Machias, District of Maine, Massachusetts (June 1775) – Aroused by the recent news of skirmishes between Colonists and British troops at Lexington and Concord, near Boston, a band of Machias residents responded angrily to threats on their town from a British officer and attacked and captured his 100-ton schooner, the Margaretta, killing the officer and at least four others in the process.
The battle to take the Margaretta was the result of spontaneous reactions — the British would call it a mob action — to threats on the town of Machias made by the commander of the British schooner Margaretta, Midshipman James Moore. The fever pitch of the participants was fueled by recent news of the skirmishes around Boston that started America’s fight for independence. In May 1775, a group of Machias men met in the Burnham Tavern in response to the news from Lexington and Concord. In the meeting, Benjamin Foster suggested and the group agreed, that they signal their support for the colonies and independence by erecting a Liberty Pole — a large pine tree with all but the very top branches stripped off — in the center of town.
On June 2, 1775, the British schooner Margaretta escorted two merchant vessels — Ichabod Jones’ sloops, the Unity and Polly — into port at Machias to provide provisions for the community and to obtain lumber to erect barracks for the British troops stationed back in Boston. Upon seeing the Liberty Pole, the British commander James Moore ordered its immediate removal and threatened to fire on the town if this order was not obeyed.
This enraged the free-spirited men of Machias, who refused to dismantle the pole. During the following week-and-a-half, Jones conducted tense negotiations for the sale of his provisions and for the purchase of lumber for the British. And, Moore continued to issue threats if the Liberty Pole wasn’t taken down. Tension only increased and the resolve of the Machias community stiffened.
Upon hearing of the events occurring in Machias, men from neighboring towns arrived in support. In turn, the men of Machias conspired to capture the British officer and his ship. Their initial plan to seize Moore at church on June 11, 1775 failed when — as Rev. James Lyon preached — Moore sensed the imminent danger, lept out an open window of the church and escaped back to his ship.
Moore immediately ordered the Margeretta to weigh anchor and move further down river to a safer position. As he did, the vessel fired some warning shots over Machias and some Machias men fired musket shots at the ship from small boats and canoes, as well as from vantage points on shore. This skirmish lasted about an hour and a half before the Margaretta moved further out, captured another sloop and impressed its pilot, Captain Toby, to assist in navigating the British ship out to sea.
The next day, Monday June 12th, the men of Machias regrouped and came up with an alternative plan to man some ships, chase down the Margeretta, board it and take control by force. Benjamin Foster took about 20 men to a neighboring community, East River, to man a schooner, the Falmouth Packet. The remaining men commandeered one of Jones’ merchant ships, the Unity. They quickly installed some planks on the Unity as makeshift breastworks to serve as protection, armed themselves with muskets, pitchforks and axes and then set out after the Margaretta, which by this time had moved further downstream toward open waters.
In fact, when Moore saw the preparations underway on the Unity, the British vessel once again weighed anchor and sailed on to nearby Holmes Bay. But in jibing into brisk winds, the Margaretta’s main boom and gaff broke away, crippling its navigability. As a result, once in Holmes Bay, Moore captured a sloop, took its spar and gaff to replace the Margaretta’s and took captive the pilot of the sloop, Robert Avery, of Norwich, Connecticut.
Some firsthand accounts, indicate that both the Unity and the Falmouth Packet engaged the Margaretta, but most other sources indicate that Benjamin Foster and company either ran aground in the Falmouth Packet or never caught up to the Margaretta, and that the men aboard the Unity alone battled the Margaretta directly. During the chase, the Unity crew elected Jeremiah O’Brien as its captain, and with the Unity being a much faster sailing vessel, O’Brien’s crew quickly overtook the crippled Margaretta.
On the approach of the Unity, the Margaretta opened fire, but the Machias crew managed to avoid that fire and pull alongside the Margaretta. It took two tries, but they tied alongside and stormed on board the Margaretta. Captain O’Brien’s brother John and Joseph Getchell led the boarding. Both sides also exchanged musket shots, and Moore tossed hand grenades onto the Unity until Samuel Watts took him down with a musket shot to the chest.
