Ashley Bowen’s Adventures
In The French & Indian War

by James J. Buckley

Ashley Bowen's insatiable desire for adventure inevitably led to his involvement in the French and Indian War. Yet throughout his encounters with the enemies of the British Crown, including imprisonment in the French West Indies, he betrayed no fear of bodily harm. It was as though Bowen had some foreknowledge that he was going to live to be 85, marry three times and sire 15 children.

Certainly his adventure in 1756 should have satisfied Bowen's craving for desire and combat. Captain Philip Lewis signed him up as first mate on the schooner

One of Ashley Bowen's famous nautical watercolors. Possibly Swallow.

"Swallow" as it headed for St. Eustasius in the West Indies. Built in Salem in 1739, it was owned by Robert Hooper of Marblehead; its purpose was to transport molasses from Martinique to Marblehead.

On December 13, 1756, John Chavis, commander of French forcers in Martinique, captured the "Swallow" and imprisoned all the men, including Lewis and Bowen, at a merchant's home on that island. It took Bowen only a few days to figure out how to escape. On the next Sunday while the guards were least alert, Bowen led Captain Lewis and another ship's officer, George Crowninshield, away from the makeshift prison. When the trio reached the harbor, they were fortunate enough to find a British schooner. Its Captain readily agreed to transport the men to the British port of St. Eustasius.

Having eluded the French, Bowen now had to find some means of getting back to Marblehead. After many vain attempts to secure passage back to the Bay Colony, Lewis and Bowen encountered James Freeman who had bought a sloop, the "Olive". He was willing to allow Lewis to elude the French by taking command of the ship, and use it for passage back to Marblehead - provided Lewis was willing to return to Martinique for a cargo of molasses. The offer was firmly rejected by Captain Lewis; he had no intention of returning to Martinique where he would certainly be re-captured and imprisoned again. However, after no other means of passage back to Marblehead wad uncovered, Bowen suggested a bold and reckless way of complying with Freeman conditions. Somehow, Ashley Bowen had obtained papers from the Dutch government which gave him permission to be Captain of a ship flying the flag of Holland. Bowen suggested that he go to Martinique as a Dutch Captain, get the molasses, return to St. Eustasius to pick up Lewis and the rest of the crew of the ill-fated "Swallow", and then set sail for Marblehead. Lewis expressed the opinion that Bowen was unnecessarily endangering his own life. If the French should recognize him, he could be killed on the spot or at least imprisoned once more. Bowen refused to listen to such warnings. Since the "Olive" was the only means of getting home to Marblehead, he would have to risk discovery in Martinique.

When Ashley Bowen reached Martinique, he presented his Dutch papers and began to load the "Olive" with the shipment of molasses. Suddenly he was confronted by his French captors who could not believe that Bowen would have been crazy enough to return to Martinique. Instead of imprisoning him, they congratulated him on his boldness and courage, and allowed him to leave port. In fact, they returned to him the clothes he had left behind when he had escaped prison, plus Captain Lewis' chest and bedding. What undoubtedly saved Bowen from imprisonment, however, was the fact that he was sailing under the flag of Holland and the French didn't want to risk antagonizing the Dutch government by arresting somehow who carried Dutch papers. As a result, Bowen's courage and audacity plus some good luck, enabled him to gain passage back to Marblehead for him., Lewis and the crew of the "Swallow".

On May 7, 1858, Ashley Bowen married Dorothy Chadwick. During the 13 years of their marriage, she gave birth to six children. Becoming a married man and assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood did not seem to deter Bowen from his craving to become involved in the French and Indian War. A year after his marriage, he volunteered to become acting midshipman aboard his Majesty's ship the "Pembroke" and soon found himself on his way North to participate in the siege of Quebec.

In addition to being reckless, Bowen had an insatiable compulsion to gain a full understanding of how and why a battle was being waged. He also liked to meet the commanders of any campaign. So while other officers of the Navy considered it wise to avoid any encounters with their superiors, Bowen made it his business to blunder into the encampments of those in charge of a battle. He was able to get away with such unorthodox behavior because of his straightforward manner and guileless demeanor. However, during the siege of Quebec, Bowen was almost arrested as a French spy when he approached the famous British General, James Wolfe.

