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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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tunnel Under Brattle Street?

On Sunday I was at the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge, and the question of tunnels surfaced. Apparently some visitors have asked about tunnels from the house either down to the Charles River, or under the Charles River to Boston. Supposedly Gen. George Washington made use of these tunnels while he lived in that house during the siege of Boston. It’s not clear. Then again, it’s not true.

The old tunnel story involving that house is that its first owner, John Vassall, commissioned a passage under what is now Brattle Street to his uncle Henry Vassall’s house nearby. This story was circulating in the mid-1800s. Isabella James, née Batchelder, who grew up in that other house across the road, wrote about it in Theatrum Majorum: The Cambridge of 1776, published in 1875:

A strong belief prevails in Cambridge that a subterranean passage connects this house with Mr. H. W. Longfellow’s, and that it was constructed to enable the two Vassall families to visit each other without exposure to the outside world. Many years ago the writer with her brothers and a brother of the Poet made a progress through the cellars in a vain search after this mysterious and mythical passage-way, one of the party only retaining a conviction that if a walled-up arch of solid masonry could be opened the entrance might be found.
The “brother of the Poet” could have been Samuel, Stephen, or Alexander Wadsworth (Waddy) Longfellow; I’ll have to check with the staff at the House to know which one is most likely.

Oliver Bronson Capen’s 1904 article “Country Homes of Famous Americans” in the magazine Country Life in America apparently alluded to that exploration:
There is a tradition, the origin of which is lost in obscurity, that a subterranean passage connects the houses. A generation or so ago the children of the neighborhood set about to discover this tunnel. Sentinels were posted in both cellars, but diligent knocking of the walls and the most vigorous efforts of youthful lungs failed to unravel the mystery.
Finally, Samuel F. Batchelder, who I think was Isabella James’s little brother, tried to put the story to rest in a 1914 article for the Cambridge Historical Society called “Col. Henry Vassall and His Wife Penelope Vassall with Some Account of His Slaves.” He wrote:
A tradition of delicious mystery connects the two houses by a secret underground passage. A bricked-up arch in Colonel Henry's cellar wall appears to be the foundation of both the tradition and that part of the building. We may assume, from what we know of the owner, that the feature was much more probably the entrance to a wine vault.

Although this primitive “subway” has caved in under the prodding of modern investigation, the touch of romance indispensable for a historic mansion was supplied, up to living memory, by an absolutely authentic secret recess closed by a sliding panel. Since the “secret” of its location—by the fireplace in one of the oldest rooms—was as usual public property, there was, naturally, nothing in it.
And yet the tunnel rumor lives on today, now even longer and attached to the name of Gen. Washington.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Making the Mails Travel

Today Boston 1775 welcomes guest blogger Eric Jaffe, author of a new book titled The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America. This essay, adapted from the book, describes the development of the British postal system along the Atlantic coast, and how it got caught up in Revolutionary change.

The first American post rider left New York for Boston in January of 1673. Francis Lovelace, colonial governor of New York, made establishing a postal system his personal mission. And his personal obsession. So consumed was Lovelace with the mail that he imprudently left New York that July to discuss the system, only to be interrupted with the news that the Dutch had taken Manhattan.

Following this fateful decision, the colonial postal system endured a period of fits and starts. The new Dutch leader outlawed correspondence with New England, even jailing the English post rider John Sharpe. When Britain regained New York in 1674, Governor Thomas Dongan was authorized to set up post offices all along the East Coast, but was sent “noe power”—read: money—“to doe it.”

A lack of adequate funding plagued the young system for decades. Duncan Campbell, colonial postmaster of New England and firm believer in a system “of so great a benefit to this country,” frequently petitioned the mother country for expenses. Still, by the time his son, John Campbell, assumed this position in the early 1700s, the office lost a considerable 275 pounds a year. By late September 1703, John Campbell was soliciting colonial leaders for “some encouragement” to boost his post office, “else of necessity it must drop.”

It was Ben Franklin who finally gave the post office the “encouragement” it needed to thrive. As joint deputy postmaster general, the post office’s highest position in America, Franklin addressed the problems with mail service that had lingered, nearly unchanged, for roughly a century. He provided postmasters with precise accounting tables and demanded punctuality of his riders. “You are not,” he instructed them, “out of Friendship or Compliment to any Person whatsoever, to delay his Majesty’s Post one Quarter of an Hour.” If a letter sat unclaimed for two months, it was sent to Philadelphia—the birth of the “dead letter office.”

Later on, Franklin devised an odometer that measured distance between routes and called for the placement of milestones to both guide riders and help them calculate costs. He hung rate-tables in every office and slashed the speed of exchange between New York and Boston: “By making the Mails travel by Night as well as by Day,” he wrote, “Letters may be sent and answers received in four Days, which before took a fortnight.”

Taken altogether, Franklin’s designs essentially drew the modern postal blueprint. He made communication in America strikingly efficient. Finally, come 1761, he made it profitable. It had taken eight years, but the colonial post office finally earned money for the English government: a modest 494 pounds. Over the next three years the American office sent the mother country roughly two thousand more.

Sure enough, the throne took a renewed interest in the colonial post. King George III ordered colonies to do whatever it took so “the Posts may meet with no delays or interruptions.” Soon the crown decreed that anyone caught robbing the post “upon the King’s Highway … shall suffer Death as a Felon.” The measures largely worked. By 1774, England annually brought in 3,000 pounds from the American post.

But early that year, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, British leaders dismissed Franklin as deputy postmaster. Anyone considered “too much of an American,” like Franklin, was replaced with postal workers willing to put British interests ahead of colonial rights. The safety of American mail, wrote Franklin, “may now be worth considering.”

Indeed, rebellious colonial printer William Goddard was considering just that. In response to Britain’s tightened grip, Goddard formulated a plan for a “constitutional” post office. Not only would Goddard’s mail service employ only American sympathizers, but any revenue would be shared within the system, rather than sent to England as a general tax.

During the spring of 1774, driven by a single-mindedness worthy of Francis Lovelace, Goddard sold his plan to colonial leaders along the Post Road between New York and Boston. Samuel Adams embraced the plan with gusto. Paul Revere called it “one of the greatest strokes that our Enemies have mett with (except the late affairs of the Tea).” At the second Continental Congress, the following year, the gatherers finally ratified the constitutional post—unanimously naming Franklin the first American postmaster general.

