J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, October 20, 2019

“Too late to see your Friend Otis have a good Drubbing”

One of the more evocatively named citizens of Revolutionary Boston was a sea captain named Mungo Mackay (1740-1811).

According to family tradition, Mackay came from the Orkney Islands to Boston as a teen-aged cabin boy. He married Ruth Coney in 1764 and became a ship’s master the next year, trading with Newcastle and Tenerife. Soon he had a store on Long Wharf, and in 1768 he joined the St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons.

Mackay was another man who watched the John Robinson–James Otis fight from the open front door of the British Coffee-House, having been attracted by the noise. He could offer only a confused description of the action, not recognizing Robinson. He said he saw Otis “hustled back by the Crowd” and then “at least three [Sticks] over his Head, and the Blood running.”

Mackay’s testimony was most useful to the Whigs when he added:
I saw two Officers of the Navy talking together, one of whom said, “You have come too late to see your Friend Otis have a good Drubbing”, to which he replied, “I am very glad of it, he deserved it.”

I saw William Burnet Brown in the Room with a Whip in his Hand, who came up to Capt. [John] Bradford who was looking for Mr. Otis’s Hat & Wig, and asked him in a scornful Manner what he looked at him for, it appeared to me that he had a Desire to pick a Quarrel with Capt Bradford.
Bradford was another merchant captain and an active Whig. He was one of the Boston leaders who went out to deal with the “Powder Alarm” in 1774 and became the Continental government’s agent for the port of Boston during the war.

Mackay concluded his testimony by saying that almost all the men in the coffee-house were “Officers of the Army and Navy.” In other words, even if some men had been on Otis’s side, they were clearly outnumbered.

The Orkney-born captain swore to his affidavit “taken at the Request of James Otis, Esq;” in front of justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton on 21 September, the same day as Thomas Brett.

As for Capt. Mungo Mackay, far from being only a pawn in the game of life, he’s managed to be remembered even in the age of Wikipedia.

TOMORROW: Who was William Burnet Brown?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

“Mr. Otis made a Trip (as they call it) at Mr. Robinson”

In the 25 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette, printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill ran two more eyewitness accounts of the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson.

One came from Thomas Brett, a merchant from Ireland. He said that on 5 September he was “in a Shop almost opposite the British Coffee-House” when he heard “an unusual Noise” that made him go look to see what was happening.

When I entered the Coffee-Room I perceiv’d two Gentlemen fighting with each other, the rest of the Company round them. I perceived several people rush upon Mr. Otis but in particular when Mr. Otis made a Trip (as they call it) at Mr. Robinson, which I believe would have brought him to the ground if he had not been supported by many people, who held him up.
Brett described John Gridley’s attempt to intervene, how “several people with Sticks struck” at him, and how he was shoved out of the building. Otis was shoved out at the same time, Brett said—a detail not in Gridley’s recollection.

And I don’t recall Gridley mentioning this moment, either:
Mr. Gridley in a short Time made his Appearance the second Time with his Arm (if I don’t mistake) tied up, and his Face very much disfigured with Blood, who said they were all a Pack of cowardly Rascals to take such an Advantage of a single Man, and told them altho’ one of his Arms were disabled, he would fight any cowardly Rascal of them all:
The Irish merchant also remarked on another man in the coffee-house, not previously mentioned:
I heard Mr. John Mein say that he was very glad if Mr. Otis had got much more; but said he was sorry for Mr. Gridley, as he believed he was an honest Fellow. I heard him say to some other Man he lost some Wine about it, but should pay it with the greatest Pleasure.
Mein, a Scottish bookseller and printer, had been carrying on a feud with Otis, Edes, and Gill since early 1768. That, too, had turned violent (Mein clubbed Gill because Edes had refused to confirm that a particular newspaper attack on Mein had come from Otis). So just as Mein was pleased to see Otis get beat up, Edes and Gill were probably happy to drag Mein into that affair.

“Upon the whole, as I was a Stander-by,” Brett concluded his affidavit; “in my Opinion there was foul Play shewn to Mr. Otis.” He signed that document on 21 September in front of justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton, respectable officials who were always sympathetic to the Whig party line.

TOMORROW: Another witness, another accusation.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Chaplin on Climate Recording in Almanacs, 18 Oct.

Joyce Chaplin, Professor of Early American History at Harvard University, is compiling a large database of the notes people kept in their almanacs about the daily weather.

