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The Buck May Not Stop at the Jonathan Buck Memorial in Bucksport, Maine But the Curious Definitely Do!

On a recent weekend in Maine in search of lighthouses during the American Lighthouse Foundation's 2013 Midcoast Maine Lighthouse Challenge, a distracted sidekick and I were heading north from our weekend accommodations in Rockport through the rain and fog en route to our first lighthouse of the day located in the small coastal town of Castine. As we approached the town of Bucksport, I found myself wracking my brain in search of a dim memory that seemed to be as wispy as the fog around us ... something about a monument and a leg ... I was pretty sure that the elusive memory had something to do with Bucksport and a curse but I could only recall bits and pieces of whatever it was I had read long ago until we started to pass the local Hannaford Supermarket (with a cloudy view of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge that we had recently crossed over in the background) ...

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... and that was when I saw a cemetery easily visible on a hill across the street and the memory finally came rushing back in!  Granted, the large sign announcing the "Jonathan Buck Monument" certainly helped! 

Buck Cemetery, Bucksport, ME

"That's it! I remember now! There's a leg that appears on the monument that was put there by a witch's curse!" I couldn't quite remember all of the details of the story but rather than pull a u-turn in the now-pouring rain, Paula - my distracted sidekick for the weekend - and I decided that we'd stop by and check things out on our return trip from visiting Dyce Head Lighthouse in Castine (30 minutes southeast of the cemetery) in the hopes that maybe the weather would be a little better on our return trip through Bucksport.

Buck Cemetery, Bucksport, ME

Upon our return, the rain had indeed stopped so we pulled into a small parking lot adjacent to the cemetery on Hicks Street right off of the main road across from the previously mentioned Hannaford's (obviously the town expected tourists and the curious to want to visit) and got out to take a look at the monument that had been erected to the memory of Jonathan Buck.

By now you may be asking "just who WAS Colonel Jonathan Buck and why would he have a cursed monument anyway", right? Well even if you aren't asking, I'm going to tell you because that's how I roll here at The Distracted Wanderer! ... We begin Jonathan Buck's story way back on February 20, 1719 when he was born in Woburn, Massachusetts before moving to Haverhill with his family where he grew up, married Lydia Morse on October 19, 1742 at the ripe old age of 23, and then proceeded to produce nine offspring - six of whom survived childhood. It is presumed that the Buck Family lived happily in Haverhill until, at the end of the French and Indian War which secured English title to North America, the unoccupied lands along the Maine coast were opened to settlement by Massachusetts colonists. At the time the land was known as York County, Massachusetts and later the District of Maine until the Missouri Compromise on March 4, 1820 established Maine as the 23rd state in the Union.

At the end of the war, the Massachusetts General Court granted six townships in the area to Deacon David Marsh of Haverhill and 352 others - including Jonathan Buck. On June 16, 1762, the 43-year old Buck sailed his sloop "Sally" out of Haverhill along with his 14-year old son Jonathan, Jr. as well as eight members of the committee of surveyors, as they made their way north to "lay out the township." Buck and his passengers arrived at the mouth of the Penobscot River on July 21st with the intent to spend three days exploring and reviewing the land before returning to Haverhill to make their report. Buck returned to the area on board the "Sally" with his family in June of 1763 to permanently settle what was known at the time as Plantation No. 1. In 1764, Buck built a sawmill on Mill Creek at the river's edge along with a house and store; by 1775 the plantation had 21 families who had settled in the area and made it their home.

Fast forward to the American Revolution and the year 1779, nearly three years after the American Patriots had declared independence from Britain. It was then that the British adopted a strategy to seize parts of Maine, especially around Penobscot Bay, and make it a new colony to be called "New Ireland"; it was intended to be a permanent colony for Loyalists as well as a base for military action during the war. In early July 1779, the British commenced their plan when General Francis McLean sailed into Castine's harbor, landed approximately 700 troops, and took over the village (then known as Plantation No. 3) where they began erecting Fort George on one of the highest points on the Bagaduce Peninsula on the eastern side of Penobscot Bay. The state of Massachusetts, with some support from the Continental Congress, responded to the incursion by the British by soon after dispatching what became known as the Penobscot Expedition, the largest American naval expedition of the American Revolutionary War.

