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The Siege of Cedar Island 1896


In 1896 Moses Stevens of Newburyport and a group of armed men stormed the island of Cedar at the Isles of Shoals. Their job was to lay siege to the tiny rock and kick off Clarence Caswell whose family had lived there since the Revolution. It is a story few Shoalers know as reported here in the Boston Globe.




Clarence Caswell Tried in Vain to Land on Cedar Island

Stevens’ Men in Possession While Banished Lord is on Smutty Nose, Armed with Rifle and in Ugly Mood Over Eviction

READ ALSO: When the Caswells Ruled Gosport 

Boston Globe
March 12, 1892

PORTSMOUTH, NH – March 11, Moses Stevens, the retired Newburyport fish merchant, and his men still hold the fort on Cedar Island, one of the Isles of Shoals group, which they seized Saturday in the absence of Clarence Caswell, the permanent resident.

It is apparent that Mr Stevens intends to retain possession of the island at all odds. His party is fully armed, and nobody is permitted to land.

cedarpic01.jpgThe tug Howell went out to the island this morning with a Globe reporter and artist on board. While preparations were going forward for making a landing in a dory one of the men on the island launched a skiff, rowing off to the tug, warned all hangs against attempting to land.

"It won’t go," he shouted. "It’s no use for you to try. We won’t let you land."

The fact that Clarence Caswell was on board the tug may have had some effect on the party on the island. Caswell wanted to get to Smutty Nose island to look after his property there, and he secured passage on the Globe tug, as he could not row out to "the Shoals" against the heavy northeast breeze.

Caswell has a bag of corn with him for his hens , and a gun. He said he was going to shoot birds with the gun, but when it was suggested that the gun was a rifle, and that it was less than rifle range from Smutty Nose to Cedar island, he measured the distance with his eye and said nothing. He is not in a pleasant mood over the eviction.

"Somebody’ll have to smart for this," he said, "if there is any law, and I guess there is."

Cedar Island forms the seaward side of Gosport harbor, which is formed by Appledore, Smutty Nose, Star and Cedar islands. It is small, low, rocky, and can hardly be called more than a barren rock.

Appledore Island was for years the home of Celia Thaxter, the poet, and Smutty Nose will always be remembered as the scene of the Wagner murders. The house in which the fiendish fisherman killed his two women victims still stands, black and silent. On Appledore the Thaxter cottage is deserted and on Star Island the remains of the once thriving town of Gosport, with its little stone church, are still and uninhabited.

CONTINUE Cedar Island  1896

Last Caswell on Cedar Island (Continued)

Clarence Caswell was landed on Smutty Nose, where he was greeted by Rienzl Rand, commonly known at "the Shoals" as "Ganzy" Rand, keeper for Mr. Hoyt.

After he was landed the tug gave the little garrison on Cedar island a salute. One of the men, "Bob" Hodgkins, an ex deputy sheriff of Portsmouth, replied by drawing a revolver from his overcoat pocket and firing three shots. Then the Howell shaped her course for Portsmouth, and left the little armed band on Cedar island alone in their glory, with a snow storm shutting in.


How long a peaceful state of affairs will exist there cannot be conjectured. If E. L. Guptill of Portsmouth, council for Clarence Caswell, carries out a plan he has formed there is likely to be an exciting time at Isles of Shoals.

Mr Guptill informed the Globe reporter today that he intended to send a posse from Kittery to the island before the end of the week, to arrest Mr Stevens and his men for breaking into Clarence Caswell’s house and removing his personal property. Action may also be brought in behalf of Mr Hoyt, for trespass, for putting Caswell’s effects on Smutty Nose island without a permit.

Since Mr Stevens party seized the Island Saturday and carried Clarence Caswell’s effects over to Smutty Nose island the have rendered Caswe;;’s house uninhabitable by removing the windows and doors. One of the men came ashore last night after provisions and he explained that the house "needed an airing."

This messenger to the main land was cut off from making his return this morning by the northeaster that was blowing. And the question of food supply is likely to become a pressing one for the men on the island, unless the weather moderates soon. A stove is also sadly needed, as the one they are using is a ramshackle old thing, incapable of giving out heat.

The food famine was precipitated by an accident that occurred to the party’s meat when they landed on the island Saturday. While the men were busy transporting the evicted Caswell’s personal property across the channel to Smutty Nose, Mr Caswell’s three dogs got at the supply of meat, and as one of the men states, they "scoffed" it. They had ample time to do this, as the men were a long while in getting the Caswell hens across to the other island. The fowls objected to going, and it was necessary to put them into lobster pots for the purpose of transporting them.

