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, May 05, 2016

How to Join the Massachusetts Army

On 5 May 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress decided how militiamen would sign up for longer service in its army:
Resolved, that all officers & soldiers of the Massachusetts army now raising for the defence & security of the rights and liberties of this and our sister colonies in america, shall each & every of them excepting only the the General Officers repeat and take the folowing Oath: (viz)
I, A B, swear, I will truly & faithfully serve in the Massachusetts army, to which I belong, for the defence and security of the estates, lives and liberties of the good people of this & the sister colonies in america, in opposition to ministerial tyrany by which they are or may be oppressed, and to all other enemies & opposers whatsoever; that I will adhere to the rules & regulations of sd. army, observe & obey the generals & other officers set over me; and disclose and make known to said officers all traiterous conspiraces, attempts and designs whatsoever which I shall know to be made against said army or any of the english american colonies, so help me God
This text came from a document in the Massachusetts Archives and was published in a volume of the state’s Acts and Resolves in 1886. The text published in The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1838 has the same words but regularized spelling and punctuation.

The congress left generals out of that oath since they would have no superior officers to answer to. It took another twelve days, and a suggestion that Gen. Artemas Ward really ought to have a commission, for the body to come up with an oath for those commanders:
Resolved, That the general officers of the Massachusetts army, now raising for the defence and security of the rights and liberties of this and our sister colonies in America, shall each and every of them repeat, take, and subscribe the following oath, to be administered by viz.:
I, A. B., do solemnly swear, that, as a general officer in the Massachusetts army, I will well and faithfully execute the office of a general, to which I have been appointed, according to my best abilities, in defence and for the security of the estates, lives, and liberties of the good people of this and the sister colonies in America, in opposition to ministerial tyranny, by which they are or may be oppressed, and to all other enemies and opposers whatsoever; that I will adhere to the rules and regulations of said army, established by the Congress of the colony of the Massachusetts Bay, observe and obey the resolutions and orders which are or shall be passed by said Congress, or any future congress, or house of representatives, or legislative body of said colony, and such committees as shall be by them authorized for that purpose; and that I will disclose and make known to the authority aforesaid, all traitorous conspiracies, attempts and designs whatsoever, which I shall know to be made, or have reason to suspect are making, against the army, or any of the English American colonies.
That text comes from the printed Journals of Each Provincial Congress. It didn’t conclude with “so help me God,” the only one of the three oaths the congress dictated that didn’t contain that formula. Whether that was an oversight or a significant decision is unclear.

The congress took another two days to finish Ward’s commission. A biographer of James Sullivan stated that he drafted the document, and the other two members of the committee never had biographers to dispute that. On 20 May Samuel Dexter administered the oath to Gen. Ward, and Dr. Joseph Warren as president of the congress delivered the commission. It’s an impressive-looking document.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Former H.M.S. Endeavour in Newport Harbor

This morning the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project has scheduled an announcement about its possible discovery of H.M.S. Endeavour, the ship that Capt. James Cook sailed around the world in 1768-1771.

The Royal Navy sold that ship after Cook’s voyage, then bought it back when the Revolutionary War began, sent it to America, and finally scuttled it during the lead-up to the Battle of Rhode Island.

The organization’s webpage explains:
RIMAP has mapped 9 archaeological sites of the 13 ships that were scuttled in Newport Harbor in 1778, during the American Revolution. A recent Australian National Maritime Museum grant allowed RIMAP to locate historic documents in London that identify the groups of ships in that fleet of 13, and where each group was scuttled. One group of 5 ships included the Lord Sandwich transport, formerly Capt. James Cook’s Endeavour Bark.

RIMAP now knows the general area of Newport Harbor where those five ships were scuttled, and in previous work had already mapped 4 of the sites there. A recent analysis of remote sensing data suggests that the 5th site may still exist, too. That means the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project now has an 80 to 100% chance that the Lord Sandwich is still in Newport Harbor, and because the Lord Sandwich was Capt. Cook’s Endeavour, that means RIMAP has found her, too.

