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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Thursday, July 20, 2017

An Aged Veteran and “The Young Provincial”

I’ve been discussing the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody’s sketch “The Young Provincial,” published in 1829, and Jacob Frost’s 1832 claim for a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran. Together they raise interesting questions.

First, looking just at the pension file, Jacob Frost’s wound on Breed’s Hill was bad enough to disable him but not to kill him, even with months in prisons and eighteenth-century medicine and hygiene. He must have had one hell of an immune system.

That wound also wasn’t bad enough to keep Frost from reenlisting for a short stint in 1780. Probably his experience as a soldier in battle and a prisoner of war was a reason the company made him its orderly sergeant. Yet that same wound was enough to earn Frost an invalid pension after the war. I suspect it was awarded in recognition of his suffering as a prisoner as much as for actual disability.

Next the bigger question of how Frost’s experiences relate to “The Young Provincial.” Dave Marcus of the Tewksbury Historical Society spotted the strong parallels between “The Young Provincial” and Jacob Frost’s experiences, as this article from the Tewksbury Town Crier in 2014 reported.

The Springfield Republican article from 1829 confirms that connection: “all the narrative parts of it are facts, in the life of a Mr. FROST, now living in Norway, Maine.” Even more clearly it made a connection between that literary sketch and “Dr. JOSHUA FROST of this town,” the veteran’s little brother.

Tewksbury vital records confirm that Jacob Frost, born 9 July 1753, had a little brother named Joshua, born 2 Dec 1765 and thus nine years old at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, just as the newspaper stated. Dr. Joshua Frost graduated from Harvard in 1793.

(Curiously, Sketches of the Old Inhabitants and Other Citizens of Old Springfield from 1893 says that Dr. Frost was “born in Fryeburg, Me., in 1767.” Fryeburg wasn’t even formed into a town until 1777. It’s about thirty miles from Norway, where Jacob settled, but perhaps the two communities were more closely linked in the eighteenth century. But there’s some mix-up there.)

Given the Springfield newspaper’s hints, it seems likely that the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody heard stories about Jacob Frost from the old soldier himself during a visit, or from Dr. Frost, talking about his big brother.

The next question is whether “The Young Provincial” is a reliable source on Jacob Frost’s military experiences, filling out the bare-bones account that he submitted to the federal government. And on that question I’m skeptical. I think Peabody took so much literary license that we can’t accept any particular detail as reflecting Frost’s own story unless it also appears in his own account.

It’s not just a matter of how much dramatic detail “The Young Provincial” has but also how details contradict Frost’s own statement:
  • Frost stated that after the Battle of Lexington and Concord “he immediately enlisted at Cambridge near Boston for a term of eight months.” The narrator of “The Young Provincial” says he went home after the battle, joined a company in Tewksbury, and “arrived at the camp the evening before the battle of Bunker Hill.”
  • Frost was quite clear that he “was employed on the night previous to the battle of Bunker Hill on the 17th. Day of June 1775, in throwing up breast works.” The “Young Provincial” narrator describes other men doing that work; he “happened to reach the spot just as the morning was breaking in the sky.” (Veterans who worked all night digging and then had to fight the battle tended not to let anyone forget.)
  • Frost was “severely wounded in the hip” during that battle. For the narrator, “the ball entered my side,” and he also “was beaten with muskets on the head.”
  • The “Young Provincial” arrives home “on a clear summer afternoon.” Frost stated it was “the last of September.”
  • The final scene of “The Young Provincial” turns on the soldier’s family believing him to be dead, based on a report from a companion on the battlefield. In 1775 and 1776, Massachusetts newspapers published lists of provincial prisoners from the Battle of Bunker Hill which told everyone that Frost was still alive. His return home was a surprise, but not that much of a surprise.
Thus, I think we have to say “The Young Provincial” was inspired by a true story of a young soldier being wounded, imprisoned, and transported before escaping back home. But we can’t say the sketch is a true story.

(Thanks once again to Boston National Historical Park’s Jocelyn Gould for setting me off on this investigation. The photo above is the headquarters of Norway, Maine’s historical society; Jacob Frost would have known that 1828 building in its original location.)

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