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, July 31, 2009

Photographs from Minute Man N.H.P. Reenactment

Photographer Juliette Carignan of Belmont kindly alerted me to her gallery of handsome photographs from this summer’s “Now We Are One” reenactment at Minute Man National Historical Park. Above is Bob Allegretto as one of the mounted officers trying to organize the Continental Army there.

In addition, Juliette’s father Gerry Carignan has made some galleries of the same event available for public viewing, including this image of a young colonial.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Looking for Walter Graham, alias unknown

Don Hagist’s British Soldiers, American Revolution blog invited us to help solve a mystery:

If anyone can find details of a Vermont school teacher thought or known to have been a British deserter – either named Graham or with a background that suggests a changed name – this author would appreciate hearing of it.
What would be the significance of such a man? Read the whole story.

“Gossiping about the Gores” Now Online!

In January, I had the honor of speaking at Old South Meeting House in a series of lunchtime lectures on the Loyalists of the Revolution. My talk was “Gossiping about the Gores,” telling the stories of the family of decorative painter and paint merchant John Gore and his many children.

After participating in political protests against Parliament’s new taxes in the 1760s, John Gore sided with the Crown in 1774. As a result, he sailed away with the British military in 1776. But his wife and children stayed behind; in fact, several of the younger generation were very active Patriots. In addition to that political division, the family also had to deal with business challenges, riots, sudden death, stolen cannons, and at least one dicey marriage. Intrigued?

My talk has now been archived in audio form at the WGBH Forum. The videotape ran into technical problems, I understand, but really you didn’t miss anything. In fact, I can offer much better visuals than me talking.

Above is part of John Singleton Copley’s picture of the Gore children in the mid-1750s; John, Jr., is on the left, and Samuel on the right. The full image, including two older sisters, appears on Flickr and The Atheneum, and the original is at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Below is part of the handout I prepared for the talk and alluded to a few times. It charts out John and Frances Gore’s many children and their spouses. Clicking on the image should take you to a larger version. Download and follow along!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Moral of the Story

From The Brother’s Gift: Or, the Naughty Girl Reform’d, published in London by Francis Newbery in 1776 and reprinted ten years later in Worcester without compensation to the author by Isaiah Thomas. It’s always good to take moral lessons from pirated books.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Richard Stockton’s Release Date

Back when I was writing about Richard Stockton, the Continental Congress delegate from New Jersey who signed the Declaration of Independence, was captured in late 1776, and then signed a commitment of loyalty to the Crown, I couldn’t figure out exactly how long he had been in captivity. Documents showed that he was captured about 30 Nov–1 Dec 1776, and he was back home by 8 Feb 1777.

Todd W. Braisted, who maintains the stellar Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies website, had a better answer in his files, so he’s today’s Boston 1775 guest blogger. In response to a comment from me about this question on the Revlist, Todd wrote:


This document may shed some light on the subject:

Lord [Richard] and General [William] Howe having granted a full pardon to Richard Stockton, Esq, by which he is Intitled to all his property, and he having informed that his horse Bridle & Saddle was taken from the ferry by some of the people under your command, you will upon receipt of this restore the said Horse &c and such other of his Effects as shall come within your department to the said Mr. Stockton at the house of John Covenhoven in Monmouth I am Sir yours &c.

James Webster
Lt. Col. 33d Regt.

Perth Amboy
Decemr. 29, 1776

To Coll. Elisha Lawrence
Of the Loyall Jersey Volunteers
(Source: New Jersey State Archives, Dept. of Defense Manuscripts, Loyalist Mss, No. 192-L.)

Occasionally there is confusion when the name Richard Stockton is discussed, as there was a New Jersey Loyalist by the name of Richard Witham Stockton.

This man was a Loyalist from the start, joining the British on Staten Island on 3 August 1776 and initially being commissioned captain in the New Jersey Volunteers. By early December he was promoted to major in the 6th Battalion of the corps.

Taken prisoner at Bennett’s Neck, near New Brunswick, on 18 February 1777, Stockton was marched in irons to Philadelphia and paraded through the streets to “The Rogue’s March.” There was discussion of putting him and the other officers captured at the same time on trial for their lives, until Washington put a stop to it, fearing retaliation.

Stockton and his officers were confined in Philadelphia Jail, until moved to York and then by October 1777 the jail at Carlisle, where they complained of close confinement, where they complained the air was “affecting the body with strange sensations and destroying of our healths...” Stockton and his officers, along with the remaining rank & file still alive, were exchanged between August and October 1778.

The battalions of New Jersey Volunteers being reduced from six to four, Stockton had no command to return to and was reduced upon half pay. In early 1780 he and Captain Robert Richard Crowe, a New Jersey Loyalist & half-pay officer in the Black Pioneers, were involved in an incident that resulted in the death of a miller named Amberman on Long Island. Stockton was court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to death. He spent months in the provost in New York City until eventually pardoned by the King himself.

One could make the argument that his wartime experience was rather more severe than his more famous namesake.

So the signer Richard Stockton was in British custody slightly less than one month. On 30 December his son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush, still believed him to be “a prisoner with Gen Howe,” but by then he had actually been pardoned. Thanks, Todd!

(I’m especially tickled by the fact that New Jersey has papers for a Department of Defense.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Nailing Down Mount Whoredom

One of the mysteries of great importance that Boston 1775 has poked through is the term “Mount Whoredom,” used by British officers in 1775-76 to describe a promontory west of Boston Common. That area became the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Beacon Hill.

As Christopher Lenney and I tracked down, there was a landmark of the same name in greater London, near the Royal Artillery training ground. So was that name brought across the Atlantic by the British officers themselves? Or was it local?

Recently a Boston 1775 commenter alerted me to this entry in the diary of Judge Samuel Sewall back in 1715:

Monday, Augt. 8. Set out at 11. at night on Horseback with Tho. Wallis to inspect the order of the Town. Constable Eady, Mr Allen, Salter, Herishor Simson, Howel, Mr John Marion. Dissipated the players at Nine Pins at Mount Whoredom.

Benjamin Davis, Chairmaker, and Jacob Hasy were two of them. Reproved Thomas Messenger for entertaining them.
So Bostonians were referring to Mount Whoredom many decades before the Revolution, and it was already a site of iniquity—of sorts. On this night the worst behavior the Puritan authorities found was “Nine Pins.” (Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!)

I’ll also quote a letter from Samuel Blachley Webb to Silas Deane, dated 16 Oct 1775:
in my last I mentioned the building the flat Bottom Boats which are now almost compleated and the men are daily exercising in them, such as learning to Row—paddle—land & clime a precipice & form immediately for Action,—they behave much beyond expectation,—this exercise will be of great service if ever we land on the shore of our Enemies, which it seems they much fear as they have hall’d up another Frigate in the Bay back of Mount Whoredom
This amphibious-landing training came a few months before my earlier example of American commanders using the term. Finding additional examples from 1775 will show the name to be even more established in America.

