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, April 30, 2020

“A certain Number to be employed in cleaning the Streets”

My curiosity about how colonial Boston periodically coerced free black men into mending town highways began years ago when I came across an item in the New-England Chronicle and Essex Gazette printed on 24 Aug 1775.

[That issue covered 17-24 August while the next covered 24-31 August, so it’s not the issue now dated 24 August in the Readex newspaper database.]

At that time, printers Samuel and Ebenezer Hall had brought their press down from Salem to Cambridge and were publishing just behind the siege lines for the Continental Army and its supporters. During the siege they reported about what they heard from the besieged capital, as in:
We are informed that the Negroes in Boston were lately summoned to meet at Faneuil-Hall, for the Purpose of chusing out of their Body a certain Number to be employed in cleaning the Streets; in which Meeting Joshua Loring, Esq; presided as Moderator. The well known Cesar Meriam opposed the Measure, for which he was committed to Prison, and confined till the Streets were all cleaned.
One possibility is that this event never happened, or was distorted beyond the facts by the time the news reached Cambridge. I haven’t found mentions of it in any other source. But there aren’t many sources on civilian life in Boston at this point in the siege. I think this event did happen because of the specific names involved, and it reflected an attempt by Loyalists to resume “normal” life in Boston.

Those men convened something approximating a town meeting in Faneuil Hall. Most of Boston’s selectmen had remained in the town to preserve the community, but without town clerk William Cooper they didn’t keep normal records. Selectman Timothy Newell’s surviving diary focused on military developments and didn’t mention this gathering.

The men who came to Faneuil Hall elected Joshua Loring, Sr., as moderator, as a normal town meeting would do. He was no longer an inhabitant of Boston, having moved out to Roxbury in 1752 (his house shown above), but the Whigs had set a precedent for meetings of the Body of the People with everyone welcome.

The gathering then tried to reinstate the custom of drafting free black men to repair the roads, with a little alteration: the white men reportedly summoned all the town’s black men and told them to choose who had to do this work. But that system of forced labor hadn’t really been workable for decades.

The New-England Chronicle credited “The well known Cesar Meriam” with protesting the measure. This was Caesar Marion, a formerly enslaved blacksmith in the North End. He had worked for a white blacksmith named Edward Marion. In 1769 Edward promised to manumit Caesar in his will and leave him all his tools and the use of his shop, assuming he provided for Edward’s widow Mary. In Boston’s 1771 tax list, Caesar Marion was listed as a property-owner.

The New-England Chronicle printers expected their readership of Boston neighbors and refugees to recognize Caesar Marion’s name. Apparently he was prominent in town, possibly a leader in the town’s African community. Certainly at this moment he took the lead in protesting for them.

Joshua Loring’s son Joshua, Jr., was Gov. Thomas Gage’s new sheriff, overseeing the jail. The news item says that the Loyalists locked up Marion to keep him quiet and as a sort of hostage to force other men to clean the roads. Peter Edes, stuck in the Boston jail that summer and keeping a diary, didn’t describe Caesar Marion being “committed to prison.” But perhaps it wasn’t long before “the Streets were all cleaned.”

After the siege ended, Massachusetts revised its militia laws. With a war on, and black men serving in the Continental Army, the government no longer saw value in excluding blacks from militia service. That erased the justification for making them work for free on the highways, and this legal custom disappeared for good.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

“Which service has not as yet been fully comply’d with”

Yesterday I described how in 1707 Massachusetts and Boston instituted a legal system of drafting free black men to work a certain number of days each year on maintaining highways.

The Boston selectmen’s records show that system being used often in the early decades of the eighteenth century, then less often. Eventually men were able to pay to get out of the labor.

In 1762, three wartime years after the last time they invoked this law, the selectmen of Boston once again cranked up the system to draft the town’s free black men.

The effort started on 12 May with a list in the selectmen’s records of all the free black men they could think of:
  • Scipio—late a Servant of Capt. Osbornes
  • Scipio, late a Servant of Mr. [Charles?] Apthorp
  • Pompy Blackman
  • Lank (a Lemmon Merchant, who has been sick)
  • Charlestown ——
  • Dick, late a Servant to Mr. Tyng, (both sick & lame).
  • Toby, living at New Boston.
  • Boston. (Jackson)
  • Cesar Clark (Baker) keeps at Mr. Pollard’s Old House.
  • Another Negro keeps with ye. above named, his name unknown
  • Thomas (a Baker) late a Servant to Mr. Knox.
  • Homan (late a Servant to the Widow Blackadore[)]
  • Joseph, late a Servant to Richard Bill Esq.
  • Scipio, late a Servant of Capt. [Thomas] Fayerweather
  • Prince Holms
  • A Negro at Deacon Fosters
  • Jack Clemmons, so called
  • George Cobourn, he came from Redding.
You can picture the town officials scratching under their wigs, trying to remember the men they’ve seen around town. “Oh, yeah, there’s a Negro baker over at Pollard’s.” “No, there are two.” “Didn’t Knox’s man become a baker?” “Yes, but he’s not one of them. What was his name?” “Speaking of names, why do we call so many ‘Scipio’?”

Six days later, the selectmen added more information they had collected. In particular, they noted how long each man had been free and how many days since becoming free each had worked for the town (and thus how many days of labor they owed):
  • Prince Holmes, “has been free 23 years has paid for 12 Days work.”
  • John Thurber, freed “last Novemr. Order’d to work...2 Days.”
  • Pompy Blackman, free for six years the next October, 20 days.
  • Fortunatus Pitts, free for seven years the next September, 24 days.
  • Scipio Fayerweather, free for one year the next September, 2 days.
  • Scipio Apthorp, free for two years the next September, 8 days.
  • Homer Blackader, “has been sick since his mistresses death,” 0 days.
  • Peter How, free nine years, “has work’d 2 Days,” 30 days.
  • Richard Tyng, free five years, 10 days.
  • Tobias Lockman, free six years as of 1 March, 18 days.
  • Scipio Gunny, free as of the previous August, 2 days.
  • Boston Jackson, free three years and “(has a Rate Bill),” 6 days.
The selectmen directed John Sweetser to set these men to work on the highways.

That information could be useful in connecting these men to their moments of manumission. In addition, I think the notation by Boston Jackson—“had a Rate Bill”—meant that he’d paid taxes, perhaps arguing that he didn’t need to contribute more to the community in labor.

Even with that added information, however, the selectmen and Sweetser couldn’t make the system work. On 15 December, the selectmen’s minutes say:
Whereas there was an Assignment made on the 18th Day of May last of a certain number of Days on which the Free Negros of this Town were to Work on the High Ways, which service has not as yet been fully comply’d with—therefore Voted—

that the Town Clerk Issue a Warrant this Day, Ordering and requiring them to work such a number of Days as shall be affixed to their respective Names.
Boston ss.
To Scipio and other Free Negros residing in the Town of Boston.

You are hereby severally Ordered and Required to perform so many Days work as is here under affixed to your Names, and this at the Time and Place you shall be directed by mr. John Swetser, appointed an Overseer for this purpose. It being such a proportion of Time as is adjudged to be equivalent to the service of Trainings, Watchings and other duty required of his Majesty’s Subjects, the benefit of which you share. Hereof fail not as you avoid the penalty of Law in such case made and provided.

