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, March 11, 2020

David Lamson, a Middle-Aged Man of Menotomy

David Lamson was among the men from Cambridge who served in the French and Indian War, according to provincial muster rolls examined by local historian Lucius R. Paige.

Lamson himself had some Native ancestry and probably some African since he was later described as “mulatto” and “half Indian.” He may have been only in his teens when he enlisted.

The man next appears recognizably in government records in March 1767, when he “came from Medford to live at Peter Tufts, jr.’s.” in Charlestown. The town warned Lamson out the next year, disclaiming responsibility if he became ill or needed public assistance, but then taxed him in 1770.

Another Charlestown document puts Lamson in Reading in 1769 before returning, listed as an Indian and described as a “young man” still. His mobility indicates he had no land of his own and moved around the county seeking work.

Within the next few years, Lamson returned to Cambridge, in the western village known as Menotomy. There he had a positive reputation as “a man of undoubted bravery and determination,” respect gained at least in part from his military service.

As a man of color, Lamson was exempt from militia training, despite being only a few years removed from the “young man” label. However, he was on the area’s “alarm list” along with older men and others who didn’t have to train but were still expected to turn out with their guns in an emergency.

And on 19 Apr 1775, Menotomy faced an emergency. Hours before dawn, a column of British soldiers moved through the village on its way to Concord. Around noon, another column of about the same size marched through: Col. Percy’s reinforcements. In between those two sets of redcoats, the local militia company mustered and headed west to confront the king’s troops—from a strategic distance, of course.

That left the “alarm list” or “exempts” in the town. Sometime in the afternoon, word came of a couple of British army supply wagons rolling west. These wagons had been held up, possibly at the bridge across the Charles River. Hastening to meet Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s troops on their way back from Concord, Col. Percy had left those wagons to travel under the protection of several soldiers.

According to nineteenth-century chronicler Samuel Abbot Smith, the Menotomy exempts “met at once in [Benjamin] Cooper’s tavern…to form some plan of capturing” the wagons. “They chose for their leader David Lamson, a mulatto.” Putting a man of color in a leadership role was unusual for this society, but Lamson’s neighbors respected his military experience, his bravery, and most likely his relative youth.

George Quintal, Jr., located a May 1775 document listing “David Lampson” among the men present at that confrontation. Richard Frothingham’s 1849 History of the Siege of Boston stated that Lamson, “a half Indian, distinguished himself in the affair.” Those sources help to confirm Smith’s local lore, published in the 1860s.

Lamson’s group ambushed one British wagon near what would become the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Medford Street. A company from Chelsea, led by the Rev. Phillips Payson, attacked another wagon. The militiamen killed two of the redcoats in the escort, wounded others, and downed some of the horses. Some of the regulars fled, dropping their weapons and reportedly seeking protection from “an old woman” they found “digging dandelions,” possibly Ruth Batherick.

Menotomy later became the town of Arlington, and it memorializes this short skirmish with a monument crediting the “Old Men of Menotomy.” But their leader was a middle-aged man, exempt from militia training not because of his age but because of his skin color.

I’ll say more about David Lamson and about other Continental soldiers of Native American descent at tomorrow’s Evacuation Day lecture at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters in Cambridge.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks to G. Lovely for catching an idiomatic mix-up, now corrected.