So what’s the full story of Boston’s “Mount Whoredom”? Was that hill:
  • named for a similar hill near London? (London certainly has a livelier night life than Puritan Boston.)
  • the inspiration for naming the hill in London? (The Boston usage is documented earlier, after all.)
  • named after a common term for a red-light district throughout the British Empire? (In that case, there should be more examples out there.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Learning about the Treaty of Watertown

I’ve been discussing the negotiating that led up to the Treaty of Watertown in July 1776, and how it intersected with news of the Declaration of Independence. This page offers links to an image of that treaty and a transcription of its text. It’s said to be the first diplomatic pact that the new U.S. of A. entered into.

However, this “Treaty of Watertown” isn’t discussed in many chronicles of the American Revolution. In fact, the phrase doesn’t appear in any titles in Google Books’s database before the 1990s. I was therefore dubious about its place in history.


I wondered if this was simply a pact between Massachusetts and local Native nations which by coincidence got signed shortly after U.S. independence. Oh, those Watertown folks, I thought—puffing up the importance of a document that happened to be signed in their town.

But the text of the treaty makes two things explicit:
  • Massachusetts and the other United Colonies had just become independent from Great Britain. Indeed, it appears that the Mi’kmaq and Malecite representatives held off on formalizing their alliance until the United States officials felt they were legally able to do so.
  • James Bowdoin and his fellow Council members signed the agreement as “We the Governors of the said State of Massachusetts Bay and on behalf of said States, and the other United States of America.” Massachusetts had undertaken to speak for the entire alliance represented at the Continental Congress.
So I’m sorry I ever doubted those Watertown folks. The document wasn’t known as the Treaty of Watertown at the time, it appears, and its effects were limited, but it was the new nation’s first treaty.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Independence Proclaimed in Watertown and Boston

On 16 July 1776, James Bowdoin and the Massachusetts Council were continuing negotiations with Ambroise Saint-Aubin and other representatives of the Malecites and Mi’kmaqs about how those Native nations might ally with the Continental cause. On that day, the negotiating record states, Bowdoin shared a significant piece of news from Philadelphia:

The St. John’s & Mickmac Tribes are now our Brothers, and are become one people with the United Colonies—Those Colonies have lately by their Great Council at Philadelphia declared themselves free and independent States, by the Name of the United States of America.—

The Certain News of it and the Declaration itself are just come to us and we are glad of this opportunity to inform you, our Brothers of it.—The said Great Council the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of their Intentions do in the name and by the Authority of the good people of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united Colonies are and of right ought to be Free and Independent States...
And Bowdoin continued reading the last clause of the Declaration—the one that had legal meaning.

The meeting record says, “Here the printed Declaration at large was produced to the Indians, and the Interpreter Mr. [Job] Prince fully explained it to them.” The response of Saint-Aubin (referred to in these records as Ambruis or Ambrose Var) was translated as, “We like it well.”

Bowdoin went on:
This is the declaration of the United States of America. You and we therefore have now nothing to do with Great Britian[.] We are wholly separated from her and all the former Friendship and Connection with her are now dissolved. The United States now form a long and Strong Chain; and it is made longer and stronger by our Brethren of the St. John’s & Mickmac Tribes joining with us; and may Almighty God never suffer this Chain to be broken—

In pursuance and in full Conformation of what has in these Conferences been agreed upon between us, we now lay before you certain Articles of Alliance and Friendship, which if you approve of them we propose shall be mutually signed, viz, by you in behalf of the St. John’s & Mickmac Tribes on the one part; and by us in behalf of the united States of America on the other part.
Bowdoin held out the treaty and said, “This is the Treaty to be read to you. If you approve of it, it will be fairly written [i.e., copied neatly] and brought here again to be Signed by you and us.—I shall desire one of my Brothers to read it to you being obliged myself to go to Boston.” He then shook hands with the Native leaders and left.

Benjamin Greenleaf read the pact, Prince interpreted it, and the Malecite and Mi’kmaq leaders said they were ready to sign. The conference then adjourned for the treaty document to be copied.

The record for Wednesday, 17 July says, “The Council and the Indian Delegates being met, Duplicates of the Treaty fairly written were produced and signed and exchanged.” However, the official text of that treaty carries the date of “the Nineteenth day of July In the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Six.” Why the discrepancy? Perhaps because Bowdoin wasn’t available to add his signature until the 19th, or perhaps lawyers felt independence had to be proclaimed officially in Massachusetts before the treaty could take effect. Or perhaps the meeting record is in error, and should say the 19th.

On 18 July, “the Committee of Council”—quite possibly including Bowdoin—and many other Massachusetts officials gathered in the Council Chamber of the State House, as the American Gazette newspaper reported. “At One o’Clock the Declaration was proclaimed by the Sheriff of the County of Suffolk [William Greenleaf, assisted by Col. Thomas Crafts], which was received with great Joy expressed by three Huzzas from Concourse of People assembled on the Occasion.” A nineteenth-century portrayal of that event appears above, courtesy of the History Place.

TOMORROW: The significance of the “Watertown Treaty.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Declaration Arrives in Massachusetts

As I described yesterday, on 10 July 1776 the Massachusetts Council sat down in Watertown with men representing the Malecite (Wolastoqiyik) and Mi’kmaq nations from what would become Maine and New Brunswick, to discuss an alliance during the Revolutionary War. An unusually detailed record of their discussion appears in the Documentary History of the State of Maine, volume 24, starting on page 165.

Boston merchant and politician James Bowdoin was then President of the Council, and the record quotes him as starting out: “As Some of you speak French, we have desired Mr. Job. Prince who speaks French also to Interpret what shall be Said at this Conference: And we have appointed Mr. John Avery as clerk to take Minutes of it.” In addition, “Colo. [William] Lithgow who understands the Indian Language was desired to assist as interpreter.”

The leader of the Malecites, Ambroise Saint-Aubin, responded, “We like it well.” Or rather, that was how his response was translated. He was credited with saying similar things at other times, so it was probably a general formula of approval. He also seems to have spoken a lot of the time for the entire Native embassy.

The conversation went on for a few days, with the Massachusetts officials quizzing the Natives about how many fighting men they could supply, and the Mi’kmaq and Malecites listing their conditions for joining the American cause. On 13 July, the General Court (the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature) adjourned for the month.

On 14 July, it appears, the first copies of the Declaration of Independence reached Massachusetts. Worcester claims that Isaiah Thomas read the document publicly there on that day. That statement seems to be based on a statement in the biography of Thomas that his grandson Benjamin Franklin Thomas wrote for an 1874 reissue of The History of Printing in America. But see if you can spot the problem:

While on a visit to Worcester, July 24th, 1776, he read from the porch of the South Church to an assembly consisting of almost the entire population of that and adjoining towns, the declaration of independence. . . . The declaration was received with every demonstration of joy and confidence. The King's arms were taken from the Court House and burned to ashes. The sign was removed from the King's Arms tavern and a joyful celebration had there in the evening...
A copy of this book in Google Books actually has a handwritten note changing “July 24th” to “July 14th.” Because the 24th was days after the well documented public reading of the Declaration in Boston, which would make Thomas and Worcester afterthoughts.

Thomas had no official government standing—indeed, from the way his grandson wrote, he wasn’t even living in Worcester at the time. But as a printer, he received the news first. As a Patriot activist, he was enthusiastic about it. And as a tall man, he probably didn’t have a lot of people objecting to him reading what he wanted to read. The 14th was a Sunday, making it likely that people would indeed have been at the meetinghouse. I’d like to find a contemporary reference to Thomas’s reading, but haven’t so far.

