The Grand Design, a Shipwreck, Betrayal and Rescue by Indians

by Tom Seymour

The Martha & Eliza dismasted in a north west Atlantic hurricane in October 1741. The ship drifted for weeks before currents drew it into the Bay of Fundy and on to the rocks at Grand Manan Island.

While everyone knows about the first thanksgiving and how the Indians helped the pilgrims by showing them the skills needed to survive, Maine has its own story of native peoples going to lengths to ensure the survival of stranded European colonists.

The story begins in early 18th-century England. A group of Scots-Irish, Scottish settlers forcibly transplanted to Northern Ireland, were stoically enduring persecution by the Church of England. Eventually this became too much to bear and the Scots-Irish fell sway to a resettlement scheme called “Grand Design,” which alluded to them being part of God’s plan for relocation to a place of religious freedom.

From here, history diverges and were it not for intrepid historical researcher Julia Lane, most people would still believe that the name of the ship that brought the Scots-Irish immigrants to the New World was Grand Design.

Much of the misinformation on this topic comes from an 1853 book by Cyrus Eaton. Eaton called the ship Grand Design, apparently unaware that this was the name of a project, not a sailing vessel. Eaton also placed the scene of the shipwreck at Ship Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine when, in fact, the storm-damaged vessel made land on Grand Manan Island, Canada.

Indeed, the story was so widely accepted that this author included the account in his 1995 book, Hiking Maine, Falcon Publishing. But this error can be forgiven because at the time, a National Park Service plaque along the Ship Harbor Nature Trail told the story as it came from Cyrus Eaton. The park service has since removed the erroneous marker.

True Story

The true story is much more interesting and enlightening than the widely accepted inaccurate one. It involves treachery, abandonment and ultimate rescue not by the hands of Europeans but, rather, Native Americans.

What we have learned thus far of the persecuted Scots-Irish is accurate. A deeply religious group of Protestants suffered under intolerable conditions at the hands of their English masters. Add to that the Little Ice Age had made farming impossible because of monthly freezes. Potatoes, a staple food, became blighted and died.

So in addition to being ostracized by the English, the Scots-Irish were on the verge of starvation. Eventually this energetic group decided that “God is the master of the Grand Design” and interpreted that to mean they should find a new home, away from religious and other forms of persecution.

They further concluded that the Grand Design specifically meant they should head for the American colonies to start a new life. To that end they chartered a vessel, the Martha & Eliza, a “snow,” or two-masted bark, to take them on their journey. The immigrants left Ireland on July 28, 1741.

But danger lurked just around the corner. England and France were at war and English vessels were not sailing out for fear of privateers and also, pirates. So the contract between the Scots-Irish and the ship’s captain, Matthew Rowen, also spelled “Rowan” in some reports, was strictly off-record. For that reason, no official records of the journey exist. In other words, the immigrants were on their own.

But working with the only options available, the Scots-Irish boarded the Martha & Eliza and set out for Pennsylvania, where earlier immigrants awaited them. But gale-force winds shattered the ship’s masts and set the vessel and its passengers adrift. The following weeks saw them drifting, dismasted, at the mercy of wind and tide. The captain finally lost his bearings and had no idea where they were.

As if to compound their misery, starvation and fever took their toll of lives. It appeared as if all on board were doomed. And then another vessel, also in a dilapidated state as a result of the late storm, shared biscuits and water with those aboard the Martha & Eliza, temporarily easing the threat of starvation.

Finally, on October 28, the ship ground ashore on one of the islands by Grand Manan, Canada. But instead of doing everything humanly possible to assist his charges, Captain Rowen and his crew abandoned the survivors, leaving them to forage for clams and whatever else they might scrounge from the seashore. Rowen and his crew took the ship’s longboat and sailed to Pemaquid, Maine, where best estimates say they spent a few weeks in drunken debauchery.

With winter coming on, death and starvation seemed imminent. But to their surprise, the captain finally returned to salvage what he could from his wrecked vessel. He agreed to carry the survivors to Maine. But in exchange for this he demanded all the money and valuables, including clothing, that the stranded people owned. This was no doubt a princely sum, since many of the passengers were quite wealthy. But in order to live, they had no choice but to allow themselves to be reduced to paupers.

Actor portraying Dawn, the Passamaquoddy goddess of Grand Manan Island.

Captain Rowen took on 48 survivors, forsaking the 35 men who had gone off seeking help and the women who had strayed far afield in search of food. And, of course, a number of the Scots-Irish had died and were left on the island. The captain took his 48 weakened and debilitated passengers to Pleasant Point in Cushing, Maine, just across the St. George River from St. George. Here they disembarked and found themselves begging the locals for mercy.

Fortunately, the Maine people took kindly to the poor immigrants and gave them food and shelter. However, 48 people were too many for the little community to support for long and so they asked the province for assistance. The Massachusetts Bay Colony noted spending 250 pounds for provisions to help the Scots-Irish. However, no record exists of the colony ever sending the relief and no one knows what became of whatever was purchased with the 250 pounds that were appropriated for the immigrant’s relief.

Neither is there any record of Captain Rowen, or Rowan, ever being charged with what clearly amounts to second-degree murder on a grand scale. Instead, Captain Rowen became governor of North Carolina in 1758.

However, the provincial governor, hearing a complaint from survivors, sent a ship to Grand Manan to pick up the remaining survivors. But since Captain Rowen had dropped survivors off at different parts of the island, a group of them were not rescued and were compelled to endure a winter on the island.

The wretched survivors were not doomed, however, and help arrived in the form of a hunting party of Passamaquoddy hunters in April of 1741. The island was sacred to the Indians and was considered so because Dawn, the daughter of sea and sky deities, was pursued by a pack of wolves and ran toward the sea, where she was transformed into the present-day island.

It was because of Grand Manan’s role in the Passamaquoddy creation story that the Indians, who believed (and still do) that Dawn’s spirit remained on Grand Manan that they chose the island as the spot for their first hunt of each year.

And so when the Passamaquoddy men beached their canoes on the island, they were amazed to find a mother and infant child, along with nine other women. The Indians were greatly impressed that the European women had survived the winter by grubbing for shellfish, dulse and whatever else they could find that was at all edible.

It may have been because of the women’s indomitable pluck and spirit that the Indians decided against capturing them and selling them to the French at a nearby settlement. Also, the Indians were convinced that Dawn herself had protected and aided the women through the long, cold winter. So what Dawn had chosen to protect, the hunters could only follow suit.

So the Passamaquoddys chose to make the perilous 100-mile journey by sea to the English fort in St. George, Maine, carrying a letter from the women asking for help. This trip was accomplished in an open boat and was fraught with danger.

But the Passamaquoddys made it safely and delivered their message to the English, who sent a ship to Grand Manan to pick up the women. The survivors were taken back to St. George. And for some of these careworn survivors, the thought of further travel was out of the question and they remained in Maine, marrying Maine men and becoming dyed-in-the-wool Mainers.

It is interesting to note that in their time of peril it wasn’t the ship’s captain or crew that saved the survivors from certain death but rather, a group of Native Americans who risked life and limb to affect their rescue.

This event can be considered a second thanksgiving, with the Indians once again, playing the part of heroes. And according to Julia Lane, the women thereafter kept up close bonds with the local Indians in Maine at a time when Europeans were either warring with the Native Americans or were at the least, fearful and distrustful of them.

This stands as a tale worthy of retelling many times over. It illustrates how human goodness and decency on the part of the Indians saved the lives of 10 women and one infant, this at a time when their own people had abandoned them.