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The Lexington of the Seas

On the nineteenth day of April, 1775, the intrepid farmers of Lexington fired the "shot heard around the world," and on the twelfth day of June, five days before the battle of Bunker Hill, a sturdy Irishman on the easterly coast of the province of Maine, with a handful of brave lumbermen, river drivers, farmers and sailors, their hearts burning with the same flame of patriotism, successfully fought the first naval battle of the American Revolution, captured the first British war vessel, was the first to haul down the British flag and bring to death the first of her captains of the sea, in that great conflict for human rights.

One whose name will be forever interwoven with the story of that stirring event was Capt; Ichabod Jones. In 1765 he was a ship-master living in Boston. During that summer he made a trip in a schooner, eastward, stopping at Mount Desert. While in that port he learned of the Machias settlement and went there, where he disposed of his cargo to good advantage, loaded his vessel with lumber and returned to Boston.

He made other voyages from Boston to Machias and subsequently entered into a partnership with Benjamin Foster and others and built a saw mill. All this time he was in command of one or two vessels engaged in the lumber trade between Machias and Boston.

He did an increasing and thrifty business until 1774 when the English Parliament passed the "Boston Port Bill" which prohibited merchandise of any kind from being landed at, or shipped from wharves of Boston.

The spring of 1775 found him at Machias, loading his two sloops, the Unity and the Polly, with lumber; but giving Captain Horton of the Polly orders to touch at Salem and Cape Ann instead of Boston for a market, and, failing there, to proceed to some port in Connecticut.

On arriving at Salem Captain Horton found the whole coast in an uproar and ready for almost anything except trade and lumber, so he put into the port of Boston where he met Captain Jones. These two then concluded to return at once to Machias with their families, their own household goods and also a quantity of merchandise for the people there who had become in a great measure destitute by reason of the unsettled state of business. In order to leave Boston Harbor, Captain Jones was obliged to have a permit from Admiral Graves, granted only upon condition that he return from Machias to Boston with lumber which the British desired to purchase for barracks for troops, and he also must submit to making the trip under the protection of an armed schooner, the "Margaretta."

Captain Jones feared the ire of the Machias patriots when they should discover him in their port under the protection of the English flag. However, the two sloops, convoyed by the armed Margaretta flying the British flag, sailed into Machias Harbor, June 2, 1775.

For some time past the inhabitants had been lounging around the shores and wharves, waiting and watching for the return of Captain Jones' sloops with the much-needed provisions.

Their feelings of consternation may be imagined when they discovered that their friend of the seas, whose coming for days they had awaited with anxious hearts, was escorted by a British war vessel flying the hated British flag. Whether they had knowledge that the Massachusetts patriots had begun a revolution before Captain Horton informed them, or not, they certainly knew it then and the fire of revolt was kindling in their breasts.

Exactly what was the final cause for the battle which ensued is somewhat uncertain. Perhaps the citizens of Machias feared that the lumber then being loaded on Jones' sloops was intended for the use of the British troops, and were determined that the Polly and Unity should never return to Boston with their cargoes. However, after due deliberation in open town meeting, it had been voted to permit this to be done and it is probable that the permission would have been carried out in good faith had not the captain of the Margaretta unnecessarily provoked a quarrel with the inhabitants in ordering them to take down their liberty pole; for the people of Machias had done what hundreds of other little communities throughout the colonies were doing, erected a "Liberty Pole." This was a tall, straight pine tree with a tuft of verdure at the top, the best emblem they had at command of the flag for which they desired to fight, live and die.

Burnham Tavern, Machias
Where Plans were made to Capture the Margaretta
and the Two Sloops

One thing is certain, the culmination of their suspicions, fears and apprehensions resulted in the formation of a plan to prevent the return of the sloops to Boston, laden with lumber.

Benjamin Foster and Morris O'Brien and his sons, with some others, favored taking possession of the partly laden sloops of Captain Jones and making prisoners of the officers and men. While their counsels were divided, Foster and the O'Brien finally prevailed. It is said that Foster, weary of debate, crossed a stream known as the O'Brien brook, near which they were standing and called out to all who favored the capture of the Margaretta and the two sloops to follow him, and in a few moments every man stood by his side.