By order of the Select men
Boston Decemr. 15. 1762
William Cooper Town Clerk.
The numbers of days demanded were:
  • Lancaster Hill 16
  • Pompey Blackman 20
  • Dick Tyng 10
  • Boston Jackson 6
  • Toby Lockman 18
  • Cesar Clark 16
  • Thomas Knox 16
  • Scipio Osborne 2
  • Scipio Apthorp 8
  • Peter How 30
  • John Thurbur 4
  • Fortunatus Pitts 24
Did that work? Not in all cases. On 11 June 1766, four years later, the selectmen’s records say: “Order was this Day issued to Tobias [Lockman, presumably] & Scepio (late Capt. Fayerweathers) Free Negros, to work on the High Way before the Market, four Days each, there being Several Years duty due from them.”

Through one method or another, free black Bostonians kept resisting the town’s demands for free labor. And the town evidently lacked the means or will to force the issue.

This was, of course, the same period when Boston’s Whigs were talking more and more about the importance of ”liberty,” making slavery and its remnants harder to defend. In the 1770s the Massachusetts General Court voted to end the slave trade. One of the men being pursued for work in 1762, Lancaster Hill, would sign a petition to the legislature seeking an end to slavery fifteen years later, as shown above.

The last sign of this law that I spotted in the selectmen’s records appeared on 17 June 1767: “Voted, that Mr. John Sweetser be directed to procure two Pick Axes, & two Wheelbarrows, and four Shovels, for the use of those Negros that may be imployed on the High Way,—and that those Tools are to be left in his care, he to be accountable for them.” Yet it’s unclear who actually used those tools and on what terms.

The selectmen of Boston never officially discussed drafting black men to work again. There were plenty of discussions about streets needing repair in the town records from 1769 to the start of the Revolutionary War, but no lists of black citizens or discussions of how to compel them to work.

TOMORROW: One last gasp.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

“Impowred to order and require so many days’ work yearly”

Yesterday I mentioned how colonial Boston selectmen’s records periodically include lists of the free black men in the town in connection with, of all things, highway repairs. Here’s more about that.

Massachusetts militia laws excluded black and Native American men from drilling with the white men required to serve, presumably to avoid giving those men of color so much military training they could start an uprising. It’s possible that the social-gathering side of militia musters also played a role in this exclusion.

Since militia duty made free white men give up four days a year for the good of society, that society felt it was only fair to require free black men to give up four days as well. Therefore, in 1707 the Massachusetts General Court passed a law that said:
Whereas, in the several towns and precincts within this province, there are several free negro’s and molatto’s able of body and fit for labour, who are not charged with training, watchings and other services required of her majesty’s subjects, whereof they have share in the benefit,—Be it enacted…

That the selectmen of each town or precinct be and hereby are impowred to order and require so many days’ work yearly, of each free male negro or molatto, able of body, dwelling within such town or precinct, in the repairing of the highways, cleansing the streets, or other service, for the common benefit of the place, as, at the discretion of the selectmen, may be judged an equivalent to the services performed by others, as aforesaid.
The result was a form of tax levied only on free black men and extracted in the form of labor. Or it was a way to continue coercing labor, at least a little, from black men even after they became free.

In fact, this custom may have already been in place before that law made it official. On 26 Sept 1704 the Boston selectmen “Ordered that Mr. Timo. Wadsworth be desired to take Care of doing what is necessary in repaireing the High way on ye neck & that as many of the free negros & poor of ye Town may be imployed therein as Shall be convenient.” Perhaps that was free labor, perhaps the town expected those workers to be paid and specified “the free negros & poor” to ensure their asking price would be as low as possible.

On 16 June 1707, the selectmen moved to take advantage of unpaid labor under the new law. They ordered “each Free negro & mollatto man of this Town, forthwith to attend and perform four dayes Labour, abt. repaireing the Streets or Highwayes.” The town announced it could call on those men for more work if needed, “reserving their remayning Service untill further order.” A constable was empowered to summon the men, putting the force of law behind this requisition.

For the next couple of decades, lists of black and Native men and their work assignments, ranging from two days to twelve, periodically appeared in the selectmen’s records. It looks like men who got out of their obligation in one year were assigned more days the next. I found lists for 1708, 1710, 1711, 1712, 1714, 1715, 1716, 1718, 1719, and 1723.

At various towns the selectmen empowered any one of them to summon free black men and appointed “Capt. Hab. Savage,” Richard Hubburt, Eneas Salter, and others to oversee those workers. Specific assignments included “clearing the valt of ye. House of Easment [i.e., outhouse] belonging to the Free Lattin School in School Street.” But most of the work was repairing the main roads.

The 1725 list, the first to include a man named Onesimus, was unusual in giving only first names for the men being drafted. Usually there was more identifying information. Sometimes those names came with other notations like “dead“ or ”gon,” or remarks about how many days men had already worked or had left to do.

There was no list of laborers in 1736 or 1737, so on 30 Aug 1738 the selectmen directed ”Thomas Cowdrey…to take a List of the Free Negro’s, Indians, and Molatto’s in the Town that are capable of Service, and to lay it before the Select men, in order to their being Employ’d in the Service of the Town, according to law.” The list entered on 13 September contained twenty-one names, including Titus Rumney Marsh, John Woodby, and Onesimus Mather.

The town drafted free black workers again in 1743 and 1744, but the practice became less common over time. On 14 June 1759 the selectmen resolved:
Whereas there is Considerable Work to be done this year on Boston Neck, & the Free Negroes of the Town have been for Several Years exempted from any duty, therefore it was Some time past Voted that they be Orderd to attend the Selectmen, & on this day the following Negroes Attended
  • Bristol Jeffries who will do what Work he is orderd to do—
  • Pompey Blackman who agrees to pay half a dollar p. day for so many days as he shall be orderd—
  • Liecester Black ditto—
  • Dick Tynge to pay half a dollar as above—
  • David Primus ditto—
  • Homer Blackadore Sickly.
Some of the town’s free black men now had enough money to buy their way out of service in the same way white men could pay fines so as not to attend militia drill. (Though I’m not sure how often those fines were really collected.)

TOMORROW: How a custom died in Revolutionary Boston.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Onesimus Mather in Freedom

It’s hard to find traces of the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather’s enslaved servant Onesimus after the minister grudgingly manumitted him in late 1716 or early 1717.

In some respects that’s good because it means the man didn’t have to return to his former owner for support and thus get mentioned in his diary. (Because the minister would have been all over that.) Nor was Onesimus ever recorded entering the almshouse.

According to Mather, Onesimus had a wife and children while still enslaved. There’s no official record of this marriage, however. We don’t know the name of the wife or of any surviving children.

The vital records of Boston show two black men named Onesimus marrying and having children in Boston in the 1720s, the decade after Mather’s manumission. One of those men could have been the minister’s former servant marrying again—or perhaps neither were. Puritans knew the name of Onesimus from a slave mentioned in the New Testament, so they reused it.

The Rev. Joseph Sewall married one Onesimus to a black woman named Jane at the Old South Meeting-House on 3 June 1725. That couple baptized a son named William in that church on 23 Apr 1728. It’s not stated if they were enslaved or free.

The other Onesimus is more likely to have been the man who worked for Cotton Mather because he went to the Mathers’ meetinghouse in the North End to marry. This man was described as a free Negro when the Rev. Joshua Gee married him to a woman named Hagar on 15 Feb 1727. Gee was then Mather’s colleague at the church. Cotton Mather died a year later.

[Assuming, that is, that the marriage did indeed happen in what we now call 1727. The published Boston town records suggest that was a New Style date. But if the marriage actually took place on 15 Feb 1728, that was two days after the Rev. Dr. Mather died—too close to be a coincidence.]

The Old North Meeting’s records show Onesimus and Hagar having three children baptized:
  • Onesimus on 22 Mar 1730.
  • John on 10 Oct 1731.
  • another Onesimus on 5 May 1734, and time Hagar is not on the record.
That indicates the first Onesimus died young, and Hagar might have died as well. As the minister’s diary shows, Onesimus had already lost one namesake son and perhaps another son before becoming free. Eighteenth-century parenting was full of sadness.

