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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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Viewing the “Shot Heard” Exhibit at the Concord Museum

Last week I took in the Concord Museum’s new “Shot Heard Round the World” exhibit about the events of 18-19 Apr 1775. It was quite an impressive gathering of artifacts related to one historic day.

This is definitely a military-based show. I counted six powder horns (one pierced by a musket ball), five swords, and four muskets, versus two looking-glasses and one clockface. Some of the items are already famous, such as one of the lanterns said to have hung in the Old North Church and William Diamond’s drum.

Other objects I’d never seen before in person or photograph. For instance, John Hancock’s letter to members of the Committee of Supplies in west Cambridge shows Patriot leaders discussing the likelihood of British troops heading to Concord before they went to bed on the 18th.

A shovel sheathed in iron is labeled as probably one of the fortification-building tools the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had collected in Concord. I wondered, had James Brewer taken this shovel from deacon Richard Boynton’s forge inside Boston? (I guess I haven’t told that story on Boston 1775 yet.)

There aren’t many portraits in this exhibit, but one familiar face on the walls was the watercolor painting of Maj. John Pitcairn that I discussed earlier this year. Its label offers a new theory of its origin, and I’m curious about the evidence behind that.

It was striking how many artifacts in this show come from local historical societies, and different historical societies. New England was built with lots of separate towns, and they have their separate treasures, many loaned for this show. Thus, from Arlington (formerly Menotomy) come not just the Royal Artillery cartridge pouch discussed back here but also a panel from little Joel Adams’s door and part of the meetinghouse silverware that some British soldiers carried into Boston.

Another element of the exhibit I liked was the use of stripes on the wall to show relative size of the British and American forces in action. You can see those in the background of the photo above, from Donna Seger’s report on visiting Concord on Patriots Day. (The foreground shows the gun flints found in two lines in Concord’s training field, where militia troops lined up before moving against the regulars at the North Bridge.)

If you go to the Concord Museum for this exhibit, don’t miss two other Revolution-related rooms: the “Last Muster” photographs of aged veterans and the portion of the “Why Concord?” exhibit downstairs that deals with the shift to independence.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mary Livingston Maturin Mallett

For many years, the John Singleton Copley portrait I showed yesterday was tentatively identified as showing William Livingston (1723-1790), wartime governor of New Jersey and signer of the Constitution.

That was probably because in the late 1800s it was owned by a New Yorker named Livingston. Another possible connection lay in how that portrait’s frame matched one around Copley’s portrait of a woman named Mary Mallett, born Mary Livingston in New York.

However, the man in the portrait wears the coat of a British army aide-de-camp, and William Livingston never held any rank in the British army. Furthermore, other portraits of Gov. Livingston suggest he looked nothing like this man. So who was in the Copley portrait?

As Christopher Bryant described in his 2012 article, the key to this mystery was genealogy. The woman born Mary Livingston married Dr. Jonathan Mallett, an American surgeon attached to British army, in 1778. But before then, from 1765 to 1774, she had been married to Capt. Gabriel Maturin, military secretary (and thus an aide) to Gen. Thomas Gage.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Malletts evidently sailed for Britain with three canvases Copley had painted in 1771, portraits of the surgeon, his wife, and the late Capt. Maturin—i.e., her first husband. After being widowed a second time, Mary Mallett sent her own portrait to her sister in New Jersey and gave her husband’s portrait to one of his nephews, who gave it to a brother, who brought it to America. Then, apparently by coincidence, that Maturin sold the captain’s portrait to a man named Livingston.

Bryant made a convincing case that Copley had painted a matching pair of portraits for the Maturins, a pair that was (like the couple themselves) separated by circumstance. Is it possible to reunite them?

The Mary Mallett painting hasn’t been seen publicly since the early 1980s, when the Chrysler Museum deaccessioned it. (Its frame had already been removed to put around another portrait.) The Gabriel Maturin portrait is scheduled to be auctioned in New York by Bonhams on 21 May, with an estimated price above half a million dollars.

[Recreation of the Mallett painting in its original frame courtesy of Maturin.org.]

Monday, April 28, 2014

Capt. Gabriel Maturin’s “impenetrable Secrecy”

In late 2012, The Magazine Antiques [yes, I know] published an article by Christopher Bryant about a John Singleton Copley portrait he had recently identified.

In 1768, Gen. Thomas Gage came to Boston to oversee the arrival of troops patrolling the town, and while he was there Copley painted him. Evidently the general and his wife liked the result enough that they wanted the artist to visit New York in 1771 and paint her as well. So Gage’s officers went to work to make that happen, Bryant wrote:
While Captain John Small flattered and cajoled Copley to come to New York, Captain Stephen Kemble, Gage’s aide-de-camp and brother-in-law, went about the practical business of securing sufficient portrait commissions so that “Mr. Copely might be at a certainty” in making the trip. After friends and colleagues had been canvassed, Kemble sent Copley in April 1771 what survives as the only known contemporary list of Copley’s sitters, in this case fifteen indi­viduals who “subscribed” for a total of sixteen portraits of stated sizes.

Given its origins, the list naturally reflected the Anglo-American colonial administration centered in New York. Margaret Kemble Gage’s name appears first, while fourth down was the name “Captain Maturin.” Captain Gabriel Maturin, after having distinguished himself in action with his regiment at the Battle of Quebec, had been from 1760 General Gage’s military secretary and as such the general’s closest aide and effectively his chief of staff. As the grandson of a French Huguenot refugee to Ireland, Ga­briel Maturin had the requisite command of the French language required by Gage when he was appointed military governor of Montreal, but it was Maturin’s tact, charm, and discretion that made him an indispensible member of Gage’s command right up until Maturin’s death in Boston at the eve of the American Revolution.
Maturin had accompanied Gen. Gage to Massachusetts in 1774 (the same year that Copley left for Europe, never to return). The captain died on 15 December of a “throat distemper” or “Peripnenmony.” John Rowe described the funeral procession on the 17th:
first part of the 4th Regiment Under Arms
then the Band of Musick
then the Clergy—then the Corps
then the Generall & his Family
then the 4th Regiment without Arms
then the Officers of the Army & afterwards the Gentlemen of the Town.
The next month, Maturin’s New York obituary praised him as a military secretary: “eminent Abilities, unshaken Integrity, and impenetrable Secrecy.” Gage might have needed the last. That death notice also said, “a most amiable Wife is left to deplore her unspeakable Loss, in the Bereavement of the most affectionate, polite, tender and indulgent Husband.”

That wife was presumably back in New York, since Rowe hadn’t mentioned her, and presumably had the Copley portrait. But what happened to them then?

TOMORROW: Mr. Livingston, I presume?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Biographers’ International in Boston, 16-18 May

The Biographers International Organization (B.I.O.) will meet at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, on 16-18 May. The organization, only five years old, is the only society devoted to writing and reading biographies, probably the most popular form of historical writing published today.

The conference description I received said:
We’re going to listen to panels about creating suspense in nonfiction, working with the families of famous people, writing about marginalized ones, engaging the imaginations of young people, entering the world of publishing, and bringing our work to the attention of everyone. We’ll ask questions of them, disagree and discuss at social hours, and meet like-minded people we’ll probably never forget.

In groups we’re going to visit—just to name a few—the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and the Boston Athenaeum. You get to choose which ones you visit.
And of course the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library will be next door.

