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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Saturday, December 04, 2010

New “Siege of Boston” Website

I’ve been quoting from William Cheever’s diary, but that’s just one of the eyewitness accounts of the siege of Boston that the Massachusetts Historical Society has posted on its website in the past month. The society’s new “Siege of Boston” website extends its huge “Coming of the American Revolution” website.

There are lots of neat stories and familiar names here. For example, the horse given to Henries Vomhavi, a Native American soldier, in the summer of 1775 was apparently still an issue many years later as a man who lived on Noddle’s Island sought compensation from the state. One of that man’s supporting documents was from William Burbeck, the first second-in-command of the American artillery regiment. I already knew that Burbeck slipped out of Boston in a canoe soon after the start of the war, but this document offers his own account of his escape.

Here’s a broadside of songs celebrating the American victory in 1776, which the website editors point out recycled a woodcut created for the conquest of Louisburg in 1745. I’m less impressed by this terrible poem about British and American generals supposedly “Spoken extempore on hearing that General [Thomas] Gages was on his Passage from BOSTON to ENGLAND by an American Lady.” She was evidently unable to extemporize a rhyme for “Washington.” These lines appear to have been caught up in someone’s—maybe a child’s—writing exercises.

One strength of these archives is that they show not just the text of documents but actual images. Want to see the official notes of an eighteenth-century town meeting? Here’s the handwritten record of Boston’s meeting on 22 Apr 1775, with James Bowdoin presiding.

Of course, that was an unusual moment, with thousands of provincial troops ranged outside of town against thousands of regulars inside, and the inhabitants feeling caught in the middle. It was also unusual because town clerk William Cooper, who usually kept notes at big public meetings, as shown back here, had slipped out of town shortly before the war, so someone else made these notes for us to enjoy.

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