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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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

“Treason! Rebellion! Massacre!”

To be fair to Benjamin Hichborn, there’s no evidence that he’d read the letters he was delivering to Massachusetts for John Adams and Benjamin Harrison (and delivered right into the hands of the Royal Navy on 31 July 1775).

Hichborn no doubt hoped those documents were important, because that would make himself more important. But he probably thought their rhetoric was typical for American Patriots in mid-1775.

Hichborn was therefore shocked by Capt. James Ayscough’s reaction to what he’d been carrying. Here’s how he described it months later [with paragraph breaks thrown in]:
My first interview with Ayscough, after his discovery of the Letters, I think worth relating—(if I had been subject to fits, I am sure he wou’d have thrown me into the most violent Convulsions)— “Oh the damn’d, black, hellish, bloody Plots contained in these Letters!

Pray Capt. Ayscough what do they contain?

Oh too shocking to relate! Treason! Rebellion! Massacre! (then beating his breast, with the most unnatural distortions of his face and body) O my God! It makes my blood run cold to think on it.

For God’s sake, Capt: Ayscough, if you have any compassion for my feelings, tell me what you mean.

Oh! (beating his breast again) it chilled the very blood in my veins when I read them. There is a plan laid to seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen [i.e., Anglicans] upon the Continent in one Night. Pray Gentlemen is it a fair question, to ask if you are Churchmen?

(Mr. [Anthony Walton?] White said he was, I told him I was not.)

Such cruel, black designs, never before entered the heart of Man!

But Capt. Ayscough, are you not mistaken?

Oh I read them over and over again.

I am not disposed to question your veracity, but if I had read it myself I woud not believe it. Pray Sir, whose signature do they bear?

They are all signed John Adams.
In fact Adams had not written about a plan “seize and massacre all the Officers and Friends of Goverment and all the Churchmen upon the Continent in one Night.” He had merely written that the Patriots should “have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.” So the captain did have a reason to feel alarmed.

Ayscough brought Hichborn around Cape Cod and into Boston harbor (shown above in 1764). On 5 August 1775, Gen. George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress:
I have this Morning been alarmed with an Information that two Gentlemen from Philada [(]Mr Hitchbourn & Capt. White) with Letters for General [Charles] Lee & mylf have been taken by Capt. Ayscough at Rhode Island, the Letters intercepted & sent forward to Boston with the Bearers as Prisoners. That the Captain exulted much in the Discoveries he had made & my Informer who was also in the Boat but released understood them to be the Letters of Consequence. . . . I shall be anxious till I am relieved from the Suspence I am in as to the Contents of those Letters.
Alas, I don’t know who Washington’s informant “also in the Boat but released” was.

In fact, the letters Ayscough turned over to his superiors weren’t that important, in the sense of containing vital orders or intelligence that Washington needed. But they did have consequences.

TOMORROW: Mrs. Draper’s press.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“By such a mere accident as this”

Yesterday we left Benjamin Hichborn on the Royal Navy ship Swan, commanded by Capt. James Ayscough, on the way to Rhode Island. Hichborn had taken it upon himself to carry letters to Massachusetts for two Continental Congress delegates, and he didn’t want the British authorities to find them.

Of course, Hichborn had already passed by opportunities to keep quiet about those letters, to travel more safely by land, and to toss the letters overboard at the first sign of trouble. But he didn’t want to let go of those letters, which would be proof of how reliable he was.

At first, Hichborn later wrote, things seemed to be all right. Capt. Ayscough treated him and his traveling companion, Anthony Walton (?) White, with polite deference. But the next day, the captain had become suspicious and hostile. Hichborn guessed that another traveler, clerk to a Loyalist merchant, had reported that he and White were traveling to aid the rebel cause—which they were, and had probably boasted about. By the second evening, the captain put a guard over those two young men.

Hichborn could still have kept the letters secret. Nobody had yet searched him or his belongings. He came up with what he thought was a clever ruse:
my plan I thought was compleat and ensured me success; I had provided a couple of blank letters directed to General [George] Washington and Coll. [James] Warren, which in Case [the clerk] Stone shoud acknowledge himself the Informer and confront me with his declaration, I intended to deliver them up with seeming reluctance and pretend I had concealed them through fear.
But he never put that plan into action.

