Windham Life and Times – September 20, 2019

Nutfield 300

The Indians who took John Dinsmoor Captive

It is interesting that family oral history can hold up as truth for over three hundred years. Robert Dinsmoor stated that John Dinsmoor had been taken captive by the Penobscot Indians and Colonel Westhbrook’s letters prove that this was actually the case. We know that he was held captive in a village with a fort on “Indian Island” located in the middle of the Penobscot River, across from Old Town, Maine; a place that remains an Indian reservation to this day.

“William Williamson in his History of Maine says, “The fourth Indian war, begun in 1722, and since denominated the Three year’s or Lovewell’s war, was carried on by the natives themselves, principally, against the provincials of New Hampshire, Maine, and Nova-Scotia. As there was at this period a well settled peace, between the English and French crowns, the Canadians durst not take any open part in the controversy, through fear of being charged with violating the treaty. But, they affected to represent the Indians as an independent people, and secretly incited them to drive the English settlers from the frontiers and the reviving plantations. By acts and pleas of exclusive friendship, they had enchained the confidence of the savages, in bonds not easily broken; while the basest passions still lay at the bottom. Stripped of the disguise, the dark designs appeared in bold relief and deformity. Old prejudices and ill will towards the English, were only sleeping embers, even in the calms of peace. The French, having been in possession of the country eastward of the Penobscot, were fully determined either to recover it, or to keep the settlements in perpetual check. By a kind of magic, the rulers of Canada artfully moved the springs behind the curtain; and Rale, la Chase, le Masse, and other Jesuit missionaries, gave ample proof of their skill in political intrigue, as well as that of multiplying converts.”

The eastern tribes were manifestly in a sad dilemma. They were situated between the Colonics of two European nations, often at war with each other, and seldom under the influence of mutual fellowship. In their frequent negotiations, and individual parleys and conversations with the English, they were frank to open their whole hearts. They knew themselves to be ignorant and needy, and to be viewed as a savage race of men. But why, one enquired of them, ‘are you so strongly attached to the French, from whom you can never receive so much benefit as from the English?’ A sachem gravely answered, ‘because the French have taught us to pray unto God, which Englishmen never did.’ A Summary of thoughts and expressions dropped by Indians, at different times, will shew their views.— ‘Frenchmen speak and act in our behalf. They feed us with the good things we need; and they make us presents. They never take away our lands. No, but their kind missionaries come and tell us how to pray, and how to worship the Great Spirit. When the day is darkened by clouds, our French brothers give us counsel. In trade with them, we have good articles, full weight, and free measure.”

In his History of Norridgewock, William Allen states, “… and a comparison of the policy pursued by the French settlers with that of the English colonists, will account for the discrepancy in the statements. The English writers of that day describe the Indians of Maine as ‘the very outcasts of creation, discovering no footsteps of religion, but merely diabolical,’ ‘the veriest ruins of mankind,’ ‘the most sordid and contemptible part of the human species.’ On the other hand, the French Jesuits, who insinuated themselves among the Indians at about the same time, describe them as ‘docile and friendly,’ ‘accessible to the precepts of religion,’ ‘strong in their attachments to their friends, and submissive to the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic faith.’ ” Certainly, John Dinsmoor, would have said that “Captain John,” the mysterious chief who held him captive, was compassionate in releasing him, even though the Penobscot’s and other tribes had slaughtered many of his fellow English settlers. As with most conflict, there were old scores to be settled on both sides, and the English practice of paying large sums for Indian scalps added to the incentive for violence.

