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, July 08, 2020

The Speakman Chronicles, or, That Escalated Quickly

Last month, I said I didn’t know whom Christian Barnes was referring to when she wrote in June 1770 about “a young gentleman who has formilly headed the mob in Boston and now resides” in Marlborough.

I’ve since figured out who that young man is. But I’ll make a running start at him, beginning at the turn of the eighteenth century.

William Speakman (c. 1685-1748) was a baker from England, possibly Lancashire, who moved to Boston in the early 1700s. The town was growing, and he prospered. On his death the Boston Evening-Post said Speakman was “one of the rarest Instances of Industry and Diligence, that perhaps ever was in the Country.”

Speakman was also a pillar of the local Anglican church. He owned the land that the first Trinity Church (shown above) was built on and served as one of its first wardens. But he grew so wealthy that by the end of his life he was back at King’s Chapel, which had become the upper-class Anglican congregation.

William Speakman married Hannah Hackerel (spelled various ways) in 1719, and they had three children who grew to adulthood:
  • Thomas, born in 1722, who who went off to Harvard College in the late 1730s (a bit later than typical).
  • Hannah, born in 1725, who married merchant John Rowe.
  • Susannah, born in 1727, who married merchant Ralph Inman.
Clearly the Speakmans were rising in the world, and forging connections with other Anglican families.

Then Thomas fell off the collegiate track. He left Harvard in March 1740. When his classmates were about to graduate two years later, Thomas asked the college if he could get a diploma, too. The authorities decided “it would be neither agreeable to the Laws of this Society, nor for the Honour and Interest thereof.”

By then Thomas had married and become a father—hopefully in that order. We don’t have a date for his marriage to Mary Warner, but their first child, William, arrived in September 1740. So Mary was already well into her pregnancy when Thomas left college.

Mary was a daughter of Gilbert Warner, an Anglican distiller. The newlyweds’ fathers were both investors in the settlement of New Boston, New Hampshire. Mary’s father gave them property on Essex Street in Boston’s South End.

Thomas Speakman went into business in Boston. His father died in 1748, leaving a considerable estate, including a distillery in the South End. Mary’s father died in 1753, leaving the Speakmans more. They acquired substantial property in Marlborough. By this time Thomas and Mary had two sons and three daughters.

In 1755, Thomas Speakman volunteered to be a captain in a military force that Gov. William Shirley was assembling to fight the French. He served at first in Nova Scotia in the period when the British expelled thousands of French colonists. At the end of 1756 Speakman marched west to join in the fighting along Lake George and Lake Champlain.

Speakman and his company were assigned to the corps of rangers under Maj. Robert Rogers. On 17 Jan 1757, Speakman (whom Rogers referred to in his journal as “Spikeman”) joined in a “march on the ice down Lake George.” Also on this mission were Lt. John Stark and a gentleman volunteer with the 44th Regiment named Baker. After the major sent some injured soldiers back to Fort William Henry, there were 74 men in all.

By 21 January, Rogers wrote, the expedition was camped “about mid-way between Crown Point and Ticonderoga.” They spotted some sleds moving between the forts and captured seven prisoners, only to learn there were hundreds of French soldiers in the two posts and more coming. And some of the sled-men had gotten away, so they were no doubt warning their comrades of enemy rangers nearby. “I concluded it best to return,” Rogers wrote.

At about two o’clock that afternoon, as the British made their way through a small valley “in single file,” the enemy ambushed them from a hilltop. Two men were killed instantly, several more wounded. Rogers ordered his men back to another hill. In the withdrawal, he wrote, “We were closely pursued, and Capt. Spikeman, with several of the party, were killed, and others made prisoners.”

However, in early 1760 a young soldier named Thomas Brown returned to Charlestown from captivity and told a more grisly story. According to him, Speakman, the volunteer named Baker, and he were “all very badly wounded” and left behind as Rogers led the rest of the force away that night under darkness.

The three men built a fire on the snowy ground and talked about surrendering. Before they could, an “Indian came to Capt. Speakman, who was not able to resist, and stripp’d and scalp’d him alive.” Baker tried to kill himself with a knife, but the Native soldier stopped him and dragged him away. Only Brown had managed to hide in the woods.

Left for dead, Speakman called out to Brown “to give him a Tomahawk, that he might put an end to his life!” Brown urged the captain instead to pray for God’s mercy. “He desired me to let his Wife know (if I lived to get home) the dreadful Death he died.”

The next morning, Natives found Brown but treated his wounds and turned him over to the French. He recalled how they took him to see “Captain Speakman, who was laying in the place I left him; they had cut off his Head & fix’d it on a Pole.”

Maj. Rogers made it back to Fort William Henry on 23 January with 54 men. He had been shot himself; the New Hampshire soldier John Shute recalled seeing “one of the Rangers cutting off Rogers’ cue [queue] to stop the hole in his wrist.” Lt. Stark was given temporary command of Speakman’s company.

Capt. James Abercrombie, aide de camp to Gen. James Abercrombie [yes, I know], responded to Rogers’s report on the mission by writing, “I am heartily sorry for Spikeman…, who I imagined would have turned out well, as likewise for the men you have lost; but it is impossible to play at bowls without meeting with rubs.”

TOMORROW: Thomas Speakman’s wife and sons.


Don Carleton said...

I am wondering about Abercromby's observation that "it is impossible to play at bowls without meeting with rubs." Was he implying that the Rangers were behaving recklessly, taking unwarranted risks?

J. L. Bell said...

“When a jack or bowl in its journey strikes or touches anything on the green which alters or hinders its motion, it is said to meet with a rub. Hence the proverb about ’those playing with bowls having to expect rubs,’…” So says Grace’s Outdoor Games and Recreations (London: 1892).

In other words, a person has to expect some setbacks.