It is here, somewhere near where Route 1A crosses Machias' namesake river, that Maine is said to have had its most storied encounter with the pirates of the Caribbean.
For a few weeks in the spring of 1717, a great pirate ship is said to have nestled between the river's forested banks, attended by several smaller pirate vessels, together carrying more than two hundred outlaws: whites, blacks, and Indians. Led by their youthful commodore, Black Sam Bellamy, the pirates had come to Maine looking for a safe hideaway to repair their vessels, rest their sea legs, and count their appreciable horde of treasure.As legend has it, they built huts behind fortified gun emplacements, dug a deep gunpowder magazine, and entertained the possibility of establishing a pirate republic in eastern Maine, which at the time was contested by Britain and France and almost entirely unoccupied by either. Then they sailed for Newfoundland and ultimately Cape Cod, where their flagship was destroyed in a powerful storm. Some say they must have left their treasure horde behind, and generations of Down East gold-diggers have tried to dig it up.
The legend has been told and retold a thousand times in the intervening centuries, making its way into history texts, guidebooks, and a profusion of Web pages. But is it - or any of the dozens of other tales of Captain Kidd and the pirates of the Caribbean hiding out on the coast of Maine - really true?
Piracy has been with us since ancient times, so long that some historians refer to it as the second oldest profession. There were pirates in Ancient Greece, Imperial China, in James Madison's America. They're still with us today, culling yachts, freighters, and even cruise ships from the vast herds of vessels passing through the Malacca Straits, irresistible targets for unscrupulous men living along its impoverished shores. On the high seas, it seems, law and order remain at least as impotent as they were five millennia ago; the pirates of the ancient world could be ruthless, but their arsenal didn't include shell companies, offshore bank accounts, and the protective shadows offered by the flags of Liberia, Belize, or the Marshall Islands.
Maine's coast, with its nooks and crannies, deep-draft rivers, and splendid archipelagos, was enormously attractive to pirates, particularly in the colonial period when much of it was unsettled, ungoverned, and rarely patrolled. For one hundred years, England and France squabbled over who owned the seaboard east of the Kennebec, and continued bickering over what are now Hancock and Washington counties for a half-century after that. Repeated Indian wars cleared much of this disputed turf of European settlers, with the exception of a handful of fortified compounds and island redoubts. For pirates on the run, colonial Maine was a dream come true.
The absence of government undoubtedly attracted pirates to our coast, but it also made it extremely difficult to track their movements: there were few people around to observe and record what they did. But there were a few who drew enough attention to themselves as to make it into the letters and reports of Maine settlers or their political masters in Boston.
A few were homegrown. One of Maine's earliest European settlers, an English beaver pelt trader named Dixie Bull, went crazy after rival French traders held him up in June 1632, leaving him destitute. Bent on revenge, Bull assembled a posse of fifteen settlers and went hunting for the Frenchmen, but was unable to find them. All dressed up with no place to go, Bull's gang decided to attack their fellow settlers instead. They plundered several vessels at sea before sacking Pemaquid - the administrative center of the midcoast - an event that drew the attention of authorities in Boston and Portsmouth. A small fleet of coastal vessels spent a miserable December hunting for Bull's men in the coves and channels of the midcoast, but to no avail. The pirates had dispersed and their leader, according to Captain Roger Clap of Dorchester, "got to England [where] God destroyed this wretched man."
Others were petty thieves. Boothbay historian Barbara Rumsey unearthed the story of the Horn-Decker gang, a Southport clan of miscreants who spent the early decades of the nineteenth century breaking into the homes, vessels, and storehouses of the region. Their plunder wasn't glamorous - molasses, cornmeal, teakettles, and boxes of smoked herring - but it was collected with unrelenting tenacity. Family members were incarcerated at the Wiscasset jail on thirty-five occasions, broke out on at least one, and made such a lasting impression on their neighbors that "Horn-Decker" remained a part of the Boothbay vernacular for 150 years, a term for an object whose name has slipped one's mind.
Of the classic pirates of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century - the men of the Black Flag who inspired Long John Silver, Captain Hook, and Jack Sparrow - there is no shortage of Maine legends, most demonstrably false. Captain Kidd is said to have buried his treasure on a dozen islands between Casco Bay and Cape Sable, even though he never visited Maine during his short, well-documented pirate career. Blackbeard supposedly left treasure on the Isle of Shoals, though a detailed examination of his movements leaves little opportunity or rationale for him to have done so.
The Bellamy story has more credence than others, as it was originally reported just seven years after the fact, and in the most famous and comprehensive of all sources on the pirates of the era. A General History of the Pyrates, a 1724 volume erroneously attributed to Daniel Defoe, made the pirates into pop icons while some of them were still alive, a status they've retained, un-interrupted, for nearly three centuries. The author of the tome - most probably London journalist and retired mariner Nathaniel Mist - had access to privileged diplomatic and military documents and many of his accounts have proved surprisingly accurate. Generations of historians, therefore, accepted his detailed account of Bellamy's visit to Machias at face value: the details are too rich to have been made up out of whole cloth, particularly given that Machias was an uninhabited wilderness at the time, the last place a writer would have been able to describe in detail without reliable sources, nor wish to describe without compelling reason.
