Mount Desert Island Historical Society
Mount Desert Island Area Families — Kench

part of the Mount Desert Island Cultural History Project
of the
Mount Desert Island Historical Society - 207-276-9323

(updated 6 February 2015)

Thank you to John M. Bryan for this article about the first settler on Swan's Island.

All information, especially source material, for inclusion in this web page should be sent to or mailed to "Mount Desert Island Genealogy; Mount Desert Island Historical Society; P. O. Box 653; Mount Desert, ME 04660". And, of course, please report all errors.

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Redeeming Thomas Kench

John M. Bryan, Swans Island, 2015

(Dr. Bryan is a retired professor of art and architectural history, and has been a seasonal resident of Swans Island for 45 years.)

The history of the settlement of Swan's Island should be revised, for the character of the first settler has been maligned, and the accepted date of his arrival is demonstrably wrong.

Writing the first history of the island, Dr. Herman Wesley Small had to rely on local, verbal traditions.1

"... I found myself quite destitute of early public records... [for] over half a century from the settlement of this island until its organization as a plantation ... no municipal records were kept."2

"A great deal of the information which I have received concerning the early settlers was obtained from the oldest inhabitants of the island, many of whom were children of the first settlers ... . In this part, which I have obtained from the memory of aged people, some errors may appear, but in the main it will be found correct, as a great deal of pains has been taken to verify these records."3

Concerning Thomas Kench (1744-1831), Small wrote

"Thomas Kench was the first white settler within the present territorial limits of Swan's Island. He was an Englishman by birth, and came here near 1777, and settled on Harbor Island. He built a log house and cleared a small farm, and soon bought a cow and a few sheep. Here he lived like Robinson Crusoe, many years alone, no habitation visible; the nearest settlement was at Mt. Desert. The fishing-boats passing this island, and seeing this little isolated abode, would land to see who this lonely dweller could be. They found a reserved, eccentric man who did not encourage their visits. Many incredulous stories were told concerning him, but, no doubt, they had their origin in the minds of the imaginative fishermen…. Mr. Kench's old cellar... can still be seen near the shore of Old Harbor.

"Kench was a Revolutionary soldier in the service of the American colonies, and was one of those who accompanied Benedict Arnold up the Kennebec River and across the wilderness to Quebec in 1775... . At the approach of British reinforcements, they escaped and made their way homeward, disheartened by failure and sickened by want and exposure. Kench was among this small band of survivors of this most dreadful campaign of the Revolution.

"Soon afterwards Kench deserted from the army, and came here, where he could be free from molestation, preferring the solitude of his island home to the horrors of warfare. No other person came to share his solitude, and he held undisputed possession of this island until after Swan's purchase, when, in 1791, David Smith brought his family to Harbor Island.

"In 1796 Kench removed from the place that had been his solitary abode for so many years, and went to what is now the town of Brooksville."4

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century documents present a different picture.

Massachusetts Revolutionary War records indicate that Thomas Kench enlisted in various patriot units eight times between June 1776 and December 1780. He submitted pension applications in 1818 and 1820, testifying that he enlisted in May 1776 and served through December 1782. In recounting his military service, he never mentioned Benedict Arnold or the Quebec campaign. His records were reviewed, and his pension was approved.5 Clearly, he was not a deserter. Given his service record, he could not have settled on Harbor Island in 1777.6

Our understanding of history often hangs upon a knowledge of specific points, a scaffold of dates and facts which, like a child's connect-the-dots drawing, sometime provides an outline, but rarely portrays interior details or conveys a sense of character. Fortunately, two letters signed by Kench survive. They tell us a great deal about him.

In April 1778, while stationed on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, he sent a proposal to the Massachusetts Legislature offering to enlist, train and lead black troops. The patriots needed reinforcements, and several colonies were considering enlisting enslaved and free blacks. In February, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly passed a law that allowed "every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian Man slave, in this State [to] enlist into either of the ... two [Continental] Battalions" then being raised by the state in fulfillment of its congressional quota." Generals Washington and Greene felt it should be done.7 The issue was in the air.

One of Kench's letters refers to correspondence that apparently has not survived:

"To the Honorable Council in Boston.

