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, December 17, 2010

David Kinnison: The Last Survivor?

For several years now, MassMoments has featured as its historical event for 17 November the birth of David Kinnison, who became nationally famous in the mid-1800s as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party.

The MassMoments site states:

On this day...in 1736, David Kinnison was born in Old Kingston, Maine. An early convert to the cause of American independence, he participated in the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor, an escalation of resistance to British rule that would come to be known as the Boston Tea Party. After serving in the Revolution and being taken captive by Mohawk Indians, he returned to farming. Still vigorous at the age of 75, he rejoined the military to fight in the War of 1812. The last survivor of the Tea Party, David Kinnison had 22 children and outlived four wives. When he died at 114 in 1851, the nation he had helped give birth to was only a few years away from being divided by Civil War.
What’s the basis for that biography? All the facts come from Kinnison himself. (He usually spelled his name “Kennison,” but it shows up in Tea Party accounts without the E, so I’m using that spelling.)

Kinnison apparently arrived in the young city of Chicago in early 1848 and introduced himself as an aged veteran of the Revolutionary War. That went over so well that in the 6 November Chicago Daily Democrat he announced:
I have taken [i.e., rented] the Museum in this city, which I was obliged to do in order to get a comfortable living, as my Pension is so small it scarcely affords the comforts of life. If I live until the 17th of November, 1848, I shall be 112 years old, and I intend making a Donation Party on that day at the Museum. I have fought in several battles for my country, and have suffered more than any man will have to suffer, I hope I would not go through the wars, and suffer what I have, for ten worlds like this. Now all I can ask of this generous public is to call at the Museum on the 17th day of November, which is my birthday, and donate to me all they may think I deserve.
Earlier in the same paper he had published an account of his life, which declared:
at the age of about thirty-three, I assisted in throwing the tea overboard in Boston harbor. I was at the battle of Bunker Hill and stood near General [Joseph] Warren when he fell. I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.

I was at the battles of White Plains, West Point, and Long Island. I helped stretch the chain across the Hudson River to stop the British from coming up. I was also in battles at Fort Montgomery, Staten Island, Delaware, Hudson, and Philadelphia. I witnessed the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and was near West Point when [Benedict] Arnold betrayed his country and [John] Andre was hung. I have been under [George] Washington (for whom I frequently carried the mails and dispatches), [William?] Prescott, [Israel?] Putnam, [Richard?] Montgomery and Lafayette.
That attracted the attention of Benson J. Lossing, who interviewed Kinnison and included a biography and picture in his 1850 Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution, specifying the birth date of 17 Nov 1736. The following year, Henry C. Watson used Kinnison as a central figure in his account of Revolutionary veterans gathering to tell stories, The Yankee Tea-Party; or, Boston in 1773. He sat for photographs, including the one shown above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

In 1852 the Chicago Daily Journal reported:
Died – In this city, February 24, at 9:00 a.m. David Kinnison, aged 115 years.
The city held a grand public funeral, with the mayor, city council, and a military band conducting the last Tea Party survivor to his grave.

TOMORROW: David Kinnison’s tale of the Tea Party.


Jquig said...

Sounds like Mr. Kennison was the original Zelig.

Charles Bahne said...

If Kinnison had indeed "assisted in throwing the tea overboard in Boston harbor" "at the age of about thirty-three", then he would have been born about 1840, not in 1836.

An early example of the inconsistencies in his own story.

J. L. Bell said...

Give the man a break, Charlie! He was over 110 years old, and had fought in every Revolutionary War battle he could think of.

At least that’s what his supporters in Chicago said.

Peter Fisk said...

Mr. Kinnison also invented the phonograph and played center field for the Yankees.

Anonymous said...

He was really old.I thought that he didn't survive that long at first but now I believe it. I Wish I could have known him.

J. L. Bell said...

Keep reading, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

He did serve briefly in American Revolution Mass Archives Vol 9 p.124
He did serve briefly in the American Revolution-the American Rev. Mass Soldiers and Sailors series reports that the surname Kennison has several varations including Kennirson[1] .Only David with this surname: "Kennirson. David. Return recruits sent by Massachusetts as portion of her quota of the Continental Army subsequent to Jan. 1, 1781, who were reported unfit for duty; 2d Mass Regt., age 17 years.; statute 4 ft. 9 in..; engaged for town of Lebanon; term 3 years; reported under size." [2] nterestingly Allan Eckert In his winning of America series claims Kinnison was a survivor of the Fort Dearborn [ Chicago] Massacre of 1813 and was taken prisoner by Indians...

J. L. Bell said...

Does reporting "unfit for duty" and "under size" mean Kinnison actually served? And if he was truly seventeen at some point after the start of 1781, that means he was under age ten at the time of the Tea Party, and under age twelve at the time of Bunker Hill and the Montgomery campaign, among events he later claimed to have been a part of.

As for Fort Dearborn, there’s evidence Kinnison did serve there in the early 1800s, but nothing tying him to the battle in 1812.

See this posting for the discussion of Kinnison’s lack of credibility, and for how people keep bending over backwards to accept his claims.