In any event, on 16 July the Declaration was the front-page item of the American Gazette, a newspaper printed at Ezekiel Russell’s shop in Salem, so we know it had gotten that far by then. And on the same afternoon, the document figured in the negotiations at Watertown.

TOMORROW: How the Declaration changed the negotiations.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

September Seminar at Fort Ti

Early registration for Fort Ticonderoga’s Sixth Annual Seminar on the American Revolution, to take place 25-27 Sept 2009, closes on 1 August. Download the program and registration form here.

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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Search for the Diana

The Associated Press reported on a new effort to locate the Royal Navy’s ship Diana, its first naval casualty of the Revolutionary War. Steve LeBlanc’s dispatch reads:

Chelsea Creek... separates the city of Chelsea from the East Boston neighborhood of Boston. Today the river is plied by oil tankers and is home to a landscape dotted with the city's iconic tripledeckers.

But more than 200 years ago, the creek was the site of one of the earliest and least-remembered engagements of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Chelsea Creek was also the first naval engagement of the American Revolution.

For two days in May 1775 [specifically, 27-28 May], British Redcoats and members of the Continental Army battled up and down the waterway.

The British were trying to reach farmers who would still trade food and livestock. The revolutionary forces were trying to deny them those resources.

As the fighting raged, the British sailed the Diana up the river to provide reinforcement. For a while it worked. Then the tide turned, literally, and the Diana found itself run aground in the mud despite the best efforts of British troops to free it.

An unknown number of redcoats died in the fighting. The rest fled, leaving the ship behind. The Continental Army forces took what they could and torched the rest. . . .

Now, Massachusetts has received a $48,300 grant from the National Park Service to preserve the battlefield where the Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought.

State researchers will use the money to pull together all they know about the battle, fill in what blanks they can, and then try to match that narrative to the existing landscape. And maybe dig up the remnants of the Diana along the way.
Here’s the same story as reported in London by the Telegraph; compare and contrast. And here’s the state’s press release, saying that the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources will spearhead this effort.

Here are a couple of contemporaneous accounts of this fight. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress reported only three of its soldiers wounded, and couldn’t estimate British military’s casualties. That didn’t stop the 8 June 1775 New York Journal from reporting 30 enemy dead, probably a wild exaggeration. Records from the British warship Somerset indicate that seamen George Williams and William Crocker died.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creationist Tries to Claim Thomas Jefferson as Ally

American ideologues of all stripes frequently claim that they’re following in the tradition of the nation’s founders. Some will even suggest that certain prominent statesmen of 1776 would support their cause, even though those men were obviously never able to consider the issue in the present context. (Such claims rarely extend to early American politicians who aren’t famous.)

Last week in the Boston Globe, creationist Stephen C. Meyer topped all such claims. In an essay on the opinion page Meyer wrote:

For too long, an aspect of [Thomas] Jefferson’s visionary thought has been ignored, hidden away as too uncomfortable for public discussion—his support for intelligent design.

In 1823, when materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating, Jefferson wrote to John Adams and insisted that the scientific evidence of design in nature was clear: “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” It was on empirical grounds, not religious ones, that he took this view.
To start at the top, Meyer’s suggestion that Jefferson’s theistic vision of the world has been “ignored” and “hidden away” is ludicrous. Scholars have written many books about Jefferson’s religious ideas. Like almost all Enlightenment gentlemen, he believed that a divine force created the universe, and that nature reflected its workings. Even evolutionary biologist and champion of atheism Richard Dawkins has said that in Jefferson’s time “the argument from design...was the only powerful argument for the existence of a creator.”

Meyer then states that “materialist evolutionary ideas had long been circulating” in 1823. In publishing his article, Meyer didn’t specify that he has a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science (rather than, say, biology itself). That history background makes it hard to understand why he neglected to mention the crucial “evolutionary ideas” Jefferson didn’t have available to him. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace didn’t describe their hypothesis of natural selection until 1859. The supporting evidence of an extensive fossil record, hereditary patterns, and genes came even later.

Thus, Jefferson never had a chance to consider the most fundamental ideas of modern biology or the best evidence for it. For Meyer to cast Jefferson as a creationist like himself is therefore akin to claiming that the third President would support only organic farming—after all, that’s the only type of agriculture he had his enslaved laborers practice. Or that Jefferson would oppose nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the mumps vaccine—he undoubtedly never wrote a word in favor of any of those things! 

Folks interested in Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about the history of life on Earth in the context of his time—rather than within a religious polemic—might be more interested in The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, published this year by the Geological Society of America. Prof. Stephen M. Rowland contributed a chapter on Jefferson’s ideas, specifically how he clung “to an eighteenth-century, completeness-of-nature paradigm, after nearly all European and American intellectuals had moved on to a very different view of the history of life on Earth.” Here’s a summary of a paper that fed into that chapter. 

Rowland describes how Jefferson resisted the idea of frequent and recurring extinctions because it was incompatible with his view of the universe as complete. Most “old-Earth” creationists today accept such extinctions—they simply see them as guided by a divine force. Meyer, not surprisingly, doesn’t note that difference when he tries to claim Jefferson for his team. Nor does he recognize that Jefferson is an example not of educated creationism but of the folly of rejecting ideas supported by scientific evidence because they conflict with one’s religious beliefs. 

Monday, July 20, 2009

Farewell to the Founder of AmericanRevolution.org

Ed St. Germain, who launched the AmericanRevolution.org website in 1999, died early this month at the age of sixty-three. St. Germain was a U.S. Navy corpsman in the Vietnam War, and later a Deputy District Attorney in California. Researching American life in the eighteenth century was his longtime passion.

St. Germain was early to recognize the world wide web as a way for historians, especially amateur historians, to share information with other researchers. AmericanRevolution.org offers links to many historical resources and reenacting groups, and served as a repository for people’s essays. Before Google Books came along, it was up to individuals like St. Germain to do the grunt work of providing a full transcript of Dr. James Thacher’s Military Journal of the American Revolutionary War or page images of The Compleat Letter Writer.

I never met St. Germain, but I participated in online discussions with him and pointed to his site several times. It turns out, per his San Bernardino Sun obituary, that we had other things in common. He worked for many years in Riverside, California, where I was born, and it looks like we have common ancestors in John and Elizabeth Howland of Plymouth.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dorringtons Accused of “Blowing Up Flies”

As I quoted back here, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded that on 14 July 1775:

Dorrington his son and daughter and the nurse for blowing up flies in the evening, they are charged with giving signals in this way to the army without.
Though Newell didn’t record this detail, William Dorrington was the keeper of the smallpox hospital in the west end of town, and therefore answered to the selectmen. Presumably “the nurse” worked at the hospital as well.

The Dorrington party were examined in court on 18 and 19 July and dismissed on the 26th. Fellow prisoner Peter Edes later wrote a list of nasty acts by the prison officials that included: “Also three dollars was demanded of Dorrington, and the provost kept his bed and bedding six days, and then delivered them up.”

A few months back John A. Nagy, an author who’s looking into Revolutionary War espionage, asked me what I thought “blowing up flies” meant. The Dorringtons’ fellow prisoners used that phrase and called the family “the Fly blowers,” so apparently it didn’t strike them as odd or in need of explanation.