The organization will give its annual award to Stacy Schiff, author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005) and biographies of other people from other times.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Call for Papers on Abigail and John Adams

The Abigail Adams Historical Society and the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society are co-sponsoring a conference on—what else?—Abigail and John Adams. This event will be called “Abigail & John: 250 Years Together,” and it will take place on Saturday, 25 October 2014 to mark the couple’s 250th wedding anniversary.

The conference organizers have issued a invitation to scholars to propose individual papers or complete panels. Those can cover “all aspects of the life and union of these two extraordinary individuals and their world,” though organizers ask for proposals to be keyed to one of these general topics:
  • Adams Family Lives
  • Courtship and Commitments in Colonial Massachusetts
  • Home and Hearth in Colonial Massachusetts
If you wish to propose a paper or session, e-mail a 300-500-word abstract to Michelle Marchetti Coughlin by 16 May. Presenters will be notified in June. Papers will have to be completed in time to be circulated to attendees before the conference, which will take place at or near the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Van Ruymbeke on French Migrations to America, 1 May

On 1 May, the French Cultural Center in Boston will host a talk by Dr. Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, Professor of American History at the Université de Paris, on “French Migrations to America Before 1800.”

The description of this lecture says:
French and Francophone migrations to America before 1800 were very diverse. First the Huguenots arrived in the 1680s. They were Calvinist refugees. They settled mostly in New England, New York, Virginia, and South Carolina. Arriving in the colonies in a very auspicious time they quickly and thoroughly integrated.

Seventy years later, in the mid-1750s, the Acadians were deported from Nova Scotia to all the British seaboard colonies. Poor and Catholic, these refugees were unwelcomed and went through a very difficult time before either returning to Nova Scotia or going to Louisiana after the Seven Years War in 1763.

In the 1790s three types of French migrants arrived in the United States: the refugees from Saint-Domingue; the émigrés, often part of the nobility, from Revolutionary France; and a handful of Catholic priests also from France. Settling in American port cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston), these Catholic émigrés and refugees for the most part did not remain in the United States.
Prof. Van Ruymbeke’s books include From New Babylon to Eden: The Huguenots and Their Migration to Colonial South Carolina and L’Amérique avant les États-Unis: Une histoire de l’Amérique anglaise, 1497-1776, which won the Prix France-Amériques in 2013.

The French Cultural Center is at 53 Marlborough Street in Boston. This event is scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30 P.M., including a question period and reception afterward. It is free to members of the center and $5 for others. Register for the event here.

[The picture above shows Father Francis Matignon (1753-1818), who arrived in Boston in 1792 and stayed for the rest of his life.]

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Talk on Black Soldiers in Britain’s Caribbean Wars, 29 Apr.

On Tuesday, 29 April, at 5:00 P.M. the American Antiquarian Society will host a seminar by Maria Alessandra Bollettino, Assistant Professor of History at Framingham State University, on “The British Empire’s ‘Sable Arm’: Black Combatants in the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Caribbean and Postwar Antislavery.”

Bollettino described her plans this way:
This talk will examine enslaved and free Blacks’ martial contributions to Britain’s West Indian expeditions against France and Spain during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). It will contend that people of African descent played an integral role in these expeditions—a role that was increasingly embraced and expanded by British imperial and military officials and one that was seized upon by postwar antislavery authors to assert that Blacks would better serve the empire as free subjects than as slaves.

This talk will maintain, however, that few enslaved and free black men who allied with the colonial order in hope of freedom and social advancement gained such valuable perquisites from their military service. Indeed, imperial and military officials’ growing conviction that Blacks were better suited to warfare in tropical climates than Europeans contributed to the hardening of conceptions of race in the British Atlantic world.
The talk will take place in the Society’s Goddard-Daniels House in Worcester. There will be refreshments before the paper, and the talk will be followed by a dutch-treat dinner in the city. If you plan to attend, please notify Paul Erickson by Monday, 28 April.

[Image above from a reenactment of the Battle of Bloody Mose, which took place in Florida in 1740.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where Did Jonathan Harrington, Jr., Die?

In 1775 this house facing Lexington common, shown courtesy of the Along the King’s Highway blog, was the home of Jonathan Harrington. There were three Jonathan Harringtons among the Lexington militiamen who turned out on 19 Apr 1775, and this is the one who was shot dead.

The plaque on the right side of the house façade explains the standard story of Harrington’s death: “Wounded on the common April 19 1775 [he] dragged himself to the door and died at his wife’s feet.” That story played a role in the discussion over preserving the house, as James M. Lindgren’s Preserving Historic New England describes.

That story took a while to get into print, however. Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington (1825) quotes from a deposition of John Munroe dated 28 Dec 1824:
Isaac Muzzy, Jonathan Harrington, and my father, Robert Munroe, were found dead near the place where our line was formed. Samuel Hadley and John Brown were killed after they had gotten off the common.
Munroe’s recollection suggest Harrington died on the common close to where he had been standing in the ranks. The separate sentence about those “killed after they had gotten off the common” reinforces that impression. None of the eyewitnesses quoted in that book described Harrington dragging himself home.

In 1835, the famed orator Edward Everett came to Lexington to speak on the battle’s anniversary. Using Phinney and other, unspecified sources, Everett recounted the events of the day, including:
Robert Munroe was killed with Parker, Muzzy, and Jonathan Harrington, on or near the line, where the company was formed. . . .

Harrington’s was a cruel fate. He fell in front of his own house, on the north of the common. His wife, at the window, saw him fall, and then start up, the blood gushing from his breast. He stretched out his hands towards her, as if for assistance, and fell again. Rising once more on his hands and knees, he crawled across the road towards his dwelling. She ran to meet him at the door, but it was to see him expire at her feet.
So far as I can tell, this is the earliest description of Harrington crawling toward his wife and home. In February 1777, Ruth (Fiske) Harrington remarried a Boston man unhelpfully named John Smith, and I can’t trace her further. It’s possible that Everett heard this story somehow from her, or people who knew her. Note that he didn’t say Harrington actually got to his house: the wounded man “crawled across the road towards his dwelling.”

Frank Coburn’s The Battle of April 19, 1775 (1912) states that Harrington “fell near the barn, then standing in what is now Bedford Street.” For that statement, Coburn cited a manuscript setting down what Levi Harrington, an eyewitness to the battle, told his son in March 1846.

But nine years later, in The Battle on Lexington Common, April 19, 1775, Coburn spoke about Harrington thusly in the historical present:
He is mortally wounded on the northerly end of the Common. Across the road is his home. He struggles to reach it, falls, but with renewed effort rises and staggers to his own door-stone. His wife meets him there, and he dies in her arms.
So for that audience Ruth Harrington doesn’t just see her husband dying, but she holds him “in her arms” on their “own door-stone.” No citations this time.

In Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), David Hackett Fischer reported that the Levi Harrington manuscript is at the Lexington Historical Society. That book repeats the details of Coburn’s second telling, however, and adds another figure, saying Harrington’s death was witnessed not just by his wife but by his young son. It’s a very affecting story, one that stuck with me since I first read that book, but it seems to be one of those stories that keeps getting better with each retelling.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Lincoln Lecture and Some Links

Tonight the Lincoln Minute Men will host an illustrated lecture by Concord Museum Curator David Wood and Skinner militaria expert Joel Bohy on the museum’s new exhibit about 19 Apr 1775. I understand the talk will be organized around the theme of how the artifacts on display, some for the first time in years, illuminate the timeline of that day. That event starts at 7:30 P.M. in Bemis Hall, 15 Bedford Road, Lincoln, and is free and open to the public.

