooner Margueritta and the Rebels at Machias, 11 June, 1775,” Naval Documents, 1: 655.

7 Clark, Naval Documents, 1:655.

8 Clark, ed., “James Lyons, Chairman of the Machias Committee, to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, 14 June, 1775,” Naval Documents, 1:676-77.

9 Clark, ed., “Pilot Nathaniel Godfrey’s Report…11 June, 1775,” Naval Documents, 1:655-56.

10 A month earlier, on May 12, 1775, a similar naval engagement occurred in Buzzards Bay, off southern Massachusetts with similar results. See Derek W. Beck, “The First Naval Skirmish of the Revolution,” Journal of      the American Revolution, October 7, 2013.


  • Bravery indeed! Another demonstration of the courageous grit to defy British authority, especially since coastal towns were vulnerable to British naval attack.

    1. I agree Gene. Growing up just 90 minutes from Machias (on Mount Desert Island) I had no idea these brave settlers faced down the might of the British navy not once but twice. Granted, the first incident in 1775 didn’t involve too much military “might” ( just a lightly armed warship ) but some of the rebels actually used pitchforks in their effort to seize the Margaretta. What is unfortunately even less known, however, is that the residents of Machias had to defend themselves again in 1777 against a much stronger British naval force. With the help of friendly Indians, the rebels of Machias, perhaps the most isolated and vulnerable group of Americans on the continent, repulsed the 1777 British raid on their village. Grit Indeed!

  • I just read about this incident in “George Washington’s Secret Navy” by James Nelson; what a fascinating action! Go Maine!

  • Almost 50 years ago I became interested in the so-called “Margaretta affair” in the waters of Machias Bay, Maine. Early twentieth century writers depicted the combatants as the locals with pitchforks and muskets challenging Captain Moore, commanding H.M.S Margaretta with his cannons blazing.

    This was the subject I pursued on my first trip to the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane, London, in 1968 (now The National Archives, Kew, Surrey). My interest was primarily the details from the British side of the naval action. Unfortunately my research on Machias was put in storage when I retired in 1995. I have all of Michael Cecere’s citations readily at hand but other comments must rely on my memory.

    A few details I have never seen in print follow:

    Perhaps a moot point but the British schooner was not named Margaretta. On 30 March 1775 Vice Admiral Samuel Graves wrote “The Margueritta hired Schooner was ordered to be manned armed and victualled from the Preston. . . .” By searching the muster books of HMS Preston Graves’ flagship) I was able to identify all the men lent [i.e., assigned] to the Margueritta. The extant records of the Naval Storekeeper at Boston do not record the hire of the Margueritta but those records clearly indicate that VAdm Graves had a separate discretionary account which he used to hire vessels like the sloop Charlotte, hired in July 1775 [as a replacement for the Margueritta?] at the rate of £10 per month for use as a packet boat.

    In Rev James Lyon’s 14 June 1775 report he does not name the schooner but in his supplemental report of the 17th he calls her Margeritta . In eyewitness Jabez Cobb’s narrative, he calls her Margaret. There are other spelling used but the earliest I find the use of the name Margaretta was in the Boston Gazette, issue of 14 Aug 1775 which announced the arrival of the British POWs from Machais.

    The Margueritta was not armed with carriage guns. On 16 July 1775 VAdm Graves wrote Admiralty “. . . I received the disagreeable news that the Margueritta hired schooner had been attacked and taken by Rebels; . . . This Vessel except she had no Carriage Guns, was well appointed; She had Swivels, Musquets, Pistols, Hand Grenadoes, manned with twenty of the best Men of the Preston and commanded by a very good Midshipman.” When libeled in a September 1776 action in the Eastern Massachusetts Vice Admiralty Court, she is referred to as “the armed Schooner Margaritta, burthen about 50 Tons, James Moore late Commander” so she was a very small vessel. By comparison, Jones’ schooner Unity which led the attack was libeled as 80 tons burthen. The tonnage for the other combatant, the Falmouth Packet, was not stated when libeled following her capture by the Americans in January 1776. There was a wide range of trading with both sides involved. For example pilot Nathaniel Godfrey as actually a Royal Navy pilot and served in that capacity throughout the war. His narrative which was quoted was provided to VAdm Graves who forwarded it to Admiralty. According to Godfrey, Moore on his death bed told the rebels that he was a pressed man which led to his release.

    Mr James Moore’s orders were twofold; first, to escort the small convoy to and from Machias and, second, to recover the carriage guns lost when HM Armed Schooner Halifax wrecked on Sheep (now Halifax) Island on 05 Feb 1775. When Margueritta was taken she had four carriage guns and 14 swivel guns on board but most had been recovered from the wreck of the Halifax.

    On HMS Preston’s ship’s books, Midshipman James Moore is carried as a Master’s Mate (which in overly simplistic terms is a senior Midshipman who is qualified to be commissioned Lieutenant). James Moore was age 25 having been born on Easter Sunday 1750 (and baptized the following Sunday) at Tinsley, Yorkshire, the son of Rev Matthew Moore who held the benefice at Barningham in the West Riding moors in 1775. I recall finding a reference to a newspaper account which alleged that James Moore “was a relation to” VAdm Samuel Graves. I was unable to verify a connection but found mention that VAdm Graves mother was née Moore.

    Moore’s ‘deputy commander’ was Midshipman Richard Stillingfleet, age 17½ from London.

    Pilot Godfrey described their wounds “Mr. Moore received two Balls, one in his right Breast, the other in his Belly the other Officer was slightly wounded in the side. . . .” Here my recollect fails me. In the collections of the Maine Historical Society there are a number of accounts written half a century after the fact provided to William D. Williamson, then preparing a two volume history of the state of Maine. In one letter (I only recall the name Wheaton now) the correspondents were recalling that day and the text covered the shooting of Moore with a wall piece which would be the general equivalent of a naval swivel gun.

    Stillingfleet was recovered enough to be sent to Boston with Lieutenant John Knight, RN, who commanded HM Armed Schooner Diligent, and the other POWs taken at nearby Buck’s Harbor in mid-July but Stillingfleet would die while a POW at Northampton MA on 30 Oct 1776, less than a month before both his 19th birthday and the exchange of his fellow naval POWs.

  • Anyone still with access to the Muster Roll of HMS Preston? Or know their whereabouts/accessibility?

    (I wish to check out a 1781 pensioner from the Preston)

    Kind regards

    Dave Mitchell

  • Thank-you, mate, for this very helpful article.
    Bob Brooks: likewise to you: Thanks a wicked great bunch for your article.
    I am from OHIO, but have lived in MACHIAS for over 17 years now.
    My property (JIMS BOOKS, MACHIAS) abuts the O’Brien Cemetary.
    You would be surprised how the local population in general do NOT visit this location.
    I always gladly share a synopsis of this account: mostly with the
    PFA (People Rom Away) customers to my book shoppe. I was also a good friend of John Ahlin. Read his great book, if you have not!
    It is in my shoppe, also!

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