Twenty years later, in 1754, a “free negro” named Onesimus married a woman named Phillis, enslaved to Rachel Fessenden. Again, this could be the baby baptized in 1734 or it could be a completely unrelated man.

A more certain appearance of the Rev. Cotton Mather’s former servant appears in the Boston selectmen’s records of highway repairs. I’ll explore why that source exists in future postings. For this one, it’s necessary only to say that in some years the Boston selectmen made a list of all the free black men in town. As Eric Hanson Plass noted in his study of Boston’s early African-American community, this is as close as we have to a census of those men.

On 11 Nov 1725, the selectmen’s list included twenty-six Negro men, including one named “Onesimas." They were drafted for “Eight Days...in Clensing or Repairing the High wayes or other services for the Comon benefit.” Again, this could be either Onesimus who got married that decade.

Thirteen years later, on 13 Sept 1738, the selectmen drafted five men for one day’s work and sixteen men for two days. In the second group was “Onesimus Mather.”

This confirms that more than thirty years after being given to Cotton Mather, and more than twenty years after becoming free again, that man was still living freely in Boston. It’s also notable that he was using his old master’s surname, which of course carried great cachet in those parts. That’s why, even while I caution against assuming that ex-slaves adopted their former owners’ surnames, I feel comfortable referring to this free man as Onesimus Mather.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Freeing of Onesimus Mather

As recounted yesterday, in July 1716 the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather determined that he needed to “dispose of” his enslaved servant Onesimus in the same month that he wrote to London describing that man as “intelligent” and passing on his knowledge of smallpox inoculation in Africa.

“Disposing of” Onesimus didn’t mean selling him to another local slaveholder or shipping him to the Caribbean. Mather didn’t seek to maximize his profit. Instead, frustrated after years of trying to produce a religious conversion and probably faced with frequent requests, the minister agreed to set Onesimus free—but on what terms?

The American Antiquarian Society holds an undated memorandum in Mather’s handwriting detailing his decision. The document is undated but was probably written within a few months after that July 1716 diary entry. Mather stated:
My servant Onesimus, having advanced a Summ, towards the purchase of a Negro-Lad, who may serve many occasions of my Family in his Room, I do by this Instrument, Release him so far from my Service and from the claims that any under or after me might make unto him, that he may Enjoy and Employ his whole Time for his own purposes, and as he pleases. But upon these conditions.

First, that he do every Evening visit my Family, and prepare and bring in, the Fuel for the day following, so Long as the Incapacity of my present Servant, shall oblige us to Judge it necessary: As also, in great snows, appear seasonably with the help of the Shovel, as there shall be occasion.

Secondly, that when the Family shall have any Domestic Business more than the Daily affairs, he shall be ready, upon being told of it so far to Lend an helping Hand, as will give no Large nor Long Interruption to the Business, of his own, to which I have dismissed him; As particularly, to carry corn unto the mill, and help in the fetching of water for the washing, if we happen to be destitute. And in the piling of our wood, at the season of its coming in.

Whereas also, the said Onesimus has gott the money which he has advanced as above mention’d, from the Liberties he took, while in my Service, and for some other Considerations, I do expect, that he do within six months pay me the sum of Five Pounds, wherein he acknowledged himself Endebted unto me.
In her article “Strangers in the House of God” (P.D.F. download), Kathryn S. Koo points out that the manuscript of this manumission includes several more lines in which Mather acknowledged himself “obliged to provide for [Onesimus] in case of Sickness or Lameness”—but then crossed them out. New England slaveholders and slaves shared an understanding that masters shouldn’t abandon people when they could no longer work, that working as a slave came with support in old age (if one should live so long). But Mather decided that no longer applied to him.

Instead, the minister laid out the obligations that flowed the other way. For leaving the Mather household short-handed, Onesimus had to return to chop firewood, shovel snow, help at dinner parties, and do other chores when needed. Four years before, Mather had written in his diary about granting Onesimus “great Opportunities to get money for himself.” Now he wanted the man to pay him £5 “from the Liberties he took.”

Finally, the first condition for Onesimus’s freedom was that he had “advanced a Summ, towards the purchase of a Negro-Lad, who may serve…in his Room.” Again, Mather viewed Onesimus as leaving the household in the lurch and thus sharing the responsibility to fill that hole. The minister could have written the memo simply stating that Onesimus was paying a certain amount of money for his freedom. Instead, he insisted that the man was compensating for the labor he was taking away.

Onesimus, for his part, was willing to leave another person enslaved in his place—though it’s notable that the plan was to buy a “Lad.” Child-servants and apprentices regularly worked for no pay, just having their basic needs met. Perhaps Onesimus believed that the minister would grant his young replacement the same opportunities he had gained himself, including education, marriage, and eventual freedom.

It doesn’t appear that Mather and Onesimus had a particular enslaved boy in mind when the minister wrote that memo. Mather was surprised when he found Onesimus’s replacement on 1 Oct 1717, writing:
A strange Providence of GOD, has brought into my Family a new Servant; A Negro Boy of promising Circumstances. Oh! Let me use all possible Projections and Endeavours, to make him a Servant of the Lord. That this may be kept in Mind, I call him, Obadiah.
That name literally meant “servant of the Lord.”

Mather left no evidence of how often Onesimus returned to the household to fulfill the obligations laid upon him or for other reasons. We don’t know if he completed the payment of £5. The last time the minister mentioned his first slave in his diary was an entry on 2 April 1717:
I fear I have not been so frequent and fervent and particular, as I should have been, in my Prayers for the converting Influences of Heaven, on the Soul of my Servant Onesimus. Who can tell what may be done for him, and what a new Creature he may become, if more prayers were employ’d for him!
But, as I noted yesterday, seven years later Mather wrote again about what Onesimus had told him of smallpox inoculation. By then Boston had gone through an epidemic, and inoculation had proved an effective way of minimizing the spread and harm of the disease. Clearly Cotton Mather never forgot his first, frustrating, enlightening African servant.

TOMORROW: Glimpses of Onesimus as a free man in Boston.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

“First instructed in it, by a Guramantee-Servant”

As described yesterday, the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather tried to convert Onesimus, an enslaved young man he received in 1706, to his form of Christianity. But the man was more interested in marrying, having children, and earning his own money.

On 31 July 1716, the minister was reaching the end of his patience. He wrote in his diary:
My Servant Onesimus, proves wicked, and grows useless, Froward, Immorigerous. My Disposing of him, and my Supplying of my Family with a better Servant in his Room, requires much Caution, much Prayer, much Humiliation before the Lord. Repenting of what may have offended Him, in, the Case of my Servants, I would wait on Him, for his Mercy.
“Froward” meant “contrary.” “Immorigerous” meant “rude.” As for “Disposing of him,” the minister hadn’t yet made up his mind about what to do.

Remarkably, that same month Mather wrote to a correspondent in the Royal Society of London, describing Onesimus’s intelligence and knowledge of the seemingly radical practice of smallpox inoculation. That 12 July 1716 letter said:
Enquiring of my Negro-man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow, Whether he ever had ye Small-Pox; he answered, both, Yes, and No; and then told me, that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever praeserve him from it; adding, That it was often used among ye Guramantese, & whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of ye Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and shew’d me in his Arm ye Scar, which it had left upon him…
In 1713 and 1716 the Royal Society published two accounts of smallpox inoculation from European physicians who had traveled and worked in Turkey. Soon afterward, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her diplomat husband returned from Constantinople, and in London she also talked up this way of obtaining immunity from the virus.

