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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Thursday, May 31, 2007

John Field: breeches-maker

Back in March, I posted about what little is known of Patrick Carr, one of the victims of the Boston Massacre. He was working for a maker of leather breeches named John Field, and I’ve found more information about that man. Like Carr, Field appears to have immigrated to Boston from Ireland, but he was wealthier.

Church records show that Field’s wife had been named Catherine (or Katherine) Ryan, and they had married at the Presbyterian Meeting-House on 15 Jan 1767. They had their children baptized in Anglican churches: Mary in 1769, Catherine in 1772, John in 1774 (all at King’s Chapel), then Margaret in 1781 and Betsy in 1786 (at Trinity). The family was close to a blacksmith named John Magner and his wife Mary; the couples sponsored the baptisms of each other’s children. In February 1772, Field joined the Charitable Irish Society of Boston; most of its members were immigrants from Ireland.

Field stayed in Boston through the siege of 1775-76 rather than joining the provincials outside. Then he stayed through the evacuation of March 1776 rather than leaving with the British military. The Provincial Congress had him arrested for questioning, but he seems to have been released quickly.

Field might then have tried farming in Chester, Massachusetts. The baptismal record of Margaret Field in 1781 names her father as “John Field of Chester.” In the 13 June 1782 Independent Chronicle, John Field advertised a farm for sale in Chester. But he still owned real estate in Boston; in late 1781 he sold a lot to John Magner.

Another source on John Field are two narratives of a poor black woman from Rhode Island named Phillis Merritt Wanton. In 1784, she testified

that the next day after her Master [John] Merritt [of Providence] died, she was sold by Mr. Overring, the executor, to one Mr. John Field of Boston, a leather breeches maker, and in that month went to live in Boston with the said Field as his servant; that some years ago the said Field told her she might go and get her own living; and that he went away out of the country; whereupon she came to Providence about four years ago
I can date John Merritt’s death to 1770, which would mean Wanton was in the Field household for about ten years, perhaps from the time he moved onto Cornhill, one of Boston’s main streets, until he left town to try farming.

However, in 1800 Wanton described her history differently. She then said that Field had bought her for £100 after Merritt’s death, but then sold her to a “Mr. Peck” of Boston, who granted her freedom “about the time of the blockade of that place by the British.” Wanton may have been trying to shape her history to prevent the Providence officials from ordering her to leave that town—in which case, she was unsuccessful. Both these accounts are transcribed in Ruth Wallis Herndon’s Unwelcome Americans.

The 9 Sept 1800 Massachusetts Mercury reported that “Mrs. Catharine Field, Aet. [i.e., aged] 46, widow of Mr. John Field,” had died. So John had died some time before—perhaps in 1787, when the town granted Catherine a stand in Market Square for selling fruit and vegetables. But what’s most interesting about this notice is that, if the age is correct, John Field had married Catharine when she was only about twelve or thirteen years old.

Arrests and Artillery at the End of May

The fighting over Noddle’s Island seemed to confirm that the Revolutionary War was going to be a real shooting war, and on 31 May 1775 Boston selectman Timothy Newell wrote in his diary:

These several days last past we have been repeatedly alarmed with expectation of a general battle or attack on the town; many people put under guard and some sent on board the Men of war for the most trifling supposed offences.
Newell and his fellow elected officials supported the Patriots, but they also had to worry about the welfare of the townspeople. Which was worse—having the royal military detaining people or forcing them onto warships, or being bombarded by the guns of your own side?

Contrary to what many latter-day chroniclers have written about the provincial forces, portraying them as unequipped underdogs, there was a not-inconsiderable artillery force outside Boston even before Henry Knox brought back large guns from Fort Ticonderoga in the winter of 1775-76. On the same day that Newell was worrying about an attack, Lt. John Barker of His Majesty’s 4th Regiment of Foot wrote in his diary: “Nothing extraordinary but the Rebels practising with Cannon up the Country.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More Reports on Noddle's Island

Two hundred thirty-two years ago today, Boston selectman Timothy Newell filled out his account of the fighting on Noddle’s Island in Boston harbor, which had started three days before:

30th [May]. The mansion house on Noddle’s Island burnt by our People, the cattle and sheep &c. drove off. The Admiral sent a number of his People to take off some stores of the Men of War, which were in the a ware house there, which was not opposed by our people who lay near; suppose when they had taken them on board a Sloop (which lay at the wharf) our people fired two cannon out of a little patch of wood on the top of the hill, which made them all fly precipitately.
Gen. Thomas Gage sent a report on the same skirmish home to Britain. In mid-July the London Gazette printed this summary released by the government:
Lieutenant-General Gage in his Letters to the Earl of Dartmouth [Secretary of State, shown above courtesy of Wikipedia], dated June 12, 1775, gives an Account, That the Town of Boston continued to be surrounded by a large Body of Rebel Provincials, and that all Communication with the Country was cut off; that the Rebels had been burning Houses and driving Sheep off an Island that has easy Communication with main land, which drew on a Skirmish with some marines who drove the Rebels away; but that an armed Schooner, that had been sent between the Island and the main land, having got on shore at High Water, there was no possibility of saving her, for as the Tide fell, she was left quite dry, and burned by the Rebels. Two men were killed and a few wounded.
Characteristically, Gage didn’t report that loss of a schooner quickly, but waited about two weeks. His message then took more than a month to reach London. By then the situation in Boston had changed greatly, even though the siege lines hadn’t moved at all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Captain Conner: Tea Party thief, scapegoat

You remember the moment in Johnny Tremain when the men of the Boston Tea Party discover Dove, Johnny’s lazy former bedmate, trying to steal some of the tea for himself? Esther Forbes based that incident on a real incident in the 16 Dec 1773 destruction of the tea.

As I quoted back here, merchant John Andrews identified the tea thief as “Captain Conner, a letter of horses in this place.” Shoemaker George R. T. Hewes remembered him as “Captain O’Connor,” and took credit for detecting his pilferage. (Hewes said that “a tall aged man, who wore a large cocked hat and white wig,” stole tea as well.)

I think that man was Charles Conner, an Irishman who owned an inn and stable in Boston. He had testified for the town about the Boston Massacre, having accompanied victim Patrick Carr to that event. I wrote more about his professional and political activity in Boston back in March. But in late 1773 and 1774 he was probably very unpopular in Boston for endangering the nobly disinterested image of the Tea Party.

I’ve come across Conner’s name in one more interesting place. On 30 July 1774, Adm. John Montagu was sailing home to England on the Royal Navy ship Captain (which name sounds like the start of an Abbot & Costello routine, but I digress). He took down a deposition from a sailor named Samuel Dyer, who incriminated three of Boston’s top leaders and “Captain Conner” in enticing British soldiers to desert:

And this Deponant further maketh Oath that Mr: Samuel Adams did promise him, at the House of Doctor [Thomas] Young in June last. that he this Deponant should, (if he could by any means prevail with any of the Soldiers to Desert.) Receive Four pounds sterling for every Soldier so deserting. and that every Soldier should receive the like sum of Four pounds, or three Hundred acres of Land, and a Quantity of Provision, so soon as they arrived at a certain part of the Country. provided they would cultivate the said Land.

and as a further encouragement he this Deponant was authorised by said Adams. to assure each Soldier he could Prevail upon to desert. that Cloaths to disguise them should be Lodged at proper places.

and this Deponant had Authority likewise to call upon Captain Conner Inn Holder near the Mill Bridge in Boston for what Horses he might have occasion for to carry the Soldiers off. and that a Boat should always be ready at Hancocks Wharf if that method of conveying them off. should be Judged the most Eligible, likewise that a Room, or Store belonging to said Conner was provided to conceal them in, until a proper opportunity offered for their leaving the Town, The Key of which this Deponant had in his possession.
Dyer signed this deposition with a mark.