Consisting of a fleet of 19 armed vessels and 24 transports carrying 344 guns along with a land force of about 1,200 men, the Americans arrived in Penobscot Bay on July 25th and attempted to establish a siege of the British fort. A true Patriot who had been appointed Colonel of the 5th Militia regiment of his county, Colonel Jonathan Buck along with other volunteers from the community, joined the expedition to Castine and siege of Fort George - a military maneuver that would end up going down in history as the United States' worst naval defeat until Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In a series of actions which were seriously hampered by disagreements over control of the expedition between Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, a Connecticut native who was one of the first captains ever commissioned in the Continental Navy, and General Solomon Lovell, a brigadier general in the militia of the state of Massachusetts who had brilliantly led Massachusetts troops in the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island, the operation ended in disaster when a British fleet under the command of Sir George Collier arrived on August 11th and over the course of the next two days, drove the American fleet up the Penobscot River scuttling or burning several vessels along the way before destroying the rest of the fleet at Bangor.

At the end of the failed 21-day expedition, the American losses totalled 474 killed, wounded, captured or missing while the survivors were forced to make an overland journey back to more-populated parts of Massachusetts with minimal food and armament. The day after the Patriots defeat by the British, when most of Plantation No. 1 was deserted, the 16-gun Royal Navy sloop HMS Nautilus anchored at the harbor while its crew burned the town, sparing only those remaining inhabitants who swore allegiance to the Crown. Before their arrival, Colonel Buck moved his wife and seriously ill daughter, Lydia, to safety in Brewer, 18 miles inland from Bucksport, before, at the age of 60 years old and suffering from gout, he walked the nearly 200 miles to Haverhill.

Following the end of the Revolutionary War and the peace treaty of 1783, Colonel Buck returned to Plantation No. 1 and rebuilt everything that had been destroyed by the British in 1779. As the stalwart leader of the community along with his sons, when Plantation No. 1 was incorporated in 1792 it was renamed Buckstown in Colonel Jonathan’s honor. Three years later, on March 18th, 1795 at 4:30 in the afternoon, the town's founder and local war hero died and was later buried in a cemetery east of Buckstown. Over his grave was erected a modest slate gravestone with the inscription:
In Memory of
the Hon. Jonathan Buck, Esq.
who died March 18, 1795
in the 77 year
of his age
He was a worthy 'Citizen &
first settler in Buckstown
No mortal flesh can e'er withstand
The power of Death's impartial
hand
But each without resistance must
Receive the stroke and turn to
dust.
Beside his modest grave is that of his wife who died in 1789.

In 1817 the town was renamed Bucksport and in August of 1852, Jonathan Buck's great-grandchildren erected a more noble granite monument to the town's founder and located it about 15 feet from his grave site. As the monument to the town's founder weathered though, an image in the form of a woman’s leg and foot mysteriously appeared under the Buck name; soon after that, stories began to circulate as to why it had appeared to begin with and why, in spite of several attempts to remove it, the leg always reappeared.

The The Jonathan Buck Monument in Bucksport, Maine

Though people knowledgeable about monuments and the stone that they are made of have explained that the image is most likely the result of a natural flaw in the stone including the possibility of a vein of iron which darkens through contact with oxygen (though that should have happened at the time the stone was cut if you really want to be technical), stories continued to circulate about the appearance of the mysterious "leg" with the first record of it appearing in print in the March 22, 1899 issue of the Haverhill Gazette. Though there are other variations of the story that have circulated over the years, "The Buck Legend" that appeared in the Gazette has become the classic version:
Jonathan Buck was a Puritan to whom witchcraft was anathema. When a woman was accused of witchcraft, he sentenced her to be executed. As the hangman was about to perform his gruesome duty, the woman turned to Col. Buck and raising one hand to heaven, as if to direct her last words on earth, pronounced this astounding prophecy: "Jonathan Buck, listen to these words, the last my tongue will utter. It is the spirit of the only true and living God which bids me speak them to you. You will soon die. Over your grave they will erect a stone that all may know where your bones are crumbling into dust. But listen, upon that stone the imprint of my feet will appear, and for all time, long after you and you accursed race have perished from the earth, will the people from far and wide know that you murdered a woman. Remember well, Jonathan Buck, remember well."
Other versions of the story, like the one in the September 1902 edition of New England Magazine titled "The Witch's Curse, A Legend of an Old Maine Town" by J. O. Whittemore say that "Colonel Buck was Judge and condemned a witch to be hung. She pronounced a curse and prophesied that her foot would appear upon his gravestone" while in the 1913 story, "Jonathan Buck, His Curse" that appeared in Oscar Morrill Heath's book "Composts of Tradition: A Book of Short Stories Dealing with Traditional Sex and Domestic Situations", the author creates a son for the doomed woman who has been fathered by Buck. At the time of her execution, the woman is pregnant again by Buck who, in his role of Justice of the Peace, condemns her, has her tied to the door of her house, and then sets her on fire. Buck's illegitimate son grabs his mother’s burning leg and hits Buck with it, permanently crippling him. The leg becomes a relic and when Buck dies ten years later, the boy (who Buck has unknowingly adopted) puts it in the coffin where it touches the dead body causing Buck to emerge from his coffin, go down to the monument, and draw the leg upon it with his own blood as he confesses all. At the end of the story, Buck returns to his coffin and says to the woman’s deformed son, "Close the lid, boy."