In 1721, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston. Mather allied with a local physician named Zabdiel Boylston to try using inoculation locally. Since that treatment meant giving people the disease, though hopefully a mild case, it prompted a lot of opposition from people who thought the point of medicine was to produce fewer sick people, not more. Opponents included the European-educated Dr. William Douglass and the printer of the newspaper Douglass helped to fund, James Franklin.

Boylston published a pamphlet drawing on the Royal Society publications and adding more arguments, some from Mather. The minister cited what he had learned from Africans. Of course, opponents of inoculation used that source to ridicule the idea.

The argument became so heated that someone threw an incendiary bomb at Mather’s house. But eventually Boylston was able to inoculate enough people to make a scientific case that the new treatment saved lives. It became a standard regimen for the rest of the century, though communities still worried about careless doctors not keeping their infectious patients isolated from the public.

Mather wrote about the controversy in his 1724 manuscript “The Angel of Bethesda,” which echoed that earlier pamphlet in how he described learning about inoculation:
There has been a Wonderful Practice lately used in Several Parts of the World, which indeed is not yett become common in o’r Nation.

I was first instructed in it, by a Guramantee-Servant of my own, long before I knew, that any Europaeans or Asiaticks had the least Acquaintance with it; and some years before I was enriched with the Communications of the learned Foreigners, whose Accounts I found agreeing with what I received of my Servant, when he shewed me the Scar of the Wound made for the Operation; and said, That no Person ever died of the Small-pox in their Countrey that had the Courage to use it.

I have since mett with a considerable Number of these Africans, who all agree in One Story; That in their Countrey grandy-many dy of the Small-Pox: But now they learn This Way: People take Juice of Small-Pox, and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop; then by’nd by a little Sicky, Sicky: then very few little things like Small-Pox, and no body dy of it; and no body have Small-Pox any more. Thus in Africa, where the Poor Creatures dy of the Small-Pox like Rotten Sheep, a Merciful GOD has taught them an Infallible Praeservative. Tis a common Practice, and is attended with a Constant Success.
This passage has been analyzed for Mather’s presentation of an African dialect and for the way he portrayed Africans as backward while also drawing on their medical knowledge.

Indeed, the whole 1720s argument over smallpox inoculation in Boston has attracted a lot of scholarship, and I haven’t tried to recount it all here. Among the most recent studies are Stephen Coss’s The Fever of 1721, Amalie M. Kass’s “Boston's Historic Smallpox Epidemic” in the Massachusetts Historical Review, and Margot Minardi’s “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722” in the William and Mary Quarterly.

By the time that controversy raged, the Rev. Cotton Mather had already disposed of his frustrating servant, and source of medical knowledge, Onesimus.

TOMORROW: What happened to Onesimus?

Friday, April 24, 2020

Onesimus Mather Unchristianized

In 1706 the Rev. Cotton Mather published a pamphlet titled The Negro Christianized: An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity.

Thirteen years before, Mather had published Rules for the Society of Negroes, encouraging the small but growing population of Africans in Boston to worship as Christians. He also gave money for reading lessons. At the same time, his pamphlets assured slaveholders that their human property could be baptized and still remain human property.

Mather’s wealthy parishioners, those most likely to own slaves, evidently thought he was just the man to become a slaveholder himself. In December 1706, the minister wrote in his diary:
This Day, a surprising Thing befel me. Some Gentlemen of our Church, understanding (without any Application of mine to them for such a Thing,) that I wanted a good Servant at the expence of between forty and fifty Pounds, purchased for me, a very likely Slave; a young Man, who is a Negro of a promising Aspect and Temper, and this Day they presented him unto me. It seems to be a mighty Smile of Heaven upon my Family; and it arrives at an observable Time unto me. I putt upon him the Name of Onesimus; and I resolved with the Help of the Lord, that I would use the best Endeavours to make him a Servant of Christ, and also be more serviceable than ever to a Flock, which laies me under such Obligations.
I can’t help but think that day contained even more surprises for the young men thereafter known as Onesimus. That name, meaning “useful,” been assigned to many enslaved men in the Roman Empire. Mather knew it best from the epistle to Philemon, in which Paul sent an escaped slave named Onesimus back to his master with an admonition for them both to do better.

Onesimus had been born in Africa, and Mather later described his people as “Guramantese,” most likely Coromantee from what is modern Ghana. What the young man’s original name was, how he came to Boston, what he thought of his new home—we know none of that.

Christianizing Onesimus proved to be harder than Mather expected. For one thing, the minister—all the while exploiting the man’s labor for his own family—believed he stole things. On 2 Dec 1711 Mather wrote:
I must keep a strict Eye on my Servant Onesimus; especially with regard unto his Company. But I must particularly endeavour to bring him unto Repentance for some Actions of a thievish Aspect. Herein I must endeavour that there be no old Theft of his unrepented of, and left without Restitution.
Yet Mather was also acceding to the man’s pressure for more autonomy. In 1712 he wrote:
Having allowed unto my Servant Onesimus, the conveniences of the Married State, and great Opportunities to get money for himself, I would from hence take occasion mightily to inculcate on him, his obligations to keep the Rules of Piety, and Honesty; and Particularly Charge him, to devote Part of his gains to Pious Uses.
The big surprise to Mather seems to have been that Onesimus was, well, smart. The only way the minister found he could affect his servant’s behavior (which suggests he tried other methods) was persuasion, as he wrote on 2 Aug 1713:
My Negro Servant is one more Easily govern’d and managed, by the Principles of Reason, agreeably offered unto him, than by any other methods. I would oftener call him aside, and assay to reason him into a good Behaviour.
Mather laid out a course of education on 2 Dec 1713:
There are several Points, relating to the Instruction and Management of my Servant Onesimus, which I would now more than ever prosecute. He shall be sure to read every Day. From thence I will have him go on to Writing. He shall be frequently Catechised. I would also invent some advantageous Way, wherein he may spend his Liesure-hours.
The minister enlisted other family members in this effort as well, writing in 1712 that after catechizing his children, “I also made one of them, to hear the Negro-Servant Say his Catechism.”

Mather treated any misfortune as an opportunity for theological education—any misfortune of Onesimus’s, that is:
  • 2 Jan 1714: “My Servant burying of his Son, it gives me an Opportunity, to inculcate agreeable Admonitions of Piety upon him.”
  • 20 Mar 1716: “My Servant has newly buried his Son; (Onesimus his Onesimulus). Lett me make this an Occasion of inculcating the Admonitions of Piety upon him.”
  • 28 May 1717: “Onesimus’s Recovery from a dangerous Fitt of Sickness, must be improv’d for his Awakening to Piety.”
“Onesimulus” was a coinage meaning “Little Onesimus” in Latin. I presume Mather insisted on that name.

Despite all that effort, Onesimus never declared himself to be saved, asked to be baptized, or joined a congregation. In Mather’s eyes he remained unchristianized.

I should note that most of the times the Rev. Dr. Mather wrote of Onesimus’s faults he also chided himself for not having corrected those faults already. He was using his diary entries to prod himself into improving. And he was, after all, supposed to be an expert.

TOMORROW: Fighting the epidemic.

(For more on how the Rev. Cotton Mather wrestled with his servant Onesimus’s religious life, see Kathryn S. Koo’s “Strangers in the House of God” [P.D.F. download].)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Why There Are No James Otis Papers

When James Otis, Jr., died in 1783, John Adams was in Europe as one of the U.S. of A.’s first diplomatic ministers.

While occasionally peeved by Otis’s moods, Adams admired the older man greatly for his learning, legal skills, and early resistance to claims of greater royal authority.

