While doing research on my book on Rev. Seth Noble who named Bangor, I came upon the chilling words from Noble’s diary that ultimately led to the discovery of the shipwreck of the Susannah, the first vessel built in Bangor.
“Oct. 20, 1798, Oh death! My son Seth lost at sea; and all who were with him; supposed to be at Boon Island. All in number who were lost was 26.
“Nov. 5, Cool. Went to Ipswich, on my way to Sandy bay.
“Nov. 6, Pleasant, went to sd. Bay; got my poor son’s clothes.
“Nov. 7, Returned home with a heavy heart.”
There is so much expressed in these few words that I knew I had to find out more. Ultimately, research and some intuition led me to uncover the shipwreck of the first schooner built in Bangor, at the Robert Treat shipyard. It was considered the Titanic of its day. Noble’s words also led me to better understand the poorly documented early history of Bangor.
The reverend’s son, named Seth Noble Jr., was reported to have been a promising young man and was universally loved by all who knew him, according to Lucius Manlius Boltwood’s book on the history of the family of Thomas Noble.
Seth Noble Jr. was the firstborn child and was separated from his father for the first five years of his life during the Revolutionary War. He stayed by his father’s side during the death of his mother, Hannah, and must have been his father’s pride and joy. He endured not only the death of his mother in 1790 as a young teenager but the separation from his young brothers, Joseph and little Benjamin, a year after his mother’s death.
I found an article on the dreaded news of the shipwreck in the New Hampshire Gazette, stored at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, New Hampshire. Titled “Melancholy,” it’s from Oct. 3, 1798, when Seth Noble Jr. was 21:
“The Sch. Susannah, Capt. Daniel Jamison, was found on Saturday morning, the 20th inst. Between Holly-boat-Point [Halibut Point] and Sandy Bay (Cape Ann) wrecked to pieces; she sailed from Penobscot [Bangor] on Wednesday previous, bound to Boston and is supposed to have struck a rock many leagues from shore, overset, and filled in the bay, her sternpost and rudder not being found, and her foremast appearing to have been cut away; from the trunk, cloaths, and papers, which have been picked up.”
I then contacted the Sandy Bay Historical Society in Rockport, Massachusetts. Mary Sibbalds, a dedicated volunteer, found a reference to this shipwreck in the extensive work of a young high school student, Paul Sherman. Sherman, in 1964, recorded the mention of the Schooner “Sukey” (a nickname for Susannah) in the Diary of Rev. William Bentley, pastor of the East Church in Salem, Massachusetts, at the time of the wreck:
“Oct. 25, 1798: We have information that the Schooner SUKEY is actually lost near Sandy Bay, Cape Ann and all on board have perished.
“Oct. 27, 1798: We have the alarming report that the loss of the schooner SUKEY will probably prove the loss of many valuable lives and of may excellent women.
“Nov. 13, 1798: We have the melancholy list of the unfortunate sufferers of the SCH. SUSANNAH cast away of Cape Ann from Penobscot. There were 15 men on board and 5 ladies. Three of the ladies were of the family Hitchborn.”
A trip to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport did not disappoint. It had a copy of Robert Applebee’s, 1941 “Sailing Vessels Built in the Penobscot River Towns in Maine,” which stated that the owners of the “schooner Susanna” were John Lord and Robert Hichborn.
Here’s a description of how the schooner was likely built, from Jacob McGaw’s, “Sketch of Bangor” at the Maine Historical Society:
“From the poultry trade [Robert Treat] derived enormous profits. His means were sufficient to enable him to go into the business of shipbuilding. He employed Mr. [William] Boyd as master-carpenter, and in 1791 laid the keel of a vessel, which in two years was ready to receive her rigging and sails. Mr. Treat had the opportunity to avail himself of the craft of Mr. Harlow of pumps and blocks; that of Mr. Timothy Crosby, son of Simon, for masts and spars; and that of Mr. Jacob Dennett for boats. This vessel was the first larger than a boat, ever built in the region of Bangor above Fort Point.”
Even though the above description does not mention the name of the schooner built in 1793, it is clear that this is the Hichborn schooner – the Susannah. It was reported that during the two years of the building of Bangor’s first schooner, it was referred to as “the Treat ship” and was built and launched near the red bridge, where the Penjajawoc Stream meets the Penobscot River.
From the Bangor Historical Magazine, Vol. II: “She was launched in 1793, amid great rejoicing, and much eating and drinking.” It’s possible that Seth Noble and his son would have helped in the building of this vessel.
The news of the wreck of the SUSANNAH affected the entire Penobscot River and bay region. From the many newspaper reports I uncovered, this was the Titanic of its day, bringing shock waves all over New England.
The most important discovery I made in my research was the passenger list, which I found printed in the Friday, Nov. 16, 1798, Salem Gazette on micro-print at the University of Maine Fogler Library in Orono. It may be one of the earliest known passenger lists of a nautical disaster from the Penobscot Bay region.
