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, September 03, 2018

The Powder Alarm Viewed from Westborough

Earlier in the summer I took note of the online edition of the diary of the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman of Westboro.

One of the events Parkman lived through and recorded was the “Powder Alarm” of September 1774. In fact, by writing down news at different times, the minister preserved the rumors that motivated that militia uprising.
1774 September 2 (Friday). This morning was ushered in with Alarms from every Quarter, to get ready and run down to Boston or Cambridge. The Contents Magazine of Powder at Winter Hill had been carryed off — namely [550?] Barrells; by Treachery; etc. This is told as the Chief Affair.

72 of our Neighbours marched from Gales (tis said) by break of Day; and others are continuely going. My young man goes armed, with them.

About 5 p.m. Grafton Company, nigh 80, under Capt. Golding, march by us.

N.B. Squire Whipple here. Says he is ready to sign etc. It is a Day of peculiar Anxiety and Distress! Such as we have not had — Will the Lord graciously look upon us; and grant us Deliverance — for we would hope and trust in His Name! We send for Mrs. Spring and her two Children to be here with us, while her husband is gone with the People.

Breck returned from Lancaster. At Eve we have most sorrowful News that Hostilitys have commenced at Cambridge, and that Six of our people are killed; that probably Some at least may be of Westborough. Joshua Chamberlin stood next (as it is related) to one that was slain. We have many Vague accounts and indeed are left in uncertaintys about Every Thing that has occurred.

Sutton soldiers — about 250, pass along by us — but after midnight are returning by reason of a Contrary Report. Mr. Zech. Hicks stops here. Breck is employed in the night to cast Bulletts. A Watch at the Meeting House to guard the Town stock etc. Some Towns, we hear, have lost much of theirs, as Dedham, Wrentham etc.
The initial report of the king’s soldiers taking hundreds of barrels of gunpowder from the provincial storehouse in Charlestown (shown above) on 1 September was correct. The later rumor of six men killed by those troops was entirely false. In his diary entry we can see Parkman struggling to make sense of the news he was hearing from different directions.

Many towns besides Westboro became anxious about their local supplies of gunpowder and other ordnance immediately after the alarm. After all, no one knew what would come next. The towns were preparing for war; descriptions like Parkman’s read very much like descriptions of the more famous Lexington Alarm of April 1775.

The next day the minister gradually realized the crisis had passed:
1774 September 3 (Saturday). Capt. Benjamin Fay came here between 2 and 3 o’Clock in the morn in much Concern and knew not what to do. After Light and through most of the forenoon, vague uncertain Reports. Sutton men that had gone to Deacon Wood, came back to go down the Road again.

My son Breck with provisions, Bread, Meat, etc., Coats, Blanket etc., for it was rainy, rides down towards Cambridge to relieve Asa Ware, Mr. Spring, and others who were unprovided.

About noon the Sutton Companys come back again and go home, Rev. Chaplin among them. So do the Grafton men.

Mr. Abraham Temple relates to me, that he, having been as far as to Cambridge and himself Seen many of the Transactions, that there were no Regulars there, no Artillery, no body Slain — but that Lt. Gov. [Thomas] Oliver, Messrs. [Samuel] Danforth, Joseph Lee, Col. [David] Phips (the high Sheriff) had resigned and promised that they would not act as Counsellors — that Mr. Samuel Winthrop computed there were about 7000 of the Country people had gathered into Cambridge on this Occasion — that it was probable, as he (Mr. Temple) conceived, that the Troubles would subside.

N.B. When the Sun run low, Our Company returned (consisting of Horse and Foot about 150). With them were my Son and my young man — all without any Evil Occurrance. To God be Praise and Glory! I Suppose Capt. Maynard and those who were with him are returned also.
The estimate of “7000 of the Country people” is high, but both Lt. Gov. Oliver and Dr. Thomas Young guessed there were 4,000 militiamen in Cambridge that day.

I started The Road to Concord with the “Powder Alarm” because it marked a turning point in Massachusetts’s conflict with the Crown. That was the moment that Gov. Thomas Gage lost control of most of the province, and the moment that people began to turn to military solutions for the political conflict.

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