The silver screen isn’t the only place to look for swashbuckling heroes. Newburyport lays claim to its very own buccaneer. Capt. Offin Boardman was born in 1747 or 1748 (reports vary). He died six decades later after packing a whole lot of life into those 60-plus years.
During the Revolutionary War, Boardman was commissioned as a privateer, with the goal of taking over British ships. As it turns out, he was spectacularly good at it, once capturing two ships in a single day. That day, in January 1776, Boardman spotted a brig called the Sukey flying the British colors. He chased it and the ship surrendered. Later in the day, Boardman and his men watched a 200-ton ship tacking back and forth off Plum Island, appearing to be lost. Boardman took 18 men on three whale boats out to meet it, and offered to pilot it in. The ship’s captain, Archibald Bowie, thought that Newburyport was Boston. He accepted the offer, and Boardman’s men brought the ship and its supplies, which were intended to provision the British, safely into Newburyport. The hold carried an assortment of goods, including port, pickled cabbage, coal, vinegar and live hogs.
But the pirate captain’s adventures didn’t end there. He was later captured off the coast of Portugal and taken to Mill Prison in England, from which he escaped two times. He traveled from there to France, where he socialized with John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, who were there to drum up support and make alliances to help with the war effort. He found France to be a backward nation, and after witnessing a man being tortured on a breaking wheel, he wrote that such barbarism was the reason that the modern and youthful America was so necessary.
In a talk she gave at the 2015 Newburyport Literary Festival, Bethany Groff Dorau, North Shore regional manager for Historic New England, called Boardman “… a bold man, a soul-searcher, a party animal, a romantic, and a key to the story of the birth of our nation.”
Newbury’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm was the captain’s country estate late in the 18th century. Groff Dorau has researched him extensively, reading his diaries and studying the archeological findings uncovered during excavations on the property that took place in the 1980s. Findings included 30 broken punch bowls from the time of Boardman’s occupation, backing up Groff Dorau’s claims of his love of a good party. But his diaries reveal a softer side to the heroic figure. “He was also very tender with his wife and concerned about his relationship with God. He is really quite a complex figure,” Groff Dorau says.
Boardman is buried in Newburyport’s Highland Cemetery.
Top photo courtesy Museum of Old Newbury collections.