On the afternoon of Friday, 18 October, Chaplin will speak on “Climate in Words and Numbers: How Early Americans Recorded Weather in Almanacs” as part of the M.I.T. Seminar on Environmental and Agricultural History. In particular:

Her talk focuses on how people recorded weather in numbers (including degrees Fahrenheit) and in words, ranging from “dull” to “elegant!” These notations are significant as records of a period of climate change, the Little Ice Age, also as records of how people made sense of and coped with that climatic disruption.
This talk and discussion are scheduled from 2:30 to 4:30 P.M. in Room 095 of Building E51 at the corner of Amherst and Wadsworth Street in Cambridge.

Chaplin is also scheduled to present her research in the Environmental History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Tuesday, 3 December, starting at 5:15 P.M.

Here’s a sample of the sort of data Chaplin is working with. It’s a page from interleaved almanac kept by Andrew Bordman in 1743, now part of the Harvard libraries’ vast holdings.
This shows that November 1743 started out “Very pleasant,” but the 3rd brought “wind Fogy & Rain.” There were three straight days of rain at the middle of the month, and on 23 November “great Storm Snow over Shoes.” How will next month compare?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Hardesty on New England Slavery in Medford, 17 Oct.

On Thursday, 17 October, Jared Hardesty will speak at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford on his new book, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England.

The site describes the book this way:
Shortly after the first Europeans arrived in 17th century New England, they began to enslave the area’s indigenous peoples and import kidnapped Africans. By the eve of the American Revolution, enslaved people comprised only about 4% of the population, but slavery had become instrumental to the region’s economy and had shaped its cultural traditions.

In this concise yet comprehensive history, Jared Ross Hardesty focuses on the individual stories of enslaved people in New England, bringing their experiences to life. He also explores the importance of slavery to the colonization of the region and to agriculture and industry, New England’s deep connections to Caribbean plantation societies, and the significance of emancipation movements in the era of the American Revolution.
Hardesty is an Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University. His last book was Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

This free event is scheduled to start at 7:30 P.M., and will end with a book signing. Royall House expects a large crowd for this event, so attendees must register in advance.

For people who can’t get into this event, Hardesty is scheduled to return to the site on Wednesday, 18 December, for another talk.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

“We Still Live Here” Screening, 16 Oct.

On Wednesday, 16 October, the Boston Athenaeum will host a screening of Anne Makepeace’s documentary movie We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, about the current effort to revitalize the Wampanoag language.

The Wampanoag were the first people to encounter the Pilgrims in 1620. Later English missionaries worked with converts to develop a writing system for their language and translate the Bible into it. In the 1700s, even as disease, war, and economic hardship strained the Wampanoag communities, their literacy rate is said to have rivaled that of British settlers in America.

In the following centuries, the Wampanoag community’s language nearly became extinct. Then in the 1990s Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Wampanoag social worker, began to have recurring dreams of her ancestors speaking to her in their native tongue. Those dreams inspired her to acquire a master’s degree in linguistics at M.I.T. and study hundreds of surviving documents written in the Wampanoag language. Eventually Baird developed a language education program with members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities.

After the screening of the film, the audience will be able to discuss it with assistant producer Jennifer Weston. Having grown up on the Hunkpapa Lakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, she now directs the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Language Department. Weston is also Associate Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

This event will start with a reception at 5:30 P.M. The documentary will be shown from 6:00 to 7:00, followed by discussion until 8:00. Admission is $15 for Athenaeum members and $20 for others, and registration is required.

Folks who can’t attend this event can screen the film at home through Makepeace’s webpage.

Monday, October 14, 2019

“Slavery and Its Legacies at Old North” panel, 16 Oct.

On Wednesday, 16 October, the Old North Church hosts a panel discussion on “Slavery and Its Legacies at Old North: Confronting the Past, Envisioning the Future.”

The event description says:
Captain Newark Jackson was a merchant, mariner, and congregant of Old North Church in the 1730s and 1740s who made and sold chocolate near Clark’s Shipyard in the North End. In 2013, Old North Church & Historic Site opened a living history chocolate experience named after the seemingly innocuous seafarer and cacao importer. Over the past seven years, Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate has become an integral part of the historic site and a beloved gem along the Freedom Trail. The story of colonial chocolate and Jackson is woven into the story of Old North Church.

