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, December 16, 2018

“Hove the Tea all overboard”

On the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party I’m sharing one of the more unusual eyewitness accounts of the event. This text was published in Traits of the Tea-Party in 1835, labeled “Extract from the Journal of the ship Dartmouth, from London to Boston, 1773.”

The Dartmouth, owned by the Rotch family of Nantucket and captained by James Hall, was the first of the three tea ships to arrive in Boston harbor. As such, its legal status determined the ticking clock that drove the drama. If the Dartmouth wasn’t fully unloaded by 17 December, the Customs service could confiscate the remaining cargo (i.e., the East India Company tea) and the ship itself.

Here’s the logbook as published in 1835:
Sunday, Nov. 28. This 24 hours first part fresh breezes, hazy weather, with rain at times. At sunset fetched close in with the Graves; tacked to the southward. At 10, P.M., came to anchor about two miles from the Light-House, got our boat out, and went on shore for the pilot. At 4, A.M., the pilot, Mr. Minzey, came on board. At 6, got under way, wind WNW. turned up Ship Channel and came to anchor in King’s Road. At 11, the tide being ebb, got under way, and turned up and came to anchor under the Admiral’s stern [i.e., Adm. John Montagu’s flagship, H.M.S. Captain]. At 10 at night, two Custom-House officers were boarded upon us by the Castle, we being the first ship ever boarded in this manner, which happened on account of our having the East India Company’s accursed dutiable Tea on board.

Monday, Nov. 29. This 24 hours pleasant weather, lying at anchor under the Admiral’s stern; the Captain went on shore, there being a great disturbance about the Tea. A town-meeting was held, which came to a resolution the Tea should never be landed. Had a guard of 25 men come on board this night at 9, P.M.

Tuesday, Nov. 30. This 24 hours cloudy weather; got under way, and turned up to [John] Rowe’s wharf. Employed unbending the sails, getting our boats out, &c. A watch of 25 men on board this night, to see that the Tea is not landed.

Wednesday, Dec. 1. This 24 hours cloudy weather: warped from Rowe’s to Griffin’s wharf; got out old junk and moored ship—getting our sails and cables on shore.

Thursday, Dec. 2. Cloudy weather; began to deliver our goods, and continued to land them from day to day, till Saturday, Dec. 11, having a guard of 25 men every night.

Tuesday, Dec. 14. Have had another town-meeting, which is adjourned to Thursday.

Thursday, Dec. 16. This 24 hours rainy weather; town-meeting this day. Between six and seven o’clock this evening came down to the wharf a body of about one thousand people;—among them were a number dressed and whooping like Indians. They came on board the ship, and after warning myself and the Custom-House officer to get out of the way, they unlaid the hatches and went down the hold, where was eighty whole and thirty-four half chests of Tea, which they hoisted upon deck, and cut the chests to pieces, and hove the Tea all overboard, where it was damaged and lost.
Historians have quoted from this text for many decades, but all the citations go back to Traits of the Tea Party. In other words, no one knows where the original manuscript is, so we rely on this transcription.

Traits of the Tea Party was written anonymously by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher based on extensive interviews with George R. T. Hewes and other old men. The logbook appeared in an appendix alongside the first attempt to list all the people who participated in the Tea Party, provided by ”an aged Bostonian.” Years ago I posited that that list came from the newspaper publisher Benjamin Russell. But who provided the logbook?

There are some internal clues. The author was aboard the Dartmouth when the tea was destroyed, having been told “to get out of the way.” If the transcript is correct, that author had already referred to the cause of the trouble as the “accursed dutiable Tea,” which suggests he shared the political views that dominated Boston and hadn’t chosen for the Dartmouth to carry that tea.

The captain of the Dartmouth, James Hall, was a Loyalist who left Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. The Canadian historian L. F. S. Upton wrote that Hall commanded ships for the Royal Navy before dying in England in 1781. It’s therefore very unlikely that his logbook would have been available to an American author in 1835.

