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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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

“One of the Ancient Anakim of the Primeval Forest”

In November 1850, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article by Benson J. Lossing titled “A Pilgrimage to the Cradle of American Liberty.” Amidst descriptions of the battlefield in Concord, the Bunker Hill Monument, and other landmarks he had visited in 1848, Lossing wrote of a stop in Cambridge:

During the first moments of the soft evening twilight I sketched the “Washington elm,” one of the ancient anakim of the primeval forest, older, probably, by a half century or more, than the welcome of Samoset to the white settlers. It stands upon Washington-street, near the westerly corner of the Common, and is distinguished by the circumstance that, beneath its broad shadow, General Washington first drew his sword as command-in-chief of the Continental army, on the 3d of July 1775.
Normally Lossing was ecstatic about being able to interview survivors of the Revolution, or to quote documents, but in this case he didn’t have them. He just passed on the story that everyone was telling him.

In 1851 Lossing adapted his articles into the first edition of The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, which stated:
On the morning of the 3d of July, at about nine o’clock, the troops at Cambridge were drawn up in order upon the Common to receive the commander-in-chief. Accompanied by the general officers of the army who were present, Washington walked from his quarters to the great elm-tree that now stands at the north end of the Common, and, under the shadow of its broad covering, stepped a few paces in front, made some remarks, drew his sword, and formally took command of the Continental army.
Curiously, the elm tree had moved from the “westerly corner of the Common” to the “north end.” It actually stood near the intersection of modern Garden and Mason Streets, so west is more accurate than north. (I’m assuming that Lossing’s “Washington-street” was renamed.)

The Pictorial Field-Book included an engraving of the tree, possibly based on Lossing’s 1848 sketch. A footnote to the illustration added:
The house seen in this sketch is one of the oldest in Cambridge, having been built about 1750. It has been in the possession of the Moore family about seventy-five years. Since I visited Cambridge I have been informed that a Mrs. Moore was still living there, who, from the window of that house, saw the ceremony of Washington taking command of the army.
Other sources say that house belonged to Deacon Josiah Moore and his family. However, Moore didn’t move into it until several years after 1775, and he and his widow were both long dead by the time Lossing came through Cambridge.

It’s possible that the “Mrs. Moore” whom Lossing learned about was a young Cambridge girl in 1775 who witnessed that “ceremony” from that house, then married into the Moore family who moved into the same house and survived to 1848. It’s also possible, especially since Lossing never got to interview her, that she never claimed to be an eyewitness, but simply relayed a story she’d heard, and people made assumptions.

Either way, that version of the story is unconfirmable. Nevertheless, in 1862 Lossing (returning to his notebooks for another Harper’s series) referred to “the venerable Mrs. Moore” as a witness to Washington taking command. And other authors followed suit.

TOMORROW: The good Christian witnesses.


Charles Bahne said...

Lossing's description of "Washington-street" running past the Common is a clear error. The street is called Garden Street on maps dating from both 1838 and 1854, as posted on the Harvard Map Collection's website. Washington Street is in another section of town entirely. The error in the street name makes me wonder about the accuracy of the rest of his story.

J. L. Bell said...

In one of his references Lossing described the tree in the right corner of the common but in the wrong road. In the other reference he described the wrong corner. So geography doesn’t seem like his strong suit.

At least the sketch Lossing published in 1851 matches the other images of the Washington Elm. And the information he credulously passed on from the locals matches what other authors were saying. With the exception of the “venerable Mrs. Moore,” Lossing popularized the tree lore but didn’t originate it.

Rockester said...

Love the blog!

Is it possible the "venerable Mrs Moore" refered to was Hannah (Goffe) Moore wife of John Moore. This couple was of of Cambridge Mass and was also Josiah's mother? The Goffes and the Moores were well established families. I have been doing some research on them lately for my son in law. Just a thought....

J. L. Bell said...

This Mrs. Moore would have been alive about 1848, when Lossing came through Cambridge. The Hannah Goffe whom I see marrying John Moore lived much earlier, but there might have been more people of those names.