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.

Follow by Email

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Capt. John Parker’s Words on Lexington Green

A few weeks back, tour guide and author Ben Edwards asked me about the words ascribed to John Parker on Lexington common as the British regulars approached.

Did Parker say, “if they want to have a war, let it begin here,” or, “if they mean to have a war…”? Some authors quote the first version, others (and a carved boulder on the green) quote the second.

It appears that our first printed source for either quote dates from 1855, or a full eighty years after the event. The Rev. Theodore Parker was then on trial in Boston for resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. In his defense, he told an anecdote about the confrontation in Lexington that included the quotation:
One raw morning in spring—it will be eighty years the 19th of this month—Hancock and Adams, the Moses and Aaron of that Great Deliverance, were both at Lexington; they also had “obstructed an officer” with brave words. British soldiers, a thousand strong, came to seize them and carry them over sea for trial, and so nip the bud of Freedom auspiciously opening in that early spring.

The town militia came together before daylight “for training.” A great, tall man, with a large head and a high, wide brow, their Captain,—one who “had seen service,”—marshalled them into line, numbering but seventy, and bad “every man load his piece with powder and ball.”

“I will order the first man shot that runs away,” said he, when some faltered; “Do n’t fire unless fired upon, but if they want to have a war,—let it begin here.” Gentlemen, you know what followed: those farmers and mechanics “fired the shot heard round the world.”
Parker didn’t state outright that the militia captain he described so intently, John Parker, was his own grandfather.

Some details of Parker’s story were off. He was mistaken about the aim of the British march—Gen. Thomas Gage had given no orders to seek out and arrest Hancock and Adams. There were probably about 700 regulars, not “a thousand.” Parker promulgated a fiction in saying that the Lexington militia was out at night “for training” rather than in response to news of the British march. And Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase “shot heard round the world” about the fight at his home town of Concord, not in Parker’s home town of Lexington.

Three years later, Parker wrote down the story again in a letter to the historian George Bancroft, eventually published in 1863:
One fact or two let me give. At the battle of Lexington, when Capt. P. drew up his men as the British were nearing, he ordered “every man to load” his piece with powder and ball. “Don’t fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!” I think these significant words ought to be preserved. They were kept as the family tradition of the day, and when the battle was re-enacted in 1820 (or thereabout), his orderly sergeant took the Captain’s place, and repeated the words, adding, “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.” Besides, some of the soldiers, when they saw the flash of the British guns, turned to run: he drew his sword, and said, “I will order the first man shot that offers to run!” Nobody ran till he told them, “Disperse, and take care of yourselves.”
As you can see, Theodore Parker wrote “want to have a war” in 1855 and “mean to have a war” in 1858. Both versions of the quotation thus rest on the same man’s memory.

Theodore Parker was born in 1810, thirty-five years after his grandfather had died. He based on his quotation on “family tradition” and an affirmation by the captain’s former orderly sergeant, speaking in a folksy manner: “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.”

TOMORROW: What did that orderly sergeant himself tell us?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Remembering the Revolutionary War Veterans of Cincinnati

At 1:00 today, the Cincinnati chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution will have a public ceremony honoring Revolutionary War veterans at the Spring Grove Cemetery, as described on the Cincinnati Enquirer’s website.

In 1976, the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a marker at Spring Grove listing 35 Revolutionary veterans known to have been buried there. However, further research has added 25 more names. Some were interred there but not recognized as veterans before. Others were buried at another cemetery in the city before it was turned into a park in the 1850s; their descendants were invited to move their remains, if any, to Spring Grove, but not every family had relatives or resources to do so.

Among the Cincinnati veterans to be added to the marker is Cambridge native Joshua Wyeth (1758-1829). In his case, it’s just a guess that he was even in the first cemetery since there’s no record or description of his burial.

However, Cincinnati’s newspapers recorded Wyeth’s passing in 1829 because he was the city’s link to the Boston Tea Party. (His Find-a-Grave page shows one obituary, along with the wrong year for his death.) In fact, Wyeth was the first participant in the destruction of the tea to recount the event for public consumption and one of the first people quoted in print using the term “Tea Party” to describe it.

In 1773, Joshua Wyeth was working in Boston as an apprentice of blacksmith Obadiah Whiston, a fervent Son of Liberty. Four years earlier, Whiston had charged into the ranks of a British army squad and slugged a soldier for accidentally firing a musket ball into the doorway of his forge. In 1770, Whiston was on the scene of the Boston Massacre. In 1774, Whiston hid two brass cannon stolen from a militia armory inside his shop for several weeks.

