In 1740, normally temperate Ireland felt the bite of the Ice Age. The River Shannon froze 18 inches deep. Potatoes were locked in the ground and disease spread across the land. Great Britain, which controlled all of Ireland at the time, was at war with France and Spain. This might seem remote from mid-coast Maine, but a shipwreck ties these places and their people together.
In Northern Ireland, Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had been “planted” there by the ruling English hierarchy in the 1600s were being persecuted for their “radical” views. Although they were Protestant, still they could not hold public office or own land and their marriages were not officially recognized. Resenting the English landowners and government policies that excluded them, they sought a better life.
“God is the master of the Grand Design,” they agreed. Unlike their Catholic neighbors, they had the means and zealous theology that would allow them to pursue their beliefs.
Their Grand Design was to head for the American colonies, bringing these expatriates and their possessions to a new land for a fresh start. Pennsylvania was their destination, but caught in a gale, they were forced way off course to the east. Their ship, the MARTHA & ELIZA, was wrecked on Grand Manan Island. Despite gruesome hardship, members of the party survived. It’s a tale of religious zeal, greed and a generous act by members of the Passamaquoddy tribe.
This seemingly implausible story has evolved into a research project for Julia Lane of Round Pond, a folk musician who, with her husband and co-performer Fred Gosbee, form the duo Castlebay. They specialize in Celtic music and the folk music of Maine. Together they have traveled to Ireland and Scotland to play music, learn and explore their musical and personal roots. In doing so they came across the gripping story of the Grand Design. Lane’s own family roots in Midcoast Maine go back to 1729.
While combing through local histories for interesting stories, Lane came across the account of the Grand Design in the 1853 Annals of the Town of Warren, by historian Cyrus Eaton. Eaton may have been a little lax in his research. He placed the wreck on Mount Desert Island, and called the ship THE GRAND DESIGN, when in fact that was the name of the mission. His account tells of the ordeal and miraculous survival of Isabel Galloway Gamble and her infant son.
As Lane visited archives and museums in search of details, it became clear that Eaton and other historians had failed to undertake original research, instead simply repeating and existing legend. Several books subsequently published include accounts of the event and they repeated Eaton’s story. So common was this erroneous version of events that a monument was erected the early 20th century in Acadia National Park, purportedly marking the site of the wreck. (The National Park Service has since acknowledged that it goofed, and has removed the memorial.)
A visit to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport yielded Lane a transcript of a 1798 account of a seemingly identical shipwreck written by survivor Sarah Porterfield at the age of 76. The details were remarkably similar to Eaton’s account, but with more eyewitness evidence, and the name of the ship’s captain, Captain Rowan. This account was also published in Reverend Henry White’s 1841 History of New England.
Strangely, Sarah never mentions Isabel Galloway, the name of the ship, or even her own maiden name. Intrigued, Lane undertook some genealogical research with the few existing names, on the Internet. Within a few weeks, she received a message from a survivor’s descendent in North Carolina who gave her a copy of a document from the Massachusetts colonial archives. Maine was part of Massachusetts in 1741, and a complaint was lodged against a certain negligent captain. The details in the complaint were identical to the other two accounts with the addition of the actual name of the ship, the MARTHA & ELIZA, and verified its location at Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy.
Lane visited the island last year, partly to get a sense of the place, but also seeking local knowledge of the story. In Washington County, she met with Passamaquoddy tribal members and discussed the story with them. In September, with a couple of grants in hand, Lane spent 10 days researching the story in Northern Ireland. There, she was able to piece together the cultural context of the emigration, as well as more details about the ship’s ruthless captain.
Early records show that the Irish expatriates’ ship sailed from Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on July 28, 1741, bound for Newcastle, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River. Relatives had already settled there, and awaited many of these well-to-do passengers. The MARTHA & ELIZA was known as a “snow,” a 90-foot, two-misted bark, commonly used to transport passengers and goods from Ireland to the colonies. The boat must have been severely overloaded with some 200 paying passengers. The captain was Matthew Rowen, a scoundrel bearing much of the blame for those who didn’t survive. At the time, England was at war with France and no ships were venturing into the North Atlantic for fear of piracy and its stepchild, the privateer. Anyone seeking passage would have had to pay an exorbitant amount for a private contract. As a result of this business being undercover, there is no official record for the voyage of the Martha &Eliza, nor is there a passenger list.
Four weeks into the journey, the MARTHA & ELIZA was dismasted in a hurricane. The ship drifted around the north Atlantic for several weeks during which time the captain lost his bearings. Fever swept through those on board, as well as starvation, and many passengers died. At one point, a passing vessel, also in distress from the storm and low supplies, provided the MARTHA & ELIZA with biscuits and water. On Oct. 28the crippled ship, her human cargo severely debilitated, finally drifted ashore among the islands around Grand Manan, fabled in ship’s lore as the site of more than 250 shipwrecks, according to Eric Allaby, an island historian.
