May 6, 2012
miles north of the historic settlement of Plymouth Massachusetts in the town of
Scituate you will find the Scituate Lighthouse. Constructed in 1811 through
$4,000 of federal funding, it was completed and operational in April of 1812.
Simeon Bates was assigned the job as keeper of the Lighthouse and moved in with
his family to the lighthouse in the same month. Bates and his wife, Rachel, had
nine children, including two daughters, Rebecca and Abigail. These two sisters
would become heroic figures in the history of American lighthouses.
These were times of war for America. The War of 1812 had
started and many towns along the east coast of America were being sacked and
burnt by British Warships. On June 11, 1814, British forces plundered and burned
a number of vessels at Scituate. Keeper Bates fired two shots from a small
cannon, angering the captain of a British warship as it departed.
Upon the British attack, the local militia was called out to
stand guard over the town in the event of another Redcoat visit. Sentinels were
placed at the lighthouse, as well as other strategic spots within town, with the
expectation that the British would soon return. As summer wore on, there was no
sign of the British. The lighthouse sentinels befriended the Bates family,
especially daughters Rebecca, (age 21), and Abigail, (conflicting sources place
her age somewhere between 15 and 17). Abigail was taught how to play the drums,
and could replicate the different military signals, and Rebecca was taught four
different military songs on the fife, of which "Yankee Doodle" was the one she
felt she did especially well. After months of no British activity, the militia
was slowly called back from their posts. By late summer, all of the sentinels,
including the ones at the lighthouse, were no longer posted.
than three months later, Keeper Bates and most of his family were away, leaving
21-year-old Rebecca and 15-year-old (or, according to some accounts,
17-year-old) Abigail in charge. The sisters were horrified to see a British
warship anchored in the harbor. In a magazine article many years later,
Rebecca was quoted:
"I'll tell you what I'll do," says I to my sister, "Look
here, you take the drum and I'll take the fife." I was fond of military music
and could play four tunes on the fife -- Yankee Doodle was my masterpiece. . . .
"What good'll that do?" says she. "Scare them," says I. "All you've got to do is
call the roll. I'll scream the fife and we must keep out of sight; if they see
us they'll laugh us to scorn."
The British thought the sound of the fife and drum signaled
the approach of the Scituate town militia, and they hastily retreated. Indeed,
not only the sailors in the barges heard the girls, but those on the frigate as
well. Not able to see who was actually playing the instruments, the British
assumed that the local militia had been alerted to their arrival and was
gathering to meet them. A signal appeared from the frigate, and the men on the
barges turned around and returned to the ship. It wasn't long afterwards that
the frigate raised its anchor and left Scituate for the open sea. Thus was born
the legend of Scituate's "Lighthouse Army of Two."
The Bates sisters lived to be quite elderly. Rebecca later
sold affidavits for ten cents apiece, always asserting the truth of her story in
spite of doubters. Some people have claimed that the ghosts of Rebecca and
Abigail Bates haunt Scituate Light. Fife and drum music, they say, can be heard
blending in with the wind and waves. Having visited this location many times,
there is an eerie feeling even on warm sunny days. Especially from the end of
the 450 foot wall rock that jets out into the ocean. When storms approach the
New England coast, this is a favorite spot to quickly get into position to see
large swells and breakers against the rocks.
The next time you are in the New England area, plan a visit
to the Scituate Lighthouse. Wonderful harbor scenery and good food in this
seaside town make for a memorable visit. And be sure to visit the Quarterdeck
antique shop on the pier! Expect to spend a good amount of time browsing the
Scituate Light circa 1900