However, there are reasons to find this document suspicious. First of all, putting an army deserter on horseback at Capt. Conner’s inn, near the center of Boston, would be a terrible way to sneak him out of town.

Furthermore, Dyer could sign his name when he wanted to. The day after this deposition, he signed a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State, asking for protection and support since, he said, people from Boston were asking about what he’d told the admiral.

Finally, when he didn’t get what he wanted from the imperial government, Dyer began to complain loudly that he’d been kidnapped, shipped to England under cover of impressment, and harshly interrogated by high officials. He received support from the Lord Mayor of London (who opposed the party then in power), returned to America, and was warmly welcomed by the Whigs at Newport. Then over the next two years Dyer behaved so erratically that I have doubts about his sanity.

So what does this mean about Charles Conner? I think that Dyer told Adm. Montagu what he wanted to hear about Adams, Young, and Hancock. And I think he pointed the finger at Conner because he knew the Irishman was then an unpopular scapegoat back in Boston. But it’s really hard to guess what was in Samuel Dyer’s mind.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The National Park Service’s Patriot Spy Game

I can’t tell if we’re supposed to see this website or if it’s still in development, but the National Park Service has created a simple videogame called “The Patriot Spy” for young “Webrangers.” Players move across a nice period map of Boston, with images of four surviving landmarks, and have to interpret political cartoons and documents from the 1770s to move ahead.

I’m hoping this is still a beta version since I want to make some changes. (I’ve worked for nearly twenty years as an editor; wanting to make changes is an occupational hazard.) Some are little edits, such as how the game explains its stakes:

In order to maintain control over the troublesome Massachusetts colony, the British planned to capture Patriot cannons hidden in the town of Lexington.
Those cannons were hidden in Concord—as the folks at Minute Man National Historical Park know because they’ve put one of those cannons on display.

The goal of the game is to deliver a secret message to Paul Revere about the British army preparing to march to those cannons. That means its action takes place before 18 April 1775, when the silversmith started his ride west. But Part 1 says British soldiers are stationed in Old South Meeting-House, and that didn’t happen until weeks later.

The first challenge shows an eighteenth-century political cartoon from London with the question, “Does this cartoon show support for the Tea Act?” Well, that all depends on what ”show” means. The drawing depicts opposition to the Tea Act. But it portrays that opposition as so brutish and nasty that it reflects support of the law.

Challenge 3 asks players to search a list of Boston’s elected officials for the names of three prominent Patriots: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Benjamin Church. The Benjamin Church listed there as “Mr. Benjamin Church” was the father of the Patriot physician (and royal spy) Benjamin Church, Jr. (The name of William Dawes, Jr., also appears at the bottom; he was elected an “Informer of Deer,” a traditional English game warden that was basically a meaningless honor in Boston.)

Finally, the game now has a weak narrative. It tells the player that he (the player’s silhouette is clearly male) must maneuver past British soldiers and Loyalist merchants. But there’s no connection between that sneaking around and succeeding at the challenges. Instead, the player moves past his foes because of one conveniently distracting animal after another. Surely our government can do better at constructing stories than that!

(More historical videogames for N.P.S. Webrangers here. I especially like the dendochronology challenge.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Fighting on Noddle’s Island and Hog Island

Toward the end of May 1775, the British military inside Boston and the provincial militiamen outside started fighting harder for control of the natural resources in Boston harbor. First came the British raid for hay on Grape Island. Then, as described by Boston selectman Timothy Newell’s diary, the provincials moved to destroy resources the redcoats might seize from an island to the east:

May 27th. Our People set fire to hay and a barn on Noddle’s Island; a number of Marines went over.

Our People Retreated over to Hog Island, the troops following, by being decoyed by our People down to the water, who then fired and the action continued all night (though very dark) also a Man of War schooner firing their cannon continually upon them which towards morning catch’t aground upon Winesimet ferry ways. Our people boarded her and finally burnt her

This action seems without a parallel, that, notwithstanding several hundred of the Kings Troops and the schooners were engaged all night and it is said 100 were wounded and fell—not the least hurt happened, except to three wounded of our People, who were commanded by General Putnam. The Lord manifestly appears on our side, and blessed be his glorious name forever.
In addition to Israel Putnam, Dr. Joseph Warren took part in this fighting as a volunteer. But most of the fighting was done by ordinary Massachusetts farmers.

Donald Haskell has posted his ancestor Caleb Haskell’s account of the skirmish, from the perspective of a Newburyport militiaman:
Today a party of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire forces, about 600, went over to Noddle’s Island to bring off some cattle. The enemy landed on the island, and pursued our men till they got back to Hog Island, at which time an armed schooner, belonging to the enemy came to their assistance, and to prevent our people from leaving Hog Island—which she could not effect. Our people put a heavy fire of small arms upon the barges. Capt. Foster came with two field pieces and began to play upon the schooner, which soon obliged them to quit her. She then caught on Winnisimot ferry ways. Our people set fire to her and burned her to the water. We saved all that was not burned. We took four pieces of cannon, a number of swivels and some clothing, and brought all the cattle off both islands. In the engagement we had not one killed, and but three wounded, and those not mortally.
The Winnisimet Ferry went from the North End of Boston to Chelsea. It’s no longer possible to visit Noddle’s Island and Hog Island in Boston harbor. Thanks to landfills, they’ve become part of the mainland, and are known today as the neighborhood of East Boston.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Rev. William Gordon Goes to Press

After the Rev. William Gordon’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America was printed in England in 1788 and then reprinted in the U.S. of A., Bostonians who had heard the minister read from his manuscript were puzzled. Parts of it seemed to be missing.

One man, writing to a Boston newspaper in 1821-22, recalled hearing Gordon read “three or four pages” about how the 47th Regiment of Foot had tarred and feathered a Billerica farmer named Thomas Ditson, Jr., in March 1775. In the printed version, that episode occupied only “a few lines.” Another correspondent noted a sensitive topic that had dropped out: “I refer here particularly to the subject of negro slavery.” He added that Gordon “was also persuaded to soften his harsh picture of the illustrious Exempt.” I have no idea what that means, but it could refer to the portrayal of such popular figures as John Hancock.

The first writer told the newspaper, in a reminiscence reprinted in Hezekiah Niles’s Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, of what he’d heard about the book’s publication:

In 1790 I embarked for England, where I was introduced to a relation of Doctor Gordon, of whom I enquired how the Doctor had succeeded in his history? He smiled and said, “It was not Doctor Gordon’s history!”

On my requesting an explanation, he hold me, that on the Doctor’s arrival in England, he placed his manuscript in the hands of an intelligent friend, on whom he could depend, who, (after perusing it with care), declared that it was not suited to the meridian of England, consequently would never sell. The style was not agreeable—it was too favourable to the Americans—above all, it was too full of libels against some of the most respectable characters in the British army and navy—and that if he possessed a fortune equal to the duke of Bedford’s, he would not be able to pay the damages that might be recovered against him, as the truth would not be allowed to be produced in evidence.

