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.
Maj. Benjamin Church landed a small force of English soldiers at the foot of what’s now India Street in May of 1692. There, he found the burnt remnants of what used to be a town and wooden fort.
Not far away, he discovered a heap of sun-bleached human bones. The decaying pile was the only memorial for some 200 people massacred there, at the Battle of Fort Loyal, two years earlier. Church and his men buried the bones but nobody knows where.
The Battle of Fort Loyal, fought between the English and combined French and Native American forces, is a brutal bit of Portland history. It happened 327 years ago this week, on May 20, 1690.
The French and English had already been at open war in Maine for two years. Local Native Americans generally sided with the French. Church and his men had repulsed a Native attack on Portland — then called Casco — in 1688. Afterwards, his superiors recalled him to Boston. A flurry of political intrigue ensued and he remained there. That left Maine totally unprotected.
The French, based in Quebec, took notice. They sent a force south, toward Portland, in January 1690. They raided towns along the way and gained Native support. When they gathered at Merrymeeting Bay in the spring, they numbered 500 fighting men.
Hearing the news, terrified settlers around Portland abandoned their farms. They took refuge inside Fort Loyal’s wooden stockade walls. Of the 200 people inside, only about 70 were men of fighting age — and only a few were actual soldiers.
The French and Native American forces paddled south from the New Meadows River. They came in a fleet of canoes, landing on Munjoy Hill in May. After a brief skirmish outside the walls, they laid siege to the fort on May 16.
A continuous firefight ensued. The French and Natives torched the town. The English wasted ammunition trying to pick them off at too great a distance.
After four days, on May 20, the attackers rolled a burning ox cart up a trench, to the fort’s flammable walls. That did it. The English agreed to talk about surrender.
Accounts differ, but the English claim the French promised to let them flee south if they gave up. The French don’t mention that detail in their written histories of the event.
In any case, the English surrendered. Then, a carnival of death ensued. The French and Natives bludgeoned, shot and stabbed almost everyone. Neither women, children or wounded men were spared. Out of 200, only five survived. The victors marched their prisoners to Quebec for ransom.
The dead were left to rot in the open. Two years later, Church and his men finally came back. They buried the bones and took Fort Loyal’s rusting cannons back to Massachusetts. They did not return.
For a while, Portland ceased to exist. It was a wilderness for 26 years before any white settlers dared come back.
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.