J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Did John Rutledge Meet Sir William Johnson in 1765?

As quoted yesterday, Richard Barry’s 1942 biography of John Rutledge described in dramatic detail how that South Carolina jurist met Sir William Johnson (shown at right, in red), the British Empire’s representative to the Six Nations.

According to Barry, Rutledge was in New York for the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765, and Johnson was making his yearly visit to the city with a retinue of Iroquois warriors.

Barry directly quoted Johnson’s joke about the congress, but he didn’t provide any specific citations for those words. Instead, his notes were general, pointing to the Thomas Addis Emmett Collection on the Stamp Act Congress in the New York Public Library, the Laurens Papers at the Long Island Historical Society [now at the Kendall Whaling Museum], and the Rutledge Family Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

But we don’t have to go through all those archives to check Barry’s story. We can look at Sir William Johnson’s papers in the New York state library. In 1909 the state published a Calendar, or chronological list, of that correspondence. Two years later, that institution suffered a disastrous fire. In the 1920s, New York published transcripts of the surviving Johnson documents.

Both the Calendar of the Sir William Johnson Manuscripts and the published correspondence show that in October 1765 Johnson was writing letters from Albany and from his home at Johnson Hall, another hundred miles farther from New York City. He was nowhere near the Stamp Act Congress. (One of Sir William’s sons was in New York on 12 October, heading to Britain, according to a letter by John Watts.)

Furthermore, there’s no mention of a large body of Native American men camping north of New York in the city newspapers for that month. Merchant Thomas Ellison wrote a series of letters about events in the city that year, and the Iroquois didn’t come up.

Barry’s book turns out to be full of other refutable claims, stories without evidence, and outlandish interpretations. When he wrote John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (University of Georgia Press, 1997), James Haw wrote: “The only previous biography of John Rutledge, Richard Barry’s Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, is unreliable. I have followed the advice of Professor George C. Rogers, Jr., to ignore Barry’s book.”

TOMORROW: And yet the Rutledge-Johnson meeting is in a respected textbook today.

1 comment:

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

If there's Revolutionary-era bunkum to be debunked, John Bell's the man to do it!