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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Sunday, March 24, 2019

“Speak Out!” at Old South, 27 Mar.

On Wednesday, 27 March, the Old South Meeting House will host the fifth annual “Speak Out!” commemoration of the annual Boston Massacre orations, co-sponsored by the Bostonian Society.

The event description says:
Each year from 1772 to 1775, massive numbers of men, women, and children gathered here at Old South Meeting House to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, with rousing speeches by John Hancock, Benjamin Church, and Dr. Joseph Warren. Join us to hear excerpts of these speeches, performed by an inter-generational group in the same hall where the orations took place 240 years ago!

This year’s program will include excerpts from the “Crispus Attucks Memorials” delivered in 1858 by William Cooper Nell and Dr. John Sweatt Rock, which zeroed in on the institution of slavery in relation to the rhetoric of liberty.
This occasion isn’t just for listening to speeches, though. Audience members can choose to read selected excerpts, and the most rousing orators in youth and adult categories will receive prizes.

Folks who want to study the texts in advance can send a request to education@osmh.org with the subject line “Orations Reader.”

This event will start at 6:00 P.M. It is free and open to the public, but Old South asks people to register here.

The picture above shows William Cooper Nell (1816-1874), who in addition to being one of Boston’s foremost civil-rights activists in the mid-1800s was also a Revolutionary War historian.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

“If one old Yankee woman can take six grenadiers…”?

In his 1864 address West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775, Samuel Abbott Smith told the story of six regulars surrendering to “Mother Batherick” after the supply wagon they were rolling west was attacked.

Smith added:
The squib went the rounds of the English opposition papers, “If one old Yankee woman can take six grenadiers, how many soldiers will it require to conquer America?”
Within ten years, that story and that line were appearing in an American school textbook, The Franklin Fourth Reader by G. S. Hillard:
16. The drivers are said to have surrendered themselves to an old woman whom they met, whose protection they begged. Whereupon there went the rounds of the English papers belonging to the opposition this interesting sum in the Rule of Three: “If one old Yankee woman can take six grenadiers, how many soldiers will it require to conquer America?”
The line has been quoted in many histories of the battle, from Colonial Society of Massachusetts publications to Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride to popular compendiums published in the last few years.

But all the citations for the statements about that gibe in British newspapers appear to go back to Smith, writing almost ninety years after the event on a different continent. No author points to an actual newspaper or politician in Britain saying such a thing.

I don’t have access to a British newspaper database, but I’ve looked for such a statement quoted in American newspapers during the war and in the books and magazines scanned on Google Books. And I’m still looking.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Samuel Phillips Savage: “ye fire fell all around us”

When the Great Fire of Boston broke out in March 1760, merchant Samuel Phillips Savage was one of the town’s selectmen, thus bearing extra civic responsibilities.

Two weeks later, Savage wrote an account of the fire. He heavily revised his draft, crossing out and inserting many phrases and even scribbling a whole new paragraph in between the lines of another.

Savage evidently kept that draft for his records, and it’s now held at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The document doesn’t state the letter’s recipient, but it must be someone who lived nearby because he or she had already heard about the fire.

Savage wrote back:
I am obligd for your Sympathy with the Afflictd Town of Boston on Acct of the late awfull Fire,

I was wak’d with the Cry just after two and when I left the house which was not till I had fully dresd me, I could scarce see any Effects of the Flames but before I got way there the whole house were it began was on fire and by a little after day it had distroyd 345 houses, Warehouses & Shops, never did my Eyes behold so amazing a Scene—

in the hight I happened to be on the top of Fort hill, leading a poor old Woman of 80 just escaped with her life to a Brothers house who had escaped, then I beheld a torrent of Fire, impitously carrying all before it, & would I believe how watered [?], had the town reached 20 Miles farther in yt direction for not one house is left in the exant to leeward of ye Wind.

Once in ye hight of the fire, trembling for fear of the Magazine I went to speak at a fireward who stood in the Midst of fire, then I can say without Exageration that I never in my life was in a greater Storm of Snow or knew it snow faster than ye fire fell all around us.

the Engines then provd useless—their Every attempt provd in vain, the flames had their Commiss’. and tryumphed over, the
And there that page ends.

