At the age of seventeen Samuel Wagg already had a reputation as a bit of a rogue. He had been in trouble with liquor, with misappropriation of the property of others and with a married woman. He was not interested in the farm and to the relief of his family and the neighbors, he ran away to sea in March of 1801.
Actually Samuel traveled to Falmouth, by then known as Portland, and enlisted in the growing U. S. Navy. He was shipped from there to Hampton Roads and assigned to the USS Chesapeake as ordinary seaman. On April 27, 1802 the ship got underway for the Mediterranean with Commodore Richard Morris on board. They arrived at Gibraltar in early June and granted shore leave to the sailors.
Commodore Morris brought his wife and daughter with him. They were the only women aboard when they left the U. S. When they left Gibraltar to patrol off the shores of Tripoli Samuel was surprised to find that several other wives accompanied them.
One of the midshipmen kept a diary and recorded the business this way.
"On the 22d Febry it being the day after we left Algiers: Mrs. Low (wife to James Low Captain of the Forecastle) bore a son, in the Boatswain's Store Room: on the 31st inst. (March). the babe was baptiz'd in the Midshipmen's apartment: the Contriver of this business, was Melancthon Taylor Woolsey a Mid: who stood Godfather on the occasion & provided a handsome collation of Wine & Fruit: Mrs Low being unwell Mrs Hays the Gunner's Lady officiated: Divine Service by Rev. Alex McFarlan. The childs name Melancthon Woolsey Low: - All was conducted with true decorum & decency no doubt to the great satisfaction of the parents, as Mr. Woolsey's attention to them must in some measure have ameliorated the unhappy situation of the Lady who was so unfortunate to conceive & bare, on the Salt Sea. NB. The other Ladies of the Bay viz. Mrs. Watson: the Boatswain's Wife, Mrs. Myres the Carpenter's Lady with Mrs. Crosby the corporal's Lady: got drunk in their own Quarters out of pure spite not being invited to celebrate the Christening of Melancthon Woolsey Low."
On April 6, 1803 the Chesapeake departed Gibraltar for the Washington Navy Yard. When she arrived in June 1803 the commodore’s wife and daughter were the only females aboard. The midshipman’s diary entry aroused considerable interest in the Department of the Navy. The investigation turned up no wives and no sign of the infant Melancthon Woolsey Low. Commodore Morris was forcibly retired.
Samuel had learned sailoring well during his year aboard the Chesapeake and was well regarded by his officers and fellow seamen. When Chesapeake was decommissioned for refitting at the navy yard, Samuel was transferred to the USS Constitution under Commodore Preble, another Maine mariner.
On August 14, 1803 Constitution got underway for the Mediterranean. Samuel quickly learned that Preble was quite a different commander than was Morris. Discipline was strict and training continuous. From August 1803 to September 1804 Samuel served under and came to respect Commodore Preble. Samuel remained with Constitution until her return to the Boston Navy Yard in November of 1806. There he separated honorably from the Navy and returned to civilian life a much more mature person than the boy who left home under a cloud five and a half years before.
Samuel spent the next year working the farm with his father, James, and repairing his reputation in Danville. Then he went back to sea as a fisherman out of Portland, working for William Dingley who had taken over the fishing operation started by James Small, Samuel’s mother’s uncle.
William Dingley was as hard a taskmaster as Edward Preble had been, without Preble’s leadership skill and record of success. William scraped along from one season to the next under a burden of mainly self-inflicted bad luck. Samuel sailed one of the two boats William still operated, the Samantha S. It was a vessel past retirement age and not much of a weather boat when it was new.
On April 7, 1808 at about eight o’clock in the morning. Samuel and his crew, Ned Peacock and Harmon Libby, set out from Portland for the Sagadahoc Ground, about 30 miles East of Cape Elizabeth, to fish for cusk. The weather was bright and fair and wind was out of the west. About mid afternoon they anchored in sixty fathoms, planning to spend a day or two on the grounds before heading back to Portland.
They caught, cleaned and salted fish until it got dark and then Samuel and Harmon turned in while Ned stood watch and tended the lantern hung on the mast to alert other ships to their presence. About midnight Samuel came on deck.
“Hey Ned,” Samuel said. “Everything quiet?”
“Yup, wind come around sou’east and the stars in the southern sky ‘bout gone. I suspect weather making up.”
“You know, last two days been almost too nice. What the Commodore used to call a weather maker.” said Samuel. Old Dingley is going to pitch a fit but I think we should head in. You go turn Harmon out and I’ll rig for getting underway.”
Soon the main sail was up flapping in the increasing wind while the men manned the windlass to get the anchor up. When the anchor line was straight up and down the anchor refused to leave the bottom.
“We will have to yaw it out.” Samuel said. “Harm, let go twenty fathom and cleat it off. We’ll sheet in the main and let wind carry us up over the anchor and pull it out of the snag from the upwind side.”
The maneuver was a common enough practice among experienced sailors but the Samantha S. was not up to it. The boat sailed with increasing speed through the length of the slack in the anchor line and when it came tight against the fouled anchor the bow was pulled around by the strain until the boat lay across the wind. The proper move at that point was to slack the main sheet and dump the wind from the sail. That was what Samuel tried to do but the strain on the sheet block caused the sheave to slip to the side of the worn block jamming the sheet in the block.
The full force of the wind against the sail should have continued to turn the boat to head into the wind again but the upwind stay broke under the strain and the tired old mast broke off just above the deck and pulled out the forestay as it crashed to the deck and slipped over the side with only the back stay and port side stay keeping it attached to the boat.
“Jesus H. Crist!” Ned said looking at the wreckage. “One thing just leads to another don’t it. Where is Harm?”