Ship owner Francis Rotch (1750-1822) spent the war and ensuing years outside North America, managing whaling operations from Britain, the Falkland Islands, and France. He returned to Massachusetts in the 1790s and became known for devising improvements to whaling technology. So it’s possible that the logbook had become Rotch’s property and his heirs shared it—but he couldn’t have written the log since he wasn’t aboard the ship. And the Rotches weren’t part of the Boston crowd.

The most likely author and source seems to be the Dartmouth’s mate, Alexander Hodgdon (1741-1797). We know from his brother-in-law Ebenezer Stevens that Hodgdon was on board the Dartmouth as the Tea Party began. He remained in Massachusetts through the war, at one point commanding a militia company in defense of the state. Hodgdon served in public offices and eventually became Massachusetts state treasurer. That seems to have been enough for some twentieth-century authors to say positively that Hodgdon wrote the Dartmouth logbook.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

James Watson and the Tea Party

Yesterday I quoted Cyrus Eaton’s History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Maine (1865) as a source about Benjamin Burton’s stories of the Boston Tea Party.

Eaton also wrote:
The other resident of this place present at this celebrated tea-party, was Capt. James Watson, who, at the time commanding a small coaster from this river, and being in Boston, assisted in breaking up the chests with a negro-hoe; as the tide abated, he went down the vessel-side to push it afloat, and filled his pea-jacket pockets with samples of the objectionable herb.
Stealing tea was what got Charles Conner in trouble on 16 Dec 1773, which is why he’s the one person we can identify from contemporaneous sources as helping to do away with that cargo. Some Boston families claimed that ancestors brought home some tea unwittingly in their boots or the folds of their clothing. But for Watson and his descendants to boast of him deliberately carrying tea away is unusual.

I haven’t found any other sources about James Watson’s involvement, however. Apparently Eaton’s book was enough for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum to list Watson among the participants. Its website says:
Little is known about James Watson aside from his involvement in the Boston Tea Party; except for his service in the Revolutionary Army as a Captain.
There were captains named James Watson in the Continental Army, but they were from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, not Massachusetts/Maine. This Watson gained the title “Captain” by commanding a ship, as Eaton described.

James Watson was master of a 50-ton sloop named Sally in 1774. Eaton quoted a Salem Customs House document allowing it to sail from Marblehead to Boston with a load of firewood that December. According to Watson’s descendants, this “was the first cargo taken into Boston after the passage of the Port Bill”—which it most assuredly was not.

Drawing from Watson’s papers, Eaton wrote that in January 1776 he carried some soldiers to Falmouth, and in October 1778 he sold hogsheads of lime in Beverly. On 28 July 1779 Capt. Watson landed at the mouth of the Bagaduce River, evidently in support of the Penobscot expedition, and in 1782 he was busy making salt. All of which left him no time to serve in the army. (Another James Watson was a private in Col. Jonathan Mitchell’s regiment in the 1779 campaign, just to confuse matters.)

The detail in Eaton’s description of Watson working to destroy tea that stood out for me is the phrase “negro-hoe.” Evidently in 1865 everyone knew what that meant. In C. G. Parsons’s Inside View of Slavery: or A Tour among the Planters (1855), I found this explanation for a similar term:
The “n[egro] hoe” was first introduced into Virginia as a substitute for the plow, in breaking up the soil. The law fixes its weight at four pounds,—as heavy as the woodman’s axe! It is still used, not only in Virginia, but in Georgia and the Carolinas. The planters tell us, as the reason for its use, that the negroes would break a Yankee hoe in pieces upon the first root, or stone that might be in their way. An instructive commentary on the difference between free and slave labor!
People who are being forced to work are naturally less protective of their enslavers’ property. Indeed, we should view tool-breaking as a form of rebellion against an unjust situation. Clearly the notion of a “negro-hoe” had become so well known that Yankees used the term for any heavy hoe.

As to whether James Watson was at the Tea Party in December 1773 and left no record of his involvement other than a local tradition set down in 1865, the evidence is slim.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Benjamin Burton and the Tea Party

In the fall of 1833, Maine’s newspaper were eager to name residents of the young state who had participated in the Boston Tea Party sixty years before.

The 9 October Augusta Age newspaper listed three men: Benjamin Simpson, Ephraim Smith, and “Col. Benjamin Barton of Warren.”