After evacuating the passengers from the disabled ship and dispersing them in groups on three small islands, with no provisions, Captain Rowan and his crew reportedly sailed in the ship’s long boat to Fort Frederick at Pemaquid, where they “tarried.” Tarried apparently translates into heavy drinking. As for the passengers, they were left to fend for themselves, creating rude shelters from parts of the derelict ship and eating shellfish and dulse. There were, historically, no mammals on the island and birds would have departed on their southward migration by this time. Some 35 men headed for the mainland to seek help and were never heard from again.
Several weeks later, at the end of November, the crew returned in a small sloop and schooner to plunder the ship. Apparently, Rowan wanted the valuable cargo but felt no responsibility to save the lives of his passengers. The complaint in the Massachusetts archives states that, “At the time the sloop and schooner came for us, the hands aboard — our mate and others — for reasons best known to themselves, were quite unwilling to land or search for these, though we had seen them that very day on the shore searching for food and eating rockweed, and so left them. Of these we can give no further account.”
The survivors asked for help: “Now, besides these already mentioned that came first aboard the vessel at Londonderry, there is but 48 of us know. In brief, many died at sea and many after we came to land, the corps [corpses]of which lie many of them on the shore, through weakness we were not able to interr them.” The rescue vessel took 48 people to Pleasant Point in Cushing, and Captain Rowan and his henchmen stripped survivors of whatever money and possessions they still had, as payment for their rescue. The complaint continues saying that even some of their clothes were taken, “to leave us almost naked.”
But the Cushing residents, many of whom had come from Northern Ireland themselves, were warm and generous to the new arrivals. It being winter, however, they couldn’t support 48 newcomers for long, so they sent an appeal to provincial officials, signed by Alexander Campbell and William Lunnen. The letter clearly informed them of Rowen’s abuses, and the Massachusetts House of Representatives wasted no time in authorizing provisions for the survivors. A treasurer for Massachusetts Bay Colony reported 250 pounds spent for “sundry provisions sent in the County Sloop to the poor sufferers that were cast ashore at St. George.”
There is no record that Massachusetts ever sent the promised relief to the survivors, or that it sought to bring Captain Rowen to justice. Thirteen years later, Rowen turns up as governor of North Carolina.
The remaining passengers were left to find what subsistence they could on the winter shores of Grand Manan. Sarah Porterfield, who in 1798 wrote her autobiographical account, was rescued with her sister in late December. She believed they were the last remaining castaways.
The next spring, Passamaquoddy tribal members came to Grand Manan for their annual spring harvest of birds’ eggs, and to tend graves of their ancestors. In a strange coincidence, the name “Manan” is linked to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and to the Celtic god of the sea, Mannanan. The Passamaquoddy story of the origin of the island tells how it was formed when an important beneficent female entity, Dawn, daughter of sea and sky, was chased out to sea by wolves and transformed into a land mass. The remaining castaways were all women, their husbands having failed during the merciless winter. Lane believes the native people’s encounter with a group of foreign women in this unlikely place may have prompted them to overlook the fact that these women were members of the English colonies and sworn enemies to them and their French allies.
In what Lane calls an extraordinary act of compassion,
Passamaquoddy tribal members apparently took letters from the abandoned survivors of the island shipwreck to St.George, Maine, paddling 100 miles onbehalf of the stranded Irish emigrants. The letter they delivered finally brought about the rescue of the remaining stranded passengers, including Isabel Galloway and her infant. The child’s father had died, and Isabel soon married Warren farmer Archibald Gamble, with whom she had more children. The surviving infant, Isabel’s son Robert Galloway, grew to boyhood but was lost at sea at age 17. Lane said there may be Gamble descendants in the area today, as well as descendants of other survivors. Isabel is said to have given tribal members a warm welcome in Warren, unlike neighbors who considered them threatening savages.
Eventually, Lane visited the weedy grave of Isabel Galloway Gamble in the old Warren burial ground beside the St.George River. Standing there, she felt the pull of a tale she thought needed re-telling, of a tale that could inspire a program combining music, history and literature into a compelling whole that could be presented to schools and other groups in a participatory format. It seemed a perfect vehicle for teaching the early history of Midcoast Maine and for bringing awareness to an ongoingsocio-political conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as revealing a more positive view of some relations between colonists and the First Nations.
Julia Lane can be contacted at 207-529-5438 or by firstname.lastname@example.org.