Maps as Storytellers: (Map of) Falmouth Neck, as it was When Destroyed by Mowatt, October 18th, 1775

All maps provide us with some level of information, but some maps, like the one pictured below, tell us a story.  

Found within the holdings of the Cartographic Branch in RG 77: Fortifications Map File Plans of Military Forts, 1818-1941,   “Falmouth Neck, As It Was When Destroyed By Mowatt, October 18th, 1775” is one such map that lays out a very clear narrative, providing not only an accounting of the line of destruction inflicted by Captain Henry Mowatt on Falmouth, but also showing us the small fleet of named vessels that carried out the attack. Indeed, the detail is so great on this map that the names of homeowners and tenants, or the type of building, are given for each of the structures on the map.

“Falmouth Neck as it was When Destroyed by Mowatt, October 18th, 1775”. RG 77: Fortifications Map File Plans of Military Forts, 1818-1941. Drawer 10, Sheet 111-03. NAID 221021240.

In October of 1775, Falmouth Neck, now known as Portland, Maine, had been selected among a list of 10 cities to be “chastised” for the earlier seizing of the British vessels Margaretta and Diligent.  Partly as a result of those two incidents, Lieutenant  Henry Mowat, commanding officer of HMS Canceaux, was instructed by Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to, “ go to all or to as many of the … named Places as you can, and make the most vigorous Efforts to burn the Towns, and destroy the Shipping in the Harbours” (1).

To add an extra dimension to this tale, Mowat had history with the town of Falmouth.  Five months earlier, Mowat had been held by a local militia in the town, but had been released on the conditions that he return to the town the following day, an agreement that he failed to honor (2).  It has been speculated that he chose Falmouth Neck from the list of towns because he was bent on revenge.

When Mowatt showed up with a small fleet in the harbor at Falmouth, the encounter started badly and went downhill from there, as Mowatt fired on a small ship that refused to stop as they approached.  Mowatt’s fleet, clearly visible and partially identified by name on the map, consisted of HMS Spitfire, HMS Cat, and HMS Canceaux.  The unnamed vessels were HMS Halifax and HMS Symmetry, identified on the map as “Store Vessel”. According to accounts of the day, reaction to seeing the ships come into the harbor was mixed and the citizenry seemed concerned, though not initially panicked.  The HMS Canceaux was a hydrographic survey vessel, carrying, depending on which historical source you go with, either 6 or 16 guns and was Mowatt’s flagship.  The HMS Cat carried 20 guns, the HMS Halifax was a 12-gun schooner, the HMS Spitfire was a bomb sloop, and the HMS Symmetry was listed as a supply ship (3).

Eventually, the townspeople received word that they were to be punished for their part in the rebellion and a party was sent back to Mowatt to beg for mercy, which he agreed to if the people would lay down arms and swear loyalty to King George.  Immediately, people began to flee the town without surrender.  He had set the deadline to commence firing on the town for 9:00am on October 18th, 1775, but waited until 9:40am, when the town appeared to be mostly deserted, to open fire.  At the end of the 9-hour bombardment, around 400 buildings and homes lay in smoldering ruins and almost a dozen small ships and boats were destroyed or partially destroyed in the harbor.  Everything encompassed by the dotted line, a section of which extended all the way back and across Back Street, was destroyed (4). 

For a time, a good part of the town remained deserted.  It was estimated that as many as 1,000 of the 2,500 residents of the Neck were impacted severely by the attack.  It would take until 1797 for the town to rebuild back to its former self (5).

 (1) Graves, Samuel.   William Bell Clark, ed., “Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to Philip Stephens, October 9, 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966), 371-372.

(2)  Duncan, Robert F.  “The Battle of Machias and the Burning of Falmouth”.  Coastal Maine.  pp. 215-216.


(4) “On this Day in History, October 18th, 1775”.

(5)  Leamon, James S. “Falmouth, the American Revolution, and the Price of Moderation.” Creating Portland: History and Place in Northern New England, edited by Joseph Conforti, University of New Hampshire Press, Lebanon , NH, 2007, pp. 60–62.