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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Monday, March 20, 2023

“Utmost Endeavors to have all such Articles convey’d from this Place”

Here’s merchant John Rowe’s diary entry for Sunday, 10 Mar 1776:
Capn. Dawson is Returnd with Two Vessells—he has had a severe Brush with four Privateers.
George Dawson commanded H.M.S. Hope, a schooner with four guns and thirty crewmen. On 30 January he had nearly caught or killed the first Continental naval hero, John Manley, as described here.

Rowe seems to sympathize with Dawson rather than the Patriots on the two ships he had captured, or the four “Privateers” that had tried to capture him. He went on:
I staid at home all Day—

A Proclamation came Out from Genl. How this day a very severe one, on Some People
In writing he stayed home, Rowe meant he didn’t go to church, though he did have the Rev. Samuel Parker over that evening.

That proclamation from Gen. William Howe appears here at the Journal of the American Revolution:
As Linnen and Woolen Goods are Articles much wanted by the Rebels, and would aid and assist them in their Rebellion, the Commander in Chief expects that all good Subjects will use their utmost Endeavors to have all such Articles convey’d from this Place:

Any who have not Opportunity to convey their Goods under their own Care, may deliver them on Board the Minerva at Hubbard’s Wharf, to Crean Brush, Esq; marked with their Names, who will give a Certificate of the Delivery, and will oblige himself to return them to the Owners, all unavoidable Accidents excepted.

If after this Notice any Person secretes or keeps in his Possession such Articles, he will be treated as a Favourer of Rebels.
So now we know what happened to the Minerva, the ship that Rowe had noted the army had impressed the day before.

When Rowe called Howe’s proclamation “very severe…on Some People,” he was downplaying how that could be severe on him. As a merchant, he owned a lot of cloth. But perhaps he thought he could get away with keeping most of it.

The general’s order not to leave any cloth in Boston sheds light on the rest of Rowe’s diary entry for 10 March:
John Inman Went on board this day—with his Wife he has in his Possession three Watches of mine & Sundry Pieces of Checks which was to be made into Shirts—

Jos Goldthwait Mrs. Winslow went on board this day—he has Carried off Capn. Linzees horse witho. Paying for him
John Linzee was a captain in the Royal Navy who had married Rowe’s niece and remained a good friend. Goldthwait wasn’t just a horse thief; he was commissary for the king’s troops, and undoubtedly wanted to preserve that animal from the rebels as well.

TOMORROW: A brush with Brush.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

“Nothing but Cruilty & Ingratitude falls to my Lot”

With Continental cannon pointing at Boston from Dorchester Heights, the merchant John Rowe realized that the siege was coming to an end. But what did that mean for him?

In his diary Rowe wrote on 6 Mar 1776:
This morning the Country People have thrown a Strong Work on Another Place on the Neck at Dorchester Nick. Gen. [William] Howe has order’d the Troops ashore again & tis now out of Doubt that Gen Howe will Leave this Town with his Troops &c—which has put The Inhabitants of This Town into Great Disorder Confusion & much Distress. . . .

The Firing has Ceas’d this day—
7 March:
The Troops & Inhabitants very Busy in Getting All the Goods & Effects on board the Shipping in the Harbour—

tis Impossible to describe the Distresses of this unfortunate Town

I din’d and spent the Evening at home with my Dear Mrs. Rowe Mr. [George] Inman & Jack Rowe—

Genl. Robinson Pd. Mee a Visit
Rowe hadn’t described his wife as “my dear” for a while, possibly since the summer of 1774 when she was injured in a carriage accident. That’s a measure of the stress he was feeling now.

I believe the man Rowe referred to in this week as “Genl. Robinson” was Maj. Gen. James Robertson, barrack master general of the British army in North America. (Other documents, including selectman Timothy Newell’s journal and even Gen. Howe’s orderly book, also referred to him as “Robinson” at times.)

Back in 1768 Rowe had called Robertson a “Gentleman of Great Abilities & very cool & dispassionate.” He handled a lot of the army’s logistics, which at this moment meant safely moving the troops.

8 March:
My Situation has almost Distracted Me [i.e., driven me insane]

John Inman Archy McNeil and Duncan are determin’d to Leave Mee—God Send Me Comfort in My Old Age—I try to do what Business I Can, but am Disapointd and nothing but Cruilty & Ingratitude falls to my Lot.

I Spend the Day & Evening with my Dear Mrs. Rowe Richd. Green & John Haskins—
John Inman was a young relative of Mrs. Rowe. There were multiple men named Archibald McNeil or McNeal in Boston in the 1770s, and this appears to have been the baker, perhaps working for the Rowes as a cook. Duncan also seems to have been a household servant, perhaps enslaved. They were all evidently ready to sail away with the troops, and Rowe felt they were deserting him personally—which means he had already made up his mind to stay.

9 March:
I dind at home with the Revd. Mr. [Samuel] Parker [shown above] Mrs. Rowe & Jack & Spent the Evening at the Possee

This day Genl. Robinson pressed the Ship Minerva into the Service—nothing but hurry & confusion, Every Person Striving to get Out of this Place

A Great Deal of Firing on both Sides this night
As I wrote yesterday, I suspect that Rowe had a financial interest in the Minerva since he mentioned that ship and not others, but I can’t confirm that. Perhaps Gen. Robertson’s visit two days before was about the army’s need for that getaway vessel.

TOMORROW: Worse and worse.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

“We Perceived A Battery Erected On the Hill on Dorchester Neck”

As I continue to recount merchant John Rowe’s experience of the end of the siege of Boston, I’ll skip his diary notes on the weather, socializing, and sermons unless they offer some unusual or pertinent detail.