On May 4 RIMAP will describe its 2016 plans to confirm the 5th shipwreck in the limited study area, and will outline what must be done in the future to determine which of the 5 sites there is which ship. The next phase of the archaeological investigation will require a more intense study of each vessel’s structure and its related artifacts. However, before that next phase may begin, there must be a proper facility in place to conserve, manage, display, and store the waterlogged material removed from the archaeological sites.
The organization is therefore undertaking a fundraising campaign to complete the project properly.

The Daily Mail in London and Daily News in New York both picked up this story. And it’s probably bigger news in Australia, where the nation traces its British roots back to Cook’s arrival on the east coast in 1770.

(The painting above, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows the Endeavour as Cook left Britain in 1768, looking considerably better than it did in Newport ten years later.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Cherubum and Seraphim at Old North Church

As an Anglican church, the Old North Church (formally Christ Church, Boston) was more flashily decorated than the town’s Congregationalist meetinghouses.

There are, for example, four hand-carved angels mounted on the gallery railing. Tom Dietzel recently shared a four-part online essay about them.

Those statues are thought to have been made in what is now Belgium in the early 1600s. In 1746 they were shipped across the Atlantic to a French territory—it’s not clear where. Unfortunately for the church expecting to receive those angels, that was during what British colonists called King George’s War. A Boston-based privateer named the Queen of Hungary captured the French merchant ship carrying the figures.

The captain of that privateer was a man from the Isle of Jersey named Thomas James Gruchy. He had settled in Boston and purchased a pew in Christ Church five years before. Returning to his home port considerably better off for his trouble, Gruchy agreed with five of his partners to give their church the angels and two “glass branches” or chandeliers (discussed here).

Gruchy returned to his busy mercantile career but appears to have suffered reverses in the 1750s. By 1759 he and his family had left Boston for good, and it’s not clear where he settled next.

Capt. Gruchy’s angels weren’t the only heavenly decoration at Old North. This winter the church was able to commission a historic paint analysis that peeked below its current decor, established in 1912 based on that era’s thoughts of what a colonial church should look like.

As part of that work, Brian Powell and Melissa McGrew of Building Conservation Associates exposed the painted head of a cherub they date to 1727. What’s more, they believe there are twenty more cherubs’ heads elsewhere under the paint. Powell will speak about that find and other details of the church’s eighteenth-century interior in a free public lecture on Wednesday, 11 May.

“Uncovering Cherubs: New Discoveries at Old North Church” is scheduled to start at 6:30 P.M. Afterwards the Boston Preservation Alliance Young Advisors will host “a facilitated discussion about the role preservation plays in interpretation at historic sites.” The event is free, but advance registration is required.

(Funding for the paint study and/or the lecture came from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Freedom Trail Foundation, the National Park Service, and the Marr Scaffolding Company.)

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Rev. David McClure’s 20th of April

Here’s another extract from the diary of the Rev. David McClure as the Revolutionary War began.

The last installment left the minister at the home of Joseph Mayo, a militia officer in Roxbury.
At the dawn of day, the Major & I mounted our horses, & rode to Roxbury street, anxious to know what had been done. The town was still as a grave yard, the people from the thick settled part, having moved out. A few militia men only, I saw there.

Determining to see what had been done on the rout of the enemy, I rode to Watertown, & from thence came on the road leading to Lexington. I went almost to the meeting house, where the first american blood was wantonly spilt, but the rain necessitated me to return. Dreadful were the vestages of war on the road.

I saw several dead bodies, principally british, on & near the road. They were all naked, having been stripped, principally, by their own soldiers. They lay on their faces. Several were killed who stopped to plunder, & were suddenly surprised by our people pressing upon their rear.

I went into a house in Menotomy, where was a stout farmer, walking the room, from whose side a surgeon had just cut out a musket ball, which had entered his breast, & glancing between the ribs, had lodged about half way to his back. He held the ball in his hand, & it was remarkable, that it was flattened on one side by the ribs, as if it had been beaten with a hammer. He was a plain honest man to appearence, who had voluntarily turned out with his musket, at the alarm of danger, as did also some thousands besides on that memorable day.

