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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Showing posts with label David Kinnison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Kinnison. Show all posts

Sunday, December 19, 2010

David Kinnison: “not credible”

I’ve been exploring the stories of David Kinnison or Kennison, hailed after 1848 as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. Yesterday I quoted his description of that event, and the day before his first detailed account of Revolutionary War service.

You can read more of both those documents on Pamela Bannos’s excellent “Hidden Truths” website from Northwestern University. That was my source for the Chicago newspaper quotations about Kinnison’s fund-raising and death on Friday.

Bannos’s site also details the refutations of Kinnison’s stories. Because he was a nearly complete fraud.

Kinnison’s name pops on and off U.S. pension rolls through the mid-1800s, usually spelled Kenniston or Keniston, when he was living in New Hampshire and Maine. He is reported as being 59 in 1835 (i.e., born about 1776) and 82 in 1840 (born about 1758). Only when he arrived in Chicago in 1848 did Kinnison start to state he’d been born in 1736.

Likewise, Kinnison’s war stories don’t add up. In 1848 he told a Chicago newspaper that he’d seen Cornwallis surrender in October 1781. Yet a couple of years later he told magazine journalist Benson J. Lossing that “in a skirmish at Saratoga Springs,...his company (scouts) were surrounded and captured by about three hundred Mohawk Indians. He remained a prisoner with them one year and seven months, about the end of which time peace was declared,” which leaves him no time to have been at Yorktown.

Kinnison claimed to have fought under a general named “Montgomery.” That must be Richard Montgomery, who died leading the American invasion of Canada in 1775. Yet Kinnison didn’t claim to have been involved in any of that memorable campaign.

Kinnison wrote that during the Battle of Bunker Hill “I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.” Those barrels come from Dr. James Thacher’s account of the fortification of Dorchester heights, months later, and they never had to be rolled.

Kinnison’s name apparently does appear on a list of soldiers at Fort Dearborn in the early 1800s, but there’s no evidence he was there when the fort fell in 1812. Fort Dearborn later became the city of Chicago, so that might explain why Kinnison made his way back out there in 1848, hoping to find support in his old age.

In 1914, Dr. Charles Josiah Lewis dismantled many of Kinnison’s claims, as reported in the local paper. But seven years later a local chapter of the D.A.R. named itself after the man. In 1973, Albert G. Overton did a thorough analysis of Kinnison’s stories; he titled his essay “David Kennison and the Chicago Sting,” and to my knowledge it hasn’t been published, though it’s available in some research libraries.

There’s still a big stone monument to Kinnison in the Windy City, dating from 1903, but the online Encyclopedia of Chicago says he was a fraud. The Chicago History Museum keeps some artifacts associated with Kinnison, but identifies him as a hoaxer. The Chicago Tribune detailed the lies in 2003.

Which brings me back to MassMoments, where I started this series of postings. Whoever wrote its 17 November essay about Kinnison obviously hadn’t gotten the memo. (That essay also repeats an error in saying Kinnison was born in Maine; he said he was born in Kingston, New Hampshire, near Maine.)

Remarkably, the MassMoments webpage cites Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party as its sole source. Yet Prof. Young helped write the catalog for the Chicago History Museum’s “We the People” exhibit, which announced that Kinnison was a fraud. And Young’s book actually says:

In 1848, Chicagoans were so desperate for a link to the Revolution and so credulous that they embraced Kennison, who migrated to the burgeoning city advertising himself as 112 years old, a participant at the Tea Party, and a veteran of every battle from Lexington to Yorktown. In reality, Kennison was only nine or so in 1773 (which put him in his eighties in the late 1840s)...
Elsewhere The Shoemaker and the Tea Party states simply that Kinnison’s claim was “not credible.” (Ben Carp’s new Defiance of the Patriots calls him a “Chicago huckster.”)

