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.

Follow by Email


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams’s Revolution

According to Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, the wire-worker and former town crier, he:

  • was six years old when the Stamp Act protests occurred, eleven in the year of the Boston Massacre, fourteen during the Tea Party, and sixteen in the first year of the war.
  • helped the Sons of Liberty, reportedly by guarding the door when they had their meetings along with other boys.
  • somehow served the Continental side during the Revolutionary War.
  • conducted a prisoner from Worcester to Boston Jail during the Shays Rebellion.
  • Ended up with a large striped banner that had been flown from a pole beside Liberty Tree when Boston’s Sons of Liberty had their meetings, which has since become known as the “Sons of Liberty flag.”
It’s good to know more now about this Samuel Adams’s life in the early 1800s, when he was a prominent character in Boston, but there’s still a frustrating dearth of information and evidence about his Revolutionary activity. I’d love to have a first-hand account of what it was like to be a teenager during the years leading up to the break with Britain. But the scraps Adams left simply offer more questions.

Liberty Tree was felled late in the summer of 1775, during the siege of Boston. That means this Samuel Adams’s connection to the tree has to date from his teens, well before he came of age. By what means did he become the keeper of the Sons of Liberty’s flag?

All signs point to Adams having grown up in the North End. Liberty Tree was far down in the South End. Rivalry between North End and South End gangs turned violent on most Pope Nights. So how easy would it have been for Adams to guard a door down on Essex Street?

Almost all the reports of a flag on the pole at Liberty Tree, mostly from the late 1760s, describe it as an ordinary British or “Union flag.” A Customs report said it was a “red flag,” which could have meant a red banner with the Union canton. No one described a flag with five red and four white stripes, which would have begged for interpretation.

When the Sons of Liberty raised their flag on their tall flagpole, sticking out above a tall elm tree, they were calling for a public meeting. They wanted masses of people. Often those gatherings were outdoors at the tree. The flag was not associated with closed-door strategy sessions that might need guarding.

Recent examination of the “Sons of Liberty flag” has found that it’s made from machine-woven cloth, which was rare in the 1760s and not made in America. Since a big part of the Boston Sons of Liberty tactics was to promote a boycott of goods imported from Britain, would they have chosen a rare British cloth for their banner?

Some descendants of this Samuel Adams said that he was the private of that name that Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors lists as serving in Capt. Josiah Harris’s company, Col. William Bond’s regiment, in late 1775. All we know about that Samuel Adams is that he joined up in Charlestown, like many of the regiment’s other men. But Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors has more than three pages of listings of men named Samuel Adams.

“Rat-trap” Adams lived long enough to apply for a federal pension based on Revolutionary service. We know he sought money from the state. But no Samuel Adams of Suffolk County appears on the lists of federal pensioners, and no one seems to have found an application from him describing his military experiences. So did he not serve long enough to qualify under any of the pension laws?

All told, Samuel Adams’s Revolution, how he came to possess the “Sons of Liberty flag,” and the origin of that flag remain shrouded in mystery. He and the banner definitely appeared at Boston historical commemorations and political rallies in the mid-1800s. They thus symbolize the radical reformers’ claim on the city’s Revolutionary heritage, along with every other political grouping. But “Rat-trap” Adams hasn’t convinced me we can say more than that.


Peter Ansoff said...

As we've discussed before, the provenance of Adams's striped flag has implications beyond his own story. There's a well-established popular myth that the Sons of Liberty used striped flags, and (as far as I can determine) it pretty much all traces back to Adams and the relic that's now in the Bostonian Society. The raising of the Continental Colors in Philadelphia in Fall 1775 seems to be the first actual documented use of red and white stripes as an American symbol.

J. L. Bell said...

Adams's cloth was very visible in the late 1800s as flag histories were written, and that seems to have been a credulous time.

Anonymous said...

I certainly share your frustration in finding first-hand accounts of life in Boston before the war. I'm tracing an ancestor from the North End who was almost ten years older than "Rat Trap" Adams, and I've found practically nothing prior to his military service other than that his father was killed in the second siege of Louisbourg, and that his mother remarried to a painter named Edward Gyles a few years later.

I wonder if a lot of personal writings - journals, diaries, etc. - were lost or destroyed during the siege? Perhaps people who left town during that time didn't consider those things important enough to take with them. Just a theory.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the real problem is that most working-class people didn't keep journals or personal letters in the first place. Most of the documents we have come from genteel families, not ordinary mechanics. Sometimes a family that achieved gentility saved some documents from the preceding generations, but usually those documents are practical, not personal accounts.

J. L. Bell said...

Is this your man?

Anonymous said...

Yep, that's him. I have a lot of information about him after he joined the militia, but nothing prior to that. Some of his papers, along with papers of the de St. Pry family mentioned in the link are in the Houghton Library at Harvard, but I'm unable to travel there to see them.

It's also noteworthy that Treat's stepfather, the above-mentioned Edward Gyles, signed the 1767 Non-Importation Agreement along with a lot of prominent North Enders.

J. L. Bell said...

One factor for Samuel Treat was his youth. In his early twenties in the last years before the war, he might have had other priorities besides keeping papers. And his work as a journeyman or sailor or other common profession for young men might not have seemed worth keeping a record of for many years.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point. I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll likely never know about his early life. The thing that's been consuming a lot of my time has been trying to research a portrait he sat for around the start of the war, which has turned up very little.