In the same room, lay mortally wounded, a british Officer, Lieut. [Edward] Hull, a youthful, fair & delicate countinance. He was of a respectable family of fortune, in Scotland. Sitting on one feather bed, he leaned on another, & was attempting to suck the juice of an Orange, which some neighbour had brought. The physician of the place had been to dress his wounds, & a woman was appointed to attend him. His breaches were bloody, lying on the bed.

I observed that he had no shirt on, & was wrapped in a coating great coat, with a fur cap on his head. I inquired of the woman, why he was thus destitute of cloathing? He answered, “when I fell, our people (the british) stripped off my coat, vest & shirt, & your people my shoes & buckles.” How inhuman his own men!

I asked him, if he was dangerously wounded? he replied, “yes, mortally.” That he had received three balls in his body. His countenance expressed great bodily anguish. I conversed with him a short time, on the prospect of death & a preperation for that solemn scene, to which he appeared to pay serious attention. He lived about a week, & the people conveyed his body in a Coffin to Charlestown ferry, where I happened to be present, & a barge from the Somerset, took it to Boston.
According to Abram English Brown’s Beneath Old Roof Trees, Lt. Hull of the 43rd Regiment was wounded at Concord’s North Bridge and then again during the British withdrawal. He was taken into the nearby house of young farmer Samuel Butterfield, and Butterfield’s wife Elizabeth cared for him and a less seriously wounded man from Framingham, Daniel Hemenway. Hull died on 2 May, and his body was sent in to Boston as McClure reported.

Hemenway survived to lobby the Massachusetts government to pay his medical bills and support. According to the petition that Ellen Chase transcribed in her Beginnings of the American Revolution, the ball that went through Hemenway’s chest also hit his thumb and “broak the bone to shivers.”
Not far from this house, lay 4 fine british horses. The people were taking off their shoes. One informed me, that a waggon loaded with provisions was sent from Boston, for the refreshment of the retreating army, under an escort of 6 Granidiers. They had got as far as this place, when a number of men, 10 or 12, collected, and ordered them to surrender. They marched on, & our men fired, killed the driver & the horses, when the rest fled a little way, & surrendered. Another waggon sent on the same business, was also taken that day. It was strange that General [Thomas] Gage should send them through a country, in which he had just kindled the flames of war, in so defenceless a condition.
Several sources describe the capture of those wagons, one usually credited to David Lamson and the “Old Men of Menotomy.” The fleeing soldiers reportedly surrendered to Ruth Batherick.
Saw 3 regulars, in beds in a house in Cambridge, one of them mortally wounded. Conversed with them on their melancholy situation. One of them refused to answer, and cast upon me a revengeful look. Perhaps he was a papist, & his priest had pardoned his sins. The houses on the road of the march of the british, were all perforated with balls, & the windows broken. Horses, cattle & swine lay dead around. Such were the dreadful trophies of war, for about 20 miles!

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Avant nous le déluge

Last month the Creators Project at Vice featured Viennese photographer Andreas Franke’s Stavronikita Project, part of his series “The Sinking World.”

As I understand Franke’s method, he dives down to shipwrecks and photographs them. Then he creates digital images combining those backgrounds with scenes of people that he stages in his studio. He places large prints of the resulting images back down on the shipwrecks for several months, where people with scuba gear can view them as they take on a patina of sea life. Finally, those prints are brought to the surface for drier displays and sales.

The Stavronikita was a Greek shipping vessel presently about thirty miles off Key West and eighty feet down. For that site Franke created images of what the Creators Project calls “French Revolution-esque bourgeoise,” though to me the people look very much of the Second Estate. The tableau above, for instance, is titled “Picnic for Three.” With the figures seemingly submerged, and coral starting to encrust their frame, it’s quite a metaphor for the French Revolution.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Service of Caesar Ferrit

While Thomas Nichols was locked up in the Concord jail, accused of enticing slaves away from their masters, what was his father-in-law doing?

