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


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Legend of Betsey Hagar

In his History of Bradford County, Pennsylvania (1891), Henry C. Bradsby set down this unusual anecdote of the aftermath of the Revolutionary War’s first day:
Betsey Hagar…was born in Boston in 1750, and at nine years of age was left alone in the world to shift for herself. She grew up on a farm, was of a strong muscular frame, and learned to do all rough farm work, as well as being an expert at the loom.

When the Revolution broke out she was at work for a man named Leverett, in his blacksmith shop; he was very ingenious, and he and Betsey were secretly busy fixing the old match-lock guns for the patriots. She would file and grind and scour the work, and fit it as fast as he would turn it out. The two, it should be remembered, were working gratuitously—solely for the cause of freedom.

At the battle of Concord the British fled, and left six nice brass cannon, but all spiked. They were taken to Leverett’s shop, where he and his helper drilled holes opposite the spikes and then they could punch them out and stop up the hole with a screw. She worked hard at these cannon six weeks. She also made cartridges, and when her supply of flannel for this purpose gave out, she took off her underclothes and used them. At night, after the battle, she helped care for and nurse the wounded. Thus she helped during the seven years’ war.

In 1813 she married John Pratt, and they were on a rented farm at the time the “Shay rebellion” broke out, when she said: “John, you go and help kill Shay, and I will look after the crop.” John went, and she made a fine crop. Her son was Thomas Pratt.

In 1816 the family came to Burlington township [Pennsylvania], and settled on the G. A. Johnson farm. Among her other gifts was much knowledge of medicine—the herbs, roots and flowers of the country, and she often ministered to the sick, and was as much respected and “looked up to” as any person in the settlement. She lived to a green old age, dying in Granville in 1843, aged ninety-three years.
Two decades later, Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green were looking for stories for The Pioneer Mothers of America. They put Betsy Hagar into their second volume, right before Molly Pitcher. That version added some details:
  • Young Betsy was “bound out” at an early age.
  • The blacksmith was named Samuel Leverett.
  • John Pratt marched during the Lexington Alarm, carrying a gun that Samuel Leverett and Betsy Hagar had repaired.
  • Betsy was caring for the wounded after the Battle of Lexington and Concord when she spotted the six spiked cannon.
  • Betsy and John married “shortly after the close of the war.”
  • In Pennsylvania, Betsy was a vocal opponent of “an English doctor named Lee” offering smallpox vaccinations in 1813. (The county history mentioned Dr. Ira Lee, but not in connection to the Pratts, who it said didn’t settle there until three years later.)
The Greens thus appear to have had additional sources for their telling—but they didn’t say what those sources were, leaving no way to evaluate them. And, as I discussed in the case of Deborah Champion, the Greens tended to smooth out contradictions in their sources instead of acknowledging reasons for doubt.

Elizabeth Pratt’s Find-a-Grave page (source of the image above) offers yet another contradictory detail, saying she died “died July 12, 1843, aged 88 years, 1 month and 4 days,” meaning she was actually born in June 1755. Those words seem to come from a more recent local history.

Alas, I’ve found no documents to confirm any of the story of Betsey Hagar. I’ve looked in Boston records for her birth or her binding out by the Overseers of the Poor. I’ve looked for a blacksmith named Samuel Leverett. Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors, volume 12, pages 691-5, lists multiple John Pratts who served in the American military during the Revolutionary War as shown by one contemporaneous document or another. That group includes at least four who marched in April 1775: from Chelsea, Dorchester, and two from Reading. But none was from Concord or a town nearby.

Most important, the part of the story that makes Betsey Hagar most significant, the repair of “six nice brass cannon” left behind by the British, is clearly a myth. The British army didn’t bring any cannon all the way to Concord, nor leave any of its own artillery behind. While in Concord, the troops did damage some cannon that the town had mounted, but those guns were made of iron. Such sources as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress records and the recollections of Dr. James Thacher show that the province had only four brass cannon at the first months of the war, none of them found by the British and spiked.

The story of Betsey Hagar, though repeated many places in the last fifty years, thus seems to be a legend that can be traced only as far back as the Pennsylvania towns where her descendants lived in the mid-1800s.


Judy said...

This story leads me to wonder, what is the earliest incidence of Mary Sue?

Jimmy Dick said...

The date of 1813 for marriage seems to be off too. Not to mention the Shay Rebellion taking place then. She would have been 58 or 60 depending on the version of the story.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there's definitely a mistake in that sentence about the marriage. At one point I had "[sic]" in the quotation at that point, but I remembered I don't usually do that and took it out.

Perhaps the author started with a marriage date of "1783," transposed the middle digits to "1873," and then "corrected" that to the at-least-possible "1813."

Dr. Sam Forman said...

Bravo, John. Another heroine of the Revolution joins Deborah Champion in the ragged regiment of fictional females whom some erroneously treat as real people. I wonder if there is any real fire under this cloud of smoke - an unknown living Revolutionary War Rosie the Riveter who joined in with the workmen at Barrett's Farm in the heavy labor of refitting old iron cannon and making gun carriages. With such a highly embroidered yarn, replete with internal errors and inconsistencies, I suppose we can never know if it were inspired by the exploits of an actual person.

Liberty Bison said...

I looked to see what I could find on the Pratts based on your post and the Find A Grave pages you linked to. According to the Framingham vital records, John Pratt married Betty Hagar on 22 July 1787 in Newton. Also the Framingham records state that John Pratt son of Simon and Mercy was born there on 29 Sept. 1765.

Which means John Pratt was 9 years old during the battles of Lexington and Concord. John Pratt and Betty Hagar were married after Shay's rebellion. And John Pratt was 5 years younger than the age on his tombstone.

Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any records that could give a reliable age for Betty Hagar. However I suspect she was also younger than the age on her tombstone. According to later census records the Pratts youngest son, Lewis, was born around 1809. That would make Betty around 54 at the time of his birth.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that info!