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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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Finding Washington’s “Welch Mountains”

Boston 1775 readers come through again! Last week I wrote about my frustrated quest to locate “the Welch Mountains,” which Joseph Reed’s notes of a July 1775 council of war stated would be the Continental Army’s rendezvous point if the British forces overwhelmed the siege lines around Boston.

Authors linked to west Cambridge/Arlington felt that those Welch mountains must be in (surprise!) west Cambridge/Arlington. Local historians would of course be in the best position to know local geographic terms, but they’d also be the most eager to claim that their local sites were historically significant. The Arlington authors had to acknowledge that they couldn’t find anyone who recognized that term for the Arlington hills. I couldn’t find any use of it not traceable back to Reed’s notes.

This week Stephenson Taylor Clark wrote by email:
The first meeting between [Gen. George] Washington and his council of war is also reported in Charles Martyn’s Life of Artemas Ward, page 165-166 as follows:

“The council unanimously decided to maintain the posts taken under General Ward and also agreed not to attempt ‘to take possession of Dorchester Point nor to oppose the enemy if they should attempt to possess it.’ It estimated that an army of ‘at least 22,000’ was necessary to maintain the siege—5000 more than the existing total enrollment and 7500 more than the number of those returned as ‘fit for duty.’ It directed the commander-in-chief to apply to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for temporary reinforcements [i.e., militia], and ordered a campaign to stimulate recruiting. Weld’s Hill, in the rear of the Roxbury positions, was chosen as a rendezvous in the event of the army being dispersed by a British attack.”

Weld Hills is, according to the maps, in the right location around Jamaica Plains. The original transcribers of Washington’s report (I have not seen the primary document so this is an educated guess) probably got “Welch” for “Weld’s”, an easy mistake. Interpreting Washington’s papers (reading his hand and those of his many secretaries) was and is a monumnetal ongoing task.
With that alert, I was able to find an earlier identification in Francis S. Drake’s history of Roxbury, first published in 1878. It probably influenced Martyn:
It was further agreed that if the troops should be attacked and routed by the enemy, the place of rendezvous should be Weld’s Hill, in the rear of the Roxbury lines. This hill, erroneously called Wales’s Hill, by Mr. [Jared] Sparks and others, is the high eminence on what was the Bussey farm. This point covered the road to Dedham, where the army supplies were stored.
The Jamaica Plain Historical Society says that hill is now “Bussey Hill in the Arboretum,” named after the man who owned the land from 1806 to 1842. The society also has a webpage on the Weld family’s original holdings.

Other parts of the region are named “Weld Hill Street,” “Walk Hill,” and of course the Forest Hills Cemetery. A webpage on the neighborhood’s green spaces from Harvard, which owns the Arboretum, says:
As the names “Weld Hill” and “Walk Hill” imply, the topography is steep. Hills slope upward from Hyde Park Avenue. Outcroppings of Roxbury Puddingstone dot the landscape.
I suspect that the Massachusetts generals in council were thinking of all of those hills, and Reed, a Philadelphian unfamiliar with the area, wrote down with the hopeful term “the Weld Mountains.”

I haven’t found uses of “Weld Mountains” or “Hill(s)” in newspapers from 1775, but the phrase “Weld Hill” has remained in local use to this day.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting series of posts as it reveals several common problems encountered by modern researchers and historians.
The ‘Welch Hills’ question shows how the inaccuracy of a single word in the transcription of a primary document might cause confusion.
Additionally, 'local' names, from the 18th century, for a geographical area are often different than today’s place-names. Example: Menotony is now Arlington. Are we looking for Welch Hills, Weld’s Hill, Walk Hills or somewhere else?
Thirdly, as Mr. Bell points out, ‘patriotic’ fervor caused townships to perpetuate local myths, “Local historians would of course be in the best position to know local geographic terms, but they’d also be the most eager to claim that their local sites were historically significant.”
More and more detailed research, as Mr. Bell quite clearly shows, is the universally accepted method of redress for most of these questions. Good Work!
Another interesting question is brought up by this Post. What was the true state of the infant army (of the united colonies) in the early part of the siege of Boston? “The council unanimously decided to maintain the posts taken under General Ward and also agreed not to attempt ‘to take possession of Dorchester Point nor to oppose the enemy if they should attempt to possess it.’”

John L. Smith said...

Fascinating, and good assembling of the puzzle pieces by Boston 1775 readers! So most likely then - it was the misinterpretation by Reed, Washington's trusted and esteemed secretary, who put the Welch Mountains into history books? Who says there are no new discoveries in colonial history?! :)

Peter Ansoff said...

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the images of the 9 July 75 conference proceedings in the GW papers at the LOC. There are two versions, a rough draft and a smooth (the latter presumably in Reed's hand). The smooth clearly says "Welsh." The rough is a bit difficult to read, but it looks like "Welsh" to me as well.

Charles Bahne said...

Some great historical sleuthing! Congratulations to all.

Another Weld property in this area was the present Larz Anderson Park in Brookline, just west of Jamaica Pond. Larz Anderson's wife, Isabel, was a Weld and she'd inherited the property.

The 1903 and 1946 USGS quadrangle maps [http://docs.unh.edu/MA/bstn03sw.jpg]; [http://docs.unh.edu/MA/nwtn46se.jpg] both show a "Mt. Walley" in this area, just south of Larz Anderson Park and about a mile northwest of Bussey Hill. At 313 feet, it's considerably higher than Bussey Hill.