Colonel Jonathan Buck was a pioneer in Maine with a long and impressive career, with a few strange quirks. He was born in Woburn in a house that is in Wilmington. He founded the town of Bucksport, Maine, yet he was a lifelong citizen of Massachusetts.
He is primarily known today for something that showed up more than a half-century after his death, something that is absolutely false
Jonathan Buck was born in 1719 in the Benjamin Buck house, which is now in Wilmington. At the time of his birth, however, it was part of Woburn, as Wilmington was founded 11 years later.
Ephraim Buck had first settled in Woburn in 1672, making the Bucks one of the oldest families in the Town of Wilmington. Jonathan was his grandson, born to Ebenezer and Lydia (Eames) Buck on Feb. 20, 1719.
Lydia Buck died only a few years after marrying Ebenezer. He moved to Haverhill, and that is where Jonathan grew up. In 1762, Jonathan sought permission to build a shipyard on Mill Brook in Haverhill. The town denied him permission.
He and seven others sailed to the Penobscot River, which was then in part of Massachusetts, settling in what they called Buckstowne. It would later be renamed Bucksport. There he built a 60-ton sloop which he named The Hannah, the first sloop ever built on the Penobscot.
The Bucks had been on the Penobscot for more than a dozen years when the American Revolution broke out. Jonathan Buck was nearly 60 and a lieutenant colonel in command of the Fifth Massachusetts Militia Regiment.
Exactly 240 years ago, on July 26, 1779, an American armada of 19 ships and 24 troop carriers sailed to the Penobscot to oust a small British force at Castine. It was the largest American naval force in the Revolutionary War. Its command, however, was not equivalent to the force or the task. The fleet was commanded by Adm. Dudley Saltonstall. Land forces were under Brig. Gen. Solomon Lovell. In command of the artillery was Lt. Col. Paul Revere.
Jonathan Buck, evidently with no regiment to offer, nonetheless went to offer his services to the Massachusetts forces.
The Brits had three sloops and a few other vessels, with about 700 troops, who had been in Castine little over a month. They had issued a call to local residents to help build a fort. Fort George was a small affair with low walls. To the Brits, Massachusetts was still a British colony. They called the area east of the Penobscot “New Ireland.” The French were battling for claim on the land, as well.
The Americans launched an attack on the fort, sending in nine ships against the three British sloops. American transports landed troops, which made some progress. Three parties of Americans managed to scale the rocky heights and were able to take out a British battery. However, they had lost 50 men. Having successfully gained the heights, they now faced the firepower of the fort, which turned them back.
Revere wrote a scathing criticism of the attack.
Later, a militia colonel gave Saltonstall a description of the fort and a plan to take it. Saltonstall refused. Army officers and naval officers alike implored Saltonstall to take decisive action, but he took none.
In spite of their overwhelming numbers, the Americans took no advantage. Commodore Saltonstall dithered around in Penobscot Bay, worrying that the islands near Castine offered insufficient protection. The siege dragged on for 21 days, at which point a British fleet arrived. The American ships, apparently with no plan, fled up the Penobscot, abandoning supplies and men on the banks
The American losses were devastating. Saltonstall’s flagship, the Warren, was blown up and other vessels were also destroyed. Massachusetts no longer had a state navy, and the U.S. Navy also suffered a devastating setback.
Buckstowne was burned. Soldiers and sailors fled on foot south and west. Buck and his family made their way slowly back to Haverhill, to remain there for four years.
Saltonstall and Revere were both court-martialed. Revere was acquitted. There is no record of the outcome of Saltonstall’s trial.
Jonathan and Lydia Buck eventually returned to the Penobscot and rebuilt the town. He died there on March 18, 1795. In 1793, the town voted to change its name from Buckstowne to Bucksport. More than 60 years after his death, the Town of Bucksport erected a large granite obelisk monument at his grave. Several years later, a flaw became evident in the stone, in the form of a human leg. Efforts were made to remove the blemish, but it always returned.
Someone started a story that Col. Buck had served as a judge and had condemned a woman to death for witchcraft. The tale goes on to say that the leg image is the revenge of that witch.
It’s a great story, but it isn’t true. Buck never served as a judge. The witch trials took place nearly 30 years before he was born. But in spite of his many exploits and accomplishments, it is the geologic flaw on his monument that generates the most interest in Lt. Col. Jonathan Buck.
Bucksport held a birthday party on July 18 in honor of Jonathan Buck’s 300 birthday.