“I’m up forward.” Harmon said. “That last pull parted the anchor line just above the anchor. I got about sixty-five fathom back.”
By now the wind was blowing quite hard. The broken mast was banging against the side of the hull.
“Cut those stays and other lines away Harm. We’ve got to clear that mast. We are adrift and need to get her head upwind or we will ship water when these seas finish building.”
So at about two in the morning the dismasted hulk that was the Samantha S began drifting before the southeast wind. Samuel rigged a makeshift sea anchor with an empty fish barrel to keep the hull headed into the wind as it dragged through the water. The jolt that broke the mast had started leaks in a number of seams so the men were kept busy on the bilge pumps.
“How far is it to land?” Harmon wanted to know.
“Nearest land is Sequin Island but that lies about seventeen miles north by half east from us so we are going to be carried to the westward of that. My guess is that we are going up into Casco Bay. The best thing that could happen is to have us miss all the offshore ledges that pepper the bay and come to rest in a sheltered cove on one of the inhabited island at high tide and have the tide go out and lay this old hulk over on her side and we all get off and walk up the beach and knock on somebody’s door… but I wouldn’t count on it.”
“If we founder on one of the ledges far from land we are going to die. If we fetch up on one of the outer islands we need to get ashore without getting wet if we can or through the water if we have to. Do you men swim?”
Two heads shook a sorrowful negative.
“Well then, we need to make some preparations.”
The men pulled the spare jib sail out of storage and bound it in as small a package as it would make. The built a float by binding two empty kegs together and sealing the ends with tar. Around the kegs they fastened a mesh of the heavy fishing line and tied loops of rope into it for handholds. The bundled sail was lashed on top of the kegs. The wrapped candles, flint, striker and tinder in oiled cloth and lashed that bundle and the tin of lantern oil on top of the kegs with the sail.
“If we have to go into the water, which is very likely, we need to get out as quick as we can,” Samuel said. “That water will kill a man in less than an hour this time of year from the cold. Keep on all your clothes, gloves and you boots if you can. These kegs will keep us afloat. If we are near any shore, pull for it with your free hand but don’t let go of our little raft here.”
Daylight came with a cold rain and increased wind, still from the south east. Land was visible to the northwest through the rain. With two men at a time on the pumps they were just about making up for the leaks.
“That would be Cape Small,” Samuel said. “We are being set to the west by the current so we will miss that point of land. With luck we might come to rest on the Great Island shore.”
By noon they were approaching a steeply sloped small island of light gray ledge with tufts of green grass above the high tide line. For a while it appear they would drift ashore on that barren rock At the end of another hour it was clear they would pass the westward end of that island and strike a larger wooded island where the surf was pounding the rocky shore.
“We are going to hit in that surf. It looks like a steep shore so we should get fairly close before the keel fetches up on the bottom. We are going to hit stern first. Lets drag our raft back aft.”
Before they hit the shore, the keel hit the bottom and the boat swung around broad side to the waves. A huge wave lifted the boat and dropped it closer to the shore. As the wave rolled away the boat heeled down and leaned up against the dry ledges. Ned and Samuel lifted the raft over the rail and Harmon, who had cleverly abandoned ship at the first opportunity by stepping over the rail onto the shore, dragged the raft up the bank. Samuel and Ned jumped over the rail and scrambled up the ledges before the next wave struck the side of the boat and stove her in. Neither man nor equipment was wet by anything but the continuing drizzle.
“By God!” Ned said. ”That came off some slick. It’s the first thing that gone right since that wind changed last night.”
The men made their way to the northwest end of the island facing the inhabited islands at a distance of about two miles and used the sail they had brought ashore to construct a shelter among the trees near the shore. They built a fire where it would be visible from the far shore by breaking up driftwood to expose the dry surface. Then settled down to wait for rescue.
The day passed into night and they fed the fire to raise as much flame as they could. The night passed and they piled green spruce boughs on the fire to make as much smoke as possible during the day. Two more days and nights passed. On the morning of April 11 a fishing boat showed up and hailed the camp on the shore.
“You fellas want a ride ashore?”
Three extremely hungry men said ‘yes please’ or words to that effect. Samuel and his crew returned to Portland before dark that day.
There Samuel was surprised by the reaction of two of the Dingley family. William wanted Samuel to replace the boat that had nearly killed him and William’s daughter Mary, the fifth of his eight children, aged 23, was threatening to kill her father for placing Samuel in such danger.
In the months Samuel had worked for William he had been clueless about the feelings Mary had for him. They met because Mary kept her father’s books and arranged the meager pay of the crews but if she had sent any signals, Samuel had missed them. Now the signals were unmistakable. Once Samuel got over his surprise and began to pay attention to Mary he fell hard.
The problem was that William blamed Samuel for his latest bad luck and would not permit any sort of courtship. Of course that drove the affair underground but did not derail it in the slightest. In March of 1809 Mary discovered she was pregnant. Samuel by then was unemployed but still hanging around Portland to be near his lover. Finally in April he and Mary left for Danville and Samuel took up farming in earnest, having had enough of naval battles and leaky boats.
As the eldest son Samuel was in line to inherit the home place but his father James was showing no sign of slowing down so Samuel took possession of another of the Wagg’s many properties and with his fathers help built the farm buildings and broke the ground that was already cleared.
On September 19, 1809 Samuel and Mary were married. Their daughter Mary was born on 11/9/1809. Samuel and Mary did well at the farm and by the time her father William drifted into bankruptcy they were in a position to take him in. That seemed to moderate his opposition to the marriage and he lived with them to the end of his days.
In all Samuel and Mary had seven children:
Julia A 3/2/1813
Samuel died in 1850. Mary died in 1879 at the age of 94. They are buried in the Penley Corner Cemetery, in Auburn Maine.