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, August 18, 2011

Did Anyone Feel That? Like a Rumbling? Anyone?

Most of the articles under the pins of the Bostonian Society’s “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app were drafted by students at Wellesley, Suffolk, and Harvard. There were layers of vetting and editing, but those students deserve their credit for starting the process.

One of those pins touches on the Earthquake of 1755. The original article focused on Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard, and his suggestion that the tremor was the product of underground gases and not, as some of his prominent forebears would have said, the anger of God.

The subject doesn’t link to Boston’s political Revolution—the quake came ten years before the Stamp Act, twenty years before the war. But it ties into the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution, the ongoing shift away from theocracy in New England, and daily life in colonial Boston.

Unfortunately, with that focus the article didn’t provide a place to put the pin. Prof. Winthrop lived and worked in Cambridge (I like to think of his house as under the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in the Garage). The map under “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” shows only the Boston peninsula in 1769.

So one of my tasks was to find a way to connect that article to a place in Boston. Surely someone in town mentioned the earthquake. After all, it was…an earthquake! Unfortunately, there’s much less published about 1755 than about 1765 or 1775. Eventually I remembered that John Tudor kept a diary for many years before the war, and his descendants published it in 1896.

Sure enough, Deacon Tudor wrote a few lines about the earthquake. He even pinpointed where in Boston the worst damage occurred! So that’s why the article starts with him, and then zips across the Charles River to discuss Winthrop’s commentary.


Lora said...

My husband has been trying to talk me into iPhones for years but we could never afford the plan. But all this talk about this new app makes me want to run out and buy one before my trip to Boston next week, lol!

Thanks for posting some of the articles here!

Charles Bahne said...

The earthquake of November 18, 1755, knocked the grasshopper weathervane at Faneuil Hall off its perch, onto the ground, "early in ye Morning". That's described in a note placed inside the weathervane when it was restored in 1768, after a fire. The note is now at the Boston Public Library.

A plaque placed by the Cambridge Historical Commission locates Prof. Winthrop's house on the west side of J. F. Kennedy Street, near the present Verizon store.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information about this site. It's simple, basic, and very interesting. I know how much work work must have gone into its creation to make it appear seamless. Kit

G. Lovely said...

Given that almost every Boston building erected prior to WWII sits on shallow footings or 30' piles, both of which rest on soils subject to liquifaction (Google it), and the fact that much of the Back Bay and South End consists of unreinforced masonry structures, a quake of similar magnitude today would be a catastrophe of the first order.

Charles Bahne said...

As John Tudor wrote, "The princaple damage was near the Town Dock" -- which was, in 1755, the only major area of landfill in Boston. So even in the 18th century the filled areas were more prone to earthquake damage than solid land.

By the way, when I load the page on my home computer, the map pins don't always show. If I click Reload, they usually show the second time.

J. L. Bell said...

Way, way back in my first full month of blogging, I showed maps of areas in Boston most safe from earthquakes and of Boston as it was in the 1770s. Basically, they’re the same. But all those nice neighborhoods built on landfill are vulnerable.

Kayti said...

Deacon Tudor was my ever so great grandfather. tripped over your blog while trying to find information about slaves he owned. One I know of named "Rufus" who is buried in the family plot.

J. L. Bell said...

Descendants of John Tudor were unusually good at preserving and publishing historical manuscripts, especially after one of them hit it big in the ice business. Therefore, there's more material available about that family than most.

Here's a passage from the deacon's diary about a slave who died after years of service. The man's name is not recorded, but might it match the gravestone? Given the family's socioeconomic status, it's not surprising that they would own some servants.