Alas, I have to miss that talk because of a prior commitment. If you’re in the same boat, the meager substitute I can offer are links to some online articles I’ve written elsewhere this month:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sgt. Monroe on Capt. Parker

Yesterday I quoted the Rev. Theodore Parker telling the story of his grandfather John Parker’s words to his Lexington militia company on 19 Apr 1775: “If they want [or mean] to have a war, let it begin here.”

In 1858 Parker told the historian George Bancroft his sources for that quotation:
They were kept as the family tradition of the day, and when the battle was re-enacted in 1820 (or thereabout), his orderly sergeant took the Captain’s place, and repeated the words, adding, “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.”
We know from other sources that the reenactment occurred in April 1822. Theodore Parker was then eleven years old.

The men Parker identified only as his grandfather’s orderly sergeant was William Munroe, who by 1822 had obtained the rank of colonel in the Massachusetts militia. He was a major figure in town whose house and tavern is now operated as a museum by the Lexington Historical Society.

In 1825, three years after that reenactment, Munroe provided a detailed deposition about the fight. He stated:
Between day-light and sunrise, Capt. Thaddeus Bowman rode up and informed, that the regulars were near. The drum was then ordered to be beat, and I was commanded by Capt. Parker to parade the company, which I accordingly did, in two ranks, a few rods northerly of the meeting-house.

When the British troops had arrived within about a hundred rods of the meeting-house, as I was afterwards told by a prisoner, which we took, “they heard our drum, and supposing it to be a challenge, they were ordered to load their muskets, and to move at double quick time.” They came up almost upon a run. Col. Smith and Maj. Pitcairn rode up some rods in advance of their troops, and within a few rods of our company, and exclaimed, “Lay down your arms, you rebels, and disperse!” and immediately fired his pistol. Pitcairn then advanced, and, after a moment’s conversation with Col. Smith, he advanced with his troops, and, finding we did not disperse, they being within four rods of us, he brought his sword down with great force, and said to his men, “Fire, damn you, fire!” The front platoon, consisting of eight or nine, then fired, without killing or wounding any of our men.
In fact, Lt. Col. Francis Smith was not on the common to converse with Pitcairn (not that Munroe would have recognized either officer at that time), and most historians now agree that no British officer gave an order to fire. But for the purpose of this inquiry, what matters most is that in 1825 Munroe did not quote Capt. Parker as saying anything stirring at all.

That 1825 volume by the Rev. Elias Phinney quoted several other Lexington veterans as well. Ebenezer Munroe said, “Capt. Parker ordered his men to stand their ground, and not to molest the regulars, unless they meddled with us.” Joseph Underwood stated:
Capt. Parker gave orders for every man to stand his ground, and said he would order the first man shot, that offered to leave his post. I stood very near Capt. Parker, when the regulars came up, and am confident he did not order his men to disperse, till the British troops had fired upon us the second time.
But no one remembered Capt. Parker saying something like, “If they mean [or want] to have a war, let it begin here.”

In 1835 the famed orator Edward Everett spoke in Lexington, giving a detailed account of the battle, and he didn’t quote Parker saying that, either. If Munroe had indeed repeated those words at the ceremony in 1822, they hadn’t become part of the town lore. They didn’t see print until Theodore Parker told the story in 1855.

In the 1880s the Rev. Carlton A. Staples prepared a “Report of the Committee on Historical Monuments and Tablets” for Lexington and a paper for the Lexington Historical Society. Both appear to quote Parker quoting Munroe quoting Parker. And Staples’s research was the authority for carving “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here” onto the boulder on Lexington green.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Capt. John Parker’s Words on Lexington Green

A few weeks back, tour guide and author Ben Edwards asked me about the words ascribed to John Parker on Lexington common as the British regulars approached.

Did Parker say, “if they want to have a war, let it begin here,” or, “if they mean to have a war…”? Some authors quote the first version, others (and a carved boulder on the green) quote the second.

It appears that our first printed source for either quote dates from 1855, or a full eighty years after the event. The Rev. Theodore Parker was then on trial in Boston for resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. In his defense, he told an anecdote about the confrontation in Lexington that included the quotation:
One raw morning in spring—it will be eighty years the 19th of this month—Hancock and Adams, the Moses and Aaron of that Great Deliverance, were both at Lexington; they also had “obstructed an officer” with brave words. British soldiers, a thousand strong, came to seize them and carry them over sea for trial, and so nip the bud of Freedom auspiciously opening in that early spring.

The town militia came together before daylight “for training.” A great, tall man, with a large head and a high, wide brow, their Captain,—one who “had seen service,”—marshalled them into line, numbering but seventy, and bad “every man load his piece with powder and ball.”

“I will order the first man shot that runs away,” said he, when some faltered; “Do n’t fire unless fired upon, but if they want to have a war,—let it begin here.” Gentlemen, you know what followed: those farmers and mechanics “fired the shot heard round the world.”
Parker didn’t state outright that the militia captain he described so intently, John Parker, was his own grandfather.

Some details of Parker’s story were off. He was mistaken about the aim of the British march—Gen. Thomas Gage had given no orders to seek out and arrest Hancock and Adams. There were probably about 700 regulars, not “a thousand.” Parker promulgated a fiction in saying that the Lexington militia was out at night “for training” rather than in response to news of the British march. And Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase “shot heard round the world” about the fight at his home town of Concord, not in Parker’s home town of Lexington.

Three years later, Parker wrote down the story again in a letter to the historian George Bancroft, eventually published in 1863:
One fact or two let me give. At the battle of Lexington, when Capt. P. drew up his men as the British were nearing, he ordered “every man to load” his piece with powder and ball. “Don’t fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!” I think these significant words ought to be preserved. They were kept as the family tradition of the day, and when the battle was re-enacted in 1820 (or thereabout), his orderly sergeant took the Captain’s place, and repeated the words, adding, “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.” Besides, some of the soldiers, when they saw the flash of the British guns, turned to run: he drew his sword, and said, “I will order the first man shot that offers to run!” Nobody ran till he told them, “Disperse, and take care of yourselves.”
As you can see, Theodore Parker wrote “want to have a war” in 1855 and “mean to have a war” in 1858. Both versions of the quotation thus rest on the same man’s memory.

Theodore Parker was born in 1810, thirty-five years after his grandfather had died. He based on his quotation on “family tradition” and an affirmation by the captain’s former orderly sergeant, speaking in a folksy manner: “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.”

TOMORROW: What did that orderly sergeant himself tell us?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Remembering the Revolutionary War Veterans of Cincinnati

At 1:00 today, the Cincinnati chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution will have a public ceremony honoring Revolutionary War veterans at the Spring Grove Cemetery, as described on the Cincinnati Enquirer’s website.

In 1976, the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a marker at Spring Grove listing 35 Revolutionary veterans known to have been buried there. However, further research has added 25 more names. Some were interred there but not recognized as veterans before. Others were buried at another cemetery in the city before it was turned into a park in the 1850s; their descendants were invited to move their remains, if any, to Spring Grove, but not every family had relatives or resources to do so.

Among the Cincinnati veterans to be added to the marker is Cambridge native Joshua Wyeth (1758-1829). In his case, it’s just a guess that he was even in the first cemetery since there’s no record or description of his burial.

