THE ROLE OF THACHER'S ISLAND IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
By Associate Harry L. Walen
Thacher's Island, at the tip of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, juts 14 miles from the average coastline; 45 miles away across the opening to Massachusetts Bay is Provincetown, lying inside treacherous Race Point, with its shifting sandbars. Between these points must sail every ship bound to or from the harbors of Gloucester, Manchester, Beverly, Salem, Marblehead, Boston, Plymouth and Provincetown. In stormy weather or in fog, this can be a perilous passage.
The steamer Portland went down with all souls off Race Point in the blizzard of 1898; she possibly was last seen by a lighthouse keeper in the north tower of Thacher's Island as a fleeting glimpse of a great paddle-wheeled ghost ship tossed in the storm. The liner America, bearing President Wilson home from Europe in 1919, barely missed disaster in the heavy fog as she heeded the fog whistle on Thacher's Island at the very last moment. Five hundred or more wrecks are said to lie on the ocean bottom around Cape Ann, which was referred to in a 19th century history of Brunswick, Maine, as the most perilous shoreline on the coast.
Both Cape Ann and Thacher's Island played an important role in the Revolution. The island bears the name of Anthony Thacher. He and his second wife and four children accompanied Walter Avery and his family and other passengers and crew, a total of 23, on a voyage from Ipswich to Marblehead, where Avery was to have been the first pastor. Their little pinnace, the Watch and Wait, a coastal ship operated by Isaac Allerton, left Ipswich in time to run into the most destructive hurricane of the century; on August 15, 1635 she went to pieces on the reefs, with Thacher and his wife the sole survivors. The colonial General Court awarded the island and a financial settlement to Thacher; the island was known as Thacher's Woe. His account of the wreck is a moving document.
From this time on there were frequent petitions from sea captains and from the selectmen for a light on the island. Finally, on April 22, 1771, the Council of the Province authorized a three-man committee to "take the care of building a light-house on
Aerial view of Thachers's Island showing today's 123-food granite towers
Thatcher's (sic) Island, and to report their proceedings to the General Assembly." They reported June 22 that the island had about 80 acres and the owners asked 500 pounds. They were authorized to purchase it and to erect "a light-house or houses, and a convenient house for the keeper." Babson writes in his History of the Town of Gloucester (1860) that the lights went on December 21, 1771. They were probably fueled by whale oil and not efficient according to today's standards; but, with their north-south orientation. gave a valuable assist to the fishing boats and coastal shipping.
The first keeper, appointed December 21. 1771, was a Captain Kirkwood. He lived on the island with his family and two assistants, faithfully tending the lights until the summer of 1775. Since he served under the colonial government, the fact that he was reported to be a Tory, loyal to the Crown, was in his favor.
But the British occupation of Boston and the British fleet's control of the coast, hard enough to bear while King George was nominally the ruler, became intolerable after Concord on April 19 and Bunker Hill (in which so many Cape Ann men were involved) on June 17. There was a strong feeling that Captain Kirkwood and his lights were of greater help to the British fleet than to our smugglers, privateers and fishermen.
Accordingly, following instructions from the Provincial Congress, early in July Dr. Samuel Rogers of Gloucester led his company of minutemen to the island, destroyed the lights, and brought Captain Kirkwood, his family and his assistants back to the mainland. This was the same Samuel Rogers who at the age of 19 had been an assistant surgeon at Louisburg, Canada in 1759; had settled in Gloucester in 1767; who in 1768, forceps in hand, had threatened to pull the teeth, one by one, of the servant of a British customs commissioner, in order to make him tell where the commissioner was hidding; and in 1775 had become an officer in the militia and captain of the company of minutemen mentioned above. Those were traumatic times.
