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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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Slicing Open Marion’s Sweet Potatoes

If Jervais Henry Stevens and Samuel Weaver both said they saw Gen. Francis Marion share a meal of roasted sweet potatoes with a British officer, is that enough to validate the legend?

Unfortunately, both Stevens and Weaver were first set down a few years after the Rev. Mason Weems published the story in his biography of Marion. Newspapers and magazines reprinted the tale. Around 1820, apparently, John Blake White painted a picture of it. The sweet-potato dinner became a widely known detail in the story of a regional hero, with a patriotic moral. That meant there was probably value in putting oneself into that story, and little value in casting doubt on it.

I’m impressed, however, that Weaver swore that “He has been told by some, that this [meal] has been recorded in the life of Genrl as a dinner, but this was a breakfast.” Weaver indicated that he had not read the printed accounts, and furthermore that he was willing to contradict them in one detail.

Weaver also said Marion’s guest was “a British Officer as he was told [who] came into camp, but for what he does not know.” The veteran obviously wasn’t trying to present himself as important.

I suspect that Weaver had also not seen White’s painting since that shows a servile black man dishing up the potatoes. Weaver said he served the breakfast himself, and as a white in ante-bellum South Carolina would almost certainly not have enjoyed being represented as a black man.

Therefore, even though Weaver told his story about two decades after the tale first appeared in print, it seems to ring true.

In contrast, we don’t have Stevens’s story. Instead, author Alexander Garden appears to have read the Weems version, asked around, and found some old companions of Marion who said it—or something like it—was true. Even then Garden admitted some doubt by writing “It is said” before his final paragraph.

And that paragraph is, I suspect, all Weemsian mythmaking. The preacher may have come across the sweet-potato story from Weaver, or Stevens, or somebody else, and decided to add it to his Marion biography. Since he was writing a “romance,” Weems felt no compunction about making up dramatic dialogue between the American general and the British officer.

Most important, Weems added a moral to the story, which otherwise was just a little episode about American partisans living off the land and a British officer polite enough to share one meal with them. Weems’s version went on to say that Englishman went back to the Crown forces so impressed by Marion’s dedication that he told his commander they had no chance of subduing the Americans. By the time Garden wrote, “It is said,” that officer even resigned his commission.

But how was an American author privy to a private conversation between British officers in British-occupied Georgetown? How could an American author know why a British officer resigned when he clearly doesn’t know that officer’s name or the date of the event? Weems’s ending to the story is a big part of its power, but it’s not nearly as convincing as Samuel Weaver’s simple tale of how he “wiped the ashes off with a dirty handkerchief.”

TOMORROW: Back to the Brockington claim (and away from increasingly strained metaphors about sweet potatoes).

Monday, May 30, 2011

Digging for Marion’s Sweet Potatoes

As quoted back here, in his biography of Gen. Francis Marion, the Rev. Mason Weems described the general treating a British officer to a dinner of roasted sweet potatoes during the Revolutionary War. Weems presented that tale as coming from Marion’s subordinate officer Peter Horry, but Horry repudiated the first edition of the book, and never saw later editions that contained the tale.

So is there any solid basis for this story?

In fact, at least two men stated that they had witnessed or participated in such an event. In Anecdotes of the Revolutionary War in America, published in Charleston in 1822, Alexander Garden introduced the story like this:
An anecdote is related of him, of the authenticity of which, many of his followers can still give testimony. I name one of them, Lieut. J[ervais]. H[enry]. Stevens, of [Hezekiah] Mayham’s regiment, who was an eye witness of the occurrence.

A British officer was sent from the garrison at Georgetown, to negotiate a business interesting to both armies; when this was concluded, and the officer about to return, the general said, “If it suits your convenience sir, to remain for a short period, I shall be glad of your company to dinner.” The mild and dignified simplicity of Marion’s manners, had already produced their effect; and, to prolong so interesting an interview, the invitation was accepted.

The entertainment was served upon pieces of bark, and consisted entirely of roasted potatoes, of which the general eat heartily, requesting his guest to profit by his example, repeating the old adage, that “hunger was an excellent sauce.”

“But surely general,” said the officer, “this cannot be your ordinary fare.”

“Indeed it is sir,” he replied, “and we are fortunate on this occasion, entertaining
company, to have more than than our usual allowance.”

It is said, that on his return to Georgetown, this officer immediately declared his conviction, that men who could without a murmur endure the difficulties and dangers of the field, and contentedly relish such simple and scanty fare, were not to be subdued; and, resigning his commission, immediately retired from the service.
In addition, a veteran named Samuel Weaver (1755-1852), applying for a pension in 1836, swore under oath:
During the time he was with Gen’l Marion, a British Officer as he was told, came to Camp but for what reason he does not know & he was roasting and baking sweet potatoes on the coles—

Gen’l Marion steped up with the British Officer and remarked he believed he would take Breakfast; he felt proud of the request, puled out his potatoes, wiped the ashes off with a dirty handkerchief, placed them on a pine log (which was all the provision they had) and Gen’l Marion and the Brittish Officer partook of them.

He had been told by some that this had been recorded in the log of the Gen’l as dinner but this was breakfast.
There’s a transcription of Weaver’s pension application memoir here.

TOMORROW: Slicing open the evidence.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

“Most certainly ’tis not MY history, but YOUR romance.”

The first edition of The Life of Gen. Francis Marion appeared at the end of 1809. As I described yesterday, it was brought to press by the Rev. Mason Weems (shown here), but written in the voice of Peter Horry, one of Marion’s officers.

It took until 4 Feb 1811, over a year after publication, before Horry told Weems what he thought of the book, in a fun-to-read letter later printed in William Gilmore Simms’s Views and Reviews in American Literature:
I requested you would, (if necessary,) so far alter the work as to make it read grammatically, and I gave you leave to embellish the work,—but entertained not the least idea of what has happened—though several of my friends were under such apprehensions, which caused my being urgent on you not to alter as above mentioned.

Do you not recollect my sitting on the ground with you near the Georgetown Printing Office,
and urging you again on the subject of no alterations to the work—That you replied, (seemingly out of humour,) that, “When the work came out, you engaged I would be satisfied.” I replied, “That is enough;”—and, I recollect nothing farther passed between us afterwards on the subject.

How great was my surprise on reading these words in your letter: “Knowing the passion of the times for novels, I have endeavoured to throw your ideas and facts about General Marion into the garb and dress of a military romance.” A history of realities turned into a romance! The idea alone, militates against the work. The one as a history of real performance, would be always read with pleasure. The other as a fictitious invention of the brain, once read would suffice. Therefore, I think you injured yourself, notwithstanding the quick sales of your book.