In 2016, historian Jared Hardesty became intrigued with this man about whom very little was known. So began a three-year international research project that revealed significant insights into Old North’s past that affects its future. Jackson’s personal history, as that of Old North and the city of Boston, reveals a complicated past involving slave owning and slave trading that weighs upon the present and alters our sense of ourselves.
The panelists include:
  • Prof. Hardesty, author of Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston, now at Western Washington University
  • Prof. Jonathan Chu of University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Madeleine Rodriguez, associate at the Foley Hoag law firm
  • Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Their conversation will address “how a historic site comes to terms with information that alters its self-identity, its interpretation, and its public face,” examining “the complexity of past narratives, the impact of the past upon the present, and the necessity of history in correcting a fractured identity.” There will be time for questions and comments from the audience.

The event is scheduled to take place from 6:30 to 8:00 P.M. It is free, but attendees can register to attend through this page.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

“I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson”

On 18 Sept 1769, the Boston Gazette’s front page featured an item of local news. Usually the Boston dispatches ran on page 3 or so, after reports reprinted from newspapers in other cities, because the local news was freshest. But Edes and Gill put this piece in type early on. They knew they had to run it.

The article was a legal affidavit from John Gridley, the young merchant who had thrust himself into the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson back on 5 September.

Gridley testified that he had been passing by the door of the British Coffee-House on King Street and saw Otis and Robinson “engaged in Discourse, and by their Words and Gestures he perceived they were in great Warmth.” They were talking about “a Gentleman’s Satisfaction” and agreed to go out of the room.

Gridley went on:
Mr. Otis on saying the last Words was retiring to go out at the Door which leads into the Entry, and was hindered by Mr. Robinson’s Attempt to take him by the Nose, which Mr. Otis prevented by holding his Cane before him.

Mr. Robinson then closed in upon said Otis and struck him with a Stick, which Mr. Otis returned with his Stick, and reciprocal Blows passed, which lasted about One Minute, and neither seemed to have the Advantage:

Then they were disarmed of Sticks, and engaged with Fists, which being perceived by some of the Spectators, (most of whom were of the Army, Navy and Revenue) they endeavoured by pushing and pulling the said Otis, to prevent his beating the said Robinson.

Immediately on seeing such foul Play (the Door of the Coffee-House being open as usual) I stepped into the Room and cried out, it was dirty Usage to treat a Man in that Manner; and on saying this, I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson; but on going between them I felt some Person pull me by the right Shoulder, I instantly disengaged myself from the Person who had me by the Shoulder, and took Mr. Robinson by the Collar, and he, in twitching, and I in holding, tore his Coat, near or quite down to his Pockets:

I immediately received two Blows on my Head, with some Weapon from the right, by a Person who appeared standing on a Bench; the Blood which issued from my Wounds instantly filled my Eyes: I then lifted my right Hand to strike a Person who was pulling me, but who I could not see so as to know, by reason of the Blood which covered my Sight: As I lifted up my right Hand, I received a Blow from some Weapon just above the Joint of my Wrist Bone, which broke it.

I was then turned out out of the Coffee-Room Head and Shoulders by the said Persons, or some of them: I then went into said Room again, and was turned out by the Persons aforesaid: As I went in the last Time I took a Stick off the Floor (on which lay 5) hoping by that Means to find out at least one of those who had so basely and meanly abused me, that I might have reasonable Satisfaction:

I then went in at the Entering Door of the Coffee-House (not the Door which leads into the Coffee-Room) and met Mr. Otis, and told him he had better go into the front Room, set down and compose himself; which he did for about 2 Minutes: I also told him that I would defend him from any farther Abuse, as far as I was able; who replied “I am much obliged to you”—! A Person (unknown to me) told him he had better go and get his Wounds dressed; upon which he went off.—

He further saith, that after his receiving the Blows on his Wrist as aforesaid, he heard divers Voices hollow out, KILL-HIM! KILL-HIM! and I make no doubt they meant said Otis, as they were done beating me, and continuing to beat him when they thus cried out Kill Him! Kill Him!
That last detail of hearing people shout about killing was crucial to the Whigs’ claim that Otis’s enemies had tried to assassinate him in the coffee-house. It’s notable, however, that Gridley said nothing the attackers wielding “Cutlasses,” as stated in their first newspaper report of the brawl.

Gridley signed this affidavit on 13 September, eight days after the fight. The justices of the peace involved were Richard Dana and Dr. Belcher Noyes (c.1708-1785), both solid Whigs. In fact, Dana had overseen a hearing to arrest one of the men who had allegedly attacked Otis and Gridley. I’ll discuss that soon.

Gridley’s affidavit was in part a response to another account of the event that had already appeared in the newspapers—from the opposite side.

