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.

Follow by Email

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

“Persons Suspected of Being Inimical”

According to Caleb Butler’s 1848 recounting of how Prudence Wright and the women of Pepperell arrested Leonard Whiting in April 1775, that New Hampshire man “was in reality the bearer of despatches from Canada to the British in Boston.” Butler reported that Whiting’s “despatches were sent to the Committee of Safety,” created by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to coordinate the armed resistance.

In An Account of Some of the Early Settlers of West Dunstable, Monson, and Hollis (1915), Charles S. Spaulding wrote of Whiting, “He was detected while carrying treasonable despatches from Canada to Boston to the British officers, by the women of Pepperell…”

Yet the published records of the Committee of Safety don’t mention Whiting, or important intercepted messages from Canada. No researcher appears to have turned up those “treasonable dispatches” in the Massachusetts archives. We do have a short 24 Apr 1775 letter to the Committee of Safety from Oliver Prescott of Groton, the man who reportedly examined Whiting after his arrest, but it says nothing about a prisoner.

Whiting and his associates were definitely under suspicion. On 13 July, a Hillsborough County congress investigated his brother Benjamin, considering depositions from Robert Fletcher and Thompson Maxwell. That body concluded that Benjamin was “an open and avowed enemy to his country,” and cautioned “persons from connexions with him.”

In spring 1776, according to Samuel T. Worcester’s History of the Town of Hollis, local committees of safety and then the New Hampshire assembly summoned the Whiting brothers and Samuel and Thomas Cumings as “persons suspected of being inimical to the Rights and Liberties of the United Colonies.” (This means Thomas Cumings could not have left the area forever immediately after meeting his sister at the Pepperell bridge, as one later tradition claimed.)

In June both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature agreed:

That the said Suspicion is not sufficiently Supported, and that the said Leonard Whiting, Benjamin Whiting, Samuel Cummings, and Thomas Cummings be acquitted & fully Discharged.
But soon the courts indicted Thomas Cumings on a new charge. He forfeited his bail and left the state. Samuel Cumings and Benjamin Whiting followed, and New Hampshire confiscated their property.

Only Leonard Whiting remained in America, but that same local history says, “for a large portion of the years 1777 and 1778 he was imprisoned in the jail at Amherst, with several other accused persons.” Finally, he was released, and returned to the community, regaining a measure of respect by the time he died.

If Leonard Whiting had indeed been caught carrying “treasonable dispatches” in April 1775, it’s hard to believe that the Patriot authorities who kept locking him up between then and 1778 didn’t have enough evidence to convict him.

I think it likely that at some point in 1775-76 the Pepperell women did stop Whiting at the Nashua River bridge and take him to Prescott, the local Patriot organizer. (As for whether Samuel Cumings was along for the ride, the evidence for that is weaker.) Whiting may even have been carrying letters of some sort, and the locals, already suspicious about him, saw those documents as trouble. But treasonable “despatches from Canada to the British in Boston”? I doubt they existed.

What about the alternative explanation that Wright had overheard one of her brothers and Whiting planning to ride to Boston? Given how often those men were arrested in the next few years, heading for the British lines might have made sense. But it seems unlikely they could have brought along much useful military information from north central Massachusetts.

I suspect descendants of the folks who detained Whiting wanted to remember that act as justified, hence the stories of “treasonable despatches” and overheard conversation. No doubt Wright, Prescott, and their neighbors saw themselves as bravely standing up to their enemies. But all the times Whiting was arrested and released without charge look like parts of a wartime witch-hunt, a local manifestation of what historians have called 1775’s “rage militaire.” That’s not the history we like to reenact, but it’s part we should also remember.

TOMORROW: Meeting Prudence Wright.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Prudence Wright and Her Brothers

Yesterday I quoted an 1848 anecdote about women in Pepperell seizing a Loyalist suspected of carrying “despatches from Canada to the British in Boston” in April 1775. Over the next half-century, other authors added to that story.

In an 1873 address in Dunstable, New Hampshire, Samuel T. Worcester filled in some information:

The maiden name of Mrs. David Wright, the heroine of the bridge guard, was Prudence Cumings, a daughter of Samuel Cumings, one of the first settlers of Hollis, and first town clerk. It appears from the Hollis records of “births and marriages,” that Prudence Cumings was born at the parish of West Dunstable, now Hollis, Nov. 26, 1740, and married to David Wright, of Pepperell, Dec. 28, 1761.
In 1899, Mary L. P. Shattuck delivered a talk to the local D.A.R. called “The Story of Jewett’s Bridge,” which she published in 1912. (Here’s the text in P.D.F. form.) This appears to be the most comprehensive telling of the bridge story.

Shattuck collected two versions of the tale, one each from descendants of:
  • the suspected Loyalist, Leonard Whiting (1740-1807) of Hollis; unlike some other men arrested for favoring the Crown, he stayed in the U.S., moving only as far as Cavendish, Vermont.
  • Prudence Wright (1740-1823), the leader of the women at the bridge.
Generally, Shattuck’s additions to the story make it more dramatic. For example, the earliest version reported that Whiting was detained at the home of Oliver Prescott (1731-1804), Groton’s Patriot political leader. Shattuck played up how Whiting’s daughter Nancy married Prescott’s son Oliver—which gives the tale overtones of “How I Met Your Mother.”

Another addition to the original tale isn’t possible to confirm through town records. It says Whiting was riding with another suspected Loyalist named Samuel Cumings, who recognized the voice of the woman shouting at them to stop—because Prudence Wright was his sister. Shattuck even quoted Samuel as saying, “Hold, that’s Prue’s voice, and she would wade through blood for the rebel cause.”

Yet a third addition to the tale was that Prudence Wright had actually overheard her brother (either Samuel or another one, Thomas Cumings) and Whiting discussing how they would ride to Boston and tell the British authorities about what the Patriots were doing. In this version, she organized the guard specifically to block them. And after hearing her voice, Thomas (in one version) left the area for good. That telling plays up family ties the most, and provides an even stronger justification for Wright’s actions.

I’m always dubious about stories that grow better over time without supporting documentation. And this tale strikes me as missing a particular type of evidence.

TOMORROW: The missing documents.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Arrest at the Pepperell Bridge

On Saturday, 4 Sept 2010, there will be a ceremonial reopening of the covered bridge in Pepperell, Massachusetts. One celebration will be a reenactment of something that reportedly took place at a predecessor to that bridge in 1775, soon after the start of the Revolutionary War.

The earliest description of this event that I’ve found appears in Caleb Butler’s History of the Town of Groton: including Pepperell and Shirley, published in 1848:

After the departure of Col. [William] Prescott’s regiment of “minute men,” Mrs. David Wright of Pepperell, Mrs. Job Shattuck of Groton, and the neighborng women, collected at what is now Jewett’s bridge, over the Nashua, between Pepperell and Groton, clothed in their absent husbands’ apparel, and armed with muskets, pitchforks, and such other weapons as they could find, and having elected Mrs. Wright their commander, resolutely determined, that no foe to freedom, foreign or domestic, should pass that bridge. For rumors were rife, that the regulars were approaching, and frightful stories of slaughter flew rapidly from place to place and from house to house.

Soon there appeared one on horseback, supposed to be treasonably engaged in conveying intelligence to the enemy. By the implicit command of Sergeant Wright, he is immediately arrested, unhorsed, searched, and the treasonable correspondence found concealed in his boots. He was detained prisoner and sent to Oliver Prescott, Esq., of Groton, and his despatches were sent to the Committee of Safety.
A footnote identified the detained man as: “Capt Leonard Whiting, of Hollis, N. H., a noted tory. He was in reality the bearer of despatches from Canada to the British in Boston.”

Lorenzo Sabine reprinted Butler’s words without credit in his Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution, the first attempt to compile information on Americans who had sided with the Crown during the Revolution. And since Sabine’s book was more widely distributed than Butler’s, a lot of subsequent authors cited Sabine.

TOMORROW: How the story grew.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Disenfranchising New Jersey Voters in 1807

As I recounted yesterday, New Jersey’s 1776 constitution gave women who headed households and owned £50 worth of property the right to vote. This became significant, in a limited way, as American politics evolved naturally into a two-party system in the 1790s. Federalists and Republicans complained about the other side’s female voters, but, seeking any advantage, praised their own.

In an essay for Publick Occurrences Prof. Rosemary Zagarri discussed this political sniping:

In the heat of party conflicts, members charged that their opponents had taken sexual advantage of the women whom they accompanied to the polls. Others suggested that the women had been coached about their choice of candidates. Still others maintained that the women had been physically coerced into voting. In 1803, New Brunswick Federalists were accused of “rallying the petticoat electors and hurrying them and others to the polls.” In 1802, “whole wagon loads of the ‘privileged fair’” were said to have been brought to the places where ballots were cast.
There seem to have been more complaints from the Republican side, which might mean that wealthy, unmarried women favored the Federalists. Or it might simply reflect how the Republicans were gaining in strength and had more newspapers.

In 1804, moderate Republicans started a centrist third-party movement, shaking up the system. The party also split over where to put a new Essex County courthouse: Elizabethtown or Newark? There was a vote on that question in 1807, and Zagarri reported:
The election itself witnessed unprecedented voter turnout. Newark prevailed. However, supporters of the other site quickly challenged the result, pointing out that the number of ballots cast was three times larger than the eligible voter population.
Even in New Jersey, that looked suspicious. The legislature set out to address the problem. Their solution appears to have involved a lot of yelling.
In the next session of the assembly, legislators hurled charges and countercharges about corruption and fraudulent behavior at state elections. Much of the misbehavior, it was clear, came from white men who voted even though they were not qualified or who voted at different polling places more than once.

The solution, however, focused on marginal populations: women, foreigners, and free blacks. Because women’s dress “favoured disguise,” it was said, some women “have repeated the vote without detection.” More generally, women, blacks, and foreigners had “no interest in the welfare of the state” and were “mere instruments of parties in the state, or the agents of executive designs, formed out of it.” Perhaps most frightening of all, if women, free blacks, or aliens could vote, they might also be able to serve in public office.
National Republican leaders stepped in to broker a compromise and keep their party intact. Newark got the courthouse in exchange for a new election law that protected voting rights for all taxpaying white male citizens. The state’s outnumbered Federalists went along with this because they felt that keeping a property requirement on white men would make up for the loss of their few black and female votes. And no one was left to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.

(The picture above shows the Salem County, New Jersey, courthouse, built in 1735, since the controversial courthouse in Newark no longer exists. The photo by Jimmy Emerson comes via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

New Jersey’s “Petticoat Electors”

Yesterday I took a brief look at the story of one Massachusetts woman casting a vote in a town meeting in 1756. The better documented example of American women voting long before the organized suffrage movement comes from early federal New Jersey.

When New Jersey Patriots wrote a constitution for their newly independent state in 1776, it did not require voters to be male. It required them only to head households and own a certain amount of property. The result was that there was no rule against wealthy, unmarried women voting. (If they had husbands, then the law presumed he headed the household, and each household was ideally supposed to have only one vote.)

Was that limited vote for women simply an oversight? If so, state officials soon realized what their constitution said. New Jersey’s election law of 1790 referred to a voter as “he or she.”

In the following years each party accused the other of bringing “petticoat electors” to the polls, which suggests that New Jerseyans recognized women had the right to vote but still looked askance at them actually exercising that right. Were those complaints well founded? Did custom outweigh the law? In sum, how often did New Jersey women really vote?

The late Piney Creek blog pointed me to a 1992 paper on the topic: “‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,” by Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis, published in the Journal of the American Republic. It assembles a lot of evidence on the question.

New Jersey politicians seemed to agree that in the 1790s there could be up to 10,000 New Jersey women eligible to vote. Reports of actual voting tended to estimate the female electors at only a few dozen per polling place, even in larger towns, with no more than 150 statewide.

A Republican newspaper called the Newark Centinel of Freedom said that at least 75 women voted in Elizabethtown in 1797, and complained again about female Federalists in 1798 and 1800. According to the paper, the opposing party

so ingratiated themselves in the esteem of the Federal ladies of Elizabeth-town, and in the lower part of the state, as to induce them (as it is said) to resolve on turning out to support the Federal ticket.
In fact, the state’s Federalist newspaper made no special claims or appeals to women before the election.

Furthermore, in 1800 the Stony Hill Republican banquet included this toast: “The fair daughters of Columbia, those who voted in behalf of Jefferson and Burr in Particular.” And at Bloomfield one party toast was: “the Republican fair; May their patriotic conduct in the late elections add an irresistible zest to their charms; and raise the female character in the estimation of every friend to his country.”

In 1801 Joseph Bloomfield became the state’s first Republican governor; he went to the polls with “that part of his female household entitled to vote.” So although the Republicans complained about Federalist female voters, they were proud of their own.

Occasionally female voting eligibility led to controversy. In 1802 an election in Hunterdon was decided by a single vote, and one of the (Federalist) voters was a married woman. But she had been separated from her husband for several years, and paid taxes on her own. But she paid those taxes under her married name—so was she eligible? Another argument arose over a formerly enslaved black woman—was she entitled to vote?

TOMORROW: The controversies come to a head in 1804-1807.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Growing Legend of Lydia Taft

Today is the anniversary of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing American women the same voting rights as men.

Some sources, such as this Wikipedia article, say that a widow named Lydia Taft actually voted in the Uxbridge, Massachusetts, town meeting in 1756. In recent years people have named a stretch of highway and a nursing home after Taft.

However, the earliest description of her vote apparently dates from over a century later. In 1881, Rushton D. Burr published an 1864 address in Uxbridge, adding extensive appendices on town history. One of those appendices, titled “The Taft Family,” said this about Lydia Taft:

Her husband died in 1756. The French and Indian war was at hand; the Revolution not far distant [i.e., nearly twenty years later]. A requisition was made upon the town of Uxbridge for a certain sum of money for colonial purposes [i.e., a tax hike]. A meeting of the legal voters was held to see if the money should be granted. The estate of Josiah Taft paid the largest tax in Uxbridge, and his son Bezaleel was a minor [six years old]; but with a sturdy sense of justice that there should be “no taxation without representation [a phrase not coined for years],” the citizens declared that the widow Josiah Taft should vote upon the question. She did so, and her vote was the one that decided in the affirmative that the money should be paid.
More recently, Carol Masiello mined Uxbridge’s vital records to find details of Lydia Taft’s life for this local newspaper article. For example, while Burr remembered her youngest son Bazaleel Taft, the town apparently forgot his older brother Asahel, who was also a minor in 1756. And what about the oldest son, Josiah Taft, who turned twenty-three in 1756 and would ordinarily inherit his father’s place as head of the family with voting rights?

All in all, I’m a little suspicious of the story, for a few reasons. First, I’m not seeing any quotes from 1756 documents. When Uxbridge bent the usual rules to let Lydia Taft vote on the tax hike, was there no complaint from the voters who opposed the tax? There was supposedly an equal number of men on each side. People of the time would complain about “a trifling majority” after losing a close vote, so why accept a decision made by an illegal voter?

Why was there no comment in newspapers or government records on Lydia Taft’s vote or what precedent it might set? (I just looked for reports, and couldn’t find any.)

Second, I see some “memory creep” as people interpret previous writings to make more of Lydia Taft’s suffrage. For example, Masiello’s article reports: “She is mentioned in town records a few times more, once in 1758 to reduce her highway rates and another in 1765 was to change her school district.” In the Wikipedia entry, those mentions of her as a property owner become additional times that Taft voted.

Finally, several articles about Taft (not Masiello’s) reflect later customs, such as stating “she became known as Lydia Chapin Taft.” Actually, she didn’t; she appears in Uxbridge records as “Lydia Taft.” Most eighteenth-century wives didn’t keep their maiden names as middle names; later genealogists (and collateral descendants) like to do that. That makes me question how reliably authors can interpret information about colonial customs.

I can picture the men of Uxbridge deciding to let Lydia Taft participate in this town meeting as her late husband’s administrator, and a sort of proxy for her son. She was a member of the Uxbridge elite, her husband having been one of the richest men in town. Her support for the new colony tax might have carried weight. But I can’t see the men of Uxbridge bending the rules on such a close vote, at least without causing a lot of talk.

It would be nice to see the official records of this town meeting. They might be very skimpy—clerks often tried to avoid recording divisive controversies, so they wrote down only final decisions. If Uxbridge’s 1756 records confirm that “the citizens declared that the widow Josiah Taft should vote,” then Lydia Taft’s place in history is clear. If not, this looks like a local legend—interesting, but not well supported.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Prince Hall Monument in Cambridge

While I was on Cambridge common looking at trees, I also visited the Prince Hall Monument dedicated in May 2010.

I’d heard about this monument for years because of questions about whether it belonged in Cambridge. Prince Hall lived in Boston, where he was the leader of the African-American community in the years after the Revolution. He delivered a published oration in west Cambridge in 1797, but that part of the town became Arlington. There didn’t seem to be any documented connection between Hall and modern Cambridge.

But when I saw the tall dark gray stones, created by local artist Ted Clausen, I was happily impressed. They stand in a circle, evoking both the feeling of being hemmed in, as early American society hemmed in Hall, and of gathering together for strength.

The text engraved on the stones describes Hall’s life and work, going beyond his role in Freemasonry and avoiding myths that have arisen around him. The stones also touch on other milestones and figures in Massachusetts’s civil rights history.

All in all, this monument makes a better case for being rooted where it is than the nearby plaques honoring Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Not that those men weren’t important in America’s Revolutionary War, but I don’t think they ever came to Cambridge or lived nearby.

The photograph above was taken by Wally Gobetz, and comes from Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not the Washington Dogwood!

Last month I posted a series of articles about the Washington Elm on Cambridge common (starting here), which tried to trace the growth and felling of a famous Revolutionary War myth. In doing so, I fear that I launched another myth.

In this posting, I wrote: “Dutch elm disease probably brought down the 1932 replacement elm, so since the 1980s a hardy dogwood has stood in.”

But Cambridge historian Charles Bahne gently told me that the tree on the city common sure looked like an elm to him. My horticultural knowledge is so small I don’t claim to know one deciduous tree from another. I got the dogwood idea from this photograph of a plaque found while searching for online photos marked “Washington Elm.”

In doing so, I missed the fact (unmistakable in Flickr’s new layout) that that plaque describes a “Washington Elm” which stood in New Jersey; it was a descendant and namesake of the one in Cambridge. So the “Washington dogwood” is also, necessarily, in New Jersey.

I’ve now corrected my “The Washington Dogwood?” posting—thanks, Charlie! I even got out to Cambridge common myself this month, and confirmed that the tree near the city’s historic “Washington Elm” monuments is…deciduous.

(Photo above by Wally Gobetz, available through Flickr via a Creative Commons license.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

“Went to Miss Jeale’s to Play at Base Ball with Her”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first literary citation for the word “baseball” comes from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, published in 1796:

Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in, and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves; and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, to books.
That passage suggests that eighteenth-century girls gravitated toward cricket and baseball on their own—it wasn’t seen as a game just for boys.

This spring C.N.N. ran a story confirming the picture of early baseball as a sport for females as well as males:
One notable discovery found in a shed in a village in Surrey, southern England, in 2008 was a handwritten 18th-century diary belonging to a local lawyer, William Bray.

“Went to Stoke church this morn.,” wrote Bray on Easter Monday in 1755. “After dinner, went to Miss Jeale’s to play at base ball with her the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford and H. Parsons. Drank tea and stayed til 8.”

Julian Pooley, a historian at the Surrey History Centre who verified the diary, said Bray’s precise printing of the words “base ball” suggested the sport may have been new to him.

“He writes in a particular type of handwriting but when he comes across a new word he often wrote it in a clear way as if he wanted to remember it,” Pooley told CNN.
The picture above, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1789, offers yet more evidence: it shows two Wood brothers and one Wood sister preparing for a game of cricket. This lively portrait hangs in the Derby Museum and Gallery, and comes courtesy of ArtFund, “an independent charity committed to saving art for everyone to enjoy” in the U.K.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

International Voices in the Debate on American Slavery

Andrew Hamman, a graduate student at the San Francisco State University who has taught high-school history, announced a new online resource called American Slavery Debate: In the Context of Atlantic History. He describes it this way:

an online primary source archive I have developed over the past year while in residence at the Office of Resources for International and Area Studies (ORIAS) at UC-Berkeley.

The website is entitled American Slavery Debate: In the Context of Atlantic History and provides access to 320+ downloadable documents that illustrate the myriad of international influences that affected American attitudes toward slavery and antislavery between the American Revolution and the Civil War. It has been designed to support teaching and research in the fields of both American History and World History and to encourage scholars and educators to widen the lens through which they examine the complex subject of American slavery.
There are three sections now:
  • British Antislavery Influence, 1770-1865
  • Black Emigration Movements – Foreign Support and Opposition, 1787-1865
  • Revolution and Abolition in Haiti, 1791-1865
Most of the documents are from the 1800s, but some show the start of the international debate late in the previous century.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Archives Just Aren’t the Same

On Monday I visited the National Archives outpost in Waltham for the first time since this eventful day. I went to look at the same material as before: pension applications from Revolutionary War veterans who had survived into the 1800s, reproduced on reels and reels of microfilm for distribution around the country.

The steel filing cabinets containing all those reels loomed over the N.A.R.A. reading room. Lined up along the walls were low-tech microfilm readers, kept in dim light to make the images a little brighter. Each of us researchers would hunch over our workspace like extras in a Terry Gilliam movie. Only a couple of the machines could print, so you had to find the images you wanted, unspool the film, walk to a printing machine, crank back to the images,… Still, there was great information that made the trip worthwhile.

This time, however, the helpful staff person told me that they had thrown all those microfilm reels away. What?

A while back, N.A.R.A. entered some sort of public-private partnership with Ancestry.com to digitize the Revolutionary War pension material. That database is now complete. Each agency outlet has a subscription for all its computers. Meanwhile, the service can sell access to the digital files other libraries and individuals. (There’s a similar arrangement with Footnote.com governing other material.)

Instead of reading images projected by microfilm readers, visitors to the N.A.R.A. outlet now sit at computers and read the images on screens. With no more need for the microfilm, the Waltham office discarded all those bulky rolls and, I presume, the looming file cabinets.

As I sank into nostalgia for the horrible old microfilm readers, I kept telling myself that the actual information on them is now more widely available than before. People can research at home. Two people in the same building can look at the same “reel” at the same time. All the computer terminals can print. Scrolling from one image to the next might be a little slower, but that speed will improve while microfilm readers won’t. And the reading room is certainly more airy.

Still, it didn’t feel the same. I may need another visit to get used to the new tech.

It was easier adjusting to a different technological jump forward, at the Massachusetts Historical Society: a microfilm reader that sent the image from an unspooling roll of microfilm into a computer terminal. One could scroll, adjust, magnify, and print using commands on the screen. (Theoretically, at least: I didn’t find an image I wanted to print.)

Both these technological developments threaten to take away the “hunching in the dark” aspect of reading historic documents.

Friday, August 20, 2010

When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water

A while back I read this article by Mary Miley Theobald in Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine about common myths of American historic sites. Then I listened to a podcast interview with the author (MP3 download and transcription). And that in turn told me about her History Myths Debunked blog. Which all, to be accurate, cover the same ground.

My favorite item is “Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter.” People were shorter, but not that shorter. Alternative explanations I’ve heard, referring to earlier centuries and different places, is that people tended to sleep propped up instead of flat, or that shorter beds don’t have so many cold spots.

Theobald offers a different debunking based on looking at actual eighteenth-century beds. It turns out they’re not shorter after all:

Visitors to historic houses are often surprised if the tour guide takes a measuring tape to a “short” bed and they find it is as long or longer than today’s standard 75" double bed. In 1981 Colonial Williamsburg curators surveyed the antique beds in the exhibition buildings and found that all of them equaled or exceeded 6'3", the standard today. Some are as long as 80", the length of today’s king or queen size.

So why do we think the beds are shorter? Because the high bed posts, fabric hangings, canopy, and plouffy mattresses make beds appear shorter in comparison than they are.
The photograph above comes from another Colonial Williamsburg article that debunks the other myth that “sleep tight” refers to rope beds, and comes with a bonus Wizard of Oz reference.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

“Two or Three Women, for Cooks”

So if Adam Foutz wasn’t cooking all those robins for Gen. George Washington’s Cambridge household in the spring of 1776, who was?

The records of steward Timothy Austin mention a cook named Edward Hunt. On 19 July 1775, Austin wrote down the cost of going to Medford to fetch him and, most likely, his wife to work at the house Washington had just moved into.

Over the next few weeks, Austin gave Hunt payments of between one and three shillings every few days: eight payments in August and one in early September. But on 19 September, the steward “paid him in full for his Service in the Kitchen to the 14th. Instant,” and also “paid his Wife.” So the couple’s work was apparently over.

There are a couple of small mysteries associated with that employment. First is that Edward Hunt was already on site in late July when Gen. Washington gave money “To a French Cook.” Is that how Washington identified Hunt? Were two cooks vying for the same job? Was the Frenchman (not mentioned as such in Austin’s records) brought in for a special dinner? Did Washington dine out that day?

The second mystery is that Austin wrote down two payments to Mrs. (Elizabeth) Hunt in the spring of 1776 for “washing the food Linnen” and “washing the Servts. Cloaths.” If that was Edward Hunt’s wife, she might have come back to headquarters to earn some money.

But back to the robins. Since Edward Hunt was long gone by the time Austin started buying robins by the dozen, someone else must have cooked those birds. It looks like Washington’s kitchen staff for most of his stay in Cambridge consisted of women. Indeed, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had initially resolved to recommend to the general a steward and “two or three women, for cooks.”

Unlike Hunt, the women didn’t receive cash payments every few days, so they barely show up in the household accounts. The ones still at work in the spring of 1776 were most likely some of the following:

  • Austin’s daughter Mary, thirty years old and unmarried.
  • Austin’s second wife, Lydia, who also still had three minor children.
  • Dinah (no last name stated, and thus almost certainly an African-American), who started work around the beginning of August.
  • Elizabeth Chapman, a seventeen-year-old who arrived in October.
The Austins and Chapman had all been living in Charlestown before the Battle of Bunker Hill destroyed most of the houses there. The Chapman family found refuge with another family in Malden, and Elizabeth probably jumped at the chance for work that came with room and board and payment at the end of her tenure.

Since there’s no way to be sure what these women’s arrangements were, it’s impossible to compare their compensation to what Austin had paid Edward Hunt in the fall. But I’m fairly certain they got paid less.

(Photo above taken by kroo2u at the Yorktown Victory Center, available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Adam Foutz and the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard

John C. Fitzpatrick erred in writing, back in 1917, that Adam Foutz cooked for Gen. George Washington starting in July 1775, as I described yesterday. But Fitzgerald was correct to say that Foutz was:

  • one of the general’s cooks, and
  • “a member of the Commander-in-chief’s Guard.”
However, Fitzpatrick’s phrasing left the impression, as amplified by Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner and others, that Foutz stopped being a cook when he was transferred.

Instead, the record of his army service is clear that Foutz became a cook for the commander-in-chief’s guard. He is listed with the rank of private, and also designated as a “cook” and “baking for the army.”

Those documents describing Foutz have been published in the Pennsylvania Archives series under such titles as “A List of men of His Excellency’s Guards draughted from the Regt. of the State of Penn’a.” and muster rolls of the guard produced by its commander, Lt. William Colfax, assuring the unit where Foutz originally enlisted that he was cooking for the general.

That company traveled with Gen. Washington, looking after his headquarters papers and equipment. The guard’s job was to stay close to the commander-in-chief. Therefore, it made sense for its cooks also to serve Washington, especially when he was on campaign.

We also know that Foutz cooked for Washington through the end of the war. One of the last entries in the general’s expense book, dated 10 Nov 1783, is: “To the following hired Servts. at Breaking up Ho.Keeping at Rocky Hill - 6 Mo. Wages each.” Adam Foutz received “30 Drs.…£9,” and below that is another entry “To Adam Foutz…Cook…£5/10/—”

Foutz and three other men signed (or, in one case, marked) a receipt for the commander, now part of his papers at the Library of Congress, which reads:
Reced of His Excellency General Washington—Thirty dollars Each—in full for our extra service in his family
So we even have Adam Foutz’s signature confirming that he worked for Washington’s military household well after the Treaty of Paris. TOMORROW: So who was in the Cambridge kitchen?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Arrival of Adam Foutz

When Gen. George Washington stayed in what is now Longfellow National Historic Site during the siege of Boston, he kept a running expense account. The steward that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had recommended, Timothy Austin, kept a more detailed record. And some invoices and receipts survive.

But nowhere in that material is the name of Adam Foutz, often identified as one of Washington’s cooks while he was in Cambridge, as I quoted yesterday.

Instead, Adam Foutz shows up first in documents from Pennsylvania, printed in the vast Pennsylvania Archives series. They show that he enlisted in Capt. John Patterson’s company of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment for the length of the war. One entry says that Foutz arrived on 2 Dec 1776; others imply he enlisted one year later, or perhaps that was when he was transfered. This must be the same guy because documents list him as “cook” and “baking for the army.”

The online Pennsylvania State Archives database shows that the state has several documents related to Foutz’s pay.

Adam Foutz thus came out of Pennsylvania, and joined the Continental Army months after its commander had left Massachusetts. There’s no evidence to link him to the “French Cook” whom Washington paid on 24 July 1775. (Which makes sense really, since Foutz isn’t a common French name.) Alas, there’s also no evidence to identify who that “French Cook” was.

TOMORROW: Adam Foutz and the commander-in-chief’s guard.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Adam Foutz and the General’s “French Cook”

So who was cooking all those robins for Gen. George Washington at his Cambridge headquarters? On 24 July 1775, the commander-in-chief recorded in his expense account that he had paid 2s.5d. “To a French Cook.”

The first scholar to edit this document, John C. Fitzpatrick, identified that cook as “Adam Foutz, later a member of the Commander-in-chief’s Guard.”

That line seems to have caught other authors’ attention. James Thomas Flexner, for example, wrote in the second volume of his Washington biography (later abridged into the volume at the right):

Adam Foutz had the panache of being French, but he soon shifted to guarding headquarters with a musket on his shoulder, we know not whether because he yearned for gunpowder or his sauces did not please.
Burke Davis’s George Washington and the American Revolution echoes that in saying:
The staff included…two cooks, one of whom, the Frenchman Adam Foutz, served briefly in the kitchen before joining Washington’s bodyguard.
Foutz even shows up in Jeff Shaara’s novel Rise to Rebellion, which depicts Washington as sending the man into the ranks because his idea of “worldly cuisine” included “an elaborate dinner whose main attraction was bugs.” No francophobia there!

I’ve been researching Washington’s life in Cambridge in 1775-76, and one small conclusion is that none of that is true. Foutz wasn’t the “French Cook,” he was never at Cambridge, and he never stopped being a cook.

(In addition, Shaara’s novel apparently shows the commander-in-chief still in the Harvard president’s house in October 1775, three months after he had moved to the John Vassall house.)

TOMORROW: The arrival of Adam Foutz.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Weekly Robins

On 13 Mar 1776, things were looking good for Gen. George Washington. Eight days before, the American army had placed heavy cannon on Dorchester heights. The British military had set out to attack that position, but a sudden storm broke that effort almost before it began. There were clear signs that the British were planning to evacuate Boston at last.

At Washington’s Cambridge headquarters, steward Timothy Austin purchased something new for the general’s table.

13 March: “Paid for Six Robbins” … 8d.
These were the first robins that Austin recorded buying since he began managing the general’s household in late July 1775. Perhaps they had been included in the “Fowls” he bought regularly, but I suspect robins were a springtime delicacy.
16 March: “Paid for 1 Dozn. Robbins”… 1s.6d.
Among the other poultry that Washington, his military family, and guests had consumed in the preceding months were chickens, pigeons (some “Fatted”), partridges, “Turkies,” ducks and wood ducks, and geese, both wild and ordinary.
22 March: “for 1 Doz Robbins” … 1s.4d.
The robins appear to have been a hit, given how many more times Austin bought them in Washington’s final three weeks at Cambridge.

By April the general was packing to leave for New York, where he expected the British military to land. Much of the army was already on its way. He had bought a tent and other equipment for a summertime campaign, and established a guard unit to look after his command materials. Washington would leave Cambridge on 4 April, but before then there might well have been a celebratory dinner or two.
1 April: “Paid for 2 Dozn. Robbins” … 2s.8d.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Jonathan Sewell’s D.N.A.

The new issue of American Ancestors just arrived, and it shares interesting gossip about one of the people I’ll mention in my “Ladies of Tory Row” walking tour this afternoon at 3:30.

I’ll touch on this person only briefly—my focus at that stop will be his mom, and he was only eight at the time. So I’m sharing the gossip here.

Jonathan Sewell (1766-1839, shown here) grew up in Cambridge as the namesake son of Massachusetts’s Attorney General. The family left the province as Loyalists and spent some unhappy years in England, where they started spelling their name Sewell instead of Sewall. As a young man Sewell emigrated to Canada, studied law, and eventually became the Chief Justice of Upper Canada (Quebec).

In 1793, Sewell acknowledged that he was the father of an infant boy, baptized John St. Alban Sewell. Sewell wasn’t married at the time. Neither was the baby’s mother, Elizabeth Cornfield. The situation was awkward, but you no doubt see a solution—the parents got married.

To other people. Within a few months Cornfield married Sgt. John Finch, a British army musician. Three years later Sewell married Henrietta Smith, whose family were Loyalists from New York. The Sewell household included Jonathan’s little boy, who grew up to be a very handsome British army officer.

In later years some of John St. Alban Sewell’s descendants whispered that the Chief Justice wasn’t his real father. Rather, that man had been covering up for the actual parents, Prince Edward of Britain (1767-1820) and his mistress, Julie St. Laurent. Or maybe Prince Edward and Elizabeth Cornfield. Either way, the officer was secretly a half-sibling of Queen Victoria.

Eben W. Graves is researching the genealogy of all the Sewells in North America, as he relates on his website. His American Ancestors article describes the results of Y-chromosome testing he recently arranged for five volunteers from different patrilineal branches of the Sewell family, including one descendant of John St. Alban Sewell.

And the shocking result was: that baby boy was actually a Sewell. His patrilineal descendant has the same genetic haplotype as other descendants of the first Sewall to settle in Massachusetts. So this paternity revealed…what the written record had said all along.

What was the evidence for a royal paternity? As far as I can see on Graves’s webpage about John St. Alban Sewell, it wasn’t very compelling. One point is:

When Jonathan Sewell married in 1796, John St. Alban remained in the home and was brought up as an elder brother of the family. Then, as now, it was completely and totally socially unacceptable for a child from a previous relationship that didn’t have the blessing of the church to even be referred to, let alone remain in the family.
Some Revolutionary-era American men did bring up illegitimate children within their households: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Flucker, James Lovell. And now we have another eighteenth-century example.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Regulars Are Out on the Common This Weekend

This weekend brings the annual Revolutionary War British army encampment on Boston Common sponsored by the Freedom Trail Foundation. The foundation’s event page includes these highlights, among other moments:

Friday August 13
3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
British re-enactors soldiers set up camp

Saturday, August 14
9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Demonstrations throughout the day: mock tents, bed making, shoemaking, a medical tent, clothing and uniforms, court marshal, stocks, music, pottery,children’s activities

10:30 a.m. & 2:00 p.m.
Musket drills and black powder firing

12:00 Noon
Skirmish with Colonial Militia

6:00 p.m.
Military Parade to Faneuil Hall Marketplace

7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Dancing under the stars – Poor Richard’s Penny, early American musical ensemble plays while caller announces dance steps (public is invited to dance)

Sunday, August 15
9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Demonstrations throughout the day

12:00 Noon
Drill/Musket firing
The photograph above appeared at Universal Hub after the last encampment in 2008. It does a nice job of capturing the flavor of the day.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Naming Rights and Wrongs

For the past three days I’ve explored the history of what people have called the fighting on the north side of Boston harbor in late May 1775. That question may involve more than historical accuracy.

If we call the event “The Battle of Chelsea Creek,” as a recent research grant does, that naturally calls to mind the city of Chelsea, from which the provincial forces embarked and fired. Using the name “Noddle’s Island,” the object of the main fighting, links the event to modern East Boston, which was developed as that island became part of the mainland.

Not only are there bragging rights involved, but if the current National Park Service initiative results in some sort of historic site, that could affect tourism and land values.

There’s also a question of whether the fight, which ended with no dead on the American side and only two on the British (American accounts at the time greatly exaggerated that damage), should count as a “battle.” Some local historians thought not.

Personally I like the name “Fight over Noddle’s Island” because it seems more in scale with the casualties and because it preserves the fun name “Noddle’s Island.” (Noddle’s Island! Noddle’s Island! Noddle’s Island!)

But I can’t get too exercised about the justice or injustice of names for Revolutionary events because so many are already biased, inaccurate, or anachronistic. We use those names mainly as conventions; we need a common way to refer to events, and sometimes those names carry a bit of awkwardness along.

In 1770 Bostonians quickly referred to the 5 March riot and shooting on King Street in which five people died as a “Horrid Massacre.” In London, a pamphlet published about the same event called it “the Late Unhappy Disturbance.” Today the term “Boston Massacre” prevails, even as many American accounts lean toward the British soldiers and downplay their share of responsibility for the violence.

For decades after 1773 locals and historians referred to Bostonians’ “destruction of the tea.” The term “Boston Tea Party” was invented in the late 1820s, apparently by a man named Joshua Wyeth, who claimed to have participated. (I find some details of his interviews suspicious, but others have looked into his legal testimony and been convinced.) The new label originally referred to the men involved—they constituted the “tea party”—and only later to the action. But now everyone knows what “Boston Tea Party” refers to, even if we disagree about today’s Tea Party or Parties.

Another latter-day term is “Powder Alarm” for the militia mobilization of 2 Sept 1774. Richard Frothingham used it in his 1865 Life and Times of Joseph Warren, but I don’t see the phrase in earlier sources.

We use the term “Battle of Lexington and Concord” because those towns saw the most significant shooting in 1775, according to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. And those shots were significant because, the congress declared, the British army clearly fired first. (The situation isn’t that clear from today’s perspective.) Of course, there was also shooting in many other towns as well, with the worst American casualties coming in Menotomy, but more inclusive alternative names like “Battle Road” haven’t caught on.

Finally, there’s the “Battle of Bunker Hill.” The provincials built their redoubt on top of a rise called Breed’s Hill; people disagree on whether that was then considered merely part of the larger Bunker’s Hill or a separate feature. By the end of the day, the British forces had taken both Breed’s Hill and Bunker’s Hill, and remained on the latter until evacuating Boston in March 1776. So even though the major fighting occurred on Breed’s Hill, what we now call Bunker Hill was the prize.

Will the Fight over Noddle’s Island, the Battle of Chelsea, or the Battle of Chelsea Creek become as significant a name?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Asa Lawrence at the “Battle of Chelsea”

Asa Lawrence (1737-1804) was a provincial army captain from Groton. In the second volume of his Groton Historical Series (1890), the indefatigable local historian Samuel Abbott Green published Lawrence’s 1779 petition to the Massachusetts General Court, asking for some compensation and support:

Humbly shewes Asa Lawrence of Groton in the County of Middlesex that he was in the Engagement of the 17th of June at Charlestown [i.e., the Battle of Bunker Hill] and there lost goods an account whereof is hereunto annexed—

and that at the Battle of Chelsea he risqued his Life at the Command of general [Israel] Putnam to Burn one of the Enemies armed Vessels and after many attempts he finally effected the same whereby there was an acquisition of twelve peices of Cannon to the Public,

and also that he served seven weeks in the late Expedition against Rhode Island as a Volunteer and has never had any reward for said services or Compensation for his said Losses.

Wherefore he prays that a due allowance may be made him for his services and losses aforesd and he as in duty bound shall ever pray &c.
The Massachusetts legislature voted to grant Lawrence £100 for the “gun, knapsack, bayonet, coat, blanket, &c.” that he lost at Bunker Hill.

This petition suggests that the fight in late May 1775 had become known in Massachusetts as “the Battle of Chelsea.” Of course, Lawrence had every reason to portray that fight as an important battle since he had played an important role in it and was seeking some reward.

I can’t leave Capt. Lawrence without noting the evidence, mentioned in this article, that his twelve-year-old son Rowland (or Roland) came with him to the siege of Boston as a “waiter,” or personal servant and gofer. Later, in 1776-77, Rowland served four months in the militia at Dorchester.

TOMORROW: So what does this mean for “the Battle of Chelsea Creek”?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Battle of Chelsea…Creek?

In the very late 1800s, a man named Albert D. Bosson (1853-1926) started to promote the link between the late May 1775 fighting in Boston harbor and the town of Chelsea. No surprise, but Bosson was a native of Chelsea. He also grew up to be the city mayor and then a judge.

On 27 May 1898, the anniversary of the start of the fight, Bosson delivered an address to the Old Suffolk Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. That speech was published as The Battle of Chelsea.

Bosson’s talk must have been a hit because he got invitations to give similar lectures elsewhere. On 2 Nov 1898, he “read a paper on ‘The Battle of Chelsea, 1775,’ a bit of forgotten history” at a meeting of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. On 22 November, he addressed the Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and this time his paper was titled “An Outbreak of the Revolution, or the Battle of Chelsea Creek.”

That last was apparently the earliest use of the name “Battle of Chelsea Creek.” Perhaps some of Bosson’s listeners had pressed him on the fact that most of the fight wasn’t in Chelsea, but over Hog Island and Noddle’s Island, which with some landfilling had become East Boston, and over the British sloop Diana, which ran aground in shallow water.

The new name stuck, at least for a while. In 1907 the Suffolk Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution celebrated the “132d anniversary of the battle of Chelsea Creek.” The following year Fred W. Lamb published “A Brief Sketch of the Battle of Chelsea Creek,” and William R. Cutter’s Historic Homes and Places of Middlesex County used the same term.

However, that name was definitely an anachronism. The 1775 account I cited yesterday didn’t refer to “Chelsea Creek” or any other creek. One of the reminiscences in Mellen Chamberlain’s A Documentary History of Chelsea (1908) says, “They [the British schooner] sailed up Chelsea Creek, near to the Rubber Works,” but obviously that account didn’t use period landmarks—there was no “Rubber Works” in colonial Boston.

In fact, I can’t find the phrase “Chelsea Creek” in the Early American Newspaper database until 1834. That part of Boston harbor may not have been considered a creek at all until landfills and other projects in the early 1800s had narrowed the water between Noddle’s Island and Chelsea.

TOMORROW: What was the fight called in 1779?

Monday, August 09, 2010

What Should We Call the Fighting in Late May 1775?

In late May 1775, New England and British forces fought over the livestock on Hog Island and Noddle’s Island in Boston harbor. During the shooting a Royal Navy sloop called the Diana ran aground. Provincials attacked from the Chelsea mainland, using their cannon for the first time. The British abandoned the vessel, and the Americans stripped off its artillery and set fire to it. All that is documented.

But what do we call that event? East Boston historian Michael A. Laurano raised that question in urging the National Park Service not to adopt the name “Battle of Chelsea Creek.”

To go back to some of the earliest reports, the first volume of Almon’s Remembrancer, a London-based round-up of the previous year’s news, included a letter sent from Newport, Rhode Island, on 1 June 1775 headlined “A circumstantial Account of a Skirmish between the Provincials and the Regulars, at Chelsea, Hogg Island, &c.” A note at the end says, “The above was brought by the Beaver, Capt. Coffin, from Nantucket.”

In the mid-1800s Peter Force transcribed that account (approximately) for his monumental American Archives. He gave the item this title: “Circumstantial Account of the Battle at Chelsea, Hog Island, Etc. in Massachusetts” So the “Skirmish” became a “Battle.”

In turn, Increase N. Tarbox [what a wonderful name] mistranscribed Force’s headline as “‘Circumstantial Account of the Battle of Chelsea, Hog Island,’ etc.” in his 1876 Life of Israel Putnam. Other Putnam biographers also used the phrase “Battle of Chelsea.”

In doing so, those Connecticut authors also followed the lead of Horace Bushnell. On 4 June 1851, he delivered a speech to the Connecticut legislature titled “A Historical Estimate of Connecticut.” No surprise, but Bushnell estimated Connecticut rather highly, and mentioned Gen. Israel Putnam among the reasons why. Bushnell referred to Putnam’s “successful encounter sometimes called the battle of Chelsea.”

The battle looked less impressive to historians writing closer to the action, and not so focused on Putnam. In his History of the Siege of Boston (published in three editions between 1849 and 1903), Richard P. Frothingham never referred to a “battle of Chelsea.” He discussed the fighting in late May 1775 as occurring on Hog Island and Noddle’s Island, and wrote:

This affair was magnified into a battle, and the gallantry of the men engaged in it, and the bravery of General Putnam, elicited general praise. The news of it, arriving in Congress just as it was choosing general officers, influenced the vote of Putnam for major-general, which was unanimous.
Another American historian, Henry B. Dawson, titled his chapter about the fight in Battles of the United States (1853) as “Affair on Noddle’s Island.”

In Mellen Chamberlain’s posthumously published A Documentary History of Chelsea (1908), the equivalent chapter is titled “Removal of Livestock from the Islands.” Chamberlain wrote, “A skirmish with no loss of life on the American side, and with small loss on the British, has been magnified as a battle.”

TOMORROW: Who had recently been doing the magnifying?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

August Family Programs at National Heritage Museum

Here are a couple of upcoming kids’ programs at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington:

Come to the Museum bright and early on Tuesday, August 10 for “Clothing, Fashion, and Homespun Politics” from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. This special program features Carrie Midura, historic interpreter and expert seamstress, who will demonstrate colonial fashion and explain the role it played in Lexington’s revolutionary politics. For families with children ages 6 and up. $5/family (non-members); $3/family (members). Meet us in the “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty” gallery. Pre-registration is not necessary.

On Wednesday, August 18, we have an offering for the very young. The “Mornings at the Museum” program will explore “Kids in Colonial Times.” We’ll read a story about how children lived in the 1700s, visit the exhibition “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty,” and make a familiar colonial object. This program starts promptly at 10:30 a.m., please arrive by 10:15. The program is designed for children ages 2 to 5 with accompanying adult. $5/participating child (non-members); $3/participating child (members). Pre-registration is not necessary.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

“A Private and Precipitate Journey from Concord to Cambridge”

This afternoon at 3:30 I’m leading my new “Ladies of Tory Row” walking tour of Brattle Street in Cambridge, starting at the Tory Row historical marker at the Mason Street corner.

One of the sources I’m drawing on for my anecdotes is this apology signed by Dr. Joseph Lee of Concord on 19 Sept 1774. It refers to what he had done earlier that month at the start of the Powder Alarm—he’d warned a Loyalist friend in Cambridge that Middlesex militiamen were on their way.

Whereas I, Joseph Lee of Concord, physician, on the evening of the first ultimo [i.e., of this month], did rashly and without consideration make a private and precipitate journey from Concord to Cambridge, to inform Judge Lee, that the country was assembling to come down, (and on no other business,) that he and others concerned might prepare themselves for the event, and with an avowed intention to deceive the people;

by which the parties assembling might have been exposed to the brutal rage of the soldiery, who had timely notice to have waylaid the roads, and fired on them while unarmed and defenceless in the dark: [Of course, that never happened.]

by which imprudent conduct I might have prevented the salutary designs of my countrymen, whose innocent intentions were only to request certain gentlemen, sworn into office on the new system of government, to resign their offices, in order to prevent the operation of that (so much detested) act of the British Parliament for regulating the government of the Massachusetts Bay:

by all which I have justly drawn upon me the displeasure of my countrymen:

When I coolly reflect on my own imprudence, it fills my mind with the deepest anxiety.

I deprecate the resentment of my injured country, humbly confess my errors, and implore the forgiveness of a generous and free people, solemnly declaring that for the future I will never convey any intelligence to any of the court party, neither directly nor indirectly, by which the designs of the people may be frustrated, in opposing the barbarous policy of an arbitrary, wicked, and corrupt administration.
Confusing matters a little is that both the judge in Cambridge and the physician in Concord were named Joseph Lee. I’m going to look at those events through the eyes of Judge Joseph Lee’s wife, Rebecca. The couple lived in the house shown above, now the headquarters of the Cambridge Historical Society.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Washington Meets Knox, 5 July 1775

On 2 July 1775, in the afternoon, Gen. George Washington and Gen. Charles Lee arrived in Cambridge and sat down with Gen. Artemas Ward to shift the command of the American army. On 3 July, as these soldiers’ diaries show, Washington and Lee visited the fortifications and camps on the north wing of the American siege line. The next day they were at Cambridge since they met some Gen. Nathanael Greene’s Rhode Island troops there.

And on 5 July, Washington made the acquaintance of a young man who would become one of his closest and most loyal associates.

That man (shown here, a few years later) was Henry Knox, then a twenty-four-year-old bookseller who had made his way out of Boston with his new wife Lucy, daughter of Massachusetts’s royal Secretary, Thomas Flucker. In late June, Knox volunteered to help lay out fortifications for the provincial troops. He had never been in a siege, and his military experience was limited to a few years as a lieutenant drilling Boston’s militia grenadier company. But Knox had read a lot about fortifications.

Early on the morning of 6 July, Henry wrote to Lucy in Worcester from Capt. Lemuel Childs’s house at Roxbury. The previous day, he was excited to report, his work had caught the eyes of two very important men:

Yesterday, as I was going to Cambridge, I met the generals, who begged me to return to Roxbury again, which I did. When they had viewed the works, they expressed the greatest pleasure and surprise at their situation and apparent utility, to say nothing of the plan, which did not escape their praise.
By the end of the year Washington and the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress, particularly John Adams, had gotten Knox installed as colonel of the American artillery regiment, replacing Col. Richard Gridley. Within a couple of years Knox was a general, and later he served as U.S. Secretary of War under the Confederation and then under the new federal government’s first President.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

“Rejected By the General”?

Last month I quoted a letter that Gen. Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island wrote on 4 July 1775, proudly describing how he had sent greetings the new commander-in-chief, George Washington:

I sent a detachment today of two hundred men, commanded by a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and major with a letter of address to welcome his Excellency to camp. The detachment met with a very gracious reception, and his Excellency returned me a very polite answer, and invitation to visit him at his headquarters.
But apparently not everyone got the same sunny impression of this event. Ens. (or Cornet) Noah Chapin of Connecticut wrote in his diary for the same day:
this Day near 2000 Troops musterd toward Cambrid to waight on the new Generals But was Rejected By the General Who said they did not want to have time spent in waiting on them.
How to reconcile those two sources? One possibility is that Chapin was passing on secondhand information that exaggerated the number of men involved while Greene described only the most favorable part of Washington’s response for the folks back home.

Another is that news of Washington’s laudatory reception for Greene’s 200 Rhode Island soldiers caused other brigadiers and colonels to start sending delegations until the commander-in-chief told everyone to go back to their posts.

Either way, it seems clear that Washington wanted to see his new troops manning the siege lines, not all assembled in one place for review, as legends of the next century depicted.

TOMORROW: And the day after that.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

“Redcoats & Rebels” at Sturbridge, 7-8 Aug 2010

On the weekend of 7-8 August, Old Sturbridge Village is hosting its annual “Redcoats & Rebels” gathering, the “largest military re-enactment in New England.” The museum’s press release says:

More than 40 units will conduct mock battles with lots of musket, cannon and artillery fire, demonstrate marching and drilling, and entertain visitors with fife and drum music. British units and their Irish, Welsh, and Scotch allies will camp the OSV Common, and units portraying Colonial Minutemen and their French allies will be camped throughout the Village countryside.
This press release includes an impressive list of participating units.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Visiting the “Ladies of Tory Row,” 7 and 14 Aug 2010

The next two Saturdays, 7 and 14 August, are the Cambridge Discovery Days for 2010. Once again the city will host a series of walking tours, exhibits, and lectures exploring its history. Most of those events are free, though some require reservations and two interior tours have fees.

This year’s theme is “Women’s Voices,” and I’m offering a new tour of Brattle Street called “The Ladies of Tory Row.” As a sampler, here’s a description of life along that highway before the Revolution, at least as Frederika von Massow Riedesel heard about it:

We…were then transferred to Cambridge, where we were lodged in one of the best houses of the place, which belonged to Royalists. Seven families, who were connected by relationship, or lived in great intimacy, had here farms, gardens, and splendid mansions, and not far off orchards, and the buildings were at a quarter of a mile distant from each other.

The owners had been in the habit of assembling every afternoon in one or another of these houses, and of diverting themselves with music or dancing, and lived in affluence, in good humor, and without care, until this unfortunate war at once dispersed them, and transformed all their houses into solitary abodes, except two, the proprietors of which were also soon obliged to make their escape.
Riedesel had come to North America with her young children to be with her husband, a German officer commanding the Crown’s “Hessian” soldiers. Baron Riedesel had to surrender with his troops in the Saratoga campaign, and brought his family along into captivity. Massachusetts found quarters for the Riedesels in the mansion that had belonged to Loyalist official Jonathan Sewall.

That house will be one of the stops on my “Ladies of Tory Row” tour. You can download the full schedule of Cambridge Discovery Days activities from this page.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Rediscovering Ruth Bryant

And can we walk through Concords streets
See where the crimson flood,
That gushing from our Brethrens hearts
Like ponds of water stood;

See where our mangled Brethren be
Their bodies scarcely cold!—
Can we embrace the murderers then
When we this scene behold?
These lines come from “An Address to the Sons of Liberty Written in the Year 1775” by Ruth Bryant, who was fifteen years old that year. She was the daughter of a doctor in North Bridgewater.

That poem was just published for the first time in the July 2010 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, as part of Rachel Hope Cleves’s article “‘Heedless Youth’: The Revolutionary War Poetry of Ruth Bryant (1760–83).” The journal’s abstract says:
The six manuscript poems by Ruth Bryant of Massachusetts, published here for the first time, are possibly the only surviving poems written by a female youth during the War for Independence, although revolutionary newspapers occasionally printed poems written by girls. The original poems are archived at the Bureau County Historical Society in Princeton, Illinois, where they were preserved because of the author’s connection to her nephew, the nineteenth-century poet and editor William Cullen Bryant.

Bryant’s poems reveal that girls could participate in the diffusion of revolutionary ideals not only through the rhetoric of “republican motherhood” evoked by adult women but also through a juvenile model of martial femininity. Bryant’s poems show a passion for the battlefield often absent from adult women’s poetry. And yet Bryant’s poems also operate comfortably within expectations for female poets during the eighteenth century, using typical feminine genres such as ex tempore courtship verses, elegies, and acrostics. The poems shed light on how, under revolutionary pressure, the gender system could bend without breaking.
While this article and others are available online only to subscribers, many research libraries carry print copies of the journal. (All the book reviews in this issue of the W.M.Q. can be downloaded here.)

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Out at Barrett’s Farm

I enjoyed yesterday’s celebration of the 300th anniversary of James Barrett’s birth even more than I expected. Of course, perfect weather makes any day enjoyable.

There were so many people who came to share their pride in that Concord site: Barrett descendants, local preservationists, fine craftspeople, dedicated reenactors, National Park Service staff and volunteers, and families from the area.

Work on the house itself was much farther along than when I first saw it, and farther along than back in the fall when Along the King’s Highway featured the picture above. (Here’s another article on work at the site, from New England Travel Planner in 2007.) Carpenters were hewing beams and installing rafters even as the celebration went on.

I got to go down to the unfinished cellar, which may be where Col. Barrett hid the Boston militia artillery company’s four cannon in the weeks before 18 Apr 1775. At least that’s where Gen. Thomas Gage’s spies said those cannon were.

My oddest moment was watching a video by two Nashoba Brooks School students that depicted, among other things, Gen. Gage and his wife Margaret discussing his plans to send troops to Concord. The scene reflected a hypothesis I put forward in a paper a few years back, that Gage was particularly eager to find the four cannon from Boston so that he wouldn’t have to tell his superiors in London that they’d gotten away from him in the first place. Apparently, I’ve already affected local youth with my wild ideas.

The local non-profit group Save Our Heritage is working hard to completely restore the Barrett homestead and make it a permanent part of Minute Man National Historical Park. With enough funds and time, everyone will be able to visit this significant historic site year-round.