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, January 03, 2017

“Carter and my eldest daughter ran off”

On 26 July 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned three men “to liquidate and settle the accounts in the northern department” after the unsuccessful invasion of Canada.

The three men the Congress selected were “Mr. James Milligan, Mr. John Carter, and Mr. John Wells.” I don’t know anything about Milligan and Wells, but Carter was an interesting choice for this job. He’d come to America from London less than two years before.

Obviously, the twenty-seven-year-old had convinced members of Congress that he had the accounting skills they wanted and was loyal to their cause. The New York politician William Duer, who himself had arrived from England in the early 1770s, was telling people that Carter “though young in years is an old fashioned english Whig.”

As of 31 October, according to a letter from the Congress’s auditor general to the New Hampshire assembly, the three commissioners were in Albany. There they worked closely with Gen. Philip Schuyler, the commander of the Continental Army’s Northern Department (shown above). Schuyler hadn’t gone into Canada himself, but he’d overseen the logistics of that campaign.

In March 1777, the commissioners sent the general a letter, possibly wrapping up their audit. The same month, the Congress entrusted Carter with $1,380 to deliver to Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., the deputy paymaster for the northern army. In May the Congress considered all three men’s salary, approving payment to them of $3,444—“26 July to 9th May, inclusive, 287 days, at four dollars each per day.”

That summer, Carter was back in Albany, possibly flush with Continental cash. We know that because on 3 July Gen. Schuyler wrote to Duer:
Carter and my eldest daughter [Angelica] ran off and married on the 23d inst. [i.e., of this month]. Unacquainted with his family, his connections and situation in life, the match was exceedingly disagreeable to me, and I had signified it to him.
This letter is usually interpreted as saying that the couple eloped on 23 July. But Schuyler couldn’t have written on the 3rd about an event that would surprise him three weeks later. Perhaps the couple married on 23 June, and Schuyler mistakenly wrote “inst.” instead of “ultimo”—last month. Or perhaps Schuyler wrote this letter on 30 or 31 July and Benson Lossing got the date wrong when he published it in 1873.

Right after the marriage, Angelica and John Carter went to stay with her mother’s family, the Van Rensselaers, hoping her father would change his mind. Gen. Schuyler was upset that he didn’t know about his putative new son-in-law’s “family, his connections and situation in life.” He would probably have been even more angry if he’d known that John Carter wasn’t even John Carter.

Carter’s real name was John Barker Church. He was indeed a well-born English businessman, and there are competing stories of why he’d left London:
  • According to descendants, Church feared he’d killed a man in a duel or brawl; “wishing to avoid arrest, he left his hat and broken sword in the street and fled by ship ready to sail to America.”
  • Church had gone bankrupt as a grocer (i.e., wholesaler), as shown by contemporaneous notices in the London Gazette and Gentleman’s Magazine in 1774. Later an anonymous book called The Whig Club claimed that “after several mornings spent unsuccessfully at the Stock Exchange, and as many nights passed equally unpropitiously at A——n’s coffee-house, in F—t-street [gambling], he found himself a considerable sum worse than nothing.”
  • Finally, there’s a suggestion in a letter to Gen. Horatio Gates that Church had absconded from his London partners with a huge sum in gold, “leaving his hat and sword in a London field, from which his friends were to assume that he had been murdered.” (Those are the words of Schuyler biographer Don Gerlach.)
None of those stories looked good, of course. It’s striking how Church or his family seemed to prefer the story of the duel over that of bankruptcy, but if the bankruptcy also involved embezzlement or accusations of it, that might make sense. It’s also conceivable that all stories hold some truth, that Church’s financial problems brought on violent clashes, or vice versa, with angry accusations to follow. Whether Church’s twenty-year-old bride Angelica Schuyler knew any of that history is unclear.

COMING UP: Can this marriage be saved?

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