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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Friday, April 05, 2013

The Mystery of Tertias Bass

As I quoted yesterday, Abigail Adams wrote that in the spring of 1776 the only person in Braintree making saltpetre was “Mr. Tertias Bass as he is calld.” But no such name appears on the town records. Later she wrote that “Tertias Bass” was serving as lieutenant in a militia company, but no such name appears on militia records.

The answer to this mystery starts with the arrival of Deacon Samuel Bass in Braintree around 1640, one of the town’s earliest settlers. He had a lot of sons, and they had a lot of sons, and as a result a century later the town had a lot of men named Bass. When John Adams went to Philadelphia in 1775, for example, he hired a neighbor named Joseph Bass as a personal servant. The colonel in charge of Lt. Bass’s regiment was Col. Jonathan Bass.

The prevalence of that surname was especially problematic when families paired it with a common first name, and colonial New England families chose from a smaller pool of given names than we use today. One particularly popular given name was Samuel.

In that situation, the custom of the time was to distinguish the two men by:

  • profession, which also carried legal weight. Thus, in 1704 the town’s tithingmen included “Samuel Bass[,] Carpenter” and “Samuel Bass[,] Cooper.”
  • militia rank or other professional achievement. Braintree’s 1792 tax list included both “Ensign Samuel Bass” and “Lieutenant Samuel Bass.”
  • suffixes such as “Senior,” “Junior,” and “tertius,” or third.
To make it more confusing, however, those suffixes weren’t permanent and they weren’t necessarily indications of a father-son relationship. “Samuel Bass, Jr.” was simply the younger of the two Samuel Basses doing business in town at the time. When the older one died, he became “Samuel Bass,” or “Samuel Bass, Sr.” if there were others younger than him. So the same man could be designated in different ways on documents only a few years apart.

This genealogy page reports a 1761 will witnessed by “Samuel Bass (tertius).” In 1785 Braintree chose “Mr. Samuel Bass, 3rd” as a selectman. Were those the same man, twenty-four years apart, or had the “tertius/3rd” designation been passed down from one man to another? I’m not sure. But I didn’t find any other Braintree Basses using that suffix.

It’s striking that Abigail Adams’s letters from 1776 indicate that one local Bass was known to his neighbors by the suffix “Tertius” as if that were his given name. Presumably he had been the third-oldest Samuel Bass in town at birth and grew up behind two others for so long that people got used to calling him “Tertius.” (Or “Tertias” in Adams’s spelling.)

There’s a very early published genealogy of the Bass family from 1835 listing multiple Samuels alive in 1776, and local and family historians have added more. Was “Tertius” the Samuel Bass reportedly held prisoner by the British military? The Samuel Bass who helped found Braintree, Vermont?

I was ready to give up on nailing down “Tertias Bass” until I stumbled across a piece of juicy gossip from Abigail Adams’s sister.

TOMORROW: Hmm. Should I share that?

1 comment:

John L Smith Jr said...

The answer is "YES!".