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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Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Legend of Abel Benson

In Framingham, there’s a tradition that the militia alarm on 19 Apr 1775 was spread by an African-American playing a trumpet. Lately, in fact, that tradition has said the trumpeter was a young boy of African and English descent named Abel Benson.

That tradition has been published in Norman Castle’s The Minute Men (1977), David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), Kenneth A. Daigler’s Spies, Patriots, and Traitors (2014), and various web articles and local talks.

It’s striking, however, that the first mention of that story didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century. As far as I can tell, Abel Benson’s connection to the Lexington alarm starts in 1908 in a compendium called Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

In an entry on the Bacon family, this series quotes a man named Austin Bacon describing how he understood his grandfather John Bacon, lieutenant from Needham, responded to that alarm:

In the night or near morning the alarm was given and he set off on horseback to join his company at the more eastern part of the town, and sent his horse back when they got nearly to the Lower Falls. Soon after he had gone a trumpet sounded and some Framingham men came along with one Nero Benson, a negro, for trumpeter, and every house they passed had a blast.
Since Lt. Bacon had left, another relative presumably saw how the “Framingham men came along” and passed down that description.

That lore also surfaced (independently or not?) in George Kuhn Clarke’s History of Needham, Massachusetts, published in 1911. Clarke was a longtime collector of local history, old enough to have met a woman who lived through the first day of the Revolutionary War. Here’s how Clarke described the alarm in Needham:
On the morning of April 19, 1775, the news that the British were on their way to Concord was brought to Bullard’s Tavern, and the alarm was given by Ephraim Bullard, the tavern-keeper, or by his son of the same name, who fired a gun on Bullard’s Hill. . . .

In “The Leg” [a section of Needham later traded to Natick] the alarm was sounded by the trumpet of Abel, or Nero, Benson, a negro.
Unfortunately, Clarke didn’t write out the basis for that statement.

Both Nero and Abel Benson had appeared more than half a century earlier in William Barry’s History of Framingham, published in 1847. Three times in that book, Barry identified Nero Benson as the “trumpeter in Capt. Clark’s company” from Framingham in 1725—fifty years before the Revolutionary War. Another page lists “Abel Benson, trumpeter” among that town’s Revolutionary veterans. And there’s a genealogy that shows Nero was Abel’s grandfather through a son named William.
(Note that Abel Benson was also a brother-in-law of Peter Salem, a soldier at Bunker Hill sometimes credited with shooting Maj. John Pitcairn—though I think that’s dubious.)

It’s significant that Barry wrote about the Bensons without describing either Nero or Abel as being an important part of the area’s militia response in April 1775.

TOMORROW: In fact, there’s strong evidence neither Nero nor Abel Benson sounded the alarm.

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