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, July 08, 2007

Noah Eaton Brings Home a Prisoner

Last week I might have appeared to be picking on Framingham, but I just happened to see some boosterish comments about that town. I could just as easily have written about the local traditions of any other Middlesex County municipality since most local histories find inordinate importance in local events and people. What really mattered in the Battle of Lexington and Concord was how those towns worked together.

As I quoted yesterday, in February 1775 British officer Henry DeBerniere wrote sarcastically about the Framingham militia’s lack of “coolness and bravery” and their “pot-valour.” But the locals got the last laugh. On 19 Apr, DeBerniere was with the advance companies of the British column in Concord, and thus had to endure the whole withdrawal back to Boston under attack from town militia companies—including Framingham’s.

While looking into that history, I stumbled across this intriguing anecdote from William Barry’s history of Framingham, published in 1847:

Noah Eaton, 2d, and his brother Jonas, were at Lexington. The former, having discharged his piece, retired behind a knoll to reload, where he suddenly encountered a British regular, with a loaded gun.

Noah presented his empty musket, threatening to kill the soldier; when the latter surrendered, returned with his captor to Framingham, and lived in his service.
I’ve read of two other British regulars defecting like this on 19 Apr 1775, melting into a Middlesex County community. It’s fun to imagine the conversation when a militiaman returned with his prisoner:
“Darling, I’m home!”

“Oh, I thank the Lord you’re safe! Ever since you went out with your gun this morning, I’ve been worr— Who’s this?”

“Oh, yeah. I brought home a grenadier! His name’s Tom. Right?”

“Actually, it’s Tim, sir.”

“Tim. His name’s Tim, Sarah. He says he’s ready to help around the farm. You always wanted me to have a hired man, right? You’ll have to sew him a new set of clothes, but in exchange you can cut up that big red coat and use it for something.”

“Yes. Silas, may I speak to you privately?”

“Of course, Sarah. Please excuse us, Tom.”

“Yes, sir. It’s Tim, sir.”

“Silas, I truly wish you would ask me before making such big decisions that affect the house.”

“Come on, Sarah! Do you expect me to run home in the middle of the battle? ‘Darling, may I take a prisoner? No? Then I’ll go back and shoot him!’ No offense, Tom.”

“None taken, sir. And, it’s Tim.”
In at least one of those other cases, the former British soldier ended up marrying into the family he worked for. Barry doesn’t name Noah Eaton’s prisoner or say what happened to him, but perhaps the answer lurks in Framingham’s vital records.

From what I can tell, in the spring of 1775 Noah Eaton (1733-1814) was married to his second wife, May (or Polly) Tilton. Their daughter Molle (Molly) was baptized 11 Nov 1771, three days short of nine months after the couple had married on 14 Feb. With his first wife, Noah had a son named Noah, born in 1758. He may have had other children, but since there were two sets of Noah and Hannah Eaton in town—this man and his parents—it’s hard to separate out the baptisms. Did Noah have a daughter or sister in her teens or early twenties when he brought this soldier home? Is there a man marrying into the family who doesn’t seem to come from anywhere else in the vital records?

(Evocative thumbnail from Patrick Donnelly’s shots of a reenacted Battle of Guilford Courthouse.)

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