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Radical Mainers: Motley Crews of Revolutionary Maine

Motley Crews of Revolutionary Maine

by | Mar 11, 2020

By the 1760s, the merchant and farmer Richard King had become quite prosperous in colonial Scarborough, and he and his wife, Isabella, had spawned what would become a political dynasty. One son, Rufus, would go on to become a U.S. Senator and a signatory to the Constitution, while his other sons, Cyrus and William, would serve as a Congressman and the first Governor of Maine, respectively. But Richard was also known as a ruthless creditor, and his aggressive debt collection tactics had been infuriating residents all over town. On the night of March 19, 1766, a group of 30 men blackened their faces with charcoal, assembled outside his house, and decided to teach him a lesson.

At the time, Mainers were incensed that the Parliament of Great Britain had passed the Stamp Act, which required that printed paper in the colonies be produced on specially stamped paper in order to collect a new tax for the Crown. The mob leaders began to spread rumors that King supported the hated tax, and it was even claimed that he possessed some of the stamped paper, sent directly from London, in his home. King was a “bad man, and will ruin us all if he goes on at this rate … if he is not humbled,” one of the mob leaders explained. Indeed, the men reasoned, it was their patriotic duty to give King a good mobbing, for it would make him a more virtuous person.

So the crowd set to work ransacking King’s home, tearing out the doors, heaving furniture out the windows, and making off with his financial records. Upon their departure, the men attached a note to the gate post warning that any attempt at legal retaliation would result in further action: “He ma Depend onit that he not onley will have houses and barnes burnt and Consumed but him Self Cut in Peses and burn TO ASHES.” It was signed, “Suns of liburty.”

Prior to 1763, most New Englanders still considered themselves British subjects with all the rights and benefits that entailed. They had celebrated the triumph of the British in the French and Indian War, which cleared the way for new industry and trade. Within a few years, however, things were beginning to sour, as the cash-strapped British government sought to impose new taxes to pay for the costs of administering their ever-expanding empire. Where official channels for redress were not available, colonists increasingly turned to the brute force of mass action.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, mobs emerged as an almost quasi-legitimate form of protest. Because the majority of the public usually sided with the mobs, officials of the Crown often found it impossible to enforce the laws. Issues ranged from unfair taxation to conflict over land rights. Locally, trade in white pine harvested from Maine forests was a topic of furious debate. Because the pine was crucial for the manufacture of ships’ masts, the British Royal Navy maintained tight control over the industry. This turned small-time lumbermen into lawbreakers and made a few well-connected merchants fabulously wealthy.

Among the most contentious practices was impressment, the forcing of men into naval service without prior notice. The Royal Navy, for centuries the largest maritime force in the world, was frequently short-handed. “Press gangs” of men from merchant ships would be conscripted as needed, sparking frequent protests.

Impressment was among the injustices noted in the Declaration of Independence. As the 26th Grievance states, “He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.”

“Contrary winds and a strong current”

Sometimes the impressed sailors fought back. One such rebellion, which occurred in December of 1764 and January of 1765, is described in a letter from Lord Alexander Colville, Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in North America, to Sir Philip Stephens, First Secretary to the Admiralty.

The HMS Gaspee, an armed sloop under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Allen, had been patrolling the harbors between Cape Sable and Halifax when “contrary winds and a strong current” forced it into Casco Bay. According to his report to Lord Colville, upon going ashore, Lt. Allen found the affairs at the Custom House in Falmouth (which then encompassed present-day Portland) to be “in the greatest confusion,” with “vessels arriving daily without paying any Regard to the Regulations lately established or without so much as taking the least notice of the Customhouse.” Allen stopped two or three vessels and sought out the Collector of the Customs at Falmouth for advice and assistance, but “that Gentleman declined being anyways concerned therein.”

