Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Letter to Mr. William Blake

Dear Mr. Blake,

     Undoubtedly, you might be amazed that someone living in the city of Portland, in the year 2016 would be addressing a letter to you, a gentleman born 242 years ago.  I hope you would be pleased to know that there are still a number of men and women who can trace their lineage to that gentleman, Jasper Blake and his wife Deborah Dalton Blake; and to  their son John and his wife Francis Blake.  It was this John and Frances  who gave birth to your own grandfather, Jasper Blake. It was this Jasper who settled in the Back Cove area about 1737, and purchased property that was ultimately divided and farmed  by many members of the Blake family, including yourself,  your brothers, sisters,  and their children.

     I mention this because it was necessary, this year, to find and locate any living relatives of yours in order to restore to you, an honor, I have no doubt, you deserve, for your patriotism during the War of 1812;  a contentious and difficult period in the history of Portland, in the state of Maine, and in our very young Nation.  

     Would you be surprised to know that your military records of service and that of your fellow patriots are  preserved at the National Archives in Washington, DC?  Here is a copy of them attesting to your service.

     I imagine you might be pleased to learn that I received a letter from Col. Thomas W. Frank, a physician stationed in Germany, in the Armed Forces,  who came forward,  and offered to write a letter to be  sent to the National Archives in Washington, DC so that a memorial marker could be obtained and placed in the cemetery where you were laid to rest so long ago.   Dr. Frank is a distant relative by marriage.  His 4th great Aunt was Sarah Frank who married your older brother, James who, I understand,  also served in this same conflict. 

     Over the last several years, eight such memorial markers have been restored and dedicated to the memory of men from the Back Cove and East Deering Village, patriots of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, including your nephew Samuel Blake.  We hope to dedicate the 9th in your honor during the fall of this year.

     Some may wonder about the brevity of your service, which in no way diminishes its importance, or reflects the events which led to the decision to engage in yet another conflict with the powerful British monarchy, less than forty years after the Revolutionary War.  Only citizens living at this time, could fully understand what the threat of an invasion by the British meant for the city of Portland and the countryside.  I'm sure that people who lived through the Revolution were constantly in fear of another devastating invasion which could destroy the city again, as had happened in 1775. 

     I wonder if the older men and women who had survived the great war for independence, and who, remembered the burning of the homes and port, shared their anxiety?  It must have been disconcerting to witness the divisiveness between the political parties of the day with many supporting the war, while others secretly spoke of seceding from the union. 

      I believe that after the Revolution, the district of Maine, particularly the coastal towns, experienced a resurgence in their economy, and that many new people came to settle in the region. Portland and the New England states enjoyed growth in shipping and trade with the West Indies because of their neutral status   Many people enjoyed peace and prosperity.  

     Unfortunately, this was short lived as England and France engaged in war.  And after attempts by the government to secure neutrality, and in the hope of averting war, President Jefferson imposed the Embargo of 1807.  I have learned that this was the year of your first wife Lucy's death, having only been married for two years.  It must have been a particularly painful time for you.

     What were your thoughts when witnessing the effects of the Embargo on your neighbors and friends?  The diary of the Rev. Samuel Deane, well preserved to this day, contains an account., as does the Memoir of the Rev. Dr. Payson:

The elements of prosperity, being entirely commercial, had been struck down and prostrated; the largest mercantile houses had failed; their vessels were decaying in the docks; the grass was growing upon the wharves, and universal bankruptcy seemed the doom of the place.

The prospect of war has produced here such a scene of wretchedness as I never before witnessed.  A large number of the most wealthy merchants have already failed, and numbers more are daily following, so that we are threatened with universal bankruptcy.  Two failures alone have thrown at least three hundred persons, besides sailors, out of employ;  you may hence conceive, in some measure, the distress which the whole number must occasion.  The poor house is already full, and hundreds yet to be provided for, who have depended on their own labor for their daily bread, and who have neither the means of supporting themselves here, nor of removing into the country.  Many who have been brought up in affluence, are now depending on the cold courtesy of creditors for a protection from the inclemency of the season***   If these times continue, nine tenths of the people here will be scattered to the four winds.
Letter to his father: Memoirs 1. 142

     Today, many accounts of the War of 1812; its causes and conclusions have been studied by scholars and historians.  For those living in the midst of the conflict, however, it must have been difficult and confusing.   You were probably aware of the smuggling that took place in other parts of the district, as well as in Portland,  and of the efforts to out-smart government sanctions with stealth and swift sailing vessels. Many in the district turned a blind-eye to the practice.  "People needed to survive!".

