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, September 11, 2018

The Barrel on the Beacon

On 11 Sept 1768, 250 years ago today, Bostonians awoke to see a barrel newly positioned in the iron platform atop the pole on Beacon Hill. Everyone knew that a flame from that beacon would signal for the countryside militia to assemble in arms. The barrel was clearly a response to the preceding week’s news that the London government had sent orders for army regiments to move into Boston.

How did the townspeople react? Most of them went to church. Because that 11 September was a Sunday. By law, no one was supposed to do business on Sunday—but two legal bodies met about the beacon.

Gov. Francis Bernard was spending the day at his country estate in Jamaica Plain. He later reported to Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary of State in London:
the Council sent to me on Sunday afternoon to desire I would order a Council, which I held at a Gentleman’s House halfway between me and Boston. Here It was debated what Means should be used to take the barrel down; & it was resolved that the Select men should be desired to take it down
The editor of the Bernard Papers published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts says that the gentleman who hosted this impromptu Council meeting was George Erving (1738-1806), son of Council member John Erving. The Ervings were merchants who started as Whigs in the 1760s but gradually moved into the Loyalist camp.

Meanwhile, inside Boston selectman John Rowe noted in his diary: “After Church the Selectmen met about a Cask that was fix’d on the Saddle of the Beacon.” The record of that meeting states that only four of the seven selectmen attended. In addition to Rowe, they were Joseph Jackson, John Ruddock, and John Hancock, and they probably met at Faneuil Hall.

The discussion was recorded simply as: “Information was given the Selectmen that a Tar Barrel had been put in the Beacon.” Those elected officials made no move to take the barrel down.

That evening, the printers of the Boston Gazette, Boston Post-Boy, Boston Chronicle, and possibly even the Boston Evening-Post prepared the next day’s newspapers. As far as I can tell, none of those papers reported on the barrel perched high above the town, ready to be set on fire.

TOMORROW: Boston’s town meeting.

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