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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Saturday, May 01, 2010

“To alarm the country quite to Connecticut”

Last year I quoted Elizabeth Palmer on how her husband and her father-in-law, Joseph Palmer (shown here, courtesy of Warren S. Parker), responded to news of the shots on Lexington common at dawn on 19 Apr 1775.

As I noted in discussing Elizabeth’s tale of Dr. Joseph Warren’s last day, not all that family’s lore pans out. But in this case we have evidence that Joseph Palmer was at work that morning, spreading the word about that shooting.

Joseph Palmer was a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety, basically the executive power in the province outside of Boston. He and his extended family had moved from Boston to Watertown to keep away from the royal authorities. Palmer decided to alert other Patriots about the start of the armed conflict by sending a letter off with the post rider heading west toward Worcester and down into Connecticut.

Palmer’s original letter hasn’t survived, but copies did, including this one on display at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington (and conveniently quoted on its blog):

Watertown Wednesday Morning near 10 o’Clock

To all the Friends of American Liberty, be it known that this Morning before breake of Day a Brigade consisting of about 1000 or 1200 Men landed at [David] Phip’s Farm at Cambridge & marched to Lexington where they found a Company of our Colony Militia in Arms, upon Whom they fired without any Provocation and killed 6 Men and Wounded 4 others.

By an Express from Boston this Moment, we find another Brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1000.
This was the reinforcement column under Col. Percy. And the earlier column under Lt. Col. Francis Smith would certainly have argued with Palmer’s statement that they had “fired without any Provocation.”
The Bearer Mr. Israel Bissel is charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut and all Persons are desired to furnish him with Fresh Horses as they may be needed.

I have spoken with Several Persons who have seen the Dead & Wounded. Pray let the Delegates from this Colony to Connecticut see this they know.

J. Palmer, one of the
Committee of S——y
Copies of Palmer’s letter provided the first news of the war to many people between Watertown and Philadelphia. It was printed in various newspapers and handbills, and eventually reprinted in the Remembrancer, a London review of the past year’s news.

But Palmer’s short, sketchy report was quickly superseded by more detailed accounts, and this letter was basically forgotten for about a hundred years. Then historians started to cite it as evidence of how the Lexington alarm spread. By the late 1800s Henry W. Longfellow’s poem had made Paul Revere a household name in the U.S. of A., so people wanted to know more about the rider whom Palmer had “charged to alarm the Country.”

TOMORROW: On the trail of Israel Bissell.

2 comments:

Bob said...

I think the network of riders on the night of 18-19 April is really fascinating, and I hope you will post new discoveries on this topic as they may become available.

Fischer's "Paul Revere's Ride" has a map on p. 146 showing the rider network as he had determined it, but there are many uncertainties. There was a "Tewksbury rider" who has not been identified, as well as an unknown rider who took the alarm from Bedford to Billerica and Chelmsford about 7am. And an unidentified "bare-headed rider" looped around from Natick and carried the alarm east to Needham and perhaps other towns. I wonder if the names of these riders are lost forever, or if some of them might still be identified.

—RJO

J. L. Bell said...

Fischer and his grad students did a fine job of recovering the memory of all those other alarm riders, spreading out like a chain reaction.

At the time, that wasn’t a common way to spread important news, and people don’t seem to have set down names. Only in local and family traditions did any details survive, and many of those are shaky.

As I’ll be exploring in this series of posts.