Here’s the paragraph interlined after “Town of Boston”:
We are really worthy yr pity, you canot have any just Idea of the Calamity, and yet I have not heard One murmering Word. I was out the whole Night and happend abt the hight to be on top of the adjoined hill assisting a aged Woman who had escaped the Flame of her own house and wanted my help to lead her to a friends—the Sight was awfull, I confess at the time the thought of its being a Stroke of heaven absorbd all other Considerations. The loss [?] seemd nothing—but although so many have sufferd and come so greatly yet our Xtian benevolent Neighbors help us.
When transcribing this letter, I struggled with several words, particularly “impitously.” Then I went home and discovered that Savage must have written a variation of “impiteously,” meaning “pitilessly.”

“Watered,” which appears in an inserted phrase written hastily and in small letters, is still a guess. The sentiment is clear—Savage didn’t see any way to stop the fire from going where the wind took it, which fortunately was to the harbor.

(In quoting the letter above, I omitted crossed-out words, didn’t note inserts, and broke the text into shorter paragraphs for easier reading.)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Seeking Out a Statement by “Samuel Savage”

On 21 Mar 1760, Bostonians were assessing the damage from the great fire that had started in Mary Jackson’s shop the night before. So this is a good day to resume The Saga of the Brazen Head.

I’ll start a peek behind the scenes of tomorrow’s posting. I really wanted to find a first-person, close-up account of that fire. I’ve quoted newspaper reports, a broadside, a sermon, and diaries from men in other neighborhoods. But all those descriptions had a distanced quality, produced by either actual physical distance or their collective voice.

I spotted a couple of short quotations in Stephanie Schorow’s Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston (2002) which gave me hope of tracking down more. Schorow’s notes pointed me to the books that she’d (inexactly) quoted from, including Carl Seaburg’s Boston Observed (1971).

And there the trail went dead. Boston Observed is a reader made up mostly of a lot of quotations about Boston from across the centuries, Seaburg noted the sources of those long quotations reasonably well—but not the shorter quotations in his introductory essays. And that’s where the sentences in question appeared.

Seaburg credited certain comments on the 1760 fire to a man he called “Samuel Savage.” He also wrote that the fire had started in “the Brazen Head tavern on King Street.” This whole series of postings started simply because I wanted to correct the misunderstanding (which goes back to a town publication in the late 1800s) that the Sign of the Brazen Head was a tavern rather than a hardware shop. Also, that shop was on Cornhill, not King Street. So I wasn’t completely confident about Seaburg’s quoting.

I made a self-educated guess that “Samuel Savage” was Samuel Phillips Savage (1718-1797, shown above), a Boston merchant and town official in the early 1760s who then moved out to Weston. He came back to chair some of the big public meetings in Old South during the tea crisis. Some of the letters Savage received from his old colleagues and neighbors are valuable sources about what was going on in the big town during the pre-Revolutionary turmoil.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds Samuel Phillips Savage Papers. In fact, it holds four series of S. P. Savage Papers, apparently because descendants have donated those documents in batches. Unfortunately, the M.H.S. doesn’t have a finding aid for that collection, which would make it easier to look for a particular document, or at all documents from the spring of 1760. Instead, each series has its own chronological sequence.

M.H.S. reference librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook helped me understand those nuances of the S. P. Savage Paperses. She also suggested it was worth looking in the Catalogue of Manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a nine-volume reference printed in 1969 (with a supplement in 1980). Since Seaburg wrote in 1970, I could probably ignore manuscripts acquired after then.

And that worked! One of the items listed in the printed manuscript catalog was S. P. Savage II’s 3 Apr 1760 “Letter to [unknown] about fire in Boston.” That told me which series of Savage Papers to request in the reading room.

(The manuscript catalogue described another letter in that series this way: “Letter to Mr. Joslyn about young Savage’s conduct,” dated 5 Feb 1756. So of course I made a note to look at that, too. Just a taste: “…it seems a little Strange if they are married, they should be ashamd or afraid to say by whom . . . you have the facts as to his Conduct with Bety Wyre and his Child, whose Care is peculiar and really calls for Pitty—I wish that young Creature may be the only One he has ruined—I should be glad if you would inform me, if Mary Sharrad (for Mary Savage I really believe is not her name), is brought to bed…” Savage conduct indeed.)

TOMORROW: Samuel Phillips Savage at the Great Boston Fire.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Another Mystery of Nero Faneuil

The likelihood that George Washington’s cook Hercules took his first owner’s surname and went by Hercules Posey in New York brought back thoughts about how another black man might have negotiated slavery and freedom in the early republic.

Last month I highlighted the name of “Nero Funels” on a 1777 Massachusetts anti-slavery petition. I posited that this was a phonetic spelling of Faneuil, and that the same man as Nero Faneuil was involved in two Boston burglaries in 1784.