I think it’s time for MassMoments to edit its 17 November entry to acknowledge that David Kinnison claimed to be at the Boston Tea Party, but was no more authentic than this John Howe.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

David Kinnison’s Tea Party

Yesterday I described David Kinnison, hailed at his death in 1852 as the last surviving participant in the Boston Tea Party. Here is Kinnison’s own account of that event, as published by Benson J. Lossing in 1850:

He was one of seventeen inhabitants of Lebanon [Maine] who…formed a club which held secret meetings to deliberate upon the grievances offered by the mother country. These meetings were held at the tavern of one “Colonel Gooding,” in a private room hired for the occasion. The landlord, though a true American, was not enlightened as to the object of their meeting. Similar clubs were formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and the towns around. With these the Lebanon Club kept up a correspondence.

They (the Lebanon Club) determined, whether assisted or not, to destroy the tea at all hazards. They repaired to Boston, where they were joined by others; and twenty-four, disguised as Indians, hastened on board, twelve armed with muskets and bayonets, the rest with tomahawks and clubs, having first agreed, whatever might be the result, to stand by each other to the last, and that the first man who faltered should be knocked on the head and thrown over with the tea.

They expected to have a fight, and did not doubt that an effort would be made for their arrest. “But” (in the language of the old man) “we cared no more for our lives than three straws, and determined to throw the tea overboard. We were all captains, and every one commanded himself.” They pledged themselves in no event, while it should be dangerous to do so, to reveal the names of the party—a pledge which was faithfully observed until the war of the Revolution was brought to a successful issue.
A longer account appeared in Henry C. Watson’s The Yankee Tea-Party (1851), though it’s unclear whether Kinnison had anything to do with that book. Published in Philadelphia, it supposedly described an event in Boston while Kinnison remained in Chicago, so Watson might simply have exploited the old man’s fame.

On the basis of those stories, Francis S. Drake included Kinnison in his listing of Tea Party participants in Tea Leaves (1884). That expansive list is often reprinted, as at the “Boston Tea Party Historical Society” (a society which seems to exist only on the web).

Kinnison’s account raises lots of questions. Did these seventeen young men from Maine travel hours to Boston simply on the chance that the tea crisis wouldn’t be resolved by the time they arrived? Did the Tea Party really involve only twenty-four men, seventeen of whom were from Maine?

If so, where did this 1835 list of participants come from, and why did it include many more than seven Bostonians and no one from Maine? Why did no one mention Kinnison as a participant until he spoke up in Chicago in 1848? Why is there no record of his “Lebanon Club” corresponding with societies in Philadelphia and Boston?

Why is Kinnison the only person, in 1773 or later, to claim that half the men who destroyed the tea were armed with “muskets and bayonets”? That’s the sort of detail the royal authorities would have been very interested in recording.

In the nineteenth century, authors excused the discrepancies between David Kinnison’s recollection and other accounts of the Tea Party because he was over 110 years old. And, of course, an honored veteran.

TOMORROW: Or was he? What about those other stories?

Friday, December 17, 2010

David Kinnison: The Last Survivor?

For several years now, MassMoments has featured as its historical event for 17 November the birth of David Kinnison, who became nationally famous in the mid-1800s as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party.

The MassMoments site states:

On this day...in 1736, David Kinnison was born in Old Kingston, Maine. An early convert to the cause of American independence, he participated in the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor, an escalation of resistance to British rule that would come to be known as the Boston Tea Party. After serving in the Revolution and being taken captive by Mohawk Indians, he returned to farming. Still vigorous at the age of 75, he rejoined the military to fight in the War of 1812. The last survivor of the Tea Party, David Kinnison had 22 children and outlived four wives. When he died at 114 in 1851, the nation he had helped give birth to was only a few years away from being divided by Civil War.
What’s the basis for that biography? All the facts come from Kinnison himself. (He usually spelled his name “Kennison,” but it shows up in Tea Party accounts without the E, so I’m using that spelling.)

