The compass used by Capt. Ebenezer Prebleby Chris Chase
Coastal Journal Staff
BOOTHBAY — This story is, in a way, a second part to a story featured in Midcoast Maine. Astute readers of that publication with good memories may remember a story done in July 2011 on the Woolwich Massacre of 1758. The massacre was one of the last great tragedies of the French and Indian War, and involved a man named Ebenezer Preble.
That name is the key. For Bob Cunningham, a longtime resident of Boothbay, the name Ebenezer Preble is as familiar as an old friend. It’s on one of the deeds to their family’s land (purchased in 1875), written on letters they’ve found in their old house, and plastered all over the bills of sale found in an old sea chest.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s the same Preble,” said Cunningham in a phone call to the Coastal Journal, “But it’s Ebenezer Preble, and my family has held on to his stuff for 136 years.”
The stuff includes a massive packet of bills of sale, cargo listings, letters, and deeds from Ebenezer Preble, most of which are dated 1850 or earlier. There’s also a small booklet containing a huge list of cargo, and what appears to be a captain’s log written by Preble. In addition, the sea chest some of the papers were in contained an oil lamp Cunningham believes was used on ships, a large compass, and a set of parallel rules that would have been used for navigation.
“We may still find some more of it,” said Cunningham of the papers. Apparently his grandfather had a fondness for sticking small pieces of paper he found into other unrelated books. “There’s been a few times where I’ve picked up a book to look through it and out falls a letter or bill of sale from 1850.”
The sea chest the Cunningham’s have held onto for 136 years.The collection is old and weathered and a bit faded, but with a bit of patience and a good magnifying glass, they tell the story of an Ebenezer Preble, a sea captain who lived in the house that still stands on the Cunningham’s property. Preble was the captain of two ships, the Satira, a schooner out of Bath that was named after his daughter, and the Julia Payson, a brig also built in Bath that reports say foundered in Virginia in 1855 while carrying a load of logs.
Ebenezer was the father of four children, most of whom moved south. Lysander, his youngest, features most prominently in the letters he had written.
Cunningham was confused by the name at first, thinking it was a daughter, only to find out through reading through the papers that it was a son. Then he found out the history of the name.
“It turns out Lysander was a fleet commander for the Spartan fleet,” said Cunningham. “Can you see why a sea captain would want to name his son after a fleet commander?”
The papers also tell a story of romance gone awry. A four-page letter tells of Ebenezer returning home one day to discover that while he was away his wife had stolen nearly everything he owned and taken off. The letter is a polite if slightly urgent plea to Lysander, to come help him get everything back. If later letters are to be believed, they managed to find her and recovered their property, but the fate of the marraige is a bit unclear.
As it turns out, this isn’t the same Ebenezer as the one in the Woolwich Massacre. This one is many generations younger than the young man tragically killed in 1758 – which makes sense, as a man dead in 1758 isn’t going to be writing any letters in the 1850s. However, he was, in fact, descended from the same Prebles.
A little digging reveals that the Ebenezer Preble in the papers Cunningham found is the great-grandson of Joseph Preble, who was the brother to that ill-fated Ebenezer Preble who died in 1758. In fact, Joseph Preble had named one of his sons Ebenezer just a few months after the massacre, perhaps as a tribute to the brother he had lost. Although, with the plethora of Ebenezers in the Preble family history, it could just be a common name.
The history of the Preble family in the U.S. starts early. It starts with Abraham Preble, who moved to the U.S. in 1636. Abraham was the mayor of the town of York, a commissioner of the county court, and a military officer. He held the first military appointment, with the rank of Major.
Next came Captain Abraham Preble, who upon his death was said to have held 13 different official positions in the town of York.
The Prebles first came to the Boothbay area in 1726 with the arrival of Jonathan Preble, who moved to the area from York. Jonathan was Capt. Abraham’s son, a millwright and a farmer, who moved to the area to asist building a mill and to farm the land. The young Ebenezer of the massacre was his son, and was just a two-year-old at the time of their move.
The Cunninghams don’t come into this long and sometimes confusing picture until 1875, when Bob’s ancestor John Cunningham purchased the land from Lysander Preble. Lysander had sold the land shortly after his father’s death in 1875, and the Cunninghams have held onto it ever since.
For now, the fate of all of this land and the artifacts is still undecided. The house that Ebenezer Preble lived in is in a sorry state and has been unfortunately neglected for years. Cunningham, who is a carpenter, has been faithfully fixing up parts of it over the years, but his steadily advancing age and declining health have made things difficult. For now, thanks to his hard work, the building isn’t in any danger of collapsing, but it certainly isn’t in livable shape.
As for the artifacts, Cunningham hopes to find a museum or someone with historical preservation in mind to give them to. He hasn’t had any luck so far, but he hasn’t given up yet. Selling the items is out of the question.
“My family has held onto these things for 136 years,” said Cunningham. “I don’t think my ancestors and the ancestors of the Prebles would be too happy with me if after all that time I sold it to someone.”