However, Cincinnati’s newspapers recorded Wyeth’s passing in 1829 because he was the city’s link to the Boston Tea Party. (His Find-a-Grave page shows one obituary, along with the wrong year for his death.) In fact, Wyeth was the first participant in the destruction of the tea to recount the event for public consumption and one of the first people quoted in print using the term “Tea Party” to describe it.

In 1773, Joshua Wyeth was working in Boston as an apprentice of blacksmith Obadiah Whiston, a fervent Son of Liberty. Four years earlier, Whiston had charged into the ranks of a British army squad and slugged a soldier for accidentally firing a musket ball into the doorway of his forge. In 1770, Whiston was on the scene of the Boston Massacre. In 1774, Whiston hid two brass cannon stolen from a militia armory inside his shop for several weeks.

But in early 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren began to suspect Whiston was ready to switch over to the Crown and reveal what he knew about those cannon. The Patriots quickly moved the guns to Concord and cut Whiston out of their network. In March 1776 he left Massachusetts with the British military. Though his family was back in Boston within a few years, I’ve found no evidence of Obadiah Whiston’s return.

That shift was probably confusing to young Joshua Wyeth. He remembered it as, “Western, at the time [of the Tea Party], was neutral, but afterwards became a tory.” According to his pension application, Wyeth had left his master and was out of Boston in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Family genealogy says he also got married in 1775 to Pauline or Emaline Jones, when he was no more than seventeen. Later he married twice more, fathered twenty-one children, and moved to Ohio.

(Today is, of course, the anniversary of the first full-scale battle of America’s Revolutionary War. By coincidence, it also marks a smaller milestone: this is the 3,000th posting on Boston 1775.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

The “No King But Jesus” Myth

Here’s a myth about the fighting at Lexington in April 1775 that’s become popular on the American far right over the last thirty years.

What might be the earliest telling comes from Charles A. Jennings, a Christian Identity speaker who operated the ironically named “Truth in History” website and wrote:
On April 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of Minutemen; “Disperse, ye villains, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England.” The immediate response of Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company was: “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus.”
Fake History tackled this myth in 2010, pointing out the myriad problems:
  • Samuel Adams had been in Lexington earlier that morning, not John.
  • Jonas Clarke was town minister and thus by law not a “militia leader.”
  • Clarke wasn’t on the common during the confrontation with the British.
  • Most important, there’s no evidence for this exchange.
We have dozens of first-hand descriptions of the confrontation on Lexington common from 1775 and afterwards, coming from men on both sides of the conflict. Not one includes the words “No king but Jesus.”

“No king but Jesus” was actually the title of a pamphlet that the English republican Henry Haggar published in 1652. Some historians have called it a slogan of the Levellers, a radical faction in the English Civil War. But British society had repudiated that idea, installing kings again.

That meant those words weren’t really a respectable motto, even in eighteenth-century New England. The one contemporaneous report of Americans adopting the slogan during the Revolutionary period came from an angry British appointee trying to discredit the anti-Stamp movement in Pennsylvania in 1765. Reviving that call in 1775 would have undercut the provincials’ cause because they were proclaiming their loyalty to King George III and the British constitution.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

William Dawes Tells a Good Story

On 17 June 1875, Harriet Newcomb Holland wrote down the stories she’d heard about her grandfather, William Dawes (shown here in a portrait by John Johnson).

Holland had heard those tales from her mother, Dawes having died ten years before she was born. Her recounting was published by her son Henry Ware Holland in a book printed in limited numbers for members of the family—in other words, not a critical audience.

Holland’s description of William Dawes’s ride on the night of 18-19 Apr 1775 was brief though, she said, “specific”:
I do not remember ever hearing that he was made a prisoner; but I know he thought himself pursued by two horsemen who were following him, and rode rapidly up to a farm-house, slapping his leather breeches, and stopping so suddenly that his watch was thrown from his pocket, and shouting “Halloo, my boys! I’ve got two of ’em.”

His pursuers turned their horses and rode off; but he did not stop to pick up his watch, though he found it there some days afterwards in safe keeping.
It’s a great story, and it fits right into a beloved American narrative of fooling the British through clever tricks. For that reason, I wondered whether Dawes might have constructed that story for his relatives’ entertainment. I wanted it to be true, but I had to wonder.

I was therefore pleased to find that on 3 May 1775 Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy (P.D.F. available through Teach US History) published a report of the Battle of Lexington and Concord that included this story about the riders from Boston:
When the expresses got about a mile beyond Lexington, they were stopped by about fourteen officers on horseback, who came out of Boston in the afternoon of that day, and were seen lurking in bye-places in the country till after dark.

One of the expresses immediately fled, and was pursued two miles by an officer, who when he had got up with him presented a pistol, and told him he was a dead man if he did not stop, but he rode on until he came up to a house, when stopping of a sudden his horse threw him off; having the presence of mind to hollow to the people in the house, “Turn out! Turn out! I have got one of them!” the officer immediately retreated as far as he had pursued:

The other express after passing through a strict examination, by some means got clear.
The “other express” was, of course, Paul Revere.

Thomas had just relocated his newspaper to Worcester. Dawes must have been there as well. He settled his family in that town during the siege and was still there as a shopkeeper when British P.O.W.s passed through after Saratoga. (They complained he overcharged them.) Obviously Dawes was describing how he’d scared off his pursuers within two weeks of the ride, providing a solid basis for the family tradition.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

See a Piece of Concord’s North Bridge

I grew up in suburban Boston around the time of the Bicentennial. In fact, I was in fifth grade, when the Massachusetts social-studies curriculum focuses on colonial and Revolutionary history, during the 200th anniversary of the first year of the War for Independence. So between geography, chronology, and ordinary lesson plans I got a triple dose of Revolutionary history.

But I didn’t grow up in the iconic towns of Lexington or Concord. What was that like? Joel Bohy of the Skinner auction house recently described one highlight of that period for him:

I was a 9-year-old attending the Ripley School in Concord. During a bicentennial ceremony, I received a small block of wood, and so did all of the other students at the school. Our teacher told us that these pieces of wood were remnants of the North Bridge. Even then, I wondered what happened to the original bridge, and how did these pieces survive? . . .

According to town of Concord records, the bridge at which the famous fight took place was built in 1760, replacing an earlier one. By the early 1790s, new roads and bridges provided alternate routes that rendered the famous bridge useless. In 1793, it was disassembled and moved to the site of the current Flint bridge. Since the town was not paying for the removal work, the crew reused most of the wood and stone buttments from the North Bridge site at the new Flint bridge.
Skipping ahead, in 1955 the Massachusetts Department of Public Works decided to build a new bridge at the site of the North Bridge that would resemble the span that had been there in 1775.
As construction commenced, the crew brought draglines to work the bottom of the river, and discovered pieces of the original bridge from 1760. These pieces must have been left behind in 1793 because they were too difficult to remove from the river bed.

With modern technology, of course, this removal process was much easier. The town of Concord received the wooden beams that were recovered. They cut some of the beams into pieces and mounted the blocks of wood on plaques or gave them to schools – including mine – for bicentennial celebrations. I’ve held on to my memento of the bridge ever since.

