One of the cool things I enjoy about diving in Maine waters is the possibility of coming across something historic, especially from the colonial era. We have found shards of redware, creamware and Delft pottery from colonial days as well as pieces of stoneware Bellarmine jugs. Colonial glass pieces include case and wine bottle shards. Some divers have even found gunflints, musket balls or even a cannonball. Colonial items tend to collect at mouths of rivers as waters wash things down stream into the ocean. Divers in southern Maine and New Hampshire have recovered lots of colonial material in the Piscataqua River.

By far however, the most colonial-related item we come across are pipestems or pipe bowl fragments of clay pipes. Ubiquitous and nearly indestructible, they are the cigarette-butts of the 17th and 18th centuries. Simple and cheap, made of Kaolin clay of Scottish manufacture, they were shipped to tobacco-using colonists by the hundreds of thousands. Smoking was a popular pastime, so clay pipes were used in the settlements, on the waterfront, in Indian trade, aboard ships, on the farms and out on the frontier. In archaeology, we have found them at every colonial site I have worked. As divers, we have found them off Rockland’s South End Beach as well as off Owls Head.

It was with this in mind that we looked into diving around the Fort Point area on Penobscot River. I have long been interested in checking this area out underwater. Such an investigation might be its own chapter in a manuscript I have been working on and off with about the history of Fort Pownal.

Fort Pownal, located at Fort Point on Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs, is a great colonial site, important to Maine’s maritime history, although it does not get as much notice as other colonial forts such as Ticonderoga, Michilimackinac, Louisbourg or even Fort Pentagoet in Castine. More on that fort later!

Built for war, Fort Pownal never fired its guns in anger, its mere presence is what actually ensured its success as well as its demise. It became part of the history and cultural landscape of Maine, Waldo county, Stockton Springs and the Penobscot River, a visual reminder of olden times, the colonial era, Tories versus rebels, Indian trading posts, untamed lands ready to be claimed and developed…a time when Maine was a wild, raw frontier filled with endless forests and possibilities, connected with the rest of the colonies only by the maritime waterway.

The fort falls between two major conflicts of later 18th century America. It was built in the waning days of the French and Indian War when fighting was pretty much over. It was dismantled just days before the outbreak of the American Revolution and then completely destroyed that first summer of the war. Having missed both, it sort of falls between the cracks in an historical sense with regards to those two conflicts. As a result, it is not widely covered in their histories.

Artist rendition of Fort Pownal, based largely on descriptions from Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Martin, who got it from the daughter of the fort’s former commander (from History of the City of Belfast in the State of Maine by Joseph Williamson, v.1, 1880)

Its importance lies in the fact that Fort Pownal opened Midcoast Maine for settlement and development, supplied and supported chiefly by marine access. It acted as a gateway to the interior of the Penobscot River region, north to Quebec as well as points further down east.

At the height of the French and Indian war, Massachusetts planned a series of forts along Maine’s major rivers to end French control there. Fort Halifax at present day Winslow and Fort Western at present day Augusta were built on the Kennebec, both finished in 1754. Focus then shifted further east to the Penobscot. A fort was envisioned for that river region, perhaps where it widened into Penobscot Bay, maybe across from Castine and the ruins of the old French Fort Pentagoet. But it would not be built until 1759, late in the war.

Along the Penobscot River’s west side, there is a large prominent peninsula, today known as Cape Jellison. Old records refer to Mill Pond, where the peninsula joins the mainland, as Illision harbor. Sixteen hundred acres of land extends 4,000 feet out from Cape Jellison. It looks like a finger, pointing directly into the river. Local Penobscot Indians used this feature as a natural carrying ground, calling it Wassaumkeag and surrounding area Aguhasidek, which means otter slides. Colonials referred to it as Wassaumkeag Point, at least until construction of Fort Pownal. Today, the area of fort remains and lighthouse is called Fort Point.

The remains of Fort Pownal are located atop this finger of land. At its narrowest, the neck of this projection is only 1,000 feet wide. The point extends far enough, that the river is constricted to a 6,000-foot stretch of water to its eastern bank. Other than Castine further down river, it can be argued this location is the most strategic along the entire stretch and explains the long interest in its position.

Spit of land off Fort Point, the fort’s wharf would have been to the right out of the main river channel and somewhat protected, with a gentle rise up to the fort (Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom)

The location of the fort was sited atop a prominent bluff on the point’s river-facing southern side, which rises abruptly more than 80 feet above the water. The later Fort Point Lighthouse would be built there. Immediately around the point and sand spit, a gentler slope to the river is found. This made mooring, transfer of supplies and access easier to the interior, and was where fort builders installed a wharf, somewhere between the sand spit and the present-day Fort Point State Park pier and floats.