On 14 Jan 1818, Adams wrote to the newspaper editor and American chronicler Hezekiah Niles:
After my return from Europe [in 1788], I asked his daughter [Mary Lincoln] whether she had found among her father's manuscripts a treatise on Greek prosody.

With hands and eyes uplifted, in a paroxysm of grief, she cried, “Oh! Sir, I have not a line from my father's pen. I have not even his name in his own handwriting.”

When she was a little calmed, I asked her, “Who has his papers? Where are they?”

She answered, “They are no more. In one of those unhappy dispositions of mind, which distressed him after his great misfortune, and a little before his death, he collected all his papers and pamphlets, and committed them to the flames. He was several days employed in it.”
Adams evidently also told this story to Ezekiel Sanford (1796-1822), who four years after graduating from Yale College published A History of the United States before the Revolution, with Some Account of the Aborigines (1819). In an appendix he quoted letters and newspaper reports about Otis’s fight with John Robinson and then stated:
The wounds received in this encounter, were, at length, the occasion of his death. He became, at times, extremely melancholy; and, in one of his fits, he committed all his papers to the flames. The business occupied him several days; and ‘it was by this means,’ says Mr. John Adams, ‘that we have lost the history of our revolution.”
I thought that quotation might have appeared in Adams’s letter to Niles, but I can’t find it there or anywhere else, making me think Sanford heard or received it directly from Adams.

The Massachusetts Historical Society and the Columbia University libraries both have significant collections of Otis Family papers. But those documents come from James Otis, Sr., and his other two sons, Joseph and Samuel Allyne Otis. “There are a few letters from and relating to…James Otis of Boston (1725-1783) who was one of the more colorful and incendiary figures in pre-revolutionary New England,” says the Columbia catalogue.

It seems that at the end of his life James Otis, Jr., was indeed a Great Incendiary.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

History Summit online, 25 April

With book launches and tours canceled because of the pandemic, authors are turning to technology to promote their work and talk with readers.

On Saturday, 25 April, twenty-two authors will appear online as part of History Summit 2020. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is the organizer of this effort, as well as one of the authors.

It looks like the authors are inviting questions through that website (and other platforms), and preparing videos to go online on 25 April.

The books being highlighted cover a broad range of history, from the Roman Empire to twentieth-century politics. They’re also written for a range of audiences. Some are already out, others on their way.

Here are the titles that touch on eighteenth-century America:
  • Lindsay M. Chervinsky, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution
  • Serena Zabin, The Boston Massacre: A Family History
  • Jamie L.H. Goodall, Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay: A Brief History of Piracy in Maryland and Virginia
  • David Head, A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution
  • Jen Manion, Female Husbands: A Trans History
  • Sarah Jane Marsh, Most Wanted: The Revolutionary Partnership of John Hancock & Samuel Adams
  • Joshua R. Greenberg, Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic
  • Whitney Martinko, Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States
And there’s more for people interested in other periods.

(Online meeting of the Continental Congress image above by the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, with apologies to John Trumbull.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

“Jury went out after noon and did not agree all night”

On 20 Apr 1770, Benjamin Lynde, acting chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, wrote in his diary:
Fair. Richardson and Wilmot’s tryal, begun morn. and Jury went out after noon and did not agree all night.
As recounted yesterday, Lynde indeed presided over the trial of former Customs employees Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot for murder.

The jury actually started deliberating about 11:00 P.M. Per the rules of the time, they were shut into a room of the courthouse and not given any food or drink or allowed to sleep. That was to encourage them to reach a verdict. (And of course it saved the government money.)

Those jurors had been drawn from Suffolk County outside of Boston, on the assumption that Bostonians might be biased. We have their names, and I wish I knew which towns they came from in order to nail down their identifications. I’m going to assume they’re the most prominent men of those names from Suffolk County outside Boston since a man had to be at a certain economic level to be on the jury list. (And because it’s easier to search where the light is best.)

The foreman was Jonathan Deming. A man of that name lived in the part of Needham that eventually became Wellesley. He was born in Boston in 1723, possibly son of a sea captain from Wethersfield, Connecticut, who later retired to the country. From his twenties Deming filled various town offices in Needham. In November 1768, Boston ministers published his intention to marry Elizabeth Clark, but that doesn’t appear to have worked out since in November of 1770 Deming went to Charlestown and married Esther Edes. He was in his late forties, but she was sixteen years younger, and they had three children over the next few years. Jonathan died in 1791 and Esther in 1792.

Apparently Deming and all the other jurors quickly agreed that Wilmot was innocent of the charge of murder. Most also agreed that Richardson was guilty. There were two holdouts from a quick unanimous verdict, Deming later testified:
Mr. Lothrop was satisfied as to Fact, but not Law. Mr. Clap not so fully satisfied as to Law.
Thomas Lothrop was from Hingham, the portion that became Cohasset in 1770. He had been born in 1738. After his father died and his mother remarried, he went to live with a rich uncle who left him an estate. Lothrop served in the French and Indian War, becoming a lieutenant, and in town government his neighbors chose him to be clerk, moderator, selectman, and eventually representative to the Massachusetts General Court. He married Ruth Nichols in 1760; they moved into a big house “near the cold spring” and raised twelve children.

Notably, as Massachusetts’s conflict with Britain heated up, Lothrop was active on Cohasset’s committee of correspondence and committee of inspection. He was also a militia officer, rising to lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Suffolk regiment during the war. Lothrop lived until 1813.

Seth Clap was born in Dedham in 1722, two years before part of that old town broke off to become Walpole, where he lived the rest of his life. Clap married Mary Bullard in 1745 and they had ten children before she died. In February 1769 Clap married Elizabeth Weatherbee, and they got right to having more children, the first arriving in November. Ultimately they had six. Clap served Walpole in various ways: as a schoolteacher as a young man, as a town clerk in his fifties, and in 1758 by “making a place in the meeting-house to secure the town stock of ammunition.” He died in 1788.

There’s no sign that Lothrop or Clap supported the royal government in 1770. In other words, their reluctance to convict Ebenezer Richardson wasn’t due to their politics. They were sincerely concerned about whether he should be convicted of murder for shooting at a crowd attacking his house. Lothrop later said, “I did not fall in so soon as some, for I thought the time might be as well spent in Argument.” Clap agreed, “At first going out I was not so clear as afterwards.”

In the wee hours of 21 April, 250 years ago today, Deming and the rest of the jury worked at winning over those two men. Clap apparently noted that under British common law a man was not guilty of murder if he killed someone breaking into his house. But that was only at night, other jurors replied. Richardson had shot young Christopher Seider “in the Day,” and that won Clap over. Deming assured him that “the Court knew the Law.”

What finally moved Lothrop was his fellow jurors’ belief that “if the verdict was not agreeable to Law the Court would not receive it.” The judges had already made clear they believed Richardson did not commit murder. Thus, a man could vote to convict him of a capital crime and not feel that he was necessarily sending the man to his death.

After dawn, the twelve jurors finally agreed on a verdict. About half an hour later Deming announced their decision in the courtroom. Wilmot was free to go, but everyone really cared about the other defendant. As Judge Lynde wrote in his diary:
Fair; Jury agreed abo. 9; Richardson guilty.
Judge Peter Oliver later wrote of the Whig crowd: “the Courtroom resounded with Expressions of Pleasure; ’till, even one of the Faction, who had some of the Feelings of Humanity not quite erased, cried out, ‘for Shame, for Shame Gentlemen!’—This hushed the clamorous Joy.”

The judges then adjourned court until 29 May, when one of the first orders of business would be sentencing Ebenezer Richardson.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Trial of Ebenezer Richardson

On 20 Apr 1770, 250 years ago today, Ebenezer Richardson went on trial for the killing of young Christopher Seider.

