I’ve been exploring the stories of David Kinnison or Kennison, hailed after 1848 as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. Yesterday I quoted his description of that event, and the day before his first detailed account of Revolutionary War service.
You can read more of both those documents on Pamela Bannos’s excellent “Hidden Truths” website from Northwestern University. That was my source for the Chicago newspaper quotations about Kinnison’s fund-raising and death on Friday.
Bannos’s site also details the refutations of Kinnison’s stories. Because he was a nearly complete fraud.
Kinnison’s name pops on and off U.S. pension rolls through the mid-1800s, usually spelled Kenniston or Keniston, when he was living in New Hampshire and Maine. He is reported as being 59 in 1835 (i.e., born about 1776) and 82 in 1840 (born about 1758). Only when he arrived in Chicago in 1848 did Kinnison start to state he’d been born in 1736.
Likewise, Kinnison’s war stories don’t add up. In 1848 he told a Chicago newspaper that he’d seen Cornwallis surrender in October 1781. Yet a couple of years later he told magazine journalist Benson J. Lossing that “in a skirmish at Saratoga Springs,...his company (scouts) were surrounded and captured by about three hundred Mohawk Indians. He remained a prisoner with them one year and seven months, about the end of which time peace was declared,” which leaves him no time to have been at Yorktown.
Kinnison claimed to have fought under a general named “Montgomery.” That must be Richard Montgomery, who died leading the American invasion of Canada in 1775. Yet Kinnison didn’t claim to have been involved in any of that memorable campaign.
Kinnison wrote that during the Battle of Bunker Hill “I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.” Those barrels come from Dr. James Thacher’s account of the fortification of Dorchester heights, months later, and they never had to be rolled.
Kinnison’s name apparently does appear on a list of soldiers at Fort Dearborn in the early 1800s, but there’s no evidence he was there when the fort fell in 1812. Fort Dearborn later became the city of Chicago, so that might explain why Kinnison made his way back out there in 1848, hoping to find support in his old age.
In 1914, Dr. Charles Josiah Lewis dismantled many of Kinnison’s claims, as reported in the local paper. But seven years later a local chapter of the D.A.R. named itself after the man. In 1973, Albert G. Overton did a thorough analysis of Kinnison’s stories; he titled his essay “David Kennison and the Chicago Sting,” and to my knowledge it hasn’t been published, though it’s available in some research libraries.
There’s still a big stone monument to Kinnison in the Windy City, dating from 1903, but the online Encyclopedia of Chicago says he was a fraud. The Chicago History Museum keeps some artifacts associated with Kinnison, but identifies him as a hoaxer. The Chicago Tribune detailed the lies in 2003.
Which brings me back to MassMoments, where I started this series of postings. Whoever wrote its 17 November essay about Kinnison obviously hadn’t gotten the memo. (That essay also repeats an error in saying Kinnison was born in Maine; he said he was born in Kingston, New Hampshire, near Maine.)
Remarkably, the MassMoments webpage cites Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party as its sole source. Yet Prof. Young helped write the catalog for the Chicago History Museum’s “We the People” exhibit, which announced that Kinnison was a fraud. And Young’s book actually says:
In 1848, Chicagoans were so desperate for a link to the Revolution and so credulous that they embraced Kennison, who migrated to the burgeoning city advertising himself as 112 years old, a participant at the Tea Party, and a veteran of every battle from Lexington to Yorktown. In reality, Kennison was only nine or so in 1773 (which put him in his eighties in the late 1840s)...Elsewhere The Shoemaker and the Tea Party states simply that Kinnison’s claim was “not credible.” (Ben Carp’s new Defiance of the Patriots calls him a “Chicago huckster.”)
I think it’s time for MassMoments to edit its 17 November entry to acknowledge that David Kinnison claimed to be at the Boston Tea Party, but was no more authentic than this John Howe.