The doctor had returned to his native country, and expected to enjoy “otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity].” Overwhelmed with mortification, and almost with despair, he asked the advice of his friend; who recommended him to place the manuscript in the hands of a professional gentleman, that it might be new modelled, and made agreeable to English readers; this was assented to by the doctor, and the history which bears his name was compiled and written from his manuscript, by another hand!
In any event, the history didn’t become a success. People saw its style as stodgy. Gordon was unable to retire on the proceeds, and ended up a poor minister for a poor congregation.

Furthermore, the final text—whoever was responsible for it—destroyed Gordon’s reputation as a historian a century later. In the Annual Report of the American Historical Association for 1899, Orin Grant Libby showed that large portions of Gordon’s History were copied or closely paraphrased from The Annual Register, a Whiggish review of the events of each previous year co-founded by Edmund Burke. Other passages came from The History of the Revolution in South Carolina (1785), by Dr. David Ramsay (shown above, courtesy of the Smithsonian).

Kids, don’t try this at school! Our standards on plagiarism have become much stricter, especially in the last few years. Authors quoted much more freely in the 18th century. In fact, Ramsay also borrowed from The Annual Register, and when he revised his own book, historian Arthur H. Shaffer noted, he adopted some of Gordon’s rewrites of his prose.

Without Gordon’s original manuscript, it’s impossible to know whether he had copied that material himself or his British editor did. But he certainly signed off on the final text and hoped to make money off it. And the result of its twisted journey to print is that most modern historians consult Gordon’s book for sporadic passages about Revolutionary politics and war in Massachusetts, where he had first-hand knowledge, and ignore the rest as derivative.

(Back in April, the 18th-Century Reading Room ran a passage from Gordon’s book about Gen. Charles Lee.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Rev. William Gordon Sails with His Manuscript

The Rev. William Gordon, a minister in Roxbury, started to chronicle America’s Revolution in mid-1775. He published a long letter describing the Battle of Lexington and Concord in the 7 June Philadelphia Gazette. At the end of the year, as I mentioned earlier in the week, his expanded account of that day graced some American almanacs.

After the war ended in 1783, Gordon completed The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America. But rather than publish in the U.S. of A., he decided to return to England with his manuscript. Perhaps he hoped the printing and the market for such a long history would be better there; he was hoping to retire on the proceeds.

Gordon also told Sir John Temple, another Englishman who had lived in Boston and supported the Whigs, that he feared in America “those individuals who now occupy eminencies will be most horribly affected by an impartial history.”

In The Politics of History: Writing the History of the American Revolution, 1783-1815, Arthur H. Shaffer said, “It is difficult to ascertain what portions of Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Independence of the United States of America would have given offense. In its published form it is an unblinking justification of the American cause.”

That’s true, but so was Mercy Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, and that book upset John Adams so much that it ruined their friendship of many years. Adams thought Warren paid too little attention to the young country’s Dutch alliance. (Not coincidentally, he was the Congress’s minister to Holland.) She also used her history, and especially its footnotes, to praise Republican politicians like Elbridge Gerry and attack Federalists like Timothy Pickering.

Viewed from a distance, the histories by Gordon and Warren are both rah-rah American. But leaders who had lived through the war read those accounts closely to find their own names, and some were quick to accuse and complain.

I think Gordon was particularly mindful of John Hancock’s reaction. In 1786 Hancock had just finished his first stretch of terms as governor of Massachusetts and had been reelected President of the Continental Congress. He was very popular in New England, immensely so in Massachusetts. He also had a touchy ego, and there was already bad blood between the two men. At a meeting of the Harvard College overseers in 1777, Gordon had pressed Hancock hard to finish his job as treasurer and balance the accounts. Privately, the minister called the politician “John Puff.” And, as yesterday’s anecdote about Hancock and Samuel Adams shows, Gordon didn’t keep that disdain out of his History. So it might well have been wiser to publish outside of Massachusetts.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reading Between the Lines of Gordon’s History

Early in the week I quoted from the Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, published in London in 1788. This was one of the earliest attempts to write a history of the Revolution, by an Englishman who had been close to the Boston Whigs and in Roxbury at the start of the war.

Like almost any other history, it also reflects the history of the time in which it was written. Take, for instance, this anecdote about Samuel Adams and John Hancock shortly after they fled Lexington ahead of British troops.

During this interesting period, Messrs. S. Adams and Hancock, whose residence was near at hand, quitted and removed to a further distance. While walking along, Mr. Adams exclaimed, “O! what a glorious morning is this!” in the belief that it would eventually liberate the colony from all subjection to Great Britain. His companion did not penetrate his meaning, and thought the allusion was only to the aspect of the sky.
Let’s see if we can penetrate Gordon’s prose for the subtle clues about his sources. He’s quoting from a private conversation between two men. One of them comes across as an idiot. You know, I’m going out on a limb to guess that the other man, Samuel Adams, talked to Gordon about his experiences after Lexington. And that their interview took place after Hancock and Adams had drifted apart politically in the late 1770s, before their reconciliation in 1789.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Army Stays in Town on Its Stomach

The last couple of Boston 1775 postings have been about the first significant military action around Boston after the provincials laid siege to the town, the skirmish around Grape Island. The two armies started shooting at each other again over a harvest of hay. How could hay be so important?

The British military, trapped on Boston’s spit of land, had lots of horses. Boston Common had been set aside since the first English settlement as an area for livestock to feed, including the town’s milk-cows, but it and a few other fields within the town were too small to grow enough fodder for all those animals.

The military authorities knew that London would start sending them more supplies once ministers learned about the war—but they also knew how long it would take for Gen. Thomas Gage’s report to cross the Atlantic and for supply ships to sail back. In fact, the first word of the siege (sent by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress) didn’t reach London until 28 May. So until the British government could gear up to send supplies, the besieged army and navy had to feed themselves, their horses, and that part of the Boston population who remained in town.

On 1 June, Boston merchant John Andrews, who was staying only to preserve his property, described the shortages to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia:

Now and then a carcase offer’d for sale in the market, which formerly we would not have pick’d up in the street; but bad as it is, it readily sells for eight pence Lawful money per lb., and a quarter of lamb when it makes its appearance, which is rarely once a week, sells for a dollar, weighing only three or three and a half pounds. To such shifts has the necessity of the times drove us; wood not scarcely to be got at twenty two shillings a cord. Was it not for a triffle of salt provissions that we have, ’twould be impossible for us to live. Pork and beans one day, and beans and pork another, and fish when we can catch it.
Eventually British ships delivered more food, and even over the winter no one starved. The military helped relieve the firewood shortage by pulling down Liberty Tree, other trees, fences, small houses and shacks, and even churches and their steeples.

Prof. David Hsiung of Juniata College is now studying that struggle for natural resources as part of an environmental-history approach to the Revolutionary War. There’s a December 2006 draft of his preliminary work available through the Georgia Workshop in Early American History and Culture.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

John Adams Starts to Worry

Yesterday I quoted Abigail Adams’s frazzled description of the skirmish on Grape Island, off the South Shore of Boston harbor. John Adams’s response to early news of the incident reaching Philadelphia was a jocular comment on 2 June:

Was you frightened, when the sheep Stealers got a drubbing at Grape Island?—Father Smith [i.e., Abigail’s father] prayed for our Scough Crew, I doubt not, but how did my dear Friend Dr. [Cotton] Tufts sustain the shock?
Only later did he receive Abigail’s letter describing the panic among their friends and family and the local militias’ response. On 6 June, John sent a further comment:
I am afraid you will have more Alarms than are necessary, in Consequence of the Brush at Grape Island. But I hope you will maintain your philosophical Composure.
Another four days went by, and John hadn’t heard from Abigail again. And I sense that he started to worry a little more because he returned to the topic of Grape Island in his letter on 10 June, asking more questions:
I long to know, how you fare, and whether you are often discomposed with Alarms. Guard yourself against them my Dear. I think you are in no Danger—dont let the groundless Fears, and fruitfull Imaginations of others affect you.