Nor have the public received the real history of General Marion. You have carved and mutilated it with so many erroneous statements, your embellishments, observations and remarks, must necessarily be erroneous as proceeding from false grounds. Most certainly ’tis not MY history, but YOUR romance.

You say the book sells better than [Weems’s book on George] Washington! The price of the one is much less than the other—[that] is the reason. Besides, persons unacquainted with the real history, buy and read your book as authentic. When known to be otherwise, [it] will lie mouldering on the shelves, and no more purchasers [will] be obtained. You have my work; compare [it] with yours, and the difference will appear. Yours is greatly abridged, and the letters contained in mine (which I thought much of,) are excluded from yours.

You say, “you are surprised to hear that I am displeased with your book, particularly as it places Marion and myself in so conspicuous and exalted a light.” Can you suppose I can be pleased with reading particulars (though ever so elevated, by you) of Marion and myself, when I know such never existed.

Your book is out. My dissatisfaction of it is no ways material. You say you want to see me to procure some additional anecdotes for your 2d edition—and that, if I can point out any errors or places where improvement may be made, that you will cheerfully attend to any instructions. Could such improvement be really made, I fear for its fate—to be disregarded as my first performances were.
According to a sketch of Horry in the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, “Horry’s annotated copy is extant and it shows many of Weems’ false statements, but not near all.”

That same article says, “The title page of the first edition credits the alleged biography to Weems, but after Horry’s death [in 1815] new editions falsely assigned it to Weems and Horry, despite Horry’s repeated repudiation of it during his lifetime.”

So it seems far less likely that Horry witnessed the sweet-potato dinner as his narrative voice described. In fact, if my supposition is right, Weems added the episode to the book only after Horry died, when he couldn’t object so vociferously.

TOMORROW: Other eyewitnesses to the sweet potato dinner?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

“O that mine enemy would write a book”

For most of the nineteenth century, editions of The Life of Gen. Francis Marion, a Celebrated Partisan Officer in the Revolutionary War, carried this author credit:
By Brig. Gen. P. Horry, of Marion’s Brigade:
and M. L. Weems
The book was written in the voice of Peter Horry (shown here, courtesy of the Horry County Historical Society). For a sample of that voice, the preface began:
“O that mine enemy would write a book.”—This, in former times, passed for as sore an evil as a good man could think of wishing to his worst enemy.—Whether any of my enemies ever wished me so great an evil, I know not. But certain it is, I never dreamed of such a thing as writing a book; and least of all a war book. What, I! a man here under the frozen zone and grand climacteric of my days, with one foot in the grave and the other hard by, to quit my prayer book and crutches, (an old man’s best companion,) and drawing my sword, nourish and fight over again the battles of my youth.

The Lord forbid me such madness! But what can one do when one’s friends are eternally teazing him, as they are me, and calling out at every whipstitch and corner of the streets, “Well, but, sir, where’s Marion? where’s the history of Marion, that we have so long been looking for?”

’Twas in vain that I told them I was no scholar; no historian. “God,” said I, “gentlemen, has made many men of many minds; one for this thing and another for that. But I am morally certain he never made me for a writer. I did indeed once understand something about the use of a broad sword; but as to a pen, gentlemen, that's quite another part of speech. The difference between a broad-sword and a pen, gentlemen, is prodigious; and it is not every officer, let me tell you, gentlemen, who can, like Caesar, fight you a great battle with his sword to-day, and fight it over again with his pen to-morrow.”
Of course, the reason those friends kept asking Horry about his Marion book is that he had collected information for a history of the brigade. But he had trouble getting it published. The Rev. Mason Weems—already a bestselling biographer of George Washington—convinced Horry to send him the manuscript so he could make it saleable.

TOMORROW: Big mistake.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Parson Weems Cooks Up a Dinner for Francis Marion

The Rev. Mason Weems published the first edition of his Life of Gen. Francis Marion in 1809. It followed the hortatory model of the parson’s book on George Washington, issued nine years earlier, but Weems wrote in the voice of Peter Horry, a South Carolina officer who had served under Marion (shown here, courtesy of NNDB.com) and loaned him documents as raw material.

I haven’t found an 1809 edition of Weems’s Marion online, but there are copies of the reprints from 1815-20 and later. That’s also when an incident from the book—the story of Marion and the sweet potatoes—was first reprinted in American periodicals, such as the 1817 volume of the Monthly Magazine, or British Register. That makes me suspect that Weems added the anecdote to his second edition and thus brought it into the public eye.

Weems’s text described Marion dining off sweet potatoes several times, but it highlighted a particular moment when an “Englishman” had brought “a flag from the enemy in George-town, S. C. the object of which was to make some arrangements about the exchange of prisoners.” After that gentleman had concluded that business with Marion:

The officer took up his hat to retire.

“Oh no!” said Marion, “it is now about our time of dining, and I hope, sir, you will give us the pleasure of your company to dinner.”

At the mention of the word dinner, the British officer looked around him, but to his great mortification, could see no sign of a pot, pan, or Dutch-oven, or any other cooking utensil that could raise the spirits of a hungry man.

“Well, Tom,” said the general to one of his men, “come, give us our dinner.”

The dinner to which he alluded was no other than a heap of sweet potatoes, that were very snugly roasting under the embers, and which Tom, with his pine-stick poker, soon liberated from their ashy confinement, pinching them every now and then with his fingers, especially the big ones, to see whether they were well done or not. Then, having cleansed them of the ashes, partly by blowing them with his breath, and partly by brushing them with the sleeve of his old cotton shirt, he piled some of the best on a large piece of bark, and placed them between the British officer and Marion, on the trunk of the fallen pine on which they sat.

“I fear sir,” said the general, “our dinner will not prove so palatable to you as I could wish; but it is the best we have.”

The officer, who was a well-bred man, took up one of the potatoes, and affected to feed as if he had found a great dainty; but it was very plain that he ate more from good manners than good appetite. . . .

The Englishman said, “he did not believe it would be an easy matter to reconcile his feelings to a soldier’s life on general Marion’s terms; all fighting, no pay, and no provisions but potatoes.

“Why, sir,” answered the general, “the heart is all; and when that is once interested, a man can do any thing. Many a youth would think hard to indent himself a slave for fourteen years. But let him be over head and ears in love, and with such a beauteous sweetheart as Rachel, and he will think no more of fourteen years’ servitude than young Jacob did. Well, now this is exactly my case. I am in love; and my sweetheart is LIBERTY.” . . .

I looked at Marion as he uttered these sentiments, and fancied I felt as when I heard the last words of the brave [Baron Johann] De Kalb. The Englishman hung his honest head, and looked, I thought, as if he had seen the upbraiding ghosts of his illustrious countrymen, [Algernon] Sydney and [John] Hampden.