The town left a few of the best beams intact and donated them to the Concord Antiquarian Society, now the Concord Museum. One of those pieces, a witness to the events of April 19, 1775, is a large side brace of the original bridge with a tenon on the end that had been pegged into a mortise on the main frame of the bridge.
That beam helped to support the British search party that crossed the bridge on its way to James Barrett’s farm, and the British companies that lingered around the bridge to secure the position, and the militiamen who marched down on those companies and just across the bridge when they decided to confront the regulars. (It also supported the search party as those men marched back across the bridge after both sides of the fatal skirmish had pulled back.)

Along with a lot of other artifacts, that beam will be part of an exhibit at the Concord Museum titled “The Shot Heard Round the World: April 19, 1775,” which Joel has been working on for years now. It will open on Friday, 18 April, and stay open until 21 September. If you’re anywhere around here this spring or summer, you won’t want to miss it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Joseph Green, John Hamock, and the Freemasons

Yesterday I shared a bit of a scatological attack on Freemasonry published on the front page of the Boston Evening-Post on 7 Jan 1751. That attack included not only a poem but a woodcut illustration obviously commissioned for that poem. Who went to all that trouble?

By that time, Boston’s first Freemasons lodge had been established for nearly two decades. I’ve read conflicting reports of whether they had had public marches, but clearly they had one on St. John’s Day near the end of 1749.

The next year, a local wit named Joseph Green (1706-1780, shown here in a 1767 Copley portrait) published two editions of a pseudonymous pamphlet titled Entertainment for a Winter’s Evening…, satirizing the very notion of Freemasons going to church and poking fun at individual members. Those lines closed with a scene of the Freemasons entering their temple, out of public view. The author, invoking the muse Clio, promised to “tell the rest another time.”

Therefore, it was logical for people to read the Boston Evening-Post poem as the next installment of that series, describing the Freemasons’ secret rituals in scatological terms while professing to be a “Defence of MASONRY.” A merchant named Benjamin Hallowell (father of the highly unpopular Customs official with the same name) said the new poem definitely came from Green. According to Steven Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood, the Freemasons met, threatened a boycott of the Evening-Post, and asked Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips, the province’s highest royal official, for permission to sue.

Then on 21 January the Evening-Post published Green’s denial that he’d written the “Defence of MASONRY” poem, criticizing Hallowell for spreading a “scandalous and malicious lie.” To be fair, the “Defence” wasn’t up to Green’s standard. He really was a good poet, and his allusions far more subtle—his pamphlets included helpful footnotes so readers could see how clever he was. Furthermore, the “Defence” was addressed “To Mr. CLIO,” or Green, rather than by him.

So who did write the “Defence”? David S. Shields’s Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America points to a wine merchant named John Hamock (or Hammock). He was in business from 1735 to his death in 1769. He was a warden of Christ Church, raising money for its bells in 1744, and in 1758 he rented the space under the Town House as his wine cellar.

In the 15 Jan 1750 Boston Post-Boy Hamock had advertised his wines by implying that other merchants’ wares were unhealthy and signing himself “John Hamock, V.D.” Other ads showed that meant “Vini Doctor,” a claim for special authority, though more often a joke appellation college students bestowed on each other. Hamock didn’t have a college education, but he seemed to have pretensions—and for the snobbish Green that was a provocation.

A poetic critique titled “To V.D.” appeared in the 30 July Post-Boy. The author took the opportunity to swipe at another of Green’s frequent targets, the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr.:
Whist---softly---for fear
Doughty B**** should hear;
If he does, with his pen he’ll chastise you.
I know you will cry,
Scar’d by B****! Not I,
Do your worst, Sir, for H****k defies you.
Thus, “To V.D.” was both addressed to Hamock and put words in his mouth.

Hamock might then have published the “Defence of MASONRY” poem in early 1751 to get Green in trouble. And it did: for the only time in his career Green had to publicly discuss his writing, if only to deny he’d written this item. Hamock might also have been trying to show “Mr. CLIO” that he could satirize the Freemasons in verse, too.

It looks like Boston’s Freemasons just happened to be caught in the crossfire between two men feuding for their own reasons. The movement and many local members had ties to Europe instead of old Puritan families, so they made an easy target in Boston. In fact, Green went back to satirizing the Freemasons four years later with a pamphlet titled The Grand Arcanum, Detected.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fleets Get N.S.F.W.

I’ve been writing about the Fleet family, enslaved to Thomas Fleet and trained in the printing business. Isaiah Thomas recalled that in the 1750s a black man named Peter Fleet carved woodcuts for ballads, and the initials “P.F” appear in a small book called The Prodigal Daughter.

On 7 Jan 1751, Thomas Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post featured a woodcut with what looks like Peter Fleet’s typical hatching as its very first item—a rare example of new art in a colonial newspaper. That image illustrated a poem titled “To Mr. CLIO, at North-Hampton, In Defence of MASONRY.”

Though nominally written in the voice of a Freemason, that poem wasn’t much of a defense. It suggested that the organization was just a cover for sodomy. Referring to treenails, or wooden pegs, instead of masons’ trowels, the verse said:

I’m sure our TRUNNELS look’d as clean
As if they ne’re up A–se had been;
For when we use ’em, we take care
To wash ’em well, and give ’em Air,
Then lock ’em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.
And lest anyone miss the sexual reference, the picture made it very clear. (Click on the image below if you want a closer look.)
In addition to the two well-dressed but half-dressed Masons, the woodcut also showed an ass braying, “Trunil Him well brother,” echoing the several references to asses in the poem.

It took work to create a woodcut with this level of detail, and it’s not an image that Thomas Fleet could have used again on broadsides. Someone probably paid the Fleet print shop a hefty sum to create this block and print it and the poem. Again, this explicit bit of gay-baiting was on the front page of a weekly newspaper.

Ironically, Peter Fleet’s younger son Caesar became a Freemason in Boston’s African Lodge in 1779.

TOMORROW: Who was behind that attack?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Craft of Caesar Fleet

Yesterday I described the travels of Pompey Fleet, a printer born into slavery in Boston around 1746 who ended up in west Africa by the end of the century. He was part of three mass migrations of Loyalists: from Boston in 1776, from New York in 1783, and from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792.

What about Pompey’s younger brother, Caesar Fleet? His life took a different course. He stayed in Boston. The town’s 1780 tax assessments, published several decades ago by the Bostonian Society, list Caesar Fleet as a “Negro” living in Ward 10. The fact that he was tallied as a taxpayer indicates that he was no longer considered a slave, even before Massachusetts’s high court made slavery unenforceable in 1783.

Caesar Fleet’s name appears in another interesting source from the Revolutionary years. One of the earliest documents from Boston’s African Lodge of Freemasons, founded by Prince Hall, shows that “Sesar Fleet” joined in 23 June 1779. That was one of several civic organizations Hall and his circle founded during and after the Revolution in their bid as black men for an equal place in Boston society.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found Caesar Fleet in any other local records or newspapers. I don’t know if he lived long enough to be involved in the printing of Prince Hall’s 1797 oration, shown above. But there might be more sources out there.

Last year Caitlin G-D Hopkins wrote an article for Common-place that mentioned Pompey and Caesar’s father, Peter Fleet. She added thanks to “Gloria McCahon Whiting, whose pioneering work on the life and work of Peter Fleet, woodcut illustrator, has informed and enriched my own research.”

As it happens, Gloria Whiting is sharing a paper this Tuesday on “‘How Can the Wife Submit?’: African Families Negotiate Gender and Slavery in New England” as part of the women’s history seminar series co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. That conversation will take place at 5:30 P.M. on 15 April at the Schlesinger Library, 10 Garden Street in Cambridge. It’s free to the public, but to reserve a seat contact the M.H.S.

