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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Saturday, June 14, 2008

More on Joel Adams of Arlington

Earlier this month, I told the story of the Adams children of Menotomy village on the exciting afternoon of 19 Apr 1775, based on an 1864 local history, and mentioned having leads to earlier versions. On Monday I stopped into the American Antiquarian Society and looked at one of those sources, the Rev. James F. Brown’s Old Age: A Sermon Preached at West Cambridge, February 8, 1852, on the Sabbath Succeeding the Death of James Hill.

This sermon has some nice, if not entirely comprehensible, praise for Hill: “He was brought up to farming; and, agreeably to his good mother’s promise, when he was able to swing a scythe, he was allowed to retire from his dish of bean porridge and take a cup of tea with the ‘grown folks.’” Brown seems to have thrown other stuff that he couldn’t fit into the sermon into an appendix.

In particular, Brown wrote about the family of Hill’s widow, Ann. She was still living in the town, by then independent of Cambridge and on its way to becoming Arlington. And she was obviously a source for Brown’s story of the Adams family in 1775:

When the British soldiers were retreating from Lexington, a detachment entered the house of Mr. [Joseph] Adams (which is now owned by Mr. Artemas Locke) and began the work of plunder and destruction. Mr. Adams being connected with some secret committee, and fearing for his life, secreted himself in a barn now owned by Miss Bradshaw. Mrs. Hill (as we have said) was then an infant in her mother’s arms. The lives of mother and daughter were spared from the bayonet of a common soldier through the interposition of an English officer; but they were ordered from the house, and accordingly fled and concealed themselves in the barn.

Several of the children were under the bed. Parlors, probably, were not as common then, as now, and beds were “made up” upon the lower floor of the house. In this snug retreat, the children were suffered to remain and watch the movements of their household foes. As the soldiers were about to take possession of the Communion Service, Joel Adams, then a lad of about nine years of age, knowing how sacred these things were to his father, could restrain himself no longer, and thrusting his head from beneath the bed-quilt, with a burst of eloquent indignation, told them, “Not to touch them things, or Daddy would lick ’um.”

The name of our spirited hero is worthy of being remembered. He grew up to be a man, and, no doubt, “acted well the part;” but we follow him no farther than to say that he died at New Salem, at the age of seventy-six. Tradition tells us that the silver tankard [given to the congregation by Jonathan Butterfield in 1769] was taken and pawned to a silversmith in Boston by the name of Austin. After the British army evacuated Boston, however, it was redeemed, and is now in the hands of the church. The deeds of the place were taken and were found afterwards on board of an English vessel that was captured by an American cruiser under the command of Captain, afterwards Commodore [Samuel] Tucker.

The house of Mr. Adams was set on fire before the soldiers left it; but the fire was soon extinguished by one of the older children, at the expense of the “good beer” that had just been brewed, together with water brought from the tank by the side of the house.
In interpreting this account, it’s important to recall that the former Ann Adams couldn’t have witnessed what had happened on 19 Apr 1775, or even learned about it shortly afterward. She was only “about three weeks old on the day of the Lexington battle.” So we’re dealing with family lore, not eyewitness recollections. Furthermore, Joseph Adams’s decision to run and hide, leaving his wife and children behind, gave the family a motive to try to excuse his behavior and claim heroism for the children.

As far as I can tell, there’s no corroborating evidence for Deacon Adams being on Cambridge political or military committees before the war. Towns were usually straightforward about naming the men on their Committees of Correspondence because part of their message to the world is that they were behaving legally and honorably, unlike that secretive Tory cabal.

The longer 1864 account said nothing about a committee. It suggested a different reason for Deacon Adams to flee: “on account of his name [i.e., the British troops would think he was related to Samuel Adams], and also from his reputation for patriotic zeal.” Zeal which had not led him to take up arms that day.

No other version of the Adams family story mentions an “English officer” restraining the soldiers from attacking Hannah Adams in her bedroom. She gave a deposition about her experience to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1775. It specified that three soldiers entered the house, and one of them told her to get out.

Another divergent detail: This account credits only “one of the older children” with putting out the fire in the Adams house.

Finally, this account raises the question of why Brown could share no more information about Joel Adams than that he had died in New Salem about 1841. Had he fallen out of touch with his baby sister Ann?

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