Instead, Capt. Ayscough rendezvoused with H.M.S. Rose under Capt. James Wallace, which was patrolling Narragansett Bay. As Ayscough prepared to transfer his two prisoners and their baggage onto Wallace’s ship, Hichborn had another brainstorm:
Just as the boat was preparing to carry our baggage on board Capt. Wallace for examination a Gentleman who came passenger with us from New York sent on board for a trunk which we thro’ mistake had taken for our own, this circumstance looked so favourable that I coud not avoid seizing [it] to get the letters on shore. I opened the trunk with my own key, put the letters in the folds of the Gentlemans Linen and with some difficulty locked it again, when the trunk came upon deck the Lieutenant mistook it for mine put it into the boat with the rest of our things and rowed off immediately on board the other Ship. By such a mere accident as this did the letters fall into their Hands.
Simply because Hichborn had claimed that trunk as his own, had control of it belowdecks, and even had a key that opened it, the naval officers wouldn’t just send it off to the man from New York as Hichborn asked them to. Really the whole situation was unforeseeable.

Soon naval officers searched that trunk and found letters from two Continental Congress delegates, one from Benjamin Harrison speaking in detail about troops, gunpowder, and fighting in Virginia and one from John Adams saying:
We ought to have had in our Hands a Month ago, the whole Legislative, Executive and Judicial of the whole Continent, and have compleatly moddelled a Constitution, to have raised a Naval Power and opened all our Ports wide, to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.
Not surprisingly, the British authorities thought that was treasonous. They put Hichborn under arrest and confined him to a warship in Boston harbor.

TOMORROW: And royal officials decided to make use of those letters.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Benjamin Hichborn’s Delivery Service

In late July 1775, twenty-nine-year-old lawyer Benjamin Hichborn set off from Philadelphia for his home province of Massachusetts, proudly carrying three letters from Continental Congress delegates. Those letters would, he’d insisted, show that he had the confidence of Patriot leaders.

I suspect that Hichborn met up with Anthony Walton White (1750-1803, shown here), son of a New Jersey merchant who was seeking an appointment in the Continental Army. On 27 July, White obtained a recommendation letter from George Clinton of New York addressed to the new commander-in-chief, George Washington, so the timing fits. Hichborn later referred to his traveling companion only as “Mr. White.”

In the summer of 1775 it was very easy for a gentleman of means to travel in the American colonies. The royal army was almost entirely concentrated in Boston. The land war hadn’t spread beyond that region to make the roads treacherous. The Royal Navy had unchallenged control of the sea, but Hichborn could simply have stuck to a land route.

Which he didn’t.

Instead, as he wrote later that year:
When we came to New York, contrary to our expectations, we found a packet-boat waiting for Passengers, and in the opinion of every one there was not the least danger in crossing the [Long Island] Sound, we accordingly took passage for New-Port…
Hichborn could probably still have made his way to Rhode Island by sea unmolested if he kept a low profile, not telling anyone about the documents he was carrying. As a gentleman, he wasn’t likely to be subjected to close scrutiny.

But he didn’t.

Instead, Hichborn let on to a man named “Stone, (a person who formerly was Clerk to Henry Lloyd, and came passenger with us from New York),” that he had letters to Gen. Washington and James Warren, leader of Massachusetts legislature. Stone’s employer, Lloyd, was widely known as a Boston Loyalist. (Interestingly, two months earlier Lloyd had been worried about the security of his own mail.)

Sure enough, the packet boat carrying Hichborn, White, and Stone was stopped by the British warship Swan under the command of Capt. James Ayscough. However, the captain assured the young gentlemen that he was simply impressing sailors. Hichborn could still have kept the letters away from the British authorities by tossing them overboard in the night, and indeed he wrote of how he later “loaded them with money of the least value I had about me intending to drop them over board in the Evening.”

But he never did.

