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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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Revisiting Castle William through the Commonwealth Museum

This summer the Commonwealth Museum at the Massachusetts Archives is featuring a small exhibit titled “Castle Island: A Storied History.”

It features documents from the government’s collection related to the harbor island first fortified in the 1630s. In the eighteenth century that site was called Castle William or simply “the Castle.” Today the rebuilt fortification is called Fort Independence. The land it sits on is connected to the mainland yet has “Island” in its name—go figure.

The exhibit description says:
From colonial Governor Andros imprisoned on the island by colonists, through British officials who fled to the "castle" on the eve of the Revolution, to colorful personalities like the young soldier Edgar Allan Poe, Castle Island and Fort Independence have played a fascinating role in Massachusetts history.
In the years before the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts politicians sparred over who should control that island. In 1766 Gov. Francis Bernard let a contingent of Royal Artillery stay there over the winter without consulting with his Council, and that became a political issue. As it turned out, the artillery training those professionals gave to Adino Paddock’s militia company turned them into a highly respected unit. [I discuss their standing in Boston in The Road to Concord.]

When the Crown sent British troops to Boston in 1768, town officials argued that they should stay in the barracks at Castle William. Bernard replied that the soldiers would be too far from town to tamp down any violent protests against the Customs service, which of course the town officials knew. Later, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson turned over control of the castle to the remaining regulars, prompting another round of complaints from the legislature that he was behaving unilaterally.

As part of this exhibit, the Commonwealth Museum says, it’s displaying “a rare, early American flag that dates to the time of the American Revolution. It is believed that the flag may have flown over Castle Island.” The flag, shown above, has thirteen stars and thirteen stripes, which means it was made during the war or in the years immediately following—or that it’s a replica of such a flag.

According to a story in the Boston Globe, the flag was loaned for this exhibit by James Mooney of Cincinnati, whose ancestors bought it with a home in Medford in 1901. That home, according to Mooney, belonged to “a significant family with a history in the Revolutionary War, and going back to the Mayflower.” However, that article didn’t identify the family or provide more evidence for the statements about the flag.

The Globe article does say: “Stephen Kenney, director at the museum, which is in the Massachusetts Archives Building, said the flag is identical in design to one that’s part of the State House art collection.” And according to this genealogy, in 1906 Gov. Curtis Guild accepted the gift of a similar thirteen-star flag, said to have been made for Jonathan Fowle in 1781. Again, no details behind those statements.

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