I found another use of the phrase in the Annual Register for 1794, which gives a clearer sense of the act:
Brighthelmstone. A dreadful accident happened yesterday at Hove, in consequence of the inadvertency of a boy who was attempting to blow up flies with gunpowder, at a public-house. He had formed a train, for this purpose, across the side of the room, at the end of which stood a closet containing a great quantity of powder. A spark of the former unfortunately got among the latter, and, such were the dreadful consequences of the explosion, that the boy had one of his eyes blown out, and his face most shockingly mangled.

Two soldiers have likewise suffered so much by the same, that their lives are despaired of. There were several more in the apartment, who escaped unhurt. That part of the room, however, where the gunpowder stood, was intirely knocked down by the violence of the shock, and the house considerably damaged.
So it looks like “blowing up flies” meant exactly what it looks like: using gunpowder to set off small explosions in order to kill flies. A lot of flies, I hope, given the trouble and risk involved. Given that cleansing the smallpox hospital involved “smoking” the rooms and linens, however, perhaps people thought explosions could kill two types of bugs with one blast.

No doubt the besieged British garrison was on edge and suspicious about explosions in town. And the Dorringtons were “blowing up flies” at night, out on the side of the peninsula closest to the Continental troops in Cambridge. So they might have been lucky to be let out so quickly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

“Where the Small Pox has been for sometime past”

In December 1774, Boston selectmen learned that children in three British officers’ families were recovering from the smallpox—possibly after receiving the disease by inoculation. They wanted to respond quickly. But they heard the news on on a Saturday evening, and weren’t supposed to do business on Sunday.

The selectmen therefore gathered on “Sabbath Evening” and drafted an advertisement for those weekly newspapers that appeared on Monday. Here’s the text from the Boston Evening-Post:

The Publick are here by informed, that there are now but three People in the Hospital at New Boston infected with the Small Pox, who will probably be dismissed from thence this Week; that on Saturday information was given that the Wife of Mr. [Trotter] Hill, Surgeon of the 59th Regiment and three of their Children in a House in Hanover Street, near the head of Cold Lane, also two Children of Lieut. [John] Clark’s of said Regiment, under the same Roof, have the Distemper together, with three Children of Capt. [James] Figg’s of the 59th Regiment, in a House down a Yard opposite the White Horse [tavern], South End:—

As it has been suggested that the eleven Children received the Infection by Inoculation, the Inhabitants may be assured, that such Measures will be pursued with the Delinquents, for the present and future safety of the Town and Country as the Laws of the Land require.
But the selectmen didn’t have a lot of legal options. According to their 19 December discussion:
The Selectmen deliberated on the expediency of removing the Persons infected, from Capt. Clarkes in Hanover Street and Capt. Figs House opposite the White Horse who refused their consent for a removal, and considering the doubtfulness of the Law as to impowering the Selectmen to remove any Person contrary to their consent—therefore Voted that Fences be put up in the Street near the Infected Houses, and that a Flag be hung out in each House to give notice of the Distemper.
The selectmen apparently went to Gen. Thomas Gage and ask that the military use its own resources to look after its sick dependents. The following week they could announce:
No Inhabitant [i.e., local] has hitherto taken the Distemper, & by the care of his Excellency the Governor a Transport is provided for the reception of any Persons Belonging to the Army who should hereafter appear to have the Symptoms of that Disorder
And indeed on 27 December, when the selectmen heard about another case in the officers’ households, the patient didn’t end up in the province hospital:
Information was given Yesterday by Dr. [Charles] Jarvis that a Maid Servant in Lieut. Clarkes House in Hannover where the Small Pox has been for sometime past, was broke out with the Small Pox; She was by consent of the master and the Order of Collo. Hammilton put on hoard the Hospital Ship in the Harbour.
The same day, Dr. Charles Jarvis reported that the “Davis McGraws & Jacksons Children” were well enough to go home safely. But another person didn’t leave the hospital in such fortunate circumstances:
One George Baldwin a Soldier sent to the Hospital from the Barracks in King Street, died on the 13th. Inst [i.e., of this month], when Mr. [William] Barrett had orders to bury him in the Night, carrying his Corps over the Hill to the Burying Ground at the bottom of the Common.
On 4 January, the outbreak appeared to be over. The selectmen stated:
Information having been given that the Hospital at New Boston is now sufficiently smoked & cleansed Mr. Will. Darrington the Keeper had leave for himself & Family to go abroad as usual & Orders were given him accordingly.
But only one week later “a Lad of one Kings a Rigger at the North End” came down with the disease, and he and his mother moved into the hospital. The disease had reached the civilian population, and would continue to spread slowly but steadily through 1775 and 1776. This was an early stage of the continent-wide smallpox epidemic that Elizabeth Fenn discusses in Pox Americana.

TOMORROW: Back to the arrest of William Dorrington. (Remember that?)

Friday, July 17, 2009

“Neither...would own that they had received the Infection by Inoculation.”

Even though Boston’s selectmen reacted quickly to the news on 22 Nov 1774 that children in two soldiers’ families had come down with the smallpox, they weren’t quick enough. The published records aren’t clear, but it looks like on 26 November there was more bad news:

Dr. [Charles] Jarvis informed the Selectmen that a Child at Magrath in Marshalls Lane the Soldiers House where the other Children were sent from had undoubted Symptoms of the Small Pox—upon which the Child was carried to the Hospital at New Boston by its Father
The next day another child in the same house—now referred to as “Mrs. Megros in Marshalls Lane”—fell ill. This child belonged to Lt. Dennett-Milton Woodward of the 59th. That was the same regiment that the soldiers were in.

The disease began to run its course in the first infected children, Dr. Jarvis also reported. They had a standard response, as in this example from 17 December:
Dr. Jarvis who has the care of the Hospital at West Boston haveg. reported to the Selectmen that three of the Children sent there with the Small Pox vizt. two of one Burkins, and one of Magrath Are now recovered, and that in his Opinion they might be permitted to leave the Hospital with safety to the Inhabitants.

Orders were accordingly given to Mr. William Darrington Keeper of said Hospital to permit their leaving it so soon as he had well smoked and cleansed them, and fresh Suits of Clothing were provided for them.
However, that evening the selectmen heard more disturbing news:
Information being given by Dr. Latham that the Small Pox was broke out in Dr. [Trotter] Hills House in Hanover Street, and at Capt. Figgs opposite the White Horse [tavern] South End—Dr. Jarvis was directed to examine into the Circumstances of these Families & Report their state.

Dr. Jarvis Reported, that he had visited these Familys, & found that Dr. Hills Wife & three Children were nearly passed thro’ the Small Pox and that several of Capt. Figgs Children had the Disorder—but that neither the Capt. nor Dr. would own that they had received the Infection by Inoculation.
It’s obvious that Jarvis and the town officials thought that Hill, an army surgeon, had inoculated his children and perhaps those of Capt.-Lt. James Figge. (The captain’s name is transcribed in the published town records as “Trig.” However, in the newspapers and lists of army officers it appears as some variation on “Figge.”)