"The letter I wrote before I heard of the disturbance with Col. Seares, Mr. Spear, and a number of other gentlemen, concerning the freedom of negroes, in Congress Street. It is a pity that riots should be committed on the occasion, as it is justifiable that negroes should have their freedom, and none amongst us be held as slaves, as freedom and liberty is the grand controversy that we are contending for; and I trust, under the smiles of Divine Providence, we shall obtain it, if all our minds can but be united; and putting the negroes into the service will prevent much uneasiness, and give more satisfaction to those that are offended at the thoughts of their servants being free.

"I will not enlarge, for fear I should give offence; but subscribe myself Your faithful servant

"Thomas Kench

"Castle Island, April 7, 1778"8

Kench's proposal about "putting the negroes into the service" should be quoted in full:

"To the Honorable Council, and House of Representatives, Boston, or Roxbury.

"Honored Gentlemen,

"At the opening of this campaign, our forces should be all ready, well equipped with arms and ammunition, with clothing sufficient to stand them through the campaign, their wages to be paid monthly, so as not to give the soldiery so much reason of complaint as it is the general cry from the soldiery amongst whom I am connected.

"We have accounts of large re-enforcements a-coming over this spring against us; and we are not so strong this spring, I think, as we were last. Great numbers have deserted; numbers have died, besides what is sick, and incapable of duty, or bearing arms in the field.

"I think it is highly necessary that some new augmentation should be added to the army this summer, - all the re-enforcements that can possibly be obtained. For now is the time to exert ourselves or never; for, if the enemy can get no further hold this campaign than they now possess, we [have] no need to fear much from them here after.

"A re-enforcement can quick be raised of two or three hundred men. Will your honors grant the liberty, and give me the command of the party? And what I refer to is negroes. We have divers of them in our service, mixed with white men; and their ambition would entirely be to outdo the white men in every measure that the fortune of war calls a soldier to endure. And I could rely with dependence upon them in the field of battle, or to any post that I was sent to defend with them; and they would think themselves happy could they gain their freedom by bearing a part of subduing the enemy that is invading our land, and clear a peaceful inheritance for their masters, and posterity yet to come, that they are now slaves to.

"The method that I would point out to your Honors in raising a detachment of negroes; - that a company should consist of a hundred, including commissioned officers; and that the commissioned officers should be white, and consist of one captain, one captain-lieutenant, two second lieutenants; the orderly sergeant white; and that there should be three sergeants black, four corporals black, two drums and two fifes black, and eighty-four rank and file. These should engage to serve till the end of the war, and then be free men. And I doubt not, that no gentleman that is a friend to his country will disapprove of this plan, or be against his negroes enlisting into the service to maintain the cause of freedom, and suppress the worse than savage enemies of our land.

"I beg your Honors to grant me the liberty of raising one company, if no more. It will be far better than to fill up our battalions with runaways and deserters from Gen. Burgoyne's army, who, after receiving clothing and the bounty, in general make it their business to desert from us. In the lieu thereof, if they are [of] a mind to serve in America, let them supply the families of those gentlemen where those negroes belong that should engage.

"I rest, relying on your Honors' wisdom in this matter, as it will be a quick way of having a re-enforcement to join the grand army, or to act in any other place that occasion shall require; and I will give my faith and assurance that I will act upon honor and fidelity, should I take the command of such a party as I have been describing.

"So I rest till you Honors shall call me; and am your very humble and obedient servant,

"Thomas Kench, in Col. Craft's Regiment of Artillery, now on Castle Island. Castle Island, April 3, 1778."9

The role of black soldiers in the revolution has been the subject of several books. Here we are focusing only on what these letters suggest about Kench as a person, and reading between the lines, we sense that he was ambitious, intelligent, self-confident and articulate. He was also patriotic and idealistic, for he wrote: "... negroes should have their freedom, and none amongst us be held as slaves, as freedom and liberty is the grand controversy that we are contending for; and I trust, under the smiles of Divine Providence, we shall obtain it, if all our minds can but be united."

H.W. Small was misled by an inaccurate and unfair verbal tradition. His distorted portrait of Kench reminds us that Charles W. Eliot, - celebrating the life of John Gilly, a fisherman who lived on nearby Great Gott Island - observed that "with the rarest exceptions, the death of each human individual is followed in a short time by complete oblivion... . Even family recollection or tradition quickly becomes dim, and soon fades utterly away ... men accounted famous at their deaths slip from living memories and become mere shadow or word-pictures ... which too often distort or misrepresent the originals."10

This happened to the memory of Thomas Kench.