Lying as it does, a half mile east even of Emerson Point, the easternmost shore of Cape Ann, Thacher's Island is the conceptual viewing point of coastal maritime activities. From here one would have seen Captain Lindsay's Falcon, which had been active with the British offshore at Bunker Hill, cruising off the Cape after its unsuccessful foray into Annisquam Harbor to the north on August 5, and on August 8 equally unsuccessfully trying to complete the capture of a ship they had chased into Gloucester Harbor to the south. This action became the Battle of Gloucester, during which Lindsay unsuccessfully tried to set fire to the town; he finally left, with several of his men killed and 35 taken prisoner. And on November 28 Captain Manly's privateer Lee, having sighted the British brig Nancy lying between Thacher's and Straitsmouth islands, captured her. An ordnance vessel, she carried a precious cargo of small arms and ammunition, cannon and a "large brass mortar of new construction" which was christened the "Congress" on its arrival at Washington's camp in Cambridge.
In 1776 the tide of privateering really came in; from then until the end of the war, many coastal vessels and fishing boats were converted. Pringle in his 1892 History of Gloucester lists 23 by name and refers to many others from Newburyport and Salem and smaller craft from Cape Ann. I have found the names of still others. Yet Pringle feels that on the average they were not successful.
One of the first was Yankee Hero, freshly fitted from Newburyport and on her way June 10, 1776, around Cape Ann to Gloucester looking for a crew. On the same day, 20 or so young men from Sandy Bay (Rockport) set out in small boats under the leadership of (military) Captain John Rowe to board and to seize a "clumsily worked" ship far out beyond Thacher's.
This old photo pictures a lighthouse believed to be similar in appearance to the two originally built on Thacher's Island. All of them were put up in 1771.
They joined forces with Yankee Hero, whose (maritime) Captain was named Tracy, to seize their easy prize out toward the horizon. From Thacher's one could have seen the encounter with what turned out to be his Majesty's 36-gun frigate Milford, which waited until they drew nigh before opening gunports and letting them have a broadside. The wind disappeared, so that they could not escape to the coast. They fought bravely until out of ammunition and powder, then used the last of their powder to shoot a crowbar into the Milford's windlass. Taken prisoner, they sailed first for Halifax, but eventually many, including Rowe, were taken to the prison ships in New York, caught and survived the smallpox, and eventually escaped from the hospital on Staten Island.
In 1789 jurisdiction over the lights was transferred to the federal government; they have been so operated ever since with modifications. A fog bell was installed in 1853. In 1861 the government erected two granite towers in place of their wooden ancestors. Through their modern Fresnel lenses the lights reached far to sea, from a height of 168 feet above sea level. Fourkeepers and their families lived in separate houses on the island. A steam-powered fog whistle was installed probably after the turn of the century; at about this time the Coast Guard took over supervision of the island and its navigational aids. In the 1920s radio beacons provided a new navigational aid. In 1932, as an economy measure, and much to the displeasure of the fishermen, the north light was permanently extinguished and the south light was electrified and made to rotate. Age and fire have destroyed several of the buildings.
Today the island sits out there in the Atlantic, flying the easternmost American Flag of Cape Ann. Rockport, set off as a separate town from Gloucester in 1840, in 1888 adopted the twin lights of historic Thacher's as the Town Seal. When the Coast Guard moved out in 1980, retaining only its control over the now automated south light, the Town took a five-year lease of the island, administering it through a Town Committee. Currently the Town Committee has an island-keeper living on the island. Ironically, in 1983 the Coast Guard installed a new radio beacon instrument on the south tower! The Thacher Island Association has done much in cooperation with the commit-tee to improve the recreational resources, including the donation of a landing barge that takes supplies and visitors to the island.
Standing on the shores of the island or in the top of the old north tower, one can imagine the earlier days and see again the actions and seizures offshore. And perhaps one can hear Kirkland's curses as Rogers and his men made Thacher's secure for the patriots.
John J. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, 1860, Procter Bros.
John J. Babson, Notes and Additions, Part First: Early Settlers, 1876
John J. Babson, Second Series. 1891
W. B. Clark, Ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 1964, Washington
Lemuel Gott, History of Rockport, ed. Marshall, 1888
James R. Pringle, History of the Town & City of Gloucester, 1892, pub. by author
Marshall W. S. Swan, Town on Sandy Bay, a History of Rockport, Massachusetts, 1980. Phoenix Publishing