After learning so much about this shipwreck, I had to make a trip to Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs to be where the Susannah last weighed anchor and sailed off into eternity. This was a bit like “time travel” for me. A large empty cellar is what remains of the Robert and Susannah Hichborn estate, very close to the Fort Point Light House and the former site of Fort Pownal.
I felt compelled to find the cemetery where Robert Hichborn is buried. Just before his death, Hichborn gave part of his land for a cemetery for the early settlers and was the first to be buried in it. As I approached the broken carved headstone lying on the ground (it was repaired after a phone call to the sexton) a family secret, lost in the cloud of time, was made abundantly clear to me.
Hichborn, father of Susannah (Susan) and Elizabeth (Eliza), died Oct. 18, 1800, on the second anniversary of the schooner disaster. Perhaps he died of a broken heart.
I found the following letter, written by Hichborn to his cousin, Paul Revere, in Esther Forbes’ book, “Paul Revere and the World He Lived In.” Hichborn penned the letter Jan. 4, 1799:
“My dear friends the news whose so sudden and unexpected that my mind teuk ets flitz and never returned till it had ransacked the bottom of the Oshon from Cape Ann to Cape Cod and back down the Oshon Shor and over the face of the Great Waters after my dear daughters till it portaged my old body in such a manner that I was ardly abel to sleep about but live in hopes that the great Orther in dew time will now string a harp and cause me to partake of mercy as well as judgment that you and your dear friends and families may enjoy pece of mind is the wish of your dear friend and Brother.
“P.S. My respects to all friends my mind whont admit of polliticke. Let me hear from you as soon as posebel.”
Although the letter was written by a man whose English was less than perfect, it is supremely expressive of his enormous sorrow. When he mentions “dear family and friend” this can be taken literally to convey his sorrow for the death of not only his beloved daughters, Susan and Eliza, but also the children of the participants in Revere’s famous midnight ride into history.
Victims Sarah and John Pulling, for instance, were the children of Capt. John Pulling, who was responsible for hanging the lanterns at the Old North Church of Boston as a signal to alert patriots of the British troops’ route if they advanced to Concord. His role was made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” with the phrase about the lanterns, “One, if by land, and two, if by sea.”
This schooner went down with such famous firstborn sons and daughters of the American Revolution that one might suppose the British targeted it. I was unable to find any mention of a storm at the time of the wreck, but the New Hampshire Gazette mentioned “the gale must have proved destructive to them – the sea running very high and weather thick.” Even today, late October weather on the coast of Maine is notoriously unpredictable and dangerous for sailing vessels.
One of the most tragic aspects of this shipwreck is the oral history passed down by the Hichborn family that Susan Hichborn was on her way to be married in Boston, and many passengers were to be part of her wedding party. (Click here for a short biography of the known passengers aboard the Susannah.)
To my knowledge, the lifeboat was never found. As the Susannah’s sternpost broke, and she rapidly started to sink in the frigid waters and high seas off Cape Ann, was there any chance for the 20 passengers to even board the life boat? The horror is still palpable today, more than 200 years later. The only aids to navigation in 1798 were a magnetic compass, a clock (ship’s chronometer), a quadrant or sextant (useable in clear weather only), a lead line, a log line, and human ears and eyes.
As one looks at the names of the passengers whose lives were lost on October 18, 1798, one cannot help but be struck by the magnitude of the loss to Bangor and the surrounding area. Death, at this time period, was no stranger, but the loss of this many young lives was so great that it is a puzzle to me why this has been completely lost in time.
If it had not been for a notation in Rev. Seth Noble’s diary, this shipwreck might never have come to light.
What this shipwreck actually speaks to is the courage that our early pioneers in Maine demonstrated not only on land but also on sea. The enormous danger of sailing New England coastal waters without our current navigational systems is unimaginable. Just one glance of a map of the coast of Maine and you will marvel that more ships were not lost.
Rev. Seth Noble returned to the Penobscot River and presided over a eulogy at the Hichborn home in current-day Stockton Springs. He also returned to Bangor, where his wife, Hannah, was buried and gave a service to honor the many young men and women who perished with his beloved son. The death of Seth Noble Jr. affected Noble in a way that would influence his decision to pull up stakes on the east coast and make the dangerous trek west.
There is much rich history to this time period that has yet to be published. My wish is to have this research serve as a catalyst for a greater appreciation of our early settlers who made it possible for us to enjoy the place we now call home.
Carol B. Smith Fisher was born in Bangor and lives in Camden. She is the author of “Rev. Seth Noble: A Revolutionary War Soldier’s Promise of America and The Founding of Bangor, Maine and Columbus, Ohio.” Sincere appreciation and credit goes to Robert C. Brooks for sharing his knowledge of the time period and nautical expertise, and Charles Lagerbom for his aerial maps of the Treat shipyard site.