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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The French on Block Island

By Samuel Niles (1674–1762)

[Born on Block Island, 1674. Minister at Braintree, Mass. Died, 1762. A Summary Historical Narrative of the Wars in New-England. Completed, 1760.]

SOME time in July, 1689, throe French privateer vessels came to Block Island; upon which the people were alarmed, not then knowing whether they were English or French. The vessels were a large bark, a barge, a large sloop, and a lesser one. They had an Englishman with them, one William Trimming, who was wont treacherously to decoy and betray those they met with at sea, pretending they were Englishmen, as he had the perfect use of the English tongue. Him they sent on shore with some men in a periauger, which lay off at a small distance; while he took the advantage of stepping from one rock to another, and came alone to the islanders who were standing on the shore in arms,—who inquired of him who they were, and from whence they came, and whither they were bound, and their captain, or commodore’s name. To which he answered, their commodore was George Astin (of whom they had often heard as a noted privateer, that had done great exploits against the French and Spaniards in the West Indies), and that they were Englishmen (when they were a mixed company, mostly French, with some Spaniards and Mestizos, and their captain’s name was Pekar, a Frenchman); that they came from Jamaica, and were bound into Newport on Rhode Island (which was so far true, that their design was to take and rifle that town); that they wanted a pilot to conduct them into the harbor; and that they wanted to be supplied with some wood and water, and fresh provisions for their money. This was a plausible and very pleasing account to the inhabitants, though perfidiously false in the articles of greatest importance. What farther confirmed their credit in the case was, there happened to be a stranger on the island at that time, and then among the people, who pretended a particular acquaintance with Captain Astin, and also sent his compliments to him; so that, upon the whole, the islanders were very well satisfied, and fearless of danger.

Upon having thus told his story, Trimming, doubtless much pleased, went off to the periauger that waited for him. He having made a motion for a pilot to Newport which was about ten leagues distant from them, several that had sailed to and from thence, in hopes of some great reward, went on board. They no sooner were got there, but they were immediately clapped down under the hatches and examined on the strength of Newport and of Block Island: and finding this last not able to resist them, they resolved to play their game in plundering the people of this island. Accordingly, manning their three periaugers, with about fifty men in each of them, they made to the harbor, having their guns all lying in the bottom of their boats out of sight,—where the people met them, and were something amused at their great number. But being well satisfied, as they thought, that there was no monkery in the case, therefore in a very friendly manner directed them to shun some sunken rocks that lay at the entrance into the harbor; and to requite their kindness, as they laid to the wharf, every one of them started up with his gun presented, and told the people if they stirred from the place, or made resistance, they were dead men. Thus tamely and unexpectedly, to their great surprise, they were all taken and made prisoners of war.

As for their coming in such great numbers, as before is noted, which at first gave the people some ground of suspicion, to this they were soon reconciled, supposing that they were willing to walk and divert themselves on the land, as they had been a long time at sea. So that all circumstances seemed to concur, by the treachery of this Trimming, to make them an easy prey to their enemies. As they were thus become masters of the island, they disarmed the men and stove their guns to pieces on the rocks, and carried the people and confined them in the house of Captain James Sands, before mentioned, which was large and accommodable for their purpose, and not far from the harbor. This they made their prison and place of rendezvous, and soon set upon plundering houses, and killing cattle, sheep and hogs, some to feed on, others for waste and spoil, and to impoverish the inhabitants….

However, news quickly reached to the main, that Block Island was taken by the French; upon which the country was alarmed; and bonfires made from Pawcatuck Point, which is the utmost extent of Rhode Island government next to Connecticut, and from thence round on Rhode Island to Seconet Point, which then was the farthest part of the Massachusetts government, but is now taken into the government of Rhode Island, upon a late overture of that affair—whether justly or not it is neither my province nor purpose now to determine.

