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, August 10, 2010

Battle of Chelsea…Creek?

In the very late 1800s, a man named Albert D. Bosson (1853-1926) started to promote the link between the late May 1775 fighting in Boston harbor and the town of Chelsea. No surprise, but Bosson was a native of Chelsea. He also grew up to be the city mayor and then a judge.

On 27 May 1898, the anniversary of the start of the fight, Bosson delivered an address to the Old Suffolk Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. That speech was published as The Battle of Chelsea.

Bosson’s talk must have been a hit because he got invitations to give similar lectures elsewhere. On 2 Nov 1898, he “read a paper on ‘The Battle of Chelsea, 1775,’ a bit of forgotten history” at a meeting of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. On 22 November, he addressed the Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and this time his paper was titled “An Outbreak of the Revolution, or the Battle of Chelsea Creek.”

That last was apparently the earliest use of the name “Battle of Chelsea Creek.” Perhaps some of Bosson’s listeners had pressed him on the fact that most of the fight wasn’t in Chelsea, but over Hog Island and Noddle’s Island, which with some landfilling had become East Boston, and over the British sloop Diana, which ran aground in shallow water.

The new name stuck, at least for a while. In 1907 the Suffolk Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution celebrated the “132d anniversary of the battle of Chelsea Creek.” The following year Fred W. Lamb published “A Brief Sketch of the Battle of Chelsea Creek,” and William R. Cutter’s Historic Homes and Places of Middlesex County used the same term.

However, that name was definitely an anachronism. The 1775 account I cited yesterday didn’t refer to “Chelsea Creek” or any other creek. One of the reminiscences in Mellen Chamberlain’s A Documentary History of Chelsea (1908) says, “They [the British schooner] sailed up Chelsea Creek, near to the Rubber Works,” but obviously that account didn’t use period landmarks—there was no “Rubber Works” in colonial Boston.

In fact, I can’t find the phrase “Chelsea Creek” in the Early American Newspaper database until 1834. That part of Boston harbor may not have been considered a creek at all until landfills and other projects in the early 1800s had narrowed the water between Noddle’s Island and Chelsea.

TOMORROW: What was the fight called in 1779?

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