TOMORROW: Should I show Peter Fleet’s cartoon about Freemasonry from 1751? It’s “not safe for work,” as the kids say.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Travels of Pompey Fleet

After the Boston printer Thomas Fleet died, his 1759 estate inventory didn’t include his slave Peter, suggesting that that woodcut carver had already died as well. But that estate did include two boys: thirteen-year-old Pompey and ten-year-old Caesar.

Isaiah Thomas also mentioned those boys in his history of printing, saying:
Fleet had also two negro boys born in his house; sons, I believe, to the man just mentioned [the woodcut artist], whom he brought up to work at press and case; one named Pompey and the other Cesar; they were young when their master died; but, they remained in the family and continued to labor regularly in the printing house with the sons of mr. Fleet, who succeeded their father, until the constitution of Massachusetts, adopted in 1780, made them freemen.
However, at the time of the evacuation, the new Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and the judicial decision that made slavery unenforceable in Massachusetts in 1783, Isaiah Thomas was living in Worcester. His information about these Fleet brothers may not have been reliable.

I’ve found Pompey Fleet one place in Boston’s records. In December 1773 he married Chloe Short, a free black woman who had arrived from Grafton sometime in late 1771 or early 1772. At the time he was listed as a “servant [i.e., slave] of Elizabeth Fleet,” Thomas’s widow. And that’s the last I’ve found of Chloe.

Instead, it appears that Pompey Fleet freed himself in 1776. His name appears in “The Book of Negroes,” the list compiled by British military authorities of black Loyalists leaving New York at the end of the war. That manuscript states includes these entries:
Ship Three Sisters bound for Port Roseway [captain] John Wardell

Pompey Fleet, 26, short & stout, (Alexander Robertson). Formerly slave to Thomas Fleet, Boston; left him at the evacuation of Boston. GBC.

Suky Coleman, 21, slight make, (Alexander Robertson). Formerly slave to Mr. Teabourlt, Philadelphia; left at the evacuation of Philadelphia. GBC.

Sam Fleet, 5, small boy, (Alexander Robertson).
(Here’s an image of the copy supplied to the American government.)

The “Book of Negroes” says Pompey Fleet left the younger Thomas Fleet and Boston in 1776. The British military’s record of that departure lists only heads of household and no one who might be Pompey Fleet. He could have attached himself to the military or to a family; the printer Margaret Draper left with four other people, for example, though she had no children. A 2009 article for the Loyalist Trails U.E.L.A.C. Newsletter says that in 1783 Pompey Fleet had a certificate testifying that he had served the Crown for seven years, but I don’t know the basis for that statement.

Alexander Robertson was, the “Book of Negroes” says, “in…Possession” of Pompey Fleet and others in 1783. Isaiah Thomas wrote of Robertson, “I have been informed that he was, unfortunately, deprived of the use of his limbs, and incapacitated for labor. He was, however, intelligent, well educated, and possessed some abilities as a writer.” In 1783 Robertson was co-publisher of the Royal American Gazette in New York, so Pompey Fleet was probably working in that newspaper’s print shop. The other co-publishers were Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks from the Boston Post-Boy and Robertson’s older brother James, who had worked briefly for John Mein in Boston in the late 1760s. Thus, Pompey Fleet had probably become acquainted with those printers while still working for the Boston Evening-Post.

In 1778, James Robertson had followed the British army to Philadelphia and printed the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette there for a few months. Did Pompey Fleet go with him and meet Suky Coleman in that city? Was little Sam Fleet their son? That would correspond to about when Sam was born. Of course, Suky would have been only sixteen at the time. But perhaps we shouldn’t rely on the ages listed in “The Book of Negroes”; since Pompey was thirteen in 1759, he was thirty-seven in 1783, not twenty-six.

The Three Sisters headed to Port Roseway, an old name for Shelburne, Nova Scotia. There the Robertson brothers and Mills reestablished their Royal American Gazette, though Alexander died in December 1784 at age forty-two. James Robertson left Nova Scotia in 1789 and eventually returned to Scotland.

It’s not clear if Pompey Fleet worked for any of those printers in Nova Scotia. In 1784 he was listed as the head of a family across the bay from Shelburne in the black community of Birchtown. That was a rough settlement, poorly supported by the British Empire. (The photograph above shows a ”pit house” of the type many families had to build to survive their first winters, recreated at the Birchtown Museum.)

In 1791 over a thousand Birchtown settlers took up an offer to move to the new British colony in Sierra Leone. The document transcribed here lists “Pomphrey Fleet,” Sukey Coleman, and Sam Fleet together among the inhabitants electing to travel to Africa. And I don’t know what happened to them there.

TOMORROW: The younger brother, Caesar Fleet.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Art of Peter Fleet

Finally I’m getting back to the family of enslaved printers in pre-Revolutionary Boston, Peter Fleet and his sons Pompey and Caesar.

In his history of printing, Isaiah Thomas mentioned the last two by name, so when scholars spotted the initials “P.F” at the bottom of the woodcut shown here, they guessed it had been carved by Pompey Fleet.

In fact, Thomas had written that Pompey’s father had carved woodcuts for Thomas Fleet, Sr. Once people remembered the 1743 will of a slave named Peter owned by the Fleet family, they realized that “P.F” could also stand for Peter Fleet.

I’m inclined to credit this cut to Peter, the father. According to E. Jennifer Monaghan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, Thomas Fleet first advertised this book, The Prodigal Daughter, in his Boston Evening-Post in 1736. We don’t have any definite examples of that edition because the several copies that survive don’t include printing dates. Some copies are estimated as early as 1742. So either Peter Fleet carved that woodcut or the estimated dates are way off because Pompey Fleet wasn’t old enough to do such work until the late 1750s. And Isaiah Thomas never said Pompey made woodcuts.

The Prodigal Daughter is a narrative poem describing how a wicked daughter plotted to poison her wealthy parents in Bristol, England. Luckily, those parents were saved by angels casting the girl into a coma. She lay apparently dead for a few days and then returned to repent and share a vision of the afterlife.

Naturally, the descendants of Boston’s Puritan founders thought that this story, when decorated with several woodcut illustrations of devils and near-dead people, was a wonderful gift for children. Indeed, the earliest copy in Readex’s Archive of Americana database was given to Richard Knowles by his mother.

Thomas Fleet’s sons inherited his business in 1758 and kept printing The Prodigal Daughter with the same illustrations. After the republican Revolution they changed their business sign from “the Heart and Crown” to “the Bible and Heart,” and they kept printing this book.

Isaiah Thomas issued his own edition of The Prodigal Daughter in 1772. Ezekiel Russell issued his in 1790, 1791, and 1797. Both those printers commissioned new illustrations, but the results bear a strong resemblance to those in the Fleet edition. I think Peter Fleet’s style is notable for its heavy vertical hatching.

Nathaniel Coverly, Jr., published The Prodigal Daughter in Boston in the 1810s, using the old Fleet woodcuts—but with the “P.F” scraped off. By then Peter Fleet had probably been dead for more than fifty years. This webpage from Princeton shows three different variations of the book (crediting the art to Pompey Fleet).

