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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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

John Nutting: Loyalist Carpenter

This is the anniversary of the Powder Alarm, the brief uprising of New England militiamen in 1774 that presaged the Battle of Lexington and Concord the following April. One of the men caught up in that event was John Nutting (1740-1800), a Cambridge carpenter and militia officer. The local historian Samuel Francis Batchelder published an article about Nutting in 1912.

Nutting was born into a poor branch of an old New England family, and trained as a housewright. He married his master’s daughter Mary Walton and started having children with her in 1762, having bought land on the east side of what’s now Massachusetts Avenue opposite Waterhouse Street, very close to Cambridge Common. In the 1760s he did a substantial £140 worth of work on Elmwood, the mansion of future lieutenant governor Thomas Oliver (shown here).

Nutting also invested in land and houses up at Penobscot Bay in Maine, and got himself overextended financially about 1770. He mortgaged his Cambridge properties and stopped making payments for his pew in the Congregationalist meeting-house. Early in 1774, Nutting joined Christ Church—one of only a few Anglican churches in the province.

Because Nutting had served in the Massachusetts militia during the French & Indian War, first marching west at age seventeen, it was natural for his neighbors to choose him as a militia officer. His new religious affiliation might have made him seem reliable to Crown officials; the relatively few Anglicans in Middlesex County were clearly more supportive of the royal government than the Congregationalist majority. And that combination of circumstances put Nutting in a delicate position.

In the late summer of 1774, as large crowds closed western county court sessions and held meetings in defiance of the Massachusetts Government Act, Gov. Thomas Gage decided he had to take control of the province’s supply of gunpowder stored in a stone tower in what is now Somerville. This is Nutting’s account of what happened to him next.

He was quiet until August, 1774, when he was required by Colonel [David] Phipps [who was also Middlesex County sheriff] to assist him in removing the gun Powder from Cambridge to Boston [on 1 September], which he did, although the Mob, desired & insisted that as an officer of Militia he should prevent the ordnance stores from being moved.

This conduct made him very obnoxious to his Countrymen—he was obliged to fly to Boston
Nutting didn’t state exactly when he left Cambridge, at least not in this testimony to Commissioners who visited Canada in 1785 to interview Loyalists. But the Powder Alarm involved up to 4,000 men crowding into Cambridge on 2 Sept 1774 and demanding apologies from everyone who was assisting the royal governor. That event revealed that Gage no longer exercised any authority in Massachusetts beyond the gates of Boston. And unlike Phips, Oliver, and other high officials, Nutting wasn’t protected by the society’s traditional deference to gentlemen. It looked like a good time for a “precipitous Retreat.”

TOMORROW: John Nutting finds work in Boston.

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