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A Mystery of the Seas

by Martha Gandy Fales

In 1884 the Boston Globe carried an article entitled “A Mystery of the Seas.” It told of a portrait with a very strange history. “Looking at it closely,” said the reporter, “you can see that it is very rough and creased, the effect of salt water.” The portrait was of a sea captain named James Fairfield of Kennebunk, Maine and its mysterious history is linked with that of Captain Daniel Nason whom Kenneth Roberts immortalized in his novel The Lively Lady. It makes a fascinating tale

A good-looking, self-assured man, Fairfield was dark and handsome, if not tall. Five and a half feet tall and stocky, he had curly sable-brown hair and long sideburns. His eyes too were dark brown and direct as well. Only a few years younger than Nason, James Fairfield was born in Arundel in the district of Maine in 1784, the son of William and Sarah (Burnham) Fairfield. His father, a ship captain (or sailing master as they were called then), was the grandson of John Fairfield who had come to Kennebunk from Worcester, Massachusetts, about 1725. James Fairfield had numerous brothers and sisters but was especially close to his sister Mary, familiarly known as Polly, who was just a few years younger and who married Joseph Lord in 1805.

Like his father, James Fairfield sailed ship owned by Tobias Lord, Jr. In 1806 the newly-built brig Somers was put under his command when it was launched. The following year on November 12, James was married to Lois Walker, daughter of Daniel Walker. Shortly thereafter he and his brother-in-law Joseph Lord bought a house and six acres of land on South Maine Street in Kennebunkport from John Perkins. Since both men were mariners and much of their time was spent at sea, their joint ownership of property had several advantages not the least of which was that their wives were not left entirely alone when one or both of their husbands were away.

According to family tradition, it was on a voyage shortly after his marriage that Captain Fairfield decided to have his portrait painted at one of the first ports he visited on his trading mission. Being in the cotton trade he frequently sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, or New Orleans,then to southwestern Europe, on to England and then back to New England.

Since he was not coming directly home, he sent the portrait to Lois by another ship. Imagine his surprise and disappointment when he arrived back in Maine months later and he discovered that not only had his portrait not yet arrived, but that the ship by which it was sent had been lost at sea!In 1810 the command of another newly-launched, two-masted square-rigger, the Adrastus, was given to Fairfield. Letters that he wrote to his wife have been preserved at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk. One was written to Lois from Charleston in 1811 where he had put in for provisions after an unusually long coastal passage lasting sixty-three days. He hoped to get freight for either Spain or Portugal.

“My voyage will be much longer than I expected when I left home but after going to Europe I Shall Come home if my life is Spared,” he promised her.

Fairfield’s life was spared; but, with the coming of President Jefferson’s hated embargo and the War of 1812, both he and his brother-in-law Joseph Lord felt called upon to enter into a privateering venture with Captain Daniel Nason and two other sailing masters, Joseph Perkins and Abner Stone. No sooner had they successfully made their way out of Kennebunkport on their brig Macdonough, which had been named for the stunning victory on Lake Champlain two months earlier, than they were captured on November 1, 1814, by the British frigate Bacchante and taken into Halifax.

In a letter written on November 17th, James related the story of their capture to his wife Lois:

. . . the next morning after leaving home we fell in with the Frigate Bacchante which gave Us Chase at 2 PM Both of Our Topmasts wint Over the Side which Made Us a Compleet Wreck but by heving our guns Over Board and other articles to lighten our Vessel She did not Make us her prize before 7 in the Evening.

Fairfield and Lord were both put on board the British ship Penelope and in a few days were being transported to England with 250 other American prisoners in their ship and another accompanying frigate full of prisoners. James was most concerned for his wife and wrote to tell her to turn to Captain Tobias Lord for help if she needed anything.

I think he wont let you Suffer,” he said.

On another occasion he assured her that they were all well and in good spirits considering their situation. He suggested that she sell her horse to cut down on expenses and to sell anything else she might need to, rather than suffer any deprivation.

“I don’t know what Part of England we Shall go to but Shall write Every oppartunity. Could you find out where I am Nothing but my Liberty would give me more Pleasure than a line from you.”

Perhaps Captain Fairfield and his friends would not have been in such good spirits had they known that their destination was the dreaded Dartmoor Prison. It was the day before Christmas when James Fairfield, Joseph Lord and the rest of the Arundel crew were checked into this formidable compound and issued only a hammock, bedding and blanket.

