Piracy and the Coast of Maine

Please welcome today’s guest blogger, James L. Nelson, an expert on all things nautical. Jim was born in Lewiston, Maine, sailed for a year on a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s The Golden Hinde, and is the author of seventeen works of maritime fiction and history, including The Only Life That Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam, George Washington’s Secret Navy (winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison award for naval history) and a most excellent new novel, Fin Gall, about Vikings in Ireland.

Piracy and the Coast o’Maine

by

James L. Nelson

Unless you are looking at the prices on a menu in Kennebunkport or perusing the upscale shops in Freeport, the word “piracy” does not generally spring to mind when considering the Coast of Maine. There’s a good reason for that. The rock-bound coast has never been what you might call a pirate haven.

Piracy as we tend to think of it, the pirates of the Golden Age of piracy, the mid-17th century to the second decade of the 18th century, were mainly a phenomenon of the Caribbean. With the Spanish discovery of the New World came the realization that there was gold in them thar jungles, and thus the great influx of Spanish settlements. And nothing draws pirates quite like the lure of gold.

At the time that the Spanish and the pirates were flooding into the Caribbean, drawn by the abundant gold, Europeans were also making their first forays to New England, drawn by another wildly abundant natural resource – cod. And herein lies the problem. While cod, loaded with omega 3, is far better for you than gold, the pirates, being not exactly health conscious, were more drawn to the riches of the Caribbean, and saw little reason to come to Maine.

Climate as well might have played a part in Maine’s never becoming a popular destination for the peg-leg and eye patch set. During the Golden Age of Piracy there were a few locations that constituted genuine Pirate Hell Towns, communities that were centered on piracy. They included Port Royal in Jamaica, Tortuga, Madagascar and toward the end, Nassau. One of the few things those places have in common is that they are WARM. When your favorite pastime is drinking rum until you pass out, as it was with the pirates, you are not going to seek out a home port where you might fall in a snow bank. Thus when one searches the index of the 733 page Dover edition of Daniel Defoe’s 1726 fourth edition of The General History of the Pirates, the source for much of what is know about piracy today, the references for Maine include exactly one page.

But just as tourism has flourished despite the weather and the pronounced lack of gold, so piracy did come to Maine. As the explorer John Smith, who knew from pirates, said, “As in all lands where there are people, there are some thieves, so in all Seas much frequented, there are some Pyrats.”

The first pirate known to operate off the coast of Maine, and still perhaps the best known, was an Englishman named Dixie Bull (full disclosure, I do a Living History interpretation of Dixie Bull – I’ll be at Fort William Henry in Pemaquid of July 27). Being the first pirate in Maine is akin to being the first vegetarian in Wyoming – its an interesting distinction but you are not exactly at the vanguard of a great movement. There are, however, a number of interesting aspects to Dixey Bull’s life and legacy; a) he was Maine’s first pirate, b) he’s the only Maine pirate that most Mainers can name, and c) he really wasn’t much of a pirate.

Dixey Bull was born in the early 1600’s in eastern England. As a young man he was apprenticed as a skinner and joined the Skinner’s Guild, which controlled the fur trade, a monopoly that made the guild powerful and wealthy. Around 1630, Bull sailed for the New World with the intention of trading “coats, rugs, blankets, biskettes, etc.” with the Indians for beaver pelts. Such legitimate activity was hardly the stuff of pirates. There was, throughout the 17th and early 18th century, several established career paths to piracy. Fishing for gold off Spanish shipwrecks was a common entrée into the life of a pirate. Sailing aboard a merchant ship that was captured by pirates was another. Privateers and men-of-war’s men who were downsized at the end of a war often turned to piracy. But starting out as a legitimate trader was not exactly de rigor when it came to the Sweet Trade.

In June of 1632, Bull was sailing a shallop, a small vessel not to be confused with a pinnace, a barca-longa or a petiauga, along the coast of Maine and trading with the Indians. While on Penobscot Bay, he was attacked by a roving band of Frenchmen who were raiding along the coast of Maine (and who might have legitimately claimed to have been the first pirates in Maine, though they seem not to have challenged Dixey Bull for the title). They did, however, rob Bull of all his trade goods and his money.

Finding himself destitute on the sparsely settle coast, Bull decided to take back what the French had stolen from him. Ranging along the few settlements and outpost from Penobscot to Boston he managed to recruit a small crew of around fifteen men. With these hands crowded into the shallop, Bull headed off Downeast, looking for the Frenchmen who robed him, or, indeed, any Frenchmen at all.

He didn’t find any. Whatever Frenchmen had been raiding along the Maine Coast were gone, and a few week’s searching revealed nothing. With supplies running short, Bull did his first genuinely piratical thing; he stopped and plundered two or three small trading vessels. A letter to Governor Winthrop of the Bay Colony reported, “…Dixy Bull and fifteen more of the English, who kept to the east, were turned pirates…” Thus resupplied, and having given up hope of finding any Frenchman, Bull decided that he would raid an English settlement instead.