On his return to George-town he was asked by Colonel [John Watson Tadwell] Watson why he looked so serious? “I have cause, sir,” said he, “to look so serious.”—

“What! has General Marion refused to treat [i.e., negotiate]?”

“No, sir.”—

“Well then, has old Washington defeated Sir Henry Clinton, and broke up our army?”

“No. sir, not that neither; but worse.”—

“Ah! what can be worse?”

“Why, sir, I have seen an American general and his officers, without pay, and almost without clothes, living on roots, and drinking water—and all for LIBERTY! What chance have we against such men!”
Weems always liked to draw a heroic little lesson out of his anecdotes, which helped make them popular with magazine and textbook editors. As I noted above, this story began to be reprinted in the late 1810s (punctuation and other small details differing from one publication to another).

When John Blake White painted Marion inviting a red-coated officer to share a meal of sweet potatoes about 1820, he surely had this episode in mind. It was becoming widely known, and it had a moral and patriotic message for the American public. No wonder a version is now hanging in the U.S. Capitol.

In contrast, no publication before 1999 appears to have reported that Marion also shared sweet potatoes with the Loyalist officer John Brockington as he returned home after the war. In fact, why would a planter like Marion be dining on vegetables in the woods once the war was over? And what message and value would that scene have held to the American public?

Of course, that doesn’t mean the scene Weems described ever happened.

TOMORROW: Hearing from Peter Horry.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Latter-Day Claim to Gen. Marion’s Sweet Potatoes

Last month at Blog, or Die, Michael Aubrecht wrote about John Blake White’s paintings of Francis Marion inviting a British officer to join him in a dinner of roasted sweet potatoes. Longtime Boston 1775 readers might recall that a ceremony about the version of that painting in the U.S. Capitol prompted some postings on the semi-legendary figure of Marion’s enslaved servant Oscar.

The Senate’s webpage on that painting and Aubrecht’s posting both cite an article about the underlying historic incident in the South Carolina Historical Society’s Carologue magazine for 1999. (Both webpages have typos that date the article to 1989, but the former also has the correct citation.) I haven’t found an online version of that article, Nell Weaver Davies’s “New Facts about an Old Story,” but Aubrecht describes its latter-day interpretation of the painting:
James P. Truluck, a descendant of the alleged British Officer,…[stated that] Captain John Brockington, Jr.—a landowner, slave-owner, and Tory sympathizer, who had fought against the “Swamp Fox”—was the legendary officer depicted in the piece. He added that his ancestor had been among the Tories that were banned to Nova Scotia after Continental forces assumed control of South Carolina.

In an effort to regain his land and reputation, Brockington returned to the colonies to refute his Loyalists ways and repay any claims that were made against him. After receiving a pardon, he and his slaves headed home and traveled through the swamps to avoid confrontation. It was while preparing their own camp meal that Truluck states Marion found them (resulting in the painted scene).
I’m baffled by Trulock’s claim, as best I understand it. It seems clear that White, painting around 1820, illustrated a specific episode described in Mason Weems’s Life of Gen. Francis Marion.

TOMORROW: Parson Weems and General Marion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stones in My Passway

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that the cobblestone circle set out to mark the site of the Boston Massacre (shown here in a Globe file photo) had been removed for roadwork and eventual replacement. Boston 1775 friend Charles Bahne wrote into the paper with a historic perspective, and has graciously offered his full letter for posting here.

As a historian and tour guide, I regularly point out the circle of stones marking the Boston Massacre site in front of the Old State House. I was shocked to see the stones missing a few days ago, and I thank the Globe for printing an explanation.

This will not be the first time that subway construction has required the stones’ relocation. They were originally placed in the street pavement in 1887 near the corner of State and Exchange Streets, much closer to the present site of 60 State Street. (Exchange Street is now gone, but it roughly corresponded with the southbound lanes of Congress Street.)

In 1904 they were removed to allow construction of the subway to East Boston, and replaced in a new site right in the middle of the intersection, near where James Caldwell had died.

Again in the 1960s, when urban renewal caused reconfiguration of the streets, the circle of stones was moved to its most recent site, apparently chosen simply because that’s where the city wanted to place a traffic island.

All this means that the circle of stones no longer represents the spot “where Crispus Attucks fell.” To stand on that site, you'd have to go back to the 1887 location of the stones, and you’d probably get hit by a truck as soon as the traffic signal changed.

I’ve long marveled at how research located the Massacre exactly where city planners saw the need for a traffic island. Now I understand how the process of historic revision continually updates the accuracy of that siting, reflecting the changing present’s priorities and interests.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“British Troops barricade Boston harbor against the Beast from the Unknown”

An historic-style print by “European artist Franz Xaver Habermann” available through Etsy.

The same shop also offers an engraving of John Trumbull’s “Signing of the Declaration of Independence,” with carefully researched portraits of the notables “John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Metallo the Mechanical Man, Charles Thompson, and John Hancock (seated).”

(Hat tip to Benjamin Carp.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hold-Up at Barrett’s Farm

The National Parks Conservation Association is the non-profit group that advocates for the U.S. of A.’s National Park System. In the group’s Spring/Summer 2011 newsletter, Northeast Regional Director Alexander R. Brash’s “What Would Sam Adams Say?” sounds the alarm about a delay in funding an important expansion of Minute Man National Historical Park.

The essay includes some historical errors. Paul Revere didn’t originally intend to ride to Concord, for instance, and he never made it that far. The skirmish at the North Bridge wasn’t “for the possession” of James Barrett’s farm; the militia companies massed on the rise above that bridge let three companies of regulars march off in that direction. They advanced on the three additional companies assigned to hold that bridge because they were alarmed at the sight of smoke from the center of town.

But Brash is right on target when he writes about the importance of Barrett’s farm on 19 Apr 1775. That was the end goal of the British army march. It was the top item on Gen. Thomas Gage’s list of places for his troops to search. Barrett, a militia colonel, had indeed been hiding weapons for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress there.

A few years ago the group Save Our Heritage began work to preserve the site and make it available to the Park Service. In April 2009 Congress authorized the park to expand and incorporate that site. Yet Barrett’s farm is still not part of the Minute Man park.

Brash writes:
There is a grim irony that in Washington D.C., the very people who brand their efforts with the iconic patriotic emblems of the American Revolution now thwart their preservation for posterity. . . .

Since the Revolution, Colonel Barrett’s house and farm has been owned by only two families, and today the fragile structure stands much as it did then. The current owners have been holding on, just waiting to close a deal so that the last piece of the story’s puzzle can be placed safely, and for posterity, inside Minuteman National Park. The owners are more than willing sellers, and not a soul for miles around would stand in the way of the farm house’s inclusion in the park.

