This is why the British burned Portland

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

The British burned Portland in October, 1775. That’s pretty well known around these parts. What’s less known is why they did it.

Chief among the reasons was a short, thick militia man with a stutter named Col. Samuel Thompson. He started it all 242 years ago this week, on May 9, 1775.

That spring, Portland, then called Falmouth, was a divided town. Many of its citizens supported the rebels further south. They’d already defeated the British at Lexington and Concord two weeks earlier. But a sizable chunk of the population remained loyal to the crown, too.

Capt. Henry Mowat. Image courtesy of aboutorkney.com.

Capt. Henry Mowat. Image courtesy of aboutorkney.com.

The loyalists, called tories, included a man named Capt. Thomas Coulson. He was selling pine trees to the British navy. Protecting that operation was Capt. Henry Mowat of the HMS Canceaux.

Thompson wanted to capture the Canceaux, thinking it might jumpstart the revolution in these parts. On May 8, he landed 50 militia men on Sandy Point, at the foot of Munjoy Hill. They camped that night in a stand of trees.

About 1 p.m. the following day, it was if an occult hand intervened on their behalf. They spied Mowat, the ship’s surgeon and a local minister land not far from their hiding place. Thompson’s men immediately snatched the party as they walked up the hill. They were then marched to a local tavern and held as prisoners.

Word of what happened spread fast. Community leaders begged Thompson to return Mowat to his ship. The Canceaux’s second in command threatened to bombard the city if he didn’t.

Thompson reportedly said, “F-f-fire away. F-f-fire away. For every gun you fire, I will cut off a joint.”

Militia men, eager for a fight, poured in from surrounding towns. Before long, more than 600 arrived to back up Thompson. The Canceaux fired two warning shots, frightening the residents of the highly flammable town. The situation looked dire.

Then, the Canceaux threatened to blockade the harbor. This finally convinced Thompson to parole his prisoners. General mayhem continued for some days, though. Tory houses were looted and drunken militiamen fired their muskets into the Canceaux’s hull. Eventually, everyone simmered down and the ship sailed away.

But it came back in October.

A Painted version of the map of Falmouth Neck as it was when destroyed by Mowat October 18, 1775. The map originally was created in 1850 and published by Bailey & Noyes of Portland.This image is Maine Memory Network item number 16128.

A Painted version of the map of Falmouth Neck as it was when destroyed by Mowat October 18, 1775. The map originally was created in 1850 and published by Bailey & Noyes of Portland.This image is Maine Memory Network item number 16128.

When the ship arrived back in port, Mowat gave everyone two hours to get out of town. Then, he bombarded the city for 12 hours and sent men ashore to torch what was left. Mowat said he was acting under orders from his superiors. Many people believed he was getting revenge. Others blamed Thompson.

In October, I’ll tell you more about the burning of the town.

Note: If you want to know more about Col. Samuel Thompson and the burning of Portland, pick up a copy of William Lemke’s excellent book “The Wild, Wild East.”

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.