Thanks, Eric! Check out the King’s Best Highway website for more information on the Boston Post Road and the many things that have happened along it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Twitter Feed, 17-27 June 2010

  • Day by day @CC_1787 tweets the Constitutional Convention. (Or rt's @philly1787's tweets as last year.) Will it turn out the same? #
  • From @natlheritage, a silver platter commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill and its Masonic connections: bit.ly/cAZGJt #
  • What 18th-century American town records look like: bit.ly/d5SNns And these are the well-kept ones! #
  • RT @gordonbelt: 650 lbs. of bronze transformed into reproduction 67-inch 18th-century cannon at Colonial Williamsburg: bit.ly/dlWZlN #
  • RT @gordonbelt: Rooms with a View: New Monticello boss opens rarely seen rooms at @TJMonticello bit.ly/b2x3st #
  • RT @2palaver: Gulf crisis highlights concerns over potential drilling off Gloucester bit.ly/91JxZq #
  • RT @56Signers: 56DaysofSigners/Hooper See #statue at #grave in #Greensboro: flic.kr/p/5RR2fN // Hooper, NC signer, grew up in Boston. #
  • Last night attended James Fichter's talk on book SO GREAT A PROFFIT about early American trade with east Asia. Tea ruled! #
  • Story of Capt John Callender's shame at Bunker Hill and redemption the following year: bit.ly/ak11IP #
  • RT @HistoryNet: 1st novel written by an American and published in America. bit.ly/atyxD3 // Was roman à clef on Boston sex scandal! #
  • Tonight attended signing by Thomas J. Fleming for reissue of NOW WE ARE ENEMIES, history of Bunker Hill. #
  • Tomorrow will head to Deerfield for Dublin Seminar on "Dressing New England: Clothing, Fashion & Identity": bit.ly/9IJdP0 #
  • Thomas Paine portrait vandalized in Daytona Beach Museum: bit.ly/aY7bd1 Random act or political statement? #
  • Ken Burchell explores origin of Thomas Paine portrait in Florida: bit.ly/92g3AN #
  • "Poetry with a Purpose" workshop for history & language arts teachers at Boston-area history sites in August: bit.ly/9TUgB2 #
  • Laying out a plot of land in 18th-c Windham, Conn.: "to a heap of stons neer walnut tree…" bit.ly/aan8Pe #
  • Smallpox in Boston in 1721 throws together two funeral gatherings, black and white: bit.ly/dta9wv #
  • RT @NewYorkHistory: Ranger Guided Evening Strolls at Saratoga Battlefield: bit.ly/bn9hYA #
  • RT @rjseaver: posted will of Elizabeth Smith (died 1758) of RI in Amanuensis Monday post - tinyurl.com/AMESmith #genealogy #
  • RT @universalhub: BPL president: Still plan to shut four branch libraries, just not at end of summer. #
  • Curly-haired angel/soul on gravestone of Pompey Brenton in Newport, RI, 1772: bit.ly/alglqN #
  • Gravestone of Adam, 12-year-old servant (slave?) who died in Newport, RI, in 1792: bit.ly/dbsI9O #
  • AP literature students have trouble recognizing that poem "The Century Quilt" reflects African-American history: bit.ly/dALZcd #
  • RT @Readex: Poetry indexed in "The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783." www.colonialmusic.org/ #
  • RT @history_book: Angel of Death: The Story of Smallpox - by Gareth Williams - Palgrave Macmillan. amzn.to/cxApmC #
  • RT @gordonbelt: E Pluribus Confusion: the tangled history of apportioning representation since 1787: bit.ly/clCbPT #
  • Colonial Williamsburg preparing to mold brass cannon, major 18th-c technical challenge, on 23 June: bit.ly/c26XLf #
  • Death of Revolutionary historian and memorializer Ellen Hardin Walworth in 1915: bit.ly/agYjWl #
  • RT @56Signers: 56DaysofSigners/Walton Captured signers often treated with respect befitting officers. (Not true of men from lower classes.) #
  • RT @SecondVirginia: New Book: "Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution" by Ira D. Gruber fb.me/A7YpQhYk #
  • RT @jmadelman: Glad to see support for Washington's HQ in Westchester - places like this got me interested in history bit.ly/bPGuD5 #
  • Questions raised by 1766 gravestone in Lexington: bit.ly/chj70Z #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: More on states' declaring individual independence - Smith's (@amhistorymuseum) comment: tinyurl.com/32fcc22 #
  • RT @AmerCreation: No, Mr. Beck, Jefferson Did Not Date His Documents "In the Year of Our Lord Christ" nblo.gs/5abnZ #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: 1776 one-shilling bill "emitted by a Law of the Colony of New Jersey." ow.ly/22RIX #
  • At Boston1775 blog, do folks want a more detailed analysis of this gun? bit.ly/drCSYU (Not by me; by someone who knows something.) #
  • Harvard has appointed Annette Gordon-Reed, scholar of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a professor of law and history. #
  • Call for papers from Boston's newly formed North End Historical Society: bit.ly/bLQhcg #
  • Rediscovering Sgt. Horatio J. Homer, Boston's first black police officer, on force from 1878 to 1919: bit.ly/b9dNJo #
  • RT @history_book: The Hanoverian Dimension in British History, 1714-1837 - Cambridge University Press. bit.ly/cHH0r4 // Dimension? #
  • RT @history_book: Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914 - by Christine MacLeod amzn.to/9k1fJN #
  • Expert doubts photograph of enslaved children announced weeks back: bit.ly/cOvmLK Most likely post-Civil War plantation nostalgia #
  • Eyewitness accounts of George Washington's visit to (progress thru?) Boston in 1789: bit.ly/aYVQ50 #

Sunday, June 27, 2010

“Numbers of Them Were Mounted”

As I described in my first posting about Hezekiah Wyman, the great power of his legend is how it describes the fear of the British soldiers each time they spot the white-haired farmer on his white horse, riding closer for another shot. To quote from “The White Horseman”:

“Ha!” cried the soldiers, “there comes that old fellow again, on the white horse! Look out for yourselves, for one of us has got to die, in spite of fate.” And one of them did die, for Hezekiah’s aim was true, and his principles of economy would not admit of his wasting powder or ball.
Descriptions of such British fears and the nickname “Death on the pale horse” remain in the story as retold more calmly in Henry Smith Chapman’s History of Winchester and David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. That emotion is what made the tale stick in my mind the first time I read it.

But what evidence supports those statements? None of those tellings and retellings cite any specific accounts from British soldiers, prisoners, deserters, letters, memoirs, or newspapers. In fact, back in 1835 when the Hezekiah Wyman legend was first published as “The White Horseman,” historians had very few eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Lexington and Concord from the British side. Even now, we have several from officers, but almost none from enlisted men.

And to my knowledge, none of the surviving accounts mentions the soldiers fearing a man on a white horse. There’s a single statement about mounted provincials, from Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment, first published in 1926:
Those Rebels who came in from the flanks during the march, always posted themselves in the houses and behind the walls by the roadside, and there waited the approach of the Column, when they fired at it.

Numbers of them were mounted, and when they fastened their horses at some little distance from the road, they crept down near enough to have a Shot; as soon as the Column had passed, they mounted again, and rode round until they got ahead of the Column, and found some convenient place from whence they might fire again.

These fellows were generally good marksmen, and many of the used long guns made for Duck-Shooting.
While acknowledging “generally good marksmen,” Mackenzie didn’t describe any of those men as noticeably deadly. He didn’t describe men firing with their guns laid across their saddles. He didn’t describe a white-haired rider on a white horse. In sum, there’s no British evidence for the parts of the story that make Hezekiah Wyman seem special.

As I’ve noted, there was a Hezekiah Wyman with a white horse who lived within riding distance of the fighting. But there’s no contemporaneous evidence or reliable family lore that he took part in the battle.

There are hints that the author of “The White Horseman” was aware of some Middlesex County oral traditions about 19 Apr 1775. But even if a story was going around about an old marksman striking fear into soldiers as “Death on the pale horse,” that was inspired by what Americans wished the British had felt. At most, the real Hezekiah Wyman would have been riding along with a bunch of other farmers on horseback, creeping down to a house or wall near the road, and shooting with “generally good” results.