Shortly after arriving on the "Pembroke", Bowen received permission from the First Mate to leave the ship. He tried to discourage Bowen from his plan to meet General Wolfe, and warned Bowen that he would only have himself to blame if he got in trouble.

Even though Bowen was not wearing any uniform (because of his volunteer status), he passed by each of the sentries without being challenged. As a result, he soon found himself in the heart of Wolfe's encampment. According to Bowen, "When I came into the camp, it seemed to me like a Rag Fair, for it had rained the day before, and clothes were being overhauled as carelessly as at home." Seeing Wolfe at a distance, Bowen approached the general. Just as he reached Wolfe, a cannon ball whistled over both their heads and Wolfe, seeing Bowen for the first time, cried out, "Sir, you are in danger!" Bowen quickly stated that his curiosity about how the French had organized their troops had prompted him to climb up to the hilltop where Wolfe had established his command post. Suddenly Wolfe turned on Bowen demanding, "Who are you?" Bowen blurted out, "A friend!" Wolfe began to interrogate Bowen, seeking to discover why someone out of uniform had suddenly appeared before him in the heart of his headquarters. The interrogation was lengthy because Wolfe wanted to make certain the Bowen was not a French spy. Bowen summoned every bit of guile and wit he could muster in order to escape the real possibility of being arrested as an enemy agent. When Wolfe asked Bowen how he knew him, Bowen gave a specific description of Wolfe's visit to the "Pembroke", including who the general met and what kind of conversations Wolfe had with the officers and crew. After over a half and hour of grilling Bowen, the General decided Bowen had been telling the truth and sent a file of men to accompany Bowen back to his boat. Bowen was shaken by this encounter, for while he got his desired opportunity to talk with Wolfe, it was in the context of a gruelling interrogation. After this incident, Bowen exercised more judgement in picking the time in which to indulge his curiosity about the famous leaders of his day.

Late in June, 1759, final preparations were being made to engage the enemy at high tide. Bowen's commanding officer, Captain Cook, was called to meet with other Captains aboard the command or flag ship. As he left ship, Cook stated, "Mr. Bowen, I leave you full charge of the poop (deck) and make all the discovery (of the enemy's intentions) that you can." Shortly after Cook left, the French began to send fire-rafts in the direction of the British fleet. The first fleet was made of parts of schooners and shallops chained together. It was covered with guns, grenades, and other combustible materials. As midshipman, Ashley Bowen was in command of a pinnace, a light sailing vessel with a flat stern, which usually accompanied a larger vessel, such as the "Pembroke". Interpreting Captain Cook's orders to mean that he should repulse any aggressive actions by the enemy, Bowen leaped aboard his pinnace with some other men from Marblehead. He grappled with the fire-raft, successfully pushing them toward shore, away from the ships. As they returned to the "Pembroke" and were receiving cheers from their mates, one of the Marblehead men quipped, "Dam-me Jack, did'st thee ever take hell in tow before?"

When in mid-September 1759, the British armed forces gained possession of Quebec, this ending France's control of Canada, the 160 men from Marblehead, including the 16 who served with Bowen aboard the "Pembroke", were placed completely under the command of midshipman Ashley Bowen. Many of the men were sick when they were discharged in early October 1759. As their commanding officer, Bowen was saddled with the responsibility of ministering to those who were ailing. Despite his efforts, 35 died on the passage to Boston. It became Bowen's sad duty to organize and supervise the burial at sea of these brave men from Marblehead. Two men who served with Bowen aboard the "Pembroke" - Isaac Warren and Robert Thompson - were among those buried at sea. The rest of his shipmates - William Horn, Edward Akes, Robert Bartlett, Garrett Farrell, John Bateman, Thomas Woodfin, Miles Dollan, Edward Kindley, Ben Nichols, Arthur Lloyd, Edward Saverin, Zachary Paine, and Frederick Swaburgs - shared the hearty welcome Ashley Bowen received when he finally arrived in Marblehead.

James Buckley is a North Shore history buff who is a frequent writer for Marblehead Magazine.