It is the early hours of a March day in 1812, and the pre-dawn light is just beginning to clear the fog on Passamaquoddy Bay. Two Jonesboro fishermen, Charles and Edgar Wass, are heading out for a day’s work; only the sound of their oars pulling against the ocean breaks the morning stillness. Until, out of the blue, they hear a blood-curdling cry. Almost certainly neither of them recognizes it – it’s a sound not heard in Maine for fifty years or more – but there can be no mistaking the intention of the warcry of the Passamaquoddy. Turning, they see a long-haired middle-aged woman standing atop a large rock. As the sun crests the horizon, they realize they have seen the ghost of Nell Hamilton, Jonesboro’s own prophet of war. Three months later, the United States declared war on Great Britain.
That, at least, is the story as recounted in the New York Sun in 1898. Hilton’s spirit would return to warn the townspeople again in 1861, though she was reportedly absent the March of the Sun article, despite the imminent onset of the Spanish-American War.
In life, as well as death, Nell (Helen) Hilton is said to have accurately predicted the onset of war. But whatever the truth of her powers of prediction, her life story, as remembered in her legend, is fascinating unto itself.
Born on Cape Cod at an unknown date, perhaps around 1720, Nell is said to have persuaded her father to move to Jonesboro, “to escape the restraint that the Plymouth colony placed upon the conduct of women,” some time before 1746. Equally likely, Pa Hilton, a fisherman, relocated the family to Maine to gain access to new fishing waters. Nonetheless, Jonesboro would have been a good place to evade any overbearing authorities. The frontier settlement (the town was not even incorporated until 1789) was on the edges on British North America, sandwiched between the Acadians of New France and the Passamaquoddy Indians.
The Hiltons and their neighbors were likely interacted with both the French and Indians on a regular basis. This would explain how the young Nell formed a romantic relationship with a Passamaquoddy man. Her father discovered the two lovers together and, enraged at the discovery, shot and scalped the Indian. Only then did Nell’s father discover that the two youngsters had been engaged. The heartbroken Nell’s reaction was to run away from home, to live with the Passamaquoddies.
Among the Indians, Nell found a new purpose. Fluent in three languages (English, French and Passamaquoddy), the young woman acted as an agent and negotiator the Indians with the French and British. As the story goes, she “never married [but] was looked upon as a queen of the tribe, and her wishes had more influence with the braves than an edict from the council of chiefs.” Like most native peoples at the time, the Passamaquoddy bargained with both European nations, and her travels between the two probably allowed Nell to deliver her first “prophecy.” In 1746, she is said to have forewarned a group of Acadians of an impending British attack during the Louisbourg campaign. Since British forces for that campaign mustered in southern Maine before the attack, Nell could have been in a good position to deliver such a “prophecy.”
Nell’s association with the Acadians continued at least through 1755, when she is said to have been living in Grand-Sault (Great Falls, NB) as a teacher. She may well have been part of the exodus of Acadians who settled in the area following their expulsion from Nova Scotia.
On the 1st of March, 1775, however, Nell made a dramatic return to her hometown for a second, and final, foretelling. This time she warned her former neighbors, family and friends about the impending conflict with Great Britain, just before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Again, it is possible that Hilton came by her knowledge through her network of contacts, rather than any supernatural gift (King George had effectively declared war on the patriots in February of that year). Less explicable is the tradition that she proceeded to predict the entire course of the war, right through the surrender at Yorktown.
Eventually it seems that Nell’s talents were her undoing. Just two years after her return home, in 1777, she was hanged as a patriot spy. Although the story does not specify this, it seems likely that she was implicated in the actions of John Allan, a Nova Scotian patriot who had fled to the United States, and been authorized by Congress to raise a company in Maine to invade Western Nova Scotia. Allan’s force, which never amounted to much, was based in Machias, adjacent to Jonesboro, and Nell’s familiarity with both Nova Scotia and the Indians (who supported Allan against the British), would have been a great asset to the patriots.
Standing before the gallows, Nell delivered one last prediction to the assembled crowd. Speaking in English, French and Passamaquoddy, she recounted her life story before promising to return to the people of Jonesboro to warn them of any future conflict. They were to look for her every March 1st, atop the big rock on Hilton’s Neck. She would announce herself with the Passamaquoddy war cry – just as the Wass brothers encountered her nearly forty years later.
Even without the supernatural elements to her tale, it’s easy to see why Nell Hilton’s life became a legend. An independent.woman who broke societal norms, she broke cultural taboos by falling in love with an Indian man and then by choosing to live with his people after his death. She was fluent in three languages when education was a rarity for women of her station. She rose to a position of influence in two societies that she was not born into, yet died as a patriot for the country of her birth. Nell Hilton may be one of the most remarkable Mainers you’ve never heard of.