Let me know what guards are kept—and who were principally concerned in the Battle at Grape Island as well as that at Chelsea. The Reputation of our Countrymen for Valour, is very high. I hope they will maintain it, as well as that for Prudence, Caution and Conduct.
Abigail didn’t receive that letter until 22 June, and by then the little skirmish off Hingham had been overshadowed by the Battle of Bunker Hill. Nevertheless, she responded with some more news about the fight on 21 May:
You inquire of me, who were at the engagement at Grape Island. I may say with truth all Weymouth Braintree Hingham who were able to bear Arms, and hundreds from other Towns within 20 30 and 40 miles of Weymouth.

Our good Friend the Doctor is in a very misirable state of Health, has the jaundice to a [very great] degree, is a mere Skelliton and hardly able to [ride from] his own house to my fathers. Danger you [know] sometimes makes timid men bold. He stood that day very well, and generously attended with drink, Bisquit, flints &c. 5 hundred men without taking any pay. He has since been chosen one of the committee of Correspondence for that Town, and has done much Service by establishing a regular method of alarm from Town to Town.

Both your Brothers were there—your younger Brother [Elihu] with his company who gaind honour by their good order that Day. He was one of the first to venture aboard a Schooner to land upon the Island.
You can explore the Adams family correspondence in depth through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Digital Adams collection.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The First Skirmish in Boston Harbor

Last month I quoted the first entry in selectman Timothy Newell’s journal of the siege of Boston. That was dated 19 Apr 1775, the day the war began. He didn’t write another for over a month because there was no significant fighting during that time.

(Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen did take Fort Ticonderoga on 10 May, which turned out to be a significant military event. But Newell didn’t know about it, and there hadn’t been any fighting out there, either. The British outpost hadn’t yet heard about Lexington and Concord, and were therefore caught unawares.)

Selectman Newell resumed his chronicle this way:

May 21st (Sabbath). This day two sloops and an armed schooner with soldiers sailed to Grape Island near Hingham to get hay, our People attacked them and beat them off, some say with loss, none on our side as is known, they returned without accomplishing their design. Our People afterwards set fire to the hay.
This little skirmish ended without loss of life. Newell wasn’t close enough to see the response to the three British ships, but Abigail Adams was. She described the alarm in the provincial towns south of Grape Island in a letter to her husband dated 25 May:
Suppose you have had a formidable account of the alarm we had last Sunday morning. When I rose about six oclock I was told that the Drums had been some time beating and that 3 allarm Guns were fired, that Weymouth [meeting] Bell had been ringing, and Mr. Welds was then ringing.

I immediatly sent of an express to know the occasion, and found the whole Town in confusion. 3 Sloops and one cutter had come out, and droped anchor just below Great Hill. It was difficult to tell their design, some supposed they were comeing to Germantown [in Braintree] others to Weymouth.

People women children from the Iron Works flocking down this Way—every woman and child above or from below my Fathers. My Fathers family flying, the Drs. [Dr. Cotton Tufts’s] in great distress, as you may well immagine for my Aunt had her Bed thrown into a cart, into which she got herself, and orderd the boy to drive her of to Bridgwater which he did.

The report was to them, that 300 hundred had landed, and were upon their march into Town. The allarm flew lightning, and men from all parts came flocking down till 2000 were collected—but it seems their [i.e., the British military’s] expidition was to Grape Island for Levet's hay. There it was impossible to reach them for want of Boats, but the sight of so many persons, and the fireing at them prevented their getting more than 3 ton of Hay, tho they had carted much more down to the water.

At last they [i.e., the local militiamen] musterd a Lighter, and a Sloop from Hingham which had six port holes. Our men eagerly jumpt on board, and put of for the Island. As soon as they [the army] perceived it, they decamped. Our people landed upon Island, and in an instant set fire to the Hay which with the Barn was soon consumed, about 80 ton tis said. We expect soon to be in continual alarms, till something decisive takes place.
As Adams’s hastily written letter reflects, people in towns around Boston harbor expected punitive raids from the British military at any time.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Repartee Stuck by His Lordship?

Hugh Earl Percy. Digital ID: 465991. New York Public LibraryOn the morning of 19 April 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage ordered one of his colonels, Earl Percy, to lead a column of troops down Boston Neck with the mission of reinforcing the soldiers who had crossed the Charles River and marched for Concord the night before.

In 1788 the Rev. William Gordon published a four-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America in London. It contained this anecdote about Percy’s column marching through Roxbury that morning:

The brigade marched out, playing, by way of contempt, Yankee Doodle, a song composed in derision of the New Englanders, scornfully called Yankees.

A smart boy observing it as the troops passed through Roxbury, made himself extremely merry with the circumstance, jumping and laughing, so as to attract the notice of his lordship, who, it is said, asked him at what he was laughing so heartily; and was answered, “To think how you will dance by and by to Chevy Chase.” It is added, that the repartee stuck by his lordship the whole day.
The song “Chevy Chase”, in print for over a century and a half by then, told of the death of an earlier Earl Percy. What a clever wit that boy must have had! And surely Gordon is a reliable source since he was actually in Roxbury in 1775 as one of the town’s ministers.

The only problem is that Gordon had published a long account of the march to Concord in three American almanacs published late in 1775. In that version, close to the original event, Gordon hadn’t identified the army’s music, and had said the Roxbury boy simply told the troops that they would dance to that tune by nightfall. “Yankee Doodle,” “Chevy Chase,” Earl Percy himself—all those details seem to have appeared later. So this anecdote turns out to be one of the most suspicious types of stories: one that grows significantly better in the telling.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Sort of Tea Was Thrown into Boston Harbor?

The Boston Post-Boy of 16 Nov 1767 offered this verse for caffeinated young ladies concerned about the new Townshend duties on, among other, less consequential things, imported tea:

Throw aside your Bohea and your Green Hyson Tea,
And all good things with a new fashion duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye.
Labrador was an herbal tea made from a plant found growing in Canada. (Loyalist judge Peter Oliver later claimed that “it brought on Disorders of Health; & among the rest a Vertigo, as fatal as that which they had brought upon theirselves with Respect to Liberty.”)

But Labrador isn’t the topic of this posting. I’m wondering about what type of tea Americans drank at the time of the Boston Tea Party? Were Bohea and Hyson the most popular kinds, as that verse implied, or were those names simply a lot easier to fit into a rhyme than “Lapsang Souchong”? A 16 Sept 1736 Boston News-Letter advertisement listed several types—Bohea, Congou, Pekoe, green, and fine imperial—with green and Bohea the cheapest and Pekoe the most expensive. (For more about some of those varieties, see TeaMuse’s article on “Teas of Yore.”)

We know that American colonists didn’t import tea bricks, though those things are so quaintly historic and easily displayed that some small museums say they did. Instead, as Ebenezer Stevens recalled and other sources confirm, the tea emptied into Boston harbor came in canvas-covered wooden boxes that had to be chopped open. The Boston Tea Party Museum (now in drydock) displays a possible surviving example of those boxes on its website. And what sort of tea was inside them?