In the end, I don’t see big contradictions or anomalies in the tale of Hezekiah Wyman to show that it must be fiction. But it’s not up to us to disprove any story we inherit from the past. The weight of the evidence has to be there for us to believe it. Barring new discoveries, I think the evidence for this tale is too light to shift it from literary legend to historical episode.

(Photo above by Alex Starr, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Oral Tradition or Coincidence?

I started digging into the legend of Hezekiah Wyman after reading the brief description of that episode in David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and later the original version, “The White Horseman” from 1835.

How, I wondered, did that purple legend, which didn’t even retell the story of the shooting on Lexington common correctly, get into so many history books? Could there nonetheless have been a real person behind the unreal tale?

A family named Wyman settled in Woburn in the early 1600s, and they had lots of male descendants. As a result, by the late 1700s you couldn’t throw a stone in parts of Middlesex County without hitting a Wyman. In the published vital records of Woburn, the list of marriages involving people named Wyman runs from the bottom of page 313 to the top of page 324.

Therefore, if an author sat down to write a fictional story about a Middlesex County farmer in 1775, and wanted a name that sounded believable, he (or she) could do a lot worse than to choose the surname Wyman.

As for the given name Hezekiah, in a study titled “Continuity and Discontinuity in Puritan Naming: Massachusetts, 1771,” Prof. Daniel Scott Smith found that Hezekiah was the 62nd most common name in his sample of taxpayers. As a comparison, the 62nd most common name for American men born in 1950—i.e., men who would be the same age as the fictional Hezekiah Wyman today—is Samuel. Not uncommon at all. (Though I have to acknowledge that the distribution of names across the population wasn’t the same.)

The name Hezekiah apparently lost popularity in America in the early 1800s. Out of a sample from the 1850 census list of 30,000 names of males born between 1800 and 1830, Douglas Galbi found fewer than 30 named Hezekiah. Of course, that was a national sample, not limited to New England, but the trend seems solid. (Presently Hezekiah is bouncing around the 900th spot as most common name for male babies in America.)

Thus, calling a character Hezekiah would signal early-19th-century readers that he dated from a previous era, the time of their grandfathers.

I therefore hypothesized that whoever wrote “The White Horseman” came up with the name Hezekiah Wyman along those lines, as a fictional character meant to evoke the old men of Revolutionary days.

Later in the nineteenth century, after the story’s original literary context in The Boston Pearl had faded away, new authors rediscovered “The White Horseman” and went looking for Hezekiah Wyman. And they found him! Okay, he wasn’t a sixty-year-old from Lexington; he was a fifty-four-year-old from what became Winchester. (Or that man’s son, from Weston.) And they found no contemporaneous evidence for a Wyman riding on 19 Apr 1775. But they were able to correct the later versions of the story that said Hezekiah was eighty years old.

Given the frequency of the names Wyman and Hezekiah, however, how unlikely was it to find a man of that name within riding distance of the Battle Road? The real Hezekiah Wyman’s 1779 will shows that he had a “white mare” (which he used with a “Horse cart”) and a “Gun.” But again, lots of established Massachusetts farmers had horses and guns.

Was the identification of the hero of “The White Horseman” with Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn like connecting the grave of Israel Bissell out in Hinsdale with a post rider on 19 April—a name that, simply by coincidence, matched an unreliable document?

Or was there some truth to the “White Horseman” legend, however its author had dressed up the details? Supporting this possibility is how the story alluded to the documented ambush of British supply wagons in Menotomy, apparently using local oral traditions not fully set down until almost thirty years later. So had the author heard a tale about a rider named Hezekiah Wyman, and decided to run with it?

In the end, I came back to the original appeal of the story.

TOMORROW: At last, the British army perspective.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Legend of “The White Horseman”

I believe “The White Horseman,” the earliest printed tale of Hezekiah Wyman, is an example of a lost literary genre called a “legend.” Washington Irving launched this form in American literature with such tales as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). The genre’s ingredients include a historical setting, a spooky atmosphere (whether or not events are actually supernatural), and a tone of inevitable moral judgment.

Other early American authors who used the form include:

  • William Austin, “The Man with the Cloaks: A Vermont Legend” (1836).
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Legends of the Province House” in Twice-Told Tales (1837).
  • Robert Montgomery Bird, “The Legend of Merry the Miner” (1838).
  • George Lippard, Washington and His Generals; or, Legends of the Revolution (1847).
You might guess that I chose those titles because they include the actual term “legend,” but there are many other examples of the form. Probably the highest achievement within the genre is Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The people who wrote legends and probably most of the people who originally read them understood those stories to be fictional. (Especially the ones that involved little men bowling ninepins, of course.) Some authors might have been inspired by historical episodes, but they added too much fiction for the result to be believed.

When those authors remained famous, as Irving and Hawthorne did, their legends were republished under their names, and American readers continued to recognize those tales as fictional. However, when an author was forgotten, his work was easily reprinted and retold without credit or context. In some cases, new authors took those legends to be fact.

For example, some of Lippard’s legends of Revolutionary Philadelphia, such as the Liberty Bell being rung to signal independence, got into the history books. His tale of a mysterious man orating to the Continental Congress continued to circulate as fact at the highest levels of American society into the late 1900s. Lippard appears also to have started the story, mentioned in the last Presidential Inaugural Address, that Gen. George Washington ordered Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to be read to the entire Continental Army (though he might have thought that was accurate, based on his interpretation of a Paine biography).

The fact that legends often included names that grounded them in real places and events furthered that confusion. One local example is the series of tales about “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man.” The Boston lawyer William Austin wrote those stories for The New England Galaxy starting in 1824. They were reportedly a major influence on Hawthorne, and later on Edward Everett Hale’s Man Without a Country.

Austin included some details that seemed authentic, most notably a man from Menotomy named Cutter. That was a common surname in that village; everyone in greater Boston probably knew a man from Menotomy named Cutter. (As I’ve noted, “The White Horseman” also mentions an Ammi Cutter from that village.) Nonetheless, Austin made up the whole story of Peter Rugg.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Austin was forgotten. The story of Peter Rugg was still being retold—as history, or at least as ancient New England folklore. Alexander Wollcott felt he had to write an article setting the record straight.

TOMORROW: So if “The White Horseman” was a legend, where does that leave Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Bearing on His Eccentricities”

Today Boston 1775 goes off on a tangent about Isaac Chauncey Wyman, who claimed descent from a Revolutionary War veteran, though his exact ancestors and how old they were and other details shifted over time. This posting has little to do with the eighteenth century, so you’re welcome to skip out. But some gossip I can’t ignore.

Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s big bequest to Princeton in 1910 made headlines across the country, and those news stories preserve even more family tensions and secrets than are evident in his professional profiles.

Marblehead vital records show that this man’s father Isaac Wyman married Elizabeth Ingalls on 2 July 1820, and died on 4 Oct 1836 at the reported age of 81 (suggesting that he was born in 1755). The Genealogy and History of the Ingalls Family in America says that Elizabeth Ingalls was born 19 Jan 1789, so she was more than thirty years younger.

That couple had three children who lived to adulthood: Susan, William, and Isaac Chauncey. When Isaac died in 1836, according to the Gulfport Daily Herald’s report decades later, he left $80,000 to Isaac Chauncey and nothing to his other son.

There’s also a claim that, despite marrying under her maiden name, Elizabeth Ingalls had an earlier marriage to a man named John Nourse, and a son by him named John Ingalls Nourse. Descriptions of John I. Nourse’s parentage were published well before it became a legal issue, with his daughter suing for a piece of Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s estate on the grounds that she was a half-niece.