This was just short of two months after the fatal confrontation at Richardson’s house in the North End, but for the Boston Whigs that was too long.

They suspected that the judges and attorneys who leaned toward the Crown had delayed the trial to cool the passions aroused by the violent death of a child. The Crown was definitely trying to delay the Boston Massacre trials.

At various times the provincial Attorney General, the appointed defense attorney, and some judges didn’t show up for procedures in Rex v. Richardson and Wilmot. But at last on 20 April everyone was present.

Justice Benjamin Lynde presided, with Edmund Trowbridge, Peter Oliver, and William Cushing on the bench with him. The prosecutors were Massachusetts solicitor general Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine, hired by the town of Boston. The newly appointed defense attorney was Josiah Quincy, Jr.

The two sides agreed on the basic facts of the case. After Richardson had tried to break up a boys’ protest outside of importer Theophilus Lillie’s shop, the boys attacked his house. The violence and damage escalated. Eventually Richardson fired a musket full of birdshot out of his window. Christopher Seider fell, mortally wounded.

The question was whether Richardson was rightfully defending his home and family from attack. Did the boys’ actions justify a lethal response? Was Christopher participating in illegal activity? Did Richardson aim at the child? Possible verdicts included guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter, and not guilty entirely.

(Of course there was also the sailor George Wilmot, who had gone into Richardson’s house to help but hadn’t fired a gun.)

Samuel Quincy opened by questioning the prosecution witnesses, as his partner’s notes show. They played down the danger from the riotous boys and talked about Richardson’s anger. Among those witnesses were the Whig activists Edward Procter, David Bradlee, and Dr. Thomas Young.

Josiah Quincy’s notes preserve his strategy to win over the jurors:
1st. To open the Defence with a proper Address to the Jury to remove all popular Prejudices and Passions and engage them to make a fair, candid and impartial Enquiry and to give their Verdict agreeable to Law and the Evidence, uninfluenc’d by any other Motive; to mention the manner of my becoming engaged as Council for the Prisoners, explain my Duty and the Part I ought and am determin’d to act.

2d. The Witnesses for the Crown having been carefully and thoroughly cross-examined, to produce those for the Prisoners, and endeavour to find out what the Nature and Degree of Provocation offered; how far the Attack upon the house was carried; Whether and to what Degree the Windows were demolished before the firing, and whether the Door was broke open, and any Attempt made upon it; whether any actual Attempt was made to enter; or any Evidence of such Design from threatning Words; Whether Men as well as Boys were not concerned in that Attack; What Weapons were used or thrown into the house; and whether any One within was wounded; and upon the whole whether this is not to be consider’d as an Attack upon the Persons of the Prisoners.

3d. To sum up the Evidence and state the Facts as they shall appear upon Evidence.

4thly. To explain the Nature of the Crime of Murder and the different Kinds of Homicide, as justifiable, excusable (as se defendendo) and felonious: and to shew the Distinction between felonious Homicide of Malice prepense, which is properly Murder, and without such Malice, which is Manslaughter.
The defense witnesses included Richardson’s daughters Sarah and Kezia, possibly Harvard student William Eustis, schoolmaster Elias Dupee, and one of the Dr. Perkins. The witness testimony and then the legal arguments of Paine and Josiah Quincy lasted well past dark.

An unofficial factor in the courtroom were the many people who had come to see the trial. So many, in fact, that there were complaints of pickpocketing afterward. Judge Oliver called this audience “a vast Concourse of Rabble.”

Today we expect a judge to sum up legal issues and options for the jury but to leave the decisions to them. At this time, however, the multiple judges also advised on guilt and innocence. A report sent to Gov. Francis Bernard said that all those gentlemen felt the facts favored Richardson’s case:
They said it appeared by the Evidence that the prisoner was attacked in his own house by a number of tumultuous people. That what he had done was in his own defence. That self-defence was a right inherent in every man. . . . they were convinced the jury could find him guilty of nothing more than manslaughter.
According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, his friend and relation on the bench went even further:
Mr. Just. Oliver doubted whether it could amount to that and with great spirit charged the death of the Boy upon the Promoters of the Effigies and the Exhibitions which had drawn the people together and caused unlawful and tumultuous assemblies and he did not excuse such as had neglected suppressing these Assemblies as the Civil Magistrate had done.
At that, Oliver heard someone in the audience shout, “Damn that Judge, if I was nigh him, I would give it to him!” Other Crown informants said they heard people call, “Remember, jury, you are upon Oath”; “Blood requires blood!” and “Damn him, hang him! Murder, no manslaughter!”

At 11:00 P.M. the jurors went into a private room to deliberate. The defendants were supposed to be taken back to the jail, but the judges had heard that some spectators had brought “an Halter, ready at the Door of the Court Room,” to hang Richardson. (People had nearly lynched him on the day of the shooting.) Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf locked the defendants inside the courthouse instead.

The judges also waited in the building for most of the crowd to disperse. They finally ventured out at midnight. Even so, one Crown informant said, “The judges were hissed and abused in a most shameful manner in passing from the bench to their carriages.”

Meanwhile, the jury was still deliberating.

TOMORROW: The verdicts.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Lt. Jacob Rogers and the “Confusion” in Charlestown

One of the more unusual accounts of the start of the Revolutionary War came from Jacob Rogers, former commander of the Royal Navy ship Halifax.

In 1774 Lt. Rogers left the navy (more on that eventually), married Anne Barber, and settled in her home town of Charlestown.

Most of that town was on a peninsula between the Charles and Mystic Rivers, as shown here. The common spilled onto the westerly side of the neck connecting that peninsula to the rest of Massachusetts.

In October 1775, Rogers related his experiences on 19 April in a petition to the Massachusetts legislature. He wrote:
We were alarmed with various reports concerning the king’s troops, which put everybody in confusion

About ten in the morning I met Doctor [Joseph] Warren riding hastily out of town and asked him if the news was true of the men’s being killed at Lexington; he assured me it was. I replied I was very glad our people had not fired first, as it would have given the king’s troops a handle to execute their project of desolation. He rode on.

In the afternoon Mr. James Russell [a town official and appointee to the mandamus Council] received a letter from General [Thomas] Gage, importing that he was informed the people of Charlestown had gone out armed to oppose his majesty's troops, and that if one single man more went out armed, we might expect the most disagreeable consequences.

A line-of-battle ship lying before the town; a report that Cambridge bridge was taken up [at the site of the Anderson Memorial Bridge]; no other retreat but through Charlestown: numbers of men, women, and children, in this confusion, getting out of town.

Among the rest, I got my chaise, took my wife and children; and as I live near the school-house, in a back street, drove into the main street, put my children in a cart with others then driving out of town, who were fired at several times on the common, and followed after. Just abreast of Captain [John] Fenton’s, on the neck of land, Mr. David Waitt, leather-dresser, of Charlestown, came riding in full speed from Cambridge, took hold of my reins, and assisted me to turn up on Bunker’s Hill, as he said the troops were then entering the common.

I had just reached the summit of the hill, dismounted from the chaise, and tied it fast in my father-in-law [William Barber]’s pasture, when we saw the troops within about forty rods of us, on the hill. One [Daniel?] Hayley, a tailor, now of Cambridge, with his wife, and a gun on his shoulder, going towards them, drew a whole volley of shot on himself and us, that I expected my wife, or one of her sisters, who were with us, to drop every moment.

