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, April 26, 2017

Talk about David Mason in Salem, 28 Apr.

On Friday, 28 April, I’m headed back to Salem to talk about “Leslie’s Retreat” and The Road to Concord to the Explorers Lifelong Learning Institute of Salem State University. (I’m taking the place of another speaker, so I’m not listed on the website for that day.)

This event will be part of the Explorers’ “Friday Coffee” series, but I prefer tea, so I’ll share a story about tea that led up to “Leslie’s Retreat.”

According to Susan Mason Smith, interviewed in 1842 when she was “in her 80th year,” her father David Mason in 1774
was on a Com[mitt]ee (in Salem) to prevent the introduction of Tea in this Town.—

2 large chests, smuggled into Salem by a coloured man,—were seized—& put in Col Mason’s chamber closet for safe keeping over night—

This Tea was taken away the next day by the school boys who had much amusement in burning it on the Common
Smith apparently said “public square”; her interviewer wondered if that meant the common.

The story continued:
Mrs Mason was in feeble health, & it was thought necessary, that she should use Tea for her recovery for her relief. Her husband proposed to obtain special leave that she might use such a remedy; but she said “No, she would rather suffer inconvenience then it should be said she was enjoying a privilege her husband was appointee to take from her friends & neighbors.[”]
That autumn, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety asked Mason “to make private preparation for the Revolution” by “collecting military Stores for the use of the Country.”

Come the following February, the stores David Mason had collected—namely a large number of cannon—were being mounted on carriages in the north of Salem. And Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie and his redcoat soldiers had orders to search for them.

My “Friday Coffee” talk is scheduled to start at 10:00 A.M. at 10 Federal Street in Salem. I’m a bit worried about arriving on time from Middlesex County, but the session can run until noon, so we’ll get through everything eventually.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“Here are the cannon—Our cannon are coming”

Among the documents the Massachusetts Historical Society has made available in digital form is Sarah (Winslow) Deming’s letter detailing day by day her experience at the start of the Revolutionary War.

From a genteel family with relatives on both sides of the political divide, Deming was inside Boston when the fighting began on April 1775. And she wanted to get out. The letter is quite fraught with emotion about that, which may conceal the fact that her departure was in fact quite swift and early.

This is from Deming’s description of 20 April:
about 3 o’clock P.M. the Chaises return’d (for they both went to Jamaca plain wth Mr. Waters’s wife, children & maids he having first engag’d them, one of ’em being his brother Thomsons, which he Mr. Thomson offer’d to Mr. D.g while it was out, & promis’d we should have on its return). We set off immediately, Mr. D.g & I in one, Sally & Lucinda, with Jemmy Church to drive in the other.
Was “Mr. Waters” Josiah Waters? A father and son of that name helped to design the fortification at Roxbury. I see connections between them and a distiller named James Thompson, but I haven’t confirmed a familial relationship. Deming later reports that Waters got out of Boston on 21 April, with his parents having gone to Woburn and his own family headed to Providence.

Was “Jemmy Church” the eldest son of Dr. Benjamin Church, named James Miller Church? He was born in 1759 and worked as an assistant apothecary and surgeon’s mate during the siege. (There’s no evidence he knew of his father’s spying at this time.)
We were stop’d & enquir’d of wether we had any arms etc. by the First & Second [British army] centinals, but they treated us civilly, & did not search us. The third & last centinals did not chalenge us.—so we got safe thro’ ye lines. . . .

Which road will you take said Mr. Deming? Give the horse the rane; was my answer. The horse took thro’ Roxbury Street, ye way he had but a little before pass’d. When we were by the Gray-hown, a lad who came out of Boston wth us, & who generally kept by our side, tho’ sometimes before us, run up to our chaise wth a most joyful countenance & cry’d, Sir, Sir; Ma’m, here are the cannon—Our cannon are coming—just here upon the road, heres a man told me so, who has seen ’em. The matter of his joy was terror to me, I only said, to Lewis go home to your father, & let our horse go, so we parted.
Lewis? Who’s Lewis? The name never appears before in the document, and never again. He doesn’t seem to be the “lad.” I suspect Lewis was a family servant, possibly enslaved. Lucinda, mentioned above, definitely was enslaved.

The “Gray-hown” was the former Greyhound tavern, owned by John Greaton, at the corner of modern Washington and Vernon Streets. It became a provincial checkpoint during the siege.

Of course, what really caught my eye was that unnamed lad’s excitement about “Our cannon.” That reflects the Patriots’ pleasure at having artillery to fight the British army. The same guns made Sarah Deming worry about the damage they could do to the people and houses in Boston.

