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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Monday, May 01, 2017

“This is King Tammany’s Day”

In the Middle Colonies shortly before the Revolution, Americans began to celebrate May Day in a new way: as a celebration of Tamanend, a Lenape leader whom white colonists fondly remembered as cooperative and peaceful.

William Eddis was a British Customs official who came to Annapolis, Maryland, in 1769 and departed in 1777. Fifteen years later, Eddis published a collection of letters about life in America. One essay dated 24 Dec 1771 had this to say about life in Maryland:
There are few places where young people are more frequently gratified with opportunities of associating together than in, this country. Besides our regular assemblies, every mark of attention is paid to the patron Saint of each parent dominion; and St. George, St. Andrew, St. Patrick, and St. Davids are celebrated with every partial mark of national attachment [i.e., English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, respectively]. General invitations are given, and the appearance is always numerous and splendid.

The Americans on this part of the continent, have likewise a Saint, whose history, like those of the above venerable characters, is lost in fable and uncertainty. The first of May is, however, set apart to the memory of Saint Tamina, on which occasion the natives wear a piece of a buck’s tail in their hats, or in some conspicuous situation. During the course of the evening, and generally in the midst of a dance, the company are interrupted by the sudden intrusion of a number of persons habited like Indians, who run violently into the room, singing the war song, giving the whoop, and dancing in the stile of those people; after which ceremony a collection is made, and they retire well satisfied with their reception and entertainment.
That last custom has a strong resemblance to Christmas mumming, Pope Night processions, and modern trick-or-treating. Because any holiday is better when you can make people give you money or treats.

The celebration of Tamenend became even more pronounced during the Revolutionary War, with a new popular spelling of his name. On 1 May 1777, John Adams sent this story to his family from Philadelphia:
This is King Tammany’s Day. Tammany was an Indian King, of this Part of the Continent, when Mr. [William] Penn first came here. His Court was in this Town. He was friendly to Mr. Penn and very serviceable to him. He lived here among the first settlers for some Time and untill old Age and at last was burnt.

Some say he lived here with Mr. Penn when he first came here, and upon Mr. Pens Return he heard of it, and called upon his Grandchildren to lead him down to this Place to see his old Friend. But they went off and left him blind and very old. Upon this the old Man finding himself forsaken, he made him up a large Fire and threw himself into it. The People here have sainted him and keep his day.
This story of Tamenend killing himself by fire was still circulating among white Pennsylvanians in the next century, according to an 1893 article in the Magazine of American History.

For a detailed account of Continental soldiers celebrating Tammany at Valley Forge in May 1778, see this posting.


Doug Hudson said...

Huh, so that's where Tammany Hall got it's name. Fascinating!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, we associate Tammany now only with Tammany Hall and late-1800s corruption, but that political machine grew out of earlier political organizations and gentlemen’s clubs in the late 1700s. One organization in Philadelphia even traces itself to 1732, though I’m not convinced the Tammany connection goes back that far.