     I read that even General William King who commanded the Militia, and was himself the owner of a Privateer, disguised the vessel with shipments under the colors of Sweden. 

      William King would become Maine's 1st Governor when separation from Massachusetts was finally ratified in 1820.

     You were, no doubt, aware that when Napoleon finally abdicated, the British turned its attention to North America to preserve their hold on their Canadian colonies, and that they did invade parts of Maine and take possession of Eastport in 1814.  

     While New England  Federalists opposed entering into a war with Britain,  most of Maine remained loyal to the Republican government. However, many saw the emergence of a full scale engagement as dangerous and Mr. Madison's War; not theirs. Newspapers, some with Federalist leanings and others, Republican proponents, demonstrated that the Nation was divided on the issue. The South and the West pushed for War.  

      Here in the district of Maine, it was evident that Massachusetts Governor Strong was vehemently opposed to the War, and with the governors of the other New England States,  refused to send Troops for aid even when requested by the President of the United States.

  The infamous Hartford Convention became equated with treason,  by some when  war was formally declared in 1812, probably because of the rumors of secession.  Although, I understand that after the War, the Democratic -Republicans adopted some of the Federalist policies, particularly with regard to the United States Navy and defense of the nation.  It would not be until 1814,  that the Governor, upon the pleading by many in Boston and throughout the region, would realize the vulnerability of the whole coast and call out Troops. 

Regional solidarity collapsed in the summer and fall of 1814, as British forces surged down the coast, occupying Machias, Blue Hill, Castine and Belfast, looting Bangor, and setting fore to a Biddeford shipyard.  Residents of Wiscasset expected the village "would be laid in ashes" at any moment, while thousands of militiamen rallied to defend Portland from the expected assault.
"The whole District of Maine is threatened by a raving foe,"  Washington, DC's leading newspaper lamented in October, "and scarcely a soldier of the US troops is there to assist in repelling invasion, although thousands have been enlisted in that part of the country."
Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald, June 24, 2012

     William Willis, an historian of Portland and commentator of the Diaries of the Reverends Thomas Smith and Samuel Deane wrote this:
The time when the Diary of Dr. Deane closes was the darkest day in the war with Great Britain.  The enemy was hovering on the coast with a formidable fleet, which ever and anon looked into our harbor with its blood shot eyes.  The people had transported many of their valuable movables into the country; the town was filled with soldiers; was partially fortified, and the people were under constant apprehension of an attack; or a forced contribution.

A large force was also collected here from the country, in 1814, for the same purpose, Portland then appeared like a camp; breast works were thrown up at the different avenues into town, on which heavy guns were mounted  The old men formed a company of minute men under the command of the veteran Gen. John K. Smith, who served in the army of the Revolution, and who died in 1842 aged, 88.  Other exempts from ordinary military duty also formed companies and held themselves ready for service.  Fortunately, the enemy did nothing more than collect provisions from the neighboring islands and coast, and left the city, then in great agitation, unharmed. 

      The war, and the lack of support from Massachusetts Governor Strong destroyed the  relationship with the Bay State and fueled the separation movement even more than before.  When the War finally ended in February 1815, there was great animosity toward Governor Strong for his failure to defend Maine.  

"Mainers ridiculed him," according to Mr. Woodard, and referred to him in a derisive manner as "Hero of Castine", and some proposed giving him a sword made of soft pine to symbolize "our estimation of the prompt and efficient protection he afforded the District when invaded by the enemy."
     Although I know only a bit of your life story, never-the-less, I am happy to be able to
recognize your service to the people of Portland and the State of Maine during this crucial
 period in history.  I hope you would be pleased to know that there are people living today that value your readiness and willingness to defend the port of Portland as an important and honorable contribution.

Thank you, Mr. Blake, and your fellow patriots who served in the War of 1812.


Before ending this post, I thought I would share something I found in newspapers about the funeral of the two young Commanders who died at the sea battle between the USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer.  It truly speaks to the character of Portlanders.  It is followed by a letter to the citizens of Portland and the great respect and honor they demonstrated toward both men.