Nothing in the way of a quarrel has attracted so much attention here in years as the controversy over Cedar Island.

Portsmouth has talked about nothing else, politics excepted, since Mr Stephens seized the island, and today a spice of excitement was added by the report that the Howell had taken a party of sheriffs and deputies out to take possession of the island by force. The Howell’s passengers were on no more belligerent errand than getting sketches for the Globe.

Interest in the fight is becoming more than local, for the state of Maine is an interested party, and will be called on to defend a title to the island which it gave Oscar and Cedric Laighton a few years ago.

Clarence Caswell was occupying the island as a tenant of the Leightons (sic) when Mr Stevens landed on it in his absence and secured possession.

CONTINUE Cedar Island  1896

Last Caswell on Cedar Island (COntinued)

Mr Stevens claims that he has the only clear title to the island because he bought out the Caswell heris’ interests, the island having been occupied by the Caswell family since 1776. The Laighton’s claim that the Caswells were squatters, and never obtained a title to the island.

Subsidiary to the main point at issue is a family jar that has been instrumental in bringing things to the present pass.

Lemuel Caswell is the last of the line that has been possessed of the island. He is 75 years old, and was born on the island. A few years ago he sold his interest in the island to his brother-in-law, Moses Stevens of Newburyport. Mr Stevens had already obtained Mrs Stevens; share, and the share of the other heirs. He gave Lemuel Caswell a life lease of the island, and Lemuel let the island to Clarence Caswell, his nephew.

Last year Fred Austin of this city also became a tenant of Lemuel Caswell, there being two houses on the island. Austin and Clarence did not agree, and this, as near as can be learned, led to a coolness between uncle and nephew, so that Lemuel tried to dispossess Clarence.

Action was brought against Clarnece under the "landlord and tenant act." So called, and Judge Adams of Portsmouth went off to Star Island one day last summer to have a hearing. It was soon found that Judge Adams had no jurisdiction, for though Star Island, where he purposed holding court, was in New Hampshire, Cedar island was shown to be in Maine. The matter was for the time dropped.

Later Clarence Caswell was brought before Trial Justice Neal of Kittery in a second dispossess proceeding. He showed a receipt for rent to Jan. 1, 1896, from Lemuel Caswell, and the case was dropped. Clarence Caswell stayed on the island until the last day of the year, then he moved off to Smutty Nose, The next day he moved back as the tenant of Winthrop Hoyt, who has leased the island from the Laightons. Hoyt is a hotel man, and his home is next to that in which the Wagner murders were committed 21 years ago.

The trial of Wagner raised the question of whether the scene of the murder was in Maine or New Hampshire. It was decided that Smutty Nose and all the other seven islands, except Star and white island, on which is the lighthouse, were in Maine. The state line, it was claimed in wagenr’s defense, ran through Smutty Nose island, but this claim was not strong enough to save Wagner’s neck. He was the last man hanged in Maine. (Editor’s note: This is inaccurate.)

cedarpic03.jpgThe Laighton brothers own without question all the isles of Shoals except Cedar and White islands, the latter being owned by the government. Their undisputed holdings comprise Appledore, the largest one in the group; Star island, Duck island, Smutty Nose, Malaga and Lungin (sic). Duck and Malaga are not inhabitable.

It is said here that Cedar island has long been a cinder in the Laighton eye. It was their ambition to add this to their string of north Atlantic pearls by purchase, and when the state of Maine decided to sell the island, they secured it.

John W. Kelley of this city, counsel for Moses Stevens, said today that the title given by the state of Maine was worthless.

"The commission heard by Hon E.C. Burleigh to sell this islands owned by the state of Maine and held as public lands did not attempt to give a warranty deed of Cedar island," said Mr Kelley. "Not even a quit-claim deed was given, but simply a bill of sale. On the other hand, the Caswell family has been in possession of the island since 1776. Moses Stevens bought out the Caswell interests, and owns the island."

The consensus of opinion among old Portsmouth citizens familiar with "the Shoals" seems to be that the Caswells held an undisputed claim to the island for a century.

Elvin Newton sat in his office on Commercial wharf, keeping tabs on a fare of handsome deep-water cod, when The Globe man look in and asked his opinion of the controversy. Mr Newton is a keen, genial, energetic Yankee, and he turned kindly eyes on the interviewer.

