The Maine adventures and misadventures of patriot Paul Revere

10 mins read

Paul H. Mills
Paul H. Mills

by Paul H. Mills

It’s a Patriot’s Day three-day weekend, an intriguing occasion to take a look at episodes here in Maine of the man whose midnight ride triggered the advent of one of the season’s signature holidays.

Though Paul Revere’s overnight April 1775 crusade is well known, less known is his subsequent mission to Maine. This occurred in one of the more controversial episodes of the war, in the Castine area of Maine’s Penobscot Bay. It was here, in the vast expanse of wilderness between the mouth of the Penobscot and the Canadian border, that the British saw great opportunity to secure a refuge for the thousands of American Loyalists who had fled their homes elsewhere in the colonies. Much of Maine was also viewed as a place to provide resources for British troops and to provide a base from which to harass Massachusetts ships.

By the summer of 1779 British forces arrived at Castine for this purpose. Revere, by now a lieutenant colonel, was called upon to head up the ordnance section of the group of Massachusetts navy and militia men who sailed up the coast in an effort to wipe out these British troops.

Revere’s commanding officers were slow and almost cowardly, wasting too much time both along the way as well as at Castine itself. When they first arrived they could have easily defeated the smaller British contingent but after a few days overwhelming numbers of enemy reinforcements arrived to make an American attack unthinkable and futile. The Americans were forced to flee up river, setting their own ships – which included the entire Massachusetts navy – on fire and retreating over land. Though there was little loss of life at the hands of the British, several colonists died of starvation and exposure in the attempt to make their way back through Maine to their Bay State homes.

To his credit, Revere was among those officers who had urged his superiors to strike swiftly at the British forces but his pleas were ignored. Revere, after the debacle, made the best of a bad situation in trying to lead his men back through the uncertain terrain. In the process he explored almost for the first time much of the overland territory running from Penobscot Bay to Augusta, the first leg of his route back to Boston.

Such a wilderness journey was as challenging as his more famous “ride” four years earlier through Somerville, Medford, Arlington, and Lexington.

The 65-mile excursion from Castine to Augusta is even today one of the more meandering itineraries in Maine, passing through or near the quaintly named and remote Monroe, Jackson, Hibbert’s Gore, and Palermo. Revere and his colleagues made it through this expanse of the Maine woods some 70 years before other nearby tracts would be trampled down by the more leisurely footsteps of Thoreau.

It is ironic that one of the most prominent historic routes through central Maine is named for our most prominent traitor, Benedict Arnold, while there is nothing to commemorate the travels of one of our nation’s foremost patriots, Paul Revere.

By the time Revere finally made it back to Boston, he was relieved of his command and ordered out of further military service. Revere, who a few months earlier had been an outspoken critic of colonial naval strategy, now found himself one of the scapegoats for the Penobscot fiasco. Among his accusers was General Peleg Wadsworth, who called Revere on the carpet for allegedly refusing to deliver a boat to Wadsworth and for fleeing Penobscot Bay without proper authority from his commanding officer. It took two and a half years before Revere would successfully clear himself of the charges in a court-martial proceeding.

Revere’s reputation languished in an historical purgatory over the next 80 years. Finally, at the time of the American Civil War, his honor was proclaimed by an unlikely proponent, grandson of the general who had been so severe in his criticism of Revere’s wartime performance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Listen my children and you shall hear…”

The Reveres seize Farmington Academy

Revere’s departure from the Maine woods in 1779 would not be the last Maine-oriented episode of Revere’s life. The father of 16 children, Revere had to call upon his diversified talents to sustain his family in the nearly 40 years of his life that remained. Though he had talents as a dentist and an engraver, Revere’s skills were most notably brought to bear on the manufacture of the famous Revere bells. Several of the nearly 400 he and his son Joseph produced made their way to Maine, although not always under agreeable circumstances.

One example was demonstrated by the somewhat startling outcome of a lawsuit the Reveres brought against Farmington Academy, a forerunner to the present-day University of Maine at Farmington in 1811. It all began in 1808 when Paul Revere delivered a 500-pound bell in Boston to a young man acting on behalf of the newly organized academy. After several letters in which Revere expressed his frustration at not being compensated, including one to an old Farmington friend of Revere’s, Supply Belcher, the Reveres in 1811 brought suit against the Academy’s Trustees for the $216.64 unpaid balance.

After the Reveres won the suit they dramatically enforced their judgment by a sheriff’s levy on a portion of the Academy’s real estate including a part of the “schoolhouse” itself near the center of Farmington. Title to this location – which is today part of the site of UMF’s main administration building – was awarded by a deputy sheriff to the Reveres in the summer of 1811 in satisfaction of the Court judgment.

Despite this inauspicious event, the Academy managed in January of 1812 to open its doors to its first students.

The Reveres held their title to the property for nearly a year until the trustees were able in June of 1812 to re-purchase for $265.66 the property they had forfeited to the Reveres the year before.

Though the present day university, which occupies the same site as that once owned by the Reveres, has its own fiscal challenges, it is unlikely to experience the same humiliation of its institutional predecessor.

The current whereabouts of the Farmington bell for which the Reveres struggled so hard to be paid are unknown if indeed it is still intact anywhere.

One of the few Revere bells left in Maine appears to be one that since 1950 has hung at the Bean’s Corner Baptist Church in North Jay, though it’s about twice as heavy as the one that Revere sold to Farmington Academy.

It’s gratifying to know that Farmington finally paid its debt to Paul Revere and his son even though it is intriguing to speculate what might have become of the property they temporarily acquired had it failed to do so. It’s also inspiring that Longfellow was able to make up for the accusations leveled by his grandfather against Revere.

Unlike Lexington and Concord, the Maine communities of Farmington, Jackson, and Hibbert’s Gore do not have a place in America’s popular imagination. There is still some solace in knowing that those who travel there will nevertheless be not far from the legacy of the same Revolutionary War patriot.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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