One of the witnesses in those trials was Nero Faneuil’s wife Flora. Two other witnesses were surnamed Hitchborn (or a variation on that name):

  • Prince Hitchborn, almost certainly given that first name as an enslaved child, was at Nero and Flora Faneuil’s house in November 1784.
  • Elite young lawyer Benjamin Hichborn testified to Nero’s character.

That suggests some link between the Nero Faneuil and the Hitchborn household in the North End.

Boston town records state that on 20 Apr 1780 Nero Williams of Roxbury and Flora Hitchburne, “free negroes,” were married. I haven’t found any record of the marriage of Nero and Flora Faneuil. Nor have I found any other mention of Nero Williams. To be sure, there were other black men named Nero and other black women named Flora, but I haven’t found any other married couples with those names.

So here’s one possible reconstruction of Nero Faneuil’s life. He was either born into slavery or enslaved by a member of the Faneuil family, and used that family’s surname when signing the anti-slavery petition in 1777.

The Revolution sent different members of the white mercantile Faneuil family in different directions:
  • Benjamin Faneuil, Sr., had become blind and lived in retirement with his daughter and son-in-law, Mary and George Bethune, in the part of Cambridge that became Brighton.
  • That man’s sons Benjamin, Jr., and Peter were Loyalists, moving to Canada and elsewhere during the war and thus at risk of losing their Massachusetts property.
  • Pierre Benjamin Faneuil, a francophone cousin, came to Boston from Saint-Domingue with the hope of raising a regiment of French Canadians to support the Continental cause, but died of illness in 1777 before accomplishing anything.

Nero Faneuil might have belonged to any of those households in 1777 and then been sold to someone named Williams in Roxbury by 1780. Joseph Williams was a big farmer in that town, for example. If so, town authorities might have listed Nero with the surname Williams in 1780 in the record of his marriage to Flora Hitchburne.

In 1783, Massachusetts’s high court ruled slavery unenforceable. By the following year Nero Faneuil was a free man in Boston married to a woman named Flora. Was he also Nero Williams, having reverted to using the Faneuil surname?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hercules Posey, Cook in New York

Craig LaBan’s article for the Philadelphia newspapers about the mysteries surrounding George Washington’s escaped cook Hercules didn’t stop at debunking the claim that he was the black man wearing a tall white hat in a widely reprinted portrait.

LaBan also reported new information about what really happened to Hercules. The last known trace of him had been a 15 Dec 1801 letter from Martha Washington to the mayor of New York, thanking him for seeking Hercules and concluding, “I have been so fortunate as to engage a white cook who answers very well. I have thought about it therefore better to decline taking Hercules back.”

That hinted that the Washingtons, having previously sought Hercules in Philadelphia, came to suspect he was in New York.

Back in 2016, a children’s book about Hercules was abruptly canceled just before publication, as discussed back here. The author who had been recruited to write that book, Ramin Ganeshram, had already been working on a novel about the cook and the painter Gilbert Stuart, inspired by the mistaken belief that LaBan wrote about. That book, The General’s Cook, was published last year.

Ganeshram is also the executive director of the Westport Historical Society in Connecticut, and as doubts arose about the “Hercules portrait” that inspired her fiction she wanted to find out more about the real man. Ganeshram and her colleague Sara Krasne, an archivist, looked at New York records for traces.

The crucial clue was that Washington had bought Hercules as a young man from another Virginia planter named John Posey. We know that William Lee, the general’s body servant during the war, continued to use the surname of his first owner throughout his life. Had Hercules done the same?

The New York city directory for 1812 listed a black man named Hercules Posey living on Orange Street. On 15 May of that year, that Posey died of consumption. The death record stated that he was sixty-four years old and had been born in Virginia, which is a reasonable match for what little we know about Hercules the cook.

As described in this blog post, New York City archivists found evidence from a few years later that Posey’s address was in a neighborhood of black workers.

I’m adding another breadcrumb to this cook’s trail. The 1812 directory listed Posey as a laborer. The 1808 edition of Longworth’s American Almanac: New York Register and City Directory listed him at another address on Orange Street, and identified him as a cook.

ADDENDUM: After I wrote about this posting on Twitter, Sara Krasne replied that she and Ramin Ganeshram had just found Hercules Posey listed as a cook in an 1807 New York city directory.

Monday, March 18, 2019

New Findings about an Old Portrait

Earlier this month Craig LaBan reported for the Philadelphia newspapers on the portrait shown here.

