A wooden blockhouse that still stands by the Sheepscot River is the unlikely legacy of a cabinetmaker named Moses Davis who strongly disagreed with the purpose of the fort he helped build.
Davis was not just a cabinetmaker. He was a farmer, a lawmaker and a respected leader of the Town of Edgecomb, Maine. He also happened to own a piece of land that was perfect for a coastal fort.
He was a pious and hardworking 27-year-old when he and his wife Sarah moved from Newburyport, Mass., in 1770 to a settlement across from Wiscasset. After Edgecomb was incorporated in 1774, Moses Davis was selected to represent the town in the General Court. He was elected a delegate to the Massachusetts conventions that led to the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788 (he voted yes).
In between conventions, Moses Davis worked his farm, reared six children and made furniture. He was a town selectmen and justice of the peace who married 183 couples over his lifetime.
On Sept. 11, 1783, he wrote in his diary that he ‘workt in shop on Capt. Dunton chest.’ He also worked on making a ‘Great plow,’ finished a chest for John Place, built a ‘standing stool’ for Mrs. Decket and helped build a kitchen in Wiscasset.
Fast forward 25 years. Wiscasset grew to a busy port second only to Portland. Ships had carried timber from Wiscasset to Europe and the West Indies, while a fishing fleet and merchant vessels had sailed in and out of the harbor. But President Thomas Jefferson’s wildly unpopular Embargo of 1807 had strangled commerce along the Sheepscot River.
War with Britain was looming on May 21, 1808. On that spring day, 65-year-old Moses Davis received two visitors, Maj. Moses Porter and Moses Carlton. Porter, an engineer, had served under Henry Knox and was charged with building batteries from Castine Harbor to the mouth of the Kennebec River. Carlton was a local ship owner and businessman hired to handle the project.
Porter wanted to buy land from Moses Davis to build a fort that would defend Wiscasset and enforce the hated embargo. Davis’ farm – on Davis Island – was right across from Wiscasset.
On June 13, 1808, Moses Davis formally deeded over three acres on Davis Island for $300.00 to the United States government. The next day, Moses Porter moved in with the Davis family and set out boundary stakes for the fort.
For the next six months, he supervised the work while Moses Davis helped build the fort along with still two other Moseses: his son, Moses Davis, Jr., and his hired hand, Moses Dodge. Ironically, Moses Davis was just then petitioning the General Court for help in redressing the Embargo Law.
The two younger Moseses and other workers did most of the heavy lifting: hauling planks for the gun platforms and rocks, brick, timber and sod for the battery.
The fort was finished in time to celebrate James Madison’s inauguration as president. On Feb. 23, 1809, Moses Dodge had a team of oxen haul cannons to the fort. It was said the only time the cannons at Fort Edgecomb were fired was in salute of James Madison – that is, the end of the embargo.
Thomas Jefferson actually lifted the embargo three days before leaving office. Moses Davis happily recorded in his diary that seven or eight vessels went downriver to European and other ports.
The octagonal, 34-foot-high blockhouse still stands. Fort Edgecomb is now a historic site with guided tours in the summer. It represents America’s best-preserved blockhouse of the period and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Forts of Maine: Silent Sentinels of the Pine Tree State by Harry Gratwick provided much of the information for this post. You can buy the book from the New England Historical Society’s bookstore here.