Sir Samuel Argall: the First Englishman at Mount Desert

The missionary work among the French, undertaken simultaneously with settlement, was so associated with political and commercial interests, that the Virginia Company might well look with apprehension upon the contemplated activities of the Jesuits, of which it was informed when the Grace de Dieu with Fathers Biard and Masse on board, en route to Port Royal, was driven by stress of weather into Newport Harbor, Isle of Wight, in 1611. As a result of this important information, the Trinity term of the Virginia Court, July 11, 1612, commissioned Captain Samuel Argall as Admiral of Virginia, with instructions to prevent the French from obtaining a foothold in North Virginia. Argall, therefore, sailed from England on August 12, 1612, in his ship the Treasurer, in which he was part owner with Sir Robert Rich, afterwards Earl of Warwick, and arrived at Point Comfort on September 27; spent the fall and winter in trading, fishing and exploring and in the spring made his preparations for the trip northward to Saint Croix and Port Royal.
It was sometime in July, 1613, that Argall sailing northward, under orders from Sir Thomas Dale, happened to be in the Mount Desert region. Here he chanced upon the Jesuit settlement at Fernald’s Point, but recently removed by orders from the French sovereign, from Port Royal; made a furious attack upon the colony which should have been better defended, and after a short but sharp conflict, came off an easy victor. The colonists were removed and never again in Eastern Maine did the French make any serious attempt at colonization.

In a “New England Relation,” printed in 1625, mention is made of the abandonment of the Popham colony at the mouth of the Kennebec and that “the Frenchmen immediately tooke the opportunity to settle themselves within our limits, which being heard by those of Virginia, that discreetly tooke to their consideration that the inconvenience that might arise, by suffering them to harbour there, dispatched Sir Samuel Argall, with Commission to displace them, which he performed with much discretion, judgment, valour, and dexterity …. And hereby hee hath made away for the present hopefull Plantation to be made in Nova Scotia, which we heare his Majesty hath lately granted to Sir William Alexander*, Knight.

*Afterwards first Earl of Stirling. An echo of this grant is to be found in the records of Sir Francis Bernard’s attempts to obtain validation of the grant of Mount Desert, made to Bernard by the General Court of Massachusetts, 1762, When Charles I, at the instigation of his Queen , Henrietta Marie, gave Acadia back to France, the Earl of Stirling, to compensate him for the loss of Nova Scotia, was given the County of Canada, extending from the St. Croix to Pemaquid, together with other territory. Complications arising from these facts, prevented approval of the Bernard grant until 1771. See my Sir Francis Bernard and His Grant of Mount Desert, Publications of the Colonial Society of Mass”.

With reference to Popham’s deserted fort on the Kennebec, there is a statement made by the Jesuit Father, Pierre Biard, in a letter to the Provincial, of date January 31, 1612, which makes it clear that one of the reasons which induced Biencourt, the commander of Port Royal, to undertake a trip to the westward, accompanied by Father Biard, was “in order to have news of the English, and to find out if it would be possible to obtain satisfaction from them” (si on pourroit avoir raison d’eux).
Noting certain inherent defects in the plan and defenses of the fort, the Frenchmen evidently concluded that it would be possible to get the better of the English, even if this fortification were well garrisoned; but they were reckoning without Captain Argall, to whom Father Biard was soon to have an introduction at Saint Sauveur. Here at Mount Desert, even if the improvident commander, La Saussaye, in spite of the vehement protestations of the militant members of the colony, set up fruit trees instead of cannon, and laid out gardens rather than fortifications, had listened to Captain Fleury, Lieutenant La Motte and the Jesuits, the English Captain Argall, in his strongly armed ship of some two hundred and fifty tons, with her complement of sixty fighting men, would have proved far too powerful. Argall, by rescuing the grant of North Virginia from the French, most certainly got the better of a movement, which, as Alexander Brown has said, had it not been stopped in the beginning, it is interesting to think what might have been the history of this nation.

As sometimes related, the story of Argall’s dealings with the Jesuits at Mount Desert, leaves nothing to his credit. His stealing of La Saussaye’s commission when that chickenhearted commander, at the first signs of trouble, discreetly took to the woods in the region of Valley Cove, was a senseless bit of villainy; his turning adrift in an open boat, well provisioned to be sure, of many colonists, seems, judged by modern standards, an inhuman act; but it is to be noted that upon the arrival in Virginia, with the remnant of the Saint Sauveur colony, when Marshall Dale threatened hanging, Argall came to the rescue, confessed his duplicity and zealously argued against any such proceedings.
Father Pierre Biard, Superior of Saint Sauveur, was perhaps the greatest sufferer as the result of Argall’s conquest, in body as well as. in mind, and his estimation of a former enemy, written after he was safely back in Europe, is an encomium worthy of remark; for the Jesuit Father has said:
“Certainly this Argall has shown himself such a person that we have reason to wish for him, that from now on, he may serve a better cause and one in which his nobility of heart may appear, not in the ruin, but in the preservation of honest men.”
Turning next to an English contemporary, let us note what Ralph Hamor, one time secretary of the Virginia Company, has to say of Admiral Argall at Mount Desert: “His Norward discoveries towards Sacadehoc, and beyond to Port Royal, Sancta Crux, and thereabout may not be concealed: In which his adventure if he had brought home no commodity to the colony (which yet he did very much both of apparrell, victualls, and many other necessaries) the honour which he hath done unto our Nation, by displanting the French there beginning to seat and fortefie within our limits, and taking of their Ship and Pinnas, which he brought to James Towne, which would have rewarded enough for his paines, and will ever speake loud his honour and approved valour.”

In the investigation which followed the destruction of Saint Sauveur, Argall was vindicated. The average reader of early American history will, however, find but few references to this important detail. On the other hand many of the older histories speak of Captain Argall as a freebooter, pirate, buccaneer or marauder because he attacked the French at a time when England and France were at peace, ignoring two very important points to which attention may now be turned.
There is a clause in the Virginia Charter which conferred upon the colonies of both North and South Virginia the right “to encounter, expulse, repel and resist, as well by sea as by land,” by all ways and means whatsoever, all and every such person and persons, as without especial license of the several said colonies and plantations, shall attempt to inhabit within the said several precincts and limits of the said several colonies and plantations, or any of them.”

The second point is this: On July 11, 1612, at the Trinity term of the Virginia court, Captain Samuel Argall was commissioned as Admiral of Virginia and specially instructed to prevent the French from establishing colonies in North Virginia, and under this authority of the Virginia court, backed by the clause in the Virginia Charter, the French Jesuit settlement at Mount Desert was obliterated. Dr. Burrage, in his Beginnings of Colonial Maine has ably discussed the Saint Sauveur episode in all its various phases and it is not here necessary to go further into detail, for the above mentioned facts are quite sufficient to show that Argall by carrying out instructions should not be anathematized as a pirate or marauder, but ought to be considered an English naval officer who, from the standpoint of British interests in America, performed an act at Mount Desert, the importance of which, in Colonial history, cannot be overestimated.

Sawtelle, William Otis, “Sir Samuel Argall: the First Englishman at Mount Desert” (1923). Maine History Documents. 82.