Caesar Ferrit and his youngest son John, born around 1753, were marching with the Natick militia company on 19 Apr 1775. According to William Biglow’s 1830 history of the town:
Caesar Ferrit and his son John arrived at a house near Lexington meeting house, but a short time before the British soldiers reached that place, on their retreat from Concord. These two discharged their muskets upon the regulars from the entry, and secreted themselves under the cellar stairs, till the enemy had passed by, though a considerable number of them entered the house and made diligent search for their annoyers.
Biglow apparently gathered this story from John Ferrit himself, reporting that he was still alive and receiving a pension.

Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s column withdrawing from Concord met Col. Percy’s reinforcement column in Lexington. The British stayed in that town to tend to wounded, rest, and regroup. Percy made his headquarters at the Munroe Tavern, almost a mile from the meetinghouse near where the Ferrits were hiding. Still, they might have had to stay under those cellar stairs a considerable time until all the redcoats were gone.

According to George Quintal’s Patriots of Color, Caesar Ferrit enlisted in the Massachusetts army in late April 1775 through the end of the year. Seth Kaller, Inc., is offering a May 1775 record of how Natick supplied muskets to Caesar Ferrit and several other soldiers. The firm did considerable research on those men, identifying six of the eleven as African-American. Ferrit also served shorter stints in 1776-77 and 1781.

In 1796 the town of Natick petitioned the state for money to support its poor, among whom it listed “one Ceasar Ferrit, an old man and unable to Support him Self wo has been consistered as an Indian and has been under Gurdians of the Natick Indians.”

Caesar Ferrit died in Natick three years later, on 23 May 1799.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Reviewing Thomas Nichols’s Case

In late February 1775 a Massachusetts magistrate had Thomas Nichols of Natick, labeled variously a “free Negro” or “mulatto,” locked up for “enticing divers Servants [slaves] to desert the Service of their Masters.”

Nichols was still in the jail at Concord when the Revolutionary War broke out. He must have witnessed the British troops under Maj. John Pitcairn force their way into the jailyard to disable three large cannon that belonged to the town.

On 13 May, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety took up Nichols’s case. Its records say:
One Thomas Nicholas, a negro, brought before this committee on account of his suspicious behavior for some time past, having been examined, Resolved, that it be recommended to the council of war to commit said negro, until there be further inquiry into his conduct. . . .

Ordered, That Mr. Isaac Bradish, keeper of the jail in Cambridge, be directed and empowered to confine one Thomas Nicholas, negro, till further orders.
A week later the committee voted:
That Capt. Edward How, Ebenezer Cutler, and Nicholas, a black fellow, now under guard, be sent up to Congress for examination and trial, and Capt. White is appointed to attend Congress, with the above named persons.

Voted, That the general [Artemas Ward] be desired to furnish a guard for the occasion.
On that same day the Committee of Safety recommended against enlisting anyone but “freemen” into the Massachusetts army. There were multiple reasons behind that decision: ideological distaste for forcing slaves to fight in the name of liberty, potential complaints from slaveowners, and a lingering fear of unreliable troops. (The Massachusetts government didn’t decide to bar free black men from the ranks until shortly after Gen. George Washington’s arrival in July.)

On 22 May, a committee of the full Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Watertown, chaired by Edward Mitchell of Bridgewater, considered the evidence against those three jailed men. The decision on Thomas Nichols came last, and it was recorded this way:
Whereas Thomas Nicols, a negro man, hath been brought before this Congress, and there being no evidence to prove any matters or things alleged against him: therefore,

Resolved, That the said Thomas be sent to the Town or District where he belongs, and that the Committee of Correspondence, or Selectmen of said Town or District, take such care of the said Thomas, that he may be dealt with as they, in their judgment, shall think proper.

Ordered, That Captain [Caleb] Kingsbury be directed to appoint some persons to conduct the above-mentioned negro to Natick, agreeably to the foregoing Resolve.
So that was it. The slave conspiracy that had made the papers as far away as Norwich, Connecticut, and resulted in Nichols being jailed for almost three months had “no evidence” to back it up.

