Papers of John Adams, volume 18

From Samuel Williams

Thomas Barclay to the American Commissioners

To John Adams from James Bowdoin, 10 April 1786 Bowdoin, James Adams, John
From James Bowdoin
sir, Boston April 10th. 1786

I had the honour of writing to you in August last relative to the conduct of Captain Stanhope; and twice since on the subject of British Encroachments upon territory of the United States, adjoining the newly established Province of New Brunswick. I hope those Letters came to your hand.1

New complaints from our people in those parts have been received, particularly from the Inhabitants of Moose Island, situated 242 on the Westerly side of Passamaquoddy bay: who by their petition declare, that Mr. Wier Sheriff of the County of Charlotte in that Province, has served writs on some of those Inhabitants; and threatened to come with an armed force, and carry them to the Goal at St. Andrews: and therefore they earnestly pray for protection.

I laid their petition and a letter from Mr. James Avery, concerning the proceedings of the said Sheriff, before the General Court, accompanied with a Message on the subject: and to pacify the people the Secretary was directed to write them a Letter informing them, that every proper measure had been and would be taken, for procuring an amicable adjustment of this business. He has also been directed to procure from them a proper statement of the facts, duely authenticated by a Justice of the Peace. A copy of the said Petition, Letters and Message, is herewith enclosed.2

The Government of New Brunswick, as I am informed, extend that Province to the Schooduck, which is the most western river, that runs into the aforesaid bay, and has not been distinguished by the name of St. Croix: the Shire-town (St. Andrews) being on the east side of that river and bounded by it; and many other settlements upon it going on, to secure the possession.

The Schooduck takes a turn to the northwest and west, and issues from ponds, as I am told, in the neighbourhood of Penobscot river; and will add a large territory to the said Province, in case it should extend to it.

I have been told, that Mitchel’s Map governed the American and British Commissioners in settling the territorial line between the two nations: and as your excellency was one of them, you must know, whether the most western river, falling into the said bay, was the river intended by the treaty. By the information we have, the real St. Croix is the most eastern river, that falls into it; and which the indians also call Megacadava:3 but according to the said Map an intermediate river bears the name of St. Croix. If there be time for copying it, I will send you a copy of a plan of that Bay, and of the rivers running into it, so far as they have been surveyed by Rufus Putnam Esqr. who has been employed by a Committee of the General Court in Surveying and laying out Townships, in the eastern part of this State.4

We are making settlements on the west side of the Scooduck, within the Townships laid out by Mr. Putnam: several of which have been sold by the aforesaid Committee.


With regard to Moose Island, which contains about 2000 acres, it is of importance in this view: that in case it should be determined to belong to Britain, we should be excluded the navigation of the bay, up to our settlements on the Scooduck: the passage between that Island and the western main being narrow and Shoal.

I thought it needful your Excellency should be informed of the above mentioned facts: of which, as well as of the enclosed Papers, such use may be made as you shall think proper.

The enclosed Paper, to which the Seal of the Commonwealth is annexed, will inform you of the unhappy situation of Alexander Gross of Truro in the Country of Barnstable mariner, who in July 1777, saild from Boston in a Schooner to Demarara, and on his return was taken by a Liverpool Privateer; was forced into the British service; & afterwards, to gain his liberty, entered on board a british Sloop, which was soon after taken by a French Privateer. The Captain of the sloop ransomed her for 200 Guineas, persuading the said Gross to become a hostage; & promising to redeem him in a short time, by paying the ransom money. But he has never performed his promise: which occasioned the said Gross to be put in Prison at Dunkirk; where he was in August last; & from whence it is wholly out of their power to redeem him.5

His friends have requested me to transmit the state of his case to your Excellency: which they earnestly pray you to lay before the French Ambassadour in London; humbly imploring his Excellency’s influence for effecting the liberation of the unhappy young man; and for restoring him to liberty, and to his disconsolate Parents.6

The revd. Dr. Gordon, by whom this Packet comes, will give you the State of American Politicks, general & local.

I have the honour to be, with the most perfect esteem, / Sir, / Yr Excỹ’s most obedt. hble Servt.

James Bowdoin

8 Papers enclosed herewith.

On examination I find that Putnam’s Plan does not include the whole of Passamaquaddy Bay. It is therefore not Sent.

RC and enclosures (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency / John Adams Esqr. / Minister Plenipotentiary / of the United States”; endorsed: “Governor Bowdoin / April 10. Ansd: June 2. 1786.” The enclosures were filmed with John Jay’s 22 Feb. letter.