But with the recent turmoil in Congress, the National Park Service has been prevented from advancing its efforts to purchase this site. The site was included within the park’s boundaries several years ago, the sellers are willing, yet funding has been tied up for over a year by Congressional turmoil. All that remains is for money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to be freed up so that the National Park Service can close the deal.
That fund, according to its website, “receives money mostly from fees paid by companies drilling offshore for oil and gas,” up to $900 million per year. Congress has never authorized spending that full amount, and according to American Trails and the National Resources Defense Council, the current Republican-controlled House of Representatives started the year with a budget bill (H.R. 1) that cut $393 million from the previous year’s L.W.C.F. outlay, leaving only $58 million to cover the whole country. That budget has no chance of becoming law, but until the Interior Department does have a budget the fund can’t buy the Barrett property.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Younger Samuel Dana

I’ve been tracing the Revolutionary experiences of the Rev. Samuel Dana of Groton, from comfortably ensconced minister to reviled Loyalist who nonetheless declined to leave town, to Presbyterian preacher, and finally to respected jurist in New Hampshire.

The former minister’s younger son, also named Samuel, was only eight years old when his father lost his pulpit. He continued growing up in Groton, went to Harvard, and in 1789 returned to his home town. This Samuel Dana became a prominent attorney, a representative in the state legislature and in Congress, and a judge. As a result, nineteenth-century Groton historians couldn’t say too many bad things about his father.

One thing chronicler Caleb Butler did write about the son was:
In the latter part of his life there seemed to be a want of fixedness of purpose in Judge Dana’s pursuits. . . . He was occasionally subject to undue elevations and depressions of spirit, which caused instability in his undertakings and pursuits.
That sounds an awful lot like what we’d call manic-depressive or bipolar disorder. Perhaps both Samuel Danas had the condition, and it was a factor in how the father defied his community’s political and religious unity.

(The picture above comes from the Find-a-Grave page for the younger Samuel Dana. I don’t know the source, and the hairstyle, clothing, and pose seem more appropriate for a man of his father’s generation.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

“Should Forget and Forgive Every Thing of a Political Nature”

Despite being voted out of the pulpit and reportedly shot at, the Rev. Samuel Dana never moved out of Groton during the Revolutionary War. He apparently accepted the political changes that followed. But he didn’t keep quiet on religious matters. In 1778 Dana even wrote a letter to the Groton church objecting to the ordination of Daniel Chaplin as his successor. There was also the issue of a bequest:

At a church meeting, July 5, 1782, the four deacons Farwell, Stone, Farnsworth, and Bancroft, with Israel Robert, Esq., were chosen trustees of the twenty pounds given by Jonathan Lawrence for the benefit of the ordained minister or ministers of Groton, with power to take and receive the same of Samuel Dana, the late pastor; if need be, to sue him upon his bond given therefor. Also to offer the same to Rev. Daniel Chaplin, if he will receive it, otherwise put it out upon interest, and pay over to said Chaplin the interest thereon.
The church records don’t mention that money again, suggesting that Dana turned it over as asked.

Later that year, a deeper dispute erupted. Josiah Sartell, who back in 1775 had been a member of the committee of correspondence who met with Dana, helped to found what the majority Congregationalists called “an irregular society.” Sartell and a number of other citizens had become…Presbyterians.

Presbyterianism seems to have spread to Groton from Londonderry, New Hampshire. Some adherents went over the state border for services, but Sartell and others asked Dana to preach to them in Groton. He reportedly did so for about a year and a half.

Caleb Butler’s history of Groton states:
In December, 1785, the Rev. Samuel Dana asked a dismission [as a member] from the church in Groton, and a recommendation to the church in Amherst, New Hampshire. He also communicated a letter addressed to the church in Groton, from the Presbyterian churches in Boston, Peterboro’ and others, informing, that they had taken the Presbyterian church in Groton under their care.

Whereupon, the church chose a committee to consider the application of Mr. Dana, and said letter, and also to consider what measures should be taken with other members of this church, who had partaken of the ordinances with Presbyterians. This committee afterwards reported in substance, that the church should forget and forgive every thing of a political nature where Mr. Dana had offended, while their pastor; but that his conduct since his dismission, in preaching and administering the ordinances to the Presbyterians, they could not forgive; but recommend, that a committee be chosen to confer with him on the subject, whenever he should come to Groton. Accordingly, a committee of ten were chosen for that purpose.
By then Dana was already settled in Amherst. Reportedly he was named executor for the will of a lawyer, took that man’s books into his house, and started studying. Soon he was practicing law himself. Eventually Dana became a probate judge for Hillsborough County, a state legislator, and a master in the local Freemasons lodge. When he died in 1798, Dana was buried with full Masonic honors, attended by members from Groton as well as other towns.

TOMORROW: The minister’s second son.

Friday, May 20, 2011

“To Preserve Him and His Family and Substance from Injury and Abuse”

At the top of New England rural society were a town’s wealthy landowners and professionals, its selectmen, its militia officers, and—once political turmoil reached its boiling point in 1774-75—its local committee of correspondence. Those groups overlapped a lot, and they and their children tended to intermarry.

Usually the town minister was part of that class, but in Groton in 1775 the Rev. Samuel Dana was siding with the Crown, and therefore unpopular. Even so, his genteel neighbors didn’t want to see a mob hurt harm him, for several overlapping reasons: class solidarity, dislike of disorder, a wish to preserve the town’s reputation, &c.