“A writer on the Abenaki gives a lucid account of this in, Above the Village, at the head of the rapids of the Kennebec, was a chapel dedicated to the most holy virgin, in which her image in relief demanded the prayers of the savages as they passed upward to the chase; and below, where the waters rested on their quiet level, another chapel stood, dedicated to the guardian angel of the tribe. The women contended with a holy emulation in the embellishment of their sanctuary by all the finery they possessed, and the chapels and the church were illumined by brilliant lights from the wax of the bayberries gathered upon the islands of the sea. Forty youths in cassocks and surplices officiated in performing the solemn functions around the altar. Such was the machinery of the holy office among the rude people of Nanrantsouak; and multitudinous processions, symbolical images, paintings, and mysterious rites were combined to catch the fancy and arrest the eye of the savage neophytes. Every day was introduced by the performance of mass, and the evening was ushered in by prayer in their native tongue, in which their zeal was excited by the chanting and recitation in which they took part, while the frequent exhortations of the father allowed no distraction of their attention, no suspicion of their piety, and no backslidings in their faith.” This evocative image of Indian life with the French was totally wiped out at Norridgewock and Penobscot by the English commanded by Colonial Westbrook.

“The expedition to Penobscot River was revived, and the conduct of it entrusted to that commander. “He left Kennebeck, Feb. 11, at the head of 230 men, and with small vessels and whale-boats, ranged the coast as far eastward as Mount Desert. On their return, they proceeded up Penobscot River; and, March 4, came to anchor, probably in Marsh Bay. From this place, they set out to find the fort; and after five days’ march through the woods; they arrived abreast of several Islands, where the pilot supposed the fort must be. ‘Being obliged here,’ says the Colonel, ‘to make four canoes to ferry from Island to Island; I dispatched 50 men upon discovery, who sent me word on the 9th, that they had found the fort and waited my arrival. I left a guard of 100 men with the provisions and tents, and proceeded with the rest to join the scouting party. On ferrying over, the Indian fort appeared in full view; yet we could not come to it by reason of a swift river, and because the ice at the heads of the islands would not permit the canoes to come around; therefore, we were obliged to make two more, which we ferried over. We left a guard of 40 men on the west side of the river, to facilitate our return, and arrived at the fort, by 6 of the clock in the evening.

This was the place John Dinsmoor was held for a time in captivity and where he was forced to participate in the building of the Indian fort. “It appeared to have been deserted, in the autumn preceding, when the enemy carried away every article and thing, except a few papers. The fort was 70 yards in length, and 50 in breadth, walled with stockades 14 feet in height, and enclosed twenty-three ” well finished wigwams, or as another calls them, ‘houses built regular.’ On the south side, was their chapel, in compass 60 feet by 30, handsomely and well finished, both within and on the outside. A little farther south, was the dwelling house of the priest, which was very commodious.— We set fire to them all, and by sunrise next morning, they were in ashes. We then returned to our nearest guards, thence to our tents; and on our arrival at our transports, we concluded we must have ascended the river about 32 miles. We reached the fort at St. George on the 20th, with the loss of only four men, Rev. Benjamin Gibson and three others, whose bodies after our arrival here, we interred in usual form.’”

I have been really amazed at finding the references to John Dinsmoor in Maine, in the early 1720’s. As a stone mason he may have built stone houses in and around the area of St George. Tantalizing possibilities exist including the stone house built in the 18th century on Mosquito Island. In an e-mail, Leith Smith of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission stated that, “We have done some work on Allen Island (owned by the Wyeth family, outer mouth of the St. George River) and I am convinced that the early house out there was a stone structure as well, dating to the early to mid-18th century.” I also stumbled across a reference to an early stone house known as the “Campbell house” in the St George area that was also constructed of stone. Of course proof of whether John Dinsmoor was involved must be left for further research. At this point, I am truly content and pleased, to have found the proof of John Dinsmoor’s time as an early pioneer in Maine. “Daddy” Dinsmoor is now more than just a legend.

Sources:

  1. Letters of Colonel Thomas Westbrook, and Others, Relative to Indian Affairs in Maine, 1722-26. Communicated by William Blake Trask, A.M., or Dorchester. George Littlefield, Boston Mass.: 1901 https://archive.org/details/lettersofcolonel00tras
  2. Penhallow’s Indian Wars. Samuel Penhallow. Boston 1726 https://archive.org/details/penhallowsindian00penh
  3. The history of the state of Maine : from its first discovery, A.D. 1602, to the separation, D. 1820, inclusive by Williamson, William D. (William Durkee), 1779-1846 https://archive.org/details/historyofstateof02will
  4. The History of Norridewock by William Allen, 1849 https://archive.org/details/historyofnorridg00alle
  5. Journal of Several Visits to the Indians of the Kennebec River, By the Rev. Joseph Baxter, of Medfield Mass., 1717. https://archive.org/details/cihm_23407
  6. Indian Wars of New England, By Herbert Milton Sylvester, Vol. III https://archive.org/details/indianwarsofnewe03sylvuoft/page/n8
  7. Annals of the Town of Warren; With the Early History of St George’s Broad Bay, And Neighboring Settlements on the Waldo Patent. Cyrus Eaton, A.M. 1851 https://archive.org/details/annalsoftownofwa00lceato/page/n6
  8. Properties of Empire, Indians, Colonists, and Land Speculators on the New England Frontier. Ian Saxine, New York University Press, New York. 2019

Windham Life and Times – September 6, 2019

John “Daddy” Dinsmoor: Maine Pioneer

John Dinsmoor grave marker on the Cemetery on the Hill, Windham NH

On the Cemetery on the Hill, in Windham, you can find the grave of John “Daddy” Dinsmoor who was the first of the family to come to America. There is an impressive granite monument there to mark the spot, placed there by a descendant, James Dinsmoor in 1902. While a generous gift, not everything etched in stone is necessarily true. The inscription unfortunately conveys misinformation about the timing of John Dinsmoor’s arrival in America which was much earlier than 1724.

Over the past several weeks, I have been mucking about in ancient Maine history, and I have stumbled upon the documentary, written proof, that John Dinsmoor was in Maine, and was indeed taken as a captive of the Indians, at St. Georges, Maine, in June of 1722. This proves that Daddy Dinsmore was definitely in Maine prior to 1722. The entire event is described in detail in a letter from Colonel Thomas Westbrook, an English commander, dated September 23, 1722. John Dinsmore’s name, clear as day, was in the Index of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register Vol. 44.  As it turns out, John Dinsmoor was made a captive by the Penobscot Indians, and taken to what is now “Indian Island” in the middle of the Penobscot River exactly as was related in the very detailed and eloquent, family oral tradition given by Robert Dinsmoor.

I also have to fall back on Rev. A.L. Perry, the Professor of History and Political Economy at Williams College, who states emphatically in The Scotch-Irish in New England that the Dinsmores were part of the 1718 migration from Northern Ireland: “Besides Mr. Boyd, who had stayed the summer in Boston, where he found already settled a few scattered and peeled of his own race and faith, there were three Presbyterian ministers on board, —Mr. McGregor, of blessed memory, Mr. Cornwell, and Mr. Holmes. Those best off of all the passengers were the McKeens, the Cargills, the Nesmiths, the Cochrans, the Dinsmores, the Mooars, and some other families— were natives of Scotland, whose heads had passed over into Ulster during the short reign of James II…” As one of the wealthiest immigrants, Dinsmore could have had the means to purchase a large estate or tract of land in Maine, especially considering the fact the many of the land speculators were giving land away for free or on a payment plan in order to induce settlement in this wild frontier, which was under constant threat of Indian attack, even after the 1717 “peace treaty” with the Eastern Indians.

        I also reread the grant of land to John Dinsmoor in Londonderry from the proprietor’s records of 1724-5. This dating would verify that John Dinsmoor stayed in Maine many months after his captivity in 1722. We now know that he was detained as a “Pliot” or scout for Colonel Westbrook after being released by the Indians. The land was “bestowed” as a gift to him and the grant was conditional that he or his son “settle this place in the space of a year after the peace is Concluded and if so be that he or his son does not settle said place against a perfixt time yet then and at yet time said land Shall fall to the town or said grantees…”  What peace? The only war raging in New England at that time was the Indian War in Maine, so it must be alluding to that and additionally to the fact of John Dinsmoor’s preference, which if possible, was to return to his holdings in Maine. What was so special about his home in Maine that he wanted to return to it when tranquil Londonderry beckoned?

