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Houghton Graves Park: An adventure story of multiple kidnappings

One of a series of articles exploring the natural and human history of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s protected land. With each of these articles comes a public event. We encourage you to enjoy the Winter Solstice Lantern Walk on Dec. 21. Click here for details.

By Nancy West

The view from Houghton Graves Park (Nancy West photo)

For a sweet morsel of a park with delicious tidbits of human and natural history, I recommend Houghton Graves Park on Orr’s Island. You can walk under boughs of ancient apple trees to a picnic table with a killer view.  When I sat at the table during a rare sunny moment this fall, a man rowed a blue dory north out of Beal’s cove. No plastic kayak, no jet ski, no modern powerboat – fitting for land owned by Joseph Orr in 1749. To make this view accessible to all, Patty and Allan Graves and Russell Houghton gave this morsel of a parcel to Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

Allan Graves and Russell Houghton’s ancestor was Michael Sinnett. Coming to America wasn’t in his plans when he and friends went to Dublin after finishing his apprenticeship as a glove maker in the early 1750s. They were invited aboard a ship and, perhaps thinking, “What a lovely afternoon for a sail…what a lark,” were kept aboard against their will. When the ship reached Boston, Michael was sold to Joseph Orr for the cost of the involuntary passage.

Michael’s first kidnapping worked out for the best. He seemed to have gotten along fine with Joseph Orr and, while paying off his “debt” by cutting and chopping the forest on Orr’s Island, he met Mary Ward. They married and moved to the Boothbay area where they homesteaded 100 acres. Coastal traffic was such that Mary could visit family near Boston while Michael farmed. That is, until a British Navy press gang kidnapped him to fight the French and Indian War. From New York he marched to participate in the Siege of Quebec in 1759.

Meanwhile Mary returned home surprised to find an empty house. She retreated to the care of Joseph Orr. When Michael returned, Orr sold the Sinnetts 30 acres and they raised Stephen, James, Mollie, and Deborah. Timing is everything: While Mollie was born in 1772, Deborah wasn’t born until 1779. During the Revolution, Michael was a member of Capt. Jonathon Doyle’s company from Harpswell.

When Michael died, he left his estate to Mary and thence to his children, albeit with a starkly unequal division. “I give my beloved son, Stephen Sinnot, one dollar, and no more, and the reason of my not giving him more is not for want of paternal affection, but (my estate being small) I apprehend that my other children had my interest more.” Michael left the farm, buildings, farming utensils, a chest, and a feather bed and bedding to James. Each daughter received a cow. They also divided beds, bedding, tables, wheels, pewter pots, kettles, knives, forks, chairs, women’s wearing apparel, and “whatever else comes under the denomination of household furniture.”

Capt. James Sinnett

Poor Stephen. He stayed on Orr’s Island, married Hannah Bailey Merriman, raised eleven children by farming and fishing, and lived until 1844. Stephen’s son James inherited his grandfather’s early misfortune.  At 23, during the War of 1812, while out fishing with two younger brothers, his boat attracted the attention of the Rattler, a British man-of-war masquerading as an American man-of-war, the Essex. The British hijacked Sinnett’s boat to explore our coastal waters. Sinnett and his brothers were held captive for a few weeks until the British learned what they needed. And, finally, the kidnapping of Sinnetts ceased.

While the author of the Sinnett family genealogy, Rev. Charles Sinnett, noted with great frequency the hospitality and generosity of generations of Sinnett descendants, two examples stand out. You already know of the gift of Houghton Graves Park. From Michael Sinnett’s will, you know that Allan Graves and Russell Houghton descend from Michael’s son, James. The other example occurred in 1909 when William Henry Sinnett* (“Capt. Henry”) and his wife Joanna gave Bailey Island’s Giant’s Stairs to the Town of Harpswell. Capt. Henry had successfully farmed, fished, and marketed lobsters. He donated the strip of land along the shore so that anyone can see and hear waves crashing against ledge formed through a long geologic history. [link to McIntosh Lot?]

Geoff Feiss, geologist, pointing to the dark, grungy layer, the fault that rotated the ledge to the right. (Nancy West photo)

Houghton Graves Park also has a tidbit of geologic history. You can see it along the shore. As you step off the stone steps at the end of the old cart path, look down at the outcrop. Note that the rocks stand vertically. Walk north around 30 yards and keep an eye on the orientation of the rocks. Keep walking north around a slight bend and look for a tree with a U-shaped root. To the left of the root, look at how the rocks lie. What happened here? The block of rock that is tipping 30 to 45 degrees from horizontal is bound by faults. It was rotated and probably moved an unknown distance along those faults. As you head back to the steps, see if you can find the southern end of this block. It’s harder to find but a three to four inch diameter evergreen grows halfway up the slope about where the southern fault lies.

Another rock worth examining—and I have not yet—is the ramp at the south end of Rat Island. When the water warms, I’ll swim out, like probably hundreds of Sinnett and neighborhood children have done, and walk up the ramp. From the shore it looks smooth, and this makes me wonder why. Glaciers? A more massive rock? Definitely worth exploring, as we can because the island is on the Maine Island Trail.

One last historical—and gastronomical—tidbit. Royal Graves, who married Susan Sinnett Farr, Michael’s great-granddaughter, farmed the land for fifty odd years. He died in 1905, she in 1911. Perhaps he’s the one who planted the apple trees. He sold his cows’ milk around the island and, of course, grew a garden. For fertilizer, he harvested seaweed, hauling it up the cart path we use. That access to seaweed was so important that in a 1938 deed in which Josephine Graves conveyed the land to Susan Houghton, she also conveyed “any right to collect seaweed on the land formerly of … Michael Sinnett…”. Only in Maine.

I recommend a picnic lunch at either of the tables on a sunny day, with vegetables fertilized with seaweed. You can contemplate your luck of not having been kidnapped — twice. Then, follow your lunch with a short geology field trip to see a faulted block, skip some stones**, and swim to Rat Island. For a perfect historic atmosphere, keep a watch for the man rowing the blue dory.

 

*Both of Capt. Henry’s parents were Michael Sinnett’s grandchildren. His mother was Susannah Orr, the daughter of Molly, and his father was Hugh, the son of Stephen.

**Rocks along the shore are from the Cape Elizabeth Formation, about 440 to 490 million years old, like so many Harpswell rocks.

Sources:

Sinnett, Rev. Charles Nelson. 1910. Michael Sinnett of Harpswell, Maine: His Ancestry and Descendants. Concord, New Hampshire, The Rumford Press. Click here for link. Captured 29 November 2018.

Thwing, Annie Haven. 1925. “The Story of Orr’s Island, Maine.” https://digicom.bpl.lib.me.us/books_pubs/60/. Captured 1 December 2018.