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, October 23, 2012

Living Conditions in Cambridge in the Spring of 1775

The second chapter of my report Gen. George Washington’s Headquarters and Home—Cambridge, Massachusetts is titled “The Arrival of the Provincial Army on the Vassall Estate.”

As I described last week, the Loyalist planter John Vassall and his family left his Cambridge home in September 1774. They probably expected to return after Gen. Thomas Gage quelled the nascent rebellion in Massachusetts. Another Vassall family remained behind: Tony, Cuba, and some of their children, enslaved to John Vassall and his nearby aunt Penelope.

The first sections of that chapter lay out what I could find out about that African-American family, who took the surname Vassall. Tony and Cuba both petitioned the state for pensions in their old age based on their service to the estate. One son, Darby, lived long enough to appear as a living relic of the Revolution at Abolitionist rallies and to see the opening of the Civil War.

The next couple of sections describe life in Cambridge as provincial militiamen flooded into the town on 19 Apr 1775 and were replaced by a New England army by the end of that month. Gen. Artemas Ward took a house near Harvard as his headquarters, and it looks like all the empty mansions on Tory Row were pressed into service as barracks.

Pvt. Caleb Haskell of Newburyport recorded arriving in Cambridge on 12 May and taking “our quarters at Bolin’s (a tory) house”—John Borland’s, now in the middle of Harvard’s Adams House dormitory. Five days later, Pvt. Nathaniel Ober said his company was in “Judge [Joseph] Lees house at Cambridge,” now headquarters of the Cambridge Historical Society. On 15 May, records of the Committee of Safety mention “three companies at Mr. Vassal’s house.”

An unidentified soldier arriving from Norwich, Connecticut, sometime before late May wrote back home:

There is about 250 soldiers in this House, and we are not much crowded, but I wish they were out, all except our company. This building that we are in belonged to one of the Tories, but he has gone and left this building for us. It is the finest and largest building in town…
I can’t tell whether that was John Vassall’s mansion or another, but it gives a sense of the crowding. A January 1776 report suggested that the Continental Army put twenty soldiers to a room at Ralph Inman’s estate.

As for living conditions, teenaged fifer John Greenwood recalled, “we had to sleep in our clothes upon the bare floor. I do not recollect that I even had a blanket, but I remember well the stone which I had to lay my head upon.”

In late May, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress decided to clear the John Vassall house of soldiers so the Committee of Safety could use it. The committee was working out of the same house that Gen. Ward was using. I couldn’t find clear evidence that the Committee of Safety actually moved into the Vassall house, though. I wish I had.

On 22 June Col. John Glover marched his regiment from Marblehead to Cambridge, and Gen. George Washington later wrote that the Marbleheaders were in the Vassall house before he moved in. There’s also an order from Gen. Ward for Lt. Col. William Bond to “occupy one room, in the south-east corner of Col. Vassall’s house, upon the second floor, for the sick belonging to said regiment,” originally commanded by Col. Thomas Gardner. So it looks like soldiers were still being assigned to the Vassall house whenever the army needed space.

Committee of Safety records link two men to the larger estate. Joseph Smith was “keeper of John Vassal, Esq’s farm” on 27 May, and Seth Brown was “the keeper of the colony horses” in Vassall’s stables on 24 June. Of course men I wanted to trace would be named Smith and Brown, right?

But I’m inordinately proud that I was able to identify those two. Joseph Smith was a Cambridge farmer born in 1740; his brother Parsons (1743-1816) supplied milk to Washington’s headquarters. Seth Ingersoll Browne (1750-1809) was a refugee from Charlestown who later tended bar at the Punch Bowl Tavern in Roxbury.

TOMORROW: One Connecticut officer tries to find quarters for his regiment.

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