It being now a little dark, we proceeded with many others to the Pest House, till we arrived at Mr. [Samuel] Townsend’s, pump-maker, in the training-field; on hearing women’s voices, we went in, and found him, Captain [Nathan] Adams, tavern-keeper, Mr. Samuel Carey, now clerk to Colonel [Thomas] Mifflin, quartermaster-general, and some others, and a house full of women and children, in the greatest terror, afraid to go to their own habitations.

After refreshing ourselves, it being then dark. Mr. Carey, myself, and one or two more, went into town, to see if we might, with safety, proceed to our own houses. On our way, met a Mr. Hutchinson, who informed us all was then pretty quiet; that when the soldiers came through the street, the officers desired the women and children to keep in doors for their safety; that they begged for drink, which the people were glad to bring them, for fear of their being ill-treated.

Mr. Carey and I proceeded to the tavern by the Town House, where the officers were; all was tumult and confusion; nothing but drink called for everywhere. I waited a few minutes, and proceeded to my own house, and finding things pretty quiet, went in search of my wife and sisters, and found them coming up the street with Captain Adams.

On our arrival at home, we found that her brother [Edward Barber], a youth of fourteen, was shot dead on the neck of land by the soldiers, as he was looking out of a window. I stayed a little while to console them, and went into the main street to see if all was quiet, and found an officer and guard under arms by Mr. David Wood’s, baker, who continued, it seems, all night; from thence, seeing everything quiet, came home and went to bed, and never gave assistance or refreshment of any kind whatever. Neither was any officer or soldier near my house that day or night.

The next morning, with difficulty, I obtained to send for my horse and chaise from off the hill, where it had been all night, and found my cushion stole, and many other things I had in the box. Went to wait on Gen. [Robert] Pigot, the commanding officer, for leave to go in search of my children; found Doctor [Isaac] Rand, Captain [Joseph] Cordis, and others, there for the same purpose, but could not obtain it till he had sent to Boston for orders, and could not find them till next night, having travelled in fear from house to house, till they got to Captain [Daniel] Waters’, in Malden.
Rogers wrote this account in an attempt to absolve himself of the accusation of having helped the British military in some way. Because he had been a Royal Navy officer himself until just one year before the war broke out, many people suspected him, even after his wife had lost her teen-aged brother to British gunfire.

For more of Rogers’s attempts to clear his name, see Katie Turner Getty’s article for the Journal of the American Revolution. But see also her quotation from Rogers’s petition to Parliament in 1783, when he portrayed himself as a Loyalist and claimed that he “gave every relief and assistance in his power…to his Majesties’ troops on their retreat to Charles Town in refreshing the Officers and Men [and] procuring surgeons to dress the wounded.” So Lt. Rogers might have been even more busy on the night of 19 Apr 1775 than his first account suggested.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Story of the Soldier and the Spoons

In The Battle of April 19, 1775, Frank W. Coburn included this anecdote about the aftermath of the British march:
About a sixth of a mile yet farther along, stood the home of Samuel Hastings, near the Lexington boundary line, yet within the town of Lincoln. Hastings was a member of Capt. [John] Parker’s Lexington Company, and was present and in line for action when [Maj. John] Pitcairn gave that first order to fire [or not].

As the British column swept along, one of the soldiers left the ranks and entered the house for plunder, unmindful of the dangers lurking in the adjoining woods and fields. As he emerged and stood on the doorstone, an American bullet met him, and he sank seriously wounded. There he lay, until the family returned later in the afternoon, and found him. Tenderly they carried him into the house, and ministered to his wants as best they could, but his wound was fatal. After his death they found some of their silver spoons in his pocket. He was buried a short distance westerly from the house.
Publishing in 1912, Coburn credited this story to two great-grandsons of Samuel Hastings, Cornelius Wellington (born 1828) and Charles A. Wellington (born 1837), both members of the Lexington Historical Society. Of course, both were born over half a century after the battle.

It’s significant that the story had not surfaced in print before, even in The Hastings Memorial, an 1866 family genealogy that included entries about Samuel Hastings, his family, and their Revolutionary experiences.

Alexander Cain of Untapped History researched the Hastings family in depth for the Lexington Minute Men and his book We Stood Our Ground. He recently wrote about Samuel Hastings, Jr., again on the Historical Nerdery blog.

On the story of the wounded soldier with the spoons, Cain now warns:
There are no period records or accounts of the family encountering a wounded soldier. More importantly, the Hastings’ homestead was not located on the Boston Road near the Lincoln and Lexington lines as many 19th and 20th Century accounts claim. Instead, it appears the homestead was further in the interior of Lexington and away from the fighting.
Cain’s essay then follows the younger Samuel Hastings through his capture alongside Gen. Charles Lee in late 1776. Did he return to Lexington? Check it out.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Ebenezer Richardson’s New Attorney

On 17 Apr 1770, 250 years ago today, the Massachusetts Superior Court convened to try Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot for murdering young Christopher Seider.

At least, the court tried to. The attorney whom the judges had ordered to represent Richardson, Samuel Fitch, didn’t appear. He was apparently home sick.

The judges therefore assigned the principal defendant a new lawyer: Josiah Quincy, Jr. (shown here in a posthumous portrait by Gilbert Stuart).

Already, back in late March, Quincy had agreed to help defend Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight soldiers charged with murder for the Boston Massacre. He explained his decision in a firmly worded letter to his father, which I quoted here.

That letter also said the top Boston Whigs supported young Quincy’s choice. They wanted the military men to receive what all of Britain would have to acknowledge was a fair trial. It’s not so clear that they felt the same about representing Richardson, but for Quincy the principle had been established.

Josiah Quincy would have to argue against his older brother, Massachusetts solicitor general Samuel Quincy, on the prosecution team with Robert Treat Paine. But the brothers didn’t have the most curious conflict in the case.

One of the judges overseeing the trial was Edmund Trowbridge, attorney general of Massachusetts from 1749 to 1767. Back in the early 1750s, he had also represented the Rev. Edward Jackson of Woburn in his defamation case against Roland and Josiah Cotton. Just when it looked like Jackson had lost his suit, another man admitted that he had fathered the illegitimate child that the Cotton brothers had blamed on Jackson.

That now-admitted real father was none other than Ebenezer Richardson. He had had to move out of Woburn into Boston. And he had to find a new form of employment—which involved serving Trowbridge as a confidential informant. In a document sent to London in the early 1760s, Trowbridge even cited Richardson for being “very serviceable to me in detecting a conspiracy to father a bastard child on the parson of a parish.” But in the small world of the colonial Massachusetts bar, that wasn’t enough of a conflict to take Trowbridge off the bench for this trial.

The judges rescheduled Richardson and Wilmot’s case for 20 April. In other words, Josiah Quincy had three days to prepare.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Later Adventures of Solomon Brown

In 2008 and 2011 I wrote about Solomon Brown of Lexington, who did as much as any individual to start the Revolutionary War in that town.

At the age of eighteen, Solomon Brown:
  • spotted British army officers riding through town and alerted local militia leaders.
  • volunteered to ride to Concord to warn people there, only to be stopped by those same British officers and thus to become one of the first detainees of the war.
  • shot twice at the British troops from Buckman Tavern—after they fired at militia men in the common, he said, but conceivably before.
That day wasn’t Solomon Brown’s last effort in the war. In April 1777, two years after the memorable shots at Lexington, Brown enlisted in Capt. Benjamin Eustis’s company of Col. John Crane’s artillery regiment. He had the rank of sergeant. Army records described him as 5'10" tall with a light complexion.

Brown served three years in the Continental artillery, though for several months in 1777 he was reported as being sick in Boston. In November 1778, Lt. Col. Cornelius Van Dyck appointed Brown the “Conductor of Military Stores” at Fort Schuyler in New York. He remained in the army until 1 Apr 1780, when Gen. Henry Knox discharged him.