After all, if Hichborn were to come back to Massachusetts with no letters, he’d have no evidence that the Congress delegates trusted him.

TOMORROW: Benjamin Hichborn’s clever schemes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

“It would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence”

When John Adams wrote those cranky letters from Philadelphia that I quoted yesterday, he had someone looking over his shoulder: a young lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn (1746-1817).

Hichborn was a cousin of Paul Revere, but he came from a branch of the family that was already upwardly mobile. He had attended Harvard, graduating in 1768, and then gone to work as a clerk for the Boston lawyer Samuel Fitch.

Fitch was a Loyalist. This should not have been a surprise to Hichborn since Fitch was already accepting royal appointments in the Vice Admiralty courts in 1768. Then he signed the complimentary farewell address to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson in 1774 and stayed in Boston during the siege.

Fitch’s actions made Hichborn’s political allegiance suspect. Or at least he said so. It might have helped if he’d been politically active before the war, like a couple of his older relatives, but I don’t see his name anywhere prominent. So Hichborn went to Philadelphia to prove his dedication to liberty.

As Adams remembered the situation decades later:
A young Gentleman from Boston, Mr. Hitchbourne, whom I had known as a Clerk in Mr. Fitch’s office, but with whom I had no Particular connection or Acquaintance, had been for some days soliciting me, to give him Letters to my Friends in the Massachusetts. I was so much engaged in the Business of Congress in the day time and in consultations with the Members on Evenings and Mornings that I could not find time to write a Line.

He came to me at last and said he was immediately to sett off, on his Journey home, and begged I would give him some Letters. I told him I had not been able to write any. He prayed I would write if it were only a Line to my Family, for he said, as he had served his Clerkship with Mr. Fitch he was suspected and represented as a Tory, and this Reputation would be his ruin, if it could not [be] corrected, for nobody would employ him at the Bar. If I would only give him, the slightest Letters to any of my Friends, it would give him the Appearance of having my Confidence, and would assist him in acquiring what he truly deserved the Character of a Whigg.

To get rid of his importunity, I took my Penn, and wrote a very few Lines to my Wife and about an equal Number to General James Warren.
Actually, Adams also included Hichborn on a short list of young Massachusetts men he hoped Warren could find appointments for.

One might think that Adams, facing a young man whom he barely knew and whose political loyalty was so debatable, would send him off with some innocuous correspondence. Adams had just written to his wife and his friend Warren, so he didn’t really have to say more to them. But maybe that was the trouble—trying to think of stuff he hadn’t already written.

In any event, in his “very few Lines” for Hichborn to carry, Adams managed to say impolitic things about John Dickinson, Charles Lee, and most of his colleagues in the Continental Congress, and also to advocate for radical measures that he and his Massachusetts colleagues were still publicly disavowing.

Adams wasn’t the only delegate to entrust Hichborn with letters. Benjamin Harrison (shown above in a miniature owned by the Virginia Historical Society) also gave him a letter to carry to Massachusetts, in his case to his fellow Virginian Gen. George Washington.

TOMORROW: And how did Hichborn carry out that task?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

John Adams and “the Oddity of a great Man”

Abigail Adams wasn’t the only person reporting to her husband John about public reaction in Massachusetts to the arrival of Gen. George Washington and Gen. Charles Lee in early July 1775.

Legislative leader James Warren was another Adams confidant. On 7 July he wrote:
General Lee I have seen but a Minute. He appears to me a Genius in his way. He had the Marks about him of haveing been in the Trenches. I heartily rejoice at the Appointment of these two Generals, and I dare say it will give you pleasure to hear that every Body seems to be satisfied with it. I have not heard a single word Uttered against it. This is more than I Expected with regard to the second, since their Arrival everything goes well in the Army.
Lee’s appointment had been more controversial in Philadelphia than Washington’s. Though he had become well known as a pamphleteer for the American colonial cause and as a military expert, he was still widely considered an Englishman and therefore a curious choice to be third-in-command of the Continental Army. And Lee’s eccentric personal style didn’t help.

