Cape Cod – The English Wars – Pt. 3

AFFAIRS moved on toward peace, and on April 19, just eight years after Lord Percy had set out on his expedition to Concord and Lexington, Washington proclaimed an armistice. But joy in the victory was tempered for thoughtful men: if it had cost England a hundred million pounds and fifty thousand men to lose her colonies, the relative price they paid for independence was far greater. The currency was practically worthless, the soldiers and their families were destitute, the salaries of public officers and clergy but a pittance. Each State wanted to secure its revenue to its own use, which ensured conflict with the Federal Government; the individual, in his meagre circumstances, grudged any contribution to such revenue, which ensured conflict between the State and its citizens. That the general unrest was present in Barnstable County is evident from a proclamation of the Government calling upon “the good people of said county for their aid and assistance” in handling a rumored attempt to “obstruct the sitting of the Court at Barnstable.” But in the main the people who had broken the might of Britain now, war ended, applied themselves with like energy to recovering from its effects. And in spite of war and threatened ruin the Cape had continued its healthy growth.

In 1793 Dennis, which had long functioned as a separate town, was incorporated; its name derived from that of the first minister of the East Precinct of Yarmouth, the Reverend Josiah Dennis. In 1797 Orleans was set off from Eastham; and in 1803 the North Parish of Harwich, the older in point of settlement, became Brewster. It was then that argument for and against division hit upon the extraordinary compromise that irreconcilables of the North Parish, “together with such widows as live therein and request it, have liberty to remain, with their families and estates, to the town of Harwich.” No less than sixty-five persons, including two widows, stiff-necked old conservatives we may guess, filed such request with the town clerk and the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Here was an arrangement well calculated to nourish old animosities, which, in the natural course of things, had to be abandoned. Nor was the new town slow in making her voice heard : in 1810 she was remonstrating against the appointment of a certain postmaster, “he being a foreigner and in the opinion of the inhabitants an alien.” A little later she was petitioning “the Postmaster General, praying him to fix the day of the week and the hour of the day in which the post-rider shall arrive at Brewster on his way down the Cape, and also on his return, and that the Committee of Safety attend to this matter.” And she was one of the loudest to protest against the Embargo Act of 1807.

America had been making no small profit during the Napoleonic wars that wrecked Europe. By wise federal legislation trade and credit gradually righted, and the neutrality of the United States permitted lucrative intercourse with all the belligerents. But American traders took their risks, and by no means came off scatheless: England and France had established mutual blockades; their ships preyed upon the Yankee blockade-runners, their captains impressed captured American seamen. England by the British Orders in Council, France by the Berlin and Milan decrees, all but put an end to our commerce, and the coup de grace threatened when, in 1807, the United States hoped to save her ships by declaring an embargo on all outgoing shipping. As between England and America, there were accusations and counter-accusations that the other country was not carrying out the provisions of their peace treaty, nor had the old Tory and Whig animosities of the Revolution had time to die; and the whole exasperating state of affairs worked out to a formal declaration of war against England in 1812.

Brewster, in solemn town-meeting assembled, had inveighed thus against the Embargo Act: “That imperious necessity calls upon us loudly to remonstrate” against the embargo laws “as unjust in their nature, unequal in their operation, a cruel infringement of our most precious rights.” In impassioned words she memorialized the General Court: “Whilst the mouth of labor is forbidden to eat, the language of complaint is natural. With ruin at our doors, and poverty staring us in the face, we beseech, conjure and implore your honorable body to obtain a redress of the oppressive grievances under which we suffer.” And Brewster, having thus recorded her protest, felt herself free to join in the sport of evading the new law. It was a boat owned there, captured by a revenue cutter and taken into Provincetown, that was re-captured by the owners who had hurriedly fitted up a packet as a man-of-war, and cleared off for her port of Surinam, while the United States Marshal whistled for any satisfaction he could get.

