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, July 22, 2014

“By such a mere accident as this”

Yesterday we left Benjamin Hichborn on the Royal Navy ship Swan, commanded by Capt. James Ayscough, on the way to Rhode Island. Hichborn had taken it upon himself to carry letters to Massachusetts for two Continental Congress delegates, and he didn’t want the British authorities to find them.

Of course, Hichborn had already passed by opportunities to keep quiet about those letters, to travel more safely by land, and to toss the letters overboard at the first sign of trouble. But he didn’t want to let go of those letters, which would be proof of how reliable he was.

At first, Hichborn later wrote, things seemed to be all right. Capt. Ayscough treated him and his traveling companion, Anthony Walton (?) White, with polite deference. But the next day, the captain had become suspicious and hostile. Hichborn guessed that another traveler, clerk to a Loyalist merchant, had reported that he and White were traveling to aid the rebel cause—which they were, and had probably boasted about. By the second evening, the captain put a guard over those two young men.

Hichborn could still have kept the letters secret. Nobody had yet searched him or his belongings. He came up with what he thought was a clever ruse:
my plan I thought was compleat and ensured me success; I had provided a couple of blank letters directed to General [George] Washington and Coll. [James] Warren, which in Case [the clerk] Stone shoud acknowledge himself the Informer and confront me with his declaration, I intended to deliver them up with seeming reluctance and pretend I had concealed them through fear.
But he never put that plan into action.

Instead, Capt. Ayscough rendezvoused with H.M.S. Rose under Capt. James Wallace, which was patrolling Narragansett Bay. As Ayscough prepared to transfer his two prisoners and their baggage onto Wallace’s ship, Hichborn had another brainstorm:
Just as the boat was preparing to carry our baggage on board Capt. Wallace for examination a Gentleman who came passenger with us from New York sent on board for a trunk which we thro’ mistake had taken for our own, this circumstance looked so favourable that I coud not avoid seizing [it] to get the letters on shore. I opened the trunk with my own key, put the letters in the folds of the Gentlemans Linen and with some difficulty locked it again, when the trunk came upon deck the Lieutenant mistook it for mine put it into the boat with the rest of our things and rowed off immediately on board the other Ship. By such a mere accident as this did the letters fall into their Hands.
Simply because Hichborn had claimed that trunk as his own, had control of it belowdecks, and even had a key that opened it, the naval officers wouldn’t just send it off to the man from New York as Hichborn asked them to. Really the whole situation was unforeseeable.

Soon naval officers searched that trunk and found letters from two Continental Congress delegates, one from Benjamin Harrison speaking in detail about troops, gunpowder, and fighting in Virginia and one from John Adams saying:
We ought to have had in our Hands a Month ago, the whole Legislative, Executive and Judicial of the whole Continent, and have compleatly moddelled a Constitution, to have raised a Naval Power and opened all our Ports wide, to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston.
Not surprisingly, the British authorities thought that was treasonous. They put Hichborn under arrest and confined him to a warship in Boston harbor.

TOMORROW: And royal officials decided to make use of those letters.

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