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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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Digital Library from London

My last new online resource for the week is British History Online, a “digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles...Created by the Institute of Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.” It looks especially useful for British history and genealogy, but I came across it while Googling for information on an American family.

Among the printed sources digitized on British History Online and available for free (as opposed to by paid subscription only) are the Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations, the official notes of the board that governed commerce in the British Empire.

Those notes cover a meeting in February 1777 when the board members reviewed a:

Copy of a letter from Mr. Gridley to Mr. Read, relative to the sea cow fishery, and the annoyance given thereto by two New England schooners. Remarks upon the sea cow fishery.
The board met again in April 1777 and:
Read a memorial of Mr. Gridley, praying to be recommended for a grant of the Madelaine Islands in the Gulph of St. Lawrence, upon certain duties and conditions, for the purpose of carrying on the sea cow fishery.

Their lordships, agreable to a minute of the Board of the 6th of February, 1771, were of opinion, that such a grant ought not to be made without a valuable consideration being given to the Crown for the same.
Samuel Gridley had been petitioning that board for an exclusive right for his family to hunt seals and walruses on the Magdalen Islands since early 1763. He based his request on his Boston-born father’s service to the Crown in the wars against the French, as recorded in March 1772:
Read a memorial of Samuel Gridley of the city of Bristol, merchant, stating the services of his father Colonel [Richard] Gridley, and praying, that, in consideration of the great expence that both himself and his father have been at, and the losses they have sustained, in making establishments and carrying on these a cow fishery in the Magdalene Islands, the said islands may be granted to him in preference to any other person, or that the person, to whom they may be granted, shall be obliged to reimburse him for the very usefull and necessary buildings and improvements erected and made there.
The irony of Samuel Gridley’s 1777 complaint about “New England schooners” was that by that time his father had become a colonel in the Continental Army. Richard Gridley was in fact the first commander of the American artillery, starting in April 1775. He had fought in some of the early skirmishes of the war, laid out the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, and was wounded in the ensuing Battle of Bunker Hill. Samuel’s younger brother Scarborough was also an officer in that artillery regiment, though not a good one.

By 1777, the colonel had been kicked upstairs to a position as Chief Engineer for the Northern Department, replaced in the field with Henry Knox. Scarborough was out of the army altogether. But Samuel was still pushing for the Crown to grant him the sole right to hunt those walruses based on family loyalty.

He didn’t get it. Within a couple of years, I understand, Samuel made his way back to Massachusetts. The London government eventually granted those islands to another, more loyal son of Boston: Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin.

I have to thank David B. Ingram, an expert on the Gridley family, for this lead. He actually found all this stuff some years ago when it was available only in printed volumes or in the actual London archives. I was following up his lead about the New England schooners when Google brought me to the British History Online site, giving me another reason to be grateful to Dave.


Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Just to confirm, it sounds like Samuel Gridley, son of the engineer/artillery officer Col. Richard Gridley, was away in London in 1775? Thus, the proof that the Capt. Samuel Gridley of the Massachusetts Artillery that fought (and ran off) at the Battle of Bunker Hill was not the son of the Colonel, but the nephew? Thanks, Derek

J. L. Bell said...

The colonel’s son Samuel probably wasn’t in London in 1775. He was probably on the Magdalen Islands or in Maine or Canada trying to exercise his exclusive claim to harvesting the seals on those islands. He may have been in Bristol, which a document from earlier in the 1770s calls his home. He told both the London and the Massachusetts government in the late 1770s that he’d been working on the Magdalen claim for years, and never described himself as an officer in the American army.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Appreciate the added info! I am in agreement with your assessment, just wanted to dot my i's and cross my t's... Thanks again!