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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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

“You all perhaps have heard the tale of the search”

Yesterday I quoted a Robinson family tradition printed in A Family Story in the late 1800s. It described how Lemuel Robinson smuggled two brass cannon out of Boston past British army sentries and hid them in his Dorchester barn, even foiling a search by British officers.

In assessing whether that story is reliable, I’ll start by saying that there’s no doubt Lemuel Robinson hid brass cannon from Boston at his “Liberty Tree” tavern estate (shown here, courtesy of the Dorchester Atheneum website). In all, there were four brass cannon from Boston’s militia train and two brass mortars, probably brought out by James Brewer. Those weapons were in Robinson’s custody from before 5 January 1775 to shortly after 10 February, when they were quickly moved on to Concord. All that is shown by contemporaneous documents.

But the Robinson family seems to have lost some of those details and filled them in with others. For example, A Family Story speaks only of two brass cannon—meaning the two that were enshrined in the Bunker Hill Monument from 1842 to the 1970s. There’s no mention of the other ordnance, lost during the war.

The book also dates the removal of cannon to after the outbreak of war, when Robinson had sent his wife and children to safety in Stoughton. (Yet it also says “women and children” were in Robinson’s house to see the British officers’ frustrated search.) Sources closer to that time say that Col. Robinson was consumed with army business soon after the war broke out; in 1788 the Rev. William Gordon wrote of him, “For nine days and nights the colonel never shifted his clothes, nor lay down to sleep.”

The story says that Robinson drove a load of vegetables into Boston as part of the smuggling scheme, but that would have been impossible once the war began. The whole point of the siege was that the Continentals were blocking food to the British garrison. Could Robinson have driven in those vegetables instead in December 1774 or January 1775, when the guns came to his farm, and his family misremembered the timing? That’s possible, but the middle of New England’s winter is not the right time for “fresh garden truck.”

Then there’s the question of the British army search. I’ve seen no contemporaneous evidence for such a search in Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders or in the memoirs and letters of British army officers. Late in the winter Gage occasionally sent troops marching out of Boston into the countryside for exercise, and to accustom the population to seeing soldiers, but no officer appears to have mentioned orders to search for artillery along the way.

Locals later recalled a couple of those marches, to Watertown and Jamaica Plain, as unsuccessful searches for cannon. However, in 1775 even Patriots quick to complain about military activity didn’t mention officers intruding on the Robinsons. To be sure, it’s conceivable that resistance leaders decided not to complain too loudly about cannon searches because they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they actually had cannon.

Then there’s the anecdote about the search itself. According to the family tradition, Robinson moved the cannon into his barn through a back door. Then British officers came and threw open the big front doors, saw that opening covered with spiderwebs, and concluded that no one had entered the barn for a long time. That story fits into the long national tradition of sly Yankees fooling the British. But surely a group of British gentlemen would have known that it was unlikely for a farm family to simply stop using their barn, and that barns can have more than one entrance.

Stories of Patriots bringing those cannon out of Boston date from 1823, or more than sixty years before A Family Story appeared. Many of those stories, like the Robinsons’, involved hiding the cannon under manure. In The Road to Concord, I found a family link that lends credence to the oldest of those stories, cited another as a possibility, and dismissed a third.

Having considered the Robinson tradition after the alert from Earl Taylor, I’m not convinced by it. So many of its details seem unreliable, probably added as people in the family passed the tale down to children. After all, in A Family Story a Robinson great-grandchild tells younger relatives, “You all perhaps have heard the tale of the search by the exasperated British officers…” It’s possible that there’s a kernel of truth at the core of this legend, that Lemuel Robinson truly was involved in moving two cannon out of Boston. But all I can say for sure is that he and his family guarded four cannon and two mortars for the Patriot cause during the winter of 1775, and that deserves to be remembered.

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