Monday, June 27, 2011

June 27: William Pepperrell, 1st Baronet of America

He was relatively uneducated, but brilliant; a merchant and a soldier; was a colonial leader as well as the “Hero of Louisberg”; and was the first native-born baronet in colonial America.

William Pepperrell was born on June 27, 1696 in Kittery – which is today in Maine, but during the colonial era was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His father, William Pepperrell, was an English settler who began his career in the colonies as a fisherman’s apprentice, and would advance to a shipbuilder and fishing boat owner. His father had married well, for Margery Bray was the daughter of a well-to-do Kittery merchant. Young Pepperrell was the sixth of seven children.

Young Pepperrell studied surveying and navigation, and later joined his father in the shipbuilding business where he worked in the counting house. He was seventeen when his older brother died, and he had to assume much of the responsibility of the family business. By 1730 Mssrs. Wm. Pepperrells was largely managed by young Pepperrell.

He expanded his father’s business with energy and vigor, creating one of the most prosperous mercantile houses in New England. By 1730 Pepperrell’s firm was managing 30 to 35 vessels which – for the most part – shuttled back and forth from Newfoundland to Virginia and Maryland, and as far as the sugar islands in the Caribbean. They also crossed the Atlantic to Portugal, Spain, and England.

His company ships carried products native to the region - lumber, fish - and brought back sugar, textiles, and other marketable commodities. With the profits Pepperrell purchased land in New England as well as investing in property and business interests in England.

In New England, shipping was a source of wealth but land-ownership represented gentility and status. This new status brought with it the communal responsibility of public office and military command. The Pepperrell’s were one of the nine families in Kittery that had the wealth and status deemed necessary to hold public office – and these political offices were often rotated between the families, being passed down from father to son.

By 1720 – at the age of twenty-four – young Pepperrell represented Kittery in the provincial assembly. In 1725 he became a judge on the York County court, and within five years became the chief justice. By 1727 he was appointed to the Massachusetts Council board – the legislative body of the colony.

Another public responsibility was service in the militia. By the time he was twenty-one Pepperrell was elected as captain of the local militia, then major, lieutenant-colonel, and at the age of thirty was a colonel of the York County militia –the latter position having been held by his father, passing to young Pepperrell as part of the estate. As colonel, he was in command of the entire region from the Piscataqua River to the Canadian border.

Pepperrell married well, being wed on March 16, 1724 to Mary Hirst. Hirst was the daughter of Grove Hirst and Elizabeth Sewell of Boston, and was the granddaughter of the famous colonial judge Samuel Sewell. The couple had four children – 3 girls and a boy – but only the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, would survive the couple. Pepperrell would adopt his grandson, William Pepperrell Sparhawk, as his heir in order to pass on a hereditary title.

The frontiers were relatively peaceful until the spring of 1744. Pepperrell was warned in late 1743 that relations between France and England were close to the breaking point, and to warn and secure the frontier settlements in his jurisdiction against any sudden assault by the French Candadians. On May 12, 1744, word reached Boston of a declaration of war on England by the French, and soon after the French became active against the English New England colonies. The war became known as King George’s War, and was part of the War of Austrian Succession. Increased naval pressure and a series of attacks by the French and their Indian allies convinced the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, that the defense of New England required the reduction of the French stronghold at Louisbourg.

Pepperrell was the logical choice to command the forces. He had been among the early advocates of an attack on Louisb0urg – though these advocates envisioned it as a largely English affair, with minor colonial support. He was also familiar, thanks to his tenure as colonel, with the frontier. He also was respected by the citizenry that made up the militia, and maintained a respectable standard of discipline. He also knew many of the Royal Navy officers – men responsible for transporting and supporting his army.

Governor Shirley proposed a colonial undertaking, with limited English support – and provided a plan for the assault. Pepperrell agreed and was an influential supporter of the idea in the political environment of Massachusetts.

Pepperrell set sail on March 24, 1745, from Boston. Arriving at the British outpost of Canso, Nova Scotia, on April 4, the Massachusetts militia was joined by militias from New Hampshire and Connecticut, and by a naval squadron from the West Indies. It is estimated that Pepperrell had up to 4,300 men under his command – although the effective strength at any one time would amount to around 2,100.

By April 30, the force arrived at Louisburg. Pepperrell, realizing that Shirley’s original (based on surprise) would not work, opted to commence a formal siege. However, the New Englanders surprised the French by – instead of stopping to dig defensive trenches right away – hauling their heavy cannon during the night of their arrival through a marsh the French considered impassable, and then occupying a key French defensive position that had been abandoned. By the second morning of the landing, Pepperrell’s cannon were firing into Louisburg from this position.

The siege lasted seven weeks, but in the end the French asked for surrender terms. On June 17, 1745, the French officially capitulated.

The surrender of the French stronghold brought fame and honor to Pepperrell. King George II commissioned him as colonel in command of a regular army regiment – the 66th Regiment of Foot – and he received a baronetcy. He was now “Sir” William Pepperrell.

Pepperrell would, as many colonists, be bitter at the 1748 return of Louisburg to the French in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, but he would live to see it recaptured in another war with France in 1758 – this time by a British-led force under the command of General James Wolfe.

In 1755 Pepperrell was promoted to Major General, and in 1759 became the only native-born American to receive a commission as lieutenant-general in the British army – honoring the Lion of Louisburg. Pepperrell passed away on July 6, 1759 – recognized by his generation as the foremost military figure in the colonies.

Web Resources:

1911 Encyclopedia

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

The Great Fortress (Gutenberg Project)

The Life of Sir William Pepperrell (Googlebooks)

Massachusetts Historical Society

Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook

Nova Scotian Biographies

Sir William Pepperrell by Nathanial Hawthorne


Photo Resources:

Portrait of Pepperrell by John Smibert, 1746 (Wikipedia)

1670 map of New England (Wikipedia)

Landing troops at Louisburg (Wikipedia)

¾ view portrait of William Pepperrell (black and white), 1747, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-75604, Nova Scotian Biographies


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