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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Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Legend of Israel Bissell

Yesterday I quoted the Brooklyn, Connecticut, copy of Joseph Palmer’s letter about the shooting at Lexington on 19 Apr 1775. Starting in the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s, authors began writing about Israel Bissell, the post rider named in that document.

Historians found Israel Bissell (1752-1823) and his brother Justis listed as joining in Capt. W. Wolcott’s company from East Windsor, Connecticut, in July 1776. He served in the army only one month, though. After the war the Bissell family moved to Middlefield, Massachusetts. Israel bought farmland, married Lucy Hancock in 1784, and fathered four children. He died in 1823 at age seventy-one, and was buried in Hinsdale.

Bissell’s gravestone in Hinman said nothing about his Revolutionary War service: “IN MEMORY of Mr. ISRAEL BISSELL, who died October 24th 1823, Aged Sev’nty One Years.” In 1967 the D.A.R. added a bronze plaque describing him as an important post rider.

Since then, Bissell has been celebrated in art and sermon and poetry. Almost all of those mentions compare Bissell to Paul Revere, made into an American legend by Henry W. Longfellow’s poem. For example, Clay Perry opened his ode with these lines:

Listen, my children, to my epistle
Of the long, long ride of Israel Bissell,
Who outrode Paul by miles and time
But didn’t rate a poet’s rhyme.
Most authors writing about Bissell credit him with carrying Palmer’s news of Lexington all the way to Philadelphia.

There are three problems with that celebration. A series of post riders, not one man, carried the message to Philadelphia. Revere rode less distance, but did a lot more. And Israel Bissell didn’t ride at all.

TOMORROW: Comparing Bissell and Revere.

(The illustration above is artist D. W. Roth’s dramatic image of Bissell, available as a print.)

5 comments:

Rob Velella said...

I took at the two poems you linked - what's great about them is that they don't even bother hiding bitterness. Both are sure to point out, for example, that Bissell was unfairly left without a celebratory poem, despite deserving it more than Revere.

John L. Smith said...

I was just wondering. When a post rider, carrying news, transferred his charge to another post rider, was the information written down somehow? Or was it just verbally transferred from rider to rider? On one hand, it would seem good not to have writing on one's person in case of capture...but on the other hand, its then totally up to the transmitting and receiving riders to accurately transfer all details. Do you or anyone know what was custom?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Rob, as with the similar William Dawes poem, the Bissell poems are all about how their subject should have had an earlier, and presumably better, poem.

J. L. Bell said...

The Bissell note shows how post riders carried written messages. When he stopped to rest or change horses, local officials made copies of the letter he carried and attested over their own names at the bottom that the copy was authentic.

That was a way of validating the news. Otherwise, people would have had to decide whether to believe a working-class guy who just rode into town—perhaps someone you knew, perhaps not.

As I’ll discuss tomorrow, John, Bissell wasn’t in danger of capture, so carrying a written message posed no risk to him.

Revere, Dawes, and the other riders on 18-19 April did face the possibility of arrest, and indeed the British army officers did stop some of them. Revere and Dawes didn’t take written reports out to Lexington, but Hancock and Adams knew and trusted them already.

John L. Smith said...

John - thank you! Your explanation answered all of my categories of the question!