On Thursday, the town of Bucksport will hold a belated 300th birthday celebration for its namesake, Jonathan Buck.
Though most people know Buck as the subject of a Maine legend regarding a curse and a tombstone, according to historical records from Bucksport and elsewhere, the real Buck was far from the witch-burning Puritan that the stories portray him as. The historical facts aren’t quite as lurid or spooky as the myth — but they still offer a fascinating peek into the earliest years of the United States.
Jonathan Buck was born on Feb. 20, 1719, in Woburn, Massachusetts, and was raised in Haverhill, just south of the New Hampshire border. After marrying his wife, Lydia, with whom he had nine children, Buck attempted to build a shipyard along Haverhill’s Mill Brook, but the town rejected his request. Fed up, Buck departed for points north, for land along the Penobscot River promised to colonists by the Massachusetts General Court.
In July 1762, Buck sailed up the river to survey six plantations along the eastern banks of the lower Penobscot, south of what is now Orrington. The six plantations that Buck surveyed in those years were the precursors to what is now Orland, Castine and Penobscot (which were counted as one place at that time), Sedgwick, Blue Hill, Surry and Bucksport.
The plantation on which he chose to construct his settlement was, of course, what became Bucksport. There, Buck built the region’s first sawmill and opened its first general store. For more than a decade, the settlement prospered, with Buck acting as the plantation’s de facto administrator.
When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, Buck, at the age of 56, was named a colonel in Maine’s 5th Militia alongside his son Ebenezer, also an officer in the militia. Though there had been several naval engagements in Machias and in what is now Portland in 1775, Maine had been a relatively quiet front after the war was officially declared.
That changed in July 1779, when American forces sailed a flotilla of more than 1,000 marines and militiamen from Massachusetts to Fort George in Castine. That’s where, one month earlier, the British Army had set up a military presence to retain the province of New Ireland, which the British had wrested control of from the Americans, and which comprised the lands from Penobscot Bay all the way to Nova Scotia.
The American military effort, known as the Penobscot Expedition, resulted in weeks of fighting on both land and sea around Castine, in an attempt to take back control of the lower Penobscot River. Naval forces were led by Cmdr. Dudley Saltonstall, while land forces were led by Brig. Gen. Solomon Lovell, under whom Jonathan Buck led his militia.
Though the Americans had far more soldiers and ships than the British, they were incredibly badly led. Saltonstall and Lovell famously fought over who was in control of the mission, with Saltonstall being cautious to the point of excess, despite Lovell’s repeated exhortations to continue the assault on British fortifications.
After a siege that lasted more than three weeks, British reinforcements arrived on Aug. 11, which drove the American fleet up the river, toward what is now Bangor. By Aug. 13, 1779, the Americans had lost more than 150 sailors and soldiers, with another 300 wounded or missing. It was the worst naval defeat in U.S. history, until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The remaining Americans scattered, leaving ships in the river to be burned by the British. Buck managed to get his wife, Lydia, and youngest daughter to safety in what is now Brewer. He then reportedly walked 200 miles from Brewer back to Haverhill, despite his advanced age for the time, and apparently suffering from gout.
Buck stayed in Haverhill for four years, until the war was over in 1783. He then returned to the plantation, which in 1792 was renamed Buck’s Town. Buck died in 1795, and 22 years later, in 1817, the town was renamed Bucksport. Descendents of Buck still live in the town today.
That should be the end of the story of Jonathan Buck. But, stories sometimes have a way of changing over time — or of being embellished by excitable storytellers.
In 1852, descendents of Buck decided to erect a more impressive monument to their locally famous ancestor. The granite monument appeared normal at first, but after a few decades of weathering, a flaw in the stone began to appear — one that was shaped, roughly, like a foot and a lower leg.
There are several stories of varying levels of outrageousness that have somehow developed out of that flawed granite stone. The most famous one is that, in the 1780s, Buck was an avowed Puritan and a local judge, and sentenced a local woman to be executed for witchcraft. The woman cursed Buck, saying that his grave would forever bear a mark designating that he’d “murdered a woman.” Why this woman chose a foot to represent the eternal punishment of her killer remains unclear.
Aside from the fact that, to the best of our knowledge, supernatural curses of that sort do not exist, there are some serious historical inaccuracies that poke holes in the Buck’s grave legend.
First off, Buck was born in Massachusetts in 1719, a full 26 years after the last of the witch trials that gripped the nearby towns of Salem, Andover and Ipswich. By 1719, cooler heads had prevailed in colonial Massachusetts, and the strident Puritanical way of thinking was rapidly falling out of favor. Furthermore, in most accounts of the legend, Buck’s witch trial happened in the 1780s — nearly 100 years after the Salem witch trials, and at which point Buck was close to 70 years old.
Secondly, Buck was not a judge. He was a justice of the peace, a position which even in colonial times had extremely limited jurisdiction — justices of the peace mostly performed marriages and sometimes would preside over minor civil disputes. Sentencing someone to execution was far outside Buck’s purview.
Finally, the monument was erected nearly 60 years after Buck’s death, and the foot-shaped discoloration in the stone was not noticed for several more decades, as the stone began to weather. The first time the witch story appeared in print was supposedly in 1899, in a newspaper in Buck’s hometown of Haverhill — more than 100 years after his death in 1795.
Truth, in this case, is nowhere near as strange as fiction. But even if the truth doesn’t involve witch burning and ghosts, it does shed a little light on a fascinating period in early Maine, and on a man who helped shape the history of the lower Penobscot River.
Jonathan Buck’s 300th birthday party is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18 at the Elm Street Congregational Church, which Buck helped found in the 1790s. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children, and include a barbecue dinner and birthday cake.
Related: The legend of Jonathan Buck