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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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ambroise Saint-Aubin Comes to Watertown

On Saturday, 18 July, the Historical Society of Watertown hosted a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and what has lately been called the “Treaty of Watertown”—two related documents from July 1776.

I didn’t mention that reenactment beforehand because:

  • I got caught up in Boston’s smallpox fight.
  • I found the description of it a little confusing.
The description appeared to combine two separate historical events: a discussion of the Declaration with ambassadors from two Native American groups in Watertown on 16 July 1776, and the public reading of the Declaration at the State House in Boston two days later. Both events took place in rooms designated the “Council Chamber,” but they were in different towns and, as it follows, different buildings. Over the next couple of days I’ll relate my understanding of what happened in Watertown that busy week.

On 10 July 1776, representatives from two Native nations from what are now Maine and New Brunswick—the Wolastoqiyik (known to the British as the Malecite, Maliseet, or St. John’s River tribe) and the Mi’kmaq—arrived in Watertown. They brought a copy of their 1760 treaty with the British imperial government and a recent letter from Gen. George Washington, asking for their cooperation in the fight against the British military.

Those Native diplomats were probably seeking the best course through the civil war that had broken out among the English-speakers. The main Malecite leader was Ambroise Saint-Aubin, referred to in Massachusetts records as Ambrose or Ambruis Var. He already felt that the British government neglected his people, and in September 1775 had traveled to the Penobscot trading post with an offer to fight against the Crown. The Mi’kmaq representatives apparently didn’t have as much authority or backing as he did because their elders eventually repudiated their negotiations.

Massachusetts’s government had been based in Watertown for several months. Even after the British military had left Boston in March, that port was still underpopulated, dilapidated, potentially ridden with smallpox, and perhaps too close to the coast for safety. The lower house of the provincial legislature, or General Court, met in Watertown’s meetinghouse. The Council, which in the absence of a governor also wielded executive power, met at Edmund Fowle’s house (shown above).

The Malecite and Mi’kmaq delegates visited both sites, but the latter was the main venue for the “Conference held at Watertown in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay between the Honble. the Council of the said Colony in behalf of said Colony, and of all the United Colonies on the one part, and the Delegates of the St Johns and Mickmac Tribes of Indians in Nova Scotia on the other part.”

TOMORROW: The discussion proceeds as the Declaration approaches.

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