At the risk of turning Boston 1775 into “all Major Pitcairn, all the time” (and we still haven’t addressed the whereabouts of his body), I return once more to the question of the pistols on display in Lexington that were said to belong to that British Marines officer.
As I reported earlier this week, the heraldic emblem on those pistols is actually that of the Crosbie family, and a Capt. William Crosbie was listed among the British army’s wounded officers that spring.
Nat Taylor, who’s been trying to nail down the family history of Capt. Crosbie, asked about the story behind the pistols. How good is the evidence that they really came from a British officer unhorsed on 19 Apr 1775? How did they come into the hands of descendants of Gen. Israel Putnam, who wasn’t in Massachusetts that day? How did they come back to Lexington?
The evidence for the traditional provenance looks quite solid. The first mention of those pistols that I could find appeared in Samuel Swett’s 1818 addition to David Humphreys’s An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam. The very same paragraph that discusses how “a black soldier named Salem” killed Pitcairn then goes on to say:
It was he [Pitcairn] who caused the first effusion of blood at Lexington. In that battle his horse was shot under him, while he was separated from his troops; with presence of mind he feigned himself slain; his pistols were taken from his holsters, and he was left for dead, when he seized the opportunity and escaped.A footnote then adds, “This trophy afterwards belonged to General Putnam, and yet remains in his family, from whom we have the above anecdote.”
Nine years later, Ezra Ripley supplied more detail in A History of the Fight at Concord:
From this time, there was a general though not entire cessation of firing, until the enemy had entered the bounds of Lexington, when Capt. [John] Parker’s company attacked the British from the woods on the south of the road. When the enemy were rising Fiske’s hill in the west part of Lexington, they were very hardly pressed, the Americans having run forward and placed themselves advantageously behind trees and fences. The British faced about, and a very spirited and bloody contest ensued. Here Maj. Pitcairn was wounded and unhorsed: his horse, pistols, &c. were taken.And Ripley has his own footnote:
The horse was taken to Concord and sold at Auction. Capt. Nathan Barrett bought the pistols, and afterwards offered them to Gen. [George] Washington, but he not accepting them, they were given to Gen. Putnam.We know the Barrett family, headed by Col. James Barrett, was deeply involved in the events at Concord that day. And it makes sense that the Putnam family didn’t know or preserve the detail that their ancestor wasn’t the first choice to receive the pistols. We appear, therefore, to have independent sources corroborating each other. (Note, however, that the Ripley account means Putnam did not have the pistols at Bunker Hill, as some later authors say; Washington didn’t arrive in Boston until July 1775, so Barrett couldn’t have tried to give him the guns until then.)
William Cutter’s Life of Israel Putnam, published in 1859, reported of the guns: “They are still in the possession of one of his grandsons, John P. Putnam, Esq., of Western New York. They are represented as being of exquisite workmanship.” So Cutter learned about them but didn’t see them.
John P. Putnam’s widow Elizabeth loaned the pistols to Lexington for its centennial observance of the battle in 1875. According to Mary E. Hudson, writing in 1900, she had no children to pass them on to. The Secretary of War made noises about buying the pistols, and in 1880 the Lexington historian Charles Hudson [father of Mary?] said Elizabeth Putnam had “several liberal offers in coin” to buy the guns. But she decided to donate them to the town of Lexington, and there they remain.
So the only doubtful part of the pistols’ legend was the most questionable part from the start: how people could be so sure that they came from Maj. Pitcairn as opposed to some other, less notorious British officer unhorsed in the battle. After all, the man didn’t stick around to give autographs.
Speaking of autographs, though, I came across another detail of those pistols while researching this post. Yankee Magazine‘s July/August 2007 issue reported: “These foliate-engraved, ram’s-head-butted pistols bear Pitcairn’s monogram or initials amid the scrollwork.” Or is that wishful looking?