Last week my eye fell on a passage from the diary of John Tudor, a deacon in the North End. After describing how “a number of Resolute men” had destroyed the East India Company tea, Tudor wrote:
The Tea was worth ’tis said at least 25,000 £ sterling, as a great deal of it was green Tea.
So on the day after the Tea Party, Bostonians saw a lot of the tea in their harbor as green tea. Tudor’s remark about the value of the tea also implies that green tea is one of the more expensive kinds.

Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party says, “About one-third of the tea exported from China in the eighteenth century was green tea,” with green Hyson “the choicest of all.” But the bulk of the tea that Europeans, and thus European-Americans, consumed was black tea from the Bohea mountains. And Labaree’s Table IV has the exact answer to my question above: the three tea ships at Boston contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas). Green tea accounted for about 22% of the shipments’ total volume, and 30% of the value.

Was Tudor’s perception that “a great deal of it was green Tea” shaped by what people saw in the harbor the next day? Not all the leaves thrown overboard had sunk. Men went out in boats to beat the remaining shoals of leaves under the water. And perhaps the green tea was the biggest problem. A commenter on this British webpage says, “I've noticed that my Chai teabags (more smaller particles), sink faster than my green tea teabags (larger leaf particles). I suspect it is because the smaller particles get saturated fast than the larger ones.” As a “living history” experiment, does green tea take longer to sink in saltwater than black tea?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Forging a Future

Prospect Hill Forge in Waltham, Massachusetts, is having its “Grand Opening Bash” from 6:00 to 10:00 P.M. this evening, Thursday, 17 May, and every evening through Sunday, 20 May, at the same time. This forge offers classes in “The Rudiments of Blacksmithing,” “Flint and Steel,” and other ferrous arts.

Of course, I’ve already taken my blacksmithing class, at Old Sturbridge Village. And I have a couple of rather poor iron nails to show for it. But to observe the public opening of this forge, I looked in my library for material on blacksmiths from the Revolutionary era. Here’s a passage from William C. Nell’s Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855):

JAMES EASTON, of Bridgewater, was one who participated in the erection of the fortifications on Dorchester Heights, under command of Washington, which the next morning so greatly surprised the British soldiers then encamped in Boston.

Mr. Easton was a manufacturing blacksmith, and his forge and nail factory, where were also made edge tools and anchors, was extensively known, for its superiority of workmanship. Much of the iron work for the Tremont Theatre and Boston Marine Railway was executed under his supervision. Mr. Easton was self-educated. When a young man, stipulating for work, he always provided for chances of evening study. He was welcome to the business circles of Boston as a man of strict integrity, and the many who resorted to him for advice in complicated matters styled him “the Black Lawyer.” His sons, Caleb, Joshua, Sylvanus, and Hosea, inherited his mechanical genius and mental ability.

The family were victims, however, to the spirit of color-phobia, then rampant in New England, and were persecuted even to the dragging out of some of the family from the Orthodox [i.e., Congregationalist] Church, in which, on its enlargement, a porch had been erected, exclusively for colored people.

After this disgraceful occurrence, the Eastons left the church. They afterwards purchased a pew in the Baptist church at Stoughton Corner, which excited a great deal of indignation. Not succeeding in their attempt to have the bargain cancelled, the people tarred the pew. The next Sunday, the family carried seats in the waggon. The pew was then pulled down; but the family sat in the aisle. These indignities were continued until the separation of the family.
In colonial and early republican New England, families with enough money bought pews in their churches, passing them down or selling them like other property. But churches still tried to enforce who could sit where through a tradition called “seating the meeting,” with the best pews assigned according to wealth and social status—and, in this community, race.

George R. Price and James Brewer Stuart’s article in the Massachusetts Historical Review adds some specifics to Nell’s account. James Easton was born in Middleborough in 1754 to a free couple who probably had both African and Native ancestors. He may have grown up in a nearby community of Christian Indians. Easton served in Gamaliel Bradford’s 14th Massachusetts regiment in the late 1770s. He returned from the war to set up a home in North Bridgewater, now Brockton, and married in 1783, according to Bradford Kingman’s History of North Bridgewater, Plymouth County, Massachusetts.

The Easton family’s first recorded action against segregation appears in the records of Bridgewater’s Fourth Church of Christ in 1800. James Easton was then in his mid-forties and established as a businessman. But the congregation, having enlarged their meeting-house, wanted to reseat him and his family in a new “Negro gallery.” Easton moved to a Baptist church, at a time when Baptists were protesting how taxes went to the Congregationalist hierarchy, but he experienced discrimination there, too.

James Easton’s son Hosea became a minister, and his writings have been collected in To Heal the Scourge of Prejudice. Easton also had a daughter named Sarah who, in 1813, became the second wife of Robert Roberts, author of The House Servant’s Directory. In 1850, their son Benjamin unsuccessfully sued the Boston school committee to integrate the city schools on behalf of his young daughter Mary. So this blacksmith produced a series of rights activists in the early republic.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ebenezer Stevens on the Boston Tea Party

Back in February I spent an afternoon in the New York Public Library, a trip that produced some material on the legend of George Washington’s Hanukkah. But my real find that day was the original publication of Ebenezer Stevens’s recollection of the Boston Tea Party. I’d found that material quoted in many places, from Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves to Edith Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance (she was a Stevens descendant). But I hadn’t found its earliest manifestation, even in Stevens family papers at the New-York Historical Society.

But it turned up in a small volume called Biographical Sketch of Ebenezer Stevens, Lieut.-Col. of Artillery in the Continental Army, by John Austin Stevens. Though this book doesn’t have a date, internal evidence shows it was prepared after 1877 (i.e., it mentions someone dying that year). It was apparently printed for members of the family, and a copy ended up at the N.Y.P.L. [ADDENDUM: I’ve since discovered the original printing.]

The book discusses Stevens’s service in Boston’s prewar militia artillery company, commanded by Adino Paddock. Then the tea ships arrived, producing a split in the company, as the author describes:

Paddock’s company was called upon...to guard the tea and prevent its landing. Paddock, whose sympathies were with the Royal authorities, refused his consent, but at a company meeting the charge was accepted and undertaken by them, First Lieut. Jabez Hatch taking the command. Stevens was among those who volunteered on this service.
That squares with the minutes of the tea meetings kept by town clerk William Cooper, which describe militia companies patrolling the wharf where the first ship docked. Indeed, those notes list one of the early volunteers as “Benjamin Stevens,” which could have been a mistake for Ebenezer. It also squares with how the artillery company broke apart in 1774, with Paddock reaffirming his loyalty and many of his men joining the provincials.

Stevens told his family that he was also at the big public gathering in Old South Meeting-House on the night of 16 Dec 1773, when word came that the governor had refused to let the tea ships depart without unloading. This is Stevens’s “own recollection of the affair, as taken from his words at a later period by one of his sons”:
I went from the Old South Meeting House just after dark; the party was about seventy or eighty. At the head of the wharf [Griffin’s wharf] we met the detachment of our company on guard, who joined us.

I commanded with a party on board the vessel of which [Alexander] Hodgdon was mate, and as he knew me, I left that vessel with some of my comrades, and went on board the other vessel which lay at the opposite side of the wharf; numbers of others took our places on board Hodgdon’s vessel.

We commenced handing the boxes of tea on deck, and first commenced breaking them with axes, but found much difficulty, owing to the boxes of tea being covered with canvass—the mode that this article was then imported in. I think that all the tea was discharged in about two hours. We were careful to prevent any being taken away; none of the party were painted as Indians, nor, that I know of disguised, excepting that some of them stopped at a paint shop on the way and daubed their faces with paint.
In the past I’ve expressed skepticism about family accounts published long after the fact without contemporaneous documentation (as in the case of Sybil Ludington). But I’m inclined to believe this account. Why?

