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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Monday, August 04, 2014

The “Adams” Cannon Relieved from Its Post

Today the Boston National Historical Park has closed the steps to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument in order to remove an item that’s been in the chamber atop that stone tower since the 1840s.

That artifact is the “Adams“ cannon, shown at right. Until the 1970s, a matching gun called the “Hancock” also hung in that chamber.

One legend says that park personnel came in one day in that decade and discovered the “Hancock” half-buried in the ground outside the stone tower. Evidently vandals had pulled it off the wall and thrown it out one of the narrow windows, and it embedded itself in the earth.

I’m not convinced that was possible, but it’s clear that the authorities did take the “Hancock” to a safer place: a Metropolitan District Commission police station. At the time, that state agency looked after the monument.

Then the cannon dropped out of sight for several years until an M.D.C. clean-up uncovered it under a pile of bicycles—or so I’ve heard. Once that office recognized what the “Hancock” was, they turned it over to the National Park Service, which had in the meantime become the custodian of the monument. The cannon went into “preservation storage” at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

And there it remained undisturbed for another several years until, well, I came along. One of my first focused research projects about the Revolutionary War was on those two small cannon and another pair used by the Boston militia just before the war. I put together the documents to show that they disappeared from armories in Boston under redcoat guard in September 1774, were smuggled out of town to Dorchester by early 1775, and then moved to James Barrett’s farm in Concord, where Gen. Thomas Gage got word of them again.

That research connected the “Hancock” cannon to Minute Man National Historical Park, soon to incorporate Barrett’s farm. Folks at the park, Concord’s Save Our Heritage group, and History Detectives decided to act on the story. The Bunker Hill Memorial Association agreed to let the “Hancock” go on display out in Concord. It’s still there in the M.M.N.H.P. visitor center.

I don’t know what’s planned for the “Adams” after it’s conserved. There’s now a very good museum near the Bunker Hill Monument, and perhaps it could go there. Those guns have no connection to the battle in Charlestown, but they were definitely part of the start of the war, and the Adams has been attached to the Monument for over 160 years.

6 comments:

John L. Smith said...

Way to go, J.L.! History and Boston both benefit from your caring!

Hugh Harrington said...

Outstanding work J.L. Fine piece of research. I tip my hat to you.

Renny Little said...

Weren't the Adams and Hancock the two cannons purchased from England by David Mason for Boston's Artillery Train?

J. L. Bell said...

They arrived in Boston after Mason had moved to Salem and Adino Paddock had assumed command of the train. But some sources say Mason put in the original order.

There's also a notebook at the Massachusetts Historical Society that Mason kept while collecting artillery for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774-75. It includes the measurements of two cannon that match the non-standard dimensions of the "Hancock" and "Adams." So Mason clearly had his hands on those weapons in the weeks leading up to the war. A British intelligence report also connects his name to the artillery pieces in Concord.

Anonymous said...

Thanks be also to Captain Albert Swanson, the former historian for the Metropolitan District Commission, in the rediscovery of the Hancock Cannon in 1989!
The Hancock Cannon had been stolen from the upper chamber of Bunker Hill Monument in the late 1960s and the person or people who had stolen it tried to sell it for scrap metal. The scrap metal dealer knew that something was amiss and notified the police. So for around twenty years the Hancock Cannon remained in the lost property room in the basement of the Metropolitan Police Headquarters. In 1989, upon the cannon’s rediscovery, it was turned over to the National Park Service, where apparently it was disregarded again, this time in the preservation storage room at the Charlestown Navy Yard. In the 2004 episode of the History Detectives it said that the Hancock Cannon was “recently rediscovered by the National Park Service.” So let us all hope that in Concord, where the Hancock Cannon is today, that it does not get disregarded again only to be later re-re-rediscovered.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. I heard a different story about the "Hancock" cannon's adventures in the 1970s and 1980s, but the two tales flow together in the M.D.C. property room. I was instrumental in bringing attention to the cannon when it was in preservation storage and got to study it before it went on display in Concord.

Also, as a postscript to this posting on the "Adams," this spring the N.P.S. conserved it, and it's now back on display at the Bunker Hill Monument, this time in a protective case. I shared the honor of speaking at the rededication ceremony in June.

Together those two cannon are half the "title characters" of my book The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War.