A plan of attack immediately was agreed upon. This was on Sunday, June 11, 1775. It was known that the English officers would attend the religious services of good Parson Lyon in the meeting-house that morning and it was decided to surround the church and seize them during the services. Before the meeting opened they had quietly secreted their arms in the building, John O'Brien hiding his musket under a board and taking his seat on a bench directly behind Captain Moore, ready to seize him at the first alarm. This well prepared scheme would undoubtedly have been successful if they had taken the Negroes of the community, or at least one of them, into their confidence.

London Atus was a colored man, the body servant of Parson Lyon, and, while the parson himself and about every other member of the congregation, except the intended victims themselves, had knowledge or suspicion of what was afoot, Atus was entirely innocent of the dynamic atmosphere about him. From his hiding place in the Negro pew he could see armed men, Foster's band, crossing a foot-bridge and coming toward the meeting-house. He gave an outcry and leaped from the window, wild with excitement. This broke up the meeting and the officers, believing that an attempt was being made to entrap them, followed the example of the Negro and made their escape.

They hastened to their vessel and by the time Foster's force reached the meeting-house they were aboard their vessel and weighing anchor, and Jones, who was to have been made a prisoner, fled to the woods where he remained secreted for several days.

They then resolved to seize Jones' sloops and pursue the cutter. One of these, the Polly, was not in available condition, but they took possession of the Unity, and during the remainder of Sunday and that night, made preparations for the attack. They sent scouts to the East River village and neighboring plantations for volunteers, arms and ammunition.
A messenger was dispatched to Chandler's River to procure powder and balls and as the men of that settlement were all absent two girls, Hannah and Rebecca Weston, nineteen and seventeen years old, procured forty pounds of powder and balls and brought them to Machias, a distance of twenty miles, through the woods, following a line of blazed or "spotted" trees, but did not arrive there until after the battle was over.

In the early dawn of the following morning, June 12th, the expedition started down the river in pursuit of the Margaretta. The crew of the Unity numbered about forty, and one-half of these had muskets with only about three rounds of ammunition; the rest armed themselves with pitchforks, axes, heavy mauls, etc. For provisions they had a small bag of bread, a few pieces of pork and a barrel of water. They chose Jeremiah O'Brien as captain and Edmund Stevens, lieutenant. Understanding that they had no powder to waste, they determined to bear down on the enemy's ship, board her and decide the conquest at once.

The Unity was well into the bay when the Margaretta was first sighted off Round Island and, being the more rapid sailer, was soon along her side. The helmsman of the Margaretta, who was Captain Robert Avery, had fallen from a shot fired by an old moose hunter by the name of Knight, on board the Unity, and an immediate volley of musketry from her deck astonished and demoralized the enemy. The bowsprit of the Unity plunged into the Margaretta's mainsail, holding the two vessels together for a short time. While they were in this position, one of the 'Brien brothers, John, sprang upon the Margaretta's deck, but the vessels suddenly parted, carrying the audacious John alone on board the British vessel. It is said that seven of her crew instantly aimed and fired muskets at him, but he remained unscratched. They then charged upon him with their bayonets and again he escaped by plunging overboard and amidst a storm of bullets from the enemy, regained his own vessel.

Captain O'Brien then ordered his sloop along-side of the Margaretta. Twenty of his crew were selected to board her, armed with pitchforks, and a hand-to-hand conflict on her deck resulted in the surrender of the Margaretta to the Americans, and Jeremiah O'Brien hauled down the British ensign flying at her masthead.

At about sunset the Unity returned, proudly sailing up the bay and river to Machias village with her valuable prize, reaching the wharf amid tumultuous cheering and shouting of the people. They made a hero of Captain Jeremiah O'Brien, as he certainly deserved for his brilliant achievement, and the rejoicing continued until long past midnight. The news of O'Brien's brilliant victory was heralded throughout the land and it had a great effect in stimulating the colonists everywhere to emulate his example.

John Francis Sprague

Note: So far as known. J. Fennimore Cooper, in "The History of the Navy of the United States." was the first writer to apply the name "Lexington of the Seas" to this battle. - J. F. S.


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

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