Kinnison apparently arrived in the young city of Chicago in early 1848 and introduced himself as an aged veteran of the Revolutionary War. That went over so well that in the 6 November Chicago Daily Democrat he announced:
I have taken [i.e., rented] the Museum in this city, which I was obliged to do in order to get a comfortable living, as my Pension is so small it scarcely affords the comforts of life. If I live until the 17th of November, 1848, I shall be 112 years old, and I intend making a Donation Party on that day at the Museum. I have fought in several battles for my country, and have suffered more than any man will have to suffer, I hope I would not go through the wars, and suffer what I have, for ten worlds like this. Now all I can ask of this generous public is to call at the Museum on the 17th day of November, which is my birthday, and donate to me all they may think I deserve.
Earlier in the same paper he had published an account of his life, which declared:
at the age of about thirty-three, I assisted in throwing the tea overboard in Boston harbor. I was at the battle of Bunker Hill and stood near General [Joseph] Warren when he fell. I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.

I was at the battles of White Plains, West Point, and Long Island. I helped stretch the chain across the Hudson River to stop the British from coming up. I was also in battles at Fort Montgomery, Staten Island, Delaware, Hudson, and Philadelphia. I witnessed the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and was near West Point when [Benedict] Arnold betrayed his country and [John] Andre was hung. I have been under [George] Washington (for whom I frequently carried the mails and dispatches), [William?] Prescott, [Israel?] Putnam, [Richard?] Montgomery and Lafayette.
That attracted the attention of Benson J. Lossing, who interviewed Kinnison and included a biography and picture in his 1850 Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution, specifying the birth date of 17 Nov 1736. The following year, Henry C. Watson used Kinnison as a central figure in his account of Revolutionary veterans gathering to tell stories, The Yankee Tea-Party; or, Boston in 1773. He sat for photographs, including the one shown above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

In 1852 the Chicago Daily Journal reported:
Died – In this city, February 24, at 9:00 a.m. David Kinnison, aged 115 years.
The city held a grand public funeral, with the mayor, city council, and a military band conducting the last Tea Party survivor to his grave.

TOMORROW: David Kinnison’s tale of the Tea Party.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

David Kinnison “saw the old man on his white horse”

Soon after “The White Horseman” appeared in the Boston Pearl and Literary Digest in 1835, it was reprinted in several newspapers. Over the next few years that tale of mounted sharpshooter Hezekiah Wyman cropped up in other periodicals as their editors scrounged for material. Those republications removed “The White Horseman” from its original context in a literary magazine.

In 1851, Henry C. Watson gave the Wyman story wider circulation by including it in his book The Yankee Tea-Party; or, Boston in 1773. This book is set up as a conversation between some admiring young men and a bunch of very old and talkative Revolutionary War veterans. Jonas Davenport, who “lived near Lexington,” and David Kinnison introduce the Wyman tale this way:

”I can tell you folks of something more about that retreat from Concord,” continued Davenport. “The story is generally known up around the country here, but some of you may not have heard it. It’s about old Hezekiah Wyman, who gained the name of ‘Death on the pale horse.’”

“I heard the story, and saw the old man on his white horse,” remarked Kinnison; “but it will interest the young men, no doubt—so drive on.”
Davenport then goes into a shortened version of the Wyman tale, skipping over the fictional young militia captain named Roe but using a lot of the original language without credit to the Pearl. This version ends with Kinnison saying: “I knew the old fellow well. He had the name of being one of the best shots around that part of the country. I should never want to be within his range.”

Davenport appears to be fictional. Kinnison (or Kennison) was a real man who arrived in Chicago about 1848 claiming to have been born in 1736 and to be the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. He lived off people who believed him until he died in 1852, some thirty years younger than he claimed to be. In the twentieth century writers published some thorough debunking of his claims, but he nevertheless continues to appear on lists of Revolutionary veterans. Kinnison’s picture appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

Watson’s statement that Kinnison claimed to have seen “the old man on his white horse” doesn’t indicate anything about the accuracy of the Wyman story. But it shows that by 1851 lots of people had heard the tale and believed it to be authentic.

TOMORROW: And then Hezekiah Wyman’s story got better.