Was it possible that his home was more than a hastily constructed cabin in the woods? Could it rather have been a stone house constructed with his own hands at some place in the vicinity of St Georges?  John Dinsmoor was a stone mason and he may have been employed in construction at the settlement of St. Georges. When he came to Londonderry he built himself a stone house and also built many stone houses in the area. The construction of stone houses in 18th century (the 1700’s) New England is very rare.  The vast majority of homes are of wood frame construction. Could it have been that he had also built himself a stone house in the St. Georges area that he wanted to return to and what would be the rare chance that it could still exist? Unfortunately, land titles were pretty much non-existent at that time in Maine, and many of the Scotch-Irish pioneers in Maine had to petition the government later in the century with sworn affidavits to prove they had occupied their land.

So let’s begin again with the account of John Dinsmoor in Maine, by Robert Dinsmoor in his introduction to his book of poetry: “My father’s grandfather, John Dinsmoor, was the oldest son of this Scotchman, who came to America about the time the first settlers of Londonderry came (1718). He is yet remembered by many of the old people, and very respectfully called Daddy Dinsmoor. But, whether from accident, I know not, he was landed at a place called Georges, where there was an English fort, in the district of Maine. There he built a house, and the Indians which traversed those woods, (I believe they were of the Penobscot tribe,) became very familiar with him, calling him and themselves all one brother. This was about the commencement of the war between Great Britain and France.”

One day, when Daddy Dinsmore was shingling his house, the Indians surrounded it with a war-hoop, ordered him down saying, ‘no longer one brother, you go to Canada.’ He was taken and kept with them three months. The Chief’s name was John, and Daddy Dinsmoor became his waiter, and ‘found grace in his sight.’ On a certain day, Captain John was called to attend a council of war, and in his absence, Old Daddy was accused by two squaws, of being on a certain point of land near the shore, in conference with some Englishmen, and although in the absence of the chief, he was condemned to be burnt. He was accordingly bound to the tree, and the fatal pile made around him, and that instant to be set on fire, when providentially, the captain returned, and commanded his execution be delayed until inquiry should be made with respect to the truth of the charge, alleging if it was true, their tracks could be seen, as the place was a very sandy point.” (My father tells me that his father told him that John was involved in a little hanky-panky with the Captain’s women, however, George Dinsmore Sr. was known for telling tall tales and then watching the reaction of his incredulous listeners, so I have to believe that this is merely a family legend.)

The charge was soon proved to be false, and he was reprieved. The last three days he was with them, they traveled almost night and day, a great part of the time at a ‘dog trot,’ carrying their canoes with them. When they had a river to cross, as soon as the captain was seated in the Bark, it was Daddy Dinsmoor’s office to push it off and jump in after; and having performed this duty at a certain river, the captain being resolved to set him at liberty, forbade him to step in. He plead for leave to get in, but the chief replied ‘No, you much honest man, John—you walk Boston.’ Daddy answered, ‘The Indians will kill me.’ The captain then told him how, and where he could find a cave in a rock, where he must lie three days, and in that time the Indians would all be past.  He gave him some bear’s grease and a few nuts, saying ‘Indians and French have this land, you walk Boston, John, then take English canoe, walk your own country—you much honest man John.”

My father’s grandfather, then took his solitary way, and found the rock as the captain had told him. When he lay there three days and nights, he saw the Indians pass tribe after tribe, until they were all passed. Then he arose from his cave, and thought he must dies of hunger; but by chance, or by providence, rather, he found some cranberries, which supported him until he arrived at Fort George. From thence, he got his passage to Boston, and from thence he visited his old friends and countrymen in Nutfield, now Londonderry. They had all been acquainted with Daddy Dinsmoor, in Ireland. For the respect they had for the man, and perhaps moved by the narrative of his sufferings, which no one doubted, the proprietors of Londonderry, made a gift of one hundred acres of excellent land and confirmed by deed, to him and his heirs forever…Daddy Dinsmoor lived ten years after my father was born. He and his son being both masons. They built a number of stone houses in town, which served as garrisons in the Indian war. (And I really believe, that his once being an Indian captive, was his inducement to build a stone house on his own land, in Londonderry) The remains of many of those houses are to be seen at this day; and a great many stone chimneys, as no brick could be had. His name was ever held in honor by all who knew him.”