That third man was actually named Benjamin Burton. He was born 9 Dec 1749 in Thomaston and died 21 May 1835 in Warren, having lived much of his life in Cushing. The top of his marble sarcophagus appears here, courtesy of Find-a-Grave.

Burton rose to the rank of major during the Revolutionary War and also had an exciting time as a prisoner of war alongside Gen. Peleg Wadsworth. He later became a colonel in the militia, magistrate, and legislator.

Obviously by 1833 Burton was stating publicly that he had helped to destroy the tea in Boston harbor. In that same period he was also applying for a federal pension for his Revolutionary War service. His application file says nothing about the Tea Party, which wasn’t pertinent to whether he qualified.

Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots cites a letter from Burton to Maine historian William D. Williamson in 1835 as a source. The book says Burton was a sailor on the Cumberland who happened to be in Boston on the crucial night and joined in destroying the tea. I haven’t seen that letter to know if it offers more detail to assess.

Thirty years later, in his History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Maine, Cyrus Eaton relayed Burton’s claim to be at the Tea Party this way:
[Burton,] happening to be at Boston on a visit, went in the crowd to the Old South meetinghouse, and, as soon as the patriot orator had closed his animated address, hearing the shout tea-party, tea-party, and being touched with the spirit of the times, joined the party, was stationed in the hold of one of the ships to fasten the slings upon the tea-chests, and labored with his might between two and three hours in the work of destruction. It being about the time of low water, the detested tea rested on the ground and, when the tide rose, floated as a scum upon the water and was lodged by the surf along the shores.
That account strikes me as unreliable. The term “tea party” wasn’t applied to the event until the 1820s.

Even farther afield, the website of the Tea Party Ships and Museum states that Burton “was also one of the men who led the meeting at the Old South Meeting House before the tea protest actually began.” None of the nineteenth-century sources makes such a claim. It’s possible that was based on a misreading the phrase about “the patriot orator” above as applying to Burton rather than Samuel Adams or another of the politicians who spoke that night.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ephraim Smith and the Tea Party

The anniversary of the first Boston Tea Party is nearly upon us. Last year I discussed Benjamin Simpson, a man from Maine who was one of the first participants to talk about the experience for the press.

Joshua Wyeth appears to have coined the term “tea party” to describe himself and others who destroyed the East India Company tea. Charles Bahne offered a theory about why that label struck a chord here. The term quickly became popular in the 1830s, with the old man most closely linked to it being George R. T. Hewes, then living in upstate New York.

Then on 20 Sept 1833 the Portland Weekly Advertiser ran this letter from an unnamed correspondent:
The Otsego Republican, speaking of Mr. Hewes, says “he is believed to be the only survivor of the memorable tea party,” in Boston.

By way of correcting a wrong impression, and also of offering all the information in my power, and of inducing others to contributing their mite, as every fact relating to that noble band must be interesting, I would mention the name of Ephraim Smith, Esq., of Gorham, as another member.

He was at the time an inhabitant of Wellfleet, Cape Cod; but happening to be in Boston, he heard a whisper going the rounds in the afternoon, that a party would attack the British tea in the evening, and throw it overboard. He says, they assembled at the town house, at the head of King-street, now, I believe, called State-street, and having disguised themselves with paint, &c. marched down, boarded the ships, three in number, lying on the South side of Long-wharf, and threw the tea overboard, without opposition. He says there were hundreds in the company; how many he would not pretend to say: he does not now recollect any names.

Mr. Smith is now 83 years of age.—There is another member of the same party, who now receives a pension from the office in this town, whose name is not recollected.
Smith died on 13 Jan 1835 at age eighty-four, according to Josiah Pierce’s 1862 History of the Town of Gorham.