But in early 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren began to suspect Whiston was ready to switch over to the Crown and reveal what he knew about those cannon. The Patriots quickly moved the guns to Concord and cut Whiston out of their network. In March 1776 he left Massachusetts with the British military. Though his family was back in Boston within a few years, I’ve found no evidence of Obadiah Whiston’s return.

That shift was probably confusing to young Joshua Wyeth. He remembered it as, “Western, at the time [of the Tea Party], was neutral, but afterwards became a tory.” According to his pension application, Wyeth had left his master and was out of Boston in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Family genealogy says he also got married in 1775 to Pauline or Emaline Jones, when he was no more than seventeen. Later he married twice more, fathered twenty-one children, and moved to Ohio.

(Today is, of course, the anniversary of the first full-scale battle of America’s Revolutionary War. By coincidence, it also marks a smaller milestone: this is the 3,000th posting on Boston 1775.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

The “No King But Jesus” Myth

Here’s a myth about the fighting at Lexington in April 1775 that’s become popular on the American far right over the last thirty years.

What might be the earliest telling comes from Charles A. Jennings, a Christian Identity speaker who operated the ironically named “Truth in History” website and wrote:
On April 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of Minutemen; “Disperse, ye villains, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England.” The immediate response of Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company was: “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus.”
Fake History tackled this myth in 2010, pointing out the myriad problems:
  • Samuel Adams had been in Lexington earlier that morning, not John.
  • Jonas Clarke was town minister and thus by law not a “militia leader.”
  • Clarke wasn’t on the common during the confrontation with the British.
  • Most important, there’s no evidence for this exchange.
We have dozens of first-hand descriptions of the confrontation on Lexington common from 1775 and afterwards, coming from men on both sides of the conflict. Not one includes the words “No king but Jesus.”

“No king but Jesus” was actually the title of a pamphlet that the English republican Henry Haggar published in 1652. Some historians have called it a slogan of the Levellers, a radical faction in the English Civil War. But British society had repudiated that idea, installing kings again.

That meant those words weren’t really a respectable motto, even in eighteenth-century New England. The one contemporaneous report of Americans adopting the slogan during the Revolutionary period came from an angry British appointee trying to discredit the anti-Stamp movement in Pennsylvania in 1765. Reviving that call in 1775 would have undercut the provincials’ cause because they were proclaiming their loyalty to King George III and the British constitution.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

William Dawes Tells a Good Story

On 17 June 1875, Harriet Newcomb Holland wrote down the stories she’d heard about her grandfather, William Dawes (shown here in a portrait by John Johnson).

Holland had heard those tales from her mother, Dawes having died ten years before she was born. Her recounting was published by her son Henry Ware Holland in a book printed in limited numbers for members of the family—in other words, not a critical audience.

Holland’s description of William Dawes’s ride on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775 was brief though, she said, “specific”:
I do not remember ever hearing that he was made a prisoner; but I know he thought himself pursued by two horsemen who were following him, and rode rapidly up to a farm-house, slapping his leather breeches, and stopping so suddenly that his watch was thrown from his pocket, and shouting “Halloo, my boys! I’ve got two of ’em.”

His pursuers turned their horses and rode off; but he did not stop to pick up his watch, though he found it there some days afterwards in safe keeping.
It’s a great story, and it fits right into a beloved American narrative of fooling the British through clever tricks. For that reason, I wondered whether Dawes might have constructed that story for his relatives’ entertainment. I wanted it to be true, but I had to wonder.

I was therefore pleased to find that on 3 May 1775 Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy (P.D.F. available through Teach US History) published a report of the Battle of Lexington and Concord that included this story about the riders from Boston:
When the expresses got about a mile beyond Lexington, they were stopped by about fourteen officers on horseback, who came out of Boston in the afternoon of that day, and were seen lurking in bye-places in the country till after dark.

One of the expresses immediately fled, and was pursued two miles by an officer, who when he had got up with him presented a pistol, and told him he was a dead man if he did not stop, but he rode on until he came up to a house, when stopping of a sudden his horse threw him off; having the presence of mind to hollow to the people in the house, “Turn out! Turn out! I have got one of them!” the officer immediately retreated as far as he had pursued:

The other express after passing through a strict examination, by some means got clear.
The “other express” was, of course, Paul Revere.

