Michael Sinnett’s grave is in the cemetery behind the old meetinghouse in Harpswell Center. (REBECCA NORDEN-BRIGHT PHOTO)
He was born around 1730, in County Wexford, Ireland, to a once-prominent Anglo-Catholic family. He received basic English schooling and, at age 14, was apprenticed to a glove-maker, from whom he learned to cut, shape and stitch the gloves so much in fashion among the country’s elite. Little did he know that his future would have nothing to do with glove-making, or that fate would take him so far from home. But Michael Sinnett was resourceful, and he faced the challenges confronting him with courage and goodwill. His story reflects the experiences of many Harpswell settlers, who arrived here with little or nothing, yet managed to thrive.
The association of Michael Sinnett and the Sinnett family with Harpswell and its islands began with a number of historical events, one having to do with forced immigration. The English government under George II needed settlers for its colonies, and they were not particular as to how or where they got them. Shipmasters were paid handsomely for each passenger they brought over, and impressionable young men frequently became targets of kidnapping schemes. Sinnett fell victim to one such scheme when, in 1751, he and two of his friends went to Dublin to celebrate the end of their apprenticeship.
They were admiring the ships at the Dublin docks when an amiable, well-dressed man approached them. He talked about ships and commerce and asked if they would like to take a short sail on a vessel bound for America. He promised they would be brought back to shore with the pilot once the ship had cleared the harbor. They agreed, but soon found themselves on their way to Boston. There was nothing they could do to change their fate, the captain told them. Once in Boston, they would have to submit to indenture in order to pay their passage.
Luck of the draw
Despite having been kidnapped and sold into servitude, Michael was a lucky man. Several years earlier, a Dublin native named Joseph Orr (1710-1786) had bought Little Sebascodegan, as Orr’s Island was then called, from the heirs of William Tailor and Elisha Coates. He began to clear the land in order to establish a working farm. His brother Clement helped, but soon Joseph realized that he needed an extra hand. While in Boston to deliver a load of wood, Joseph read a public notice offering newly arrived servants. He went down to the docks and selected Michael Sinnett, paid Michael’s passage and brought him back to Orr’s Island to work out a five-year indenture.
By all accounts, the relationship between Michael and Joseph Orr was a close one. Joseph was 40 at the time, unmarried and working to transform his extensive acreage into a thriving settlement. Michael was 21, dependent on his benefactor for everything, from food and shelter to fatherly advice. He worked hard to prove himself, exchanging his soft glove-maker’s hands for blisters and callouses.
Michael also became close to Joseph’s brother Clement. Clement’s wife, Deborah, was the daughter of Nehemiah Ward, a Hingham native who had come to Harpswell around 1744. At the end of his indenture, Michael married Deborah’s sister, Molly, thus cementing ties with both the Orrs and the Wards.
A second kidnapping
At Joseph Orr’s suggestion, Michael bought 100 acres on the Sheepscot River near Townsend (Boothbay) and embarked on married life. He built a small house and bought a yoke of oxen to clear the land. The future looked promising for him and Molly, but only two years into their adventure, history intervened again.
Molly learned of a coaster sailing from a nearby harbor to Hingham and decided to go home for a visit. Michael assured her that he would be fine on his own, but while working in the fields, he was seized by an English press gang, carried onto a man-of-war and transported to New York City, where he was pressed into service in the French and Indian War. Michael fought under Gen. Woolf at the Battle of Quebec, as well as in other battles. When the war ended in 1763, he was marched back to New York, where he was mustered out.
Meantime, Molly returned home to find her husband missing. Unable to keep up the farm by herself, she made her way back to Joseph Orr’s. Joseph took her in and retrieved her belongings from Boothbay. He allowed her to earn her keep as she waited for her husband’s return.
Return to Orr’s Island
Michael eventually made his way back to Orr’s Island and was reunited with his wife. The couple did not return to their place on the Sheepscot River. Instead, they sold the property and bought 30 acres from Joseph Orr near Lowell’s Cove. They would raise their four children there: Stephen, James, Molly and Deborah, born from 1765 to 1779.
During the Revolution, Michael again went to war — this time voluntarily. He fought alongside Joseph Orr in a reserve unit under Capt. Jonathan Doyle. Most of the recruits in that unit were in their 50s and 60s. Michael was 46 when the war began; Joseph, 66. Michael was mustered out in 1782.
Michael Sinnett died on Sept. 15, 1798, at the age of 70, and was buried in the churchyard at Harpswell Center. His grave is marked by a headstone and a flag commemorating his service in the Revolutionary War. The inscription on the stone, composed by his granddaughter Hannah (Sinnett) Thomas, reads: “Oh wake not the hero, his battles are o’er / Let him rest undisturbed on America’s shore: / Neath this green mound of earth so flowery drest, / His battles are o’er. Let him rest, calmly rest.”
Molly Sinnett died in 1819, at the age of 84. She was buried next to her husband behind the old meetinghouse, a testament to the commitment they had to each other and to the town that had become their home.
Sources for this article include “Michael Sinnett of Harpswell, Maine: His ancestry and descendants,” by Charles Nelson Sinnett; “History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine, Including the Ancient Territory Known as Pejepscot,” by George Augustus Wheeler and Henry Warren Wheeler; and “The Story of Orr’s Island, Maine,” by Annie Haven Thwing.
For 39 years, Joann Gardner was an English professor at Florida State University. Now a freelance book reviewer, poet and essayist, she divides her time between Bailey Island and Tallahassee, Florida.