According to the short history of New Haven, Vermont, in Hamilton Child’s Gazetteer and Business Directory of Addison County, Vt., for 1881-82, “After leaving the army he remained in Nine Partners, N.Y., two years, then came to this town in 1787.” The years don’t add up, but Brown definitely settled in New Haven, bringing his first wife and child from Dutchess County to live in a log house.

Solomon Brown managed to build a brick house to replace that one before his first wife died in 1802. He remarried and had more children by his second wife. Another local chronicler said Brown “was a noted character and an honest store keeper at the foot of Beech Hill.” He held many town offices and became a church deacon. He or his namesake son, born in 1796, was active in the Anti-Masonic Party in 1831 and 1832.

Brown lived long enough to apply for a Revolutionary War pension, but his affidavit was entirely about his three years in the Continental Army, not his memorable day of militia service in 1775. He was too far away for Elias Phinney to get a first-hand statement for the History of the Battle of Lexington (1825).

Thus, the only recorded statement from Solomon Brown about the events of 18-19 April was the deposition he and his fellow detained messengers, Jonathan Loring and Elijah Sanderson, supplied to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress that month. They complained about being detained by the British officers at pistol point. The three men then offered no explanation of why they had been riding to Concord in the middle of the night, nor did Brown say anything about shooting his gun at dawn.

Solomon Brown died at New Haven, Vermont, on 6 June 1837. His gravestone, shown above, states proudly that he was born at Lexington and had reached the age of “82 years & 5 months.” Among the property he left to his family “the musket from which was sent the first shot.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Legends of Paul Revere’s Departure from Boston

After the publication of “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry W. Longfellow in 1860, there was a lot more attention on the silversmith and his activity on 18-19 Apr 1775.

Little stories that Paul Revere’s descendants had told within the family soon became parts of America’s national story. Some of those tales do, as W. S. Gilbert wrote, “give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” Maybe too much artistry.

Are all those anecdotes reliable? Were any created to entertain and instruct children, who then grew up with them as unquestionable truth?

We can say for sure that those dramatic stories came from, or were supported by, descendants of Paul Revere. They’re not just random folktales.

One source was John Revere (1822-1886), son of Joseph Warren Revere (1777-1868), the silversmith’s eleventh child. Since Joseph Warren Revere wasn’t alive in 1775, he had only secondhand knowledge of that April through his parents or siblings. Likewise, John Revere never knew his grandparents nor most of his father’s siblings, so his knowledge was probably thirdhand.

Paul Revere’s own 1798 description of his ride said simply: “two friends rowed me across Charles River.” In a letter dated 11 Oct 1876, quoted by Elbridge H. Goss in his 1891 biography of Revere, John Revere wrote more, starting with how that boat was hidden under “a cob-wharf at the then west part of the town, near the present Craigie Bridge,” which is now the Charles River Dam.

The two men who rowed Revere across remained publicly unnamed for a century. In November 1876 the Old South Meeting House exhibited a “Pocket-Book of Joshua Bentley, the Ferryman who carried Paul Revere across to Charlestown,” then owned by a descendant in Lexington.

Joshua Bentley (1727-1819) is variously described as a boatbuilder and a ship’s carpenter. He “lived directly opposite Constitution Wharf,” according to a grandson. In the late 1880s that was on Commercial Street near Hanover Street, sticking out the top of the North End. (The current Constitution Wharf is in Charlestown.)

The Bentley family was rising in society. Joshua’s second son, William, graduated from Harvard College in 1777 and became a minister in Salem, as well as an opinionated diarist. In 1780 the Massachusetts General Court appointed Joshua Bentley himself as clerk of the laboratory assembling artillery shells. For that reason, Boston’s 1780 tax records identify him as “Clark to Conll [William] Burbeck,” the comptroller of that state enterprise. Bentley’s family recalled him as a ”commissary.” So he was part of the same crowd of socially mobile, politically active mechanics as Revere. Eventually Joshua Bentley moved out to Groton to live with a daughter, and he was buried there.

Citing John Revere’s 1876 letter, Goss identified the other rower as shipwright Thomas Richardson. This letter added that “Richardson, with two others, laid the platform for the American guns at Bunker Hill; one of the three was killed by a cannon ball from the British.” However, Goss also quoted that letter as saying, “John Richardson, his brother, was with Paul Revere in notifying the inhabitants of Charlestown of the intention of the British to march to Concord.” Does that suggest that John, not Thomas, was in the boat? Without the full letter, there’s some ambiguity.

The 1780 tax records show a bevy of Richardsons working as shipwrights in the North End, including John; John, Jr.; and Thomas. The elder John was presumably the one who died in 1793 at age seventy-seven; he lived near the North Church. Another John Richardson died in 1789; that could have been John, Jr., but the name is too common to be sure.

There are two delightful—perhaps too delightful—anecdotes about Revere’s departure from Boston. One was first put into print by Samuel A. Drake in his History of Middlesex County (1879):
A tradition also exists in the Revere family, that while Paul and his two comrades were on their way to the boat it was suddenly remembered that they had nothing with which to muffle the sound of their oars. One of the two stopped before a certain house at the North End of the town, and made a peculiar signal. An upper window was softly raised, and a hurried colloquy took place in whispers, at the end of which something white fell noiselessly to the ground. It proved to be a woollen under-garment, still warm from contact with the person of the little rebel.
John Revere stated in his 1876 letter: “The story is authentic of the oars being muffled with a petticoat, the fair owner of which was an ancestor of the late John R. Adan, of Boston; Mr. Adan having repeated the account to my father within a few years of his decease.”

City councilor John Richardson Adan (1794?-1849) lived in a house originally built in the seventeenth century and standing on North Street as late as 1893, as shown above. Adan also stated that his grandfather was the last person Dr. Joseph Warren spoke to before leaving town on the Charlestown ferry early on 19 April. So he definitely wanted people to know about his ancestor’s connections with famous Revolutionaries.

What else can we find out about that anecdote? John R. Adan’s parents were Thomas Adan (also spelled Eden) and Mary Swift, who married in 1791. Mary’s father was a shipwright named Henry Swift (1746-1789?), captain of the North End gang during the 1765 Stamp Act demonstrations. In 1768 Henry Swift married Mary Richardson—a daughter of shipwright John Richardson, Sr.? In 1798 Mary Swift was taxed for what appears to be the house shown above, then said to be at the corner of Ann Street and North Street. (The name of Ann Street was later changed to North Street, and North Street to North Centre Street.)

So here’s a scenario to test: Thomas or John Richardson realized he and Joshua Bentley needed cloth to muffle their oars while they rowed Paul Revere to Charlestown. Richardson went to the house of his sister, now Mary Swift. She supplied a petticoat. The story and the house descended in her daughter’s family to her grandson, John R. Adan.

(Another measure of how small Boston society was: In the 1820s John R. Adan served on the city council with John Dumaresque Dyer, mentioned yesterday.)

Yet another family tradition came from a different branch of the Revere family. The silversmith’s daughter Mary (1768-1853) married Jedediah Lincoln of Hingham. Their grandson William Otis Lincoln (1838-1907) told Goss that he had “often heard his grandmother tell this” story:
When Revere and his two friends got to the boat, he found he had forgotten to take his spurs. Writing a note to that effect, he tied it to his dog’s collar and sent him to his home in North Square. In due time the dog returned bringing the spurs. 
Mary Lincoln witnessed the events of April 1775 as a child, so she could indeed have seen this happen or heard about it immediately afterward. However, this is also literally a grandmother’s tale, and it would definitely have entertained the grandchildren. So it seems the least likely of these legends.