The lighthouse and keeper’s house at Scituate, on the South Shore of Boston, Massachusetts, represent
the oldest extant lighthouse tower/dwelling combination in America. Despite this distinction, Scituate Lighthouse is best known and loved for the story of two heroic keeper’s daughters who gained fame as the Lighthouse Army of Two.
The light’s first keeper, appointed in December 1811, was Simeon Bates, who stayed until his death in 1834. Bates and his wife, Rachel, had nine children.
On June 11, 1814 - during the War of 1812 - 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.
Less than three months later, around September 1, Keeper Bates and most of his family were away, leaving the keeper’s
daughters, 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 ship anchored in the harbor.
Many years later, Rebecca was quoted in a magazine article:
I knew the ship at a glance. It was the La Hogue. "Oh Lord," says I to my sister, "that old La Hogue is off here again. What shall we do? Here are their barges and they’ll burn our vessels just as they did afore."
You see there were two vessels at the wharf loaded with flour, and we couldn’t afford to lose that in times when the embargo made it so hard to live. We had to boil pumpkins all day to get sweetening for sugar.
There were the muskets of the guard. I was of a good mind to take those out beyond the lighthouse and fire them at the barges. I might have killed one or two, but it would have done no good for they would have turned around and fired on the village.
"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. Thus was born the famous story of Scituate’s Lighthouse Army of Two.
The Bates sisters lived to be quite elderly. The Rev. George E. Ellis, overseer of Harvard College and a distinguished historian obtained a signed statement from Rebecca attesting to the truth of the tale. Rebecca sold copies of the affidavit for ten cents apiece, always asserting the veracity of her story in spite of doubters.
Some have pointed out that records show that the British ship La Hogue was clearly elsewhere at the time of the alleged events, but it’s certainly possible that
the Bates sisters were confused about the identity of the vessel.
David Ball of the Scituate Historical Society has done extensive research into the story and believes it is likely true. Several
children’s books have been inspired by the Army of Two, and the story has a firm place in the hearts of lighthouse buffs and Scituate residents. The fife played by Rebecca is still on display in the keeper’s house.
The grounds are open to the public at Scituate Light, but the tower is closed to the public except on several open house dates each year. The Scituate Historical Society will also provide tours by prior arrangement. For more information, contact the Scituate Historical Society. Phone 781 545-1083. www.scituatehistoricalsociety.org.
This story appeared in the
September 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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