They continued about a week on the island, plundering houses, stripping the people of their clothing, ripping up beds, throwing out the feathers, and carrying away the ticking. In this time they offered great abuses to Simon Ray, Esq., an aged gentleman who lived somewhat remote in the island, and had not removed his money nor choicest part of his goods out of his house until they saw a company of the enemy at a distance coming thither. He and his son (who was of the same name, and after bore the like distinguishing characters of honor and usefulness that his father had done before, who is now lately deceased also) as there was no minister in the place, were wont in succession, in a truly Christian, laudable manner, to keep a meeting in their own house on Lord’s days, to pray, sing a suitable portion of the Psalms, and read in good sermon books, and, as they found occasion, to let drop some words of exhortation in a religious manner on such as attended their meeting. Upon the sight of the French coming, the son (then a young man) with the servants carried out some chests and what they could most readily convey out of the house, and hid them, and themselves also. When the Frenchmen came into the house, they found only the old gentleman and his wife; all the rest of the family were fled. The French demanded his money. He told them he had none at his command. They observed by the signs on the floor, that chests and other things were lately removed, and the money, which they principally aimed at,—asked him where they were. He told them he did not know, for his people had carried them out, and he could not tell where they put them. They bid him call his folks, that they might bring them again; which he did, but had no answer, for they were all fled out of hearing. They being thus disappointed, one of them, in a violent rage, got a piece of a rail and struck him on his head therewith, and in such fury that the blood instantly gushed out and ran on the floor. Upon which his wife took courage, and sharply reprehended them for killing her husband, which she then supposed they had done. Upon this they went off, without the game they expected. After the flow of blood was over, he recovered his health; and lived many years in his former religious usefulness, as before is noted.

Another man they used barbarously, by tricing him up and whipping him in an unmerciful manner, to make him confess where his money was, and bring it to them; when at the same time, as he declared to them, he had none or next to none. The case was this, as I understood it. They inquired of some one or more of the people, “Who were the likeliest among them to have money?” They told them of John Rathbun, who was the most likely. This poor man bearing his father’s name (they supposing him to be the person) suffered this cruelty in the room of his father, who escaped by that means with his money….

While they remained riding in the bay they took two vessels bound up the Sound, one laden with steel mostly, which they sunk; the other was laden with wine and spirituous liquors, which they purposed to carry off with them, but were prevented, as we shall find afterwards. The privateers perceiving, by the bonfires before spoken of, that the country was alarmed, and perhaps, by those that had gone on board them with hopes of becoming their pilots, before mentioned, being informed of the strength and numbers of men on Rhode Island, were discouraged making an attempt on Newport; therefore determined to attack New London. Accordingly they sailed thither, and up into the harbor. The country being before alarmed, as was said, and having had intelligence of their approach, the men in the bordering towns came down in great numbers; and the fort with their great guns firing on them, they found the harbor too hot for them. They therefore drew off and concluded to return to Block Island, and renew their spoils and plunder there. Some of their company went on an island called Fisher’s Island, lying near New London, and among others this treacherous fellow, Trimming, before spoken of, of which they had some intelligence at Stonington. Upon which seventeen men went from thence over to the island, which is not far distant in the easternmost end. There was but one house on the island, though about nine miles in length, where this party of Frenchmen were at that time. The English got near the house before they were discovered; upon which Trimming came out to them, in a pretended friendly manner, drawing his gun behind him. They demanded “who and from whence they were.” He replied, they were cast-away men. One of the Englishmen replied: “If you are friends, lay down your gun, and come behind us.” Immediately Mr. Stephen Richardson, as was supposed through surprise, shot him dead on the spot, for which act he was much blamed. Thus he that delighted in falsehood in his life died with a lie in his mouth and received, it seems, the just reward of his perfidious, villainous and multiplied treacheries.

While these French privateers were making an attempt at New London, the people at Newport fitted out two vessels from thence with volunteers to engage them, supposing they were still at Block Island. These vessels were sloops under the command of Captain and Commodore Paine, who had some years before followed the privateering design, and Captain John Godfrey, his second; and inquiring for the French, they were told that when they left the island they shaped their course westward toward New London; upon which our English vessels stretched off to the southward, and soon made a discovery of a small fleet standing eastward. Supposing them to be the French they were in quest of, they tacked and came in as near the shore as they could with safety, carrying one anchor to wear and another to seaboard, to prevent the French boarding them on each side at once, and to bring their guns and men all on one side, the better to defend themselves and annoy the enemy. The French probably discovered them also, and made all the sail they could, expecting to make prizes of them. Accordingly they sent a periauger before them, full of men, with design to pour in their small arms on them and take them, as their manner was, supposing they were unarmed vessels and only bound up on trade. Captain Paine’s gunner urged to fire on them. The Captain denied, alleging it more advisable to let the enemy come nearer under their command. But the gunner still urging it, being certain, as he said, he should rake fore and aft, thus with much importunity at length the Captain gave him liberty. He fired on them but the bullet went wide of them, and I saw it skip on the surface of the water several times, and finally lodge in a bank, as they were not very far distant from the shore. This brought them to a stand, and to row off as fast as they could and wait until their vessels came up.