In his History of Gorham, Maine, published in 1908, Hugh D. McClellan added another anecdote from Smith, presumably passed down among relatives and inhabitants:
In December, 1773, he was in Boston with his vessel. Seeing a crowd he joined in and was one of the men who went on board the English vessels, and threw the tea overboard. He often told the story of one of the men, who, wishing to carry a little tea home to his wife, unwittingly put so much into his coat-tail pocket as to make it too prominent. This was discovered by some co-patriots, when a jackknife soon made his coat into a short jacket. That part containing the obnoxious weed was thrown into the dock [i.e., the water beside the wharf] much to his disgust, and the amusement of the boys and the crowd generally.
I find Smith’s story less convincing than Simpson’s. It contains little information that wasn’t widely known in Boston during or soon after the event. The man who tried to get away with tea, for example, was Charles Conner.

A detail from Smith’s telling that doesn’t appear in public accounts is that the tea destroyers “assembled at the town house.” That’s hard to believe and even harder to believe no other witness noticed. The building was the center of town and one of the seats of government.

I suspect Smith was in Boston during or soon after the Tea Party of December 1773, but I doubt that he was a participant. Nonetheless, the Maine press was proud to list him as one.

TOMORROW: Another claimant from down east.

[The map of Maine above was published by Anthony Finley in 1830 and is available from the Philadelphia Print Shop.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Master Teachers Seminar in Washington, July 2019

The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati will offer a weeklong Master Teachers Seminar in Washington, D.C., on 8-12 July 2019. The theme is “The American Revolution and the Cause of Independence: ‘Between Submission and the Sword.’” Independence is, the seminar description says, “one of the four major achievements of the American Revolution and a central concept of the American Revolution Institute Curriculum.”

This Master Teachers Seminar is a week-long residential program for middle- and high-school teachers focusing on the American Revolution. It is held each summer at Anderson House, the headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati near Dupont Circle. The seminar includes morning lectures and discussions about teaching the Revolution and afternoon sessions working with the resources of the Institute’s library and museum. The best lesson plans that participating teachers develop during the session are published on the Institute website with credit to their authors.

Teachers chosen to participate in the seminar will receive a stipend for travel to and from Washington, D.C., and be treated to meals and lodging at Anderson House. Since Anderson House is a Gilded Age mansion, those quarters are not spartan. (The photo above of one of my talks there reveals the difficult conditions under which I sometimes have to work.) Each participant will also receive a letter documenting sixty hours of professional development.

The institute will be accepting applications for the 2019 Master Teachers Seminar until 22 February.
The application must include a cover letter describing how students will benefit from one’s participation in the program, a résumé, and a draft Revolutionary War lesson plan dealing with the idea of independence and spanning two class periods. For more detail, see this webpage. Applications will be judged on the potential of the lesson plans with preference given to those that include a preliminary bibliography on the chosen topic that uses the Institute’s collections.

Applicants should upload their material through this webpage by 22 Feb 2019. Questions can be sent to Stacia Smith, Director of Education at Anderson House.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What Ticked Off William Claggett

On Thursday, 13 December, the Newport Historical Society will have its annual meeting. Dr. Elaine Forman Crane will speak on “The Vintner and the Indian,” and the society staff will unveil the revamped NewportHistory.org website. That starts at 4:00 P.M. at the Colony House in Washington Square.

That Thursday evening, the society will celebrate the opening of a new exhibit titled “‘My small Ability’: The Life and Work of William Claggett,” inspired by the new book Claggett: Newport’s Illustrious Clockmaker by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III.

Claggett made clocks in Newport from 1716 until his death in 1748, and also trained other craftsmen. The exhibit features tall case clocks by Claggett and his trainees, clothing, maps, a mahogany board, and the Claggett wall clock in the society’s Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House. Also included are copperplates that Claggett engraved to print Rhode Island currency. And there are more Claggett clocks on display at the Redwood Library.

As a good New Englander, Claggett also got involved in religious disputes. The society recently ran a blog post by scholar Margaret Hanson about his 1721 book A Looking-Glass for Elder Clarke and Elder Wightman And the Church under their Care, about a controversy at the Second Baptist Church:
The trouble began when the church Elders, Daniel Wightman and James Clarke, suspended church member John Rhodes from communion following a complaint regarding his business practices. Claggett felt that Rhodes’s dismissal was unfair. In response, he and another congregant, Captain John Rogers, withdrew from communion.