A more complicated adventure befell two Cape men, Mayo and Hill, who were of the crew of Captain Paine, of Truro. In 1811 they cleared for Mediterranean ports with a cargo of fish, but off the coast of Spain they were boarded and searched by a French corvette, and for some reason Mayo and Hill were taken prisoner and landed in Lisbon. There they were attached to a French force that was to convoy a rich pay train through the enemy country, the most dangerous point of which was a deep defile in the mountains some three miles in length. There a murderous fire was opened upon them from the overhanging cliffs, every officer and all but a handful of men killed, and the rest marched off to a Spanish prison. And among the prisoners were Mayo and Hill who had come through the engagement without a scratch. The Frenchmen were inclined to make game of their Yankee fellow-captives, and something of a race war developed. But Mayo “was, like Miles Standish, small of stature but soon red-hot.” He whipped several “Frenchies,” and offered to fight the lot, an invitation, courteously declined, which left him master of the field. Whether by intrigue or not, Hill was condemned as a spy and marched out to be shot when, in the approved style of romance, a horseman in the nick of time dashed up with a reprieve; and Hill had earned his title to “scape-gallows.” In a few months the two Cape men managed somehow to make their way to Flanders, and, after years crammed with adventure, reached home. “Mr. Mayo,” says Rich who tells the story, “died in good old age, in the peace of Christ, having raised a large family of enterprising boys. Like the patriarch, he saw his children’s children to the fourth generation.”

Captain Isaiah Crowell, of Yarmouth, had successfully run the blockade at Marseilles after the French decrees were in force; and in 1812, knowing that a strict embargo of ninety days, preliminary to war, was imminent, he loaded hastily at Boston with a cargo for Lisbon, cleared for Eastport, where he gave the first news of the embargo, and cleared there for Lisbon. War having been declared, on his return he was captured by an English cruiser, taken into Saint John’s where his ship was condemned, and he was being returned to the United States on the British sloop-of-war Alert when it was captured by the Yankee Essex. But if Crowell lost in this venture, he was to gain by his skill and daring in many another; and he retired from sea with a comfortable fortune, to live out many humdrum years ashore as a bank president and legislator.

When it came to this second war with England, although the United States now proved herself a nation, there was no unanimity of opinion among the people; and as a fact the Americans had been nearly as indignant with their own government for its embargoes as with England and France for their unjust decrees and their seizure of American seamen and ships. Politics seethed hot in New England as elsewhere, and men for or against the war wrangled in high place and low. The majority on the Cape were anti-war. Chatham, remembering old wars and fresh wrongs, addressed the President expressing “the abhorrence of the people to any alliance with France.” Other towns were, at best, lukewarm. Yarmouth never ceased to be bitterly anti-war, and many who had fought devotedly in the Revolution refused to fight now, or only so far as it might be necessary to prevent the invasion of their soil. Yet the county was strongly Federalist, and a powerful minority were able to push through a fine resolution: “It becomes us, in imitation of the patriots of the Revolution, to unite in the common cause of the country, patiently bearing every evil, and cheerfully submitting to those privations which are necessarily incident to a state of war. We consider the war in which we are engaged as just, necessary and unavoidable, and we will support the same with our lives and fortunes.”

The fine old breed of American seamen flocked into the navy, and success on the ocean did much to offset reverses on land. During the first seven months of the war, five hundred British merchantmen were taken; and the Essex, the Constitution, the Wasp had made their kill of English men-of-war. In 1814 Great Britain, relieved from the pressure of continental wars, was ready to turn her full attention to America, Washington was burned, and again a British fleet rendezvoused in Provincetown Harbor and harried the coast of the Cape. A landing party at Wood’s Hole was driven off by the militia; Falmouth, after due notice to remove non-combatants, was bombarded, with considerable loss to buildings and salt-works, but none to life. The contention had been that Falmouth had been annoying British ships with her cannon which Captain Weston Jenkins, the Yankee commander, had thereupon dared the British to come and get. The determined attitude of his militia seems to have discouraged any landing and the British withdrew without their cannon. Several months later Falmouth was to have her revenge. Captain Jenkins, with thirty-two volunteers, set sail in the sloop Two Friends for Tarpaulin Cove, Wood’s Hole, where H.M.S. Retaliation lay at anchor. Brought to by a shot from the ship, Jenkins concealed all but two or three of his men to encourage a boarding party of the enemy. This it was easy to overcome; whereupon he trained his guns upon the ship, overcame all resistance, and returned in triumph to Falmouth with the Retaliation, its crew of twelve men, its plunder, and two Yankee prisoners.