It seems worth noting that while Deming described meeting “little parties, old, young, & middle aged, some with fife & drum,” as she proceeded through Roxbury, she never described actually seeing those cannon. I suspect it took longer to deploy them, fully equipped and mounted, than the Patriots had thought.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Talking about Stolen Cannon in Falmouth, 25 Apr.

On Tuesday, 25 April, I’ll speak to the Falmouth Historical Society about The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War.

My book explores how Massachusetts Patriots were furiously collecting cannon months before the war broke out in April of 1775, but of course keeping that effort as quiet as possible.

Today I’ll share a glimpse of one such cannon from the diary of Israel Litchfield, a sergeant in Scituate’s minute company. The town militiamen were drilling on 19 April when they heard a rumor of fighting between locals and redcoats in Concord. “Some Discredited it and Some Believed it,” Litchfield wrote, but gradually the new situation became clear.

The next day, the Scituate militia companies mustered. They took a few local Loyalists prisoner. But they didn’t march toward Boston because, as I discussed last year, there was a contingent of British soldiers a lot closer, in the neighboring town of Marshfield. Furthermore, seaside communities worried about the Royal Navy—shouldn’t the militia companies stay close to home to guard against a possible attack from the sea?

On 21 April, Litchfield and his company were ordered to bring in the big guns—well, one big gun—evidently to push the redcoats out of Marshfield. The sergeant wrote:
Colonel [John] Bailey I Say ordered our Companey the Rangers and Capt. Galen Clapps Company to march up to [Atherton] Wales’s [tavern in Hanover] to gaurd a Cannon down to marshfield. We were very Loath to go because there was Several tenders playing off and on upon our Coasts. However we were obliged to go

So we marched up to upriver meeting house and Joind Capt. Galen Claps Company. We marched up to wales’s and took the Cannon under our protection. We march’d from Wales’s to Dr. [Jeremiah] Halls in pembroke. There we heard a rumur that there was 500 Regulars Landing in Scituate.

We Sent posts to the Col. for Leave to march Back to Scituate, which after we had marcd. aboute a mile beyond Dr. Halls the major Came to us and ordered us to march back to Scituate. The Sun was aboute an hour high.

We marchd down to upriver meeting house where we heard that there was nothing in the rumur of mens Landing in Scituate but that the Regulars were embarkd on board a tender and gone off.
So everything ended almost peacefully in that part of the province. Sgt. Litchfield didn’t record what happened to the cannon his company had left behind on the road. Was it taken up to the siege lines around Boston or kept nearby to guard a local harbor?

I’ll have more answers about other cannon at Falmouth on Tuesday. My talk will begin at 7:00 P.M. at the historical society’s Cultural Center, 55 Palmer Avenue. I believe the admission cost is $5 for members and $8 for others. I’ll stay after the talk to answer questions, sign books, and chat about the Revolution.

[The photograph above shows Atherton Wales’s tavern in Hanover as the building appeared in the 1900s.]

Sunday, April 23, 2017

American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference, 8-11 June

On the weekend of 10-11 June, the Fort Plain Museum in upstate New York will host its third annual American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference at the Fulton-Montgomery Community College. I attended last year’s event and was impressed by the scores of people who attended and their avid historical interest.

Speakers during the weekend will be:
  • William M. Fowler, Jr., “An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783”
  • Gavin K. Watt, “Neighbours Against Neighbours: Fort Schuyler and Oriskany”
  • Eric H. Schnitzer, “Tactics of the 1777 Battles of Saratoga
  • Christian M. McBurney, “Abductions in the American Revolution in Northern New York”
  • Matthew J. Hollis & David A. Ranzan, “Middling Officers in the Mohawk Valley”
  • Dean R. Snow, “Oneidas, Mohawks, and the Saratoga Campaign”
  • Wayne Lenig, “1780, the Year of the Burning: The War on the Mohawk Frontier”
  • Todd W. Braisted, “The Royalist Corps in the Burgoyne Campaign”
  • Robert A. Geake, “From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution”
  • Daniel M. Sivilich, “Musket Balls: Diagnostic Tools for Military Sites”
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing several of those speakers present their expertise. Dan Sivilich’s work on musket balls as archeological artifacts is particularly intriguing.

In connection to the conference, there are two bus tours of the region scheduled on 8-9 June. The tour on Thursday will visit the Fort Plain Museum, the 1747 Nellis Tavern, Fort Klock, Old Fort Johnson, the Stone Arabia Battlefield, the Stone Arabia Church, and the grave of Col. John Brown.