This led to further disagreements: while Claggett and Rogers protested the church Elders’ decision to suspend Rhodes, others defended them and reprimanded Claggett and Rogers for withdrawing from the communion. The dispute continued over the next 21 months, as Claggett, Rogers, Rhodes, the church elders, and various other congregants argued during church meetings, in private conversations, in publications, and through written correspondence.

Recently, we discovered a folder among Second Baptist Church records in the NHS archives containing exciting materials related to the Looking-Glass dispute. The newly discovered materials include letters (both originals and manuscript copies) exchanged among the disputants in 1720 and 1721, several of which are reproduced in A Looking-Glass.

The folder also contains a booklet titled A Just Vindication (1721) which outlines the church’s defense of the elders and complaints regarding Claggett. While Claggett’s Looking-Glass does not include a full reproduction of A Just Vindication, this document was important in motivating him to write and publish his own version of the dispute. Furthermore, the final section of Claggett’s book, titled A Reply to Your Un-just Vindication, is dedicated to refuting the church’s arguments and narrative.

The folder also contains several letters written between 1723 and 1725, after the publication of Claggett’s Looking-Glass, which comment on its contents, as well as its author.
Not surprisingly, Claggett ended up leaving that church.

The exhibit opening starts at 6:30 P.M. at the society’s Resource Center, 82 Touro Street in Newport. Like the annual meeting, it is free and open to the public. Register for space here.

Monday, December 10, 2018

“He ordered powder casks to be filled with sand”

Here’s one last story of gunpowder and sand supposedly getting mixed up during the siege of Boston. It comes from the recollections of William H. Sumner (shown here), who wasn’t even born until 1780. He later became adjutant general of the Massachusetts militia, so he got to hear a lot of older men’s stories.

Sumner wrote down this account of the end of the siege about 1825, and it appeared in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1858:
In the following year, we took possession of Dorchester heights ourselves. At the time they were taken possession of, as I have received the impression from some person—whose name I do not now recollect—[Gen. George] Washington had but little ammunition. In order to conceal from the soldiers the true state of the army in that respect, he ordered powder casks to be filled with sand, and that several loads of them should be carried to the heights by the way of Roxbury, where the right wing of the army, under Gen. [John] Thomas, was posted. By this deception, the soldiers were satisfied that the army was in a condition to defend itself, notwithstanding the reports that the supply of ammunition was nearly exhausted.

After possession was taken of the heights, hogsheads were filled with earth, and so placed that they could be rolled down upon the enemy to break the columns, if they should dare attempt to march up the hill.
Again, this has no support from contemporaneous sources. Washington felt himself well supplied with powder by early 1776. Gen. Artemas Ward was overseeing the right wing of the army from Roxbury, with Thomas under him.

The Continental plan to defend their quickly built fortifications on Dorchester Heights definitely  involved barrels full of rocks, dirt, and/or sand. Washington even wrote a special note to Ward about that: “Remember [the?] Barrels.” Author and early-photography collector Joe Bauman just sent me an email quoting the aged veteran Simeon Hicks’s pension application as stating that “he assisted in filling Hogsheads & Barrels with sand to roll upon the British should they attempt to ascend.”

It’s conceivable, therefore, that some Continentals or members of the militia companies mobilized for that final push saw wagons moving barrels toward or onto the Dorchester peninsula and assumed they were full of gunpowder, only to learn later they were (to be?) filled with sand. But that’s not the same as Washington ordering barrels of sand to be trucked around to fool his own men.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Ezekiel Price: “Sand was mixt with the powder”

I don’t trust Elkanah Watson’s story of a Continental Army powderhouse stocked with barrels of sand to make the gunpowder supply look bigger than it was. And I completely discount Edward Everett Hale’s statement that Gen. George Washington was taken aback by such a subterfuge by Gen. Artemas Ward. But there was a moment during the siege of Boston when Americans worried about such a mix-up.

That moment was right after the Battle of Bunker Hill, before the provincials realized how much damage they had inflicted on the British troops. In those early days, people were looking around for someone to blame for losing the Charlestown peninsula.