COMING UP: An innocent bystander?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

“A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley”

As I quoted yesterday, the earliest newspaper reports on the British Coffee-House brawl between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson said that “A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley,” waded into the fight on Otis’s side.

Who was John Gridley? Having researched Boston’s Gridley families because of their connection to the Continental artillery, I can say this isn’t a simple question. They were an old New England clan with the annoying habit of having lots of children and few given names. At any one time there were multiple John, Richard, and Samuel Gridleys.

Period sources provide a couple of clues about this John Gridley. First, the fact that the newspapers consistently call him a “young Gentleman” gives a hint about his class. Second, in a letter to John Wilkes in London, Dr. Thomas Young stated that he was “a nephew to the famous attorney of that name”—Jeremy Gridley (1702-1767), who had trained Otis in the law.

In a footnote to an article about Dr. Young published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Henry H. Edes wrote, “The only John Gridley of whom any record is found in Boston who may have been the person mentioned in the text was John, son of Isaac and Sarah (Porter) Gridley, who was baptized 16 October, 1737,” in the New South Meetinghouse.

Isaac Gridley, born in 1703, was indeed a younger brother of the attorney and older brother of the artillery officer. He became a ropemaker. Among his many real-estate transactions catalogued by Annie Haven Thwing, he sold John Gray property in the center of Boston that probably became part of the ropewalk where fights broke out before the Boston Massacre. After 1748 Isaac was legally referred to as “Isaac Gridley, Esq.,” indicating that society saw him as a gentleman.

John Gridley thus inherited a certain status. He married Mercy Bartlett of Newton on 18 Mar 1761. Four years later his name appeared on advertising for fishing nets and other cordage, so he had probably started to help run his father’s business. Isaac died in April 1767.

The Boston town meeting elected a John Gridley as a Clerk of the Market in March 1768. This was a low-level position that showed the respect of the town. Some men chosen for it moved up in government and others, like Gridley, simply served out the year.

When Gridley barged into the British Coffee-House on 5 Sept 1769, he was thirty-one years old—not exceptionally “young” but still part of the rising generation. He wasn’t out of place in a genteel establishment or in Boston’s business center.

A few months later, Gridley got involved with another milestone event in Boston’s pre-Revolutionary turmoil. On the evening of 5 Mar 1770, he was in the Bunch of Grapes tavern (shown above) with three other men when they heard the fire alarm. Gridley offered to go find out what was happening. Outside the Customs house he saw Pvt. Hugh White facing off against a crowd comprised mostly of “Little trifling boys.”

Gridley walked on, then came back when he saw a squad of British soldiers arrive. He even “walked betwixt the two ranks” as the men loaded their muskets. By this time, Gridley thought the crowd was full of “Mother Tapley’s boys,…boys as big as I am.” (No one can find that expression anywhere else in the entire corpus of English literature, and it needed to be explained at the trial.)

The soldiers’ attorneys called “John Gridley Merchant” to testify for their defense. He described hearing locals speak of attacking the main guard. He said the crowd doubled to about fifty people, some at the back throwing snowballs. And:
As I stood on the steps of the Bunch of Grapes tavern; the general noise and cry was why do you not fire, damn you, you dare not fire, fire and be damned. These words were spoke very loud, they might be heard to the Long wharff.
That sort of testimony was helpful to the defense and the royal cause in general, but Whig commentators don’t seem to have singled out Gridley’s testimony for criticism.

Nonetheless, in the next couple of years Gridley left Boston on some sort of business in the Caribbean. He never returned. The Boston Gazette and Evening-Post of 12 Apr 1773 reported that “Mr. John Gridley, Merchant,” had died in the West Indies.

TOMORROW: Gridley’s testimony about the brawl.

Friday, October 11, 2019

“Others struck with Cutlasses, Canes and other Weapons”

Boston newspapers published three detailed descriptions of the fight between Customs Commissioner John Robinson and Boston representative James Otis, Jr., on 5 Sept 1769.

The first appeared on 11 September, as Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette printed an anonymous news report that of course supported Otis. Picking up right after Robinson tried to pull his opponent's nose, it said:
…failing in the Attempt, he [Robinson] immediately struck at him [Otis] with his Cane, against which Mr. Otis defended himself, and returned the Compliment.