The Friday will feature sites associated with Walter D. Edmonds’s Drums Along the Mohawk: the Palatine Church, Fort Stanwix (Fort Schuyler), the Oriskany Battlefield, the General Herkimer Home, Fort Herkimer, Fort Herkimer Church, and Fort Dayton.

On the evening of Friday, 9 June, there will be a cocktail reception and a sneak peak of the documentary Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed. Filmmakers Tom Mercer and Anthony Vertucci will discuss this new film in progress.

There’s a tavern dinner on the evening of Saturday, 10 June, at the Van Alstyne Homestead with Bruce M. Venter portraying Gen. John Burgoyne explaining “How I Lost the War in America!” Tours of the Van Alstyne Homestead are free, but the period-authentic drinks will come from a cash bar.

The cost is $60 for the speakers’ portion (including Saturday lunch and coffee break), $40 for each bus tour, $50 for the tavern evening and dinner, or the entire package for $180. All proceeds will benefit the Fort Plain Museum. For more information or to register (or to suggest speakers for a 2018 conference), email info@fortplainmuseum.org or call (518) 774-5669.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Children’s Play at the Dublin Seminar in Deerfield, 24 June

On Saturday, 24 June, the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will take place at Historic Deerfield. This year’s theme is “Small World: Toys, Dolls, and Games in New England.”

The day will feature nine talks on the culture of children’s play in New England and adjacent areas of New York and Canada in the 17th through 19th centuries. The event description says:
The conference opens with talks on the material culture of toys by fashion specialists, archaeologists, and historians who will discuss the making of high-style dolls, the distribution of toys in girls’ industrial schools, and toy-making during and after the Civil War.

It continues with an examination of English emblematical books for children, printed board games designed for young minds, and the evolution of children’s libraries in the larger eighteenth century. . . . The Seminar is designed for educators, historians, collectors, independent scholars, librarians, preservationists, and museum curators, as well as students and the general public.
I’ll be there giving a presentation on football (or what we Americans call soccer), its reputation in British culture, and how it took on a political meaning in redcoat-occupied Boston during the late 1760s.

Click here for a complete schedule of lectures and registration information for this year’s Dublin Seminar. Registration costs $70, or $40 for students. Past seminars have been two or three days in length, and this year the committee chose a shorter program to allow more people to attend.

Since the 1970s the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife has presented annual conferences, exhibitions, and publications exploring the life, work, and culture of ordinary New Englanders. The seminars are now sponsored and hosted by Historic Deerfield. The collections of papers from past years are excellent sources on many topics, from gravestones to clothing to supernatural beliefs.

Friday, April 21, 2017

We Actually Have Two New American Revolution Museums

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia isn’t the only new museum focusing on that important national transition. Last month I attended one of the opening days of the other one, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. And it’s well worth a visit.

Like the M.O.A.R., this museum is a new building for an established location and a new home for an old collection, in this case those of the Yorktown Victory Center. But the curators have been bringing in many new items:
Recent acquisitions, all selected to illustrate specific exhibit themes, include such iconic artifacts as a Declaration of Independence broadside dating to July 1776; a June 1776 Pennsylvania Gazette printing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which directly influenced the composition of the U.S. Declaration of Independence; an official portrait of King George III in his coronation robes; an eagle-pommel sword inscribed with the year 1776 and the name of its owner; one of the earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies that became the United States; and a first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first book to be published by an African American.
Another acquisition is a portrait of Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, later Count Rumford.

Though this museum is at the site of a particular event—the Yorktown siege of 1781—it covers the entire Revolutionary conflict, starting with the imperial situation of the 1750s and running to the expansion of the U.S. of A. in the 1790s. The galleries have the themes of “The British Empire and America”; “The Changing Relationship—Britain and North America”; “Revolution,” meaning the war; “The New Nation”; and “The American People.”

The museum also uses a lot of interactive technology. I didn’t watch the introductory film, “Liberty Fever,” but I was impressed by many of the smaller video displays. One standout was the museum’s Liberty Tree, a metal sculpture draped with “20 electronic lanterns that display liberty messages from all over the world.” Visitors in person and online can type out short remarks (no more than 108 characters) about what liberty means to them, and those appear on the lanterns.

Beside the museum building there’s a feature I remember from Yorktown decades back, a recreation of the Continental Army camp during the siege of 1781. Alongside that is an eighteenth-century farm raising vegetables and herbs; it includes a tobacco barn, representing colonial Virginia’s main crop, but apparently no tobacco fields.

