American History and Genealogy Project


General Henry Knox

Passengers on the Rockland division of the Maine Central Railroad, passing through the quaint little hamlet of Thomaston, may observe on the brick wall of the railroad station, a tablet, bearing an inscription to the effect that this structure was built by General Knox in 1793. This building was known as the "farm house" a century and a quarter ago, when Gen. Knox and his family lived in state at "Montpelier," a beautiful mansion, then the pride of Thomaston.
Situated on the crest of a hill near the river Georges, the mansion commanded a fine view down to the sea. The group of buildings was in the form of a large crescent, sloping back from the river, the mansion in the center and nine buildings on either side, including the farm house, stables and out buildings. The mansion itself was a wonderful structure for those times. It had a basement of brick and two stories built of wood; a fourth story, a sort of cupola in the center, had a glass roof. Double piazzas extended on all sides of the mansion. The railings and columns enclosing these and the balconies displayed a great deal of fine work and skillful hand-carving. We can only imagine the original grandeur of "Montpelier," because many of the outward decorations had been removed before the first picture was taken.

The interior was decorated and furnished in a style unique for those primitive days. The wall papers resembled tapestry. The background of the hall paper was buff-colored. On the wall at the side of the wide stairway were large, embossed, brown paper figures of men carrying guns. On the library paper were pictures of ladies, reading. Here was Gen. Knox's collection of books, nearly sixteen hundred volumes. In the reception room, at the center of the mansion, was a portrait of Gen. Knox by Gilbert Stuart. A part of the furniture came from France. Mrs. Knox's piano was the first in that region. The Knox Street of today was Gen. Knox's driveway. It opened from Main Street by a large gate surmounted by a carved figure of the American eagle.

"Montpelier, "
General Knox's Home in Thomaston

IGen. Knox moved his family to "Montpelier" from Philadelphia in June, 1795. On July 4th, the doors of the mansion were opened wide that all who wished might meet the famous general, and view the splendors of his new and elegant home. His coming wrought much of change in the quiet life of Thomaston. "Montpelier" came to be noted for its lavish hospitality.

"Oh, welcome was the silken garb, but welcome was the blouse.

When Knox was lord of half of Maine and kept an open house."

General Knox had for his guests the entire tribe of Tarratine or Penobscot Indians, who enjoyed their visit and the bountiful repasts provided for them so well that they stayed for weeks. Indeed, they did not seem to think of going home at all, until the General said to the chief, "Now we have had a good visit and you had better go home."

Gen. Knox's estate included the greater part of what was known as the Waldo patent, originally the property of Mrs. Knox's grandfather, Gen. Samuel Waldo of Massachusetts. This land, lying between the Penobscot and Kennebec Rivers, included nearly all of what is now comprised in the counties of Knox, Waldo, Penobscot and Lincoln. Gen. Knox had come into possession of this vast territory, partly through his wife's inheritance and partly by purchase. He planned to live here and develop the natural resources.

He began at once to set up saw-mills, lime-kilns, marble quarries and brick yards; he also constructed vessels, locks and dams. He converted Brigadier's Island into a stock farm, where he kept cattle and sheep imported from other countries. All these various enterprises gave employment to a large number of workmen, and caused a boom in the trade and commerce of Thomaston.

Although Gen. Knox was a fine soldier and had proved himself well versed in military tactics, he was without experience in any of the industries in which he now engaged. Disputes about the boundaries of the islands in the Waldo patent caused him to enter into costly lawsuits. The expense of carrying on so many kinds of business proved too heavy a drain on his resources and he became deeply involved in debt. Had he lived longer, he might have been able to overcome his financial difficulties, but that was not to be.

One day while eating dinner, he happened to swallow a small, sharp piece of chicken-bone. This lodged in such a manner as to cause him great suffering, ending in his death on October 25, 1806, at the age of fifty-six years.

Mrs. Knox spent her remaining years quietly at "Montpelier." As there were no funds available for repairs, the mansion gradually lost much of its former glory. After the death of Mrs. Knox in 1824, the estate was for several years in the hands of different members of the family.