Meantime Yankee merchantmen were running the blockade with even more zest than they had enjoyed in evading their own embargo. At Hyannis, the Kutuzoff, with a full cargo of cotton and rice, came bowling into port followed close by a British privateer-schooner. The cargo safe landed, one hundred militia gathered to repel possible invasion and trained a four-pounder on the enemy who, after an unsuccessful attempt to destroy a beached British prize, prudently withdrew. At Hyannis, again the Yankee landed “upwards of a hundred packages of dry goods”; other boats, without benefit of revenue officers, landed stores of spirits and wine and other products from the South. Coasting vessels tried to keep up a desultory trade with Boston, though Boston was so thoroughly blockaded it was easier to make the run to New York. Fleets of whaleboats followed the old route that Bradford and De Rasieres had used, by way of Sandwich and Manomet, and so, on, hugging the shores of southern New England to their destination. Two Eastham captains, safely landing a whale-boat cargo of rye at Boston, were encouraged by success to exchange for a larger boat and cargo for the homeward voyage. At the Gurnet, however, they were brought to by a “pink-stern” schooner that was masquerading as a fisherman, but proved to belong to H.M.S. Spencer. One captain was sent to Boston for three hundred dollars ransom of their boat; the other, Mayo, was retained aboard the prize as pilot, and orders given him to cruise about the bay. In a stiff gale Mayo counselled taking shelter in the lee of Billingsgate Point, forthwith grounded the schooner on the Eastham flats, quieted criticism with assurance that they would soon be floating over the bar into the safety of inner waters, and advised the officers to go below that their number might not excite suspicion on shore. He had previously secured two pistols for himself and provided for the helplessness of the crew by giving them a gimlet to tap a barrel of rum. He then threw all available firearms overboard, and, when the officers presented themselves in alarm as the boat canted with the receding tide, held them off with his pistols, coolly walked ashore over the sands, and roused the militia who took boat and crew as prize. The crew, later, was allowed to escape to their frigate and the boat was awarded to Captain Mayo, who released it to its owners for two hundred dollars. But the town was not to come off so easily in the affair : for the British commander, in reprisal for the indignity to his men, threatened to destroy boats, buildings, and salt-works, if twelve hundred dollars were not forthcoming as the price of immunity and as recompense for the prisoners’ baggage. The town fathers decided to pay the sum, and made no such bad bargain as their receipt promised to hold Eastham scatheless for the duration of the war.

Brewster, prudently, chose a like alternative, although here the price was raised to four thousand dollars. An emergency town meeting was held in the church to consider the question, scouts sent out to neighboring towns to sound opinion as to the likelihood of help in resisting the demand, the artillery commander directed to “engage horses to be in readiness for the ordnance; and there being a deficiency in that branch of the service a committee should ascertain how many exempts from forty-five to sixty in each school district could be brought to enlist therein.” The scouts returning with the disheartening news “that the town of Brewster can make no dependence on any of our neighbors for assistance in our alarming and distressed situation,” it was decided to employ arbiters rather than ordnance, and that “the committee of safety who went on board his B.M. Spencer, go again this night and make the best terms possible with Com. Ragget.” Ragget held to his demand, and the committee, though they “used their best endeavors,” “could not obtain the abatement of a dollar,” the sum to be paid in specie in two weeks’ time. The tribute money was borrowed, and to reimburse the lenders a tax levied on “salt-works, buildings of every description, and vessels owned in this town of every description frequenting, or lying on, the shore.” It is interesting that the sixty-five irreconcilable alien residents who had adhered to the jurisdiction of Harwich managed to evade their share of the tax, although their property was thus secured from the British guns. The faithful of Brewster bore the burden none too willingly one may guess: three years later they petitioned the legislature to refund the sum paid “Rd. Ragget, Esq. as a contribution,” but received no redress. And when, as a crowning wrong, they were upbraided by fireside patriots for paying tribute to the enemy, they had the valid excuse that since Government and neighbors had left them to fend for themselves, they were justified in saving the town.