Thomas had just relocated his newspaper to Worcester. Dawes must have been there as well. He settled his family in that town during the siege and was still there as a shopkeeper when British P.O.W.s passed through after Saratoga. (They complained he overcharged them.) Obviously Dawes was describing how he’d scared off his pursuers within two weeks of the ride, providing a solid basis for the family tradition.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

See a Piece of Concord’s North Bridge

I grew up in suburban Boston around the time of the Bicentennial. In fact, I was in fifth grade, when the Massachusetts social-studies curriculum focuses on colonial and Revolutionary history, during the 200th anniversary of the first year of the War for Independence. So between geography, chronology, and ordinary lesson plans I got a triple dose of Revolutionary history.

But I didn’t grow up in the iconic towns of Lexington or Concord. What was that like? Joel Bohy of the Skinner auction house recently described one highlight of that period for him:

I was a 9-year-old attending the Ripley School in Concord. During a bicentennial ceremony, I received a small block of wood, and so did all of the other students at the school. Our teacher told us that these pieces of wood were remnants of the North Bridge. Even then, I wondered what happened to the original bridge, and how did these pieces survive? . . .

According to town of Concord records, the bridge at which the famous fight took place was built in 1760, replacing an earlier one. By the early 1790s, new roads and bridges provided alternate routes that rendered the famous bridge useless. In 1793, it was disassembled and moved to the site of the current Flint bridge. Since the town was not paying for the removal work, the crew reused most of the wood and stone buttments from the North Bridge site at the new Flint bridge.
Skipping ahead, in 1955 the Massachusetts Department of Public Works decided to build a new bridge at the site of the North Bridge that would resemble the span that had been there in 1775.
As construction commenced, the crew brought draglines to work the bottom of the river, and discovered pieces of the original bridge from 1760. These pieces must have been left behind in 1793 because they were too difficult to remove from the river bed.

With modern technology, of course, this removal process was much easier. The town of Concord received the wooden beams that were recovered. They cut some of the beams into pieces and mounted the blocks of wood on plaques or gave them to schools – including mine – for bicentennial celebrations. I’ve held on to my memento of the bridge ever since.

The town left a few of the best beams intact and donated them to the Concord Antiquarian Society, now the Concord Museum. One of those pieces, a witness to the events of April 19, 1775, is a large side brace of the original bridge with a tenon on the end that had been pegged into a mortise on the main frame of the bridge.
That beam helped to support the British search party that crossed the bridge on its way to James Barrett’s farm, and the British companies that lingered around the bridge to secure the position, and the militiamen who marched down on those companies and just across the bridge when they decided to confront the regulars. (It also supported the search party as those men marched back across the bridge after both sides of the fatal skirmish had pulled back.)

Along with a lot of other artifacts, that beam will be part of an exhibit at the Concord Museum titled “The Shot Heard Round the World: April 19, 1775,” which Joel has been working on for years now. It will open on Friday, 18 April, and stay open until 21 September. If you’re anywhere around here this spring or summer, you won’t want to miss it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Joseph Green, John Hamock, and the Freemasons

Yesterday I shared a bit of a scatological attack on Freemasonry published on the front page of the Boston Evening-Post on 7 Jan 1751. That attack included not only a poem but a woodcut illustration obviously commissioned for that poem. Who went to all that trouble?

By that time, Boston’s first Freemasons lodge had been established for nearly two decades. I’ve read conflicting reports of whether they had had public marches, but clearly they had one on St. John’s Day near the end of 1749.

The next year, a local wit named Joseph Green (1706-1780, shown here in a 1767 Copley portrait) published two editions of a pseudonymous pamphlet titled Entertainment for a Winter’s Evening…, satirizing the very notion of Freemasons going to church and poking fun at individual members. Those lines closed with a scene of the Freemasons entering their temple, out of public view. The author, invoking the muse Clio, promised to “tell the rest another time.”

Therefore, it was logical for people to read the Boston Evening-Post poem as the next installment of that series, describing the Freemasons’ secret rituals in scatological terms while professing to be a “Defence of MASONRY.” A merchant named Benjamin Hallowell (father of the highly unpopular Customs official with the same name) said the new poem definitely came from Green. According to Steven Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood, the Freemasons met, threatened a boycott of the Evening-Post, and asked Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips, the province’s highest royal official, for permission to sue.