Four months later the men were still at Dartmoor when the bloody massacre of prisoners took place there on April 6, 1815. James described it to Lois,

“the Ridiculous and Infamous Conduct of our Commander in this place Barbarously and cruelly fireing upon us . . . and killing 8 and wounding 45 of the poor Innocent and defenceless prisoners.” “Fortunately” he said, “none of our Kennebunkers fell Victim to British cruelties on that never to be forgoten day.”

The days in prison following the massacre must have been the worst of all. From the beginning, Fairfield realized that he would be imprisoned
“Untill peace which god Send may be soon.”

The day that he was incarcerated at Dartmoor, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, but news of the signing did not reach this country until February and peace was not proclaimed by President Madison until February 17, 1815. From that time on, the men expected to be released from prison. As Fairfield wrote to Lois,

“I soon did expect to be clear from this prison but our expectations have failed owing the negligence of our agent. … My anxiety to get home is beyond description,” he told her in a letter sent by the cartel ship on which Captain Nason had been allowed to return to Kennebunkport.

Fairfield had hoped himself to be in that first draft of 250 men who boarded the cartel ship in Plymouth on April 20th. He had, in fact, bought another man’s place on that ship, but to his bitter dismay, when the prison authorities called out the name of the prisoners, the man he had given the money took his own turn and left Fairfield to wait for his.

While he did not have much money, he still had a little cash, “thank god and good friends,” but the conditions were very disagreeable, “being confined within the dismal walls of a prison deprived of all the comforts of life and the agreeable and pleasing company of a wife and friends.”

At length, James Fairfield’s name was called, he and his brother-in-law were released, transported by a cartel ship, and ultimately discharged by the British on July 3, 1815, in time to celebrate their own independence day on American soil.

The year after their return they were living in a new double house on the corner of Green and Pleasant Streets in Kennebunkport. Lois’ father had given to her and her husband six acres of land here in 1813 as a measure of his affection and appreciation of their many kindnesses to him.

There were no houses on the land then, but about the time Nathaniel Lord built his mansion on the opposite corner, the Fairfields completed their big house, and in September of 1816 they sold half of the house and land to Joseph Lord so that he and Polly could continue to live under the same roof. Neither James Fairfield nor Joseph Lord, unfortunately, were destined to live long in the house. The ship Joseph was commanding in 1817 in the cotton trade to Europe was lost at sea. His widow Polly soon married again. Her husband’s brother Captain John Lord was the groom, and they continued to live in the house conjoined to the Fairfields’ home.

Early in the summer of 1820, James Fairfield became mortally ill and on July 23rd he died at the age of thirty-six. Lois sold their part of the house on Green Street to his privateering associate Abner Stone and probably lived with Polly and Joseph until her death the following year. It was two years after Fairfield’s death that the unusual event occurred. Word was sent to Tobias Lord from a Swedish bark that had come into Portland that his presence was requested on board their ship. There on the Swedish ship was the life-like painting of Captain James Fairfield. In the background of the portrait was a ship under sail and flying an American flag. Furthermore Fairfield was shown holding a letter in his right hand to Messieurs Tobias Lord and Co., Kennebunk, Maine, his employers at the time.

It was the letter in his hand that made it possible for the painting to be delivered to Kennebunk at last. Apparently the portrait had been rolled up and put in a tin case when Fairfield sent it home from the port where it had been painted. After the ship in which it was conveyed went down, the encased portrait was buoyant enough to make its way to the surface of the water and travel many miles away where it was spotted and retrieved by the men on the Swedish ship.

So it was that Polly Lord received the portrait of her brother after his death. The painting and the story of its history were cherished by her descendents and one hundred and seventy-five years later the address on the later shown in his hand prompted the inheritor of the portrait to make it possible for it to be returned once again to Kennebunk, where it can now be enjoyed by all who visit the Brick Store Museum.

The Captain Fairfield Inn is proud to welcome an authentic reproduction, painted by a well-known local artist, of this famous portrait of Captain James Fairfield to grace our living room mantel. We’d like to Thank the Brick Store Museum for their generous cooperation and Martha Gandy Fales for her marvelous sleuthing to unravel The Mystery of the Seas.

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