Such inoculation carried the risk of spreading the disease, and was therefore supposed to take place only under controlled conditions. Even then, many people distrusted the process; earlier in 1774, Marbleheaders had rioted and destroyed a smallpox hospital that was about to open in their harbor because they feared its patients would spread the disease. And now Boston’s highest officials suspected Dr. Hill had decided to carry out the procedure on his own authority, ignoring local rules—a metaphor for everything the Patriots resented about the government in London.

TOMORROW: The selectmen look for a response.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Boston’s Selectmen Fight the Smallpox

On 22 Nov 1774, the Boston selectmen learned that smallpox had broken out in town. Frightening as this disease was, the selectmen had procedures for limiting epidemics among the inhabitants. This outbreak became complicated, however, because it involved military families, and thus competing lines of authority.

The initial report came from the surgeon of the 59th Regiment of Foot, Dr. Trotter Hill. There were two families involved, headed by soldiers named McGrath (though spellings varied widely) and Burkins. The regiment was one of several that had arrived in Massachusetts in the preceding months.

The selectmen responded quickly:

The five Children with the Small Pox in the House of one Magraw a Soldier of the 59th Regiment [under] Collo. [Otho] Hammelton were removed this morning to the Hospital at at [sic] New Boston under the care of Mr. [William] Dorrington, the Parents of the Children consenting to the same.

Voted, that Dr. [Charles] Jarvis have the care of the Children as their Physician.

The Mother of three of the Small Pox Children, and the Father of two of them, were permitted to go into the Hospital, to attend their Children.

Agreed with Mr. Joseph Vose to supply the Hospital with Mutton for three Weeks, at 3 Coppers p. pound.
That afternoon a smaller set of selectmen continued to deal with the health crisis. They posted “a Guard...to prevent the Soldiers going into the Infected Rooms” of the house. They ordered Dorrington as keeper of the hospital to “prevent any Persons from coming in and going out of your House, unless they have our Permission,” and to “conduct in such a manner as to give satisfaction to the Sick and their Friends, at the same time that you guard against needless expences.”

Hiring William Barrett to deliver supplies to the hospital, the selectmen said he “must keep an Account of in a small Book for our Inspection.” They also ordered Barrett to treat the house where the infected families had lived to keep the disease from spreading:
You must Smoke and cleanse the Rooms of the House the Sick were taken from well with Rossom [rosin] and Brimstone, and the Bedding and other things to prevent the Infection being communicated and if you should observe that the Guard permits any Person going in without our permission, give us immediate notice there of
Smoking clothing, linen, and other goods was the standard way to prevent the spread of smallpox. I’m not sure it had any effect on the virus—perhaps the heat, dryness, or simple passage of time was helpful. More likely, the effort let people think they were doing something.

TOMORROW: The situation grows worse.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

William Dorrington: keeper of the hospital

Yesterday I quoted Boston selectman Timothy Newell recording the arrest of “Dorrington his son and daughter and the nurse” by British military authorities on 14 July 1775.

William Dorrington was one of the town of Boston’s relatively few employees. He had started to work in the public sector on 4 Nov 1761 when the selectmen appointed him “the Head or Constable of the Watch at the North end.”

On 11 June 1762, the selectmen were worried that “the Fire was not extinguished in the Ruins of the Buildings at Williams’s Court” that day, so they ordered Dorrington and several other watchmen to watch “the Fire the whole of the Night, and that they imploy themselves in throwing Water upon the same till it is quite extinguish’d.”

Dorrington left that job in the summer of 1763—perhaps the hours were getting to him. He reappears in the town records on 22 Apr 1772, when the selectmen appointed him the keeper of “the House at New Boston, being the Province Hospital.” This was on the sparsely settled western wing of the Boston peninsula. Smallpox patients were quarantined there. Dorrington and his family, who must have had the disease already, would apparently get to live in that building year-round in exchange for taking care of patients when necessary.

Dorrington reported that day that “the Hospital House at New Boston requires glazing [i.e., windows], and he was directed to apply to the Province Glazier, for the same.” He also supplied an inventory of items in the hospital, which promptly led to a list of hospital property that the previous keeper had taken with him.

On 27 April, the selectmen—including John Scollay, John Hancock, and Newell—gave Dorrington his formal charge:

We having appointed you Keeper of the Province Hospital at New Boston under our care and inspection, and delivered up to your Keeping sundry Utensils belonging to said Hospital as specified in an Inventory taken thereof. Our Orders and directions are that you take proper care of these Articles and apply and use them only for the convenience & necessitys of such sick and diseased Persons as may from time to time be Sent to you.

You must also take good care of the House and admit no unnecessary Visitors, and see that the several Apartments and Rooms for the sick are properly aired, and when any Repairs are wanted let us have speedy Information that so everything may be ready to receive any sick Persons upon the most sudden notice.
TOMORROW: How this system responded to a smallpox outbreak.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“Imprisoned some time past”

In 2007-08, I transcribed the diary of selectman Timothy Newell during the siege of Boston, but somehow I managed to miss this entry:

14th [July 1775]. Last night was awoke by the discharge of cannon on the lines—

Master James Lovell, Master [John] Leach, John—Hunt, have been imprisoned some time past—all they know why it is so is they are charged with free speaking on the public measures.

Dorrington his son and daughter and the nurse for blowing up flies in the evening, they are charged with giving signals in this way to the army without.
John Hunt was charged on 19 July with “speaking treason,” and five days later the prison provost—William Cunningham may already have held that post—added that “Mr. Hunt had hurt his puppy dog and by God he should be confined a month longer.” But that apparently didn’t sway the military authorities, and Hunt was freed on 25 July.

Lovell and Leach were schoolteachers. British officers found some letters on Dr. Joseph Warren’s body that appeared to come from a teacher inside Boston, perhaps signed with the initials “J.L.” The army arrested both men on 29 June. Leach was set free in October, but Lovell (who had in fact sent those letters) was shipped to Halifax as a prisoner in March 1776.

TOMORROW: The Dorrington family.

(Irresistible puppy courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Animal Health.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mary Greenwood Crosses the Siege Lines

On 13 July 1775, Lt. Col. Joseph Reed, military secretary to Gen. George Washington (shown here courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania), provided a pass to a woman named Greenwood allowing her to travel through the siege lines into Boston. Reed sent this note to Gen. Israel Putnam, adding precautions that “she receive no papers from anyone,” according to a précis of the commander’s papers created by the Library of Congress.

This woman was Mary Greenwood. She had been born “in some Irish garrison town in 1725,” according to her son John’s memoirs. She and ivory-turner Isaac Greenwood recorded their intention to marry in Boston on 21 Jan 1757, and they raised their children in the North End. Isaac’s apprentice Samuel Maverick was the youngest person killed in the Boston Massacre.

Mary Greenwood left Boston on 16 June 1775 to hunt down her son Johnny, who was then fifteen years old and had run away from his uncle’s up in Maine. He has joined the provincial troops as a fifer, and was more than a little startled to see his mother. That’s a story in itself, which I’ll tell one day. For now, here is his later account of her passage into besieged Boston:

One day, as I was standing by my tent, who should I see but my mother coming toward me in company with Sergeant (afterward Major) Mills.

“Well, Johnny,” said she, “I am going at last to see your father, thank God! I hope you will behave like a soldier, and who knows but what you may be a general.”

