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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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Flipping through William Cheever’s Diary

Early this month the Massachusetts Historical Society unveiled an online edition of William Cheever’s diary of the siege of Boston, May 1775 through March 1776. This document was published in the society’s Proceedings volumes in 1927, but now we can see images of the original pages plus a transcription. I’ll devote the next few days to this document.

The diary starts with what seems like an illogical move: Cheever coming into the embattled town:

I arrived in Town from Charlestown at 1 oClo. after having seated & left my Mamma, Aunts & Sisters with Canterbury at Taunton on Acco’t of the distrest Situation of Boston.
Cheever’s father had dined with the Sons of Liberty in 1769, so why did he and his son enter a town they knew was under military occupation by their enemies, and under siege from their friends?

Well, the family property, including a warehouse of trade goods, was inside those siege lines. The Cheevers wanted to protect it. William Cheever was also a young man, born in 1752 and graduating from Harvard in 1771, so he probably thought he was up for the ordeal.

Other families made similar arrangements. Fifteen-year-old Paul Revere, Jr., stayed in the family’s North End house while his siblings and stepmother joined his father outside of town. And that strategy actually worked. For the most part, families who had a member in town kept their property intact. As Cheever wrote on 15 November: “Almost every House whose Owner has gone out of Town is taken up for the Troops.” (The Quartering Act would have let the British military authorities use occupied houses as well, since it was wartime, but the commanders were still wary of offending the local populace.)

Splitting up also worked on a longer scale: Loyalist families who left some members behind after March 1776 usually managed to keep ownership of their property. Families who left entirely usually lost theirs.

On the other hand, riding out the siege inside Boston wasn’t easy.

TOMORROW: Fresh meat.

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