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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Friday, September 08, 2006

Who Was Caldwell's Capt. Morton?

Earlier this week, BCaldwell wrote:

As a Caldwell, I've always been interested in Boston Massacre victim James Caldwell (aka "a mate on Capt. Morton's vessel"). Accounts of the event (including the famous Gazette account) refer to "Capt. Morton" as if he were a well known figure to Bostonians of the day. Does anyone know who Capt. Morton was, what the name of his vessel was, or how I can find out more about him?
I don't usually take requests because they so often involve work. But by happy coincidence, I wrote about James Caldwell (or, rather, about his body) and about Capt. Morton's response to his killing in one of my earliest entries, titled "The shoemaker's memory." So I already had an idea about who "Capt. Morton" was. How simple and impressive it would be simply to drop that information, I thought.

And this is why I don't take requests.

The Capt. Morton I had in mind was Capt. Dimond Morton, who died in Littleton, Massachusetts, on 2 Feb 1792 at the age of forty-nine. He was a witness in the trial of Capt. Thomas Preston. However, a little more research showed me that in 1770 Dimond Morton was running a tavern and stable with his father Joseph, not working as a sea captain and living on Cold Lane like Caldwell's master. Morton didn't acquire the title of captain until late 1775, when he was in Henry Knox's artillery regiment. (His younger brother Perez Morton was an attorney who delivered the oration over Dr Joseph Warren's body and then got into a sex scandal with his wife and sister-in-law. But that's gossip for another day.)

So I was back to the beginning with "Capt. Morton." Newspapers referred to lots of sea captains and militia captains only by their title. Since Boston had only about 16,000 people, over half of them children, most readers knew the major authority figures in town. And indeed, looking through the colonial newspaper database shows a great many references to Capt. Morton from Boston, sailing back and forth to Britain's Caribbean islands and mainland colonial ports. But was there one captain with that name or more? And what was his first name?

I started trawling in those newspapers for items with both "captain" and "Morton" as keywords. In 1765, a man named Morton captained the brig Hawk. So I looked for combinations of "hawk" and "Morton." On 9 April 1770, the Pennsylvania Chronicle reported that "T. Morton" was the captain of the Young Hawk from Boston. He had arrived in Boston from Hispaniola in early February, according to the 8 Feb Boston Chronicle. (That seemed to put him in Boston during the Massacre, a good sign.) From Philadelphia T. Morton and the "Young Hawke" headed to Newfoundland, per the 23 April Pennsylvania Chronicle.

Since eighteenth-century Bostonians didn't value a lot of variation in given names, I guessed Capt. Morton might be named "Thomas." Indeed, the 20 June 1768 New-York Gazette identifies the master of the Hawk from Boston as Thomas Morton. So does the 11 Jan 1762 Boston Post-Boy. The 12 Dec 1768 Boston Gazette describes a brig sailing from the West Indies home to Boston, "Thomas Morton, Master," being driven ashore "on the Rocks near the Light-House" in Boston Harbor. So that could explain why Morton was sailing the Young Hawk a year and a half later.

So, with more work than I expected behind me and no claim to a definite answer, I suggest that the ship's captain James Caldwell served in early 1770 might have been Thomas Morton of the Young Hawk. Was he also the Thomas Morton who joined the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1761? The Thomas Morton who owned a house near the Town House in 1798? Hey, do I have to do this all myself?


J. L. Bell said...

Well, clearly I do.

Annie Haven Thwing's database on colonial Boston says that mariner Thomas Morton bought a house on Cold Lane in Sept 1766. Since two sources from 1770 say that Caldwell's master Capt. Morton lived on Cold Lane, I think it's safe to say those two men were the same.

The Thwing database also says that Morton's wife was named Mary, and the couple had two daughters: Margarett (born 1758) and Mary (born 1761). The Thwing database is not free of errors and doesn't always state sources, but is an excellent source of leads to follow up.

Chaucerian said...

Don't give your faithful readers grief, you know you love doing this stuff. Carry on.

J. L. Bell said...

But how else to maintain the image of a crusty antiquarian?

I think it's even in the guild bylaws.

Brent said...

For reasons I cannot quite understand or explain, I lost your blog and could not find it again after leaving my blog post about Captain Morton, now years ago. I cannot thank you enough for all your hard and meticulous research on this. Absolutely fascinating.

You may be gratified to know I found my way back to your blog by noticing several different historical sites, unlike the time when I made the original post, now all state Boston Massacre victim James Caldwell was a mate on the brig, "Hawk." They obviously are using (although many not crediting, I'm afraid) your research. So you have moved the karmic wheel and your work has filled in another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of history. Thank you so very much, and bravo. Very impressive.

J. L. Bell said...

Glad to know you found your answer at last!