First, there’s earlier support for Stevens’s participation in the tea destruction. His name is on the earliest list of Tea Party participants, published in 1835. That list includes a lot of artillerists, and his account helps to explain why. Among those men was John Crane; he and Stevens left Boston shortly afterwards and set up a carpentry business in Rhode Island before returning to greater Boston as provincial artillery officers.

Second, Stevens’s story contains a detail that isn’t really important to the event, may even be a little embarrassing, and smacks of how real life works: as he started to board the Dartmouth, he found that its mate was Alexander Hodgdon, brother of the woman he was courting. Rather than risk being identified or compromising his future in-law, Stevens quickly took his squad to another ship. On 11 Oct 1774, Ebenezer Stevens and Rebecca Hodgdon married, and ten years moved into the the New York mansion shown above a hard century later (courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York). Alexander later became treasurer of Massachusetts.

Finally, when Stevens’s account goes against the established story of the Tea Party, it doesn’t do so in a way that makes him appear more heroic or romantic. In fact, it denies the most picturesque aspect of the event: that the tea destroyers dressed as Indians. Stevens told his son of improvised disguises instead. I think newspapers emphasized the notion that the men were indistinguishable from “Mohawks” in the weeks that followed as a way to discuss the event without acknowledging who had really done it. The many artists who depicted the event after the war up to now also seized on that striking visual detail, and who can blame them?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dean Dillopolis Takes On John Hancock

The Superhero Historians blog is tackling the Boston Tea Party as its topic of the month. I’ve peeked in on this blog before, and have never been sure what to make of it. I like the idea of helping kids explore historical events in depth, of course. But the vocabulary and especially the syntax of some of these little essays seem rather advanced for readers who like cartoon animal superheroes like, um, Dean Dillopolis here. (Apparently he’s an armadillo.)

Some of the blog’s historical remarks seem a little overenthusiastic, as superheroes are apt to be. About John Hancock, Mr. Dillopolis says, “He also smuggled glass, lead, and tea on his ships.” We don’t actually know that, I think. The best documented smuggling accusation against Hancock—the Liberty case, involving wine—was eventually dropped by the Crown.

There’s incontrovertible evidence for smuggling by other merchants among the Massachusetts Whigs, such as Capt. Daniel Malcom, William Molineux, and Richard Derby, Sr., of Salem. Some shippers even bought insurance for trips to Holland or other forbidden zones. Some were caught by the Customs service and successfully prosecuted. So we can certainly say there was a lot of smuggling into Boston harbor. John Hancock’s fortune was undoubtedly based in part on smuggling, but that’s because his uncle engaged in the practice.

I think it’s likely that Hancock and his captains occasionally skirted Customs rules, too, but he doesn’t seem to have been desperate enough, or to have had the good business sense, to go into smuggling in a big way. Many writers on the Revolution have assumed otherwise, figuring that where there’s any smoke there must be fire. So it’s not surprising that Mr. Dillopolis would write so confidently.

As another example of a poor connection, Superhero Historian Barley Hugg told readers, “The Green Dragon Tavern is a working tavern today.” There’s indeed a tavern of that name in downtown Boston, but it has even less connection to the famous Freemasons’ lodge than the Cheers bar in Quincy Market has to the tavern Sam Malone owned; at least Cheers has an official merchandising license. The original Green Dragon fell to the wreckers two centuries ago. The present-day business is an Irish pub (hence the green), and Irishmen weren’t as populous or popular in colonial Boston.

The great thing about blogs, though, is that they can always change. Just in the last week, Superhero Historians took a big step by going without a favorable review that had come saddled with punctuation, spelling, and usage errors. (“Are you smarter than a 5th grader? Well you’re kids will be if they check this site out as their homepage.”) I’m all for quoting good reviews. [Another History Blog on Boston 1775: “Read it and you’ll see why I like J. L. Bell: he's not only smart and well-read, he can make anything interesting.”] But the editor in me insists that grammatical blurbs reflect better on the site that displays them. So now I plan to keep checking out Superhero Historians.

ADDENDUM: Pierce Hawking’s executive assistant at Superhero Historians, Mr. Norrett, alerts me that he’s clarified the blog’s description of the modern Green Dragon Tavern. Again, that’s what’s great about history on pixels—so easy to add updates. Like this here.

Monday, May 14, 2007

365 Days of Boston 1775

This is the anniversary of Boston 1775, so I’ve taken a look back at the first month (well, two and a half weeks) of postings.

Some of those entries have stood up to internet time better than others. The New Yorker took down its article about a supposed portrait of an eighteenth-century black sea captain—so I just added a better link from N.P.R.

I still haven’t found an image of the Boston Athenæum’s portrait of John Adams by Mather Brown to link to in “John Adams: the many faces.” But through 13 July it’s no longer confined to an upstairs board room but available to visitors as part of the institution’s “Acquired Tastes” exhibit. Also on display are a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Adams, a Houdon bust of Lafayette, and a battle painting by John Trumbull.

May 2006 also saw the start of some series of postings:

I managed a couple of book reviews that month; I’ve meant to write more but haven’t gotten around to them.

One of my bigger surprises about how this blog has developed is that the individual with the most entries is George Washington. Of course I expected to write about Washington since he was so important and interesting, but he wasn’t a Bostonian and probably spent less than two years total in New England over his lifetime. But you know what Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee would have written about Washington if he’d had better internet access: “first in war, first in peace, and first in the blog topic index.”

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Parody of a Parody of a Rewrite of a Traditional Song

In a comment on yesterday’s posting, a long-time Boston 1775 reader gave a link to the Amazon page for this album: Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty. Since that link is so long, I’m not sure people will be able to see it and use it, so I’m repeating it here. And here’s a link direct from the record company, New World.

This CD contains “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” under the title “Song on Liberty.” There are audio samples at both sites. Perhaps revealing where his political sympathies lie, the commenter referred to those lyrics as the “Patriot burlesque” on the original “British Grenadiers.” That’s certainly true as far as chronology goes, but the word “burlesque” implies some parody, and the Massachusetts rewrite is so deadly serious. The grenadiers were having much more fun to begin with.

It’s interesting to note that “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” itself was parodied even before it was printed (or at least before any surviving printed versions). The Historical Society of Pennsylvania reportedly owns a manuscript dated April 1770 and titled “Massachusetts Liberty Song Parodized.”

Who could have made fun of such noble sentiments? Paul Revere later suspected Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., of this deed. In the same 1798 letter in which he described his ride on 18-19 April 1775, Revere wrote of Church:

He was esteemed a very capable writer, especially in verse; and as the Whig party needed every Strength, they feared, as well as courted Him. Though it was known, that some of the Liberty Songs, which We composed, were parodized by him, in favor of the British, yet none dare charge him with it.

I was a constant and critical observer of him, and I must say, that I never thought Him a man of Principle; and I doubted much in my own mind, wether He was a real Whig.
Revere had been happy to add Church’s quickly-composed verse to the bottom of at least one of the political cartoons he engraved, and left no expression of doubt about the doctor before the war. But after Church was caught in secret correspondence with the enemy in late 1775, the silversmith became suspicious.

