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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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Agnes Austin’s “Many Incidents” of the Revolution

Brian A. Sullivan, archivist for Mount Auburn Cemetery, has transcribed the diary of John Langdon Sibley, Librarian at Harvard College in the mid-1800s (shown at left). The transcription is available on here on the web.

In this Patriots’ Day season, I found the entry for Sunday, 3 Oct 1858, particularly interesting. It says in part:
A blind lady, 89 years old May 27, 1858, Miss Agnes Austin, who lives on the west corner of the Appian Way & Garden St, says that her father John who had charge of the public stores here in the time of the Revolutionary war & often told her many incidents connected with it. . . .

John Austin, with ten others, was at work nine weeks at Concord before the battle. They were collecting and arranging public stores. The news of the approach of the British arrived; they scattered the provisions. Mr. Austin told the men to dress themselves as much like gentlemen as they could, to put on two shirts as they might be captured & they would want them. & then disperse & take care of themselves.

When the enemy came to Col. [James] Barrett’s where Mr. Austin was stopping. they inquired for them & for the Colonel. Mrs. [Rebeckah] Barrett told them they were all gone, & she did not know where they were. The enemy told Mrs. Barrett not to be alarmed. as she should not be harmed. They made her accompany them to every room in the house to see if there were warlike stores or arms. They wanted food. She let them have what milk she had & bread.
Agnes Austin (1769-1861) is also mentioned in George Kuhn Clarke’s 1912 History of Needham:
In my childhood I was often taken to call upon a very ancient blind lady, Miss Agnes Austin, who was born in Charlestown, and lived there for many years, and who delighted to tell her visitors that she saw the British troops under Earl Percy and Lieut.-Col. [Francis] Smith on their return at the close of the memorable nineteenth of April, 1775. A considerable number of the soldiers had thrown away their red coats and much of their equipment. The first legacy that I ever received was under the will of this venerable lady, who was a distant connection of my family.
Austin’s tale about her father in Concord has many of the hallmarks of what I’ve called “grandmothers’ tales” of the Revolution:
  • It’s a story told decades later, long after most participants and witnesses have died.
  • The story puts an ancestor of the teller (and often the first listeners) front and center at a historic event.
  • The narrator was an elderly unmarried (widowed or never married) woman passing on lessons to children.
As with all oral traditions, my response is to look for contemporaneous documentary support. Is there corroboration for any detail? Are there significant contradictions?

And in this case, I actually found strong documentary support.

TOMORROW: John Austin and the supplies in Concord.

1 comment:

Nate Maas said...

What a great tale, I can't wait until tomorrow!