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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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Naming Rights and Wrongs

For the past three days I’ve explored the history of what people have called the fighting on the north side of Boston harbor in late May 1775. That question may involve more than historical accuracy.

If we call the event “The Battle of Chelsea Creek,” as a recent research grant does, that naturally calls to mind the city of Chelsea, from which the provincial forces embarked and fired. Using the name “Noddle’s Island,” the object of the main fighting, links the event to modern East Boston, which was developed as that island became part of the mainland.

Not only are there bragging rights involved, but if the current National Park Service initiative results in some sort of historic site, that could affect tourism and land values.

There’s also a question of whether the fight, which ended with no dead on the American side and only two on the British (American accounts at the time greatly exaggerated that damage), should count as a “battle.” Some local historians thought not.

Personally I like the name “Fight over Noddle’s Island” because it seems more in scale with the casualties and because it preserves the fun name “Noddle’s Island.” (Noddle’s Island! Noddle’s Island! Noddle’s Island!)

But I can’t get too exercised about the justice or injustice of names for Revolutionary events because so many are already biased, inaccurate, or anachronistic. We use those names mainly as conventions; we need a common way to refer to events, and sometimes those names carry a bit of awkwardness along.

In 1770 Bostonians quickly referred to the 5 March riot and shooting on King Street in which five people died as a “Horrid Massacre.” In London, a pamphlet published about the same event called it “the Late Unhappy Disturbance.” Today the term “Boston Massacre” prevails, even as many American accounts lean toward the British soldiers and downplay their share of responsibility for the violence.

For decades after 1773 locals and historians referred to Bostonians’ “destruction of the tea.” The term “Boston Tea Party” was invented in the late 1820s, apparently by a man named Joshua Wyeth, who claimed to have participated. (I find some details of his interviews suspicious, but others have looked into his legal testimony and been convinced.) The new label originally referred to the men involved—they constituted the “tea party”—and only later to the action. But now everyone knows what “Boston Tea Party” refers to, even if we disagree about today’s Tea Party or Parties.

Another latter-day term is “Powder Alarm” for the militia mobilization of 2 Sept 1774. Richard Frothingham used it in his 1865 Life and Times of Joseph Warren, but I don’t see the phrase in earlier sources.

We use the term “Battle of Lexington and Concord” because those towns saw the most significant shooting in 1775, according to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. And those shots were significant because, the congress declared, the British army clearly fired first. (The situation isn’t that clear from today’s perspective.) Of course, there was also shooting in many other towns as well, with the worst American casualties coming in Menotomy, but more inclusive alternative names like “Battle Road” haven’t caught on.

Finally, there’s the “Battle of Bunker Hill.” The provincials built their redoubt on top of a rise called Breed’s Hill; people disagree on whether that was then considered merely part of the larger Bunker’s Hill or a separate feature. By the end of the day, the British forces had taken both Breed’s Hill and Bunker’s Hill, and remained on the latter until evacuating Boston in March 1776. So even though the major fighting occurred on Breed’s Hill, what we now call Bunker Hill was the prize.

Will the Fight over Noddle’s Island, the Battle of Chelsea, or the Battle of Chelsea Creek become as significant a name?


Anonymous said...

I think you meant "until evacuating Boston in March 1776."

Charles Bahne said...

As for the "fun name 'Noddle's Island.'": Some old documents actually refer to it as "Noodle's Island"! I don't think the "Noodle" references are from the Revolutionary era; they may actually predate it. As we all know, spelling consistency was not a high point in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Of course, Chelsea was actually a decent-sized settlement in 1775, whereas Noddle's Island was basically uninhabited other than perhaps a farm or two.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

"The Ruckus in the Tussocks."
- Chris Hurley

(typo: evacuating Boston in March 1776.)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the sharp eyes on the (now corrected) typo!

J. L. Bell said...

I found some references to “Noodle’s Island” from the Revolutionary period and even later. Sounds much more appetizing that way.

John L. Smith said...

Maybe if we push "Noodle's Island", we can get Campbell Soup to underwrite the costs of a visitor's center? Just a thought...