She bade me good-by, and the sergeant who had the care of conducting her to the British lines went with her to a fort on Prospect Hill, or as the enemy, believing it impregnable, had called it, Mount Pisgah. It was nothing, however, but a common dirt fort made of ground and covered with sods of grass, mounting about eight or ten iron guns, from 9- to 18-pounders, nevertheless it was strong enough for them.
John Greenwood frequently ridiculed the British army’s prowess in his memoir, not always accurately. For instance, he claimed that at Bunker Hill, “The British had ten men to our one, as history will inform you; and I was an eye-witness.” An accurate count is impossible, but the best estimates today say the British troops numbered about 3,000 and the Americans about 2,400.

Back to Mary Greenwood’s trip into Boston.
She…asked them [American officers] what she should say if the English asked her any questions about them. Their answer was: “Tell them we are ready for them at any time they choose to come out to attack us.”

My mother was then taken to the lines and walked alone from the American to the British sentry, whereupon a portion of the guard came down from Bunker Hill and escorted her into the fort. There the commanding officer, Major [John] Small, an acquaintance and friend of my father, treated her with the greatest politeness (for every person who was acquainted with him knows he was a real gentleman) and waited upon her himself to her residence in Boston, whence she was desired to attend on Governor [Thomas] Gage.
Mary Greenwood reportedly told the British commander exactly what American officers had instructed her to say. Her son insisted that Gage was “frightened” by her remarks.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

“Get a Horse for Pappa.”

In August 1776, Abigail Adams realized that if she wanted her husband John to come home from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, she would have to make the trip possible. Procuring his own horses was too hard for him—perhaps because everyone expected a big battle around New York.

So on 22 August, Abigail reported that she had convinced a neighbor named Bass—probably Joseph Bass, who had worked as John’s servant in 1775—to ride to Philadelphia with an extra horse and accompany John home. As to those horses:

I shall write to my Father to request of him that he would endeavour to procure for you a couple of Horses. I shall try some other Friends and will fix of Bass as soon as tis possible to procure Horses for you. . . .

As to applying to —— [she probably meant the Massachusetts government] for Horses, I remember the old proverb, he who waits for dead mens shooes may go barefoot. It would only lengthen out the time, and we should be no better of, than before I askd. I will have them if they are to be had at any price, and they may pay for them. I think you have done your part.
Abigail had other worries on her mind. Nabby, Charly, and Tommy Adams were still getting over their smallpox inoculations, and they wanted their father home. On 25 August, Abigail sent John this anecdote to remind him of his paternal responsibilities:
I was talking of sending for you and trying to procure horses for you when little Charles who lay upon the couch coverd over with small Pox, and nobody knew that he heard or regarded any thing which was said, lifted up his head and says Mamma, take my Dollor and get a Horse for Pappa.
In that same letter, Abigail reported some success at finding mounts:
Our Friends are very kind. My Father [the Rev. William Smith] sends his Horse and Dr. [Cotton] Tufts has offerd me an other one he had of unkle [Quincy] about 5 year old. He has never been journeys, but is able enough. Mr. Bass is just come, and says he cannot sit out till tomorrow week without great damage to his Buisness. . . . Tho I urged him to sit of [i.e., set off] tomorrow, yet the Horses will be in a better State as they will not be used and more able to perform the journey. I am obliged to consent to his tarrying till then when you may certainly expect him.

Bass is affraid that the Drs. Horse will not be able to travel so fast as he must go. He will go and see him, and in case he is not your Brother has promised to let one of his go.
Bass finally departed with the two horses on 29 August.

On 5 Sept 1776, John wrote back:
I am rejoiced that my Horses are come. I shall now be able to take a ride. But it is uncertain, when I shall set off, for home. I will not go, at present. Affairs are too delicate and critical.
I usually admire Abigail Adams more than I sympathize with her, but in this case I feel like she deserves a free swing of the frying pan.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

“Necessary to procure two Horses”

In August 1776, with the Continental Congress just having declared independence and the British army and navy massing in huge numbers around Staten Island, what was on John Adams’s mind?

Among other things, he was whining about not having a horse to ride home on. He complained in letters to his wife Abigail about how the Massachusetts Committee of Safety had supplied “an Horse and a fine chaise” for Samuel Adams, but nothing for him. Couldn’t she send him a horse and servant to Philadelphia to accompany him back home?

Of course, that meant she would have to find two horses to spare, all while keeping the farm going. And right then the family was undergoing the smallpox cure in Boston. On 12 August, Abigail told John:

And now about your returning. I am shut up here, and wholly unable to do that for you, which I might endeavour to if I was at home, and then the fate of your poor horse which I must ever lament makes it necessary to procure two Horses and a very great Scarcity there are. I think I should advice you if you could light of a good Horse, to procure one there, as you will stand in need of one when you return.
But John didn’t take the hint. He kept writing things like:
I shall conclude by repeating my Request for Horses and a servant. Let the Horses be good ones. I cant ride a bad Horse, so many hundred Miles. If our Affairs had not been in so critical a state at N. York, I should have run away before now. But I am determined now to stay, untill some Gentleman is sent here in my Room [i.e., until Massachusetts chose another delegate to replace him], and untill my Horses come.
And on 20 August:
I am so comfortable however, as to be determined to wait for a servant and Horses. Horses are so intollerably dear, at this Place, that it will not do for me to purchase one, here.
So it was up to Abigail.

TOMORROW: Abigail Adams finds a solution.

(Photo above courtesy of the Virginia Department of Agriculture.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

“One Misfortune in our family”

During his trip to attend the Continental Congress at Philadelphia in May 1775, John Adams used a mare who got spooked in New York and destroyed his father-in-law’s sulky, as described yesterday. The same horse might appear in this vignette from a little more than a year later.

On 14 July 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to John, once again in Philadelphia, with important news from their Braintree farm:

There is one Misfortune in our family which I have never mentiond in hopes it would have been in my power to have remedied it, but all hopes of that kind are at an end. It is the loss of your Grey Horse.

About 2 months ago, I had occasion to send Jonathan of an errant to my unkle Quincys (the other Horse being a plowing). Upon his return a little below the church she trod upon a rolling stone and lamed herself to that degree that it was with great difficulty that she could be got home.

I immediately sent for [neighbor] Tirrel and every thing was done for her by Baths, ointments, polticeing, Bleeding &c. that could be done. Still she continued extreem lame tho not so bad as at first.

I then got her carried to Domet but he pronounces her incurable, as a callous is grown upon her footlock joint. You can hardly tell, not even by your own feelings how much I lament her. She was not with foal, as you immagined, but I hope she is now as care has been taken in that Respect.
The last line indicates that this mare might not have been healthy enough for riding or pulling vehicles any longer, but might still pay for her keep by bringing forth a colt. But that left John Adams without a way to come home from Philadelphia.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

“Dashed the Body of the Sulky all to Pieces”

So what did John Adams have to say about the Massachusetts delegates’ entrance into New York on 7 May 1775? Unlike John Hancock and Silas Deane, he didn’t write home about how the crowd had tried to honor those men by unhitching their horses and pulling their carriages along.

For one thing, Adams didn’t have a carriage, only a “sulky,” or two-wheeled cart, borrowed from his father-in-law, the Rev. William Smith. For another, his servant Joseph Bass seems to have been riding in it alone; Adams was apparently in another delegate’s carriage. But most important, things hadn’t gone so well for him.