In early May 1775, a committee of local bigwigs met with Dana and brought the following report to the town meeting:
This memorandum witnesseth, that at a conference between Dr. Oliver Prescott, Capt. Josiah Sartell, Dea. Isaac Farnsworth and Benjamin Bancroft, Ensign Moses Child and Mr. Jona. Clark Lewis, on the one side, and the Rev. Samuel Dana, on the other side, it was proposed and agreed to by all parties, that the pastoral relation between the said Samuel Dana and the inhabitants of Groton, should be dissolved, on conditions, the town when properly met shall judge it expedient, and at the same time will restore the said Samuel Dana to the usual privileges and advantages of society and neighborhood, and use their influence to preserve him and his family and substance from injury and abuse, either from the inhabitants of this, or any of the neighboring towns. The said Samuel Dana, at the same time, giving the town the reasonable assurance in his power, that he will not only not oppose their political measures, but will unite with them agreeable to the advice of the Continental and Provincial Congresses, and the votes of the town.
Groton’s official committee of correspondence, which consisted of Prescott, Sartell, Farnsworth, and Child, as well as James Prescott, presented that agreement to the town meeting on 15 May. (That meeting probably took place in the town church, which doubled as the public meeting-house.) The committee also apparently offered a text that Dana would have to sign:
I, The Subscriber, being deeply affected with the Miseries bro’t on this Country, by a horrid Thirst for ill-got Wealth and unconstitutional Power—and lamenting my Unhappiness, in being left to adopt Principles in Politics different from the Generality of my Countrymen; and thence to conduct in a Manner that has but too justly excited the Jealousy and Resentment of the true Sons of Liberty against me, earnestly desirous, at the same Time, to give them all the Satisfaction in my Power do hereby sincerely ask Forgiveness of all such for whatever I have said or done, that had the least Tendency to the Injury of my Country, assuring them that it is my full Purpose, in my proper Sphere, to unite with them, in all those laudable and fit Measures, that have been recommended by the Continental and Provincial Congresses, for the Salvation of this Country, hoping my future Conversation and Conduct will fully prove the Uprightness of my present Professions.
According to the town’s records of that meeting:
the Rev. Samuel Dana came into the meeting, and after some conference with the town, and the memorandum above being read and duly considered, he, the said Dana, desired the town would grant him a dismission from his pastoral relation and office, in the said town; whereupon, the town voted nem. contract, that the said Samuel Dana be dismissed from his pastoral relation and office aforesaid, and he is hereby finally discharged therefrom accordingly.
But that consensus among the gentlemen and yeomen wealthy enough to vote in town meeting didn’t put an end to the troubles. Part of the problem might have been that Dana didn’t sign the document right away.

Around 20 May, Jason Russell and John Tarbell of Mason, New Hampshire, went into a pasture Dana owned in that town and “took from thence a three year heifer, and killed and converted it to their own use.” The Mason committee summoned the men and “required of the offenders full satisfaction therefor.” The two men refused. The Mason leaders called in the committees from New Ipswich and Temple. But Russell and Tarbell, the committeemen reported, “not only neglected to make their appearance before us, but, as we learn, have fled to the Army.”

Ordinary people in and around Groton might have been signaling Dana and his genteel protectors that his property was fair game, and that he might be, too. That in turn might have been enough to make him sign the town’s document on 22 May. It was printed in the New-England Chronicle the following month along with the committee’s report. 

Finally, the Groton church met on 29 May, after a summons by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, and voted, “that what Mr. Samuel Dana has offered to the public for satisfaction, for his conduct in political matters, is by no means satisfactory to this church, as a brother.” The congregation formally dismissed Dana from their pulpit.

TOMORROW: Whatever happened to Samuel Dana?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Groton Seeks a New Minister

By April 1775, as described yesterday, the Patriot majority in Groton and their Loyalist minister, the Rev. Samuel Dana, were at a stalemate. Dana refused to call a meeting of the church members, where they could dismiss him. The congregation apparently felt they couldn’t call a meeting on their own authority, at least in part because Dana said he wouldn’t show up.

According to historian Caleb Butler, local tradition held that at some point, probably after war began at Lexington and Concord, “the inhabitants were so enraged, that they shot bullets into Mr. Dana’s house, to the great danger of his life and the lives of his family.” Nevertheless, the minister didn’t leave town and seek the protection of the British army in Boston.

Groton’s town leaders sought a replacement. On 5 May, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper (shown here), a Patriot who had slipped out of Boston to Weston just before the war, received a visit from Dr. Oliver Prescott of Groton. The physician “propos’d my Supplying their Pulpit.”

Cooper was apparently reluctant, perhaps because Groton was far from the political action in Watertown and Cambridge. He suggested that his host, the Rev. Samuel Woodward, should handle the Groton job while he filled in for Woodward. But the Weston minister didn’t agree.

As I discussed back here, on Saturday, 13 May, Cooper heard that Concord’s minister, the Rev. William Emerson, “was to supply Groton,” so he promised to preach the next day at Concord, no doubt happy to escape the long trip. Instead, both men showed up at Concord’s meeting-house, and the Groton congregation was presumably left waiting.

On 21 May, Cooper wrote that he preached at Concord and “Mr. Emerson for me at Groton,” indicating that he felt some responsibility to serve that town. On Saturday, 27 May, he finally set out “in my Chaise for Groton,” stopping along the way at Acton, Littleton, and the house of a man named Rogers for coffee. The next day, Cooper wrote, he:
Pch’d all day at Groton; spoke with Mr. Dana after Service a.m. din’d at Dr. Prescot’s baptiz’d a child P. M. Slept and Horse kept at Dr. Prescot’s.
The Groton church record notes that Cooper did something else as well:
Rev. Dr. Cooper, of Boston, preached, and was desired by the deacons and some of the brethren of the church to appoint a church meeting, to be held at the public meeting-house on the next Monday.
Cooper issued that call for a meeting, breaking the stalemate. Between then and 18 October, he preached in Groton on six Sundays, and received £60 Old Tenor. The congregation might have thought that money well spent because they got to fix their Dana problem.

TOMORROW: Class conflict over dealing with Dana.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rev. Samuel Dana: “not allowed to enter the meeting-house”

In early 1775, the Rev. Samuel Dana (1739-1798) had been the minister in Groton for nearly fourteen years. But in his thinking he was a Loyalist. Caleb Butler’s 1848 town history states:
On a Sabbath in March, 1775, he preached a sermon which gave great offence to the people, who were generally inclined to unwavering resistance. . . . This was called the windy sermon, from the circumstance that it was on a very windy day, and while being delivered one of the horse stables was blown down.
As a result, according to Butler, Dana “was not allowed to enter the meeting-house on the next Sabbath.”

On 21 March the Groton church members met “to transact any matters they may judge proper, to put an end to the unhappy differences subsisting among us.” However, according to the official record—set down by Dana—they adjourned “after a few hours spent in saying but little, and doing nothing.” On the 27th, he wrote:
Church met, had a long conference, but they refusing to make any formal charges against the pastor, and the pastor refusing to make any confessions, till he should first know what would be satisfactory; the meeting was finally dissolved without any vote being called, except to try their minds with regard to deferring the sacrament for the present, and dissolve the meeting, both which passed in the affirmative.
The record was then taken over by someone else, who reported:
After the church meeting, on the 27th of March, 1775, was dissolved, they could not obtain another meeting by the appointment of their late pastor, notwithstanding they had informed him of a great many of their grievances, and repeatedly desired him to call a church meeting, both by verbal and written requests, one of which was signed by a great majority of said church, but received for answer, that he would not call a church meeting, nor attend one of their calling; saying, You may do as you please; I must do as I can.
That spring Groton’s Patriot leaders tried to get every householder in town to pledge not to import goods from Britain or have anything to do with anyone who did. As of 12 April, Dana and three other men were the only inhabitants who refused to sign.

That was the stalemate in Groton when the war began.

TOMORROW: And of course a war makes it so much easier to resolve disagreements peacefully.