And even after that, according to Natick historian Horace Mann, the town “confined” Nichols at the tavern of Pelatiah Morse (shown above courtesy of the Historic Buildings of Massachusetts blog). Morse’s bill for the food he supplied to Nichols and his guard is the evidence for that, but I don’t know how long the confinement lasted.

TOMORROW: Nichols’s in-laws.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thomas Nichols of Natick

On Monday I quoted a Connecticut newspaper report of the arrest of “one Thomas Nichols, a Molatto,” in Natick on suspicion of planning an uprising of enslaved people.

What do we know about Nichols? He appears in the Natick vital records on 17 Dec 1766, listed as a “transient.” He married “Patiance Ferrit” of that town, which was originally a community of “praying Indians” but was in transition to become yet another English-dominated farm town.

Patience Ferrit had been born in Milton in 1743. In Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-century Eastern Massachusetts, Daniel R. Mandell noted how her father Caesar Ferrit moved to Natick from Boston in 1751 “to live among his own Nation the aboriginal natives.” He brought his wife Naomi and four children born in Milton. The couple had three more children in Natick, as George Quintal detailed in Patriots of Color.

According to local chroniclers, Caesar Ferrit later claimed that only one of his grandparents was a Native American. The others were Dutch, French, and African. Ferrit said he himself was born in the Caribbean.

What’s more, Naomi Ferrit was of English extraction. She appears to be the Naomi Isaac who married “Cesar Ferre” in Dorchester in 1738, one of only a handful of marriages performed by a justice of the peace instead of a minister. There was even a local tradition that Naomi was the ward of “a wealthy gentleman in Boston” who employed Caesar Ferrit as a coachman. The young couple had fallen in love, this tale goes, and were forced to choose a poor life in Natick.

All those stories, some of which may even be true, testify to how the racial or ethnic categories that the laws set up were actually overlapping and fluid. The Native part of Natick was a refuge for families that crossed the society’s “color lines.” Did the Ferrits need to have ancestral roots in the Native nations of New England to live there?

By marrying Patience Ferrit, Thomas Nichols became part of that community. The couple had at least three children in Natick:
  • Isaac, born 1 June 1768
  • Ama, born 14 May 1770
  • Cherrity, born 23 July 1773
When their third child was on the way, the couple petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to be allowed to sell real estate. They needed permission to do so because Patience Nichols was listed as a Native American. On 19 Jan 1773 the legislative Acts and Resolves state:
A Petition of Thomas Nichols of Natick a free negro man Setting forth That he hath lately purchased a plantation in Natick, containing near eighty acres of Land with a dwelling house thereon and many good accommodations; that he has lately intermarried with one Patience Terry an Indian, native, of said Natick who had legally heretofore purchased the following tracts of Land, situate in said Natick, which Lands the Petitioner paid for, but the Deed was given in his Wifes name vizt. the first lot containing about forty acres, the second lot about eleven acres more or less, the third thirty five and the fourth lot between seventy and eighty acres; of which last mentioned tract the Petitioner claims only one sixth part That he is considerably in debt for the purchase of his plantation aforesaid and otherwise. And praying that he may be impowered to sell the four pieces of Land aforesaid, which lie scattering to enable him to pay his just debts and to purchase some Stock and Tools for his plantation aforesaid.
The legislature granted the couple permission to make that sale.

Thomas Nichols had thus gone from a “transient” new arrival in Natick to a property-owner, though his economic situation apparently remained precarious. And a little more than two years later he was locked up, accused of fomenting unrest.

TOMORROW: What was the evidence for those suspicions?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Returning to the “Parker’s Revenge” Site, 29 Apr.

On Friday, 29 April, the Lexington Historical Society’s Cronin Lecture Series will present archeologist Margaret Watters and her final report on the “Parker’s Revenge” site in Minute Man National Historical Park.

That site, close to the park’s visitor center near the Lexington-Lincoln border, is a rocky outcrop where tradition held that the Lexington militia company under Capt. John Parker fired at Lt.-Col. Francis Smith’s British column as it was making its way back from Concord.

The big question of this investigation was whether it would find concrete evidence to back up that narrative. The next big question was how the evidence would revise that narrative.