While Fort Pownal is seen as the namesake and creation of then Massachusetts Governor Thomas Pownall, the idea for such a fortification had first been proposed in April 1756 by earlier Governor William Shirley. Pownall revived the idea in early 1759. A permanent troop garrison on Wasaumkeag Point would eliminate French and Indian access to the coast, keeping them inland. Pownall even wrote to Prime Minister William Pitt extolling the advantages of an outpost on the Penobscot.

Construction plan of Fort Pownal to be built at Penobscot in 1759. (Library of Congress)

Pownall proposed his plans to the Massachusetts legislative assembly, who approved his proposal and resolved to employ 400 men for three months under the governor’s personal command. He was accompanied by Brigadier General Samuel Waldo, hero of the recent capture of Fortress Louisbourg, son of wealthy Boston merchants and proprietor to the Waldo Patent, title to 576,000 acres of land in Maine. Waldo would be struck down and die of apoplexy during the expedition.

Pownall’s officers for the expedition included Brigadier-General Jedidiah Preble of Portland as colonel of troops. Captains for four companies of men were Israel Herrick, James Cargill of Sheepscot, David Bean and Alexander Nickels of Pemaquid. Others included Captain John North of Pemaquid and Reverend John Phillips. There were two Indian interpreters, Lieutenants Joshua Treat and Walter McFarland; the latter having spent two years captive of the Penobscots, when taken prisoner in 1747.

Expedition members would go on to long histories in the area — Joshua Treat was fort armorer for years. Another was Cargill, ironic in that he would be responsible for the fort’s later destruction. There was also Aaron Banks, just turned 21. He and his family lived at Castine for years.

One final member, at least aboard the ship, was 24-year-old naval officer Henry Mowatt, destined to burn Falmouth and erroneously blamed for dismantling Fort Pownal. At the time of the expedition, he had had just two years and 10 months of naval service, as first an able, then a masters’ mate and then finally a midshipman. Many current local family names descend directly from the 305 names of the expedition soldiers, including Bean, Clark, Crawford, Fletcher, French, Green, Herrick, Larrabee, McFarland, McKenney, Martin, Moore, Perkins, Shute, Staples, Thompson, Warren, Wood and Young.

Years later, Revolutionary War veteran Joseph P. Martin left a record of the fort’s description. He had migrated to the area after the war and taken care of the daughter of one of the fort’s commanders. In her later years, widow Mary Goldthwaite Archibald was declared destitute. Martin looked after her and this is likely when he was credited with providing a sketch of the fort as well as a detailed description, no doubt aided by Mary’s memories.

Aerial view of the remains of Fort Pownal on Fort Point, Cape Jellison (from collection of Charles H. Lagerbom)

The fort and adjacent barracks and buildings, including a Truckhouse and a small Episcopal chapel, were all completed by July 1759, although another source says the chapel was built later. It is recorded they finished raising the fort on June 9 and Preble dispensed two barrels of cider to the men. Expedition ships departed for Boston June 17. Preble’s lighter arrived the next day, bringing mail, provisions and women, the wives of officers and men. Coronation Day was celebrated June 22 with the firing of the fort’s cannon and raising three shouts for the King. Provision ships returned on June 29, establishing an ongoing supply connection with Boston. The following day, Preble’s lighter returned and brought his wife as well as more women. Mehitable Bangs Roberts Preble was Jedidiah’s second wife, also her second marriage. On this visit in June 1759, she was four months pregnant with their third child.

The officers and 89 privates had been enrolled April 1, 1759, for the expedition. Their enlistment ended July 16 upon completion of the fort. Many quickly re-enlisted, most chose to permanently locate there after their military service was completed.

A muster roll for soldiers at Fort Pownal shows the company commanded by Captain George Berry. Alexander Nickels of Bristol and Jacob Brown were lieutenants. Joshua Treat was ensign; Benjamin Herrick, Robert Emerson, Moses McKenney, and Zebulon Steward were sergeants. John Davis, Isaac McKenney, Joseph Getchell, and Solomon Larrabee were corporals, while Edward Brown was drummer.
Midcoast Maine was now open for development and settlement. Next: Fort Pownal ghosts, warfare, treasure, and history…

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. 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.

filed under: