“‘The Unhappy and Unparalled Defeat at Penobscott,’ and the entanglement of Machias and Bagaduce”

By Darcy Stevens, Phd student, University of Maine, 2020 Society of the Cincinnati short-term fellow

“This native Kansan is going to the Birthplace of the American Revolution!” That was my first thought after I processed the feeling of honor of being named a Society of the Cincinnati fellow. I envisioned long satisfying days in the Massachusetts Historical Society archives then evenings exploring historic Boston. I’d snap selfies in front of Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church. I’d tour the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and maybe catch a ball game at Fenway (I’m not all nerd). At the end of my fellowship, I would have material for great articles and personal stories alike!

It was not meant to be. Like the rest of the country, I spent most of the last 14 months working from home. There would be no Boston, but thanks to the work of the amazing staff at MHS and technology my fellowship research could move forward remotely.

Readers will have guessed that I study the American Revolution. Specifically, I examine allegiance and neutrality in the Borderlands of Maine – Nova Scotia. My interest is in revealing how inhabitants navigated the contentious social landscape during this period. The Borderlands was home to Loyalists, Patriots, and Neutrals, soldiers and militiamen, Indigenous leaders and politicians. Their interwoven stories illustrate the complexity of living surrounded by friends and foes in wartime.

This was true for the inhabitants of Bagaduce (now Castine). When the British arrived in 1779 there were very few settlers. Patriot forces launched the Penobscot Expedition to rout the British, were soundly defeated, and the British held the region for the remainder of the war. In just a few months the handful the previously isolated settlers were surrounded by Loyalists from distance places, British, Scottish, and German soldiers, and their families. Their lives would become entangled and interdependent. There is much yet to uncover about Bagaduce and I am excited to discover what it will reveal.

While Bagaduce has received most of my attention so far, I have also spent some time examining Colonel John Allan. A Nova Scotian Patriot, Allan commanded the American forces at Machias and was superintendent of the Eastern Indians. In the latter role he worked tirelessly to secure an allegiance with the Wabanaki. He was convinced that without their support, or at least their neutrality Maine would fall to the enemy. His letters give the impression of a self-confident, almost brazen man, who wasted no time on deference and flowery composition. He was busy; he cut to the chase and didn’t sugar-coat the facts. I think Allan and I would have gotten along famously.

The MHS holds a collection of John Allan’s papers and since receiving digital copies I have spent many happy hours poring over them. During my research on Bagaduce and the Penobscot Expedition I had not come across Allan. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter he wrote about the event. Allan reported he received a request from General Solomon Lovell, at Bagaduce calling for reinforcements on 1 August. Allan then detailed the many reasons he was not ready to sail for another nine days. On the same day he received a second message from Lovell asking him to “proceed with all Expiditon & bring as many of the Militia as Could be spared” Allan learned of British ships in the much closer Passamaquoddy Bay.[1] Yet, he delayed his departure for another four days, until he learned those British ships were only trade vessels. Still fearful of an attack on Machias when he finally set out for Bagaduce he took only one hundred men. This was two full weeks after Lovell’s first request. On the fourth day of travel Allan sees great billows of smoke, suspects the settlements were burning, decided he did not have enough men or provisions, and turned back for Machias. Meanwhile, Lovell’s papers are replete with his optimism that Allan was on the way.  Lovell wrote that on 13 August he “every moment expected a reinforcement by Colonel Allan.”[2] But that was the day British reinforcements arrived. Allan still had not left Machias. The next day the last of the Patriot ships were captured or scuttled and the remaining troops went scurrying through the Maine wilderness.

Perhaps the loss was inevitable. The British had a vastly superior navy. Still, reading Lovell’s account next to Allan’s makes me wonder. We will never know. What we do know is that Allan felt no responsibility. In fact, he was decidedly put out by the loss, as if the affair was a major inconvenience for him. He opens his letter to the President of the Massachusetts Council by writing:

The Unhappy and Unparalled Defeat at Penobscott, has put this Department in a most Critical & Dangerous Situation, such as Requires the Vigelant attention for its Preservation—The Various objects I am Compelled to Turn my thoughts & Time to, will prevent my being so Explicite in my Communicating Matters as I would wish.

He goes on to complain of the effect the defeat had on the relationship with the Wabanaki.

 The Dishonorable Flight (permit the Expression without Censure from a feeling of Mortification for the Disgrace brough on the Arms of our Country) of the Americans on the Penobscot River has given a wound to our Indian Affairs.[3]

Well, I said he was brazen.

Given the amount of work Allan put into wooing the Wabanaki, his complaint seems fair. What struck me, aside from his caustic statements, was the extent to which Bagaduce and Machias were entangled. At Bagaduce original settlers, loyalists, and British troops lived, worked, and socialized together. Their lives were obviously entwined. The same was true for the inhabitants and Patriot soldiers at Machias. Allan’s letter revealed how interconnected these disparate and distance communities were to one another and with the Indigenous communities of the region. This is an important point that I had yet to consider.

I still believe a close examination of these small Borderlands communities will reveal a great deal about the social landscape of the American Revolution. But now I am more mindful of how distant and seemingly unrelated events will impact my Borderlands actors and their decisions about allegiance and neutrality.


[1] John Allan to Jeremiah Powell, President of the Council of the State of Massachusetts Bay. September 10, 1779, Machias. John Allan Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection.

[2] “Addendum To General Lovell’s Letter to Massachusetts Council.” Sept. 3.1779. As printed in General Solomon Lovell and The Penobscot Expedition, 1779. By Chester B. Kevitt. Weymouth MA: Weymouth Historical Commission, 1796. 120.

[3] Allan to Powell