Then on 21 January the Evening-Post published Green’s denial that he’d written the “Defence of MASONRY” poem, criticizing Hallowell for spreading a “scandalous and malicious lie.” To be fair, the “Defence” wasn’t up to Green’s standard. He really was a good poet, and his allusions far more subtle—his pamphlets included helpful footnotes so readers could see how clever he was. Furthermore, the “Defence” was addressed “To Mr. CLIO,” or Green, rather than by him.

So who did write the “Defence”? David S. Shields’s Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America points to a wine merchant named John Hamock (or Hammock). He was in business from 1735 to his death in 1769. He was a warden of Christ Church, raising money for its bells in 1744, and in 1758 he rented the space under the Town House as his wine cellar.

In the 15 Jan 1750 Boston Post-Boy Hamock had advertised his wines by implying that other merchants’ wares were unhealthy and signing himself “John Hamock, V.D.” Other ads showed that meant “Vini Doctor,” a claim for special authority, though more often a joke appellation college students bestowed on each other. Hamock didn’t have a college education, but he seemed to have pretensions—and for the snobbish Green that was a provocation.

A poetic critique titled “To V.D.” appeared in the 30 July Post-Boy. The author took the opportunity to swipe at another of Green’s frequent targets, the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr.:
Whist---softly---for fear
Doughty B**** should hear;
If he does, with his pen he’ll chastise you.
I know you will cry,
Scar’d by B****! Not I,
Do your worst, Sir, for H****k defies you.
Thus, “To V.D.” was both addressed to Hamock and put words in his mouth.

Hamock might then have published the “Defence of MASONRY” poem in early 1751 to get Green in trouble. And it did: for the only time in his career Green had to publicly discuss his writing, if only to deny he’d written this item. Hamock might also have been trying to show “Mr. CLIO” that he could satirize the Freemasons in verse, too.

It looks like Boston’s Freemasons just happened to be caught in the crossfire between two men feuding for their own reasons. The movement and many local members had ties to Europe instead of old Puritan families, so they made an easy target in Boston. In fact, Green went back to satirizing the Freemasons four years later with a pamphlet titled The Grand Arcanum, Detected.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fleets Get N.S.F.W.

I’ve been writing about the Fleet family, enslaved to Thomas Fleet and trained in the printing business. Isaiah Thomas recalled that in the 1750s a black man named Peter Fleet carved woodcuts for ballads, and the initials “P.F” appear in a small book called The Prodigal Daughter.

On 7 Jan 1751, Thomas Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post featured a woodcut with what looks like Peter Fleet’s typical hatching as its very first item—a rare example of new art in a colonial newspaper. That image illustrated a poem titled “To Mr. CLIO, at North-Hampton, In Defence of MASONRY.”

Though nominally written in the voice of a Freemason, that poem wasn’t much of a defense. It suggested that the organization was just a cover for sodomy. Referring to treenails, or wooden pegs, instead of masons’ trowels, the verse said:

I’m sure our TRUNNELS look’d as clean
As if they ne’re up A–se had been;
For when we use ’em, we take care
To wash ’em well, and give ’em Air,
Then lock ’em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.
And lest anyone miss the sexual reference, the picture made it very clear. (Click on the image below if you want a closer look.)
In addition to the two well-dressed but half-dressed Masons, the woodcut also showed an ass braying, “Trunil Him well brother,” echoing the several references to asses in the poem.

It took work to create a woodcut with this level of detail, and it’s not an image that Thomas Fleet could have used again on broadsides. Someone probably paid the Fleet print shop a hefty sum to create this block and print it and the poem. Again, this explicit bit of gay-baiting was on the front page of a weekly newspaper.

Ironically, Peter Fleet’s younger son Caesar became a Freemason in Boston’s African Lodge in 1779.

TOMORROW: Who was behind that attack?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Craft of Caesar Fleet

Yesterday I described the travels of Pompey Fleet, a printer born into slavery in Boston around 1746 who ended up in west Africa by the end of the century. He was part of three mass migrations of Loyalists: from Boston in 1776, from New York in 1783, and from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792.

What about Pompey’s younger brother, Caesar Fleet? His life took a different course. He stayed in Boston. The town’s 1780 tax assessments, published several decades ago by the Bostonian Society, list Caesar Fleet as a “Negro” living in Ward 10. The fact that he was tallied as a taxpayer indicates that he was no longer considered a slave, even before Massachusetts’s high court made slavery unenforceable in 1783.