When they came, they bore down on the English, and there ensued a very hot sea-fight for several hours, though under the land, the great bark foremost, pouring in a broadside with small arms. Ours bravely answered them in the same manner, with their huzzas and shouting. Then followed the larger sloop, the captain whereof was a very violent, resolute fellow. He took a glass of wine to drink, and wished it might be his damnation if he did not board them immediately. But as he was drinking, a bullet struck him in his neck, with which he instantly fell down dead, as the prisoners, before spoken of, afterward reported. However, the large sloop proceeded as the foremost vessel had done, and the lesser sloop likewise. Thus they passed by in course and then tacked and brought their other broadside to bear. In this manner they continued the fight until the night came on and prevented their farther conflict. Our men as valiantly paid them back in their own coin, and bravely repulsed them, and killed several of them. The Captain, before spoken of, with one or more were after driven on the shore. In this action the continued fire was so sharp and violent, that the echo in the woods made a noise as though the limbs of the trees were rent and tore off from their bodies (as I have observed); yet they killed but one man, an Indian fellow of the English party, and wounded six white men, who after recovered. They overshot our men, so that many of their bullets, both great and small, were picked up on the adjacent shore.

Our men expected a second encounter in the morning, and, their ammunition being much spent, sent in the night for the island’s stock, as the French lay off at anchor but a small distance from them all the night.—But having found the engagement too hot for them, they hoisted their sails and stood off to sea; and one reason might be this, as was reported, that their Commodore understood by some means that it was Captain Paine he had encountered, [and] said, “He would as soon choose to fight with the devil as with him.” Such was their dialect. Now this Captain Paine and Pekar, the French Commodore, had sailed together a-privateering, Paine captain, and Pekar his lieutenant, in some former wars. The French standing off to sea, Captain Paine and Captain Godfrey, and their soldiers, with the valor and spirit of true Englishmen, pursued them, but the privateers, being choice sailers, were too light of foot for them. The French, finding that they hauled on the vessel before spoken of, loaded with wines and brandy, which was not so good a sailer as the others, and fearing the English would make a prey of her, fired a great shot through her bottom, so that when our men came to her she was sunk under water in her fore part, the stern only buoyed up by a long boat fastened to it; and as she was standing right up and down in the water, they could not get anything out of her. They no sooner cut the painter, but she instantly sunk to the bottom. They brought the boat with them in their return, which was the only prize and trophy of their victory; only as the enemy were vanquished, and that they had so courageously chased them off the New England coast. When Pekar heard that Trimming was killed, he greatly lamented, and said he had rather have lost thirty of his men.

Before the year was expired, some of the same company, with others, landed in the night and surprised the people in their beds, and proceeded in like manner as before, plundering houses, stripping the people of their clothing, killing creatures and making great waste and spoil; but killed no person. I suppose I was the greatest sufferer of any under their hands at this time; for before I had dressed myself, one of their company rushed into the chamber where I lodged. After some free and seemingly familiar questions he asked me, which I answered with like freedom; but being alone, without any of his company, not knowing what danger might befall him (as I after apprehended) on a sudden, and with a different air, he says to me, “Go down, you dog.” To which I replied, “Presently; as soon as I have put on my stockings and shoes.” At which, with the muzzle of his gun he gave such a violent thrust at the pit of my stomach, that it threw me backward on the bed, as I was sitting on the bedside, so that it was some time before I could recover my breath. As soon as I could, I gathered them up. He drew his cutlass and beat me, smiting with all his power, to the head of the stairs, and it was a very large chamber. He followed me down the stairs, and then bound my hands behind me with a sharp small line, which soon made my hands swell and become painful. How I managed after with my stockings and shoes I have now forgot. However, after this I met with no abuse from them the whole time of their stay on the island.

The first time the island was taken, of which I have given a narrative before, I took the first opportunity to make my escape, and some others did the like; and though we camped in a small piece of upland in a great swamp, yet every leaf that stirred with the wind made me with surprise conclude the French were come upon us. This made me determine with myself, that if ever it were my lot in providence to be taken by them again, I would continue in and see the worst of my bondage, until it pleased God to send me deliverance. This resolution I held, though I had a fair opportunity to make an escape, and notwithstanding the ill treatment I met with at first, as before is related.