John Ingalls Nourse had an interesting death in 1857:

John I. Nourse, probably the largest man in the State, died here [Andover] Aug. 1. He was formerly a seaman, and quite slender; but after receiving a severe fever a few years ago, continued to increase in flesh till his last sickness, when he weighed four hundred pounds.
But I digress (even within this tangent).

At Princeton, Isaac Chauncey Wyman convinced his guardian to advance him some money and speculated successfully in sugar, then in timberland. He got a law degree from Harvard in 1850 and practiced for eleven years, serving as assistant to the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. Then he devoted himself to accumulating real estate.

When he died, Wyman owned large swaths of Essex County, as well as land in all or most of the other forty-eight states, Hawaii, Canada, Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria. The Gulfport Daily Herald said: “Living on the southern border of Marblehead, Mr. Wyman used to say that he could walk to the northern border of the town without leaving his own land.” In addition, “He frequently spoke of a coal mine, a silver mine and a railroad of which he was owner.” Those were apparently in Carpenter, Colorado, now a ghost town.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a dispatch from Salem that said:
In Lynn, Marblehead and this city, where the testator was best known, hundreds of stories are in circulation bearing on his eccentricities. . . . he refused to have a fire in his office even in the coldest days of winter, and [showed] his unwillingness to give away anything even of the most trivial value.
The Gulfport Daily Herald reported:
Collecting antiques was his sole diversion, although he said he occasionally dissipated to the extent of reading a novel. He found money so easy to get that he frequently said that there must be something the matter with the poor.
Sounds like he had trouble relating to people, right?

In fact, I think that was a congenital condition for Isaac Chauncey Wyman. I’m going out on a limb and hypothesizing that he had Asperger’s syndrome. Wyman had serious difficulties with interpersonal relationships. In Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848 his classmate Edward Wall wrote:
He was, when a student, a tall and slender young man, very shy, shrinking from acquaintanceship rather than seeking it. He, therefore, had hardly any friends. . . .

His household consisted of himself and housekeeper,—an elderly and quite plain woman, who milked the cow, and attended to all chores outside the house as well as everything within. He was very neat in his dress, very polite, never went into society, or visited any one, or received visitors at his house.
However, Wyman was intellectually sharp, and particularly good at memorizing facts in his chosen field. Again from the Gulfport Daily Herald:
He continued his studies throughout life and was a Latin or Greek scholar as well as being versed in economics. He possessed a remarkable memory and could quote offhand the corporation or land laws of every state.
Wyman’s combination of mental strengths and weaknesses allowed him to accumulate a large fortune, and left him with virtually no one to share it with. Princeton officials maintained contact with him—his faith in his father’s service on the Princeton battlefield no doubt helped, even though no one remembered him revisiting the campus. And in the end the college benefited, and grew into a university.

TOMORROW: Back to the literary side of “The White Horseman.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Gun at Wyman House

As I noted back here, when Isaac Chauncey Wyman died in 1910, he left most of his fortune to his alma mater, Princeton College. Newspapers immediately reported that the bequest could be worth up to $10 million. Within a few weeks that figure came down to $2 million. Still, in 1910 that was real money.

Along with Wyman’s money and far-flung real estate, Princeton received some of his antiques, including the gun he told people his grandfather had owned. Woburn researcher Chris Hurley found it mounted alongside a powder horn and sword in a display case in Wyman House, a university residence (shown above) that happens to stand on part of the Revolutionary battlefield.

From lock to mouth the barrel appears to be four feet long. I have no idea if this gun actually dates from the Revolution, or has any other identifying marks. However, Chris Hurley noted that the sign mounted in the same room has this to say:

JOHN WYMAN of Salem, Massachusetts, who had used this musket and powder horn in the French and Indian War, gave them to his son Isaac Wyman in 1776 and gave Washington £8000 to equip the brigade in which his son enlisted

ISAAC WYMAN, his son, when a boy of sixteen, carried this musket, powder horn, and sword here on this field where he fought in the Battle of Princeton under Washington, January 3, 1777.

ISAAC CHAUNCEY WYMAN, Isaac Wyman’s son, Princeton 1848, died at an advanced old age on May 18, 1910, and bequeathed most of his estate to the Graduate College, which stands on the battlefield of Princeton.
Just two years before, Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts said that Isaac Chauncy Wyman’s paternal grandfather was Hezekiah Wyman, not John. The memoir of him published in 1910 by the New England Historic Genealogical Society says the same. (Those two volumes were produced under the supervision of the same man, so they’re not independent sources.)

It’s possible that the Princeton sign is mistaken about the grandfather’s first name. But the £8000 gift to Washington is a new detail, not in any other article about the Wymans that I’ve found. (Nor is there any mention of it in Washington’s papers or other sources.)

The Princeton sign also says that Isaac Wyman was “a boy of sixteen” at the Battle of Princeton on 3 Jan 1777, meaning he was almost certainly born in 1760. Which conflicts with both birth years stated in the Wyman genealogies published between 1895 and 1910.

So it looks very much like Isaac Chauncey Wyman had no idea who his paternal grandfather was, but believed he must have been a hero in the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War, and carried that gun.

Similarly, it looks like Isaac Chauncey Wyman had very little idea who his father was, but believed he must have been a hero of the Revolutionary War, and carried that gun.

Isaac Chauncey Wyman was obviously not a reliable source of family lore about Hezekiah Wyman, or anyone else. He may well not have even been descended from that man. Thus, what he or his biographers wrote has little or no bearing on the question of what Hezekiah Wyman did on 19 Apr 1775.

[ADDENDUM: After a reader request, I’m posting a photo of the musket in its case by Chris Hurley, with permission from folks at Princeton. Click on the picture for a larger image. Obviously, this isn’t an ideal way to examine a gun, but it’s the best we can do from afar. And the likelihood that Hezekiah Wyman used this gun to pick off regulars on 19 Apr 1775 is infinitesimal anyway.]

TOMORROW: Closing remarks on Isaac Chauncey Wyman.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

“Together with My Gun”

Back to the truth and fictions of Hezekiah Wyman. As I’ve noted, there was a fifty-four-year-old man named Hezekiah Wyman living in south Woburn (now Winchester) in 1775. Those details don’t exactly match the sixty-year-old Hezekiah Wyman living in central Lexington in “The White Horseman.” But was he close enough to have been that fictional story’s inspiration?

Earlier in this series I reported how Chris Hurley, who researches Woburn’s Revolutionary history, supplied me with a quotation from Hezekiah Wyman’s will confirming that he did indeed have a white horse when he died in 1779. That same will confirms that he had two others things which some sources ascribe to him.

First, Hezekiah listed his children as “my Sons Hezikiah, Seth, Daniel, Isaac & Joseph &...my Daughter Susanna.” The eldest son I’ve already mentioned as on the list of Weston militiamen who marched on 19 Apr 1775. The two genealogies of Isaac Chauncey Wyman I quoted back here both say he descended from Hezekiah through a son named Isaac, and this will confirms that there was such a son. (It doesn’t offer information about that son’s birth date, however.)

Furthermore, the will give son Daniel, in addition to the livestock already listed, “my Horse cart, & all my husbandry Utensils, together with my Gun.” So Hezekiah Wyman definitely owned a gun in 1779.

