From the Collections: The Thomas G. Thornton Papers

by Jamie Kingman Rice, MHS Research Librarian

Cover to the Thomas G. Thornton Papers, MHS Collection #21,
Cover to the Thomas G. Thornton Papers, MHS Collection #21.

The U.S. Marshal Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the country. Founded as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the same legislation that established the federal judicial system, the U.S. Marshal Service represents the federal government at the local level.

The District of Maine was no exception, with the appointment of Henry Dearborn as the district’s first U.S. Marshal. John Hobby and Isaac Parker followed, with the fourth appointment awarded to Dr. Thomas Gilbert Thornton of Saco. Under President Jefferson’s administration, Thornton was appointed Marshal in 1803, a position he held until his death in 1824.

Thomas Gilbert Thornton was born in Boston on August 31, 1768, to Timothy Thornton, a Boston Merchant, and his second wife, Eunice Brown. As a young man in Ipswich, he studied medicine under Dr. Joseph Manning, a close confidant of his father’s. Dr. Thornton moved to Saco about 1791, where he pursued a respectable, but brief (about 10 years) career as a physician. In 1793, he married Sarah Cutts of Saco. A successful series of commercial and business ventures caused him to stray from the medical field, as he flourished under the wing of his father-in-law Col. Thomas Cutts.

By 1803, Dr. Thornton established himself in politics and banking (at one point as president of the Saco Bank) as well as shipping and commerce. His appointment to U.S. Marshal for the District of Maine solidified the end to his medical career but established his legacy within the context of Maine’s role in the War of 1812.

Letter concerning redress for killed son, 1815. MMN #36273.
Letter concerning redress for killed son, 1815. MMN #36273.

The Maine Historical Society holds within its archives the Thomas G. Thornton Papers, 1798-1824, Collection 21. The papers relate to Thornton’s tenure as U.S. Marshal for Maine and house a wealth of knowledge related to his post, including correspondence between deputy marshals, district attorneys, and customs and judicial officers, as well as documents related to naval history of the War of 1812.

One of the most alluring aspects of this collection are the materials related to War of 1812 privateers and naval vessels including letters of marque, dispositions of prize vessels, legal documents–such as powers of attorney for U.S. sailors, letters of redress, prisoners of war records, and supplemental documents related to naval warfare and government sanctioned piracy during the nation’s second war with Great Britain.

Numerous vessels of note are included within the collection including the Schooner, Young Teazer, an infamous privateer that evaded British vessels at every turn. Legend has it she was blown up off Nova Scotia by one of her own crew who feared capture by the British, a fate the sailor had already known. Conditions of parole included not taking up arms against Britain; being a member of such a lucrative privateer would seal his fate, and his chances of surviving another British imprisonment were nil.

Also amongst the collection are papers related to the Maine’s privateering claim-to-fame, the Armed-Brig, Dash, out of Freeport. The Dash, one of the fastest privateers on record, captured numerous prizes without as much as a scratch. Her place in the history books is secured by her mysterious demise. Sailing out to sea during a storm in January of 1815, she was never to be seen again. The ‘ghost ship’ is said to haunt the waters of Casco Bay to this day.

Bill for treating injured British sailors, Portland, 1813. MMN #36272.
Bill for treating injured British sailors, Portland, 1813. MMN #36272.

With the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of the HMS Boxer and the USS Enterprise quickly approaching (Sept. 5, 2013), documents part of the Thornton Papers play a role in preserving the legacy of this iconic battle. Boxer & Enterprise related items include a receipt for treating the Boxer’s wounded, correspondence about prisoners of war, letter of redress for sailors lost aboard the USS Enterprise, and paperwork associated with Capt. Blyth’s funeral expenses. Capt. Blyth of the HMS Boxer and Capt. Burrows of the USS Enterprise are buried side by side in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery.

In addition to Maine vessels, privateers from other U.S. ports are included in the collection documenting their time in Maine waters. A few examples are the Grand Turk of Salem, Massachusetts, the Viper of New York City, the Fox of Portsmouth, and the Monmouth of Baltimore. Prize vessels documented amongst the collection include the HMS Greyhound, the Peter Waldo, the Ann, the Invincible Napoleon, and of course, the HMS Boxer.

Thornton’s oldest son, John Brown Thornton, named for Dr. Thornton’s younger brother, served his country in the War of 1812… on a privateer no less. He was captured and carried to Halifax, as was customary, where he remained imprisoned at Melville Island for three months. His father arranged for his release by way of prisoner exchange, but his son’s grueling experience was likely not lost on his father, as he continued to oversee the spoils of war with His Majesty’s Royal Navy.

Thornton Academy, Saco, ca. 1900. MMN #25555.
Thornton Academy, Saco, ca. 1900. MMN #25555.

In addition to Dr. Thornton’s life as a U.S. Marshal, Collection 21 depicts his career with the Saco Bank. The collection includes correspondence with officials, but also contains a box of general correspondence, where perhaps information about his other ventures and personal life may be gleaned. It should be noted (although documents related to such are not within Coll. 21) that Dr. Thornton is the namesake of Thornton Academy of Saco, an institution for which he was one of the original petitioners. In 1821, the Saco Academy, struggling to survive, accepted a generous monetary gift from Dr. Thornton and in return, honored his commitment by changing the name to Thornton Academy.

Dr. Thornton died in Saco on March 4, 1824, at the age of 56. His widow Sarah died in 1845, also in Saco. The couple had two childrend, the previously mentioned James Brown Thornton, and Anne Paine Thornton, who married John Fairfield–two-time governor of Maine. Dr. Thornton, with his 19-year tenure, remains to this day, the longest serving U.S. Marshal for the District of Maine.

One thought on “From the Collections: The Thomas G. Thornton Papers

  1. Jamie Kingmaan-Rice, Well Hello, I am glad to see you are still at the Maine
    Historical Library. It has been a while since I talked to you and got anything genealogical ordered. Thank you for all the help you have given me. I will be ordering more soon. Mary Ellen Aube

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