Ezekiel Price was a Boston court officer and insurance broker who had taken up residence in Milton after the war broke out. He kept a diary recording lots of the gossip he picked up, including this news on Monday, 19 June 1775, two days after the battle:
Further reports relating to the unfortunate action at Charlestown,—that the Continental Army fought like lions, and mowed down the Regular Army as they approached the entrenchments, until their ammunition was expended, and until a fatal mistake (as I call it) was discovered,—that the cartridges and shot for the artillery proved wholly unfit for them, and could not be used; besides which, an opinion prevails among the Continental Army, that treachery was in some of the Continental officers. A suspicion also arises among them that sand was mixt with the powder, and that the cartridges and ball being thus sent was with design: all which creates great uneasiness in the camp.
This rumor appears to have confined the problem of sand and gunpowder just to the cartridges, or bags of powder, supplied to the New England artillery, not to the entire army’s powder supply.

There had indeed been problems with the cartridges for Capt. John Callender’s artillery company: the cartridges sent out with his cannon were too large to fit into the barrels. But once provincial soldiers broke open those cartridges, the powder inside proved quite explosive.

The next day, Price discounted all those rumors on the basis of new rumors:
Heard that the Continental Army had received a fresh supply of powder, and that they were in high spirits; . . . that all the reports of treachery were entirely without foundation, and propagated by the enemies to the cause, and weak, discontented men, and by some cowards who fled from the engagement, and formed these lies to favor their escape from danger.
Those counter-rumors might protest too much, but that would only confirm that we can’t treat all the tales Price recorded as reliable fact. Most likely, the suspicion about sand and gunpowder grew from an early attempt to explain why the provincial artillery regiment had performed so badly overall. Once more information spread, blame focused on Callender and other specific officers.

TOMORROW: One last mix of sand and gunpowder.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Hale’s “barrels of sand marked as powder”

Elkanah Watson told a nifty story about the Continental Army using barrels of sand to disguise its lack of gunpowder during the siege of Boston. Several authors in the late nineteenth century repeated the tale, despite the lack of supporting evidence.

The most interesting way that story resurfaced was in the books of the Boston chronicler Edward Everett Hale (shown here). This is from The Life of George Washington, Studied Anew (1888):
The history of those months is indeed dramatic. First of all, there comes in the terrible revelation that he [Washington] and his army were almost entirely without powder. It is said that he was silent for a long time after this revelation was made to him, and well may it have been that none of the gentlemen around him dared to break this silence.

It is not yet fully explained how the misunderstanding took place, by which he and the other officers in chief command had been deceived. It would appear that an effort had been made to conceal from the guards themselves, the small amount of powder in the storehouses. This was an effort dictated by the finest military insight and is highly creditable to [Artemas] Ward, or whoever carried it into effect. In the execution of this plan, barrels of sand marked as powder, had been delivered with the proper amount of parade, from time to time, and had been entered by the unconscious clerks in charge, as if they were the powder which they should have been. The secret was so well maintained that it deceived even those who ought not to have been deceived. And when, for his own use, Washington had an accurate statement of the amount of real powder and of the amount of sand, which he had in store, he was literally struck dumb by the revelation. He had not nine cartridges for each man in his army.
And from Memories of a Hundred Years (1902):
It is only a few years since the old stone powder-house was removed which stood, in Revolutionary days, surrounded with salt marsh, where the Cottage Farms bridge now crosses the Charles River. When General Washington was first making his rounds to the various posts of the Continental Army besieging Boston, he visited this powder-house. The day of the visit is to be found in the “American Archives.” As he came out, the officer in charge called him aside and said that he supposed he understood that the kegs of powder which they had been inspecting were filled with black sand. This had been one of the precautions of General Ward, who had deceived even his own staff as to the amount of what is called, in the letters of that time, “the essential article.” It is of this visit that the tradition is that Washington did not speak for an hour afterward.
This series started with a recent Atlantic article crediting Washington with knowingly using barrels of sand to hide his army’s gunpowder shortage from the British. Edward Everett Hale presented events the other way around, saying that the barrels of sand had confused Washington and led to that sudden shortage. (There’s a little irony in how Hale’s most famous piece of fiction appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863.)