The French came a third time while I was on the island, and came to anchor in the bay on Saturday, some time before night; and acquainted us who they were and what they intended, by hoisting up their white colors. None of the people appearing to oppose them, and having, at this time, my aged grandparents, Mr. James Sands and his wife, before mentioned, to take the care of, with whom I then dwelt; knowing also that if they landed they would make his house the chief seat of their rendezvous, as they had done twice before, and not knowing what insults or outrage they might commit on them, I advised to the leaving their house and betaking themselves to the woods for shelter, till they might return under prospects of safety; which they consented to. Accordingly we took our flight into the woods, which were at a considerable distance, where we encamped that night as well as the place and circumstances would allow, with some others, that for the like reasons fell into our company. The next morning, being Lord’s day morning, I expressed my desire to go occultly and see the conduct of the French, and their proceedings. One of the company offered to go with me. We went together, and placed ourselves on the top of a hill, where were small bushes and a large swamp behind us; but in fair sight of the house I went from, viz., my grandfather’s house. It seems the French had not landed till that morning, for we had not long been seated there before we saw them coming from the water-side in two files (which made a long train) with their colors flying, and, if I mistake not, their trumpet sounding. I did not then think of counting their number. Thus they came in triumph, and as absolute lords of the soil and all belonging thereto—as indeed they were for the time; but their reign was but short, as the sequel will prove. (My companion in this discovery was Mr. Thomas Mitchell who then, and many years after, was an inhabitant on Block Island, alias New Shoreham.)

In this manner they went to the house, and immediately set up their standard on a hill on the back side of it, and directly shot and killed three hogs fatted with whey in a sty, and then killed the geese, as there were many there. Having had but little sleep the night before, I proposed to Mr. Mitchell to keep a good look-out, and watch their motions, till I endeavored to sleep a little, and thus to proceed interchangeably; when I made the hard ground my lodging for the time, which was long. Upon my awaking, he lay down; and as he lay and slept, the French fired many guns at the house, and I heard several bullets whistling over my head. Suspecting they had made some discovery of us, I awakened him, telling him what I had observed; therefore that it was advisable to shift our quarters. Accordingly, as we were moving from the place, we espied a large ship about a league to leeward of the township, riding at anchor (the fog at sea had been very thick till then), which happened to be Captain Dobbins, in The Nonesuch man-of-war, stationed in those seas, which we at first sight supposed. This ship appearing put the Frenchmen into a great surprise, by their motions, by running up to their standard on the hill, then down again, and others doing the like. The man-of-war still making all sail possible, there being but a small breeze of wind at south-west, and right ahead, according to the sailor’s phrase, they soon left the house and with all speed and seeming confusion hastened to their vessel….

Soon after these privateers took to their heels, hoping to get out of the man-of-war’s reach, the fog thickened, and the wind rose and blew hard at south-west, so that we quickly lost sight of them both. The French kept close upon the wind, in hopes to weather a place called No Man’s Land, lying southward of Martha’s Vineyard; but the wind scanting on them, and blowing hard, they ran into a place (if I mistake not) called Buzzard’s Bay, which emphatically proved so to them. There they were land-locked, and could not get out, although the French vessel was quickly out of sight by reason of the thick fog which continued. Yet as if the Nonesuch had tracked them by the print of their heels in the ocean, or had followed them in their wake, she came in upon them, Providence so ordering, and took them. When they saw, to their astonishment, the man-of-war so unexpectedly overtaking them, about forty of their men went on shore and were disarmed and seized by the people that dwelt near the place, and sent prisoners to Boston. The others on board Captain Dobbins took and made prisoners of war, and their ship became a rich prize, which we saw about three days after following him into Newport, where she was condemned.

These French privateers, or some others, came a fourth time and landed on Block Island, in the former war with France; but the people on the island took courage, and encountered them in an open pitched battle, and drove them off from the shore, without any hurt to the English, except one man slightly wounded in his finger. They never after that troubled the people any more. The great spoil made on the island by the French, in their repeated visits, and particularly on my father’s interest, occasioned my staying from school six years, when I intended only a short visit to my friends. In this time I turned my hand to husbandry, and sometimes to handicraft. I helped to build a vessel, among other things, for the West India trade, and caulked one side and the master-workman the other; and she proved very tight and answerable to the design. After the space of six years thus employed, I returned again to school, so that, by reason of this delay, I was near two-and-twenty years old when I entered into the college at Cambridge, the Rev. Dr. Increase Mather then being President,—and Mr. John Leverett, afterward President, and Mr. William Brattle, after the reverend pastor of Cambridge Church, were the only fellows. The kindness of these worthy gentlemen I hope not to forget, who, I conclude, favored me the more, as I was the first that came to college from Rhode Island government.