In recent decades this been widely identified as showing Hercules, a cook enslaved by President George Washington. Hercules achieved high status in the Mount Vernon workforce, but then he secured his freedom by leaving in 1797.

The painting has been attributed to Gilbert Stuart, apparently because he’s the most famous painter known to have painted the Washingtons around that time.

One detail which should have made people wonder, I think, is that this painting is at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. An odd place to find an American painting linked to an American President, wouldn’t you say? (To be sure, there are reproductions in many American museums now.)

LaBan reported some important conclusions about the painting and Hercules:
  • Experts in Stuart’s art agree that this canvas doesn’t match his technique. The only link to that artist is wishfulness.
  • The tall white cylindrical hat that we know as a toque didn’t become standard for chefs in France until the early 1800s, spreading from that country to others. Hercules surely didn’t wear one at Mount Vernon or the Presidential mansion.
  • The headgear in the painting looks similar to the hat of a man in a painting of free black people on Dominica made by the Italian artist Agostino Brunias (d. 1796) around 1770. 
Thus, the painting is most likely a portrait of a man on Dominica or another Caribbean island. An unnamed man by an unnamed artist—at least for now.

TOMORROW: A real trace of Hercules the cook?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

“The more I think of our Enemies quitting Boston…”

Here’s how Abigail Adams experienced the British evacuation of Boston on 17 Mar 1776. She was at the family home in Braintree, writing to her husband John in Philadelphia. (And she had a cold, but I’m skipping that.)
I find the fireing was occasiond by our peoples taking possession of Nook Hill, which they kept in spite of the Cannonade, and which has really obliged our Enemy to decamp this morning on board the Transports; as I hear by a mesenger just come from Head Quarters.

Some of the [Boston] Select Men have been to the lines and inform that they have carried of[f] [every]thing they could [po]ssibly take, and what they could not they have [burnt, broke, or hove into the water. This] is I [believe fact,] many articles of good Household furniture having in the course of the week come on shore at Great Hill, both upon this and Weymouth Side, Lids of Desks, mahogona chairs, tables &c.

Our People I hear will have Liberty to enter Boston, those who have had the small pox. The Enemy have not yet come under sail. I cannot help suspecting some design which we do not yet comprehend; to what quarter of the World they are bound is wholy unknown, but tis generally Thought to New york. Many people are elated with their quitting Boston. I confess I do not feel so, tis only lifting the burden from one shoulder to the other which perhaps is less able or less willing to support it.—
(You know, that sounds like a dig at New York.)
To what a contemptable situation are the Troops of Britain reduced! I feel glad however that Boston is not distroyed. I hope it will be so secured and guarded as to baffel all future attempts against it.— . . .

From Pens Hill we have a view of the largest Fleet ever seen in America. You may count upwards of 100 & 70 Sail. They look like a Forrest.

It was very lucky for us that we got possession of Nook Hill. They had placed their cannon so as to fire upon the Top of the Hill where they had observed our people marking out the Ground, but it was only to elude them for they began lower upon the Hill and nearer the Town. It was a very foggy dark evening and they had possession of the Hill six hours before a gun was fired, and when they did fire they over shot our people so that they were coverd before morning and not one man lost, which the enemy no sooner discoverd than Bunker Hill was abandoned and every Man decamp’d as soon as he could for they found they should not be able to get away if we once got our cannon mounted.

Our General may say with Ceasar veni vidi et vici.
On Monday morning Adams returned to the topic of the British departure and the end of the siege:
The more I think of our Enemies quitting Boston, the more amaz’d I am, that they should leave such a harbour, such fortifications, such intrenchments, and that we should be in peaceable possession of a Town which we expected would cost us a river of Blood without one Drop shed. Shurely it is the Lords doings and it is Marvelous in our Eyes.
Like Gen. Washington, Adams didn’t know that the British commanders had been wanting to leave Boston for months, harbor and entrenchments or no.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

“His Excellency is apprehensive”

On 16 Mar 1776, the British military still hadn’t evacuated Boston.

To be fair, that wasn’t for lack of trying. The previous day, Capt. John Barker wrote in his journal:
The Wind being fair at 12 oclock in the day, the Troops were order’d under Arms in order to embark; but after waiting some time returned to their Quarters, the Wind having shifted.
As far back as 9 March, a British officer wrote: “I have slept one night on board [a transport ship]; the troops are embarking as fast as possible.”

