Historical Perspective: Vineyard militia captures a British ship

Captured trader Wemyss Orrok addressed this letter to George Washington, but the general may never have seen it. — Photo courtesy of MV Musuem

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

Many of the documents in the archives of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum tell incomplete stories. They invite us to speculate about what happened here long ago — to fill in the blanks of the historical record. Few have been as mysterious or intriguing as a letter written by a man named Wemyss Orrok to George Washington in 1776. The letter is about an incident that happened four months before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

March 7, 1776

Wemyss (probably pronounced “Weems”) Orrok, ran his ship onto the treacherous Nantucket Shoals, where it was stuck for some time, but not badly damaged. He was carrying supplies to the British under siege by Washington’s Continental Army in Boston. Word of his distress reached Edgartown on March 7, and 37 Vineyard men tasked with defending the Island went out to meet the ship, keep the food and beer from reaching the enemy, and make a profit. Two days later, the captain of the Martha’s Vineyard Militia, Beriah Norton, reported the incident to the Massachusetts Council.

“About twenty-three of our men were those of the sea-coast, under Captain Benjamin Smith, the rest were of the Militia. They engaged her, and, after a smart skirmish, the captain of the ship being shot through the thigh, struck to our Yankee Sloop, and are brought into Old-Town harbour. The captain is in a fair way of recovery… The officers and seamen are ordered to Head-Quarters by the sea-coast Captain, under the care of Second Lieutenant James Shaw… I shall not enlarge any further on this subject, as I expect to be at Court within fifteen days.”

The Council met in Watertown, just a few miles from Cambridge, where Washington was headquartered. Norton agreed to carry a letter from Captain Orrok to the General. This is the letter in the Museum’s archives.

“To his Excellency General George Washington — Having this opportunity by Colonel Norton; I must beg leave to trouble you with this letter…” Orrok continues on to tell the same story that Norton recounted to the Council, “… I was attacked by an armed vessel from the Vineyard – and I being Not willing to part with my property without making some defense – But being unfortunately Wounded, was obliged to submit to superior force.”

Then he explained his predicament, “At present I have the greatest reason imaginable to expect (without your Excellency interferes on my behalf) that my private property which consists of a few – [illegible] & some other trinkets which was intended for sale in Jamaica and likewise my wearing apparel which they are fully determined to Plunder from me. At Present I have nothing at my Command.”

And finally, the reason for the letter, “Should your Excellency be so very obliging to permit me to Depart for Jamaica, I should not so much regret they loss. But if it is my lot to be Detained here I would wish to appear a little Decent, but that I cannot do without your Excellency will take compassion upon me & send me orders for them to restore what they so ardently wish to keep.”

There is no evidence that Washington ever received this letter. It was sealed with red wax and addressed to him at Cambridge, but somehow it returned to, or remained in, Edgartown.

When the late Art Railton researched the letter, he had to end the story of Wemyss Orrok there. Now, as archival repositories place more and more of their holdings online and older books are digitized and become remotely searchable, it has become possible to learn the fate of the man who for 236 years has been imprisoned somewhere in Edgartown, wearing only his shirt, shivering. Here’s what happened after Orrok wrote his letter to Washington.

Captain of the Sea Coast Company, Benjamin Smith, saw no reason to return any of Orrok’s property, and he didn’t want to share it with Massachusetts either. On June 6, Smith petitioned the Council to allow him and his men to keep their prize, which after all had originally been intended “for the use of the Fleet and Army employed against the United Colonies.” Smith was upset that the law allowing the Sea Coast Company to keep captured ships, along with their “Cargoes & Appurtenances” had been changed on April 23, more than a month after the incident. Now the Court was trying to retroactively say that he was only entitled to one third of the proceeds, with the Colony to get the rest. The Council’s answer to Smith’s petition came swiftly. It was a compromise in his favor; instead of one third, the Sea Coast Men would be allowed two thirds of the value of the ship and its contents.

The next we hear of Orrok is a response to a petition of his own. On September 11, 1776, a resolution was passed empowering the Colony Agent at Dartmouth to pay him “£100, out of the Colony’ s part of the ship and cargo, of which the petitioner was Late master, if so much there be belonging to the State; if not, whatever is the Colony’ s proportion of said expense.” And with that, we hear nothing more of Orrok in North America. It is understandable that he might have been happy to put Massachusetts far behind him, never to return.

By the 1790s he was working for the British East India Company, sailing their trade ships between England and India. Though we still do not have a complete picture of his life, we now know that he was a Scotsman. He captained the Phoenix in 1794, the Rose from 1799 to 1800, and the Lord Nelson from 1804 until his death in 1805. His death is reported at St. Helena, a small island completely owned by the company, which is now most famous for having been the place of Napoleon’s final exile and death. And there is a memorial to him in India, in Calcutta’s South Park Street Burial Ground:

“Sacred to the Memory of Wemyss Orrok, Esq., Late Commander of the Honourable Company’s Ship “Lord Nelson,” who departed this life on the 11th day of January 1805, aged 54 years.”

Bonnie Stacy is chief curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441 for more information on tours and exhibits.