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.
Except for the constant drone of highway noise from Interstate 295, Portland’s Deering Oaks Park is a peaceful spot. The city bought the 40-odd acre site from the Deering family in 1879. Since then, it’s been an leaf-shaded, oaken oasis in the middle of a bustling city.
But it wasn’t always so quiet. During King William’s War, it saw a fierce battle between white settlers and the French and their Native American allies. More than a dozen locals died, along with an untold number of French and Natives. The settlers won the day but the skirmish was only a precursor of a full-on massacre to come less than a year later.
The Battle of Deering Oaks began and ended 328 years ago this week, on Sept. 28, 1689.
It was a Wednesday when it started. Native Americans, who’d been massing all summer on Peaks Island, canoed into Back Cove during the night. They killed a farmer named Anthony Brackett and camped in his orchard. His farm stood where the park stands now.
Brackett’s sons ran for their lives and alerted the militia in Fort Loyal at the foot of what’s now India Street. Maj. Benjamin Church led about 160 experienced militiamen up to Congress Street. Then, they marched to Deering Avenue and down the hill to the oaks.
They found a full-blown battle already in progress. Local farmers were dueling a Native American and French force of about 400. Church’s men joined the fray. The battled raged for six hours before the French and Natives withdew. Church won a victory, losing 21 men in the process. Nobody counted the casualties on the other side.
Interestingly, one of the locals in the fight was a preacher named George Burroughs. After the battle, he went back to his hometown of Salem, where it was safer. Three years later, his neighbors hanged him as a witch.
Not long after the Battle of Deering Oaks, military bigwigs in Boston recalled Church and his men. That left Portland unguarded. The French and Native Americans took notice and returned the following May. They were more successful on the second try. They massacred everyone. It took Church two years to come back and bury the dead. Portland was a ghost town for the next decade.
That awful massacre was only the end of a fight that had started the year before, in what’s now a peaceful park. You’d never know it, walking under those big oaks. Try to imagine that bloody scene form long ago when you’re in the park this weekend, buying cukes at the farmers market.
Note: I gleaned a lot of this from “Maine Memories” by Herbert G. Jones,
published in 1940 by Harmon Publishing, Portland, Maine.
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.