(Photograph of Groton’s 1755 meetinghouse as it looks today by James Walsh, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

When Did Henry Knox Leave Boston?

One of the historical questions I’ve puzzled over is when Henry and Lucy Knox left Boston, making a break with her Loyalist father, Thomas Flucker, whom they never saw again. The family papers offer little clue.

Knox’s earliest biographer, Samuel A. Drake, wrote in 1873:
Just one year from the day of his marriage [on 16 June 1774] Knox quitted Boston in disguise (his departure having been interdicted by [Gen. Thomas] Gage), accompanied by his wife, who had quilted into the lining of her cloak the sword with which her husband was to carve out a successful military career.
Drake offered no source for that probably overdramatic sentence, but it was the earliest statement I’d found. Noah Brooks’s 1900 biography said the Knoxes left Boston on 19 April, again without support, and that book is unreliable on other matters. So my best guess was still Drake’s June date.

But I recently spotted a clue in the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper’s diary for 14 May 1775. The day before, he wrote, he had gone to Concord and found the Rev. William Emerson absent. Cooper “engag’d to p[rea]ch for him on the Morrow, while he was to supply Groton.” So on Sunday the Rev. Mr. Cooper
Went to Concord with [daughter] Nabby. put my Horse at Mr [Ebenezer] Hubbard’s, found to my Surprize Mr. Emerson at the Meeting House Door. He pray’d I pch’d a.m. f’m, the Consolation of Israel. We din’d at Mr Emerson’s, with Mr. Knox and Wife of Boston. I pray’d Mr Emerson pch’d p.m. we drank Coffee at Mr Hubbards. slept at Mr. [Samuel P.] Savages. Horse at [Joseph] Russell’s.
There were a few other men named Knox in and around Boston in 1775, but Henry was the most prominent. So it appears the Knoxes were out of Boston and heading west by 14 May. Emerson’s more spotty diaries say nothing about them, but of course he didn’t know they would be famous.

TOMORROW: So who preached at Groton?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Benjamin Thompson: Worst Apprentice in the World, part 3

The teen-aged Benjamin Thompson was clearly excited to be working in Boston in 1769, not in his home town of Woburn or even the smaller port of Salem. He sketched his master Hopestill Capen’s building in his notebook, marking the shop where he worked and the dormer attic room where he lived.

Benjamin signed up for private lessons in French and “the Back-Sword” from a Scottish army veteran named Donald McAlpine, and drew fencers in his notebook. Then he ended up skipping half the French lessons.

Meanwhile, Benjamin was supposed to be working in Capen’s dry-goods shop. But according to an 1837 profile in The American Journal of Science and Arts:

Mr. Capen once told his [Benjamin’s] mother, that “he oftener found her son under the counter, with gimblets, knife, and saw, constructing some little machine, or looking over some book of science, than behind it, arranging the cloths or waiting upon customers.”
According to his home-town friend Loammi Baldwin, Benjamin was already working on a perpetual-motion machine, and that’s bound to take up all of one’s time.

By the spring of 1770, Benjamin Thompson was back at his mother’s house in Woburn, having shown he was thoroughly unsuited for work as an apprentice. But he was on his way to becoming Count Rumford, one of the greatest scientists of his age.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Benjamin Thompson: Worst Apprentice in the World, part 2

Yesterday I described how as a teenager Benjamin Thompson left his first apprenticeship in Salem at age sixteen and sought work in the Boston shop of Hopestill Capen, at the “Sign of the Cornfields.” His old master, John Appleton, evidently agreed to the equivalent of selling the indenture contract. On 19 Oct 1769 Benjamin wrote back with thanks:

I take this oppertunity to inform you that I am Come to Live with Mr Hopestill Capen. I like him and his Family very well as yet. I am Greatly obliged to you for your kind Recommendation of me to Mr. Capen, and shall always retain a Gratefull Sense of the many other Kindness’s I always Recd Whilest I remained with you.

Never shall I Live at a place again that I delighted so much as at your house nor with a Kinder Master. My Guardian says he will Come to Salem and pay you some money very soon, which he expects dayly. Sir I would beg of you not to Give yourself any Concern or Trouble about it as you may depend upon having the Money Very soon.
And he had just a few favors to ask.
Sir if you would Give yourself the Trouble to send Round my things that remain at your house I shall Be obliged to you, and if you will send down the two trunks which I improved [i.e., used] whilest at your house and Charge them to me I will send you the money; please to put up all my small things you can find, vizt scates, hautboy, some Blue paper, a box of Crayons, or dry Colours, some Books, Together with all my Things remaining at your house. Please to stow them in the Trunk that stands in the Kitchen Chamber and please to put that, that stands in the Garret on Board Mr West with it and desire him to Bring them down the first oppertunity. I shall Come to Salem the first opportunity that I can be Spared.
Meanwhile, Capen was probably teaching young Benjamin (who was obviously a boy of many talents) how to serve customers in his shop.

TOMORROW: And how did that work out?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Benjamin Thompson: Worst Apprentice in the World, part 1

In 1766, at the age of thirteen, Benjamin Thompson of Woburn was indentured to John Appleton, a Salem merchant. He was a bright and ambitious lad, and had apparently sought extra lessons from a minister in town.

Benjamin did not, however, throw himself into the clerical work Appleton probably assigned to him.

Three years later, well before his indenture was to expire, Benjamin showed up at the Boston dry-goods shop of Hopestill Capen (in the building that now houses the Union Oyster Shop, shown here) and asked for a position there.

Capen wrote to Appleton on 11 Oct 1769:
I understand that you have had a young Ladd, not long since, that live with you, named Benja. Thompson. He now offers himself to live with me, saying that he was sick was the Occasion of his comeing from you, and that now Business is Dull, you dont want him.

I should be greatly oblig’d to you if you will Inform me by the first oppertunity If he be clear with you or not; if he is, please to give me his True Character, as to his Honesty, Temper and Qualifications as a Shop Keeper. Such a lad will suit me if he can be well Recommended, and as he is a stranger to me I know of no body else that can be so good a Judge of him as you.
Benjamin had indeed left Appleton to go home to Woburn and recuperate, but not because he’d been “sick.” He had injured himself making fireworks.

Appleton apparently sent Capen a letter recommending young Benjamin. Perhaps he wanted to get rid of the lad.

TOMORROW (assuming Blogger will cooperate): Benjamin has a message for his old master.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Marblehead Samplers Lecture, 19 May

The Marblehead Museum is hosting a lecture on "The Singular Style of Marblehead Samplers" on Thursday, 19 May, by curator Karen MacInnis. The museum's press release says:
The collection of samplers and needlework at the Marblehead Museum is exceptional. Made by young girls and women, these works have much to tell the viewer about their makers' skills and the life and times in which they were made.