The American Revolution Museum is allied with the Jamestown Settlement, a recreation of the first lasting British settlement in North America—not to be confused with the actual site of that settlement, which is a different attraction. And of course they’re all within a moderate drive of Colonial Williamsburg. As I said, well worth a visit.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

“Charles Willson Peale is literally wearing my pants”

There’s a lot of New England content in Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution, and a lot of New England talent behind it.

The Philadelphia newspapers explain:
Seventeen of the museum’s 32 human resin figures -- and two of its horses -- were dressed by the Randolph, Mass., historian, reenactor, and tailor Henry Cooke, who worked for more than a year with a dozen artisans to create the clothes. Two pairs of trousers in the exhibit are from Cooke’s reenactor wardrobe.

Charles Willson Peale is literally wearing my pants,” Cooke said, referring to a scene depicting James Peale seeing for the first time his brother Charles after the Battle of New York City.

The figures dressed in near-replicas are next to real items -- encased in protective glass -- from that era.

There’s a coat that once belonged to Lt. Col. Benjamin Holden of the Massachusetts militia, along with a New Hampshire soldier’s hunting shirt. (Washington eventually adopted the linen shirt as part of the Continental Army’s uniform because it was considered a sign of good marksmanship.)
In addition, the figures themselves are modeled after real people involved in Revolutionary reenacting, and others posed for photographs or films used in the exhibits and promotional material. Therefore, some of those faces might look strangely familiar.

Another item from New England is the blue riband that Gen. George Washington bought to distinguish himself from other officers toward the start of the siege of Boston. As I discussed back here, museum curator and historian Phil Mead spotted that in a Harvard museum, and it’s now on loan in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Museum of the American Revolution Opens in Philadelphia

Today is the official opening of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. It combines the site of the city’s old Bicentennial Visitor Center, the collections of the Valley Forge Museum, and the best interactive technology available today, as well as some new thinking about public history.

Already the “pre-open” and “preview” days have generated a lot of buzz, and here are samples of the newspaper coverage and reviews.

The Washington Post reported on the thinking behind the museum:
“We’re trying to emulate science museums. They’re a little bit better at asking questions, like ‘Are dinosaurs more like reptiles or like birds?’ They’ll involve you in the scientific process,” [museum vice president Scott] Stephenson said. “So often history museums in the past have been ‘fact, fact, fact, tea cup, fact, painting, fact, fact,’ as if history is something you just gather up and put on display.”
C.B.S. News also explored the museum design.

The New York Times found the new approach refreshing:
If it doesn’t quite throw the old heroic narrative out the window, it does draw on decades of scholarship that has emphasized the conflicts and contradictions within the Revolution, while also taking a distinctly bottom-up view of events.

Yes, bronze reliefs of Washington crossing the Delaware and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (both based on famous paintings) flank the entrance of the red-brick building, designed by Robert A. M. Stern. But upstairs, in the 16,000 square feet of galleries snaking around an airy central atrium, the common man (and woman) is king.
Edward Rothstein in the Wall Street Journal wasn’t so pleased to see new stories, but he did a poor job of explaining why:
This accompanies an attempt to de-sacralize the Revolution. It is no longer portrayed as a struggle between colonists who were either far-seeing patriots or traitorous “loyalists.” The Stamp Tax is portrayed as unexceptional. Examples are given of “propaganda” from both sides. This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.

This strengthens the history but weakens the event’s symbolic power. And though much is still excellent (including a map tracing the war’s New Jersey battles in the winter of 1776-7, the armies’ movements represented by moving lights), a price is paid. What scenes, for example, are dramatized by tableaux? The Oneida debate, the African-American conversation about loyalty, a fight among Washington’s soldiers, Loyalist cavalry battling for the British—images having less to do with the war’s significance than with today’s preoccupations with identity-based tensions. . . .

There is, in fact, a recurring tilt leftward here. Thus, while the closing film properly treats the Revolution as a continuing project, finding extensions in civil-rights movements for African-Americans, gay people and women (and less properly in associating “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations with “the fire of the Revolution’s promise”), it doesn’t recognize other aspects of that tradition: the importance of individual liberties, the inevitable messiness of the democratic process, and the exceptionalism that yet remains.
And here I thought blacks, gays, and women were deeply interested in “individual liberties” and a big part of “the inevitable messiness of the democratic process,” especially from the perspective of people who don’t want to see more about them. And I’m convinced that in a history museum what even Rothstein agrees is stronger history should outweigh an “event’s symbolic power.”

