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, August 29, 2014

Looking for Samuel Adams’s Family

I’ve been writing about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, a well-known character in Boston who died in 1855. He was honored as a survivor of the Revolution, and he owned a red and white striped flag that he said had been flown from a pole on Essex Street beside Liberty Tree.

Adams’s 1855 death notices say he was ninety-six years old, implying he was born around 1759. But I haven‘t found a period record of his birth or baptism. Boston vital records were unfortunately spotty.

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register has published two items about “Rat-trap” Adams’s ancestry, both hearsay rather than original records, but at least they’re starting-points.

In the mid-1800s a man named John Haven Dexter wrote in a copy of the 1789 Boston directory beside the name of Samuel Adams, a “truckman” on “Elliot-street”: “the well-known Wire Worker, brother of Abraham—was the father of Mrs. Wm. Fenno, confectioner and keeper of a Hotel.—Died [blank]. He kept a wharf bottom Cross Street 1794.—Town Crier 1800.” The same directory listed Abraham Adams as a leather-dresser.

And shortly after Adams’s death the Register published a death notice that said: “Mr. Adams was a wire-worker by trade, and born at the North End, as we have heard from himself. His father (Benjamin) was of the Newbury family of Adams, and his mother was Abigail, dau. of Capt. Caleb Kendrick, of West Newton.”

Both Boston and Newton vital records show Benjamin Adams and Abigail Kenrick married in 1747. A 1753 mortgage to James Bowdoin identifies Benjamin Adams as a cordwainer, or shoemaker. The 11 Nov 1788 Massachusetts Gazette ran a death notice for Benjamin Adams, aged sixty-four (other papers said sixty-five), and said that the funeral would be from the home of his son Abraham Adams on Newbury Street. Abraham Adams was a leading leather-dresser in Boston at the end of that century, dying in 1806 at age fifty-six. So those two Register statements fit together with period sources.

Complicating matters, the Newton records also show a Benjamin Adams marrying Sarah Burridge (or Burrige or Burrage) in 1755. A Genealogical History of Robert Adams, of Newbury, published by a descendant in 1900, assumes that’s the same Benjamin Adams. That author concludes that Abigail died before 1755 and that Samuel’s mother was Sarah, his father’s second wife. Notably, that book also says “Rat-trap” Adams died in 1796, which we know is untrue, and that his children were born in Newbury rather than Boston. Weighing the evidence, it looks like two different men named Benjamin Adams came to Newton and married two different women eight years apart. As for that book’s statement that Samuel was born 7 June 1759, it would be nice to know the source since its other statements are so unreliable.

There’s a stone in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (shown above, courtesy of Find-a-Grave) memorializing Abigail and Eunice, wife and infant daughter of Benjamin Adams, who died 17 Jan 1764. That matches a town report of “Mrs. Adams” contracting smallpox. So was that Samuel’s mother, dying when he was four years old? The Register did say Adams claimed to have been born in the North End, where that burying-ground is.

The 1796 Boston directory lists Samuel Adams as a “truckman and lighterman”—someone in the business of moving goods, either in trucks or in small barges. That matches with his reported ownership of a wharf. By 1800 Samuel was listed as “town-crier” and living at “No. 71 Newbury Street.” Abraham was at number 72. There’s also a record of them doing a real-estate transaction together in 1798.

We do have records of:
  • Samuel Adams’s marriage to Catherine Fenno on 8 Mar 1781.
  • Catherine’s baptism at Old South on 6 Feb 1763, making her eighteen at her wedding.
In addition, the genealogy mentioned above lists their children as Benjamin Franklin (1782), Catherine (1783), Catherine Noyes (1785), Nancy (1787), John Fenno (1789), Samuel (1791), Elizabeth (1793), and Harriet (1796). Boston records show Catherine Noyes Adams married her cousin William Fenno in 1806.

Unfortunately, what I’m really looking for is a record of Samuel’s birth. Boston’s published town records and the Churches of Boston CD-ROM don’t contain any baptism or birth records for Benjamin Adams’s family.

As it is, we have only Samuel Adams’s own statements in the mid-1800s about how old he was. That number did creep up for some other survivors of the Revolution. George R. T. Hewes believed he was over one hundred when he revisited Boston, and he was still in his early nineties. Newspapers said Samuel Whittemore was ninety-nine when he died, and he was really ninety-six. A few years’ difference doesn’t mean much when you’re ninety, but it means a lot when you’re in your teens. Samuel Adams’s stories about being part of political meetings in pre-Revolutionary Boston would be hard to believe if he was only, say, eleven years old in 1773 instead of fourteen.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams’s petition to the state.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Sadly this won't help establishing his age but I have a newspaper, the Columbian Centinel (Massachusetts Federalist) dated May 6, 1801 which mentions Samuel Adams. Apparently he was in arrears on his property taxes. It states that, in October 1798, the 'dwelling-house' on Elliot-street, valued at $1,760, owed a tax of $7.04. For comparison the newspaper, published twice a week, cost $3.00 a year.