Caesar Fleet’s name appears in another interesting source from the Revolutionary years. One of the earliest documents from Boston’s African Lodge of Freemasons, founded by Prince Hall, shows that “Sesar Fleet” joined in 23 June 1779. That was one of several civic organizations Hall and his circle founded during and after the Revolution in their bid as black men for an equal place in Boston society.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found Caesar Fleet in any other local records or newspapers. I don’t know if he lived long enough to be involved in the printing of Prince Hall’s 1797 oration, shown above. But there might be more sources out there.

Last year Caitlin G-D Hopkins wrote an article for Common-place that mentioned Pompey and Caesar’s father, Peter Fleet. She added thanks to “Gloria McCahon Whiting, whose pioneering work on the life and work of Peter Fleet, woodcut illustrator, has informed and enriched my own research.”

As it happens, Gloria Whiting is sharing a paper this Tuesday on “‘How Can the Wife Submit?’: African Families Negotiate Gender and Slavery in New England” as part of the women’s history seminar series co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. That conversation will take place at 5:30 P.M. on 15 April at the Schlesinger Library, 10 Garden Street in Cambridge. It’s free to the public, but to reserve a seat contact the M.H.S.

TOMORROW: Should I show Peter Fleet’s cartoon about Freemasonry from 1751? It’s “not safe for work,” as the kids say.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Travels of Pompey Fleet

After the Boston printer Thomas Fleet died, his 1759 estate inventory didn’t include his slave Peter, suggesting that that woodcut carver had already died as well. But that estate did include two boys: thirteen-year-old Pompey and ten-year-old Caesar.

Isaiah Thomas also mentioned those boys in his history of printing, saying:
Fleet had also two negro boys born in his house; sons, I believe, to the man just mentioned [the woodcut artist], whom he brought up to work at press and case; one named Pompey and the other Cesar; they were young when their master died; but, they remained in the family and continued to labor regularly in the printing house with the sons of mr. Fleet, who succeeded their father, until the constitution of Massachusetts, adopted in 1780, made them freemen.
However, at the time of the evacuation, the new Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and the judicial decision that made slavery unenforceable in Massachusetts in 1783, Isaiah Thomas was living in Worcester. His information about these Fleet brothers may not have been reliable.

I’ve found Pompey Fleet one place in Boston’s records. In December 1773 he married Chloe Short, a free black woman who had arrived from Grafton sometime in late 1771 or early 1772. At the time he was listed as a “servant [i.e., slave] of Elizabeth Fleet,” Thomas’s widow. And that’s the last I’ve found of Chloe.

Instead, it appears that Pompey Fleet freed himself in 1776. His name appears in “The Book of Negroes,” the list compiled by British military authorities of black Loyalists leaving New York at the end of the war. That manuscript states includes these entries:
Ship Three Sisters bound for Port Roseway [captain] John Wardell

Pompey Fleet, 26, short & stout, (Alexander Robertson). Formerly slave to Thomas Fleet, Boston; left him at the evacuation of Boston. GBC.

Suky Coleman, 21, slight make, (Alexander Robertson). Formerly slave to Mr. Teabourlt, Philadelphia; left at the evacuation of Philadelphia. GBC.

Sam Fleet, 5, small boy, (Alexander Robertson).
(Here’s an image of the copy supplied to the American government.)

The “Book of Negroes” says Pompey Fleet left the younger Thomas Fleet and Boston in 1776. The British military’s record of that departure lists only heads of household and no one who might be Pompey Fleet. He could have attached himself to the military or to a family; the printer Margaret Draper left with four other people, for example, though she had no children. A 2009 article for the Loyalist Trails U.E.L.A.C. Newsletter says that in 1783 Pompey Fleet had a certificate testifying that he had served the Crown for seven years, but I don’t know the basis for that statement.

Alexander Robertson was, the “Book of Negroes” says, “in…Possession” of Pompey Fleet and others in 1783. Isaiah Thomas wrote of Robertson, “I have been informed that he was, unfortunately, deprived of the use of his limbs, and incapacitated for labor. He was, however, intelligent, well educated, and possessed some abilities as a writer.” In 1783 Robertson was co-publisher of the Royal American Gazette in New York, so Pompey Fleet was probably working in that newspaper’s print shop. The other co-publishers were Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks from the Boston Post-Boy and Robertson’s older brother James, who had worked briefly for John Mein in Boston in the late 1760s. Thus, Pompey Fleet had probably become acquainted with those printers while still working for the Boston Evening-Post.

