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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Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Crown Informant Inside Old South

Last week I cited a report about the November-December 1773 public meetings inside the Old South Meeting-House. Labeled “Proceedings of Ye Body Respecting the Tea,” that was created for the royal government soon after the Boston Tea Party.

Whoever wrote that report had obviously been in those meetings listening to Bostonians discussing what they should do about the East India Company’s tea and taking notes on who said what. The document is in the British National Archives.

When L. F. S. Upton first published a transcription of that report in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1965, he wrote that it was unsigned. But he added that other documents in the same handwriting were marked with the name “Colman,” and noted that the last royal Attorney General of Massachusetts, Jonathan Sewall, had cousins named Benjamin and William Colman. They stayed in New England during the war while Sewall and other Loyalists left.

This month I came across this webpage by family historian Robert Sewell offering a similar but not identical transcription. (For example, the surname of ship owner Francis Rotch is rendered as “Botch.”) Sewell wrote that that text is “copied from the Journal of Charles Randolph Montgomerie Sewell.” He was Jonathan Sewall’s great-grandson, and lived in Canada from 1829 to 1876.

Don Corbly printed that transcription in this self-published book in 2009 with a little more background information, probably from the family: Charles R. M. Sewell “recorded a great deal of family history in his Journal circa 1850, including Jonathan [Sewall]’s journal of the actions taken during the Boston Tea Party.” Several details in those introductory paragraphs are wrong, however.

I doubt Jonathan Sewall was in Old South during the tea meetings. By 1773 he was well known as an officer in the royal government, responsible for prosecuting major crimes. His presence at Old South would have attracted attention.

But because Sewall was the Attorney General of the province, it makes sense for him to have asked a cousin to attend those meetings and report back, and/or to have a copy of that report in his papers while another copy was sent to London. So this might be a further clue as to the identity of the man taking notes in Old South.

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