Those Who Came Before: Peter Poor and the Indian Raid
By Hildy Danforth
The town of Shelburne is planning a celebration of the 250th anniversary of the granting of Shelburne, which will take place in August. As part of the celebration Hildy Danforth is compiling stories about some past residents of the town.
In August 1781 a group of armed Indians attacked Bethel. Six were from a camp on the St. Francis River in Quebec and apparently came for the purpose of collecting prisoners to exchange for a bounty from the British. They were led by a local Indian named Tom Hegan. They took four settlers captive, though one escaped. Travelling on foot along the Androscoggin, the next day they attacked and killed James Pettingill and robbed his cabin in Gilead.
Continuing up river they came into Shelburne and encountered the Messer children playing near their cabin. The Indians asked the children if any armed men were at the cabin, and the children held up 10 fingers though, in fact, the cabin was empty. The Indians, fearing to encounter such a crowd, forded the river “at an unfordable place” and came to the cabin of Hope Austin. Mr. Austin had gone to the grist mill owned by Jonathan Rindge on Mill Brook, though his family was at home. The Indians raided the home and killed an ox but did not harm Mrs. Austin or the children.
When the Indians came to the grist mill, they met two of Rindge’s employees, a black man named Plato, who they took captive, and Peter Poor, who was killed. Hope Austin escaped into the woods and later gathered his family and the others in the area. Fearing a return of the marauders they spent an uncomfortable night on Hark Hill and the next day set out for Fryeburg where they stayed until the following spring.
Captain Rindge, owner of the mill, claimed he was a friend of the King and though his house was pillaged, he was not harmed. This seemed to demonstrate that the British were behind the attack as previous relations with the native travelers had been peaceful.
The Indians marched their captives to Lake Umbagog and then by canoe and overland for two weeks to the St. Francis Indian camp and eventually to Montreal where they were exchanged with the British for a fee, the bounty being the same for a prisoner or a scalp. The men were held in a prison camp for the next year. At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1782 the men were exchanged as POWs.The tale of their grueling trek with no food, and of their 16-month captivity was described by Nathaniel Segar of Bethel when he and the others were finally allowed to go home at the close of the war.
Peter Poor was buried near where he was shot at Mill Brook. The stone that marks his grave was erected more than a hundred years after the fact by Woodbury Gates.
Hope Austin c. 1750 – after 1830
People traveled through the land, which became Shelburne, for thousands of years between the melting of the glaciers and the arrival of settlers of European descent. They certainly hunted and fished in our valley and hills but left little record that we have discovered. They were probably seasonal visitors for the most part.
The first recorded Europeans to visit what is now Shelburne were a party of surveyors in 1760. The party included Daniel Ingalls, who later was an early settler. The men to whom the town was granted were investors and none actually settled here. The petitioners were required to settle 12 families on the land within five years and 60 families in ten years. Because the river valley didn’t have sufficient flat land for that many farms, the petitioners requested an addition to their land grant in 1770 and were granted the land, which in time became Gorham. The American Revolution interrupted the timetable of settlement and voided the contract with the king.
Accounts differ but the first European settler is reputed to have been Hope (or Hopstill) Austin. He arrived and cleared land and perhaps built a cabin on the north side of the river toward the state line in 1770. There are graphic accounts of Mrs. Austin carrying an infant and leading two other small children slogging through five-foot drifts of April snow to arrive at the cabin to find the roof fallen in. Since the Austins’ oldest son James was born in 1777, it may be that the clearing was a solo activity and his family didn’t arrive until sometime later.
Other colonists soon followed mostly from Bethel (then Sudbury Canada) or Fryeburg (Pequawket), Maine. By 1780 in addition to the Austins, there were Daniel and Benjamin Ingalls, Thomas Green, Samuel Wheeler, Nathaniel Porter, Peter Poor, Moses Messer, Captain Jonathan Rindge, and Jonathan and Simeon Evans. It is unclear how many of these men had families living with them.
Hope Austin lived into his 80s; he was still listed as a head of household on the 1830 census. His son James and grandson Dearborn each in turn ran the saw mill/grist mill on what became known as Austin’s Mill Brook, which Capt. Rindge seems to have left after the Indian raid.