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, April 25, 2017

“Here are the cannon—Our cannon are coming”

Among the documents the Massachusetts Historical Society has made available in digital form is Sarah (Winslow) Deming’s letter detailing day by day her experience at the start of the Revolutionary War.

From a genteel family with relatives on both sides of the political divide, Deming was inside Boston when the fighting began on April 1775. And she wanted to get out. The letter is quite fraught with emotion about that, which may conceal the fact that her departure was in fact quite swift and early.

This is from Deming’s description of 20 April:
about 3 o’clock P.M. the Chaises return’d (for they both went to Jamaca plain wth Mr. Waters’s wife, children & maids he having first engag’d them, one of ’em being his brother Thomsons, which he Mr. Thomson offer’d to Mr. D.g while it was out, & promis’d we should have on its return). We set off immediately, Mr. D.g & I in one, Sally & Lucinda, with Jemmy Church to drive in the other.
Was “Mr. Waters” Josiah Waters? A father and son of that name helped to design the fortification at Roxbury. I see connections between them and a distiller named James Thompson, but I haven’t confirmed a familial relationship. Deming later reports that Waters got out of Boston on 21 April, with his parents having gone to Woburn and his own family headed to Providence.

Was “Jemmy Church” the eldest son of Dr. Benjamin Church, named James Miller Church? He was born in 1759 and worked as an assistant apothecary and surgeon’s mate during the siege. (There’s no evidence he knew of his father’s spying at this time.)
We were stop’d & enquir’d of wether we had any arms etc. by the First & Second [British army] centinals, but they treated us civilly, & did not search us. The third & last centinals did not chalenge us.—so we got safe thro’ ye lines. . . .

Which road will you take said Mr. Deming? Give the horse the rane; was my answer. The horse took thro’ Roxbury Street, ye way he had but a little before pass’d. When we were by the Gray-hown, a lad who came out of Boston wth us, & who generally kept by our side, tho’ sometimes before us, run up to our chaise wth a most joyful countenance & cry’d, Sir, Sir; Ma’m, here are the cannon—Our cannon are coming—just here upon the road, heres a man told me so, who has seen ’em. The matter of his joy was terror to me, I only said, to Lewis go home to your father, & let our horse go, so we parted.
Lewis? Who’s Lewis? The name never appears before in the document, and never again. He doesn’t seem to be the “lad.” I suspect Lewis was a family servant, possibly enslaved. Lucinda, mentioned above, definitely was enslaved.

The “Gray-hown” was the former Greyhound tavern, owned by John Greaton, at the corner of modern Washington and Vernon Streets. It became a provincial checkpoint during the siege.

Of course, what really caught my eye was that unnamed lad’s excitement about “Our cannon.” That reflects the Patriots’ pleasure at having artillery to fight the British army. The same guns made Sarah Deming worry about the damage they could do to the people and houses in Boston.

It seems worth noting that while Deming described meeting “little parties, old, young, & middle aged, some with fife & drum,” as she proceeded through Roxbury, she never described actually seeing those cannon. I suspect it took longer to deploy them, fully equipped and mounted, than the Patriots had thought.


Don N. Hagist said...

"a lad who came out of Boston wth us, & who generally kept by our side, tho’ sometimes before us, run up to our chaise wth a most joyful countenance... I only said, to Lewis go home to your father..." This sounds like Lewis could very well be the lad, and she had had quite enough of him by this time.

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Taverns everywhere. I don't suppose there is a handy map of Massachusetts with all the tavern locations of the 1770's identified?

Oh, and the Woburn records from the tan books list a Josiah Waters born in 1694.

J. L. Bell said...

Don, I tried the interpretation of Lewis as the lad, and saw two obstacles to it. Deming’s description “a lad who came out of Boston wth us, & who generally kept by our side, tho’ sometimes before us,” seems to suggest he was someone who casually fell in with her group instead of being someone she could name and give orders to (“let our horse go”). And his manner of address to the Demings—“Sir, Sir; Ma’m”—doesn’t imply they were close. But yes, it’s possible that in her telling Deming was deliberately distancing herself from this bothersome boy, whom she expected her correspondent to recognize.

Chris, there do indeed seem to be taverns every 100 yards or so. There are whole books about Massachusetts taverns, some handily from the late nineteenth century and thus available online now. David Conroy’s In Public Houses is a terrific modern study. But I think locating all those taverns on a map sounds like a good assignment for a digital history class.

I believe the two prominent Josiah Waterses of Boston (born in 1721 and 1747) were respectively son and grandson of the Josiah Waters of Woburn.

Jax Hunter said...

This might seem a silly question - and you may or may not know the answer. When was "the" used and when was "ye" used?

The horse took thro’ Roxbury Street, ye way he had but a little before pass’d. When we were by the Gray-hown

J. L. Bell said...

The “y” that we use to transcribe “ye” is actually the nearest equivalent of an older English letter called a “thorn.” That stood for the sound of “th.” Which means that “ye” and “the” are pronounced the same, even though today we often pronounce the first like the second syllable of “payee.” They‘re the same word, written down differently. The thorn was dying out in the late 1700s, and some writers never used it while others used it consistently in short words or abbreviations like “yt.” (that). Sarah Deming is an unusual example of someone switching back and forth. But I don’t think there was a pattern—and certainly not a general rule of usage—guiding her.