On 8 May 1775, John told his wife Abigail:

Jose Bass met with a Misfortune, in the Midst of some of the unnecessary Parade that was made about us. My Mare, being galled with an ugly Buckle in the Tackling, suddenly flinched and started in turning short round a Rock, in a shocking bad Road, overset the sulky which frightened her still more. She ran, and dashed the Body of the Sulky all to Pieces. I was obliged to leave my sulky, ship my Bagage on board Mr. [Thomas] Cushings Carriage, buy me a Saddle and mount on Horse back. I am thankfull that Bass was not kill'd. He was in the utmost danger, but not materially hurt.

I am sorry for this Accident, both on Account of the Trouble and Expence, occasioned by it. I must pay your Father for his sulky. But in Times like these, such Little Accidents should not affect us.
When the delegates entered Philadelphia a few days later, the Loyalist Samuel Curwen noted “John Hancock and Samuel Adams in a phaeton and pair,...John Adams and Thomas Cushing in a single horse chaise; behind followed Robert Treat Paine, and after him the New York delegation and some from the Province of Connecticut etc. etc.”

(The thumbnail above is Carl Rakeman’s vision of the Boston Post Road in 1763, painted for the Bureau of Public Roads sometime between 1921 and 1952. The man in the chaise is supposed to be Benjamin Franklin, the woman on horseback his daughter.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Entering New York in Proper Style

I’m on a trip to California right now, so I’m devoting a few days to John and Abigail Adams’s epistolary conversations about travel in 1775-76.

In May 1775, less than a month after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, John headed off to Philadelphia for the new session of the Continental Congress. He hired a young neighbor named Joseph Bass to come along as his servant, and traveled in company with the other Massachusetts delegates. The most prominent of that group were John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who had supposedly enjoyed a narrow escape from the British troops at Lexington. (I don’t think they really did.)

In Connecticut the Massachusetts linked up with some of the representatives of that colony and Rhode Island. A great crowd awaited the string of carriages and sulkies when they arrived in New York on 7 May 1775.

That evening, Hancock wrote to his fiancée, Dorothy Quincy:

When I got within a mile of the City my Carriage was stopt, and Persons appearing with proper Harnesses insisted upon Taking out my Horses and Dragging me into and through the City, a Circumstance I would not have had Taken place upon any consideration, not being fond of such Parade.

I Beg’d and Intreated that they would Suspend the Design, and ask’d it as a favour, and the Matter Subsided, but when I got to the Entrance of the City, and the Numbers of Spectators increas’d to perhaps Seven Thousand or more, they Declar’d they would have the Horses out and would Drag me themselves through the City. I repeated my Request, and I was obliged to apply to the Leading Gentlemen in the procession to intercede with them not to Carry their Designs into Execution; as it was very disagreeable to me. They were at last prevail’d upon and I preceded.
Samuel Adams’s family preserved a different memory of such an occasion—possibly this one, possibly some other time—which reflected better on their ancestor and less well on his traveling companion:
The people were attempting to take the horses from the carriage, in order to drag it themselves. Mr. Adams remonstrated against it. His companion, pleased with the intended compliment, was desirous of enjoying it, and endeavored to remove the objection of Mr. Adams, to which he at last replied: “If you wish to be gratified with so humiliating a spectacle, I will get out and walk, for I will not countenance an act by which my fellow-citizens shall degrade themselves into beasts.” This prevented its execution.
And Silas Deane of Connecticut told his wife that he’d shared in the tribute offered to all the Congress delegates:
A little dispute arose as we came near the town, the populace insisting on taking out our horses and drawing the carriages by hand. This would have relieved Mr. Hancock’s horses, for they were well tired; but mine were with difficulty managed amid the crowd, smoke and noise.
Obviously, it was a great honor to have the populace offer to pull your carriage, but it was incumbent upon you to adamantly refuse.

TOMORROW: And what was John Adams’s report on that occasion?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Abigail Adams, Investor

On Sunday the Washington Post ran an essay by Prof. Woody Holton about the successful investing strategies of Abigail Adams—which included making sure that she saw John’s letters and that he didn’t see hers until she was ready.

You could have read about Abigail Adams’s speculations here on Boston 1775 back in 2007—but only because I’d heard Woody speak about this aspect of his research a few years ago and kept my eyes open for more. His book promises to be interesting.

Armonica Concert at Newton Library, 9 July

This is a photograph of Benjamin Franklin’s musical invention, the glass armonica or harmonica. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia explains:

Franklin completed his glass armonica in 1761. (Its name is derived from the Italian word for harmony.) He didn't simply refine the idea of musical glasses, which were played much like children at the dinner table play them today, with notes being determined by the amount of water in the glass. Rather, Franklin made chords and lively melodies possible on his new instrumental invention.

Working with a glassblower in London [Charles James], Franklin made a few dozen glass bowls, tuned to notes by their varying size and fitted one inside the next with cork. Each bowl was made with the correct size and thickness to give the desired pitch without being filled with any water. Franklin also painted them so that each bowl was color-coded to a different note. A hole was put through the center of the glass bowls, and an iron rod ran through the holes. The rod was attached to a wheel, which was turned by a foot pedal. Moistened fingers touched to the edge of the spinning glasses produced the musical sounds.
For about fifty years the armonica was an established instrument, inspiring compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, and others. Then it fell out of favor. Longtime players may have been poisoned by lead in the glass, associating the instrument with madness.

On Thursday, 9 July, at 7:00 P.M., the Newton Free Library will host a free public concert of armonica music by Boston’s foremost player, Vera Meyer. She plans to dress in period costume and play a wide selection of pieces on her instrument, made by the late Gerhard Finkenbeiner. Here’s a profile of Vera at Bostonist, and a YouTube video of her playing in Harvard Square. There are also armonica recordings at Vera’s MySpace page.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Philadelphia Connection

Yesterday I reproduced much of the account of the creation of the so-called “Grand Union Flag” from Robert A. Campbell’s Our Flag, published in 1890. That book credited the design to an eccentric, unnamed professor meeting in Cambridge with Gen. George Washington, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and two other delegates to the Continental Congress.

Campbell acknowledged, “There is no record of any congressional action upon the report of this committee; nor, indeed, any record of any report made by the committee.” But remember the wife of the meeting’s host, who became secretary of their committee? Campbell wrote that he based his account “upon her notes made at the time, and upon her subsequent correspondence.”

And he claimed to have other papers from her as well:

The following memoranda is in the handwriting of the lady who made the notes of the Franklin Committee-meeting in Cambridge, and in the same hand bears this endorsement:

“By direction of Dr. Franklin, now in Paris, I made this copy of the Professor’s memoranda; and today I delivered the original of the same, and also a sealed letter (marked ‘private’ and tied up with it), into the hands of General Washington May 13, 1777.”

