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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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

John Nutting Finds Work in Boston

Yesterday I described carpenter John Nutting’s decision in September 1774 to leave Cambridge, where he had been born in 1740, and take refuge in Boston, under the protection of the British troops. Soon afterwards, he brought his wife and several children into Boston, too.

Many of those troops needed barracks. Some were living in public buildings, some in tents on Boston Common—and the winter was coming on. (Contrary to a popular misconception, families weren’t forced to host soldiers in their homes under the Quartering Act.) The quartermaster rented some unused warehouses and distilleries, as his predecessor had in 1768, but had to find space for many more regiments.

Gen. Thomas Gage proposed building new barracks for the men. The Boston selectmen tried to make that as difficult as possible, resolving on 24 Sept 1774:

that should the mechanicks or other inhabitants of this town assist the troops by furnishing them with artificers labourers or materials of any kind to build barracks or other places of accommodation for the troops, they will probably incur the displeasure of their brethren, who may withhold their contributions for the relief of the town, and deem them as enemies to the rights and liberties of America, by furnishing the troops with conveniences for their residence and accommodation in this town.
It’s not that the selectmen wanted the soldiers living all over Boston. Rather, they wanted those soldiers moved to the barracks at Castle William on an island in the harbor, or someplace else inconvenient. American Whigs believed that showing the royal authorities how united the people were in opposing the troops and Parliament’s new laws could convince the London government to back down.

John Nutting was a carpenter who had built houses in both Cambridge and around Penobscot Bay. He knew other men with building skills. He needed work. So, as he later told a delegation from the Loyalists Commission:
he undertook the building Barracks, &c. & brought 40 men from the Country to work for the Troops. . . . At this time no workmen were to be had at Boston, & his conduct in procuring workmen & carrying on the public works made him so disagreeable to the people of Boston, that he could not stir without a guard.
Another of Nutting’s submission to the Loyalists Commission provided a more detailed account:
Several members of the Rebel Committee called on him and used every perswasion and promised every advantage to induce him to quit the King’s Works; but after finding their Entreaties without effect they proceeded to Violence;

a Mob the next day having concealed themselves, seized on your Memorialist on his Way from thence to his Lodgings in Boston and after almost killing him put him on board a Boat under charge of Four men with directions to convey him to Cambridge to be examined by the Committee then sitting there;

but, fortunately for your Memorialist, thro’ perswasion and a small consideration they were prevailed on to set him at Liberty near Cambridge from whence he returned to his Duty at the Lines; in passing from whence to his Lodgings or otherways, General Gage was pleased in future to furnish him with a Party of Men to protect him from the Insults of the Inhabitants.
Nutting added that he “continued in the Public Works about Six Weeks before the evacuation of Boston.” I suspect he left for his land in Maine at that time because his name doesn’t appear on the list of locals who evacuated with the British military in March 1776.

Nutting was unusual among those Loyalists, as I think he recognized when he later described himself as “the first person of an American that entered into the King’s service when the troubles began.” By that he probably meant that few people with old New England, Congregationalist roots were going to work for the Crown in 1774.

But once Nutting had thrown his lot in with the king, he didn’t go back. He was formally banished by the Massachusetts General Court in 1778. Nutting continued to work for the Crown through the war and finally settled in Newport (now Brooklyn), Nova Scotia, where he died in 1800.


Anonymous said...

Obadiah Whiston went to Nova Scotia

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, and then what happened to him?

His widow Priscilla and what appear to be their sons are back in Boston after the war. One grandson even assists in laying the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.

But I haven’t found any mention of Whiston himself after the departure of the British fleet in March 1776.

Anonymous said...

check http://files.usgwarchives.net/ma/suffolk/towns/boston/bios/martingay.txt
Obadiah Whiston is listed as arriving in Halifax with British fleet. Can not find any further reference to him in Nova Scotia. My family was in Halifax before 1776.
Stan Whiston (whistrob@sentex.net)

J. L. Bell said...

That list (I think this is the earliest publication) is indeed the last sign of Obadiah Whiston, blacksmith, that I’ve seen. I’m unclear about when those names were set down—on embarking from Boston, or on arriving in Halifax.

As I said, I’ve found signs of Whiston’s widow and sons in Massachusetts after the war. (The 1798 tax valuation list, for example.) But, alas, the blacksmith himself drops from sight. Too bad you haven’t found more in N.S.