"When the Knox & Lincoln Railroad was built in 1871, it passed between the mansion and the servants' quarters. The mansion was then sold for $4,000 and torn down. The executor tried to sell to someone who would preserve it, but no one seemed to consider the historical value of the place.

Of course, we are interested to learn where Gen. Knox lived when he was a boy and something of his life during the years given to his country's service. In his boyhood Henry Knox lived with his parents on Sea Street in Boston. He was fond of outdoor sports and was frequently chosen as leader by his playmates. But his school days were soon over. When he was twelve years old his father died, and Henry took upon himself the support of his mother and younger brother. He left the grammar school and went to work in a book store. His education did not end, however, for he studied by himself at odd moments from the books at the store. He was much interested in military matters and his studies were chiefly along that line. He learned to speak and write the French language, an accomplishment which proved useful in later years, when he came to meet Lafayette and other French generals of our ally across the water. He also took time for thorough drill in a military company.

When he was twenty-one years old, Henry Knox went into business for himself, opening "The Lon-don Book-Store" in Cornhill, Boston. Later he added book-binding to his business.

He had been in business only a few years when he felt that his country needed him and he did not hesitate to offer himself. A watch had been kept on the movements of Knox and of others who were known to be in sympathy with the colonists, and they were forbidden to leave the city. But, on the night of April 19, 1775, Knox disguised himself, and, accompanied by his wife, quietly left his home. Mrs. Knox had his sword concealed in the lining of her cloak. Knox went to the headquarters of Gen. Artemus Ward in Cambridge and volunteered his services.

One of his first assignments was to help in preparing for the siege of Boston. More siege guns were urgently needed but there seemed to be no way of procuring them. An idea came to the resourceful mind of Knox. Our forces under Ethan Allen had taken possession of a large supply of ordnance at Fort Ticonderoga captured May 10, 1775. Knox's idea was to transport that artillery, by the crude methods of those times, hundreds of miles across lakes, rivers and mountain ranges from Ticonderoga to the Heights of Dorchester. After thinking it over carefully Gen. Washington gave his consent to the plan.

Knox carried the undertaking to a successful conclusion and arrived in camp with the guns early in February. With this reinforcement of artillery, it did not take long for our army to persuade the British that Boston was too hot a place for them. On March 17, 1776, the British general, Howe, and his troops sailed away to Halifax.

On Nov. 17, 1775, Congress gave to Henry Knox the rank of Colonel and appointed him chief of the artillery of the army. His commission did not reach him, however, until after his return from Ticonderoga.

We hear of Col. Knox again and again and always as pushing forward. He encouraged the hardy soldiers on that bleak and stormy Christmas night when they were crossing the Delaware River amid cakes of floating ice, while hailstones beat upon their backs. Gen. Washington gave much credit to Col. Knox for the victory won by our troops at Trenton the next day, Dec. 26, 1776. He was now made a brigadier-general, with the entire command of the artillery.

After the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, Gen. Washington complimented Gen. Knox on his skill in handling the artillery. On the recommendation of Gen. Washington, Knox was promoted to the rank of major-general dating from November 15, 1781.

The war over, Gen. Knox returned to Boston. On March 8, 1785, he was elected by Congress to fill the office of Secretary of War. Secretary Knox and his family moved, soon after, to New York, at that time the seat of the national government.

In 1789, President Washington reappointed Knox to the office of Secretary of War. The management of the army, the navy, then in its beginning, and Indian affairs, were all in the hands of Secretary Knox. He influenced Congress to order the building of six frigates, the keels of which were laid during his term of office. One of these was the ''Constitution'' or ''Old Ironsides.''

After having served his country faithfully for nearly twenty years, Secretary Knox decided to withdraw from public life and devote himself to his family. He resigned at the close of the year 1794. Before this he had ordered the building of an elegant mansion on his estate in the District of Maine, to which, as we have said, he moved his family in 1795.

Mrs. John O. Widber

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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