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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Monday, June 02, 2008

Joel Adams and the Redcoats

I’m concluding “Lost Youth Week” at Boston 1775 with two postings on the story of Joel Adams and the redcoats. On 19 Apr 1775, the Adamses were living in the western part of Cambridge, then called Menotomy and now called Arlington. According to vital records, the family consisted of:

  • father Joseph, fifty-nine-year-old deacon of the local meeting.
  • mother Hannah, Joseph’s second wife.
  • Thomas, born in 1751 and not yet married.
  • Rebecca, born in 1753.
  • Susanna, born in 1758.
  • Mary, born in 1761.
  • Nathan, born in 1763.
  • twins Joel and Amos, born in 1765.
  • Daniel, born in 1768.
  • Abigail, born in 1772.
  • little Ann, born less than three weeks before on the first of April.
It’s possible some of those children had died, or were living elsewhere in 1775.

On the night of 18-19 April, the British troops sent to search Concord had marched west past the Adams house. Col. Percy’s reinforcement column marched past that morning, and in the afternoon the family learned that the soldiers were coming back. The house was close to the road, and thus well within the area where the redcoats and provincial militia companies were conducting a running battle. Probably Thomas Adams, then twenty-three years old, was already with his company.

Father Joseph Adams was at home as the fighting neared, and he decided it would be best to run and hide in a neighbor’s hayloft, leaving his wife and children behind. The British column arrived. Some soldiers entered the house, probably to ensure there were no militiamen hiding inside. They found Hannah Adams in her bed with little Ann and told her to get out. She fled with the baby to the “corn-house,” leaving five other children behind.

The soldiers kept searching the house and spotted one of those kids peeking out from under a bed. A redcoat asked this boy, “Why don’t you come out here?”

Joel Adams answered, “You’ll kill me if I do.”

“No, we won’t,” said the soldier, so Joel crawled out and started following the soldiers around his house. The redcoats were thus up against one of the most indomitable forces of nature: a nine-year-old who thinks he’s in the right.

By this time, the soldiers were pocketing various things they thought they might be able to carry back to Boston and sell, including bits of the family silver and the works of their clock. (The workless clock is preserved at the Jason Russell House.) Then the men found the communion silver that Deacon Adams was guarding for his meeting-house.

Joel told the soldiers not to touch those things. “Daddy’ll lick you, if you do,” he reportedly said. Meanwhile, Daddy was still hiding in that hayloft. (That rendering of Joel’s words looks like a late-nineteenth-century portrayal of childhood, not an eighteenth-century one, indicating a story passed down orally.)

We can guess how fond the soldiers had grown of Joel from what they did when they left: they made a pile of wood chips and broken furniture on the floor of the Adams house and set it on fire.

TOMORROW: What happened next, and tracking down the tale.

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