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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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Legends of Sarah Bradlee Fulton

Helping her husband and brothers prepare for the Boston Tea Party wasn’t the only patriotic activity that descendants credited Sarah Bradlee Fulton with doing.

In addition, her grandson John A. Fulton, her brother’s great-grandson Samuel Bradlee Doggett, and local hsitorians told these stories about her:
  • She “heard the alarm of Paul Revere” from her house in Medford “on the east side of Main street about one hundred and fifty feet south of the bridge, on the south side of what is now [1897] Tufts place.”
  • The Fultons’ house then “became the headquarters of General [John] Stark’s New Hampshire regiment.”
  • After the Battle of Bunker Hill, “At sunset the wounded were brought into town, and the large open space by Wade’s Tavern between the bridge and South street was turned into a field hospital. Surgeons were few, but the women did their best as nurses. Among them, the steady nerves of Sarah Fulton made her a leader. One poor fellow had a bullet in his cheek, and she removed it; she almost forgot the circumstance until, years after, he came to thank her for her service.”
  • “During the siege of Boston detachments of British soldiers often came across the river under protection of their ships, searching for fuel in Medford.” These redcoats seized a wagon load of wood from her husband John Fulton, and Sarah “flung on a shawl and went in pursuit. Overtaking the party, she took the oxen by the horns and turned them round. The men threatened to shoot her, but she shouted defiantly as she started her team, ‘Shoot away!’ Astonishment, admiration, and amusement were too much for the regulars, and they unconditionally surrendered.”
  • Gen. George Washington gave Maj. John Brooks, later a Massachusetts governor, dispatches to deliver “inside the enemy’s lines.” Because John Fulton was too sick to do that, Sarah walked alone “to the water-side in Charlestown” and “rowed across the river,” returning home at dawn.
  • Washington visited the Fultons in thanks for this mission, and they served him punch from a “new punch-bowl” with a “little silver-mounted ladle.” Descendants saved the bowl, ladle, and chair Washington sat in.
  • The Marquis de Lafayette visited the Fultons decades later.
As with the lore about the Tea Party, no one has offered contemporaneous or documentary evidence to support any of these stories.

To be sure, we wouldn’t expect formal documentation on some of these events, but the historical record offers reasons for doubt. For example, what records survive put Col. Stark at the Admiral Vernon tavern and the Isaac Royall House in Medford. The idea that squads of British soldiers were landing in that town, full of Continental troops, to seize wagonloads of wood is outlandish even before we get to Fulton cowing an armed squad into giving up.

Nonetheless, the legend of Sarah Bradlee Fulton had a lot of appeal in the late nineteenth century. This was the period of Colonial Revival, when dramatic and sentimental stories of the Revolution were popular. It was also a time of growing activism by women, whether or not tied to suffrage. A story about a woman taking an active role in the resistance to the Crown, while remaining within the feminine sphere, served a cultural need.

The Daughters of the American Revolution was founded in 1890. A few years later, women in Medford formed a chapter they named after Sarah Bradlee Fulton. All the quotations above come from the speech of Helen Tilden Wild at that chapter’s formal inauguration in January 1897, as published in the D.A.R.’s American Monthly Magazine.

That ensured that Fulton had a constituency to keep her legend alive. In 1900 the Medford D.A.R. chapter graced the town cemetery with the stone marker shown above, calling Fulton “A Heroine of the Revolution.” She was also dubbed “Mother of the Boston Tea Party.” In 1919 the Bloomington, Indiana, D.A.R. chapter produced a three-act play about Sarah Bradlee Fulton to benefit wounded soldiers and sailors.

Monuments to Sarah Bradlee Fulton remain today. In addition to that stone marker, Fulton Street in Medford is named for her. Since 2006, the punchbowl she supposedly used when Washington visited has been in the collection at Mount Vernon. Fulton has her own Wikipedia page, and many other webpages hold her up as an exemplary female Patriot.

And it’s all based on family lore published a century or more after the events.

TOMORROW: Assessing the Bradlees.

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