A close Engagement then ensued, and Mr. Otis having disarmed his Antagonist, several Persons in the Room prevented Mr. Otis from having fair Play, some of whom held him, while others struck with Cutlasses, Canes and other Weapons; and the Cry was Kill him! Kill him!
At this point, the Gazette writer said, “A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley,” came into the room and tried to protect Otis, but “was also attacked in the Manner Mr. Otis was.”

The crowd grew. “Robinson and those who were with him, retired through the back Door of the Coffee-House.—Mr. Otis and Mr. Gridley were carried off much wounded.”

The same column declared that most of the men in the room were “Officers of the Army, Navy and the Revenue.” The writer insisted that “the Plan of the intended and nearly executed Assassination of Mr. Otis, was concerted in Palmer’s Pasture.”

I’ve found a couple of references to that spot of Boston real estate. Once indeed a pasture, by 1769 it was a remnant empty lot on Pearl Street. The owner by inheritance was Thomas Palmer (1743-1820, shown above), who had married into the Royall family of Medford and later became a Loyalist. Palmer was also distantly related to the Hutchinson family.

However, I think the real significance of “Palmer’s Pasture” was that Palmer was the landlord of Customs Commissioner Charles Paxton. The 11 September Boston Gazette also included a paragraph said to have been “received from the Country before the Exploit on Tuesday Evening last.” It spoke of “Sir Charles Froth” (Paxton) and “Shan Ap-Morgan” (Robinson), who was supposedly going around “heavily armed” and making threats against “Candidus” (Samuel Adams).

In sum, the Gazette writer was broadly hinting that the Customs Commissioners had planned the violence in the British Coffee-House, with hopes of killing Otis. Which would have been quite the coincidence since Otis had threatened violence against Robinson just one week before in the same newspaper.

TOMORROW: But what did John Gridley say?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

“Suddenly turned and attempted to take him by the Nose”

As quoted back here, in the 4 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette James Otis, Jr., made a novel natural-rights argument about John Robinson. He declared that if that Customs Commissioner “misrepresents me, I have a natural right if I can get no other satisfaction to break his head.”

In the 18 September Boston Chronicle, Robinson, addressing Otis directly, described what he did that Monday and the next day:
you strutted about the town, denouncing vengeance against the first Commissioner you should meet with.—On Tuesday you went to a shop, and asked, if I did not buy a stick there, and being told I had, you desired to have the fellow of it which you bought accordingly.—
The 11 September Boston Post-Boy contained Robinson’s description of how the two gentlemen finally crossed paths:
On the evening of the next day Tuesday, I went to the Coffee-house between the hours of 7 & 8, and seeing Mr. Otis without a sword, I went into a back room, where I laid mine aside, and immediately returned into the Public room.---

I then addressed myself to Mr. Otis, in these words or to this effect.—Some days ago you wanted a free conversation with me, now I want a free conversation with you:

He immediately stood up in a rage and said he was ready to answer me in any manner;

I replied have a little patience; and let me ask you whether, I did not repeatedly tell you when we met the other day, that if I had done you an injury, I was ready to give you that satisfaction you had a right to expect from a Gentleman.----How therefore could you publish the account in Edes and Gill’s paper of yesterday?

It was proposed by some persons, (his friends I suppose,) that we should go into a room.

I said, that I had been in a room with him once already; and perceiving that he frequently menaced me with his stick, I took him or at least attempted to take him by the nose.-----
The Boston Gazette’s 11 September report was of course sympathetic to Otis, but agreed on the basic details:
After a Proposal on the Part of Mr. Otis to decide this Controversy by themselves abroad, or in a separate Room, the former was refused, but the latter seemed to be consented to by Mr. Robinson, but very unexpectedly to Mr. Otis, and while he was following, Mr. Robinson in the Presence of the publick Company in the Coffee-Room, suddenly turned and attempted to take him by the Nose; and failing in the Attempt, he immediately struck at him with his Cane, against which Mr. Otis defended himself, and returned the Compliment.
The Evening-Post’s report was nearly identical but said that as Otis “was rising, Mr. Robinson…attempted to pull him by the Nose.”

Kenneth S. Greenberg has shown how nose-pulling had a strong meaning in genteel honor culture. It was a great insult as well as a physical pain. Greenberg focused on the ante-bellum American South, but that society inherited the dueling code of eighteenth-century Britain which Robinson and Otis were trying (somewhat clumsily) to follow.

TOMORROW: From nose to head.

[The picture above is “Poor old England endeavoring to reclaim his wicked American children,” published in London in 1777. Available from the Library of Congress, the British Museum, and, in color, the John Carter Brown Library.]