With their commanding officer down, the British quickly succumbed to the onslaught and surrendered the Margaretta to Captain O’Brien and his crew. Moore was taken into care in Machias at the home of Stephen Jones, the son of Ichabod Jones, but Moore died the next day. At least three of Moore’s crew were also killed, as well as Robert Avery, the colonist who was impressed by the British. Avery’s fate was certainly an extremely unfortunate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some accounts relate a higher death toll among the British. The remaining crew members of the British schooner were eventually handed over to the Provincial Congress.
Machias lost two men, John McNeil and James Coolbroth. McNeil was killed instantly while Coolbroth died after the skirmish of his wounds. Three others were badly wounded but survived. They were John Berry, who had a musket ball enter his mouth and exit behind his ear, Isaac Taft and James Cole.
Accounts indicate that about 40 Machias men manned the Unity. George W. Drisko, a local Machias historian, actually listed the following 55 names of Machias men for whom he had evidence of participating in the attack on the Margaretta. Jeremiah O’Brien, John O’Brien, William O’Brien, Joseph O’Brien, Gideon O’Brien, Dennis O’Brien, Edmund Stevens, Richard Earle (a Negro servant to Jeremiah O’Brien), John McNeil, Richard McNeil, William McNeil, Samuel Watts, John Steele, John Drisko, Judah Chandler, John Berry1, James Cole,, John Hall, Jesse Scott, Wallace Fenlason, Ezekiel Foster, Joseph Clifford, Jonathan Brown, Josiah Libbee, Joseph Getchell1, Joseph Getchell, Jr.1, James Sprague, James N. Shannon, Benjamin Foss1, Jonathan Knights, Josiah Weston, Joel Whitney, John Merritt, Isaac Taft, James Coolbroth, Nathaniel Crediforth, Joseph Wheaton, John Scott, Joseph Libbee, Simon Brown, Beriah Rice, Samuel Whitney, Elias Hoit, Seth Norton, Obadiah Hill, Daniel Meservey, John Steel, Jr., Nathaniel Fenderson, John Mitchell, Will Mackelson, John Thomas, David Prescott, Ebenezer Beal, John Bohanan, Thomas Bewel and Abial Sprague. In addition to those who manned the Unity and the Falmouth Packet, many others participated in the preliminary skirmishes from the shore and smaller boats.
In the following days, the full burden of their actions weighed heavily on the Machias community. Expecting the full wrath of the British empire in revenge, they immediately petitioned the Provincial Congress of the Massachusetts Colony for guidance, supplies and assistance. They organized for the defense of Machias and maintained vigilance in the event of British vengence. Jeremiah O’Brien immediately outfitted the Unity with breastworks and armed her with the guns and swivels taken from the Margaretta and changed her name from Unity to Machias Liberty. Joseph Getchell took the Margaretta and hid her as far up the Middle River as high tide would take her.
A month later, Jeremiah O’Brien and Benjamin Foster captured another British armed schooner, the Diligence, that happened to dock at Machias during a mapping expedition along the coast. This gave the Machias residents two armed ships of war.
During the war, different crews of Machias men re-outfitted and armed different ships — including the Margaretta — and sailed looking for battle with the British. And in 1776 and 1777, different British officers received orders to go and destroy Machias. But the residents of Machias withstood these efforts to the extent that Machias became known as the “Hornet’s Nest” to the British admiralty. One British officer, presumed to be Sir George Collier, said “The damned rebels at Machias were a harder set than those at Bunker Hill.”
Of the crew on board the Unity during the fight for the Margaretta, three of the men were ancestors of Douglas Noble, the ownsr of this webpage. John McNeil, who was killed during the battle, was his 4th great grandfather. John’s brothers Richard and William, his 4th great uncles.
Upon learning of John’s death his father-in-law, John Rolf ,would take his widow, Elizabeth (Rolf) McNeil, along with their three children, Betsy, Jane and newborn John, Jr., to the safety of Deer Island, New Brunswick. Canada.
References: George W. Drisko’s “History of Machias”, the “Life of Captain Jeremiah O’Brien”, the “Sea of Glory”, William James Morgan’s “Captains to the Northwind”, and the “American Theatre”
Other Relevant Resources: Drisko’s “The Liberty Pole; a Tale of Machias”, William Bartlett Smith’s “Historical Sketch of Machias” and “Memorial of the Centennial Anniversary of the Settlement of Machias”, Stephen Jones’ “Historical Account of Machias, Me.”, and Foxhall A. Parker’s “The First Sea Fight of the Revolution; the Capture of the Margaretta”