But that wasn’t fast enough to reassure Gen. George Washington. Within a few days of the Continental move onto Dorchester heights, Gen. William Howe had signaled through the Boston selectmen that he was pulling out. Washington had responded by ordering the Continental artillery to hold back, as his military secretary Robert Hanson Harrison wrote to Gen. Artemas Ward:
It is his desire that you give peremptory Orders to the Artillery Officer commandg at Lams Dam [in Roxbury], that he must not fire upon the Town of Boston tonight unless the Enemy first begin a Cannonade, and that you Inform the Officer at Dorchester heights that he is not to fire from thence on the Town—If they begin, and we have any Cannon on Nuke Hill, his Excellency wou’d have the fire to be returned from thence among the Shipping and every damage [don]e them that possibly can.

Notwithstanding the accounts received of [the] Enemy’s being about to evacuate the Town with all seeming hurry & expedition, his Excellency is apprehensive that Genl Howe has some design of having a brush before his departure and is only waiting in hopes of findg us of[f] our Guard
What Harrison called “Nuke Hill” was more commonly known as Nook’s Hill or Foster’s Hill. It was the corner of the Dorchester peninsula closest to Boston. The Continentals had started to fortify that position, but then backed off after a British artillery attack killed a man and the commanders reached their “tacit agreement.”

But now it was a week later, and the British hadn’t left. “Still detained by the Wind,” Barker wrote on Saturday, 16 March. Selectman Timothy Newell reported only “Rain” and looting.

Gen. Washington had had enough. He ordered Continental soldiers back to Nook Hill, where they completed building an artillery emplacement without suffering any casualties from British fire. From that position they could hit both the town of Boston and the scores of ships gathered in the harbor.

TOMORROW: Gone at last.

Friday, March 15, 2019

“He would raise a thousand Men at his own expence”?

At last night’s presentation on the John and Abigail Adams and George Washington, I related an anecdote that circulated at the First Continental Congress. It raised a question, so I decided to take a closer look at the record.

On 31 Aug 1774, John Adams dined with South Carolina delegate Thomas Lynch, Sr. (1727-1776, shown here) and wrote this into his diary:
He told us that Coll. Washington made the most eloquent Speech at the Virginia Convention that ever was made. Says he, “I will raise 1000 Men, subsist them at my own Expence, and march my self at their Head for the Relief of Boston.”
Silas Deane of Connecticut heard the same story about George Washington, writing home to his wife in the middle of September:
It is said that in the house of Burgesses in Virginia, on hearing of the Boston Port Bill, he offered to raise and arm and lead one thousand men himself at his own expense, for the defence of the country, were there need of it. His fortune is said to be equal to such an undertaking.
Adams recalled his conversation with Lynch in the autobiography he wrote in the early 1800s:
Mr. Lynch a Delegate from South Carolina, who, in conversation on the Unhappy State of Boston and its inhabitants, after some Observations had been made on the Eloquence of Mr. Patrick Henry and Mr. Richard Henry Lee, which had been very loudly celebrated by the Virginians, said that the most eloquent Speech that had ever been made in Virginia or any where else, upon American Affairs had been made by Colonel Washington.

This was the first time I had ever heard the Name of Washington, as a Patriot in our present Controversy, I asked who is Colonel Washington and what was his Speech?

Colonel Washington he said was the officer who had been famous in the late french War and in the Battle in which [Gen. Edward] Braddock fell. His Speech was that if the Bostonians should be involved in Hostilities with the British Army he would march to their relief at the head of a Thousand Men at his own expence. This Sentence Mr. Lynch said, had more Oratory in it, in his Judgment, than all that he had ever heard or read.
And in an 11 Nov 1807 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Adams included the story among the influential “anecdotes” that preceded Washington:
Mr Lynch of South Carolina told me before We met in Congress in 1774 that “Colonel Washington had made the most eloquentt speech that ever had been Spoken upon the Controversy with England, viz That if the English Should Attack the People of Boston, he would raise a thousand Men at his own expence and march at their head to New England to their Aid.”
It’s a pity that there’s no basis to Lynch’s story. Sources from Virginia, where people were after all most likely to have heard Washington speak, say nothing about it.

Lynch and Adams spoke at the end of August. The Virginia delegation to the Congress started to arrive on 3 September, with Washington coming the next day. Yet the story continued to spread among the New England delegates, as shown by Deane repeating it in the middle of September. Even decades later, when Adams repeated the story, he didn’t write about now knowing it was untrue.

Evidently people were so impressed by Washington’s reported promise to march a thousand men to Boston that no one actually asked him about it.