MacInnis has studied these and other needlework pieces, and is knowledgeable about their importance. She has consulted at the Lynn Museum, the Wenham Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, and has contributed to needlework surveys. She is Vice President of the Board at the Bellingham Cary House, and a Trustee of the Salisbury Library.
The talk will start at 7:30 P.M. at the museum, 170 Washington Street in Marblehead. Admission is $10 for museum members and $15 for others. Reservations are recommended; call 781-631-1768.

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How the Governor’s Council Was Elected in 1780

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, drafted largely by John Adams, kept the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court from the colonial charter, and created a new upper house, the state Senate.

But it also kept the original upper house, called the Council, to advise the governor (originally John Hancock, show here) and approve all judicial appointments, Continental military appointments, and emissions of money.

Back in 1780, the Council was chosen in two stages. According to Chapter 1, Section 2, Article 1:
There shall be annually elected [on the first Monday in April], by the freeholders and other inhabitants of this commonwealth, qualified as in this constitution is provided, forty persons to be councillors and senators, for the year ensuing their election…
A later clause restricted voters in that election to “every male inhabitant of twenty-one year of age and upwards, having a freehold estate of the value of sixty pounds.” In contrast, a larger number of men—everyone able to pay the poll tax—could vote for members of the lower house. This reflected Adams’s abiding belief that government was a balance of the One, the Few, and the Many, which in turn reflected his preference for dividing groups by three.

The next step came on the last Wednesday in May. Chapter 2, Section 3, Article 2 says:
Nine councillors shall be annually chosen from among the persons returned for councillors and senators, on the last Wednesday in May, by the joint ballot of the senators and representatives assembled in one room; and in case there shall not be found, upon the first choice, the whole number of nine persons who will accept a seat in the council, the deficiency shall be made up by the electors aforesaid from among the people at large; and the number of senators left shall constitute the senate for the year. The seats of the persons thus elected from the senate, and accepting the trust, shall be vacated in the senate.
In sum, wealthy voters chose men they thought were worthy of being state senators or Council members. The full legislature then chose from among those men which nine should be on the Council. If any of those men refused, preferring to serve in the state senate, the legislature could fill the holes with others. The only restriction was that the Council couldn’t include two people from the same senatorial district. And the trade-off for voters who had a councilor from their district was having one fewer senator that year.

It was possible under this system for a Council member never to have been chosen by the voters—but he would still be put into office by representatives of the voters. That’s somewhat analogous to the Electoral College as originally envisioned (though that institution never worked right under stress).

The 1780 constitution was more progressive than the royal charter that preceded it in several ways. It broadened the franchise for voting for assembly members, made more offices elected rather than appointed, and tried to equalize representation among different towns and districts. The legislature could override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds roll-call vote. In 1783, the state’s top court interpreted the constitution to make slavery unenforceable. Nevertheless, that original constitution was written to limit the power of the voting public, and the Governor’s Council was meant to be made up of the elite of the elite.

In 1855, Massachusetts revised its constitution along more progressive lines, and voters started electing members of the Governor’s Council directly. That small body’s limited power meant that fewer and fewer voters paid attention to its members, even though each represents a much larger district than any state senator. And now the state legislature is considering whether maintaining that body makes sense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Roots of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council

The Massachusetts legislature is now considering a bill to do away with the Governor’s Council, which is a sort of third legislative chamber for the state, because of recent embarrassing and unproductive confirmation hearings, as well as long-time questions of what that small body is good for.

As the Boston Globe reported back in February, the Governor’s Council has been “drawing new scrutiny” all year. That seems to be a euphemism for “Is Charles O. Cipollini crazy, bigoted, or a crazy bigot? Or is the standard for members of that board already so low that he fits right in?”

This statement in that February article caught my eye:

The council, as it exists today, is a distant relative of a Colonial council established in 1628 as a political check on the Royal Governor. The state’s original 1780 constitution created an unelected council that helped the governor run the state, and the panel became an elected body in 1855.
That didn’t seem right, given that one of the Patriots’ biggest complaints about the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774 was that it created an unelected Council. Not to mention that back in 1628 the governor of Massachusetts was elected locally; the “royal governors” arrived with the new charter in 1692.

Under the royal charter in force from that year until 1774, each year’s Council was chosen by the outgoing Council members and the House members voting together (i.e., each man had one vote). The appointed governor could then “negative,” or veto, any new Council member.

For the following year the Councilors who survived that process advised the governor, and could block him from taking some actions. The Council was also the upper chamber of the legislature, so the Massachusetts General Court could not pass laws without its consent. (Even after both legislative houses approved a law, the governor or privy council in London could veto it, with no possibility of override.)

Throughout the 1760s the Massachusetts Council sparred with Gov. Francis Bernard. The legislature chided his supporters by not reelecting them to the next year’s Council. He tried to “negative” his worst opponents, only to discover that he was making more. There were leaks and counterleaks. With the Massachusetts Government Act, Parliament replaced the troublesome elected Council with a group of designated Loyalists, as in most other North American colonies.

Because those men were summoned by a writ of mandamus, Massachusetts Patriots called them the “mandamus Councilors” or “new-fangled Councilors.” In the summer of 1774, crowds turned out in the hundreds and thousands to demand that those men resign their appointments. Most did, or moved into army-patrolled Boston. The Council met only a few times between September 1774 and March 1776. Meanwhile, in mid-1775 the rest of the colony elected its own Council under the old rules, with no governor to interfere.

With that conflict so recent, I thought, the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 must have gone back to elected Councilors. So I checked out the original text, drafted mainly by John Adams (shown above). Sure enough, it did stipulate that the Council be elected—though not directly by voters, or with every voter participating. And the governor wasn’t empowered to veto any of them.

TOMORROW: How the Governor’s Council was originally elected.

Monday, May 09, 2011

New Paintings of the Gages

Although John Singleton Copley’s fellow artists praised his portrait of Margaret Gage, her friends didn’t think it did her justice. Or perhaps it just didn’t show her according to the latest English fashion.

In the mid-1770s, the Gage family commissioned two new portraits from the British painter David Martin (1737-1797). He portrayed Margaret and Gen. Thomas Gage at full length, rather than the three-quarters views that Copley supplied, and he posed them against pastoral landscapes.

Martin put more detail into the general’s uniform. He depicted Margaret with fashionably powdered and/or graying hair. Notably, she once again appeared in a loose gown, this time with a flowing red wrap.

Even as he made those changes, Martin borrowed the couple’s basic poses from the Copley paintings, particularly the one of Margaret. It’s hard to lounge languidly while standing up, but in Martin’s painting she’s trying.