But the author of A General History was mistaken. Sam Bellamy never visited the Maine coast between turning pirate off Central America in the winter of 1715-16 and perishing in the surf of the Outer Cape on April 26, 1717. Throughout the spring of 1717, his movements - documented in the testimony of his captives and surviving crewmen - can be tracked in remarkable detail and leave no opportunity for a side trip to Machias. In this respect, the history books need to be changed, and Machias must regretfully let go of its connection to this legendary pirate.
That said, it is extremely likely that some other band of pirates did come to Machias and performed the events described in A General History. Rarely did its author invent passages, but he has been shown to have regularly confused timing, events, and particularly individual pirates, ascribing the actions of one to another, particularly when several gangs were operating in the same theater, with vessels of similar size and strength. The Machias story is simply too fine-grained, its setting too obscure, not to have been based on actual events, however garbled.
So who might they have been?
The most obvious choice would be the pirates from Bellamy's fleet who manned vessels that survived the April 26 storm. Separated from one another and from Bellamy's flagship, Whydah, the men aboard these vessels were unaware of their commodore's fate and so continued on their way to their original destination: the islands of midcoast Maine.
The most prominent figure among them was Paulsgrave Williams, Bellamy's right-hand man and the captain of the large pirate sloop Marianne. When the storm struck the Whydah, Williams was far to the south, in the safety of Long Island Sound, where he had gone to visit relatives and, perhaps, dispose of treasure. Williams apparently expected to rendezvous with Bellamy at Damariscove Island, off Boothbay, on or around May 20. His gang of ninety made landfall at Cape Elizabeth on May 19 and, not knowing the coast, decided to kidnap a local to serve as their pilot. They put into the anchorage between Richmond Island and Cape Elizabeth and looted the home of Dominicus Jordan who, having been kidnapped and partially raised by Wabanaki during the most recent Indian war, had sensed danger and avoided capture by fleeing the area with his family. Williams may have been disappointed, but a hapless fishing shallop showed up soon enough, whose operator found himself pressed into the service of one of the most notorious pirates of the Caribbean. Williams then sailed on to Damariscove, where his gang spent a week or two cleaning and repairing their vessels before heading south in search of the Whydah. Two captives who were aboard the Marianne during this period lived to tell their tale to authorities: it did not include a trip to Machias.
Another group of thirty-two survivors had barely escaped the April 26 storm aboard a hundred-ton vessel called the Ann Galley. Under the direction of Bellamy's quartermaster, Richard Noland, the pirates continued to Maine, but came to Monhegan instead of Damariscove. There apparently being no settlers on the island at the time - they may not have realized their mistake - they waited in vain in that poorly-protected anchorage for Williams or Bellamy.
After a few days the pirates concluded that the Whydah had been lost, and decided to loot surrounding harbors for supplies. They sent one of their boats over to Matinicus, which came back with a sloop belonging to Stephen Minot of Boston, a fishing shallop owned by Captain John Lane of Malden, and "the sailes and compasses of . . . three schooners." Ten men clambered aboard Mr. Minot's sloop and sailed over to Pemaquid, seizing a sloop belonging to one Captain Car, while the others plundered a pair of fishing shallops from Marblehead that had stumbled into Monhegan harbor. The captives reported that Noland and his men moved everything aboard Mr. Minot's sloop and, around May 8, sailed away, leaving the Ann Galley and the other vessels behind for the captives to make their way home.
It's possible that Noland's party sailed on to Machias - they don't show up in the records for several months - but it seems unlikely. A General History describes a great pirate ship loaded with African slaves, attended by a flotilla of captured vessels, and carrying enough men to contemplate founding a pirate republic. Noland's party consisted of a handful of men in a small sloop who had just lost their commander and treasure trove and had been reduced to sacking fishing sloops just to feed themselves.
There's another possibility, however. One of Bellamy's pirate colleagues was also in the area at the time, with a large, heavily armed ship not dissimilar to the Whydah. Olivier La Buse (aka Louis Labous) was a French pirate who had sailed in consort with Bellamy for much of the previous year. In the early summer of 1717, La Buse was in New England waters with a 250-ton ship bearing twenty guns and two hundred men "of all nations," including an English subordinate named Mr. Main who did most of the negotiations with captives. On July 4, La Buse's gang plundered a sloop from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, off the coast of Virginia; the pirates told the sloop's captain, John Frost, that they were headed for the New England coast where they "had a consort ship of twenty guns" - possibly a reference to the Whydah. Indeed, eight days later, La Buse detained the sloop Dispatch somewhere off Damariscove, Monhegan, or Matinicus, whipping its captain and seizing stores of rum. Thereafter there is not a single account of piracy in New England waters for many months, suggesting La Buse's company may have continued eastward to lay low, out of the view of history, in the eastern Gulf of Maine.
Did Olivier La Buse contemplate building a pirate republic in Machias, a French alternative to the English-dominated pirate republic in the Bahamas? Given the paucity of written records about events in eastern Maine in that period, we may never know for sure. But with luck, and a lot of digging in the archives of France, scholars may one day learn the full story of the pirates of Machias.