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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Friday, April 17, 2009

John Lowell: the man with the trunk

On 19 Apr 1775, John Lowell was in Lexington with John Hancock. Near dawn he and Paul Revere hastily carried Hancock’s truck containing sensitive Massachusetts Provincial Congress papers out of Buckman’s tavern so the approaching British troops wouldn’t find it. (Those troops weren’t looking for it, but Lowell and Revere didn’t know that.)

Revere left little information about Lowell. In his 1775 deposition about the day he referred only to “another man” fetching the trunk with him. When Revere wrote a more detailed account for the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap in 1798, he referred to “a Mr. Lowell, who was a clerk to Mr. Hancock.”

In Paul Revere’s Ride, David H. Fischer described Lowell as “a young Boston acquaintance” of the silversmith, and later referred to him as “young Lowell.” I imagined a young man, perhaps even legally still a minor in his first counting-house job, tasked with wrestling Col. Hancock’s trunk to safety. Unfortunately, once I looked into Lowell’s identity, I had to discard that theory.

John Lowell (1740-1793) was in his mid-thirties in 1775, only a few years younger than Revere and Hancock. He was apparently born in Charlestown, but moved across the river to enter business in Boston. Lowell married a daughter of selectman John Scollay in 1768, and his sister married John Hancock’s little brother Ebenezer. (Scollay’s daughter Mercy was engaged to Dr. Joseph Warren in 1775, showing how tightly connected this crowd could be.)

What’s more, this John Lowell was politically active and connected. He dined with the Sons of Liberty in 1769, and helped to promote a boycott of tea in 1770. Three years later, he was still working against the tea tax in the North End Caucus and probably as a volunteer patrolling Griffin’s wharf to make sure the tea ships weren’t unloaded. (Check out the handwritten list of names; I think “John Lowl” or “Lowel” means this Lowell.)

Lowell continued to be in the middle of events after the war began. On 5 June he wrote from Charlestown to Lydia Hancock, John’s aunt, about how it would be hard to get anything more out of their mansion on Beacon Hill. Twelve days later, Charlestown itself was in flames. In early 1776, documents show, Lowell was “Deputy Secretary, pro tem.,” for the Massachusetts Council.

Lowell and Revere must have known each other well. Not only were they part of the same political groups, but they were both active in the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons. In 1775 Revere presumably didn’t mention Lowell’s name to protect him, but I can’t figure out why he wrote so vaguely of the man in 1798.

Before he died, John Lowell became the first teller and later the cashier of the Massachusetts Bank. Those were prestigious posts in the nascent American financial sector.

In the meantime, Lowell’s first cousin from Newburyport, also named John Lowell (1743-1802), had become a very prominent and wealthy lawyer and then judge. That man’s descendants founded the cotton mills in the town eventually named after them. Judge John Lowell was a lukewarm Loyalist when the Revolution began, but managed his career so successfully that his memory has almost completely eclipsed that of his cousin.

Yet John Lowell of Charlestown was actually on Lexington common as the shooting began, working to protect the Provincial Congress’s secrets. At least that moment of his life is reenacted each year, as shown above in the thumbnail image above, from a photo by Ho Yin Au.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always wanted to find out more about this! Thanks for the writeup and the link back to my picture.