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This weekend, Down East Maine celebrates Margaretta Days and commemorates one of the first events in America’s separation from the domination of Great Britain in its journey to becoming the sovereign nation we know today.
It is important, particularly for those of us with Down East roots, to note that this June marks the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Machias. The famous ride of Paul Revere on April 19, 1775, was the opening salvo of the American Revolution, but discontent was already brewing elsewhere. About 300 miles north of Boston in the village of Machias, the first naval battle of the revolution was about to begin.
When news of the incidents at Lexington and Concord reached the citizens of this seaside village, legend tells us that a liberty pole was planted at Job Burnham’s tavern, and Jeremiah O’Brien began his pursuit of the Margaretta. Loyalist merchant ships had arrived in Machias on June 2 accompanied by the British armed sloop Margaretta, captained by Lt. James Moore.
On June 12, townspeople armed with muskets, pitchforks and axes seized one of the merchant ships, the Falmouth Packet, and armed it alongside a second ship, the Unity, under the command of O’Brien. The two ships sailed out to meet the Margaretta. O’Brien’s crew quickly caught up to the ship, which had been damaged by rough weather. The two crews were able to overwhelm the sloop. Moore was taken down by a musket shot to the chest.
The settlers had some important assistance in this landmark battle. Wabanaki warriors supported these efforts and were a significant presence in the manpower of the Machias ships. The Passamaquoddy not only helped in the capture of the Margaretta, but 50 of them, led by Capt. Selmore Soctomah, captured a British schooner and brought it to Machias to add to the growing settler fleet.
Both of us can trace our ancestral roots to this significant event. Cassandra is descended from Job and Mary O’Brien Burnham. Mary was the sister of Jeremiah O’Brien. Butch is descended from Selmore Socktomah, who was instrumental in manning the conquering ships involved and went on to raise troops for the Revolutionary army.
The war went on for six more years, and both leaders continued to play a role in its progress. The small Down East fleet was formally recognized by the Massachusetts Navy. O’Brien continued to harass the British throughout the war, disrupting their supply lines and capturing British merchants at an amazing rate. The rebellion had begun to spread by drawing support in the other colonies.
Capt. Soctomah and the troops he raised continued to fight with Col. John Allan throughout the Revolution. His service as a scout continued through the war and into the War of 1812. It is important to note that the Penobscots and Passamaquoddy served in the defense of America in positive and disproportionate numbers in all of its subsequent conflicts.
This war ended the oppression of a foreign government and brought sovereignty to the American settlers. That sovereignty did not extend to the Indian allies who helped win this war of independence, and home-grown colonialism still plays a part in the lives of Native people. In the 244 years since our ancestors fought together in the bay at Machias, Native people have suffered displacement, massacres, broken promises, the separation of children and the lack of access to support from the federal government in the settlement act.
The cooperation between the two cultures that led to the victory in Machias should serve as a model for us today. In Maine there is a new climate, a new spirit. The mascots are gone. Maine is no longer celebrating the dominance and genocide created by Columbus. There is much more to accomplish, however, as we move forward and look at jurisdiction issues, water rights, self-determination, and yes, sovereignty.
Cassandra Wright of Orono is a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine Committee on Indian Relations. Butch Phillips is a citizen of the Penobscot Nation and an adviser to the committee. He grew up on Indian Island and lives in Milford.