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, July 12, 2016

The Mystery of Marshfield’s “many ill disposed people”

I’ve been tracing the political back-and-forth in Marshfield, Massachusetts, often labeled a “Tory town” but more clearly a split town.

When the story left off, the Patriot faction was in the ascendancy. Loyalist leader Nathaniel Ray Thomas had been chased out of Marshfield by crowds from the neighboring communities. As its legislative representative the town had replaced Loyalist Abijah White with a moderate Whig, town clerk and treasurer Nehemiah Thomas. A public meeting had then approved sending him to the extralegal Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

But that wasn’t the end of the seesawing. In January 1775 Abijah White and four other citizens of Marshfield, all also named White, plus five men from neighboring Scituate “In behalf of ourselves and our Associates” wrote to the royal governor, Gen. Thomas Gage:
We the Subscribers Inhabitants of Scituate and Marshfield, being loyall Subjects of his Majesty King George the Third, desireous of Supporting his Crown, & dignity and the Laws of Great Brittain, But being insulted, our persons and property’s threatned by many ill disposed people, who declare their intention of Assembling in great numbers to Attack & destroy us and many others among us who are determined as far as in us lies to Support the Laws of the Realm, and repel by force every unlawfull Attempt to destroy his Majestys good Government over us, Desire we may be Assisted with One Hundred of his Majestys troops to repair to Marshfield as Soon as conveniently may (or such number as may be thought proper) by whose Assistance we will to the Utmost of our power repel and resist any violent or rebellious attempt that may be made against us, or any other of his Majesty’s loyall & peaceable Subjects whom we can protect there are about two Hundred & forty in Marshfield & Scituate who are loyally disposed & who we have good reason to believe will stand forth in Support of his Majestys Government:
That brings us back to the moment when I started this series of posts, the arrival of Capt. Nisbet Balfour and one hundred soldiers, two drummers, four corporals, four sergeants, and three subaltern officers in Marshfield on 23 Jan 1775.

It’s unclear to me whether Nathaniel Ray Thomas was back on his large farm by that time or came back with the troops. In any event, he hosted most of the hundred soldiers while others lived at a nearby tavern belonging to a man the Boston Evening-Post called “Tory White.”

And that tilted the political seesaw once again. As I quoted back here, in February the Loyalists had the numbers to control the town meeting, and they voted official thanks to Gage and Adm. Samuel Graves for providing military support. Sixty-four men left in the minority could do no more than issue a public protest. That’s how the situation remained when the war began.

What were the tensions underlying Marshfield’s split? As of October 1765, the town had appeared united against the Stamp Act, calling it “so terrible a calamity as threatens this Province” and urging its representative to respect the Stamp Act Congress in New York. (Marshfield also condemned “the late riotous proceedings in the town of Boston,” but even Boston was embarrassed about those.) The committee who drew up that anti-Crown message included future Loyalists Abijah White and Nathaniel Ray Thomas as well as future Whig Nehemiah Thomas. So whatever divided the town so deeply and evenly appears to have happened in the next eight years.

Unlike in some other communities I’ve seen, this conflict wasn’t between people whose ancestors had joined the Puritan migration of the early 1600s and other families who had arrived more recently and thus felt a tighter tie to Britain. All the men involved had ancestors among the town’s earliest English settlers.

Nor did this political divide seem to reflect old feuds between families. Certainly family networks were involved in each side’s organizing—as in, for instance, all those Whites asking for troops. But other members of that family were Patriots, such as Benjamin White, who took the responsibility of hiding the town militia company’s gunpowder away from those regulars at his house near the town border.

Likewise, the old Little and Winslow families had politically active members on both sides of the conflict. Nathaniel Ray Thomas and Nehemiah Thomas actually descended from two different early settlers surnamed Thomas, but all the families had intermarried, so it looks very hard to draw lines between them.

Geography played some role in the disagreements. Like a lot of old Massachusetts towns, Marshfield had more than one village by this point, and people living in one spot clamored not to have to go all the way to the old town center for worship, town meetings, and school. A second Congregational meeting had been established in the northern part of town in 1738, called the “Chapel of Ease.”

I mentioned how a proposal to annex part of Scituate, to the west, had become an area of contention between almost evenly matched parties in the early 1770s. Sometime in 1774 the town voted that “one-half of the annual town meeting for the future shall be held & kept at the North meeting house.” In contrast, when Marshfield voted to participate in the Provincial Congress, the body met “at the South meeting house.” And the people who protested the town’s thank-you message to Gen. Gage complained that meeting had been “held in a part of the Town where a Town Meeting was never before had.”

Yet there doesn’t seem to have been one neighborhood where all the Loyalists lived. Crown supporters Nathaniel Ray Thomas and Dr. Isaac Winslow lived in the south part of town, as did Whig Nehemiah Thomas and radical young men like Benjamin White.

The weather may have been a factor in which party won votes at town meetings, especially if that factor was combined with having to travel longer. Generally the pro-Crown party prevailed at meetings held in January through March while the pro-Whig party won votes from June through October. But that might be just an artifact of incomplete records and turbulent years.

TOMORROW: Was the Rev. Ebenezer Thompson a factor in Marshfield’s split?

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