Orleans, of bolder kidney, it would seem, rejected a like demand, and repulsed several landing parties. It may be said that the village of Orleans lay inland at a safer distance from ship’s guns. In December the British frigate Newcastle ran ashore near Orleans, and, floated with some difficulty, sent a four-oared barge into Rock Harbor and captured therein a schooner and three sloops, two of which, being aground, were fired but were saved by the natives. Prize crews were put aboard the other sloop and the schooner, and anchor weighed for Province-town. But the schooner, under command of a Yankee pilot who emulated the example of Captain Mayo, of Eastham, ran her ashore on the Yarmouth flats, and the crew were sent prisoners to Salem. Mean-time the Orleans militia had driven off the landing force; and sixty years later the surviving heroes or their widows received a bounty of one hundred and sixty acres of public land for their prowess at “the battle of Orleans.” Boat after boat in the bay was taken by the British, and usually released after the captors had replenished their stores from the cargoes. The Two Friends of Provincetown, taken off Gloucester, was sent to Nova Scotia, as, also, was the Victory of Yarmouth. But the master of the Victory saved his captor, the Leander, from being wrecked on some dangerous shoals and received as reward an order on the Governor of Halifax for his schooner and a safe-conduct home for himself and his crew.

On the other side of the account, many Cape Cod captains made successful ventures in privateering. Captain Reuben Rich, of Wellfleet, captured an East Indiaman on the first day out, and cleared seventeen thousand dollars for his share in the transaction; men from Brewster, Truro, Eastham likewise made satisfactory cruises under letters of marque. Cape Cod fishermen served in these privateers and in the navy, and sometimes were captured, and many a man from Cape Cod was familiar with the interior of Dartmoor Prison. The last survivor of them, at Truro, lived well into the opening of a new era, and died in 1878 at the ripe age of ninety. Two Harwich men were in the fight between the Constitution and Guerriere, and no doubt could sing with gusto :

“You thought our frigates were but few, And Yankees could not fight, Until bold Hull the Guerriere took, And banished her from sight.


“Ye parliaments of England, ye Lords and Commons too, Consider well what you’re about and what you mean to do; You are now at war with Yankee boys, and soon you’ll rue the day You roused the sons of Liberty in North America.”

The “sons of Liberty,” although consecrated by no such spirit as won the war for independence, had considerable ground for exultation.

But British ships dominated Cape Cod Bay, and the flagship, anchored off Truro, sometimes used the old mill on Mill Hill for a target. On such occasions, says Rich, the inhabitants preferred the eastern side of the hill. Again British seamen used Provincetown as their own, and, individually, established friendly relations ashore; officers often landed to buy fresh provisions for which they paid hard British gold to the considerable profit of the natives; and although some timid farmers kept their cattle in the woods, there is no record of any looting. Mr. Rich remembers an old lady who confessed the girls liked to watch the British barges come in; another recalls that on the way from school one day with a bevy of her mates, they encountered a squad of the British, and making as if to turn aside, were accosted gallantly by the officer. “Don’t leave the road, ladies,” cried he, touching his cap, “we won’t harm you.” It is probable that more than once youth and bright eyes managed some amelioration of the rigors of war.

It was a futile war, growing out of old animosities at home and the great Napoleonic conflicts overseas, and all were ready for peace when it came about through the Treaty of Ghent in December, 1814. Yet the war had served Americans well by clearing obstacles in the way of a further development of trade, which again leaped forward with the building of the clipper ships that beat the lumbering East Indiamen on the oceans of the world, and were ready for the swift voyages around the Horn to the gold-fields of the Pacific. For America now had a navy: in the years between the Revolution and the Embargo War, our growing trade, unprotected as it was then, had been at the mercy not only of the European belligerents, but of the Mediterranean corsairs and pirates. For many years regular tribute was paid the Barbary States to buy exemption from attack; and even so it was no unusual thing for offerings to be asked of a Sunday in some Cape Cod meeting-house to defray the ransom of a sailor captured by the Barbary pirates. It was not until after the War of 1812 that the nuisance was stopped by sending a squadron to the Mediterranean under Decatur, when the Dey of Algiers was compelled to a treaty forbidding his profitable exaction of tribute, and Tunis and Tripoli promised to hold our commerce exempt from the depredations of the corsairs.