According to Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts (1908), Hezekiah “bequeathed outside his family the gun he carried” on 19 Apr 1775, but Isaac Chauncey Wyman bought it back. So there’s a contradiction there.

Perhaps by “outside his family” Isaac Chauncey Wyman meant out of his own particular line. Indeed, if his grandfather’s gun was in the hands of a cousin, that would make it more plausible that he could buy back the very same musket about a century later.

What’s more, Chris Hurley has tracked down the musket that Isaac Chauncey Wyman owned. In New Jersey.

TOMORROW: The story that musket tells.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Elizabeth Royal: sergeant’s wife and refugee

The records of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety for 21 June 1775 contain this intriguing resolution:

That Joseph Adams, driver of the stage from Newbury, be, and he hereby is directed, to transport back to Newbury, Elizabeth Royal and her child, who, as she says, is wife to William Royal, first sergeant in the 63d regiment of foot, now in Boston, and deliver her to the care of the selectmen of said Newbury, who are hereby directed to provide for her and her child, at the expense of the colony.
I haven’t been able to turn up anything more about this situation or these people. (A Joseph Adams set up a stage service between Haverhill and Boston in 1793 and engaged in an advertising war with a rival; but that Adams appears to have been new to the coach business.)

Was Elizabeth Royal a native of Newbury who had married Sgt. William Royal? Had she and her child been living in Newbury, separate from her husband? Had Elizabeth been captured on a ship that came into Newbury harbor, and then the local authorities had to figure out what to do with her?

Most important, if Elizabeth wanted to go into Boston to reunite with her husband, why did the Committee of Safety send her away and take on the expense of maintaining her?

More about this story might exist in manuscript form—the Newbury selectmen’s records, the 63rd’s muster rolls, the state’s expense accounts, &c. But for now it’s a mystery.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

“An Attack Was Expected” in Roxbury

Earlier this year I had a few ideas about that note from Lt. Col. Robert Carr that Richard Ketchum quoted in Decisive Day but couldn’t explain.

To start with, the only Capt. Farrington mentioned in British Officers Serving in the American Revolution, 1774-1783, is Capt. Anthony Farrington of the Royal Artillery (son of Maj. Charles Farrington of the same service). So he was the British officer whom Carr asked to dislodge some American field-pieces—with an artillery barrage rather than an infantry attack.

As for “Brownes House,” Enoch Brown’s tavern was a landmark on Boston Neck, sitting between the British fortifications and the provincial lines. Gen. John Burgoyne proposed a parley there to Gen. Charles Lee in July 1775, but the Americans burned it down. So could this note refer to something happening near there, on the other side of town from the Battle of Bunker Hill?

Throughout 17 June 1775, each commander worried that, while so much of his army was engaged in Charlestown, the enemy would open a second front by attacking across the Neck. That danger kept Gen. Artemas Ward at his Cambridge headquarters, monitoring news from both wings. Gen. Thomas Gage was probably in his official residence, the Province House, doing much the same. (More discussion of his location here.)

I therefore wondered if Lt. Col. Carr was the officer in charge of the fortifications on the Neck—the “lines”—and not with his regiment in Charlestown. The fact that he wrote to Gage and not to Gen. William Howe, the battlefield commander, strengthens that hypothesis.

But is there any evidence of the provincials advancing field pieces along the Neck, and the Royal Artillery trying to “make them remove,” as the note says? Indeed there is. Here’s an extract from the journal of Samuel Bixby of Sutton, Massachusetts, printed in volume 14 of the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings:

About noon we fired an alarm, & rung the bells in Roxbury; and every man was ordered to arms, as an attack was expected.

Col. [Ebenezer] Larned marched his Regt. up to the meeting house, & then to the burying yard, which was the alarm post, where we laid in ambush with two field pieces placed to give it to them unawares, should the regulars come.

About 6 o. c. [o’clock] the enemy drew in their sentries, & immediately a heavy fire was opened from the Fortification. The balls whistled over our heads, & through the houses, making the clap-boards and shingles fly in all directions.

Before the firing had begun, the Genl. [John Thomas] ordered some men down the street to fall some apple trees across the street, to hinder the approach of their Artillery.

Lieut [John] Hazeltine picked up a 12 lbs ball—we were anxious to get their balls as though they were gold balls.
If Carr was commanding on the Neck, the American field-pieces he wrote about weren’t any of the cannon left behind on the Bunker Hill battlefield, but the couple used as an ambush in the Roxbury burying-ground. There might still be a mystery in why Carr was separated from his regiment, and who was commanding those men back on the beach at Charlestown.

Bixby’s last line above is another example of Americans stationed in Roxbury “contending for cannon balls.” However, I still haven’t found an example of a man hurt by not waiting until a ball had stopped rolling to try to pick it up.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ketchum’s Mystery at 4:25

Two years after Thomas J. Fleming wrote Now We Are Enemies in 1960, another magazine journalist, Richard M. Ketchum, penned his own popular history of the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was published first as The Battle for Bunker Hill and then as Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill.

In his essay on sources at the back of the book, Ketchum quoted a document that puzzled him. It was a note sent to Gen. Thomas Gage by Lt. Col. Robert Carr from the “lines, [at] 25 minutes past 4 o’clock”:

Sir— The Rebels have advanced some Field Pieces on the rising ground to the left of Brownes House, I have given Capt. Farrington orders to endeavor to make them remove—I am Sir

Your Excelly. Most Obedt

Humble Sevt

Robert Carr

Lt Colo 35 Foot
Ketchum observed a couple of odd things about this missive:
  • Lt. Col. Carr signed the note so genteelly that his signature is half as long as the note itself.
  • Carr describes the New England artillery as advancing its cannons at 4:25. By that time, other sources agree, all the artillerists at Bunker Hill but Capt. Samuel Trevett and his Marblehead company had run away, or never went on the battlefield at all. Ketchum concluded, “it must be assumed these were guns abandoned by [Capts. Samuel] Gridley and [John] Callender, which were still being served by volunteers.”
  • Carr’s 35th Regiment was badly mauled in the fight along the beach, losing three captains and two lieutenants, but where on the Charlestown peninsula was “Brownes House”?
Ketchum didn’t use this source in his recreation of the battle because he couldn’t fit it in with the rest geographically. But in the spirit of completeness he shared it with his readers anyway.

