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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Friday, September 17, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. Carnes

I’ve been digging for information about John Carnes’s ideological or economic situation in 1775, and coming up empty. While the problems in his ministerial career are well documented, his life for the next decade is misty. He wasn’t rich enough to be prominent, or poor enough to come to the attention of the authorities.

Aside from the episodes I described here and here, all I’ve found is that Carnes bought shoes from the newly arrived merchant John Short, and sold goods to the Box and Austin ropewalk or its proprietors. And in November 1770, he joined the Old South Meeting.

Which leaves a lot of room for speculation. For example, his brother Edward (1730-1782) owned a house that got the name “Carnes College,” but no one knows why. Was “Carnes College” where John Carnes tutored young men for Harvard right after leaving the pulpit? If so, the property kept that name even after John set up his shop on Orange Street. (In the 1790s Harrison Gray Otis bought the “Carnes College” property and built a new house there, now owned by Historic New England.)

Who was the Carnes who announced the opening of a new shop with Nathaniel Seaver in the Boston Evening-Post on 17 May 1773? The next March, Seaver advertised in the Boston Post-Boy that he was carrying on that business alone.

Did John Carnes test business in New York in October 1765, when a man of that name registered as a freeman of the city? In June 1774 a John Carnes was in New York advertising “a quantity of dry goods…exposed to sale at vendue,” or auction. In October the sheriff advertised a different auction of “the four years leases of two houses and lots of ground, situate in Murray’s street, back of the College, late the property of John Carnes.” So if that was the John Carnes of Boston, looking for better prospects, the move didn’t go so well.

But maybe John Carnes was in the South End of Boston the whole time, quietly carrying on his little business, not advertising and not getting into trouble.

A “Reminiscence of Gen. Warren” in the New England Historical & Genealogical Register for 1858 said:

Dr. David Townsend, June 17, 1775, in the morning, went to Brighton to see Mr. Carnes’s family of Boston. About one in the afternoon, Mr. Carnes came and reported that there was hot work. The British at Boston, with their shipping, were firing very heavy on our men at Bunker Hill. Dr. Townsend said he must go and work for Dr. Warren.
Was this John Carnes, having moved from the army-occupied town? Or was it a relative?

In any event, since John Carnes referred to himself in 1770 as being “in the grocery-way,” he’s almost certainly the “John Carnes a Grocer” who had agreed to send information on the British military out to Gen. George Washington in July 1775. Did he do that because he was committed to the cause of liberty? In need of money? In the grip of a grand idea? I have no clue.

TOMORROW: But I know that the Rev. John Carnes sent information.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

By coincidence while looking into Cyrus Baldwin (Boston storekeeper and brother to Woburn's Loammi) I saw a John Carnes who was vouching for the character of one William Jackson (Imprisoned after the British left as a Tory who had aided and assisted Ministerial troops). The letter, dated 14 June 1776, to the Council and House of the Province of Mass. Bay, starts off with "As attorney to Rob't Ruggles, ..."

I don't know if this could be the son of Parson Carnes, or if Carnes himself had a power of Attorney.

Other people vouching for William Jackson were: Robert Ruggles; John Scollay & Samuel Austin(Selectmen); William Turner; John Gill; and John Peters.

- Chris H.
source: MHS Hancock papers

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, that sounds like an interesting document. It probably is the Rev. John Carnes since his son was still young and Capt. John Carnes of Salem hadn’t established himself through privateering yet. But the parson may have been off with the army in this month.

I’m curious about Jackson. I suspect he was unpopular in Boston since the great fire of 1760 started in his shop, and in 1770 he was one of the proscribed importers. But here he got some high-powered moderate Whigs to vouch for him, as well as printer John Gill.