Grandma Colby and the Handbill

by Marion Dixon

It has been said that without the poetic pen of Longfellow the famous ride of Paul Revere would have been forgotten in the annals of American history. Unfortunately, there were not enough Longfellows to immortalize all of the small deeds that surely must have punctuated the period of the Revolution.

The story of one such deed has been handed down over many generations of my family and I present it, not as competition for Longfellow, but as a tribute to the actions of one pioneer woman. She would not think she had done anything of note. She was simply the first of many island women who could have done the same. But she was the first and surely that must have been a satisfaction to this woman who had lost one brother to the British.

History books tell us that Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on the 19th of October, in 1781. How the news managed to travel to other parts of the new country is pretty much left out of the picture, but by piecing together snatches of printed history with a favorite family story was can follow the progress of the news of that surrender to its receipt by British forces elsewhere.

On Wednesday afternoon, October 24, 1781, a schooner dropped anchor at Newport, Rhode Island. By Thursday morning a broadside (a single-sheet flyer printed on one side only) had been printed for general distribution. It read as follows:

Newport, October 25, 1781
Yesterday afternoon arrived at the Harbor Capt. Lovett, of the Schooner Adventure, from York-River in Chesapeak-Bay (which he left the 20th instant) and brought us the glorious News of the Surrender of Lord CORNWALLIS and his Army Prisoners of War to the allied Army, under the command of our Illustrious General, and the French Fleet, under the command of his Excellency the Count de GRASSE.

A Cessation of Arms took Place on Thursday the 18th Instant, in Consequence of Proposals from Lord Cornwallis for a Capitulation. His Lordship proposed a Cessation of Twenty-four Hours, but Two only were granted by His Excellency General WASHINGTON. The Articles were completed the fame Day, and the next Day the allied Army took Possession of York-Town.

By this glorious Conquest, NINE THOUSAND of the Enemy, including Seamen, fell into our Hands, with an immense Quantity of Warlike Stores, a forty Gun Ship, a Frigate, an armed vessel, and about One Hundred Sail of Transports.

By 3 PM, Thursday, the news had reached Providence, about 30 miles to the north, and additional broadsides had been printed, with the announcement of the arrival of the news from Newport. By 6 PM, Friday, a similar broadside was being distributed from Norwich, Connecticut, also by way of Newport.

The scene shifts to an island along the coast of Maine [Stonington], where a 45-year-old housewife--Sarah, my great-great-great-great-grandmother--was intent on preparing for her infrequent shopping trip to Bagaduce [now Castine]. Her shoemaker husband, Joseph [Colby], would stay behind to work at his trade, but she would take their town sons, Joseph Jr., 15, and Thomas, 13, to help her with rowing. Yes, there only one way that she could get to Bagaduce, 25 miles distant, and that was to row. They would leave that night when the tide was favorable to get to the town where the British soldiers were garrisoned.

Suddenly there was an excited knocking on the door, and her neighbor, Seth Webb, come rushing in, waving a piece of paper. "Look at this," he exclaimed. "I've just rowed over from Isle au Haut, where I saw the captain of one of our schooners. He was handing out broadsides telling of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, down in Virginia."

Stopping to catch his breath, Seth listened as quick-thinking Sarah took over. "I'm leaving tonight for Bagaduce. Please, let me take your broadside with me." Seth had just finished rowing a long distance himself so it wasn't difficult to get him to agree.

That night Sarah, with Joseph Jr. and Thomas, set out in the dory, rowing with the tide, up Penobscot Bay. The three spelled one another at intervals so that no one would get too tired, with the third likely napping during the off-time. It was very late in October, or early November, so a fine fall day was certainly preceded by a sharply cold night as they rowed under a panoply of diamonds sparkling in a black velvet sky. Whether or not there was moon helping to guide the mariners, I do not know, but Sarah was sure to have been able to follow the stars after fifteen years of living on the island.

When they landed a British officer greeted her with the question, "Well, Madam, what news do you have this morning?" This question indicates how far out of touch those occupation forces were with the war that was being fought so far to the south of them.

Sarah, with trace of impertinence, answered, "Not much, Sir, only there is a rumor that my Lord Cornwallis has surrendered."

Shocked by her audacity, the officer rebuked her, saying, "It will not do to bring such news here." Whereupon Sarah Triumphantly showed him the broadside that she had carried all those miles. he borrowed the handbill to show to his superiors, who, after reading it, returned it to Sarah with conviction of its truth.

Historical facts and family lore end the story there but I like to think of Sarah and Joseph Jr. and Thomas finishing there shopping in time to catch the outward-bound tide, on which they floated as on a cloud, back to their home on Deer Isle.

The two hundred years of our country's growth have seen great strides in the field of communication, news gathering, and news dissemination, but I wonder if there was ever a time when it was done with more personal satisfaction that Sarah Thurlow Colby must have felt that morning in Bagaduce.

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