Musically, American Whigs and Tories seem to have gone at each other like two modern rappers enjoying a marketable feud. In 1768, someone in Boston took John Dickinson’s “Liberty Song” and parodied it like this:
Come shake your dull noddles, ye pumpkins, and bawl
And own you’ve gone mad at fair Liberty’s call;
No scandalous conduct can add to your shame
Condemned to dishonor, inherit the fame,
In folly you’re born and in folly you’ll live
To madness still ready, and stupidly steady,
Not as men, but as monkeys, the tokens you give.
The first newspaper to print that parody said it came from “a garret at Castle William,” pointing the finger at the Customs Commissioners holed up in that island fort. But some people suspect Dr. Church. Ironically, some people also give Church credit for the Whigs’ answer song in the same style, called “The Parody Parodized”:
Come swallow your bumpers, ye tories, and roar
That the Sons of fair Freedom are hamper’d once more;
But know that no cut-throats our spirits can tame,
Nor a host of oppressors shall smother the flame.
In freedom we’re born, and, like sons of the brave,
Will never surrender, but swear to defend her,
And scorn to survive, if unable to save.
Everybody join in!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren Rewrites "The British Grenadiers"

In June 1769, Josiah Flagg (1738-95) advertised the last musical concert of his season at Boston’s Concert Hall. It featured a small orchestra made up of local musicians and men drawn from the army’s 29th and 64th Regiments. The evening closed with the song “The British Grenadiers,” arranged for four voices, with the audience probably singing along:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

Those heroes of antiquity ne'er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal.
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.
The next February, Flagg advertised that his concert would include “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song.” The title of that song was clearly inspired by the popular “Liberty Song,” written by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson to the traditional melody “Heart(s) of Oak.” As for the music—well, “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” would have sounded quite familiar to Flagg’s audience.
That Seat of Science Athens, and Earth’s great Mistress Rome,
Where now are all their Glories, we scarce can find their Tomb;
Then guard your Rights, Americans! nor stoop to lawless Sway,
Oppose, oppose, oppose, oppose,—my brave America.

Proud Albion bow’d to Caesar, and num’rous Lords before,
To Picts, to Danes, to Normans, and many Masters more;
But we can boast Americans! we never fell a Prey;
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave America.

We led fair Freedom hither, when lo the Desart smil’d,
A paradise of pleasure, was open’d in the Wild;
Your Harvest, bold Americans! no power shall snatch away,
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave America.

Torn from a World of Tyrants, beneath this western Sky,
We form’d a new Dominion, a Land of liberty;
The World shall own their masters here, then hasten on the Day,
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave America.

God bless this maiden Climate, and thro’ her vast Domain,
Let Hosts of Heroes cluster, who scorn to wear a Chain;
And blast the venal Sycophant, who dares our Rights betray.
Preserve, preserve, preserve, preserve my brave America.

Lift up your Heads my Heroes! and swear with proud Disdain,
The Wretch that would enslave you, Shall spread his Snares in vain;
Should Europe empty all her force, wou'd meet them in Array,
And shout, and shout, and shout, and shout, for brave America!

Some future Day shall crown us, the Masters of the Main,
And giving Laws and Freedom, to subject France and Spain;
When all the Isles o’er Ocean spread shall tremble and obey,
Their Lords, their Lords, their Lords, their Lords of brave America.
Tradition credits Dr. Joseph Warren with this lyrical rewrite, though there doesn’t seem to be firm evidence for that. Less than month after the song’s premiere, actual British grenadiers fired into a violent crowd on King Street—the event known as the Boston Massacre. That no doubt increased the local popularity of the new lyrics over the old.

You can hear the “British Grenadiers”/“New Massachusetts Liberty Song” music at Contemplator.org—but don't touch that link yet! It's one of those sites that starts making noise as soon as you peek in. With RealAudio you can also download and hear a fully orchestrated version from Canada’s Virtual Gramophone.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Life and Legend at Longfellow House

I just got back from a fine slide talk by Carol Bundy based on her book The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 1835-64. This event was hosted by the Friends of the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bundy is a collateral descendant of Lowell, a Union Army administrative and cavalry officer during the Civil War. Twenty years ago she came across some unpublished, unarchived letters by him and started to research his life. The family library included a book that described the man in very complimentary terms, and as she researched Bundy kept expecting to find a point when that book had veered away from documented facts and started printing legend. But she didn’t. The story of Lowell and his circle makes for quite an affecting saga of a generation facing a national crisis.

A previous lecture by Bundy, along with an interview, is archived here at WGBH.org. She’ll speak at Carlisle Barracks in September.

Since The Nature of Sacrifice is about the U.S. Civil War, it has nothing to do with New England in the American Revolution (even though Bundy did have an image of a man named Paul Revere—the silversmith’s grandson, mortally wounded at Gettysburg).

So to offer some arguably apropos content, here’s a fresh-off-the-card photo of one of Cambridge’s hidden treasures: the restored colonial-revival garden behind Longfellow House. This garden is available for people to visit every day, from dawn to dusk, though the mansion itself won’t open to drop-in visitors under 1 June.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I Am Intrigued

The Historic Site Management Professional Affinity Group (don’t you love phrases made up almost entirely of nouns?) of the New England Museum Association and Historic New England (that’s S.P.N.E.A. for diehards) are co-sponsoring a one-day conference next month called “Beyond Desperate Housewives: Inconvenient Truths at Historic Sites.”

Now the house where I live has just turned (wait for it) eighty years old. Yes, it goes all the way back to the Coolidge administration. I think the most historic thing about it are the piles of magazines I have yet to read, and I’m not about to display them to the public. But I love inconvenient truths!

This session takes place on Monday, 4 June 2007, at H.N.E.’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Massachusetts. Here’s the write-up:

Do you feel that your site glosses over the harsh realities of life in the past? Do personal details shared with the public threaten to dishonor the legacy of your donors? What happens when a story that needs to be told clashes with American iconography, or simply with popular perceptions of a simpler, kinder—and thus more alluring—past? What if your site is built on a lie?

10:00 A.M. Welcome
PAG Co-chairs: Elaine Clements, Director, Andover Historical Society, and Bethany Groff, Northern Regional Site Manager, Historic New England

10:15 A.M. Keynote: Public Image vs. Private Reality
An overview of the issues involved in integrating intimate history, whether it be sexuality, interactions across class and culture lines, illness, death and dying, etc., into our interpretation, with sensitivity and in context. This is a subtle and complex topic that is relevant to all museums.
[Especially subtle is the lack of a name for the keynote speaker.]

11:00 A.M. Slaves in the Gallery
Christine Baron, Director of Education, The Old North Church
Learn about the research currently being done at the Old North Church, including sources for uncovering information about the slave population and the process involved in adding a new dimension of interpretation to this National Landmark.

12:00 P.M. Lunch

12:45 P.M. Body Servants - Intimate Lives Across Class and Race
Jennifer Pustz, Historian for Historic New England
Join us for an exploration of images and realities in the lives of servants in the home. Sign-up for a future planning session for historic sites that would like to incorporate their servant stories in their interpretation.

1:45 P.M. Roundtables (choose two)
• Interpretation plans – strategies for updating
• Training interpreters to share new information
• Exhibit labels – rewriting with sensitivity
• Marketing – striking the right balance
Registration Fee for NEMA members who want lunch or non-members who’ll bring their own is $45. NEMA members can save $10 by bringing their own food while non-members can reserve a lunch by adding $10. Registration Deadline: 25 May 2007.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Edmund Burke Supports the Troops

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was part of a small faction in Parliament called the “Rockingham Whigs,” after his patron, the Marquess of Rockingham. This made Burke one of a handful of voices arguing against plans by various ministers to impose new revenue laws and enforcement measures on the North American colonies.