In 1933 another version of the legend was written by Alpheus Hyatt Verrill in his book, "Romantic and Historic Maine" in which a new character is introduced into the tale. In Verrill's version, a woman is murdered and when she's found, there is one leg missing from her mutilated body. The authorities, who cannot find the murderer but need a victim to satisfy the citizens, pick upon a half-witted fellow who lives in a shack on the edge of the town and who has neither family or friends to aid him. Brought to trial on the trumped-up charges, he is convicted of the murder and hanged but not before he he pronounces a curse upon the Judge and prophesies that the marking would appear upon the stone.

In spite of these interesting tales, research has proven that there is no factual basis for the legend as there is no record of anyone ever having been executed of witchcraft in Maine, though history records at least three people were "examined"; no one has ever been burned to death for witchcraft or any other crime in the entire United States - those who were executed were all hanged or died as a result or pressing or ducking; the witch trials in New England occurred more than a quarter of a century before Buck's birth; and furthermore, as a Justice of the Peace, Buck would not have had the right to sentence anyone to death. History has noted that Buck, although clearly a character of energy and determination with "dark, penetrating eyes" was much admired by the soldiers who served under his command, and letters written to his wife in his own spidery handwriting that are on display at the library in Bucksport, assures anyone reading them of Buck's devotion to her as he promises her eternal affection so it doesn't sound like he would have been the type of man to have a mistress.

Evidence to the contrary though, everyone loves a good ghost story so needless to say, all of the tales about the "leg" on the monument had the opposite effect than that which Buck's ancestors had in mind when they erected it to him. In an attempt to stop the rumors and stories, the family of Colonel John Buck placed the following at the site of the monument in attempt to dispel the tales that brought the curious to the monument to begin with:

The Legend of the Buck Memorial

"This monument was erected in memory of Colonel Jonathan Buck, founder of Bucksport, who died on March 18, 1795. The memorial, built of Blue Hill granite, was erected by his descendents nearly sixty years after his death.

The Legend of the Buck MemorialSometime after its placement the outline of a leg appeared on the monument.  Making their appearance as well were the stories which became legendary.  The variations are many but common elements include Colonel Buck's condemnation of a woman for witchcraft and ordering her death by burning for sorcery. As the sentence is being carried out, the woman curses the Colonel and concludes with "... so long shall my curse be upon thee and my sign upon thy tombstone." As the flames consume her body, her leg falls away and rolls out of the fire. Her deformed son, rejected by the community, grabs her leg, further insults the Colonel, and flees into the wilderness. The curse is forgotten until sixty years later. The monument is erected: the leg appears. Attempts to remove the sign are futile.

Historians will note the era of Colonial witchcraft and the infamous witch trials in Massachusetts were over long before Jonathan Buck was born. Additionally, there is no record of ANYONE being executed for witchcraft in Maine. Stories that the monument has been replaced are untrue - this is the original. Stone cutters say it is not unusual for granite to contain a flaw such as the stain that appears only after cutting and polishing. The outline can be removed but reappears when air oxidizes the iron. (Note, too, the outline of a heart on the upper part of the monument.)

The facts surrounding the life of Colonel Buck are that he was an honorable, industrious man who founded this community and was its leader in its early development - building its first saw mill, its first grist mill, and the first boat. Notably, the "witch's curse" was unheard of before the flaw in the marble appeared."

So there you have it - the story of Jonathan Buck and his "cursed" memorial found in the town of Bucksport within site of the country's original Fort Knox just across the Penobscot River - the only fort in Maine to have been built from granite and named for Henry Knox, the first US Secretary of War.  I'm pretty sure that there are no body parts that have mysteriously appeared etched into any of the granite stones at the fort but if there are, I'll be sure to hunt them down and let you know so that you can get a leg up on other curious roadside attractions to visit!

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If you'd like to read more about the history of the town of Bucksport, you can find an online copy of "The 150th Anniversary of Bucksport, Maine June 25, 1942" published by Bernard Pooler here. I must say, it makes for quite an interesting read!

Comments

  1. I love the way you write! Myths and legends are so fascinating to read about.

    ReplyDelete

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