Among the museum’s early visitors was Susan Holloway Scott, who shares her perspective at Two Nerdy History Girls. And here is Nichole Louise’s report for the Journal of the American Revolution.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Doing the History of the Concord March with Liz Covart

This is the anniversary of the British army’s march to Concord in 1775, and Liz Covart of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast has recently shared three items related to that event.

First, Liz interviewed me about The Road to Concord and how the Massachusetts Patriots’ effort to build an artillery force—and in particular the theft of the Boston militia train’s four brass cannon—led Gen. Thomas Gage to focus on Concord. You can download that podcast episode here.

Second, Liz wrote about the challenges of recreating the experience of Paul Revere’s ride in the audio medium. Here’s a sample from her essay:
There are many challenges in writing early American history in audio. One challenge is soundscape. Our twenty-first century environment is different from the eighteenth-century environment. Our buildings and spaces have different acoustics because of differences in building materials, construction techniques, and the built environment. Plus, in the twenty-first century, film, video, and modern radio have conditioned our minds to hear certain sounds differently than they really sound in nature. For example, think of the sound a bald eagle makes. Chances are your mind has conjured the call of a red tailed hawk, which is the call sound designers have used to stand in for the bald eagle in film and audio. (Admittedly, the call of the red tailed hawk is a bit more dramatic than that of the bald eagle.)

Narrative style and word choice are important when we write about history. The style we use in our writing positions readers inside or outside of the history we we want to convey. Choosing the right words when we write about historical people, places, and events determines how our readers form mental pictures and think about those people, places, and events. The same careful consideration of language must also go into how we portray early American history in audio.
And third, today we have the podcast episode that Liz was preparing as she wrote that essay: “Paul Revere’s Ride Through History.” It’s part of the “Doing History” series she’s producing in collaboration with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, showing how professional historians practice.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Samuel Haws on the Second Day of the War

Yesterday we left Samuel Haws and his fellow Wrentham minutemen at Nathaniel Richards’s tavern in west Roxbury on the evening of 19 Apr 1775. They had come across two men, one of them a neighbor from Wrentham named Ebenezer Aldis—who was from a family suspected of Loyalist sympathies.

Another version of this event, perhaps juiced up for or by Richards descendants, said the tavernkeeper’s son-in-law had seized a prisoner for trying to interfere with the militia alarm. And that the companies coming through that town wanted to hang him.

Here’s how Haws described what happened:
we marched to [Nathaniel] richardes [in west Roxbury] and Searched the house and found Ebenezer aldis and one pery who we supposed to Be torys and we searched them and found Several Letters about them which they were a going to cary to Nathan aldis in Boston but makeing them promis reformation We let them go home
The Richards family tradition gave credit to the landlord and his son-in-law, Solomon Richards, for preventing a lynching:
In the meantime a body of soldiers arrived, and demanded the tory, that they might hang him during their halt. But Capt. R. and his father-in-law resisted their demands, insisted on giving the man a trial, and through their wellknown patriotism, prevailed, and saved the man from the gallows, but not from 39 lashes, ordered by a court.
It’s of course possible that both these stories are true but refer to different captives. However, it appears that Haws and his company spent the night around Richards’s tavern, and he didn’t record any trial and punishment, however perfunctory. Therefore, I think it most likely his story is the reliable one.

For the next day, Haws’s diary turns to action, or potential action:
then marching forward we met colonel [John] graton [of Roxbury] returning from the engagement which was the Day before and he Said that he would be with us amediately then we marched to Jamicai plain their we heard that the regulars Were a coming over the neck. Then we striped of our coats and marched on with good courage to Colonel [Joseph] Williams and their we heard to the contrary.
In The Road to Concord I suggest that Joseph Williams (shown above), a big Roxbury farmer with family links to William Dawes, was a link in smuggling Boston’s militia cannon out of town sometime in early 1775. The British army expedition to Concord on 18-19 April was aimed at finding those cannon. So having militiamen on his farm brought everything full circle.

Haws then settled into the life of a soldier in a siege:
We staid their some time and refreshed our Selves and then marched to Roxbury parade and their we had as much Liquor as we wanted and every man drawd three Biscuit which were taken from the regulars the day before which were hard enough for flints

We lay on our arms until towards night and then we repaired to Mr. [John] Slaks house and at night Six men were draughted out for the main guard.

D. 21. Nothing remarkable this day.

D. 22. Nothing Strange this D nor comical.
I like how Haws switched from recounting the start of a momentous civil war to looking for anything “remarkable,” “Strange,” or “comical” to write down.

COMING UP: The Aldis brothers.