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, January 26, 2009

Boston “reduced to about 3500” Civilians in Jan 1776

On 26 Jan 1776, as the siege of Boston was in its tenth month, Thomas Oliver, acting royal governor of Massachusetts, reported to the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for North America:

The Town of Boston, which in its most flourishing state might contain about 15000 Inhabitants, is now reduced to about 3500. Of this number I presume there may be one thousand [adult] males. Two hundred and fifty of which are refugees from the Country, 750 of its original male inhabitants, and 2500 women and children.

Of the 1000 males I have no doubt that 500 are truly loyal subjects, and such as have exhibited the strongest proofs of their attachment to Government. Of the remaining 500 I believe one half, viz. 250 to be as strongly attached to the Rebel interest; the other half to be mere indifferent. I should here observe that the women and children are for the greatest part families of the loyal subjects, the others having more generally sent their families out when they could not go themselves; so that the Loyal and their connections may amount to upwards of 2000.
Boston had indeed contained over 15,500 people in 1765, but fewer than 7,000 civilians in July 1775, after the siege began. By the latter date, the number of British army troops and their dependents was over 13,000, so despite the drop in civilian population the town needed even more than food than in peacetime.

Oliver’s estimate of “truly loyal [adult male] subjects” in Boston was probably on the mark. The preceding November, 480 men in Boston had signed up for the Association, a Loyalist patrol. Oliver then wrote that number contained “some few whose characters had been doubtful,” but only a few.

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