The Gages kept all four paintings at the family seat, Firle Place. They remained there until the twentieth century, with few or no reproductions. Nineteenth-century Bostonians therefore had no easy way to know what Massachusetts’s last royal governor had looked like.

Old-timers pointed folks to a local Copley portrait of a man who they said looked like the general. That was, ironically, Samuel Adams.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Ann Edwards: “retained her Eastern habits until her death”

Back in my first posting about John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Margaret Gage, I noted that her father, the New Jersey merchant Peter Kemble, had been born in Smyrna, in the Ottoman Empire. (Shown here in a 1732 print, which Iscra of the Netherlands is selling.) Kemble’s father ran a trading house, and his mother was of Greek ancestry.

Boston 1775 reader John Beasley sent me an email adding that Margaret Gage had an even more direct connection to Turkey:
Margaret’s Greek grandmother had a sister who married the British consul to Smyrna named Edwards. The Kembles were in the trading business, and Mr. Edwards seems to have taken part in the trading business also. He is credited with introducing coffee in England. At some time, under circumstances unknown, the Edwards family died out, except for a daughter, Ann Edwards, six years older than Margaret.

The Kembles invited Ann to leave Turkey and live with them in New Jersey. She spent the rest of her life with the Kembles and [following her death in 1808] is buried in the Kemble family plot at Mount Kemble, N.J. In the Prefatory Notes for Volume II of the Stephen Kemble Papers (pg. xiv), Margaret’s brother (Stephen Kemble) writes: “She was highly educated, spoke Greek, Italian, French, and English.” But more importantly he adds that she was “a complete Greek, and retained her Eastern habits until her death.”

Thus Margaret grew up with a Greek/Turkish cousin living in the same house—a cousin who perhaps regularly wore a Turkish costume. It just might be Ann Edwards’ clothes that Margaret wears in the portrait.
If so, they had probably been altered to be closer to British-American norms, in the same way other aspects of culture get adapted. The “Turkish” style fashionable in late-eighteenth-century Britain apparently had little connection with actual Turkish dress.

Nevertheless, Margaret Gage clearly had more knowledge of and emotional ties to life in the Ottoman Empire than the average British aristocrat, and far more than the average North American lady. She might have chosen to be painted in that fashion as a statement of her heritage as well as her taste. Given how other Copley patrons had their pictures painted in similar dress, it’s also possible that Margaret Gage helped to promote the “turquerie” style in America.

TOMORROW: Remaking Copley’s portraits of the Gages.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Painting of Margaret Gage

John Singleton Copley traveled to New York in June 1771, eager to find customers among that city’s elite. The first person on his list was Margaret Gage.

Copley had already made a portrait of her husband, Gen. Thomas Gage. Apparently he had started that canvas when the general was in Boston overseeing the arrival of four regiments in 1768, and finished it after Gage had gone home to New York; the uniform isn’t exact in all details.

Margaret Gage came to Copley’s rented New York studio only four days after he arrived in the city, and he went to work. The result was unlike any of Copley’s portraits of Massachusetts ladies. Gage appeared in an exotically styled turban, gown, and pearls, and her pose was almost languorous.

Later that year Copley told his half-brother, Henry Pelham, “it is I think beyand Compare the best Lady’s portrait I ever drew.” A fellow artist, Matthew Pratt, said, “every Part and line in it in Butifull.” Copley sent it to the Society of Artists exhibit in London in 1772, and it brought him many more customers in North America.

Some of those subsequent sitters had themselves painted in the same sort of loose “Turkish” gown that Copley showed Margaret Gage wearing. But according to scholar Aileen Ribeiro, the gown in the Gage portrait “seems real, as if it were painted from a studio property modeled by the sitter,” while those in paintings of Mary Hooper and Mary Morris “look like copies of that property.” Neither reclines like Gage, and Hooper even looks a bit self-conscious in the outfit.

Was “that property” the property of Copley, or did it belong to Gage and Copley kept repainting it from sketches? Did it actually exist, or did the artist and sitter choose the outfit from an engraving, as with some of Copley’s other portraits of fashionable ladies? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. In John Singleton Copley in America, Ribeiro writes (somewhat contradicting the comments quoted above):

It is flattering to her dark curly hair, deep brown eyes, and ruddy complexion; on this ground and because Mrs. Gage would have wanted to follow the English fashion it represented, there is little reason to suggest that she did not own the costume.
Still, Ribeiro says, the gown “would not have been worn in real life and instead represents an artistic convention remotely related to a supposedly Turkish prototype and more closely related to fashionable ‘undress’ gowns worn en déshabillé.” Even that supposed style, however, might have had special meaning for Margaret Gage.

TOMORROW: The Turkish connection.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Playing Dress-Up with Mr. Copley

My posting earlier this week about John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Margaret Gage kicked up some interesting comments and emails, so I’m going back to the topic.

One of the advantages of having your portrait painted by Copley is that he could make you look better than you actually did. Not necessarily in physiognomy—the fashion among Americans at the time was to have their faces rendered accurately rather than idealized. But people asked for improvements in their body shape and their dress.

Comparing Copley’s paintings to English engravings has shown that he copied costumes, poses, and sometimes entire scenes from those sources. For example, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Lady Caroline Russell became, through a mezzotint by James McArdell (below), the model for Copley’s portrait of Mary Bowers (above), down to the position of her hands, the trees in the background, and the little dog in her lap.

Copley used John Faber’s engraving of Thomas Hudson’s painting of Mary Finch, Viscountess Andover, as the basis for portraits of Mary Hubbard, Katherine Amory, and other women.

Ladies might have themselves painted in clothing they never wore, particularly in public. While aristocratic Englishwomen often commissioned portraits in the unusual outfits they might wear to masquerades, North American women had no such opportunities—but had themselves painted in those unreal fashions anyway.

Thus, Copley’s 1756 painting of Ann Tyng shows her as a shepherdess, an approach he probably learned from watching Joseph Blackburn a couple of years before.

He portrayed Hannah Quincy in an antique “Vandyke” outfit, inspired by the clothing in Van Dyck paintings (or paintings that people in England then attributed to Van Dyck).

Copley might have supplied garments for his sitters, possibly pinning or draping them over the women’s usual clothing. We know from a 1768 letter to Benjamin West that he at least considered the possibility of buying “a variety of Dresses” at “a great expence.”

And if all else failed, Copley could just make a dress look better than anything in real life. His portrait of Elizabeth Watson shows a gorgeous pink gown with no seams breaking the expanse of satin.

As a result, we know we mustn’t take all of Copley’s portraits of women as showing them in ordinary dress of the period, or even the ordinary formal dress. Those sitters may never have actually worn those garments. The garments may never have actually existed.

TOMORROW: But what does that mean for the painting of Margaret Gage?

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.