On Dec. 8, 1764, several of the Gaspee’s crew members, including a midshipman and three seamen, who were on night watch duty, took a boat to shore and deserted. A few days later, on Dec. 11, another crewman deserted his post. The next day, Allen sent another team of crew members — consisting of his clerk, a midshipman, the boatswain’s mate, and three seamen — to board a sloop coming into the harbor. Unfortunately for Allen, as soon as the boat pulled up alongside the incoming sloop and the midshipman and clerk stepped into it, the boatswain’s mate and the seamen shoved off and rowed to shore. The midshipman and clerk attempted to chase them in the sloop’s boat, but they got away, leaving Allen down nine men and without enough hands on deck to sail the vessel.

Allen then attempted to impress four men from other incoming vessels, but as soon as he went ashore, “the Mob seized his Boat & dragged her into the middle of the Town and insisted upon the four Men’s being set at liberty” before they would return the boat to Allen or allow him to board the Gaspee or any other vessel. With no alternative, Allen was forced to comply, and apparently having had enough, he decided, “it would be no manner of purpose for him to remain longer there.” Of course, lacking nine of his best sailors, it was only with the “utmost difficulty” that he was able to return to Halifax.

Allen actually got off easy. In 1772, the Gaspee, then under the command of Lieutenant William Dudingston, was burned in Newport, Rhode Island, after Dudingston and his crew were taken captive. According to statistics compiled by the Gaspee Virtual Archives, of the 234 crewmen who were assigned to the ship at some point between 1764 and 1772, 142 of them, or 61 percent, ended their service by desertion.

“The Burning of the Gaspee,” by Charles deWolf Brownell (c1892)

“Persons unknown and disguised”

The state of “greatest confusion” that Lt. Allen observed at the Falmouth Custom House apparently did not improve over the course of the following year. In a letter dated Aug. 19, 1766, Francis Waldo and Arthur Savage, the collector and comptroller of customs at Falmouth, described an incident during which they’d attempted to retrieve some contraband earlier that month.

At around 11 o’clock on the morning of Aug. 7, the two men, acting on information they had received, went to the home of Enoch Ilsley, a local shopkeeper. After searching it, they demanded the key to Ilsey’s store, but he refused. Savage then retrieved Alex Ross, the town’s sole magistrate, and showed him a writ of assistance. In the magistrate’s presence, they “proceeded to spring the lock on said Store.” Inside they found “seven hogsheads, & one small Tierce [cask] of Sugar, & part of a hogshead, & part of a Tierce ditto [also of sugar], three hogsheads of Rum & 2 Ullages of ditto,” which they seized and marked, before putting a new lock on the store.

Waldo and Savage then attempted to find a place to store the goods they’d seized, as well as horses and a cart to haul them. But all the townspeople they asked “either refused, or were so backward” that they were unable to find either. By 6 p.m., having heard rumor that an attempt was to be made to retrieve the goods, the men sent word to the magistrate, who directed the sheriff and deputies to assist them.

The sheriff, however, was a long distance from town, and a crowd was already beginning to assemble outside Ilsley’s home. When at last a deputy sheriff, Joseph Noyes, was located, a warrant was served on Ilsley to do “the needful to prevent a rescue of the Goods.”

When night fell, townspeople went to Savage’s home, which was in the same neighborhood as Ilsley’s. In short order, Savage’s abode was under siege by the mob, who “beset and pelted with Clubs & Stones by intermissions until 10, or ½ past 10 when they dispersed it being said that in that time the aforementioned Goods [at Ilsley’s store] were carried away by persons unknown and disguised.”

At 9 o’clock the next morning, after visiting the store and finding the contraband missing, Waldo demanded that Ilsley tell him who had taken the goods. Predictably, Ilsley denied any knowledge, claiming he had been sick and confined to his house at the time. Deputy Sheriff Noyes also professed to have been unable to do anything to prevent the “rescue” of the contraband, claiming he had been “forcibly borne away by the Mob, his pockets Rifled and the Warrant taken away.”

Public opinion clearly favored the mob, and it was said that “a considerable part of the Town were active in the said rescue.” Waldo and Savage concluded their report by declaring, “we think ourselves unsafe at present,” and admitting that without any further support, they would continue to be powerless to enforce the laws of trade in Maine.


Attack on Richard King’s house:

Customshouse raid:

More on Joseph Noyes:

More on Arthur Savage:

More on Gaspee:

More on pre-Revolutionary War Maine:

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