On 24 July, Adams sat down to write back to Warren. He had written just the previous day, but a young man was pressing him to write some more. So he wrote a bunch more, including this about Gen. Lee:
You observe in your Letter the Oddity of a great Man—He is a queer Creature—But you must love his Dogs if you love him, and forgive a Thousand Whims for the Sake of the Soldier and the Scholar.
Warren hadn’t actually said much about Lee’s “Oddity,” but it’s possible that by then Adams had received Abigail’s letter of the 16th and had her comments about his lack of outward “Elegance” on his mind. (According to the editors of the Adams Papers, William Tudor’s 19 July letter from Cambridge had reached Adams four days later, so it was possible for mail to move that quickly.)

In any event, Adams wrote about Lee with admiration but what some might consider an impolite frankness. But that’s no surprise since he’d started his message to Warren:
In Confidence,—I am determined to write freely to you this Time.—A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings…
That comment was about John Dickinson, a wealthy and well regarded Pennsylvania delegate resisting more radical measures.

That same day, Adams also sent a reply to Abigail, which managed to remain polite all the way until the postscript:
I wish I had given you a compleat History from the Beginning to the End of the Journey, of the Behaviour of my Compatriots.—No Mortal Tale could equal it.—I will tell you in Future, but you shall keep it secret.—The Fidgets, the Whims, the Caprice, the Vanity, the Superstition, the Irritability of some of us, is enough to—
He didn’t need to finish that sentence for her.

And then John Adams gave those two letters to Benjamin Hichborn, a young lawyer, to carry back home to Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: And how did that go?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Request to John Adams

In the same long letter from Abigail Adams that I quoted yesterday, she included these personal messages from the children to their father:
Our little ones send Duty to pappa. You would smile to see them all gather round mamma upon the reception of a letter to hear from pappa, and Charls with open mouth, What does par say—did not he write no more. And little Tom says I wish I could see par.

Upon Mr. [Nathan] Rice’s going into the army he asked Charls if he should get him a place, he catchd at it with great eagerness and insisted upon going. We could not put him of, he cryed and beged, no obstical we could raise was sufficent to satisfy him, till I told him he must first obtain your consent. Then he insisted that I must write about it, and has been every day these 3 weeks insisting upon my asking your consent. At last I have promised to write to you, and am obliged to be as good as my word.
At this time, Charles was five. (He’s shown above, considerably older though still in his youth.)

John Adams sent “Love to the children” in some of his letters home that month, but never specifically addressed this request.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Gen. Washington in Cambridge, 19 July

This Saturday, 19 July, Gen. George Washington will return to his Cambridge headquarters, at least in the form of reenactor John Koopman. He’s scheduled to be at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site from noon to 4:00 P.M., and that federal site is free to all visitors.

Abigail Adams had met the new commander a few days before he moved into that mansion, and on 16 July wrote to her husband John, assuring him that the Continental Congress had made the right choices:
The appointment of the Generals Washington and [Charles] Lee, gives universal satisfaction. The people have the highest opinion of Lees abilities, but you know the continuation of the popular Breath, depends much upon favorable events.

I had the pleasure of seeing both the Generals and their Aid de camps soon after their arrival and of being personally made known to them. They very politely express their regard for you. Major [Thomas] Miflin said he had orders from you to visit me at Braintree. I told him I should be very happy to see him there, and accordingly sent Mr. [John] Thaxter to Cambridge with a card to him and Mr. [Joseph] Read to dine with me. Mrs. [Mercy] Warren and her Son were to be with me. They very politely received the Message and lamented that they were not able to upon account of Expresses which they were that day to get in readiness to send of.

I was struck with General Washington. You had prepaired me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the one half was not told me. Dignity with ease, and complacency, the Gentleman and Soldier look agreably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feture of his face. Those lines of Dryden instantly occurd to me
“Mark his Majestick fabrick! he’s a temple
Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine
His Souls the Deity that lodges there.
Nor is the pile unworthy of the God.”
General Lee looks like a careless hardy Veteran and from his appear­ence brought to my mind his namesake Charls the 12, king of Sweeden. The Elegance of his pen far exceeds that of his person.
Washington and his retinue never made it out to the Adamses’ home at Braintree, and it doesn’t look like Abigail ever visited the Cambridge headquarters, though John did. This letter did, however, eventually lead Abigail to a second meeting with Gen. Lee.