The Massachusetts Historical Society exhibits another image from the Fleet print shop probably carved by Peter Fleet. That woodcut originally headed a broadside titled “New England Bravery,” celebrating the conquest of Louisburg in 1745. Thirty-odd years later the (white) Fleet brothers used the same woodcut of a city on a broadside titled “Two Favorite Songs Made on the Evacuation of Boston.” Thus, generations of Bostonians saw the art of Peter Fleet.

TOMORROW: The (black) Fleet brothers go separate ways.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Patriots Day Week Begins

Saturday, 12 April, seems to be the start of this year’s commemoration of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. I know of four events that day.

10:30 A.M.
Bedford Parade and Pole Capping
Wilson Park, Bedford
Minutemen from throughout New England will convene on Bedford town common and march with fife and drum down the Great Road to Wilson Park to watch the official pole-capping tradition. A minuteman will proclaim freedom by shinnying up a 25-foot pole and placing a red cap atop it.

1:00 P.M.
Meriam’s Corner Exercise
Meriam’s Corner, Lexington Road, Concord
The town of Concord, joined by area minute companies and Minute Man National Historical Park, commemorate the fight at Meriam’s Corner that sparked the six-hour running battle back to Boston.

3:00 P.M.
Paul Revere Capture Ceremony
Revere Capture Site of Minute Man National Historical Park, Route 2A, Lincoln
The minute men march down Battle Road and narrate the story of Paul Revere’s capture at the actual site. Hear Revere, Samuel Prescott, William Dawes, Mary Hartwell, even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Music, dramatic reading and musket fire in the Park. For all ages.

7:00 P.M.
Embattled Farmers
South Acton Congregational Church, 35 School Street, Acton
Author Rick Wiggin tells stories from his book profiling the Revolutionary War soldiers from Lincoln, Massachusetts, throughout the war. Tickets are $5, free for children under twelve.

Next weekend will be much busier. For more events, visit Battleroad.org.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dating the Forster Flag

Today Doyle New York auctions the Forster Flag, an unusual banner said to date from the Revolutionary War (shown here before its recent conservation).

As I discussed yesterday, the family that owned the flag in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century passed down lore that it had been captured from British troops on 19 Apr 1775, but that doesn’t seem plausible.

A rival, contradictory claim is Lt. Samuel Forster and his Manchester militia company marched under this flag on that day. That means it would have had to be remade with its thirteen stripes  in 1774 or early 1775.

In 2002 The Flag Bulletin ran an analysis (P.D.F. download) accepting that story and concluding that this was “the first American flag ever made.” (Of course, the author of that article was Dr. Whitney Smith, who had bought the flag from Forster’s descendants for the Flag Heritage Foundation. The foundation is now selling the flag to create an endowment to benefit the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the University of Texas.)

I find the idea of this being a pre-war flag to be as dubious as the story about it being captured.

In April 1775, Massachusetts militiamen still presented themselves as British subjects fighting for British rights and the British constitution against a corrupt ministry in London. American Patriots didn’t break with George III and Britain until the first half of 1776.

Before the war American Whigs flew the British flag as part of their protests to make the claim that they were being more patriotic than their opponents. Boston’s Sons of Liberty raised a “Union flag,” probably one with a red field and the British Ensign as its canton, at Liberty Tree. When Whigs in Taunton hoisted a flag on their Liberty Pole in 1774, it had a British canton and the motto “Liberty and Union” sewn to its red field. There are many prewar reports of American protesters marching under British Union flags but none describing flags with thirteen stripes.

That’s because American Patriots weren’t making a fetish of the number thirteen in April 1775. That spring, only twelve colonies were participating in the Continental Congress. (Georgia hadn’t sent any delegates.) Furthermore, that Congress was hoping that Canada and perhaps Nova Scotia and the Floridas would add to their continental alliance. Only at the end of 1775 did the Congress authorize a naval flag with thirteen stripes—and those stripes still appeared under the British Union canton.

So do I think the Forster Flag’s Revolutionary history is a myth? Not at all. I think its current form clearly dates from the Revolutionary War. But it was created after the first year of that war, perhaps after independence. It’s an artifact of Americans rethinking how they presented themselves, moving from British or English subjects, as symbolized by the original canton, into citizens of a new thirteen-member alliance.

Just how to symbolize that continental alliance was still being worked out in the first years of the war. This banner’s scheme of six strips on one side and seven on the other clearly didn’t work. Eventually the Congress decided on a new national emblem. Maybe this cloth is so well preserved because Forster’s company didn’t fly it for long in either its British or American forms.

As the war receded into memory, Americans stopped telling stories about the gradual 1775-76 transition away from thinking of themselves as British. The story of a British flag owned and flown by Americans being changed into an early American banner became a heroic story of capturing a British regimental banner, or a premature tale of marching as Americans on April 19th. But this flag’s stitching, read properly in context, tells its own story of a significant national transition during the war.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Legends of the Forster Flag

Tomorrow the Doyle New York auction house will offer the Forster Flag, a banner that family tradition dates to the Revolutionary War. The estimated price is $1-3,000,000.

As Barbara Owens of Spicer Art Conservation explains in an interesting technical analysis, this silk banner shows signs of having been refashioned with a new canton on its red field.

The original canton probably displayed either the British Union Ensign or the English St. George’s cross. The remade canton has thirteen short white stripes, six on one side and seven on the other. Some of those stripes are pieced together from two scraps, so whoever sewed the new design really worked on it.

This flag came down in the family of Samuel Forster of Manchester, Massachusetts, who was lieutenant of that coastal town’s militia company in 1775. It was first mentioned in print by a local newspaper during the Centennial, though it may have been on display earlier at the Massachusetts State House.

There are two family legends attached to this flag, and I find both highly dubious.

One holds that the flag in its original form “was captured from the British on April 19, 1775.” Flag experts have discarded that idea because there are no records of any British unit losing a regimental flag that day, and because the surviving banner doesn’t match known examples of regimental colors in shape or size or stitching.

Furthermore, Forster’s militia company didn’t actually do any fighting during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. That wasn’t their fault; they were marching south from Manchester. Like the other Essex County companies, they arrived too late to meet the British troops. As the Doyle website says, “The Manchester Militia Company marched as far as Medford on that first day, and was then ordered to remain there for three days in anticipation of further fighting near Cambridge.”

So for this to have started as a British regimental flag, the Massachusetts soldiers who captured it would have had to hand their trophy over to another company that hadn’t come close to the action. I really don’t think that would have happened.

TOMORROW: The other legend.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Reviewing Every Twist and Turn

Last night saw the launch of A.M.C.’s new spy drama Turn, followed closely by the launch of my review of that show at Den of Geek. I don’t type that fast; I got an advance look at the first episode. So did Michael Schellhammer, and his review at the Journal of the American Revolution went up last week.

Turn was inspired by Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies, a history of the Culper Ring operating in British-occupied New York City and Long Island from 1778 to the end of the war. And by “inspired” I mean the creators took names and basic circumstances from that history and went off in their own direction to find drama. For example, the show begins in “Autumn 1776,” two years before the spy ring got organized. (And I’m not sure why.)

As the weeks pass, I’ll be supplying Den of Geek with reviews of more episodes and periodic articles about the history behind the show, hoping to help viewers keep them separate. I don’t want to criticize Turn’s makers for fictionalization when their job is to keep us watching. But I am interested in what the entertainment industry thinks is necessary for a compelling story.