TOMORROW: My theory—Carr was never in the battle.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Twitter Feed, 9-16 June 2010

  • RT @KevinLevin: "Myths That Should By Now Be History" from your friends at Colonial Williamsburg bit.ly/9eL9Q9 #historyteacher #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: Mindblowing digital #WilliamBlake archive: www.blakearchive.org/blake/main.html #
  • Tonight at NEHGS in Boston, 6:00: Maureen Taylor speaks on her book LAST MUSTER, collecting photos of Revolutionary War Generation #
  • Tonight at Folsom Tavern in Exeter, NH, 7:00: Ben Z. Rose talks about Gen John Stark #
  • Tonight at Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury, 5:00: Prof Robert Allison concludes lecture series on Massachusetts in the British Empire. #
  • Tonight at my house, about 8:00: collapsing from a surfeit of historical events to choose from. #
  • RT @Britannica: "Founders envy" leads to foundering politics. Let's move beyond it, says Joe Lane. bit.ly/dszZe6 #
  • The British Consul in Boston is surprisingly tall. I'm just saying. #
  • Wiley's NON SEQUITUR comic strip takes on constitutional originalism: www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2010/06/10/ #
  • Historic New England's searchable database of collections and artifacts: bit.ly/9SJtBM #
  • Review of Rachel Hope Cleves's book on political response to French Revolution in USA: bit.ly/b6m8xP #
  • John Dixon, sentenced to die for burglary in 1784, and (at first) refusing to play the condemned man's expected role: bit.ly/cuCOCT #
  • Actual tea from the Boston Tea Party, collected from the salt water: bit.ly/dgsiUM #
  • Looking at a life sentence through eighteenth-century American eyes: bit.ly/bKEIMq #
  • RT @historyfaculty: Rare photo of slave children found in NC attic: bit.ly/dodvGm #
  • RT @historyfaculty: D.C.'s Jefferson Memorial is Sinking: bit.ly/9JPfpz // Actually just the sea wall out front. Or is water rising? #
  • RT @PaulRevere1734: This day 1768: Customs officials seized John Hancock's sloop Liberty on charge of landing undutied goods. #
  • RT @history_book: War at Sea Under Queen Anne 1702-1708 - by John Hely Owen. amzn.to/a7AgBe #
  • RT @history_book: Bookseller of the Last Century: Being Some Account of the Life of John Newbery - by Charles Welsh amzn.to/c505kr #
  • RT @SecondVirginia: Charleston SC gets new historical marker commemorating the 1780 siege and surrender bit.ly/9WLSoB #
  • RT @rjseaver: #scgs10 Maureen: last living RevWar widow died in 1906. Esther Damon married Noah Damon when he 75, she 20 #
  • Doubts about reported photo of enslaved kids from @KevinLevin bit.ly/aML9eN and Tim Abbott bit.ly/c70v4i #
  • RT @myHNN: What lies beneath: the fakes, mistakes and discoveries at the National Gallery bit.ly/96DiJc #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1743: Francis Dana, member of the 1777 Continental Congress, is born. His silk waistcoat: ow.ly/1WRGM #
  • Francis Dana became USA's first minister to Russia, but Catherine the Great refused to receive him and his young asst, John Quincy Adams. #
  • Early ballooning in London via @lucyinglis: bit.ly/9Xg90c A Bostonian gets in on the action: bit.ly/bWizji #
  • Gravestone showing the frightened soul of Elizbeth Huntington, Windham, CT, 1729: bit.ly/95zdn1 #
  • In ad, Alabama GOP candidate complains about taxation to faux Samuel Adams, ignorant that Adams was tax collector: bit.ly/9oIy9F #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: #JohnAdams:"What a poor, ignorant,crapulous mass is #TomPaine's Common Sense." // Tell us how you feel, John! #
  • RT @alberkes: Here's a lovely article in the New York Times about TJ's travels in Burgundy. bit.ly/98O2uO #
  • RT @TJMonticello: We need your help to solve an honest-to-goodness historical mystery from Jefferson's weather records: bit.ly/aoRXEL #
  • RT @franceshunter: Botany, history, spies & the fate of early America - plus a book giveaway. All this week - bit.ly/c2tvAf #
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: "calls G. Washington, as distiller, a 'small businessman'? (Whiskey rebels would have laughed.)" // Amazing ignorance. #
  • .@historianess But for candidates like this one, it appears that representation counts only if his choice wins and does what he says. #
  • @WilliamHogeland I THINK he means that IRS employees aren't directly elected, but that doesn't help his case on the stupid meter. #
  • Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich popularizes material history in the DESERET NEWS: bit.ly/9RqAYi #
  • This weekend in Deerfield, MA: Dublin Seminar/Costume Society of America conference on "Dressing New England": bit.ly/9IJdP0 #
  • Mini American Revolution summarizes capture of Fort Ticonderoga in nine blog entries: bit.ly/aTmKIv #
  • Pvt James Cuffe managed to desert from His Majesty's 62d and 22d Regiments AND the 12th Massachusetts: bit.ly/9JI38Y #
  • RT @classroomtools: Questioning How is history used to deceive in this political ad youtu.be/6iQ7ZDUutU4 is critical thinking #

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Retracing John Greenwood’s Journey

Yesterday, just in time for today’s anniversary, I received a complimentary copy of John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill, written by Marty Rhodes Figley, illustrated by Craig Orback, and published by Lerner for classroom use.

John Greenwood is one of Boston 1775’s favorite veterans of the Revolution. As a boy he was close friends with Samuel Maverick, a victim in the Boston Massacre. At fifteen he enlisted as a fifer in the army outside Boston. He remained a soldier for years, then spent time on a privateer and in prison. As an adult, he was George Washington’s dentist. And he left a first-person memoir that’s actually fun to read.

Figley adapted the part of that memoir that starts with young John’s decision to run away from his uncle in Maine and head to Boston, where the war has just broken out, to make sure his parents are safe. The book ends with John’s mother leaving him to go back into occupied Boston. In between, there’s a little thing called the Battle of Bunker Hill.

John Greenwood’s Journey looks like a traditional picture book, with Orback’s color illustrations filling two-page spreads. Its text is longer than most of what’s in bookstores these days, but it’s a different sort of book. Lerner Classroom published this volume for teachers to use in “Reader’s Theater,” which is a technique I don’t remember from my own elementary school but have heard a lot about in the last few years. Twelve pages of the paperback repeat the story in script form for a class to read aloud.

The narrative carefully follows John Greenwood’s account of those months, with one deviation that I’ll discuss another day. Greenwood’s first-person memoir becomes a third-person omniscient narrator, so some details that might reflect his perceptions or wishful memories are stated as fact. Then again, Greenwood’s story is refreshingly open about his emotions, so the text can show us his ups and downs without adding to the record.

The one page spread that tripped me up shows the fight at Lexington. Roback’s picture of troops shooting in front of the meeting-house is clearly inspired by images that go back to the Amos Doolittle prints of 1775. But it shows two fallen British soldiers, though the regulars took minimal casualties that morning.

The text on that same page spread says:

Militiamen came from near and far. They chased the British soldiers all the way back to Boston. The British government was furious. Soon thousands of British soldiers poured into Boston to keep the colonists under control.
The British government was indeed furious about what happened on 19 Apr 1775, but they didn’t learn that news until the end of May. Thousands of British soldiers did indeed arrive in Boston between the start of the war and the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the London government had sent them off weeks earlier. Those sentences strike me as implying that the London government sent troops in furious response to the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but the tough part about managing an empire in the 1700s is that nothing was ever that quick.

If I were directing this reader’s theater, I might change the last two sentences to: “But there were many more British soldiers in Boston, and thousands more on the way. The British government was determined to keep the colonists under control.” Then again, I wouldn’t relish that challenge of explaining to a second-grader why I’d deviated from a printed text.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Back to Bunker Hill

Fifty years ago, a young writer named Thomas J. Fleming published his first book, Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill. That was the first study of that battle since the nineteenth century, and many new sources (especially from the British side) had become available. Fleming didn’t set out to write a scholarly history—he imagined dialogue based on historical sources, and didn’t use citations—but he did his best to accurately synthesize the sources and recreate the fight for modern readers.

Now We Are Enemies (reissued in paperback as The Story of Bunker Hill) was also the first of many books about the Revolution by Tom Fleming. In fact, Fleming just won an award from the American Revolution Round Table of New York for his latest, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. (Here‘s a podcast interview about that book.)

