Reuben Colburn

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Reuben Colburn (1740–1818) was a shipbuilder in Pittston, Maine who made great contributions to the American side in the Revolutionary War. His home, the Major Reuben Colburn House, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. [1]


In 1761, Colburn, his seven siblings and parents moved to Gardinerston in Maine, then a province of Massachusetts.[2] He arrived near the beginning of serious tensions between the colonists and the British.

A strong patriot, Colburn, a lumberman and shipbuilder, took up arms in 1775 when the revolution started, obtaining command of his local committee of safety. To bring local Indians in on the American side, he gathered the Abenaki tribes of the St. Francis. Traveling by canoe Colburn led them to Cambridge, Massachusetts for an audience with General George Washington at his temporary headquarters. A surprised Washington welcomed them with open arms and enlisted the chiefs on the spot.[3]

When informed of a plan to capture Quebec City under the command of American Colonel Benedict Arnold, Colburn offered his services to the Continental army, complete with scouts, maps, and boats. Arnold was enthusiastic about the new support and wrote Colburn immediately:

Sir, His Excellency General Washington Desires you will Inform your self how soon, there can be procured, or built, at Kennebec, Two hundred light Bateaux Capable of Carrying Six or Seven Men each, with their Provisions & Baggage, (say 100 wt. to each man) the Boats to be furnished with four Oars two Paddles & two Setting Poles each, the expense of Building them & whether a sufficient quantity of Nails can be procured with you.


Colburn sped to Maine, making plans for the expedition. Once home, he put his crew to work building the bateaux and procuring the foodstuffs from the local citizenry, many of them Tories unsympathetic to the patriot cause. He ordered maps and sent three scouts to explore the upper Dead River ahead of the coming army. Colburn made three trips to Cambridge during August of that year while the crews, under the supervision of his brothers, Oliver and Benjamin Colburn, and partner Thomas Agry, labored to fill the contract. They had only fifteen days to complete the task. Due to the short time frame and time of year, no dried pine was available and he was forced to cut fresh green pine to attach to the oak ribs.[5]

When the transports arrived on September 20, 1775, the bateaux were just about finished. With Arnold on the transport Broad Bay was a 19-year-old volunteer soldier by the name of Aaron Burr. Both were entertained in the Colburn home for three days until the army moved on upriver to Fort Western. Many legends surround the activities of Burr, but his stay with Reuben and Elizabeth Colburn is well documented. Two divisions remained at Colburn House for a week.

Colburn followed the expedition with a company of carpenters, fixing the flotilla as needed. The army barely made it through to supplies in Canada, and the 600 remaining men led by Arnold later mounted an unsuccessful attack on Quebec. Most of the commanders were captured and Arnold received the leg wound that plagued him for the rest of his days. Colburn and his brothers returned to Pittston, where he continued to build ships and support the American cause for the remainder of the war.

He served in the Massachusetts General Court and was a delegate to the Falmouth Convention, where he was the first to vote for statehood for Maine. That effort failed.

Colburn was never paid the money promised him by Washington. Thus, in the winter of 1776, when he first contacted Washington about the matter, a campaign began to gain payment that would last until the last family member failed in 1856. Treasury officials lost his receipts and for 20 years they sat in a box in New York after the commissioner died. In 1792, an act of limitation passed in the Continental Congress banning all Revolutionary claims as questionable due to the length of time passed, but this was challenged as unjust. Colburn suffered great economic hardship for this great expense and died in 1818,[1] financially ruined by the embargo and the War of 1812. In 1819 the Congressional Committee on Pensions and Revolutionary claims reported that Colburn had pressed a claim on the United States for the sum of £523 15s 10d; Colburn's receipts in the George Washington papers at the Library of Congress show he received L26 total money;[6] that there was sufficient time until 1794 for the claim to have been settled until barred by the statute of limitations; and that to admit a claim after 40 years after being barred was inexpedient and that claim should not be granted.[7]

Kenneth Roberts' 1929 novel Arundel mentions Reuben Colburn on several pages. The journals of the members of the original expedition compiled by Roberts in March to Quebec are a critical primary source for the ill-fated Arnold Expedition.

A new biography of Reuben Colburn: "Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec 1775" by Colburn descendant Mark A. York, was published by The History Press of Charleston, South Carolina, in February 2012.[8]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Hanson, J.W. The History of Gardiner, Pittston, and West Gardiner with a sketch of the Kennebec Indians, and New Plymouth Purchase, Comprising Historical matter from 1602 to 1852. Published by William Palmer. 1852. Incorporation of Pittston, Chapter IV p.720
  3. ^ Fitzpatrick, John C., Ed. The Writings of George Washington, 1745-1799-Vol.3 Washington to Philip Schuyler, August 15, 1775, Note 99
  4. ^ Smith (Arnold's March), pp. 96 and 97
  5. ^ Smith, Justin H. Arnold’s March from Cambridge to Quebec: A Critical Study, Together with a Reprint of Arnold’s Journal. New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1903. Notes to pages 74-83, note 16. pp. 299,300. Ibid. Note 10, pp. 298-299.
  6. ^ George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 5 Financial Papers Reuben Colburn to George Washington, September 3, 1775, Revolutionary War Accounts, Vouchers, and Receipted Accounts 2
  7. ^ 1834 American State Papers .p.667
  8. ^ York, Mark A. (2012). Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec, 1775. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 978-1-60949-500-8. 

External links

  • Washington's order to Colburn September 1775
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