In 1778, James Robertson had followed the British army to Philadelphia and printed the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette there for a few months. Did Pompey Fleet go with him and meet Suky Coleman in that city? Was little Sam Fleet their son? That would correspond to about when Sam was born. Of course, Suky would have been only sixteen at the time. But perhaps we shouldn’t rely on the ages listed in “The Book of Negroes”; since Pompey was thirteen in 1759, he was thirty-seven in 1783, not twenty-six.

The Three Sisters headed to Port Roseway, an old name for Shelburne, Nova Scotia. There the Robertson brothers and Mills reestablished their Royal American Gazette, though Alexander died in December 1784 at age forty-two. James Robertson left Nova Scotia in 1789 and eventually returned to Scotland.

It’s not clear if Pompey Fleet worked for any of those printers in Nova Scotia. In 1784 he was listed as the head of a family across the bay from Shelburne in the black community of Birchtown. That was a rough settlement, poorly supported by the British Empire. (The photograph above shows a ”pit house” of the type many families had to build to survive their first winters, recreated at the Birchtown Museum.)

In 1791 over a thousand Birchtown settlers took up an offer to move to the new British colony in Sierra Leone. The document transcribed here lists “Pomphrey Fleet,” Sukey Coleman, and Sam Fleet together among the inhabitants electing to travel to Africa. And I don’t know what happened to them there.

TOMORROW: The younger brother, Caesar Fleet.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Art of Peter Fleet

Finally I’m getting back to the family of enslaved printers in pre-Revolutionary Boston, Peter Fleet and his sons Pompey and Caesar.

In his history of printing, Isaiah Thomas mentioned the last two by name, so when scholars spotted the initials “P.F” at the bottom of the woodcut shown here, they guessed it had been carved by Pompey Fleet.

In fact, Thomas had written that Pompey’s father had carved woodcuts for Thomas Fleet, Sr. Once people remembered the 1743 will of a slave named Peter owned by the Fleet family, they realized that “P.F” could also stand for Peter Fleet.

I’m inclined to credit this cut to Peter, the father. According to E. Jennifer Monaghan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, Thomas Fleet first advertised this book, The Prodigal Daughter, in his Boston Evening-Post in 1736. We don’t have any definite examples of that edition because the several copies that survive don’t include printing dates. Some copies are estimated as early as 1742. So either Peter Fleet carved that woodcut or the estimated dates are way off because Pompey Fleet wasn’t old enough to do such work until the late 1750s. And Isaiah Thomas never said Pompey made woodcuts.

The Prodigal Daughter is a narrative poem describing how a wicked daughter plotted to poison her wealthy parents in Bristol, England. Luckily, those parents were saved by angels casting the girl into a coma. She lay apparently dead for a few days and then returned to repent and share a vision of the afterlife.

Naturally, the descendants of Boston’s Puritan founders thought that this story, when decorated with several woodcut illustrations of devils and near-dead people, was a wonderful gift for children. Indeed, the earliest copy in Readex’s Archive of Americana database was given to Richard Knowles by his mother.

Thomas Fleet’s sons inherited his business in 1758 and kept printing The Prodigal Daughter with the same illustrations. After the republican Revolution they changed their business sign from “the Heart and Crown” to “the Bible and Heart,” and they kept printing this book.

Isaiah Thomas issued his own edition of The Prodigal Daughter in 1772. Ezekiel Russell issued his in 1790, 1791, and 1797. Both those printers commissioned new illustrations, but the results bear a strong resemblance to those in the Fleet edition. I think Peter Fleet’s style is notable for its heavy vertical hatching.

Nathaniel Coverly, Jr., published The Prodigal Daughter in Boston in the 1810s, using the old Fleet woodcuts—but with the “P.F” scraped off. By then Peter Fleet had probably been dead for more than fifty years. This webpage from Princeton shows three different variations of the book (crediting the art to Pompey Fleet).

The Massachusetts Historical Society exhibits another image from the Fleet print shop probably carved by Peter Fleet. That woodcut originally headed a broadside titled “New England Bravery,” celebrating the conquest of Louisburg in 1745. Thirty-odd years later the (white) Fleet brothers used the same woodcut of a city on a broadside titled “Two Favorite Songs Made on the Evacuation of Boston.” Thus, generations of Bostonians saw the art of Peter Fleet.

TOMORROW: The (black) Fleet brothers go separate ways.