Now anyone who’s tracked the A.R.R.T. of New York knows that Tom Fleming has been a big part of its activities. I’m not saying the fix was in. Rather, Fleming’s ubiquity is just a sign of how much he’s contributed to the popular study and discussion of the Revolutionary War in the last fifty years. As another sign, the American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia actually named its own book award after him.

Now We Are Enemies has just been republished by American History Imprints, which sent me a review copy. The book includes a new introduction in which Fleming looks back on its publication:

One of the most enduring memories I have…is how often readers spoke to me or wrote to me in disbelief, confessing they never knew that the battle had ended in headlong American flight, leaving the British in possession of the disputed hill. The climax to this phenomenon was the reaction to the British edition. The headline of one review read: YANK SAYS BRITS WON AT BUNKER HILL!
Fleming is in Boston this week discussing the Battle of Bunker Hill and Now We Are Enemies at these venues:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“The Gun He Carried on that Eventful Day”

Normally the people most eager to preserve and retell the stories of a man’s heroism in the Revolutionary War are his descendants. The case of Hezekiah Wyman is unusual in that a heroic story about him was widely published and republished starting in 1835, but there was no family lore about him in print until sixty years later.

Isaac Chauncey (or Chauncy) Wyman (1827-1910, shown here) was an attorney in Salem. He never married, and left over two million dollars to his alma mater, Princeton. (This bequest turned out to affect Woodrow Wilson’s political career in a backhanded way, but that’s a different story.) Edward Wall’s Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848 contains an unflattering and rather sad profile of this Wyman. A member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, he appears to be the source of statements about his family history published around the turn of the last century.

An 1895 volume of The Bench and Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, collecting profiles about lawyers for sale to those same lawyers, says this about Isaac Chauncey Wyman:

His father [Isaac] was born in Cambridge, January 1, 1762, and died in Salem in 1836, having been present at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill and at the siege of Boston, acting as a substitute for an uncle who was a lieutenant colonel under General [John] Stark, and afterwards serving until the end of the war.

Isaac, the father, was the son of Hezekiah Wyman, a soldier in the army of General [James] Wolfe, who was born in Woburn and was the fifth son of Capt. [Seth] Wyman, memorable for the conduct of “Lovewell’s Fight” and who died of wounds received in that affair.
Lt. Col. Isaac Wyman (1724-1792) of Keene, New Hampshire, did indeed serve under Stark from 23 Apr 1775 to the end of that year. He then returned to New Hampshire and became a colonel in the state militia. His son Isaac (1756-1835) received a pension for Revolutionary military service.

I have no idea why this lieutenant colonel would need a “substitute,” and doubt anyone would have seen a thirteen-year-old boy as a fair replacement. Possibly the author meant “subordinate” or “subaltern”—but I’m not finding records to match that.

Capt. Seth Wyman (1686-1725) was indeed celebrated for “Lovewell’s Fight,” a guerilla battle with Pequawket fighters in the Maine woods in 1725 which sounds like a dreadful affair all around. He didn’t die of his wounds, but of dysentery on a subsequent mission.

I’ll address the other statements about Hezekiah and Isaac Wyman as they appear in more detail in volume 4 of Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts (1908). This series, edited by William Richard Cutter [him again!], combined family lore and genealogical research. Like the book on lawyers, the series was probably financed by the families it discussed.

The entry on the Wyman family describes Hezekiah this way:
He was a soldier in the French and Indian war, and was in General Wolfe’s army at the battle of Quebec. Tradition has it that he pointed out the secret path that led to the Heights of Abraham, by which the British and Americans were led to the plateau, met the French on equal footing and conquered the city.

In recognition of his services in this campaign he was granted a manor in New York, but never claimed his grant, and it was finally taken up by squatters.

When the revolution came he marched with his company on the Lexington alarm and took part in the fighting at Concord, April 19. 1775. When he died he bequeathed outside his family the gun he carried on that eventful dav, but it is now in the possession of his grandson, Isaac Chauncy Wyman, of Salem.

He was fifty-five years old at the time of the battle, and lived but a few years afterward. A picture of him, seated upon a white horse, is preserved in the public library at Woburn. His home was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in later years.
I can’t find Hezekiah Wyman listed as a veteran of Wolfe’s campaign against Quebec, or elsewhere in the French and Indian War. In 1890 the Winchester Historical Society published a list of the town’s veterans of that war, and it doesn’t include him.

A “manor in New York” should be well documented. But the only land grant connected to Hezekiah Wyman that I can find was in Massachusetts. In its 1772-73 session, the legislature granted “Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn” and his brother Ross some land in reward for their father Seth’s services in 1725. The province had granted Seth land which turned out to be over the New Hampshire border. In compensation, Ross and Hezekiah were allowed to develop 500 acres in western Massachusetts instead.

As for Hezekiah Wyman pointing out the secret path up the cliffs to Quebec, that’s an incredible feat for someone who’d never been in the area, isn’t it?

Most interestingly, this family lore says Hezekiah Wyman “marched with his company on the Lexington alarm.” It doesn’t mention him riding a white horse alone, though obviously that story had made it to the Woburn public library. Isaac Chauncey Wyman had supposedly brought his grandfather Hezekiah’s gun back into the family, presumably by buying it—yet his lore makes no mention of extraordinary marksmanship.

The same entry states that Hezekiah’s son Isaac was born in 1756, not 1762, which makes service in the siege of Boston much more likely—unless the genealogists simply confused him with his New Hampshire cousin. Further statements about Isaac:
He was an active and influential patriot in revolutionary days, and a distinguished military figure. He was with his father in the battle of Concord, and rose step by step to the rank of colonel of a cavalry regiment, or horse troops, as they were called. . . .

Colonel Wyman acquired military habits of arbitrary thought and action during the war, and was rather austere and stern. In business he commanded, and his word was law… Like most of the Continental army officers, he was a Free Mason.

He married, July 2, 1820, Elizabeth Ingalls. born in Lynn, January 19, 1789, daughter of Henry Ingalls, an officer at one time of the famous frigate “Constitution.”
I can’t find any mention of an officer on the Constitution named Henry Ingalls.

The only Revolutionary War officer named Isaac Wyman, “horse troops” or not, was the older man from New Hampshire. It’s possible that Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s father achieved the rank of colonel in the militia during peacetime, as stated in a 1910 N.E.H.G.S. obituary. It’s also possible that’s just one more unverifiable thing he said.

One final curiosity about these entries is that, although they give a detailed portrait of Isaac Wyman’s personality, they don’t offer a specific date of death. The latter doesn’t even state a definite year: “about 1836.” That suggests there was some rupture in the family. Several issues of the Salem Gazette in November 1836 carried an advertisement dated the first of that month saying Isaac’s widow Elizabeth had been appointed to administer his estate, meaning he’d died intestate. Isaac Chauncey Wyman was then only eight or nine.

So what can we conclude from Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s family lore?
  • He really, really wanted to have ancestors with distinguished military records.
  • A lot of the information he passed on can’t be confirmed from reliable sources.
  • Despite his hunger for ancestral glory and his low standards of evidence, Isaac Chauncey Wyman didn’t think of his grandfather as the legendary “White Horseman.”
Instead, this Wyman imagined his grandpa Hezekiah and his father Isaac marching together on 19 Apr 1775.

COMING UP: After a pause for Bunker Hill, some concluding thoughts on Hezekiah Wyman.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Young James Russell and a Load of Green Peas

Aside from David Kinnison, who appears to have been ready to tell any Revolutionary story if it would get him a dinner in Chicago around the year 1850, did anyone claim to have actually seen Hezekiah Wyman shooting British soldiers on 19 Apr 1775?

In 1864, the Rev. Samuel Abbott Smith of Arlington believed he had identified such a witness. In his history of that village’s experiences on the first day of the Revolutionary War, Smith wrote:

Through their whole retreat the British had noticed one man in particular, whom they learned especially to dread. He was an old, gray-haired hunter, named Wyman of Woburn, and he rode a fine white horse. He struck the trail as they left Concord, and would ride up within gunshot, then turning the horse throw himself off, aim his long gun resting on the saddle, and that aim was death. They would say, “Look out, there is the man on the white horse.”

He followed them the whole distance, and James Russell, the father of James Russell, Esq., then a boy of a dozen years, from behind a house on Charlestown street, saw him gallop across the brook and up the hill, pursued by a party of the flank guard who kept the plains midway between Charlestown and Main streets. He turned, aimed, and the boy saw one of the British fall. He rode on, and soon the same gun was heard again, this time also with deadly effect.
Smith’s footnotes indicated that he’d heard about Wyman from two people:
  • “James Russell, Esq.,” a former state senator who died in 1863.
  • Thomas Hall, who had married a granddaughter of the Hannah Adams driven from her home on 19 Apr 1775.
Of course, given how widely “The White Horseman” had been reprinted by 1864, lots of people had read about Hezekiah Wyman picking off redcoats with his long gun. The published tale could have supplemented, enhanced, or even launched Arlington’s oral traditions. How, for instance, was twelve-year-old James Russell able to identify the “old, gray-haired hunter” by name if he’d simply seen the man ride past at a distance?

On the other hand, since the published tales said Wyman was from Lexington, how did Smith’s version identify him as “Wyman of Woburn,” the only town with a documented older Hezekiah Wyman?

Was the first James Russell a reliable witness? Arlington vital records say that he was born in April 1763 and died in 1846. He married Rebecca Adams in 1783 (not the daughter of the Hannah Adams mentioned above). James and Rebecca Russell had their first child six months later, and their second son James in 1788. They thus had plenty of time to pass on Revolutionary stories to their kids.

Perhaps too much time. Here’s another Russell family tale, preserved in the second volume of Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County, Massachusetts (1908), edited by William R. Cutter, descendant of yet another Arlington family.
[James Russell] was twelve years old at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill. The day of the battle he and a younger brother drove to Salem with a load of green peas and sold the produce, but the boys were held up by British soldiers at the spot now known as Medford Square, in Medford, and ordered to help carry the dead and wounded from the battle field. The boys had no liking for the dreadful work, and seized an opportunity to make their escape.
How could British soldiers, dying by the score to win the Charlestown peninsula, get to Medford Square? Could these two young boys have ended up on the British side of the siege lines? Was this story garbled in transmission? If so, what does that say about other tales this man’s son passed on in his old age?

TOMORROW: The Wyman family’s own stories.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hezekiah Wyman in His Eighties

In September 1855 the United States Magazine of Science, Art, Manufactures, Agriculture, Commerce & Trade, which obviously didn’t have enough topics to cover, printed a new version of “The White Horseman” with two major changes:

  • The story now said white-haired rider Hezekiah Wyman was “nearly eighty” and “eighty last November.” Those numbers were mutually contradictory, and they added twenty years to Wyman’s age in the 1835 original.
  • The commander of the militia on Lexington common was called “Captain Parker.” He was also “bayoneted in his tracks,” thus combining attributes of two real men: Capt. John Parker and his cousin Jonas Parker, who died from bayonet wounds. (Dramatic photo above of the 2008 reenactment of that killing by Joanne Rathe for the Boston Globe.)
This revamped version of “The White Horseman” was reprinted the following year in John R. Chapin’s The Historical Picture Gallery, or, Scenes and Incidents in American History, which promised “Interesting and Thrilling Narratives from the Written and Unwritten, Legendary and Traditionary, History of the United States.” The story was subtitled “A Reminiscence of Lexington Battle Ground,” implying that Wyman’s adventure was true.

In 1861 the story of eighty-year-old Hezekiah Wyman reappeared in Thrilling Adventures among the Early Settlers, published by the John E. Potter company of Philadelphia. That book’s title page promised:
Desperate Encounters with Indians, Tories, and Refugees; Daring Exploits of Texan Rangers and Others, and Incidents of Guerilla Warfare; Fearful Deeds of the Gamblers and Desperadoes, Rangers and Regulators of the West and Southwest; Hunting Stories, Trapping Adventures, etc., etc., etc.
As a result of such reprinting, by the 1860s lots of Americans knew the story of Hezekiah Wyman. In fact, Charles Bahne found that Henry W. Longfellow’s first draft of “Paul Revere’s Ride” included a stanza referring to Wyman’s white horse. The poet didn’t retell the whole story; rather, he expected his readers to recognize the allusion. (Those lines disappeared before publication, presumably because they would have distracted from the poem’s main story, about another rider.)

When Longfellow wrote in 1860, Charlie notes, more people had probably read about Hezekiah Wyman’s ride on 19 Apr 1775 than about Paul Revere’s.

TOMORROW: But had anyone gathered more evidence in favor of the story?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

David Kinnison “saw the old man on his white horse”

Soon after “The White Horseman” appeared in the Boston Pearl and Literary Digest in 1835, it was reprinted in several newspapers. Over the next few years that tale of mounted sharpshooter Hezekiah Wyman cropped up in other periodicals as their editors scrounged for material. Those republications removed “The White Horseman” from its original context in a literary magazine.

In 1851, Henry C. Watson gave the Wyman story wider circulation by including it in his book The Yankee Tea-Party; or, Boston in 1773. This book is set up as a conversation between some admiring young men and a bunch of very old and talkative Revolutionary War veterans. Jonas Davenport, who “lived near Lexington,” and David Kinnison introduce the Wyman tale this way:

”I can tell you folks of something more about that retreat from Concord,” continued Davenport. “The story is generally known up around the country here, but some of you may not have heard it. It’s about old Hezekiah Wyman, who gained the name of ‘Death on the pale horse.’”

“I heard the story, and saw the old man on his white horse,” remarked Kinnison; “but it will interest the young men, no doubt—so drive on.”
Davenport then goes into a shortened version of the Wyman tale, skipping over the fictional young militia captain named Roe but using a lot of the original language without credit to the Pearl. This version ends with Kinnison saying: “I knew the old fellow well. He had the name of being one of the best shots around that part of the country. I should never want to be within his range.”

Davenport appears to be fictional. Kinnison (or Kennison) was a real man who arrived in Chicago about 1848 claiming to have been born in 1736 and to be the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. He lived off people who believed him until he died in 1852, some thirty years younger than he claimed to be. In the twentieth century writers published some thorough debunking of his claims, but he nevertheless continues to appear on lists of Revolutionary veterans. Kinnison’s picture appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

Watson’s statement that Kinnison claimed to have seen “the old man on his white horse” doesn’t indicate anything about the accuracy of the Wyman story. But it shows that by 1851 lots of people had heard the tale and believed it to be authentic.

TOMORROW: And then Hezekiah Wyman’s story got better.