Maine’s own Thanksgiving story: How the Indians saved 18th century shipwreck victims

Posted Nov. 28, 2013, at 1:18 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 29, 2013, at 5:27 a.m.
A woodcut showing an 18th century brigantine in a gale at sea.
Courtesy of Julia Lane
A woodcut showing an 18th century brigantine in a gale at sea.
John Bear Mitchell, a lecturer in Wabanaki Studies at the University of Maine, said that learning of positive interactions between Indians and European settlers is important. &quotYou are afraid of what you don't know," he said while talking about the story of the Martha & Eliza.
courtesy John Bear Mitchell
John Bear Mitchell, a lecturer in Wabanaki Studies at the University of Maine, said that learning of positive interactions between Indians and European settlers is important. "You are afraid of what you don't know," he said while talking about the story of the Martha & Eliza.
Julia Lane, a musician and historian, has spent years researching the story of the Martha & Eliza. She wrote a multimedia program and musical called &quotThe Grand Design" about the travails of the Scots-Irish immigrants who wrecked on Grand Manan Island.
Courtesy of Julia Lane
Julia Lane, a musician and historian, has spent years researching the story of the Martha & Eliza. She wrote a multimedia program and musical called "The Grand Design" about the travails of the Scots-Irish immigrants who wrecked on Grand Manan Island.

BRISTOL, Maine — Every American kid knows the story of Thanksgiving, as told and retold in elementary schools across the land.

There’s the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the winter of hardship, the helpful American Indians and the triumphant and thankful meal at the end of that first year. The story has become part of the national mythology, and influences what we think about the nation’s founding.

In Maine, we have our own tale of Colonial-era suffering and woe that is leavened with cruel villainy, a heroic rescue by the Passamaquoddy Indians, and maybe a miracle or two. Hardly anyone knows this story, and some Mainers think it’s time for that to change.

The action began in Northern Ireland in July 1741, when a group of about 200 Scots-Irish Presbyterians boarded a brigantine, or snow, called the Martha & Eliza. They were bound for North Carolina by way of Philadelphia, in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom from the Church of England, and no doubt sailed from the old world with hope in their hearts about the new lives they could make in America. Times had been tough in Ireland after a volcanic eruption in the late 1730s created a mini ice age, in which winter stayed for two years, freezing the River Shannon solid. The group sailed under an emigration scheme that likely was called “the Grand Design,” according to musician and self-taught historian Julia Lane, who lives in the Lincoln County village of Round Pond.

Lane, half of the musical duo Castlebay, said that she first discovered the tale of the Martha & Eliza as she pored through an old local history book in search of folk songs and ballads.

“It’s a hugely dark story,” Lane said this week. “I just kept following this trail. I felt it was important for people to understand this sort of underreported time in history and give us a perspective about the development of New England and the attitudes of New England.”

According to Lane, the hopeful emigrants didn’t know that the ship captain and the landowners who wanted them to come to North Carolina were anxious to shake them down for all the money they could get. That, combined with a fierce hurricane season in the North Atlantic, meant that the ship and its passengers were doomed.

After about three weeks at sea, the passengers were struck down by a serious illness which proved fatal for many. Then, after surviving a hurricane which disabled the masts and swept the ship off course for weeks, the Martha & Eliza foundered in late autumn near an island with sand beaches and high cliffs.

Although an often-cited historian had placed the wreck of a ship he called the Grand Design at Ship Harbor on Mount Desert Island, where residents put up a commemorative plaque in the early 1900s, Lane found that this was wrong.

“They weren’t looking at the really early documents,” Lane said.

She did, and determined that the passengers landed on either Grand Manan or White Head Island in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Washington County.

Lane also found documents that said Capt. Matthew Rowan was a scoundrel. Two survivors wrote the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Maine, begging for help. They said the shipwreck survivors scrounged for clams on the island after being abandoned by Rowan and the crew. When the captain finally returned — mostly to salvage the goods off the boat, Lane said — a large group of men had disappeared on a quest for help. Some women had gone farther afield in search of more food, and he left them behind without a search. He did take a group of 48 hungry, debilitated survivors to St. George, where he took their clothes, goods and money before leaving them to the mercy of the villagers.

Meanwhile, the women left behind faced extreme privations, including hunger, cold, death, despair and fear of the Indians. But fate had tossed them on the shore of an island that is sacred to the Passamaquoddy, the people of the dawn. John Bear Mitchell, a lecturer in Wabanaki studies at the University of Maine, said that Grand Manan features prominently in the Passamaquoddy creation story. Dawn, the daughter of the sea and sky deities, was chased to sea by wolves and became the island.

“It’s believed to this day by Wabanaki men and women that that island has the spirit of Dawn in it because it is her,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “Men will go out there and do their first hunt. Women do after-winter ceremonies there.”

In the spring of 1741, Passamaquoddy hunters were shocked when they paddled to the island for their hunt and heard an English voice — a mother carrying an infant. When they learned the 10 or so women had survived all winter on food they literally pulled from the rocks – edible seaweed and shellfish such as clams, periwinkles and mussels, they were astounded.

“They knew the only way [they] survived was for Dawn to take care of them and the baby,” Mitchell said.

Instead of bringing the women to the closer French settlement and ransoming them there, the Passamaquoddy hunters decided to bring a letter to the nearest English settlement.

“That they would travel over 100 miles in an open boat, risking their lives on the women’s behalf, is even more remarkable,” Lane said.

A ship from St. George went to Grand Manan to pick up the last survivors, bringing them back. Many stayed, Lane said, not wanting to risk anything else in the name of adventure. They married local men and put down deep roots in Maine. It’s said that the women from the shipwreck kept a good relationship with the local Indians, according to Lane.

“There was a huge prejudice against the Indians. But the people they trusted — the landowners, the captain, they let them down,” she said. “The people who rescued them were the Indians.”

Mitchell said people can learn a lot from the stories of positive interactions between Europeans and Indians, like the story of the rescue of the women from the Martha & Eliza, instead of concentrating on the myths of settlement and conquering.

“Focusing on positive interactions is sort of like Thanksgiving,” he said. “It refocuses Thanksgiving from Pilgrims and Indians to family time. We’re taking care of people. As humans, this is what we do, and this is what we should be doing.”

For more information about “The Grand Design,” a multimedia musical written by Lane and her husband and musical partner, Fred Gosbee, visit http://the-grand-design.org/.

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