The Legend of the Liberty Pole

Liberty pole: Fact or fiction?

Among the best-known Martha’s Vineyard stories, this ranks near the top: the tale of the three young girls from Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) who blew up the Liberty Pole in 1776.

“The tallest Island tree had been made into a Liberty Pole, where Islanders gathered secretly,” writes Alison M. Convery in her famous book, A Child’s Guide to Martha’s Vineyard. “The captain of a British ship demanded the pole be used for a mast. Town fathers decided it would be safest to give it to him. But Parnell Manter, Maria Allen and Polly Daggett met late that night ... [and] blew the pole into a thousand splinters.”

“Although no one is sure how much is fact and how much is folklore, the legend is a cherished one,” reported the Vineyard Gazette in 1976. Reputable Islanders have long leaned – wishfully – toward fact. The three girls were “carried away, perhaps by youthful enthusiasm,” wrote Shirley W. Mayhew in The Dukes County Intelligencer that year.

In 1898 the Daughters of the American Revolution honored the girls by posting a plaque on a liberty pole – basically, a flagstaff – on Main Street, Vineyard Haven. Irene Resendes, the Vineyard regent of the DAR, still believes the tale: “Women of that time weren’t as passive as we think,” she says. “I’m going to go down believing it.”

The first reference to the Liberty Pole incident comes from The Romance of the Revolution, an 1852 book by Oliver Nell Bunce: “His Majesty’s ship (Unicorn) was in want of a new spar.The panic stricken citizens consented to sell [the liberty tree].” Thirty years later, the story gained credit when a letter appeared in the Cottage City Star from Leander Daggett: “I will . . . give you the story as it was related to me by my great-aunt Polly Hillman (née Daggett), one of the three young ladies. . . . .

“At midnight . . . they sallied forth, bored a deep hole in the pole, and filled it with powder,” Daggett wrote. “In the morning the cry was heard . . . that the Liberty Pole was shattered and split.”

Art Railton, crusty editor of the Intelligencer, disputes it. “But you can’t disprove something that didn’t happen,” he says. “They were not little girls, they were older than teenagers; it’s unlikely they would think this up.”

Charles Edward Banks, author of the great three-volume History of Martha’s Vineyard, published in 1911, wrote: “The story of it had been handed down, in the traditions of the war . . . [and has] some of the elements of all traditionary tales, much that is improbable.”

While the Unicorn’s own log shows the ship did anchor at Holmes Hole to repair a foremast in 1778, Railton raises more doubts. “It’s a preposterous notion that a flagpole would be of any use to a sailing ship – its mast would be two feet in diameter. There were no trees on the Island that big. It was a DAR project; they invented it. Myths last longer than facts – they’re more interesting.”

A fiberglass pole replaced the 1898 liberty pole in 1976, then was destroyed by the Blizzard of 1978. Three years later, Captain Robert S. Douglas, master of the schooner Shenandoah, brought to the Vineyard the white-pine pole into which the plaque is now set on Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

Even the DAR – at least on the national level – now admits to uncertainty, saying the 1898 commemoration was made for “a purported 1776 event concerning this Liberty Pole.” Elva Crawford, a DAR archivist and historian, writes: “In 1898, DAR historical markers did not undergo such scrutiny (as today) respecting accuracy. [We] cannot vouch for the accuracy of a marker placed more than a hundred years ago.”

Parnell Manter is buried at Crossways Cemetery in Vineyard Haven; a stone for Polly Daggett, lacking her date of death, was placed by the DAR at the main cemetery, as was Maria Allen’s.

Alison Convery, who popularized the story for countless Island children, says: “I wrote from various books I was using at the time, Gale Huntington and Henry Beetle Hough. Frankly, I just always felt it was a great yarn. I felt it was a true story.” True or not, she says, “I think it’s fun to see what you pulled together.”

Comments (1)

Judith Fenton
Chester, NJ
I am a descendent of Joseph Daggett, son of John Daggett, who came over with John Winthrop on the Arabella. My great, great grandmother, Almira Daggett, was traced back to the first Daggett, John many years ago. And that was before google! There are thousands of Daggetts, but they all had to harken back to John. Polly Daggett may or may not have been so heroic, but, then again, she may have as the Daggetts have distinguished themselves in many areas. Fun, though!
June 21, 2018 - 11:42am