The Battle for Josey’s Pig

The Revolutionary War was not one of Martha’s Vineyard’s shining moments.

Unable to persuade authorities in Boston that it held any strategic value, the Island felt exposed and undefended from the start of the war to its finish and was reluctant to take sides, lest it wind up fighting for the losers. But neutrality did not protect it from invasion.

Two years into the war, a huge flotilla of British warships sailed into what is now Vineyard Haven harbor. Over the course of two days, the Island was humiliated by an arrogant general, Sir Charles Grey, and pillaged of almost all of its livestock – 10,000 head of sheep and 300 cattle. It was quite the military and economic kick in the teeth. Innocent men were thrown in prison, several ships in Edgartown were burned, and countless residents were stripped of their valuable possessions.
In a spiteful coda to the whole adventure, the IOU that General Grey promised the Vineyard for the seizure was never repaid, despite the lifelong efforts of Colonel Beriah Norton of Edgartown, who made four unsuccessful trips to London to plead for restitution.

But there was at least one act of resistance during what came to be known as Grey’s Raid. We draw your attention to Patience Hathaway Dunham, a poor but proud grandmother who single-handedly defied a detachment of marauding British soldiers with nothing more than a broomstick. As described most vividly by Dr. Charles Edward Banks in the first volume of his History of Martha’s Vineyard (Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, 1911) Patience Dunham’s stand against the raiders is one of legend.

But first, the scene:

In all likelihood, it was one of those splendid late-summer days when a blue canopy stretches over the water, offering sharp views of Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands, and glimpses of Buzzards Bay beyond. But on the morning of September 11, 1778, the only thing Vineyard residents could see on the horizon were sails billowing and Union Jacks snapping in the breeze. A British fleet of more than sixty ships – which had worked its way down the coast from Newport, burning villages and stealing supplies – sailed into what was then known as Holmes Hole harbor. After dropping anchor, General Grey, commander of the fleet, informed Vineyarders that he would be leaving with a considerable amount of Island treasure. Colonel Norton, the Island’s highest-ranking military officer, met the general and quickly, wisely – and some suggest even reverently – agreed to hand over all of the Vineyard’s livestock, weapons, and ammunition.

Under Norton’s direction, members of the Vineyard’s small militia fanned out across the Island, racing from house to house throughout the night, alerting Islanders not that the British were coming, but that they were in fact here, and that all livestock was to be brought to the port by the following afternoon. The news was not well received, but for the most part it was accepted. For the next two days, sheep and cattle were flocked and herded into Holmes Hole.

To ensure compliance, more than 450 British soldiers set out across the Island. They marched along winding dirt roads into Middletown (West Tisbury), Chilmark, and beyond to Gay Head. Some soldiers headed toward Edgartown, also known as Great Harbor, where they amused themselves by burning ships and collecting tax money from the county courthouse.

For the next few days, there were few reports of dissent. Later would come stories of Vineyarders fleeing into the wooded areas up-Island to bury tea, conceal fortunes, and hide prized cattle, but there were no conflicts or skirmishes that we know of.

Except for Patience Hathaway Dunham.

When the redcoats came upon old lady Dunham’s home, whose precise location is unknown, they rounded up her livestock, per usual. By all accounts, she was tight-lipped as she waited in the house with her grandson Josey while the soldiers corralled her animals.

But legend has it that just as the troops were leaving, one of the men spotted the curlicued tail of a small pig sticking out from underneath Patience’s petticoat. A squeal confirmed that Patience was hiding a little porker under her habit, and the men moved in to collect it.

As the soldiers advanced, Patience grabbed a “heavy broomstick,” according to Banks’s history, and thrust it at her adversaries. “Away with ye, cursed seed of the oppressor, despoilers of the widow and the fatherless!” she cried, waving the stick in the redcoats’ faces. “Take what ye have of mine and begone! But this is Josey’s pig, and not a hair of him ye shall touch!”

So perplexed were the soldiers by this defiance that, after a brief scuffle, they retreated. Gone were the Dunham sheep, cows, and other livestock, but Josey’s little pig stayed home.

Redcoats 10,300, Vineyard 1.