The Wiscasset Incident occurred on December 2, 1749. That day gun shots rang out in the woods of Wiscasset, Maine. Sailors from a visiting ship from Massachusetts slipped ashore and attacked a group of Indians fishing and hunting in the area.
The men concealed the body of an Indian named Saccary Harry, also known as Hegen, under ice in a brook. Two other Indians, Job and Andrew, escaped with gunshot wounds. Over the next several days a picture emerged.
Colonial authorities quickly identified the men involved in the murder: Obidiah Albee had committed the murder; Benjamin Ledite and Samuel Ball had acted as accomplices and injured the two other Indians.
Albee fled Maine on board a ship. And, while transporting Ball and Ledite to York to stand trial, the deputy sheriff was attacked by a mob and the prisoners escaped. Bringing them to justice marked a turning point in Indian/Colonial relations in Maine – and not one for the better.
The Treaty of 1749
In 1748-49, the Indians in New England were mostly sandwiched between the Saint Lawrence River in Canada and the northern boundaries of Massachusetts’ settlements in Maine.
The Indian settlements in Maine concentrated in two locations. The Penobscot Indians, on the Penobscot River, and the Norridgewock Indians, on the Kennebec.
For 75 years the Indians had butted heads with the English settlers, who continued encroaching on Indian lands. Two broad factions existed within Indian population. Those who advocated a negotiated truce with the English and those who advocated repelling the English by force.
The colonists, for their part, were not wholly hostile toward the Indians. There are cases of Massachusetts’ courts sentencing colonists to death for murdering innocent Indians. But war frequently set the two sides against one another. The English continuously encroached on Indian territory. The Indians, meanwhile, took advantage of French and English hostilities to fight back on the side of the French.
King George’s War
From 1744 to 1748, the violence on the Maine frontier heated up. King George’s War – the struggle between France and England to control Canada and Northern New England – drew both the Indians and the colonists into the fighting.
Fierce fighting took a heavy toll on Massachusetts (Maine existed as a part of Massachusetts at that time). Some estimate as much as eight percent of the Massachusetts’ population of able-bodied men died in the fighting. The main achievement of the fighting was the British colonists capture of the Canadian Fortress of Louisbourg from the French.
The British/French treaty in 1748 restored the fortress to French control. In return the French returned property to England that had been taken a world away in India. The treaty outraged many of the colonists who had family and friends who had died in the wars.
The Indians who had fought in aid of the French cause, meanwhile, had their own discontented factions, and it would take until 1749 for the colonists and Indians to hammer out their own peace agreement.
In October of 1749, the colonists and Indians finally sat down at Falmouth and negotiated a peace, setting the stage for the Wiscasset Incident just weeks later.
Trials and Errors
Obidiah Albee, from Massachusetts, had family in Wiscasset and may have planned to relocate, as his father and family had done. The authorities determined he had killed Hegen. They also identified him as the ringleader of the group of men who carried out the attack.
Though at least seven men participated in the attack, only two others faced charges.
Benjamin Ledite and Samuel Ball had acted as accomplices and injured the two other Indians. Both Ledite and Ball served in the recent wars with the France and its Indian allies. Ball’s father died in the fighting, leading some to theorize that revenge served as Ball’s motive in the attacks. Albee, they theorize, simply wanted to make trouble.
Wiscasset Incident: On the Run
Once freed from arrest, the three men proved difficult to recapture. As they made their escape, sympathetic colonists helped them or turned a blind eye, ignoring even the promise of rewards if they would help capture the men.
Ledite and Ball were eventually captured at Saco at a military outpost.
The government had no hope of empaneling an impartial jury at York. Massachusetts’ governor shipped Ledite and Ball to Middlesex County in Massachusetts with the hope of trying them there. But the General Court wanted nothing to do with the case and declined to hear the matter in Massachusetts.
Finally reports surfaced that Albee was spotted on a ship at Marblehead, Mass. No one on the ship wanted anything to do with the case, but the sheriff managed to capture him.
The sheriff wrote that, while he had imprisoned Albee at the county jail, the government needed to act quickly because many residents had begun agitating to break the accused out of jail. He suggested moving Albee to York with Ball and Ledite.
Nine soldiers were assigned to guard the York jail and Albee, Ball and Ledite were reunited there to stand trial.
Demands for Justice
Meanwhile, on the Indian side of affairs, no clear consensus emerged. In Indian tradition, a murder could be resolved by the offending party awarding gifts to the family of the deceased. Lacking that, murders often devolved into blood feuds. The conciliatory Indians demanded some form of justice. The more militant Indians demanded that the English execute the men for murder, the custom under English law.
In June of 1750, the court at York heard the case against Obidiah Albee. The jury acquitted him.
Ball escaped from custody in March of 1751 and disappeared. There is no record he was ever tried.
Ledite, however, eventually stood trial later in 1751. A jury found him innocent in the Hegen murder, but convicted him of assault. The court sentenced him to 20 lashes and forced him to stand for an hour upon the gallows with a noose around his neck – a form of public shaming. Further, he had to pledge £100 against any disruption of the peace he might cause.
In October of 1752, representatives from Maine’s Indians and Massachusetts agreed to restore the peace. The treaty, however, represented only the views of the individuals who signed it. Many colonists and Indians, from that day forward, allowed their own anger and attitudes to rule their actions.
The more militant Indians had withdrawn to Canada and did not participate in the peace talks. And Massachusetts had little formal control over the residents of Maine, many of whom still rankled at years of fighting with the Indians. With the declining indigenous population, the colonists now also had little fear of a large-scale retaliation in cases where a colonist murdered an Indian.
“The Wiscasset Incident was the first in a series of atrocities that indicated a significant change in the peacetime violence on the Maine frontier.” David L. Ghere and Alvin H. Morrison wrote in Searching for Justice on the Maine Frontier: Legal Concepts, Treaties, and the 1749 Wiscasset Incident.
Hostilities, thereafter, were less contained to official warfare and incidents between civilians grew in frequency. The English attempted to soothe Indian anger by sending gifts and food to the families of the Indians that had been attacked. The French, meanwhile, offered provisions to Indians who wanted to travel farther south in Maine to carry out retaliatory attacks.
The Wiscasset Incident, however, permanently shattered the peace. Murders, though not commonplace, occurred and went unpunished, with both sides throwing away restraint. In 1756, the Seven Years’ war broke out, bringing full-scale hostility back to Northern Maine.
“Searching for Justice on the Maine Frontier: Legal Concepts, Treaties, and the 1749 Wiscasset Incident.” American Indian Quarterly 25, no. 3 (2001), David Ghere and Alvin Morrison.
A Page of Indian History, The Wiscasset Tragedy, Rev. Henry O. Thayer
Images: Attack on Louisbourg in 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession. Anonymous; CW Jefferys – Battle of Grand Pre.
This story updated in 2022.