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.
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.