The following scrap in the same handwriting and evidently from a letter—but not showing either date, address nor signature—is full suggestion:

“You know how much interest I have taken in the new flag. It seems that there has been considerable attention given to the matter, in a quiet way, by some of our prominent men; and that the Professor’s design is almost universally pleasing to them. Last Friday afternoon I was invited to be present at a little gathering where the subject would be considered; and you may be sure I was greatly surprised, and not a little confused, to find myself the only woman there, while there was men around a dozen. They read the Professor’s memoranda and discussed the design. That is they one and all approved it. I explained to them how I came to be the custodian of the papers, and why they had not been sooner delivered to General Washington. The matter is finally settled, however, for the very next day the Congress here adopted the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the thirteen Colonies. And now that the matter is brought to such a satisfactory issue, you can not, I am sure, at all imagine how pleased I am with the result, and how proud I am with the accidental and humble part I have had in its consummation.”

This letter evidently refers to a meeting held on the afternoon of Friday, June 13, 1777, the day before congressional action upon the adoption of the Stars and Stripes.
Campbell never stated the name of this woman or her husband, and of course no one has produced those historical documents.

Because they never existed.

Our Flag was reprinted by a small Utah press in 1976. Its editor, in an attempt to correlate all American legends about the creation of the flag, suggested that the woman who wrote those papers, who carried the Professor’s design from Cambridge to Philadelphia, was none other than...Betsy Ross!

In late 1775, she did still have a husband, John Ross. But he was an upholsterer in Philadelphia, not the owner of a large house in Cambridge. Details, details.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Myth of the Professor’s Flag

Often the legend of the “Speech of the Unknown,” retold yesterday, is paired with another legend of an unidentified man advising the Founders, in this case about the American flag. To the conspiracy-minded, these two men must be the same. To anyone concerned with history based on contemporaneous documents and primary sources, the stories are equally ludicrous.

The oldest version of the flag story appeared in Our Flag, or the Evolution of the Stars and Stripes including the Reason to Be of the Design; the Colors, and Their Position, Mystic Interpretation Together with Selections Eloquent, Patriotic and Poetical, published by Robert A. Campbell in 1890. An extract appears on this webpage. It sets the scene this way:

In the fall of 1775, the Colonial Congress, then in session at Philadelphia, appointed Messrs. [Benjamin] Franklin, [Thomas] Lynch and [Benjamin] Harrison as a committee to consider and recommend a design for the Colonial Flag. General [George] Washington was then in camp at Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the committee went there to consult with him concerning the work in hand.
The Continental Congress did in fact appoint those three delegates as a committee to consult with the commander, but not on the flag. They met in a council of war, which also included other top generals and representatives from the New England colonies, at Washington’s headquarters on 23-24 Oct 1775. Congress’s records show that Lynch and Harrison were back in Philadelphia accepting new committee assignments in early November.

Campbell’s book differs, saying that “The committeemen arrived at Cambridge on the morning of December 13th.” And it describes three more participants in the discussion between Washington and the Congress delegates: “one of the patriotic and well-to-do citizens” of Cambridge, who hosted the visitors; that man’s wife; and
a very peculiar old gentleman who was a temporary sojourner with the family. . . . Little seems to have been known concerning this old gentleman; and in the materials from which this account is compiled his name is not even once mentioned, for he is uniformly spoken of or referred to as “the Professor.”
Since there were few colleges in North America at the time, there were very few professors, and those gentlemen were all very prominent. This man, in contrast, seems to have been some sort of anonymous professor.

After a great deal of detail that makes one wonder if Campbell was trying to fill out pages, he states that the group formed themselves into a committee to discuss the flag. Naturally, the one woman at the table becomes the secretary—this is a late nineteenth-century story, after all.

The mysterious Professor addresses the needs for a flag:
“Comrade Americans: We are assembled here to devise and suggest the design for a new flag, which will represent, at once, the principles and determination of the Colonies to unite in demanding and securing justice from the Government to which they still owe recognized allegiance. We are not, therefore, expected to design or recommend a flag which will represent a new government or an independent nation, but one which simply represents the principle that even kings owe something of justice to their loyal subjects. . . .

“General Washington, here, is a British Subject; aye, he is a British soldier; and he is in command of British troops; and they are only attempting to enforce their rights as loyal subjects of the British Crown. But General Washington will soon forswear all allegiance to everything foreign; and he will ere many months appear before his own people, the people of these Colonies, and before the world, as the general commanding the armies of a free and united people, organized into a new and independent nation.

“The flag which is now recommended must be one designed and adapted to meet the inevitable—and soon to be accomplished—change of allegiance. The flag now adopted must be one that will testify our present loyalty as English Subjects; and it must be one easily modified—but needing no radical change—to make it announce and represent the new nation which is already gestating in the womb of time; and which will come to birth—and that not prematurely, but fully developed and ready for the change into independent life—before the sun in its next summer’s strength ripens our next harvest. . . .”
Having predicted the future—without any apparent response from the officials around him—the Professor then goes on to describe the ideal source for the Continental Army’s flag:
“I refer to the flag of the English East India Company, which is one with a field of alternate longitudinal red and white stripes, and having the Cross of St. George for a union. I therefore, suggest for your consideration a flag with a field composed of thirteen equally wide, longitudinal, alternate, red and white stripes, and with the Union Flag of England for a union.”
So the same company that American Patriots were lambasting as a source of corruption just two years before, during the tea crisis, would be the best source for the new national emblem?

It’s true that the East India Company’s red and white stripes (shown above in one version) looked a lot like the stripes that would eventually be on the American flag. Almost half a century after Our Flag appeared, Sir Charles Fawcett made the same connection. However, since the company’s ships were in the Indian Ocean, not many Americans had seen that flag. (For Peter Ansoff’s interesting detective work on how the company’s flag came to appear in an engraving of the Philadelphia waterfront in 1754, scroll down this page to the American Revolution Round Table’s 4 Mar 2009 event.)

Back to Campbell’s fictional Professor. He expounds on the symbolism of the banner he’s designed:
“Such a flag can readily be explained to the masses to mean as follows: The Union Flag of the Mother Country is retained as the union of our new flag to announce that the Colonies are loyal to the just and legitimate sovereignty of the British Government. The thirteen stripes will at once be understood to represent the thirteen Colonies; their equal width will type the equal rank, rights and responsibilities of the Colonies.

“The union of the stripes in the field of our flag will announce the unity of interests and the cooperative union of efforts, which the Colonies recognize and put forth in their common cause. The white stripes will signify that we consider our demands just and reasonable; and that we will seek to secure our rights through peaceable, intelligent and statesmanlike means—if they prove at all possible, and the red stripes at the top and bottom of our flag will declare that first and last—and always—we have the determination, the enthusiasm, and the power to use force, whenever we deem force necessary.

“The alternation of the red and white stripes will suggest that our reasons for all demands will be intelligent and forcible, and that our force in securing our rights will be just and reasonable.”
Our Flag states that this design was instantly adopted, with “General Washington and Doctor Franklin giving especial approval” (since no one in 1890 really cared what Harrison or Lynch might have thought). The book describes the debut of the Professor’s first flag in Cambridge on 2 Jan 1776—Washington “with his own hands” raising the standard and the Congress delegates still on hand. (More standard accounts discussed starting here.)

In Flags of the World, Past and Present (1915), W. J. Gordon called Campbell “greatly daring” for having claimed to reproduce the Professor’s long speech verbatim, especially since it contained historical errors about the British and East India Company flags. But Gordon nevertheless retold the story—and put that speech into Franklin’s mouth!

TOMORROW: Campbell’s legend continues—in Philadelphia.