CUMBERLAND — It was the summer of 1833, and Maine was preparing for a rare celebrity visit.
From Washington, D.C., to Portland, communities were rolling out the red carpet for President Andrew Jackson. But the trip would turn out to be a disaster. Jackson fell ill and never made it past New Hampshire – yet as legend has it, the seventh president’s ornate cavalry sword managed to complete the journey north.
More than 180 years after the ill-fated expedition, the sword and the story of its path to Maine remain a point of contention for Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland. The library plans to donate the antique showpiece to the Maine State Museum, resurrecting questions about the weapon’s origins and authenticity.
How the library came to possess the historic relic is one of the few confirmed facts about it: The gently arched saber and scabbard, with baroque embellishments, gold inlay and a carved ivory handle, were a gift from Robert-Scott Thomes, the benefactor who in 1923 also donated the land on which the library stands.
According to a letter confirming his donation of the item, Thomes said that during a visit by Jackson to Maine, the president met with Maine Gov. John Fairfield at his home in Biddeford and presented the sword to him.
“Well, Governor,” Jackson said, according to Thomes. “I guess I’ve seen enough blood and fightin’ and I’ll leave my sword as a token of my esteem.”
From there, the sword was passed to a merchant in Gorham, Frank H. Emery, Fairfield’s grandson, Thomes said. Emery gave it to Thomes, and Thomes, in turn, presented it to the library.
“It is my desire that the Prince Memorial Library association accept this rare trophy and keep it on display for this and coming generations,” Thomes wrote in his bequest of the weapon.
But for the past six years, the “Old Hickory” sword, as it has been called, has languished in a map drawer in the library basement, leading library director Thomas Bennett to seek a more useful home for the antique.
“We could display it here, but how many people coming to a library are looking for a sword?” Bennett said. “It would make sense in a more appropriate institution.”
The town of Cumberland has yet to make a final decision about what it will do with the relic, but its re-emergence from obscurity raises the essential question: Was this, in fact, Jackson’s sword?
“I haven’t been able to prove that,” Bennett said, because Jackson’s ill-fated trip to Maine leaves a gap in the story of how the sword got here.
FUTURE GOVERNOR KNEW PRESIDENT
Before he would become Maine’s 13th governor, John Fairfield was a man of many talents.
Born in Saco in 1797, Fairfield served on a privateer ship during the War of 1812, and spent his early adulthood trading. He eventually decided to study law, and in 1826 was admitted to the bar, practicing law with a partner until he was appointed in 1832 as reporter of decisions for the Maine Supreme Court.
Fairfield didn’t stay long in that post. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served a full two-year term beginning in 1835. He then won re-election.
During his time in the nation’s capital, Fairfield became close to Jackson, according to Thomes, the sword’s donor in Cumberland. Records of Fairfield’s letters, held at the Dyer Library in Saco, confirm that Jackson and Fairfield dined together on occasion, and the two exchanged correspondence a handful of times between 1836 – the end of Jackson’s second term – and 1844.
While in the U.S. House of Representatives, Fairfield once again followed his fancy for another office, resigned from Congress and won the governorship in Maine in 1838. He served as governor from 1839 to 1841 and again in 1842-43. But he left office again, this time hopscotching back to Washington, D.C., to complete a U.S. Senate term left vacant by a resignation.
So when Thomes wrote that Jackson and Fairfield became “fast friends,” Bennett and other Cumberland officials began looking into the relationship.
“On one occasion the president came to Maine to attend the ‘last muster’ and visit the Fairfields at their home in Biddeford,” Thomes wrote.
Which brings the legend back to Jackson’s ill-fated trip in 1833.
At that time, Fairfield was still serving on the Maine Supreme Court, traveling from town to town on his own horse, reporting the decisions of the highest court of the state. He wouldn’t arrive in Washington for two more years.
Jackson, meanwhile, undertook the long journey to New England on June 6, and estimates from press accounts at the time said he would arrive in Boston 11 days later. At his second stop in New York, he was received by a pair of ships, one of which fired salutatory cannon shots. “One of the crew who were engaged in ramming down a gun, lost both hands and his eyes,” according to an account in a Portland tri-weekly newspaper that was tracking the trip.
On the same day a few hours later, a crowd of dignitaries packed the top of a military battery, which promptly gave way, plunging dozens of people to the level below, including two governors, the secretary of war and Jackson’s personal secretary.
The president and his entourage pushed forward, however, until they reached New Hampshire. But on June 30, Jackson sent a letter regretting that he must cancel the rest of his trip.
“My health will not permit the prosecution of my journey,” Jackson wrote. “I shall, therefore, much to my regret, be deprived of the pleasure which I had anticipated from a visit to Portsmouth and Portland, and the intervening country.”
MISSING PIECE IN SWORD STORY
So how did the sword make its way to Maine?
Appraisers have authenticated the sword’s period and origin as an early 19th century cavalry piece, correct for its supposed time. According to Thomes, it was given to one of Fairfield’s grandchildren, Frank H. Emery of Gorham. The occasion was a so-called “last muster” in Biddeford, but no such event could be corroborated with historical records that were available.
Although Gorham town records confirm that Emery was indeed a resident who ran a prominent dry goods store on Main Street, his relationship to Fairfield as a grandchild could not be confirmed. Although the Maine governor had several children, none of his daughters married an Emery.
Now, Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane must decide whether to donate the piece permanently to the Maine State Museum, according to Bennett.
“The missing piece is Jackson being at Fairfield’s home,” Bennett said. “Pieces of the story are wrong for that to have occurred, but not so wrong that it couldn’t have.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: