When I heard about the first pirate known to have cruised Maine waters, images came to mind of Hollywood’s Jack Sparrow or one of the blood-thirsty characters from a Robert Louis Stevens novel or the iconic illustrations of N.C. Wyeth. But the actual story of Maine’s first pirate Dixey Bull does not easily fit into this kind of popular mythology.

Dixey (or Dixie) Bull was born in 1611 in Cambridgeshire, England to a respectable family. He was indentured for nine years at age 15 to an older brother as a skinner, or worker of animal skins and pelts. Bull soon became quite proficient in the lucrative fur trade.

By 1631, he had shipped to Boston and was working along the Maine coast. Two patents to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and associates, dated December 2, 1631, are sealed with names Seth Bull, Dixie Bull, and John Bull, so Dixey likely came to America in his brother’s employ.

He used a small sailing vessel known as a shallop and visited various Indian villages, becoming well known from Mount Desert Island to the Piscataqua River. Dealing mostly in beaver, Bull became good at his job and scrupulously worked his way around Penobscot Bay. He frequently came into contact with the Plymouth-run trading post located at present-day Castine, although it is not clear if the contact was positive or contentious as a rival. The post had been established a few years prior to Bull’s arrival.

The Penobscot trading post had recently been rocked with scandal and intrigue by a ‘profane young man’ named Edward Ashley. He had been sent there as manager, a move which upset the Plymouth post at Kennebec River, who resented this nearby rival. Thomas Willet was dispatched to Penobscot to keep an eye on Ashely; there are indications the two men did not get along.

Around 1630, Plymouth Company ousted Ashley by charging him with providing powder and shot to the Indians. Willet and others testified against him. Ashley’s other transgression was that he had apparently ‘gone native.’ It seems he adopted native clothing, language and habits much to the disgust of Willet. Ashley returned to England in disgrace and Willet took charge, but the area remained rife with tension and hard feelings.

About this time, a French raiding party robbed the Penobscot trading post. Finding Willet gone and only three or four men present, they stole £500 worth of beaver, biscuit and blankets. This is where Dixey Bull gets involved.

One history states Bull’s shallop and all his furs and possessions were taken by a French pinnace at this time, possibly the same group who raided the trading post. Another suggests it was actually at the post where Bull’s goods had been plundered by the French. Perhaps Willet somehow held Dixey Bull responsible for the attack or loss of goods? Or maybe wanted to remove Bull’s presence from the area?

Regardless, history states at this point Bull became a pirate. Described as consumed with revenge or desperation, he went to the Plymouth Company to plead his case but found no recompense for his losses. He therefore gathered 15 men to enter upon a career of piracy to recoup what he thought was due him. At least that’s how some histories put it.

Likely he did go back to Massachusetts but found the Plymouth Company, perhaps at Willet’s insistence, unwilling to cover his losses. At Plymouth, Bull proposed a venture against the French and hoped for official blessing. When it did not come, he may have tried other legal means to recover his loss. Nothing worked, apparently stymied by company authorities, who may have been following Willet’s orders. Company politics at its worst!

At some point, Bull decided to take matters into his own hands and persuaded some fishermen, traders and sailors to join him for a sail along the Maine coast in late summer 1632. History states he first went after French targets, but soon took anything. Perhaps it was lack of French vessels, or maybe it was hard feelings towards Willet and Plymouth Company, but at some point that summer, Dixey Bull took two or three small English ships. It is not clear whether they were Plymouth Company vessels.

News of the seizures spread along the coast. He became known as Dixey Bull ‘the Dread Pirate’ for his next decision to attack Pemaquid settlement. But why attack a land target and why specifically Pemaquid? Perhaps he had seen first-hand how easy it had been for the French to take the Penobscot post.

But why Pemaquid? In 1632, some histories state there were about 80 families in the area, representing nearly 500 people. It had long been used by English and French traders and fishermen on a seasonal basis. Summer fishing off the peninsula had been going on for 30 years, two decades before the Pilgrim arrival at Plymouth in 1620. Pemaquid’s patent was dated February 1631, but residents were already there; the first permanent settlers had likely moved in around 1629.

One early resident was Abraham Shurte, wealthy trader and Indian mediator. He was named agent for grantees Robert Aldworth and Giles Elbridge, and had built a stockade commonly known as Shurte’s Fort. One source says it was located right where the next three Pemaquid forts were built in the inner harbor, another says it was a simple block house out on Fish Point near the sand beach. Built in 1630, the structure was little more than a storehouse to protect fur trade items, possibly items associated with the Plymouth Company trade.

Shurte likely knew Willet and had dealings with the Plymouth Company, which might explain Bull’s plan. Whatever the reason, Dixey Bull used three small ships and sailed right into Pemaquid. He sacked the storehouse with no one injured or killed. Not much of an attack, they easily gained access to the ‘fort’ and came away with £50 worth of goods, another source says £500.

Legend has it Bull buried this ‘treasure’ on Damariscove Island or at Cushing Island in Casco Bay, although you wonder how much treasure £50 or even £500 represented in blankets, furs, kettles or trinkets. Not your typical pirate treasure of gold doubloons or pieces of eight! Sources say Bull burned the storehouse, others do not. It may have been destroyed in 1676 by Indians during King Philip’s War.

As they loaded the ships, someone fired a shot at them from the beach. It struck and instantly killed Bull’s second in command. Interestingly, this appears to have been the first blood shed during Dixey Bull’s pirate career. The death apparently shocked and unnerved the pirate crew, none of whom it appears had had any prior pirating experience.

Still, stories of the dreadful pirate attack swept New England waters. Bull tried to persuade a Salem sea captain to pilot them to Virginia, but he refused. Remaining in Maine waters, it is said they then agreed upon a body of articles to govern their acts, including stiff penalties for excessive drinking. But it is difficult to determine the veracity of any shipping attacks after Bull’s attack on Pemaquid.

History states they also sent a letter to the English colonial governors renouncing piracy, likely in fear of punishment. They even said they would harm no more and promised to leave the area. But sensationalized stories about Dixey Bull the Dread Pirate spread like wild fire, especially by those returning from Penobscot…and then ‘perils did abound as thick as thought could make them.’

Perhaps fanned by an unforgiving Willet and/or Plymouth Company, these tales of evil on Maine’s coast prompted Massachusetts Bay government to finally act. In late November, a pinnace was sent to join other vessels seeking Bull, but all were delayed by winds for three weeks at Pemaquid. After a month of wintry weather, they went home.

By 1635 if not earlier, Dixey Bull was gone. That year the Plymouth Company was permanently ousted from Penobscot by the French, who began construction of Fort Pentagoet on the post’s location, cementing their hold on mid-coast Maine. It was also 1635 when the English galleon Angel Gabriel ripped from her Pemaquid moorings and was destroyed in what was called the Great Colonial Hurricane.

By this point, Dixie Bull the Dread Pirate of literally one season of near blood-less piracy, had disappeared. In 1633, three of his former crew who had jumped ship and gone home, claimed Bull had sailed east. What did happen to him? He may have joined the French or gone back to England, some think he was hanged at Tyburn. Administration of his English estate was granted to his sister Susan Bull Kendricks in Huntingdon in 1656.

Stories and ballads soon replaced what actually happened. Dixie Bull was enshrined as the first pirate of the New England coast, with all the subsequent infamy and imagery. In a ballad ‘The Slaying of Dixie Bull’ the pirate meets his match with a Pemaquid fisherman named Daniel Curtis. Perhaps he had been the one who fired the shot from the beach which killed Bull’s second-in-command, an action later morphed into mythology where Bull himself was taken out. So goes the first pirate of Maine!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine" available through Historypress.com.