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 05, 2011

Looking for Washington’s “Welch Mountains”

Yesterday I quoted from the minutes of Gen. George Washington’s first council of war in July 1775, establishing “the Welch Mountains near Cambridge & in the Rear of Roxbury lines” as the place where American commanders and troops would regroup in case the British military broke through their siege lines.

Nineteenth-century authors struggled to figure out where those “Welch Mountains” were. In his 1855 biography of Washington, the Rev. Aaron Bancroft wrote that they were “the heights of Cambridge,” but that “This name is not known in their vicinity.” In fact, the minutes suggest the “Welch Mountains” weren’t in Cambridge but nearby; Joseph Reed’s preliminary notes suggest they were five miles away (but away from where?).

Sen. Charles Sumner read Bancroft’s book and in 1867 told a gathering at Arlington, formerly West Cambridge:
“The Welsh Mountains” are the hills which skirt your peaceful valley. Since then I have never looked upon those hills, even at a distance—I have never thought of them—without feeling that they are monumental. They testify to that perfect prudence which made our commander-in-chief so great. In those hours, when undisciplined patriots were preparing for conflict with the trained soldiers of England, the careful eye of Washington calmly surveying the whole horizon, selected your hills as the breast-work behind which he was to retrieve the day. The hills still stand firm and everlasting as when he looked upon them, but smiling now with fertility and peace.
(Incidentally, the statue of Sumner in Cambridge, a block or two from where Washington convened his council, will be rededicated on 19 May.)

The most recent edition of Washington’s papers hazards a different guess: ”The Welch Mountains were probably the hills at Newton, Massachusetts.” That would make more sense as a fallback position for troops from both Cambridge and Roxbury.

Another possibility is that the Massachusetts generals at the meeting referred to the land of Samuel Welles, who in 1763 started to assemble an estate in Needham that eventually became Wellesley. As a Philadelphian, Reed might have misheard what the local members of the council were referring to.

But I can’t find any references to “Welch Mountains” (or “Welch Hills,” “Welles Mountains,” or other variations) in eighteenth-century Massachusetts newspapers. Nor have I found independent mentions of them in the histories of Cambridge, Arlington, Newton, or Wellesley. So if “Welch Mountains” was a colloquial term for some range of hills west of Boston, it doesn’t seem to have been a common term that lots of people used.

And that, of course, reduces the value of designating that place as a rendezvous. (Not to mention that no hills in the area, even the Blue Hills of Milton, really qualify as “mountains.”)

Only a month before this council, Massachusetts commanders had argued about what “Bunker’s Hill” referred to—did it include the lesser prominence that locals called “Breed’s Hill”? This seems to be another dangerous combination of informal geography and rosy-eyed planning.

4 comments:

Greg Aimo said...

I have seen the name Welsh Mountains in a couple of books that you can access on Google Books. "Old Paths and Legends of New England" by Katharine Abbot and The One Hundreth Anniversary of the Incorportation of the Town of Arlington." Both of them refer to Arlington Heights as being part of the Welsh Mountains. These are early 20th century books so perhaps they got the name from the Bancroft. They are also mentioned in “Walks and Rides In The Country Round About Boston” by Edwin Monroe Bacon of the Appalachian Mountain Club published 1897. Arlington Heights is about five miles from Harvard Square where they were meeting, has and has many large hills that have been called many things over the years. There is also a Mount Gilboa in Arlington.

J. L. Bell said...

Sumner’s speech identifying the “Welch Mountains” in Arlington was reprinted in an 1880 history of the town, as well as Samuel A. Drake’s 1879 history of Middlesex County. Neither of those books appears to have offered any independent evidence to support his identification, however, and I have to assume that all subsequent town histories drew on the same chain of statements.

I’d like to find a use of the term “Welch/Welsh Mountains” predating Bancroft’s book, or citing some independent evidence (e.g., local maps, deeds, newspaper items, even grandparents’ tales) of people using the term in the area.

Trip said...

The link to the map is broken.

J. L. Bell said...

An extra space got turned into “%20,” which confused the URL. The link should work now.