James Nelson of Harpswell is not only a very successful writer of historical fiction and nonfiction, he is also one of Maine’s best-known pirate impersonators. Each summer you can find him at old Pemaquid, dressed as the dread pirate Dixie Bull. It was there, in 1632, that Maine suffered its worst pirate attack.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected]

According to the book “The Devil Made Me Do It! Crime and Punishment in Early New England” by Juliet Haines Mofford, Dixie Bull was a native of England and apprenticed to his brother Seth as a skinner, somebody who dealt in skins and furs. Rather than finish his apprenticeship, he traveled to the New World, where he had been granted a land patent in what would become York County. It may have been Fernando Georges who sent him over to become a fur trader and colonist. However it happened, Bull started out as an honest businessman and traded with the Natives for beaver pelts. Unfortunately, this was a time of conflict between the English and the French, and a band of French raiders stopped his boat and stole all his merchandise.

It seems that Bull tried to find satisfaction with the courts of Boston, but legal channels got him nowhere. So he assembled a group of around 20 men and set out for revenge. While he may have planned to attack the French, he wound up attacking the English instead, perhaps because they were richer targets.

His most daring raid was at Pemaquid. Next to the Pemaquid museum is the stone foundation of a long warehouse: it seems that this was Bull’s target. He sailed into the harbor with three ships, guns blazing, and relieved the warehouse of its contents. Setting fire to the town, Bull sailed off.

His second-in-command was killed by a bullet from the fort, and the sight of blood may have led Bull and his men to a career change.

Or perhaps it was the small group of armed ships that was sent to hunt him down. Although it only consisted of four shallops and 40 men, it was considered America’s first armed naval expedition. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and Dixie Bull got away. Some believed he joined the French, but others think he ended his short pirating career and went back to England. According to his Wikipedia page, Dixie Bull finally finished his apprenticeship many years later, in 1648. Somehow he managed to escape the noose and gibbet that ended the careers of so many other pirates.

Like every other pirate, it was said that Dixie Bull buried his treasure. Damariscove Island and Cushings Island are mentioned as possible spots for his booty. In 1855, a rum pot full of gold coins was plowed up on Richmond Island, and the dates of the coins fit in nicely with the Dixie Bull story. However, pirates generally preferred to spend their money rather than bury it. According to maineboats.com, the Richmond Island treasure was probably buried by Walter Bagnall, an early colonist and trader. Money was so scarce that most colonists were trading native Wampum beads, so Bagnall must have been very successful to accumulate such a wealth of gold. Whoever buried it, the Richmond Island horde is now in the possession of the Maine Historical Society.

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