I’ve been following this project for over a year, periodically mentioning updates about it. Last fall, for example, I featured an odd button found on the site. Earlier this month I got to enjoy a preview of Watters’s conclusions courtesy of Joel Bohy and Brown’s Company. I don’t want to reveal other people’s secrets, so all I’ll say about this lecture is: Don’t miss it.

The talk is scheduled to start at 8:00 P.M. at the Lexington Depot. It is free and open to the public. Parking is available nearby. Coffee and cookies will be served by the historical society.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Fears in Framingham and Elsewhere

Yesterday I quoted two Connecticut newspapers from March 1775 reporting on the detection of a slave conspiracy in Natick.

Such worries were nothing new. Back in September 1774, Abigail Adams had told her husband about a similar fear in Braintree:
There has been in Town a conspiracy of the Negroes. At present it is kept pretty private and was discoverd by one who endeavourd to diswaid them from it-he being threatned with his life, applied to justice [Josiah] Quincy for protection. They conducted in this way—got an Irishman to draw up a petition letting to the Govener telling him they would fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquerd, and it is said that he attended so much to it as to consult Pircy upon it, and one Liut. [?] Small [Maj. John Small?] has been very buisy and active. There is but little said, and what Steps they will take in consequence of it I know not.
Jason T. Sharples has found a deep tradition of such fears in British North America. The rumors would often take the same form: free blacks were tempting enslaved blacks, many masters and their families would be murdered all at once, blacks planned to burn the town…

The political and increasingly military tensions in Massachusetts in 1774 brought those fears to the surface again, alongside other, parallel rumors: that the British military planned to burn the town, that the provincial militia would raise 30,000 men and storm Boston, that the Crown would ship in thousands of French or Russian or Native soldiers. Most of those conspiracy theories were groundless.

People may have had their own doubts then, but they didn’t feel safe dismissing such dangers. Robert G. Parkinson just wrote about how such a worry affected people in Framingham as the war began:
Josiah Temple, a native of Framingham, Massachusetts (about fifteen miles south of Concord), published a book in 1887 on the town’s history. His recounting of what people remembered about the night of the Alarm was so different from the legend that he found it impossible to believe.

For four generations, the local story of the night of April 19, 1775, was that, as soon as the town’s militia marched north toward Lexington Green, a “strange panic” spread through Framingham. But that’s not what surprised the town historian, nor should it us. But what they said next certainly seems odd: “The Negroes were coming to massacre them all!” Some in the town, Temple noted, “brought the axes and pitchforks and clubs into the house, and securely bolted the doors, and passed the day and night in anxious suspense.”
More specifically, Temple wrote that the “women and children” in two Framingham districts felt this fear, particularly Mehetable, “wife of Capt. [Simon] Edgell,” a slaveholder. Temple also said, “Nobody stopped to ask where the hostile Negroes were coming from; for all our own colored people were patriots.” Peter Salem, for example, was marching with Capt. Edgell’s company. A black trumpeter reportedly roused the town militia. But Framingham is right next to Natick, where a free black man named Thomas Nichols had been arrested for fomenting unrest.

A similar fear affected women who gathered for safety from the regulars at a home in Menotomy, according to the Rev. Samuel A. Smith’s 1864 history:
The report was spread abroad that the slaves were intending to rise, and finish what the British had begun by murdering the defenceless women and children. It excited great consternation, therefore, among the women gathered at George Prentiss’s upon the hill, when they saw Ishmael, a negro slave belonging to Mr. [William] Cutler, approaching the house. They thought their time had come, but one, a little braver than the rest, summoned up courage to ask, “Are you going to kill us, Ishmael?”

“Lord-a-massy, no ma’am!” said the astonished black. “Is my missis here?”
Since Ishmael had stayed behind to save the Cutler tavern from burning, he had cause to be annoyed as well as astonished. In 1780, Ishmael Cutler, then thirty-six years old, enlisted as a soldier. The next year, he paid the town poll tax as a free man.

COMING UP: Who was Thomas Nichols?