TOMORROW: Abigail Adams passes on a request for a commission.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ebenezer Fox on the Sea Serpent?

We have one more detailed memoir of life aboard the Protector, the Massachusetts navy vessel that, three of its officers later reported, encountered a sea serpent in May 1780. That memoir was written by Ebenezer Fox of Roxbury, shown here.

Fox recalled the ship’s first lieutenant, George Little. He said Lt. Little had “a powerful speaking voice,” and described him several times using a spyglass to peer at potential enemy ships.

Fox also recalled the ship’s third lieutenant, Luther Little. He described how this Lt. Little was wounded by “a charge of grapeshot [that] came in at one of our port-holes” during the ship’s fatal fight with the Admiral Duff. In an appendix he described visiting Luther Little again in Marshfield in August 1838.

Fox did not, however, mention Midn. Edward Preble, despite his later fame. It’s possible Preble just didn’t stand out. However, later biographers agree that he had a bad temper all his life. (“With advancing years, Edward Preble’s childhood temper tantrums matured into fits of uncontrolled rage…” —Christopher McKee, Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761-1807.) I therefore suspect the young midshipman was simply unpopular.

In his memoir Fox clearly described how the Protector went into the harbor at Broad Bay, Maine, to leave some sick men in the care of a farmer there, just as in Luther Little’s recollections. Both the younger Little and Fox told the same anecdote about a certain sailor trying to steal a calf from that farmer, getting caught by the first lieutenant, and being severely punished.

Yet Fox’s memoir says nothing about a sea serpent. He described encountering a giant snake later on the island of Jamaica. But he didn’t discuss the giant snake that dozens of the Protector’s men saw in the water off Maine, even though it must have been the talk of the ship for days.

Why? I think two factors played into Fox’s decision. First, he shaped his manuscript for publication. In contrast, George Little put his account of the sea serpent into a private letter to a scholar. Luther Little left his story with a relative. Edward Preble told the tale to friends, apparently with care; James Fenimore Cooper wrote that he “probably saw that he was relating a fact that most persons would be disposed to doubt, and self-respect prevented his making frequent allusions to it.” None of those stories were put into print until after the men telling them had died.

Second, unlike those other three men, Fox hadn’t been an officer on the Protector; he was an ordinary seaman. The Littles and Preble all became naval captains, two of them celebrated. Fox became a grocer and town postmaster. As respectable as he was, Fox was never as solid a gentleman as the others. If the three captains were wary of writing publicly about a sea serpent, Fox probably felt even less secure and more vulnerable to ridicule. So he didn’t leave us one word about that creature in the water.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Midshipman Preble Chases a Sea Serpent

Yesterday I quoted the memories of George and Luther Little of the day in May 1780 when their Massachusetts frigate chased a sea serpent off the coast of Maine. But did anyone besides the Little lieutenants leave a record of that giant fish that got away?

One of the youngest officers aboard that ship, the Protector, was Midshipman Edward Preble (1761-1807), later a celebrated U.S. Navy captain. James Fenimore Cooper’s profile of Preble for Graham’s Illustrated Magazine in 1845, republished in Naval Biographies, included his version of the chase:
Preble related the affair substantially as follows: The Protector was lying in one of the bays on the eastern coast, which, has been forgotten, waiting the slow movements of the squadron. The day was clear and calm, when a large serpent was discovered outside the ship. The animal was lying on the water quite motionless. After inspecting it with the glasses for some time, Capt. [John Foster] Williams ordered Preble to man and arm a large boat, and endeavor to destroy the creature; or at least, to go as near to it as he could. The selection of Preble for such a service, proves the standing he occupied among the hardy and daring. The boat thus employed pulled twelve oars, and carried a swivel in its bows, besides having its crew armed as boarders.

