Welcome to the second act of Marblehead Marauders: The (Unauthorized) Invasion of 1775. If you’ll recall from last week, our story begins with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and the hasty dispatch of the first two naval vessels in American history armed by a vote of Congress, tasked with intercepting British cargo vessels bound for Quebec. When I signed off, the captains of the two American schooners, Nicholas Broughton and John Selman, along with their crew of sailors and fisherman from Marblehead, Massachusetts, had taken shelter from inclement weather in the Gut of Canso, which separates Cape Breton from mainland Nova Scotia. Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?
As they sat adrift in the Gut, Broughton and Selman no doubt felt a certain amount of failure at their botched mission. While no fault of their own, they’d been tasked with an important job by Washington himself, the successful completion of which would have cemented their military reputations for years to come. But when one door closes, another one opens, or so the saying goes anyway. Although as the two Marblehead captains would later find out, it isn’t always a good thing.
The door came in the form of two French-Canadian merchant vessels headed east across the Atlantic. Chased down by Broughton and Selman, and after a spot of interrogation when it was determined that they carried nothing of value to the rebel cause, the French-Canadian captains divulged some unexpected information: Not too far away, in a place called Charlottetown, government officials were hard at work recruiting able-bodied men to fight for Britain, and had already sent 200 soldiers to Quebec. Needless to say, this took Broughton and Selman by complete surprise, but when the shock waned, they saw a golden opportunity to assist the Continental Army, namely to put in at Charlottetown and disrupt the recruitment effort. Sure, Washington had told them that under no condition were they harrass Canadians in any way; but then again, perhaps a bit of initiative was in order to make up for everything that had gone wrong, and to reclaim a bit of dignity. After a hasty council of war they set off, along with one of the French-Canadians (under threat of throat-slitting) as a guide.
History was about to be made.
November 17, 1775
It was a day that undoubtedly dawned like any other in Charlottetown. For the past three months, control of the government had been in the hands of Phillips Callbeck in the absence of the Island’s appointed Governor, Walter Patterson, who’d hopped a ship for England in August in order to settle a few issues. (Side note: It took Patterson five – yes, FIVE – years to make his way back). Callbeck, known after his death as the “General Benefactor of this Island”, came to St. John’s [Prince Edward] Island in 1770 at just 26 years of age. A lawyer by profession, he was in short order named to Patterson’s first council, subsequently becoming Attorney General, as well as Surrogate General and Judge of Probate – talk about being short-staffed! Outside of government, he also ran a law practice, a mill, and a store (later, he would add “engineer” and “militia colonel” to this list). Given his rank, then, Callbeck was a logical choice to take over Patterson’s duties as Administrator of St. John’s Island. But with power comes responsibility, and Callbeck was about to get far more than he bargained for.
From a distance, as they entered the harbour mouth, the Lynch and the Franklin would have had all the appearance of simple fishing schooners, because that’s exactly what they were…except for a few swivel guns, and about 300 patriotic Marbleheaders looking for a good time. But even if Callbeck and the residents of Charlottetown had been aware of what was sailing towards them, there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. You see, the Island at that time was possessed of only one fortification, across from Charlottetown on the site of the old French fort of Port la Joie, which the British upgraded and dubbed Fort Amherst following their takeover in 1758. Although a very strategic location, allowing an artillery bombardment from close range as ships passed by, there was one tiny problem: The fort had been decommissioned in the 1760s, and the troops garrisoned there recalled. Following this, nothing else had been done in the way of fortifying Charlottetown – let alone St. John’s Island – and so on November 17, 1775, the place was virtually defenseless. Not a good situation considering what was about to transpire.
The American ships sailed easily through the narrow mouth, but not knowing the state of the Island’s defenses, Broughton set out in row boat with six men to check out what was left of Fort Amherst. There must still have been a few cannon left, since Broughton and Selman would later recount that he (Broughton) spiked them before heading across the harbor for Charlottetown proper. Meanwhile, Selman had taken the rest of the Marbleheaders straight to the town, and as they dropped anchor and proceeded to come ashore, unbeknownst to them they became the first American force to invade foreign soil.
Not that they would’ve cared even if they had known.
By now, it was probably fairly obvious that Selman, Broughton, and company were by no means the simple fishermen they appeared to be as they sailed in. To his credit, though, Callbeck didn’t back down, despite the fact that the had no means of defending himself. He would later recount that his “very civil reception” of the Marbleheaders was met with the utmost indifference. Selman in particular was in no mood to parley, and without so much as a “how do you do?”, he had Callbeck hauled aboard his ship and detained him there. According to Callbeck, he was “insultingly without any provocation struck” by someone, and his request to return to his house denied.
At this point, the Marbleheaders were probably a little unsure of what to do next. Clearly Charlottetown wasn’t the “rat’s nest of recruiting” that Selman believed it to be. But there were a few houses scattered about, and seeing as how the place with positively helpless, it was a golden opportunity to replenish their supplies and take a little extra for good measure. Displaying a modicum of politeness, Selman asked for the keys to Callbeck’s house and store lest he be forced to bash in the doors. In no position to negotiate, Callbeck consented, no doubt knowing exactly what was going to happen. Then the fun began.
Their first stop was Callbeck’s store, where they helped themselves to most of his stock, including that which had been set aside to provide for his own family that winter, and destroyed the rest. Next, they went to his house and, despite being in possession of the keys, broke open the doors and rifled through the house, especially Mrs. Callbeck’s room, before finding their way into his office, where they helped themselves to the colony’s silver seal, used to notarize all official documents, as well as Patterson’s commission. Following the exploration of a couple additional out buildings, they smashed into Patterson’s own house, helping themselves to, among other things, his liquor supply. And as if this wasn’t enough, according to Callbeck, their final stop was the house of Thomas Wright, senior councillor, Justice of the Peace, and Surveyor General for the colony. (Fun Fact: Wright served as a member of Samuel Holland’s survey team in 1764-65, which mapped the entire island.) Here, the Marbleheaders – apparently – forcibly removed Wright from the arms of his wife and sister, hustling him aboard to join Callbeck, while Selman “insultingly smiled at the tears and lamentations of women who were in the greatest distress”.
While we don’t know how long all of this transpired, we do know that, just as abruptly as they’d arrived, the Marbleheaders hauled up their anchors and sailed off, with Callbeck and Wright as prisoners of war.
(Stay tuned for the conclusion to this tale, hopefully coming your way next week!)
PEI History Guy
(P.S. – I apologize for the lack of images this week. You’ll just have to use your imagination.)