This week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by my friend Alex Cain, a historian, college professor, and member of McAlpin’s Corps of Loyal American Volunteers, at Jefferds Tavern, part of the Old York Historical Society. Alex presented information comparing and contrasting the response of Essex and York counties to the “British” Intolerable Acts. I trust he won’t mind me paraphrasing some of the main points (pun intended!) briefly here. At the time both counties, though one is now in Maine, were part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In October of 1774 most citizens were afraid of warfare, which they felt was a foregone conclusion. As a result of the Intolerable Acts, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was formed.
In the Merrimack Valley, citizens were gearing up for war. Haverhill and Methuen formed artillery and minute companies even before the Provincial Congress was formed. New elections were ordered to remove and replace loyalist officers of the militia companies, and minute companies comprised of the younger men (average age 18-25) were formed for rapid deployment in case of emergency. Contrary to what we have all probably been taught in school, these men were NOT untrained, unseasoned farmers who grabbed hunting weapons and routed the King’s army by chance. In fact the militia companies were organized into companies, regiments, and battalions and were well trained, possibly initially with the cumbersome Norfolk drill, and later with the 1764 Crown manual which was more efficient. While the “patriots” did use guerrilla tactics on April 19, they were trained to face the King’s army on a field of battle. More on exactly who trained them, momentarily.
York County responded more slowly. In November of 1774 representatives met in Wells and decided to attempt to pursue “peaceful resolution”. However, along the seacoast there was a general fear of the British navy with, as it turned out, good reason (read Alex’s blog post on the 1775 burning of Falmouth here: “The Church is Also Burnt but Not the Meeting House”). For this reason, less than a month later, realizing that war was likely inevitable, York County began preparation. Biddeford was the first to stockpile ammunition and form a minute company. In early 1775 the town of York ordered a military watch at the harbor. It’s my personal theory (full disclosure- haven’t found an exact reference to it yet) that it was in the vicinity of what is now called “Sentry Hill Road” in York Harbor.
As I mentioned above, military units in what was then Massachusetts Bay Colony emulated the King’s army. In order to maintain enlistments, salaries and expense reimbursement schedules were established. These tended to vary by location and time of year, with higher pay during the farming season. Contrary to myth, citizens were not poorly armed and equipped, as towns took steps to ensure that their minute companies were well prepared with blankets, cartridge boxes, muskets, and ammunition. Companies in MA also sought artillery pieces for defense. People were making and selling powder horns, scabbards, and belting. Bayonets were scarce, and companies were taking steps to acquire them, as they realized that they needed to match the might of the British army.
The militia units were trained by a man named George Marsden, a Grenadier from His Majesty’s 59th regiment. Haverhill was a safe haven for British deserters, and Mr. Marsden had fled Boston during the siege. He was hired first by Andover, Bradford, and Haverhill. He was later hired to train companies in York, Wells, and Pepperell, and then served in a regiment from Maine.
When fighting began on April 19 in Lexington and Concord, towns in the Merrimack Valley were notified approximately 2 hours after the initial incident in Lexington. Towns in York County were not notified until very late that night or the next morning, and they concentrated on protecting the coast. A regiment from Andover could likely have cut off the King’s army at Boston Neck before they made it back into the city. But…as Alex stated, they stopped for lunch.
There was much more information provided, but I won’t steal any more of Alex’s thunder here. Please see his blog Historical Nerdery for further information. Following the lecture, the York docents served soup, corn bread, cider, and cookies colonial style at long wooden tables in front of the fire at Jefferds tavern. They run a fantastic program and I would urge you to visit them. Old York Historical Society