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, June 26, 2010

Oral Tradition or Coincidence?

I started digging into the legend of Hezekiah Wyman after reading the brief description of that episode in David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and later the original version, “The White Horseman” from 1835.

How, I wondered, did that purple legend, which didn’t even retell the story of the shooting on Lexington common correctly, get into so many history books? Could there nonetheless have been a real person behind the unreal tale?

A family named Wyman settled in Woburn in the early 1600s, and they had lots of male descendants. As a result, by the late 1700s you couldn’t throw a stone in parts of Middlesex County without hitting a Wyman. In the published vital records of Woburn, the list of marriages involving people named Wyman runs from the bottom of page 313 to the top of page 324.

Therefore, if an author sat down to write a fictional story about a Middlesex County farmer in 1775, and wanted a name that sounded believable, he (or she) could do a lot worse than to choose the surname Wyman.

As for the given name Hezekiah, in a study titled “Continuity and Discontinuity in Puritan Naming: Massachusetts, 1771,” Prof. Daniel Scott Smith found that Hezekiah was the 62nd most common name in his sample of taxpayers. As a comparison, the 62nd most common name for American men born in 1950—i.e., men who would be the same age as the fictional Hezekiah Wyman today—is Samuel. Not uncommon at all. (Though I have to acknowledge that the distribution of names across the population wasn’t the same.)

The name Hezekiah apparently lost popularity in America in the early 1800s. Out of a sample from the 1850 census list of 30,000 names of males born between 1800 and 1830, Douglas Galbi found fewer than 30 named Hezekiah. Of course, that was a national sample, not limited to New England, but the trend seems solid. (Presently Hezekiah is bouncing around the 900th spot as most common name for male babies in America.)

Thus, calling a character Hezekiah would signal early-19th-century readers that he dated from a previous era, the time of their grandfathers.

I therefore hypothesized that whoever wrote “The White Horseman” came up with the name Hezekiah Wyman along those lines, as a fictional character meant to evoke the old men of Revolutionary days.

Later in the nineteenth century, after the story’s original literary context in The Boston Pearl had faded away, new authors rediscovered “The White Horseman” and went looking for Hezekiah Wyman. And they found him! Okay, he wasn’t a sixty-year-old from Lexington; he was a fifty-four-year-old from what became Winchester. (Or that man’s son, from Weston.) And they found no contemporaneous evidence for a Wyman riding on 19 Apr 1775. But they were able to correct the later versions of the story that said Hezekiah was eighty years old.

Given the frequency of the names Wyman and Hezekiah, however, how unlikely was it to find a man of that name within riding distance of the Battle Road? The real Hezekiah Wyman’s 1779 will shows that he had a “white mare” (which he used with a “Horse cart”) and a “Gun.” But again, lots of established Massachusetts farmers had horses and guns.

Was the identification of the hero of “The White Horseman” with Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn like connecting the grave of Israel Bissell out in Hinsdale with a post rider on 19 April—a name that, simply by coincidence, matched an unreliable document?

Or was there some truth to the “White Horseman” legend, however its author had dressed up the details? Supporting this possibility is how the story alluded to the documented ambush of British supply wagons in Menotomy, apparently using local oral traditions not fully set down until almost thirty years later. So had the author heard a tale about a rider named Hezekiah Wyman, and decided to run with it?

In the end, I came back to the original appeal of the story.

TOMORROW: At last, the British army perspective.

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