The Malta War was the name given to the fighting that broke out in 1809 in Maine’s Kennebec County. At that time, ownership of land in Maine was often an open question. Native Americans held claims to some portions of the state, then part of Massachusetts. Massachusetts officials also held claim to it. Settlers living there, some as squatters, also claimed ownership of some lands.
The dispute came to a head at 3 pm on Sept. 8, 1809, in the woods of Malta (today part of Windsor). Andrew Choate planned to buy the farm he rented. So he hired John Davis to survey the property line between Choate’s farm and Isaac Mason’s adjoining land.
He also hired Paul Chadwick, 22, to assist in the survey. Chadwick, Davis and a third man measured the property using surveyor’s chains. Surveyor’s chains were made to specific lengths, and surveyors could mark off property in standard units of chains and links.
Because the chains couldn’t be stretched, they were a trusted unit of measure. But they also weighed a lot, which is why a surveying job required three men.
First Shots in the Malta War
Malta’s citizenry included a dissident group of squatters who did not accept Massachusetts’ ownership of the lands. They saw Chadwick and Davis as enforcing land rights to which they held no proper claim.
Nine men, who witnesses would later describe as drunk, disguised themselves in blankets and face masks and tried their best to look like Indians. They intended to cast blame for their actions on the Native Americans. Armed with muskets and scythes, the men made their way through town to Andrew Choate’s property. “Chadwick has crooked eyes,” one man was heard to say, “and damn him, we mean to straighten them.”
The men silenced Choate at gunpoint and went to the rear of the land where the survey team was working. Two of the men avoided the attack. Chadwick, though, held an end of the surveyor’s chain below the others on a bank of a stream. He had nowhere to run.
Three of the men approached. “Damn you what business have you here?” they demanded. Then one of the men ordered the others to fire their muskets. Later it would come out that he had shouted: “Fire low.”
The muskets, loaded only with small shot, would presumably just send Chadwick running. But the first shot hit him in the legs, the second in the stomach and, as Chadwick fell, the third shot hit him in the shoulders.
“Damn him. It is good enough for him,” one man said as the attackers turned to leave. “He had no business here.”
Chadwick’s Final Statements
Choate ran for help and carried Chadwick to his father-in-law’s house. For the next two days Chadwick lingered while his wounds got worse.
Chadwick, on September 9, said “I consider myself to be an undone man. I think I shall, before a short time, appear before God.”
James Brackett, justice of the peace, visited Chadwick and recorded the dying man’s final statements. He had recognized two of the “Indians” who had attacked him: Jabez Meigs and Elijah Barton. Choate recognized David Lynn as the man who had silenced him and ordered the men to “fire low.” Soon four others were rounded up as also participating in the attack: Prince Cain, Nathaniel Lynn, Ansel Meigs and Adam Pitts.
Elijah Barton spent one night hiding under a friend’s floorboards, but eventually all seven were rounded up and questioned. They confessed: “I was present to my very great shame,” Barton would say.
The seven men were taken to Augusta to await trial. Meanwhile, their friends began to agitate. They gathered up a force of men to storm the jail at Augusta and release the defendants.
The Malta War Ends
The Massachusetts Land Office, meanwhile, grew concerned over reports of the insurrection. They undoubtedly remembered Shays’ Rebellion 21 years earlier, when 4,000 unhappy landowners staged an armed rebellion in western Massachusetts.
Massachusetts Gov. Christopher Gore detached a militia unit of several hundred men to keep the peace and prop up the government in Kennebec County while the trial proceeded. After repelling one attempt to attack the jail, an uneasy peace settled over Augusta as the trial grew near.
At trial, the defendants put up a defense. One man was accused of saying that Chadwick was about to go on a very long journey. But Chadwick had, in fact, spoken of traveling to Ohio. Another testified that Chadwick was unhappy with his wife and would be glad to be rid of her by leaving.
They also attacked Chadwick’s dying statement. Jabez Meigs and Paul Chadwick had a series of running disagreements. Chadwick accused Meigs of tearing down the frame to his barn. They argued over ownership of a sled. And Meigs had threatened Chadwick in a moment of anger. Could this be the reason Chadwick accused him on his death bed?
In the end, the seven men were acquitted and set free. The militia was allowed to return home and the Malta War ended.
Thanks to: Trial of David Lynn, Jabez Meigs, Elijah Barton, Prince Cain … 1809-1810. This story updated in 2022.