In fact, neither of Hale’s descriptions of events match the contemporaneous accounts of how Gen. Washington heard about the gunpowder shortage at a meeting with Massachusetts officials on 3 Aug 1775. Nor would it make the least sense for any commander to fill his powderhouses with barrels of sand marked as gunpowder and believed by the supply clerks to be gunpowder when there was a war on. The problem was a bureaucratic error, not a too-clever conspiracy.

TOMORROW: Contemporaneous rumors about sand and powder.

Friday, December 07, 2018

John Brown’s Gunpowder for Sale

Yesterday I quoted a story from Elkanah Watson describing a trip to Medford with gunpowder for the Continental Army during the siege of Boston.

Watson’s memoir didn’t specify a date for that mission. We know from contemporaneous sources that Gen. George Washington was confident about his army’s gunpowder supply until 3 Aug 1775. Then suddenly Massachusetts officials told him that their reports showed what gunpowder they had collected without subtracting the powder that the army had used.

Immediately after that bad news, Washington wrote to the Continental Congress and regional governments asking for more powder. He issued sharp orders that Continental soldiers should not to fire their guns unnecessarily. (He did not, however, spread rumors to British informants of having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder on hand, as biographer James T. Flexner claimed.) More powder started to arrive, enough so that by September the commander was ready to propose an attack on the British Boston.

Elkanah Watson’s employer, the Rhode Island merchant John Brown (shown here), entered this story with a letter dated 3 November:
I having a Vessel arrived at Norwich [Connecticut] from Suranam which having brought a Small Quantity of Powder Viz. Forty four Cask Containing a Half hundred Each, I thought it proper to acquaint you thereof, but I am at a loss to determin which may be best for the General Cause for it to go to the Camp or to be Sold out here, so that People in General may be better quallified to Defend the Sea Coast…
With a postscript written the next day:
Since the above, Our General Assembly has applyed for the Refusel of the Powder. and if they Give the price which will make it as Good to me as tho the money had bin Layd out in mello. Viz. 6/ per ¶ Ct, must Give them the prefference.
The response came from Stephen Moylan, the Continental mustermaster general just elevated into the role of Washington’s acting military secretary. He wrote on 8 November: “As the powder you mention to have Imported, is disposed of, I have nothing to say thereon.”

More than two weeks later, on 21 November, Brown wrote again to say he hadn’t heard back from the general. Either Moylan’s letter never arrived or Brown decided to pretend it hadn’t since he still had powder to sell after all: “This is to Offer you One Ton of good Pistol Powder at Six shillings per pound here.” That was 50% more than Washington had paid for powder from another supplier in late October.

Moylan responded:
in your Letter of the 21st you make an offer of one ton of good Pistol powder at 6/per pound The General Will take it tho it is a most exorbitant price, he is willing to encourage the importation of that necessy article.

P.S. There are two Companys orderd from your quarter to this place, Governor [Nicholas] Cooke will inform you when they march you will please to Send the powder under their Guard in a Coverd Waggon shoud they have Set out before this reaches you must get a few of the minute or militia men of your Colony to guard it to this place
Brown presumably sent that gunpowder in December. It’s conceivable that he entrusted the shipment to his teen-aged apprentice Watson, who recalled having made such a journey with “six or eight recruits.“ Indeed, an escort of militiamen, if they were indeed men, might have made Brown more comfortable sending young Watson.

However, even if this was the mission Watson described, it’s clear that he exaggerated the details in his memoir. The army’s gunpowder supply never dropped to “four rounds to a man,” even at the crisis point in August, and that crisis was well past by December. Brown offered a ton of gunpowder, not “a ton and a half.” And the merchant didn’t “immediately forward” the powder to Cambridge once his ship arrived; he played two potential customers off against each other for a couple of weeks in order to get his high asking price.

Elkanah Watson may well have delivered gunpowder to the American lines for his master. But as to whether he supervised the shipment, met the commander-in-chief at his headquarters, or learned anything about barrels of black sand in the powderhouse, I suspect some of those details were embellishments to make the memory more interesting.

TOMORROW: A myth built on top of a myth.