"I’ve been around the Shoals," he said, "for the last 50 years or so and I never heard any question about that being Lem Caswell’s island. ‘Live and let live,’ I say. I remember the fishermen always went ashore to spread their nets, and nobody forbid them. Lem Caswell always made everybody welcome, and there wasn’t any talk about his not having a right to the island."

Mr Newton volunteered to take the Globe man to see Mr Caswell, who is residing this winter with his daughter in this city, and temporarily left the office without a keeper. "Look at them cod," he said, indiciating a pile of big beauties on the shed floor; "they came from off the Shoals."

CONTINUE with Caswell's on Cedar Island

Intervew with Lemuel Caswell

Down the quaint old water-side street of Portsmouth Mr Newton escorted the newspaper man until they reached an old-fashioned brick house The accommodating guide went around to the back door, and soon the front door was opened.

caswell3a.jpgMr Caswell is a mild-mannered old gentleman, with fine brow and sparse silvery beard. He was glad the public took an interest in his island and the attempt that was being made by his brother-in-law, Mr. Stevens, to defend it.

"That island was my father’s," he said, "and his father’s before him. NO body ever questioned our right to it before. It has always been in the family, and the state of Maine had no right to sell our private property."

"I am 75 years old and not in good health. It will not be long before my life lease is up. But as long as I live I shall hold the island. A judge told me only the other day that nobody could deprive me of the island."

"Everything has gone against me of late years. I was well off once, and in the public house business at Gosport, where I had $16,000 invested . I had an enemy who set fire to my buildings. I had $3000 insurance and I could not collect it. Two years ago my wife died. She is buried at Newburyport. It seems hard to have to defend my right to what has been mine all my life."

Mr Caswell said his father, Joseph Caswell, inherited the island in 1820 from Mr Caswell’s grandfather, who settled on it in revolutionary times, buying the right of one Mrs Goss. This woman did not like the looks of elder Caswell , who was a wandering fisherman, and whenever he tried to cure fish on the island, she vexed his soul by throwing the fish about and spoiling them. The fisherman wanted to possess the island, and had saved the wherewithal to make payment for the same, but the athletic fisherwife would not hear to his proposition.

But the elder Caswell was sly. He made friends with one Brown of North Hampton, also in the piscatorial line, and Brown bought the island for him. Mrs Goss did not think much of the transaction when she found that Brown had acted as the elder Caswell’s agent, and she went to the mainland, where she shortly afterward died.

Such was the version handed down to Lemuel Caswell of his grandfather’s purchase of the island, and he is convinced that his title is all right. He says Mrs Goss gave his grandfather a deed. The family has been in possession more than a century, anyway, and he thinks that, by itself, is something of an argument in his favor too.

Further than that Mr Caswell said Oscar Laighton a few years ago offered to buy the island of him, and to give him a life lease. He thinks his offer showed the Laighton’s belief in the validity of his claim.

The Laighton brothers reside in Portsmouth in winter . They are not included to discuss the present trouble. They are represented by Jdge Calvin Page (sic, Paige) as counsel.

Clarence Caswell, the evicted on, is commonly known here and at the Shoals as "Cain." His family resides in winter at 15 Charles st, in this city, and here it was ‘Cain" tarried when he came to town last Saturday with a dory load of lobsters and left the island untenanted.

A policeman offered to guide the Globe man to Mr Caswell’s domicile, where the wife of the evicted keeper of Cedar Island was found. Mention of the eviction stirred a responsive chord in Mrs Caswell’s breast.

"Yes, it took seven men," she said, "to go there and seize a flock of hens, a dog and two puppies. Pretty work for men!"

Mr Steven’s present force on the island consists of himself, "Bob" Hodgkins, the ex deputy sheriff, and William Hodgdon, an ex policeman.

Fred Austin, who came ashore for provisions and a stove, will return tomorrow, if possible, and the four men will settle down for a waiting game, until the enemy makes a move. The three other men who went out to help seize the island returned the same day.

Portsmouth and Kittery are now on tip-toe, wondering if Mr Stevens will dare defy the majesty of the law when lawyer Guptill’s posse come to anchor in Gosport harbor.

Owing to Mr Stevens’ objection to having anybody approach him this morning his views on the subject could not be obtained.


Transcribed from a clipping of the 1896 Boston Globe account


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