J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Way to Subjugate Boston in 1779?

Col. Thomas Goldthwaite (1717-1799, thumbnail image courtesy of the Maine Memory Network) was the militia colonel in charge of Fort Pownall, guarding Penobscot Bay in Maine. He was also a major landowner in that region, and his son ran a trading-post near the mouth of the Kenduskeag.

In April 1775, Goldthwaite surrendered the cannons in Fort Pownall to a British naval vessel. Within a few months he became unpopular with his neighbors, though a few said he’d had no choice. In July, the militia under their new colonel, James Cargill, drove Goldthwaite and his family away, and he appears to have sailed to Nova Scotia.

On 2 Oct 1779, Goldthwaite was in New York, writing to the British commander-in-chief, Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. That letter ended up in the papers of the Royal Institution in London, and was published by the British government in 1906. It’s not entirely surprising, given where he came from, that Goldthwaite thought Boston depended on the natural resources of Maine. He had no doubt made the same argument when convincing men to settle there. He told Clinton:

Since my arrival from Penobscot I have been in hopes of having the honr. of an interview with your Excellency to lay before you the state of that country, & the importance of it to the crown, which by many years experience I must have a more adequate idea of than the cursory acquaintance of gentlemen who may differ from me in opinion.

If it is of any consequence of the crown to subjugate Boston, Salem, Newbury &c. those principal seats of rebellion, the way to effect it is to cut off the eastern part of that province which is their only source for fuel, masts, spars, lumber of every kind &c.

The post taken at Penobscot is a long step towards it, & if it shou’d be soon seconded by taking another post at Casco-bay or somewhere thereabouts, it wou’d compleat it; but if this shou’d be impracticable at this difficult time, it is of the utmost consequence, that the post already at Penobscot is secured. If the present arrangement of his Majesty’s troops wont permit of a reinforcement there, at this time, I myself will undertake to raise a Battalion out of the militia of that country, which notwithstanding their seeming delinquency in their late unhappy situation, I’ll pledge myself for it, that they will make as good subjects as any the King has got.

’Twas I, principally, yt. [i.e., that] settled them in that country; I commanded them, & I fully know their principles, & have estate enough to carry into execution what I propose. Their numbers in this new settlement before these troubles came on were more than 2400 able men & whom I dare vouch, are principally our friends but if we neglect them & throw away that post, they most probably will become our enemies. I will enter into particulars & more fully explain those matters if your Excellency will be pleas’d to give me opportunity.
Apparently Clinton didn’t seize this opportunity, and Goldthwaite soon sailed for England. He arrived in Portsmouth on 15 Feb 1780, according to the diary of former governor Thomas Hutchinson, and settled with his wife at Walthamstow in Essex.

In 1896, a decade before this letter was printed, the Maine Historical Society published a paper titled “Col. Thomas Goldthwait—Was He a Tory?” The author—who, incidentally, was named R. Goldthwaite Carter—concluded that:
he was not a Tory or a Loyalist, in the sense that he took any active part against his countrymen, and then only so far as he was forced, after the dismantlement of Fort Pownall, by the rancorous spirit engendered by this event, increased by the intense excitement which so soon followed the announcement of the battle of Lexington, and the treatment he received at the hands of the turbulent characters about him, and by the Provincial Congress, through garbled and malicious statements. He was then forced to assume, in a passive and dignified manner, the role of a harmless spectator of the strife then on between the colonies and the mother country, instead of taking an active part with his neighbors, the patriotic Whigs of that region.
But Carter hadn’t seen this letter.

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