While researching the War of 1812 naval battle between HMS Boxer and U.S. Enterprise, I came upon references to a Maine-built privateer that had a distinguished war service record, but which also mysteriously disappeared at sea. Not only that, but it seems that the same ship was somehow spotted again off and on for the next several decades. A ghost ship? You decide.

The wooden-hulled Dash was a topsail schooner built in 1813 in Freeport at a place called Porter’s Landing. Another source says it was a 222-ton brig. An etching of the Dash refers to its brigantine rig.

Pictured is an etching of an infamous Maine privateer, the brigantine rigged Dash. Courtest of the Freeport Historical Society

 

If so, it would have carried four sails on its foremast, one square sail on its main mast, and a fore-and-aft sail with gaff behind the fore. With large staysails and three jibs, its spanker boom would have projected far beyond its stern, giving it much more speed and maneuverability. This most likely was similar to the rig of the famous War of 1812 privateer Prince de Neufchatel.

Dash was owned by brothers William and Samuel Porter, prominent merchants. William was from Portland and Samuel lived in Freeport. Another source says it was Samuel and a Seward Porter and that William came on later as a co-owner.

Dash was built for speed, and it handily broke through the suffocating British blockade of New England at least three times with successful runs to the West Indies, under John Porter, younger brother to the owners. They carried lumber to Port au Prince, Bermuda and the Carolinas and then returned to Portland with valuable cargoes of sugar and coffee.

It is not clear whether Dash operated as a privateer or blockade runner at that time. Perhaps both. Regardless, with the outbreak of war and the British Navy stifling commerce along the coast, many ship owners turned to privateering, a form of legalized piracy. People at the time referred to privateers as the militia of the sea.

Pictured is a Coast Guard Brig in War of 1812. National Archives

So, at some point, it was decided to convert Dash into a privateer. Maine privateering was rough and ready, the men who answered the call were often young and rowdy. It was said they were just as likely to raid your chicken coop as they were to board an enemy British merchantman.

But it was the promise of prize money that attracted most Mainers to the enterprise. Their task was to detain, seize, and take enemy vessels, their crews, and their goods. A Maine farm boy could do quite well for himself if his ship was fast and well handled. More on Maine privateers later!

A War of 1812 Letter of Marque for privateering. Image in Public Domain

In fall of 1814, shortly after Washington, D.C., was burned by invading British forces, Dash was commissioned a privateer by President James Madison. Another source says it was issued in June 1812, which is more likely, as it would have made the schooner a privateer for three years rather than less than one.

During conversion, its mainmast was modified to carry more sail and a mixture of tallow and soap applied to its hull to reduce weeds and barnacles that could slow its speed in the water. Cannon were also brought aboard, many from the Freeport area.

Since cannon were scarce in wartime, Dash was fitted out as a “Hawk nest.” That meant it carried 16 cannon, plus another 10 fake ones made of wood. The sight of so many cannon was to further intimidate the enemy. Those fake wooden cannon were often called “Quaker” guns.

Dash and crew headed for Atlantic waters and British prizes. In the next few years, at least 14 ships were captured by the privateer; another source says 11. Edwin Killeran, William Cammett and George Bacon were three of Dash’s captains on those voyages.

One source says Dash sallied forth with a 60-man crew of young men from Freeport. Other records indicate the crew size fluctuated between a high of 45 and a low of 25 on seven different voyages; another source says it was 15 voyages.

Its speed and maneuverability made Dash a fearsome predator in New England waters. All sources agree Dash was good or lucky, perhaps both. All its voyages appeared to have suffered no loss of life and only minimal damage to the vessel.

They ransomed one of the prizes and made cartels of three. In October 1814, they captured British 44-ton privateer Thinks I to Myself of two guns and a 20-man crew and turned it into an American privateer commanded by Capt. Smith N. Cobb. During that battle, Dash was under command of Lt. John Porter with a 57-man crew and only five guns.

Dash’s luck ran out on a bitterly cold day in January 1815 on its sixteenth (or eighth) voyage out of Portland. Its captain was still John Porter, who had been commissioned 1st Lieutenant on November 7, 1814.

A story goes that before they departed, Porter lingered to say good-bye to his newly wedded wife. It supposedly took two firings of a signal gun to get him to finally head to the ship. Premonition? Who knows? Another source states locals saw a flock of bluebirds following the ship as it departed — an omen of an impending storm?

In concert with another privateer named Chamberlain, the two armed vessels sailed into the Gulf of Maine. One source states they engaged in a race of speed. After two days at sea, weather turned horrible, and Dash’s superior speed soon outpaced that of Chamberlain and the faster vessel disappeared into stormy seas.

The two ships lost sight of each other, and Dash was never heard from again. It is thought they may have foundered in a storm or perhaps ran aground at Georges Bank or Sable Island. One source simply states it was lost at sea in a snowstorm 1815.

A story goes that the night of the storm, friends trying to comfort Capt. Porter’s wife said the name of the ship, just as a fireplace tile in the empty parlor fell with a crash. A sign of the tragedy?

Months after its disappearance, Dash was said to have been seen in Casco Bay by local fisherman. The privateer appeared to be headed back to Freeport. The fishermen reported having clearly seen the schooner’s name Dash on its bow.

It had appeared seemingly out of nowhere from a thick fog bank. Dash quickly passed by the fishermen making good speed, even though there was little wind at the time. It was on a direct course for Freeport. They lost sight of it when the schooner slipped into another fog bank. But the vessel never arrived.

Ever since, sightings of the ghost privateer are sometimes reported, often in batches. The schooner usually appears out of the fog, many times with little or no wind blowing, and always headed in the direction of Freeport. Witnesses report seeing Dash crewmen at the bow, all looking toward Freeport.

In August 1942 during World War II, an unidentified ship in foggy Casco Bay suddenly appeared on radar. It was headed toward Freeport. Sirens sounded and wartime security forces were scrambled, including HMS Moidore. When the military converged on the area, witnesses reported seeing a 19th century sailing ship slipping in and out of thick fog.

Moving swiftly in the calm air, the vessel appeared to be on a course for Freeport. Before military forces could converge on the intruder, it disappeared once more into a fog bank, not to reappear.

A legend has grown along with the Dash sightings that the schooner appears only when one of the family members or descendants of its original crewmen die. Dash is thought to then reappear to maybe transport them to the hereafter.

Foggy Casco Bay Courtesy of Nadia Bee

So next time you are at Casco Bay on a foggy day, keep a sharp eye out for a sailing ship heading to Freeport. It just might be the War of 1812 Maine privateer Dash.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.