As a postscript, it is interesting to note that in 1773 James Swan published a pamphlet urging the abolition of the slave trade.11 His prose is florid, mannered and complex; stylistically, it bears no resemblance to Kench's presentation. At the outset of the Revolution, Kench served as a gunner (June-December, 1776) in a company led by Captain James Swan, and after the Revolution (1786), Swan purchased "Burnt Coat or Burnt Coal island" and twenty-two adjacent islands which were then known as "the Burnt Coat Division."

Although they may have met, there is no evidence to suggest that Swan influenced Kench in any way.

Finally, Dr. Small described Kench as a lonely and eccentric man who left Harbor Island and moved to Brooksville, Maine, in 1796. In fact, when he settled in Brooksville, Kench married Jane Maker, and they had three children. Jane apparently died in 1794, which suggests Kench left Harbor Island earlier than Small thought. After Jane’s death, Kench married Mary Perkins, and fathered four more children. With a house full of children, he could not have been too lonely.12

   1H.W. Small, History of Swan's Island. Ellsworth, Me: Hancock County Publishing Co., 1898, 3. (return to text)
   2Small, 3. (return to text)
   3Small, 3. (return to text)
   4Small, 59–60. Other authors have perpetuated and embellished Small's account. For example, Perry D. Westbrook. Biography of an Island. Thomas Yoseloff: Cranbury, N.J., 1958, writes: "The first white settler in what is now the township of Swans Island was a fugitive from the law and from life. Thomas Kench had come to the colonies from England before the Revolution. When war broke out he enlisted for the march to Quebec. He labored up the Kennebec with Arnold in late September, the bateaux slicing the red-gold film of leaves drifting downstream in the autumn sunlight. He portaged through the wilderness to Dead River and camped beneath Mt. Bigelow, already capped with snow as a warning of what was to come ... . He was in the attack on the Citadel, was one of the first to gain the walls, and one of the few to escape from them alive.
   In 1776 Thomas Kench joined the artillery company of Captain James Swan, who was later to become proprietor of Burnt Coat Island and give it his name. Apparently after signing a 'mutinous' petition to his superiors, Kench deserted from the army and sought peace, alone, among the outer islands of the Mt. Desert region. On Harbor Island he found the seclusion he was seeking ... . For fourteen years Kench lived there with his disgust, his hate, his fear—the first in a line of island solitaries extending down to the present day. The nearest white settlement was ten miles away across land and water on Mt. Desert. Fishermen would sometimes put in at the harbor, as they had been doing for generations, but Kench avoided their company. To them he became a figure of legend, a recluse living unnaturally like a medieval hermit, or a sort of Cyclops skulking on his rocky island with his sheep and his cow." 35–36. (return to text)
   5For Kench's service record, see:, "Doubting Thomas," citing Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War, 6, vol. 9, p. 94. For his pension applications see:, U.S. Pensioners, 1818–1872, National Archives Microfilm Publication T718, 23 rolls, Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, Record Group 217. (return to text)
   6Assuming Kench served through December 1782, he cannot have settled on Harbor Island until 1783. (return to text)
   7Charles Patrick Neimeyer. America Goes to War, A Social History of the Continental Army. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 74, Rhode Island Archives: Records of the State of Rhode Island, December 1777–October 1779, 10:41.) (return to text)
   8George Livermore. An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969, 126. MS. Archives of Massachusetts, vol. cxcix, 80, 84. (return to text)
   9Livermore, 125-126. Kench's proposal was reported favorably by a committee of both houses, but was not approved by the legislature. William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons. Boston: Robert F. Walcott, 1855, 49, cited by (return to text)
   10Charles W. Eliot, "John Gilley, Maine Farmer and Fisherman," in William Allen Neilson, ed. A Man and His Beliefs. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1926, 439. (return to text)
   11James Swan, A Dissuasion to Great Britain and the Colonies from the Slave Trade ... . Boston: J. Greenleaf, 1773, 41 pp. The pamphlet is reproduced on the Swan's Island website. (return to text)
   12 .(return to text)