The closest and most prosperous was a trading station at Pemaquid, Maine, at the mouth of the Damariscotta River. That area had been a center for fish processing for decades, and by 1630 a small trading post consisting of about eighty-five families with a wooden fortification of sorts had been built. Bull and his men sailed in with guns blazing, stormed ashore and took the post with virtually no resistance. They looted the place of five hundred pounds worth of goods, then torched it on their way out. The only resistance seems to have come as the pirates were sailing away and someone from shore (legend has it it was a man named Daniel Curtis) fired a musket shot that killed Bull’s second in command. This seems to have badly shaken the cutthroats, and when a ship’s captain from Salem was later taken by Bull, he reported that they were still unnerved and “afraid of the very Rattling of the Ropes.”

Fear of further attacks by Bull and his men spread along the coast. Governor Winthrop dispatched a small squadron of pinnaces and shallops to hunt the men down, but the pirates were never found and never heard from again. After two months of searching, the squadron returned empty handed. Now, as is so often the case when the historical evidence is scarce, the legends of Dixie Bull far outnumber the known facts.

The only other pirate often connected with Maine is Black Sam Bellamy, captain of the Whydah, who was very much a real pirate. Like many in that trade, he got his start fishing for silver off Spanish shipwrecks, ultimately deciding it would be easier to simply take silver from floating ships than to salvage it from sunken ones.

Through 1717 and 1718, Bellamy and his crew ranged the Caribbean and the East Coast of the American colonies (well south of Maine), scooping up prizes and amassing considerably booty. In the summer of 1718, they arrived at Pemaquid, looking for a place to careen, that is, haul the ship over on her side to clean and repair the bottom. Deciding the Pemaquid was too exposed, they continued on Downeast until they reached Machias, where they off-loaded all of the stores, the guns, powder and loot in preparation for heaving down. As the ship was completely vulnerable in that position, they built a crude fortification and mounted the great guns, which was a common practice while heaving down in an exposed spot.

While the pirates were settled on the coast, it was suggested to Bellamy that he might actually set up for good in the area, turn Machias into his own kingdom, and he lord of it. Bellamy was known for his disdain for kings, kingdoms and laws of any kind, but the idea of a kingdom in which he was king held some merit. He claimed that he would put some thought into the idea, which he may have done, but two months later the Whydah was wrecked off Cape Cod, where Bellamy drowned along with nearly all his crew.

Maine has certainly had its share of sea-going rogues; smugglers, privateers, lobstermen. But when it comes to pirates of the yo-ho-ho variety, Dixie Bull and Sam Bellamy were about it. For the rest, it was just too damned cold!

 

You can learn more about James L. Nelson and his books at his website http://www.jameslnelson.com

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8 Responses to Piracy and the Coast of Maine

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Welcome to Maine Crime Writers, Jim! After hearing one of your Dixey Bull presentations a few years ago, two of my grandchildren are still convinced that “Grandma has a friend who’s a pirate!” Love your books – and that you bring the past to life (literally) to people today!

    Like

    • Jim Nelson says:

      Glad to be here, though I’m not sure I care to associate with a blog that would have me as a blogger. But I’m glad to see you folks pushing Maine crime writing. There is a solid genre of Florida crime writers, and I think there should be more recognition of crime writers at the other end of the right coast.

      Like

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Spending the month in Key West among the wreckers. In one of life’s truly weird coincidences, I was just wondering about pirates in Maine yesterday.

    Thanks for a quick and fun answer.

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    • Jim Nelson says:

      Ah, Key West! I was there a few years back for the Pirates in Paradise festival. From what I can recall it was great, and the fact that I can’t recall all that much tells me I had a great time. Made a pilgrimage to Papa Hemingway’s house and of course to Captain Tony’s. Not sure Hemingway would love what has become of the town, but having never seen it in the old days I enjoyed it immensely. The fact that it was December and I was coming from Maine did not hurt.

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  3. John Clark says:

    Thanks for a funny and informative post.

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  4. Linda says:

    Fascinating post! And, yes, I would never have thought about pirates other than those in the Caribbean (not the movie ones; but still, it seems many of our American History courses have cannonball-sized holes in their syllabi).

    Like

  5. Fascinating article Jim – never heard of Dixie Bull before – which just goes to show how books tend to concentrate on the “Hollywood-type” well-known figures! Thanks for sharing.
    I have to add a piece of personal praise here for Jim: he very kindly edits the nautical scenes in my Sea Witch Voyages (pirate-based adventure/fantasy.) He very patiently makes sense of the landlubber errors I write, and doesn’t guffaw too loud at the blunders! Thanks to Jim I (think) I have a decent, readable, nautical adventure series. An ace guy who writes highly enjoyable books!

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    • Jim Nelson says:

      Helen
      You are very kind, as usual. But I must say, as much as I am wont to take credit for anything I can, deserved or otherwise, your nautical scenes just need a little tweaking here and there. I never do any major revision to your text. When you write about an historical period, you know of whence you write.

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