In late 1774 London was gradually realizing that almost all the army regiments in North America were effectively bottled up inside Boston, with armed rebellion looming if it hadn’t already started. The ministers in power demanded a forceful response, and in fact won reelection on that platform. On 20 Dec 1774 Burke, confirmed in the minority, concluded a speech in the House of Commons this way:

I cannot sit down without saying a word or two on the solicitude the honourable member on my left hand [fellow Rockingham Whig David Hartley] has expressed for the situation of General [Thomas] Gage, and the troops under his command.

It is, I confess, most humiliating and mortifying; and it is difficult to say, whether those who have put them into it deserve most our compassion or our ridicule. It is, indeed, an absurdity without parallel; a warlike parliament, and a patient forbearing general.

I would not be understood to reflect on the gentleman, who I understand is a very worthy, intelligent, deserving man; no, sir, it is those who have sent him on such an errand that are to blame. The order of things is reversed in this new system. The rule of government now is to determine hastily, violently, and without consideration, and execute indecisively, or rather not execute at all.

And have not the consequences exactly corresponded with such a mode of proceeding? They have been measures, not practicable in themselves in any event, nor has one step been taken to put them into execution.

The account we have is, that the general is besieging and besieged; that he had cannon sent to him, but they were stolen; that he himself has made reprisals of a similar nature on the enemy; and that his straw has been burnt, and his brick and mortar destroyed.

It is painful to dwell on such monstrous absurd circumstances, which can be only be a subject of ridicule, if it did not lead to consequences of a very serious and alarming nature. In fine, sir, your army is turned out to be a mere army of observation; and is of no other use but as an asylum for magistrates of your own creating.
Basically, Burke accused the current government of trying to pacify Massachusetts for bad reasons, in haste, with poor preparation and feeble execution. The best way to serve the nation’s troops, he argued, would be to pull back from those measures and find a reasonable accommodation with the king’s subjects in North America, who in his view merely sought to govern themselves.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Benjamin Franklin Loses a Friend

At a meeting of writers last night, one person shared a story about Benjamin Franklin learning to swim. That reminded me of this anecdote from the great man’s Autobiography, in which a 1724 episode which must have been riotously funny to a bunch of rowdy teenaged apprentices becomes a Serious Lesson for Us All. But then that’s the way the Autobiography works.
There was another bookish lad in the town [Boston], John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice. . . .

I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough.
Collins helped Franklin run away from his older brother and master. Franklin established himself as a journeyman in Philadelphia, and sent such happy reports home that Collins, by then “a clerk in the post-office,” decided to join him. But their relationship wasn’t the same.
While I liv’d in Boston most of my hours of leisure for conversation were spent with him, and he continu’d a sober as well as an industrious lad; was much respected for his learning by several of the clergy and other gentlemen, and seemed to promise making a good figure in life. But, during my absence, he had acquir’d a habit of sotting with brandy; and I found by his own account, and what I heard from others, that he had been drunk every day since his arrival at New York, and behav’d very oddly.

He had gam’d, too, and lost his money, so that I was oblig’d to discharge his lodgings, and defray his expenses to and at Philadelphia, which prov’d extremely inconvenient to me. . . .

We proceeded to Philadelphia. Collins wished to be employ’d in some counting-house, but, whether they discover’d his dramming by his breath, or by his behaviour, tho’ he had some recommendations, he met with no success in any application, and continu'd lodging and boarding at the same house with me, and at my expense. . . .

His drinking continu’d, about which we sometimes quarrell’d; for, when a little intoxicated, he was very fractious. Once, in a boat on the Delaware with some other young men, he refused to row in his turn. “I will be row’d home,” says he.

“We will not row you,” says I.

“You must, or stay all night on the water,” says he, “just as you please.”

The others said, “Let us row; what signifies it?”

But, my mind being soured with his other conduct, I continu’d to refuse. So he swore he would make me row, or throw me overboard; and coming along, stepping on the thwarts, toward me, when he came up and struck at me, I clapped my hand under his crutch [i.e., crotch], and, rising, pitched him head-foremost into the river.

I knew he was a good swimmer, and so was under little concern about him; but before he could get round to lay hold of the boat, we had with a few strokes pull’d her out of his reach; and ever when he drew near the boat, we ask’d if he would row, striking a few strokes to slide her away from him. He was ready to die with vexation, and obstinately would not promise to row.

However, seeing him at last beginning to tire, we lifted him in and brought him home dripping wet in the evening.

We hardly exchang’d a civil word afterwards, and a West India captain, who had a commission to procure a tutor for the sons of a gentleman at Barbadoes, happening to meet with him, agreed to carry him thither. He left me then, promising to remit me the first money he should receive in order to discharge the debt; but I never heard of him after.
When we consider the older Benjamin Franklin and his lessons, it’s often wise to consider what the younger Benjamin Franklin would have thought of them. Probably something like this.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Making of America: Another Delightful Digital Database

Back in January, David Parker at Another History Blog described the value of the Making of America database. (Thanks also to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub for laying the trail of crumbs.) And I’ve been meaning to express my gratitude to the University of Michigan for creating it.

Now this database doesn’t go all the way back to the 1700s. But it’s still valuable for folks studying eighteenth-century history because it archives:

  • Some volumes of documents from the founding era that were transcribed and published in the mid- and late 1800s.
  • Histories written around the Centennial, showing what Americans then thought of the Revolution.
Among the former, don’t miss the volumes mysteriously catalogued under the series title “John Watts DePeyster Publication Fund.” Those are the Collections of the New-York Historical Society. And the Making of America version provides both page views (like Google Book) and crude transcriptions.

Volume 14, for example, reprints the journals of Capt. John Montresor, the British army’s top engineer in North America. (That’s him above, as painted by John S. Copley.) Here are some of the captain’s notes on his Boston 1774-75 experience, apparently written as he sailed back to England (and perhaps prepared to make a claim for promotion or reward):
I attended Lord Percy from Boston towards the Battle of Lexington. My advancing some miles in front of his Corps with four volunteers, and securing the Bridge across Cambridge River, 19th April, 1775; which prevented his Body from going the Watertown Road, whereby the Light Infantry and Grenadiers were not cut off, my having sent one Volunteer back to his Lordship; the town of Cambridge in arms, and I galloped through them.

During part of Gen. Gage’s Command at Boston [i.e., in late 1774], the Garrison were distressed for want of Specie, and also Carpenters; which I undertook to remedy, by supplying it £6,ooo in gold, and got it sent on board the “Asia,” and so to us at Boston.—Government insuring it.

I was twice attempted to be assassinated for supporting the honor and credit of the Crown during my Command in the course of the Rebellion.—1st., near Brattle Square, at Boston, by means of Rebel Doctor [Samuel] Cooper; and, 2nd, near the South end of Boston, by Samuel Dyer, when I saved General [Samuel] Cleaveland’s Life, Commanding Officer of Artillery. This man was sent off by the Sheriffs of London, Messrs. [William] Lee and [Stephen] Sayre, to murther Lt.-Col. [George] Maddison of the 4th Regiment.
I know nothing about Montresor’s accusation of the Rev. Dr. Cooper, minister of the Brattle-Street Meeting, and this remark isn’t mentioned in Charles W. Akers’s modern biography.

Montresor is correct that he and Cleaveland were nearly killed by a sailor named Samuel Dyer on 18 October 1774. That was, as far as I can tell, the first time in the Revolutionary conflict that someone in Boston tried to fire a gunshot at someone from the royal government or military. And Montresor actually blamed American-born politicians back in London for it. Eighteenth-century paranoia is wonderful to behold.