For example, the real Abraham Woodhull wasn’t being tugged in different directions within his family; his father was a Patriot, but the show turned him into a Loyalist for drama. The real Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old when Anna Smith married, and there’s no evidence he carried a torch for her. The show is not only driven by their unfulfilled relationship, but it gives him a wife and baby boy for more drama.

If that drama becomes more compelling, especially in rounding out the characterizations of the British army antagonists, then I think Turn will fulfill the promise of its source material and production values.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Meeting Saunders and Tremain at the Antiquarian Society

I’m interrupting my discussion of the Fleet printing families to mention two events at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester this spring about other Boston-born printers, real and fictional.

On Thursday, 10 April, Kenneth Carpenter will deliver the James Russell Wiggins Lecture in the History of the Book in American Culture on “The Incredible Journey of Franklin’s ‘Way to Wealth’.” Benjamin Franklin wrote his essay of that title in 1757 in the voice of Richard Saunders, almanac-maker, and ascribed its wisdom to an old man named “Father Abraham.” But it became a cornerstone of his public and historical persona. This talk will explore how Franklin’s text spread so widely and deeply into the western world.

Carpenter had a thirty-five-year career in Harvard University’s library system and published many works of bibliography and library history. He’ll start speaking at 7:00 P.M. This lecture is free and open to the public.

On Saturday, 10 May, the A.A.S. is hosting a hands-on history workshop for educators and others based around Esther Forbes’s novel Johnny Tremain. (As we all recall, when Johnny crippled his hand and couldn’t work with silver anymore, he found a job at the Boston Observer newspaper.)

The “Exploring Johnny Tremain workshop will examine the novel by the A.A.S.’s first female member. (Forbes was made a member over a decade after she’d used the library to research this novel and her Pulitzer-winning biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In.) The workshop description says:
In this award-winning novel, which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1943, Forbes follows a smart, charming, and somewhat reckless apprentice silversmith through a series of personal and political trials leading up to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. She not only paints a vibrant picture of Revolutionary-era Boston, but also tells a coming-of-age story that remains relevant today.

Joan Shelley Rubin will serve as lead scholar for the day placing the novel in the context of the time it was written. Participants will also examine original documents from the AAS collection that relate to the scenes and events in the novel, putting the story in its literary and historical context.

Whether you loved the novel as a child, are looking for ways to incorporate it into your classroom teaching, or are planning to introduce it to a child or grandchild of your own, you’ll find this workshop both enlightening and entertaining!
Rubin is Dexter Perkins Professor in History and Director of the American Studies program at the University of Rochester. She is the author of The Making of Middlebrow Culture, among other books, and co-editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History.

Registration for this workshop is $65 for A.A.S. members and K-12 educators, $75 for others. That fee covers pre-readings, materials, refreshments, and lunch. Professional development points will be available for K-12 educators.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Will of Peter Fleet

Yesterday I mentioned an article by Samuel Eliot Morison that the Colonial Society of Massachusetts published in 1924. That article presented the transcript of a will written by Peter, an enslaved printer working for Thomas Fleet.

The original document was then “owned by Miss Mary Lincoln Eliot of Cambridge,” a descendant of Thomas Fleet. Morison, whose racial condescension is well documented (P.D.F. download; see page 55), described it as “written in a crude and semi-legible hand.” Which it might well be, but I’m not convinced Morison would have written any better if he’d been brought up in slavery.

Be that as it may, the will read:

Here Children I leave you some thing, that’s more than any Richest Master’s, Servant would leave to their Master’s Children considering what profit I have to my trade. Thomas Fleet jun Ten shillings and a pair of Buckles; but shall not wear them in three years from ye. time he has them. John Fleet—five shillings. Anne Fleet—five shillings. Elizabeth Fleet—five shillings. Simon five Shillings. Nathan Bowen junr. five Shilllings. Thomas Oliver five Shillings.

What little I had thought to give it to Molley; but thought her sister Anne would make a scuable, and take it from her; that made me continue so to do, &c.—There is more than enough, yet, left for Molley, because she is very good to servants.

Master and Mistres, I would not have you think that I got this money by Rogury in any thing belong’d to you or any body else, I got it honestly; by being faithful to people ever since I undertook to carry ye. Newspapers, Christmas-days, & New-years days, with contribution with gentlemen sometimes 3 pounds 10/s. and sometimes 4 pounds 10/s. and in ye. years 1743, 5 pounds I would Give you a true account; in my Box you may find a little cask with money, yt. I had when Mr. Wollington was here, I could say when Mr. Vaux was here, that I had some of his money, but I had so much dealing with a wench, yt: I don’t think that I have any of his money. One Way I and Love use to have when we had a great Work for ye. Booksellers, when money we use to have for to get Drink we kept it. I am not great Drinker Nor no Smooker, and I have a little more wit than I use to have formerly amongst ye. wenches.—You may find in my box a 3 pound Bill which I had for my Robin.

All that’s left is for Moley & Venis.

Boston, June ye. 2, 1743. Peter Fleet
The document was also signed by witnesses “Nathan Bowen Junr.” and “Thomas Oliver ye. 3.,” who had also been named as beneficiaries. Nathan wrote, “Sign’d Seal’d & deliver’d in presents of us, the abov Nam’d, & deliver’d to / N. Bowen junr.” Morison didn’t comment about whether that last line was any more or less “crude and semi-legible” than the rest.

Morison suggested that Bowen and Oliver were playmates of the Fleet children. The Thomas Oliver who grew up to be lieutenant governor was born in 1734, which makes him two years younger than Thomas Fleet, Jr., and one year older than John Fleet, so he could be a candidate. The most visible Nathan Bowen, Jr., of the time came from Marblehead, but perhaps he was in Boston for schooling or training.

What are we to make of this will? If Peter Fleet feared he was dying in 1743, those fears were unfounded: he lived long enough to inspire Isaiah Thomas’s attempts at woodcuts in the late 1750s, though he wasn’t listed as part of Thomas Fleet’s estate in 1759. Perhaps Peter Fleet was ill in 1743, or the “New Light” religious revival affecting Boston in the early 1740s had made him think more keenly about morality and mortality.

That said, another clue to this document’s purpose arises from doing the math. Peter Fleet had saved up some of the tips that subscribers to Thomas Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post had given him at New Year’s. In the most recent year those gifts totaled £5, and in other years they were over £4—considerable sums. (This document thus sheds an interesting light on those carriers’ verses I share every New Year’s.)

The will’s references to “Mr. Wollington” and “Mr. Vaux” might name journeymen printers who, arguably, should have shared in those tips. In fact, by law Thomas Fleet probably could have taken all that money in the same way that owners collected their slaves’ wages when they bound them to another employer. But Peter Fleet was at pains to argue in this document that he had come by that cash honestly.

By writing gifts to the Fleet children into this will—more than other slaves would give to their owners’ children, he noted—Peter Fleet may have been preserving his master’s good will and the greater part of his fortune for his own family. The specified bequests total to 40 shillings, or £2, and a pair of buckles. At the same time, Peter Fleet appears to have wanted to pass £3 on to “my Robin,” whom Morrison says was a son. And he leaves the residual of his saved-up cash to Venus, then an enslaved girl seventeen years old (a daughter?), and little Molly Fleet, “because she is very good to servants [i.e., slaves].”

Some authors have characterized this document as “obsequious,” but it may also have been a well-crafted attempt to preserve the private property Peter Fleet had been able to accumulate for his own family.

COMING UP: Peter Fleet the artist.