Annual celebration marks Machias’ place in American naval history

Posted May 30, 2012, at 4:47 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — This Washington County community will celebrate its unique place in American history on Saturday, June 9, with events now being planned for the 8th annual Margaretta Day.

The commemoration to be held on the University of Maine at Machias campus marks the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War. In June 1775, a group of Machias residents led by Capt. Jeremiah O’Brien captured the British sloop HMS Margaretta during what has become known as the Battle of Machias.

Earlier that same month Machias merchant and loyalist Ichabod Jones was enlisted by the British to help them trade for lumber. He sailed into Machias Bay with his two ships, Unity and Polly, loaded with goods from Boston in order to trade for building material. Jones and his ships were escorted by the Margaretta, captained by Midshipman James Moore.

The people of Machias, many of whom supported the revolution, initially rejected Jones’ offer. In response, Moore threatened to fire upon the town, forcing the residents to trade their lumber. In response to these tactics a group of about 50 men from the Machias Bay area banded together to fight back. The men succeeded in capturing Jones and the ship Unity as well as running the ship Polly aground. Sensing danger, Moore took the Margaretta out to the bay to escape the local militia.

The next day, armed with muskets, pitchforks and axes, the men of Machias boarded Unity — naming O’Brien captain — and a local schooner, the Falmouth Packet, and sailed after the Margaretta. Moore again attempted to escape, but the Unity was a faster ship and after a short chase overtook the Margaretta. A short fight erupted, during which Moore was fatally wounded after taking a musket ball to the chest. With their ship boarded and their captain a casualty, the crew of the Margaretta surrendered and was taken back to Machias.

Capt. O’Brien took the Margaretta’s deck guns and used them to retrofit either the Unity or the Polly — historians are unclear which — and then rechristened it the Machias Liberty. With the Liberty, O’Brien would go on to capture two more British ships and serve as a privateer along the Maine coast for the Massachusetts Navy, effectively harassing British supply routes.

Evidence of the Battle of Machias still abounds around the town. Built in 1770, Burnham Tavern, now a museum, sits upon a hill on Colonial Street in downtown Machias. It was here that the wounded were taken after the Battle of Machias. Two blocks away, at the Porter Memorial Library, visitors can see ballast stones from the Margaretta, which are built into the fireplace.

Margaretta Day will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the UMM campus, 116 O’Brien Ave near the Machias River bridge. Festivities will include re-enactments and demonstrations of period crafts such as blacksmithing, timber framing and tomahawk throwing. The event also features period costumes, local foods and games. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.washingtoncountymaine.com/margaretta.

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