Bowdoin’s letter regarding the Stanhope Affair was of 10 Aug. 1785 (vol. 17:323–325). His last extant letters to JA were of 12 Jan. 1786, above, and 18 Feb. (Adams Papers), neither of which mentioned Massachusetts’ boundary dispute with New Brunswick, 244 formerly part of Nova Scotia. The latter introduced Edinburgh-trained Dr. William Spooner of Boston, (1760–1836), Harvard 1778, and expressed support for the claims of Boston merchants seeking compensation for property seized by the British Army upon evacuation ( AFC , 7:287; from Samuel Austin, 23 Dec. 1785, and note 1, above).


Bowdoin enclosed seven documents pertaining to the Massachusetts–Nova Scotia (New Brunswick) boundary dispute and its effects on the residents of Moose Island, located in present-day Eastport, on Maine’s Passamaquoddy Bay. The first was Bowdoin’s 24 Nov. 1785 message to the Mass. General Court informing it that the documents sent earlier to Congress regarding the dispute had been received and sent on to JA. They, together with a resolution of Congress, were enclosed in John Jay’s second letter of 1 Nov. to JA (vol. 17:559–561) and in turn were submitted to the Marquis of Carmarthen under cover of JA’s 18 May 1786 letter, below.

Of the remaining documents enclosed with Bowdoin’s letter, the most important were a 24 Dec. 1785 letter from Moose Island resident James Avery to his father, John Avery, secretary of the Commonwealth, and a 3 Jan. 1786 petition of ten of the island’s residents. James Avery complained of Charlotte County sheriff Thomas Wyer’s arrest of Massachusetts deputy collector of customs Samuel Tuttle on charges of debt and of Wyer’s threat to summon an armed ship from Campobello if Tuttle continued to deny his authority. Avery sought intervention by the General Court “to prevent their Subjects from being so daily insulted by a foreign power and be liable to be so drag’d away by armed force.”

The petitioners, enraged by Wyer’s actions, charged that British officials were “pursuing every method to subjugate us” and wanted action by the commonwealth “to quiet our minds, and give full possession of our rights and titles to said Island.”

The remaining four enclosures consisted of General Court resolutions approving Bowdoin’s actions and supporting the beleaguered islanders, and a March letter replying to the 3 Jan. petition wherein John Avery, writing for Bowdoin, stated “that this important matter is now in such a train as to promise a speedy settlement”—a vain hope, since the issue would linger on until 1842, for which see vol. 16:118.

Bowdoin presumably expected JA to present the enclosures to the British government in an effort to resolve the boundary dispute, but the presence of the enclosures in the Adams Papers indicates he likely did not. For JA’s use of the documents received from Congress and those received with Bowdoin’s 11 July 1786 letter, see JA’s 18 May letter to Carmarthen, and note 1, and his letter of 2 June to Bowdoin, and note 2, all below.


Presumably the Magaguadavic River, which originates at Lake Magaguadavic and empties into Passamaquoddy Bay near St. George, New Brunswick. It is approximately thirty miles to the east of and roughly parallel to the St. Croix River now forming the boundary between the United States and Canada.


Gen. Rufus Putnam (1738–1824), engineer and later the first surveyor general of the United States, had recently founded the Ohio Company of Associates, a joint-stock organization comprised of military veterans interested in western land speculation and investment. With his plans for Ohio development frozen by congressional inaction, Putnam embarked on a survey of eastern Maine for the Mass. General Court in 1784. The resulting land lottery, first advertised on 30 Nov. 1786 and overseen by Putnam, Samuel Phillips Jr., Nathaniel Wells, John Brooks, and Leonard Jarvis, drew paltry revenue; only seven of the fifty projected towns in Putnam’s plan were sold (ANB; AFC, 7:425; Lloyd C. Irland, “Rufus Putnam’s Ghost: An Essay on Maine’s Public Lands, 1783–1820,” Journal of Forest History, 30:62, 64 [April 1986]).


The enclosed document concerning the imprisonment of Alexander Gross and a passage from Bowdoin’s letter, presumably this paragraph, were sent by JA with his 3 June letter to the French ambassador, the Comte d’Adhémar, asking for French assistance in freeing Gross (LbC, APM Reel 113). For the details of Gross’ imprisonment, see Griffin Greene’s 18 June letter and enclosure, and for the commissioners’ efforts to petition the French government for Gross’ release, see JA’s 26 June letter to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s reply of 9 July, all below.


From this point, the remainder of the letter is written in Bowdoin’s own hand.