Preble shoved off, and pulled directly towards the monster. As the boat neared it, the serpent raised its head about ten feet above the surface of the water, looking about it. It then began to move slowly away from the boat. Preble pushed on, his men pulling with all their force, and the animal being at no great distance, the swivel was discharged loaded with bullets. The discharge produced no other effect than to quicken the speed of the serpent, which soon ran the boat out of sight.

There is no question that in after life, Preble occasionally mentioned this circumstance, to a few of his intimates. He was not loquacious, and probably saw that he was relating a fact that most persons would be disposed to doubt, and self-respect prevented his making frequent allusions to it. . . . Preble stated it as his opinion, that the serpent he saw was from one hundred, to one hundred and fifty feet long, and larger than a barrel.
Preble’s anecdote, filtered through Cooper’s novelistic imagination, left out Lt. George Little as the officer in charge of the boat, putting Preble in his place. Preble’s serpent was three times as long as the Littles’.

In fact, there were such differences between the Little and Preble accounts that some later sea serpent scholars treated them as separate incidents. But Preble was probably just a junior officer who went out in the boat under George Little. His anecdotes of that event, passed along orally to Cooper, offer another, less reliable look of the mysterious creature.

TOMORROW: One more memoir from the Protector.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lieutenant Little Chases a Sea Serpent

George and Luther Little were two brothers from Marshfield who both served as officers aboard the Massachusetts navy vessel Protector under Capt. John Foster Williams from 1779 to 1781.

Luther, the younger by two years, was badly wounded during a sea battle. Later George was captured, held briefly on the Jersey prison ship, and sent to the Mill Prison in England. He and other officers bribed a guard and escaped to France.

In 1804, George wrote a letter to Alden Bradford about another of his adventures during the war. In 1820 that letter was published in the American Journal of Science as follows:
Marshfield, 13th March, 1804.

In answer to yours of the 30th of January last, I observe, that in May, 1780, I was lying in Round Pond, in Broad Bay [off Waldoboro, Maine], in a public armed ship. At sunrise, I discovered a large Serpent, or monster, coming down the bay, on the surface of the water. The Cutter was manned and armed. I went myself in the boat, and proceeded after the Serpent. When within a hundred feet, the marines were ordered to fire on him, but before they could make ready, the Serpent dove. He was not less than from 45 to 50 feet in length; the largest diameter of his body, I should judge, 15 inches; his head nearly of the size of that of a man, which he carried four or five feet above the water. He wore every appearance of a common black snake. When he dove he came up near Muscongus Island—we pursued him, but never came up within a quarter of a mile of him again.

A monster of the above description was seen in the same place, by Joseph Kent, of Marshfield, 1751. Kent said he was longer and larger than the main boom of his sloop, which was 85 tons. He had a fair opportunity of viewing him, as he was within ten or twelve yards of his sloop.

I have the honor to be, sir, Your friend and humble servant,
A couple of decades later, Luther Little dictated his memoirs, eventually published in the Journal of American History. Luther corroborated his older brother’s experience:
The Capt. thought it necessary to put into an eastern port for wood and water;—we sail’d for Broad Bay, and arrived at the mouth and anchored in a cove near the shore, called Muscongus. The Capt. made arrangements with a farmer at this place to land our sick, at an out building leaving the surgeons mate to take care of them, making a sort of hospital. I was then sufficiently recovered [from my wound] to be able to walk the deck. The next day, at four in the afternoon, we discovered a large black snake coming down from out the bushes abreast the ship; he took the water and swam by us; we judged him to be 40 feet long, and his middle the size of a man’s body; he carried his head six feet above water. We manned a barge, and went in chase of him; when fired at, he would dive like a sea-fowl. They chased him a mile and a half firing continually. The snake landed at Lowd’s Island, and disappeared in the woods. The barge returned to the ship.
Luther’s account suggests he saw the serpent from the deck of the Protector but didn’t join George in the boat that chased it.

Did anyone outside the Little family tell this odd story?

TOMORROW: Tales from a midshipman.

(The Protector was a 26-gun frigate launched in 1779. The picture above shows H.M.S. Cleopatra, a 32-gun frigate launched the same year; that’s the closest I could find.)