Rowe had apparently gotten comfortable with life inside the besieged town, but that changed on Sunday, 3 Mar 1776:
This night The People from the Battery at Phipps Farm thro many Shells into Town which put the Inhabitants into great Fear—and they have done Damage to Many Houses Particularly [Joseph] Sherburne [shown here] [Samuel?] Fitchs Geo Ervings & [Thomas] Courtney the Taylor— . . .

afternoon I went to Church Mr. [Samuel] Parker Read prayers & Mr. [William] Walter preached . . . this was a serious Sensible Sermon & Well adapted to the Situation of our Present Disturbed Situation . . .

This Evening Capt. Johnson was burried.
Rowe’s habit of referring to “the People” outside town and “the Inhabitants” within avoided political labels. Writing “the Inhabitants” also distanced himself from the danger and emotion of the siege.

I haven’t been able to identify “Capt. Johnson of the Minerva” who had killed himself on 2 March. Rowe had an interest in the Minerva since he mentioned that ship multiple times in his diary, but how big a financial interest I can’t tell.

4 March:
All the Preceding Night The Town has been fir’d at by the People witho. from Every Quarter. I dont hear of Much Damage being done

The Guns from Cobles Hill on Charlestown Side have thrown there shot the farthest into Town one of them Struck [John] Wheatleys in Kings Street
5 March:
Southerly Wind & Warm—

This Morning We Perceived A Battery Erected On the Hill on Dorchester Neck—this has alarmd us very Much—

abo. 12 the Generall sent off Six Regiments—perhaps this day or to morrow determines The Fate of this truly distressed Place

All night Both Sides kept a Continuall Fire

Six Men of the 22d. Are Wounded in A house at the So. End—one Boy Lost his Leg— . . .

A Very Severe Storm WSo.So.E—it Blew down My Rail Fences Both Sides the Front of the House
It’s remarkable that Rowe’s fences had survived this long with firewood being a precious commodity in town.

Rowe’s bald line “abo. 12 the Generall sent off Six Regiments” referred to how Gen. William Howe ordered an amphibious attack on the Dorchester peninsula. But once he saw the stormy weather was making that mission even more impossible than it already was, Howe called it off and sped up his original plan.


Friday, March 17, 2023

John Rowe Near the End of the Siege

On 17 Mar 1776, the last ships carrying British soldiers and Loyalists pulled away from Boston’s docks.

John Rowe wasn’t on one of those evacuation vessels. That might have surprised some people because that merchant was a native of England, an Anglican, and, according to the crowd inside Old South Meeting-House on 30 Nov 1773, “a good Tory.”

But Rowe was what people called a “trimmer,” adjusting his political stances to what seemed popular and advantageous. On 16 Mar 1775 he wrote disapprovingly in his diary about a Thanksgiving called by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and then at some point he went back and wrote in new words to make it look like he was fine with that, as I quoted here.

That said, I come away from reading Rowe’s diary with the feeling that whatever he wrote at the time he really meant. Maybe he’d change his position in a few weeks, but when he sat down of an evening to record the day’s events he was sincere. Rowe’s emotions come through when he wrote about himself, even as he tries to suppress them like a good eighteenth-century gentleman.

So I’m going to recount the evacuation of Boston through John Rowe’s eyes. His journal has been published in edited form twice, in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings in 1895 and again with more accurate misspellings in 1903. It’s now available in full digitally through the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.

Rowe almost obsessively recorded whom he dined with at midday and whom he spent the evening with. He often described the weather, and every Sunday included details about the church service he attended. A lot of that detail was repetitive and left out of the printed editions. Here, for example, is Rowe’s full entry for 1 Mar 1776, with the words printed in the published editions in boldface:
Primo March 1776 Fryday very Cold WNW—blows fresh

My Brigg Sukey went down in Order to Proceed to Oporto—

I dind at home with Mrs. Rowe & Spent the Evening at home with Richd. Green & Mrs. Rowe
Rowe was still trading across the Atlantic—and not just within the British Empire since Oporto was in Portugal.

The next daily entry doesn’t appear in either of the printed editions despite—or probably because of—how it recorded an interesting event:
2d. March 1776 Saturday A Pleasant morming WSo.W—

This morning Capt. Johnson of the Minerva drown’d himself

I dind at home with Mr. [Ralph] Inman Mrs. Rowe & Jack Rowe—

& Spent the Evening at home & at the Possee
The “Possee” was Rowe’s usual club or circle of friends.

So far that month, life was going on normally—or not going on, in the case of Capt. Johnson. Despite the fact that Rowe was living in a besieged town during a civil war.

TOMORROW: The shooting starts.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

“The duchess’s trial for bigamy commenced…”

I recently enjoyed the History of Parliament’s recounting of the 1776 trial of Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721–1788, shown here) for bigamy.

The legal issue, which determined where a couple of large inheritances would go, was: Had Chudleigh been legally married to (though long estranged from) the third Earl of Bristol in 1744? Or, based on a marriage in 1769, was she the legal widow of the second Duke of Kingston?

Because this matter involved the wife of at least one peer, it was tried before the House of Lords.

The webpage says:
…the duchess’s trial for bigamy commenced in Westminster Hall on 15 April 1776. It quickly became the event of the season. Horace Walpole was expectant, as he was sure ‘her impudence will operate in some singular manner’, and he provided his correspondents with detailed and mocking commentary. He had to admit though that ‘The Duchess-Countess has raised my opinion of her understanding… for she has behaved so sensibly and with so little affectation’. . . .

The moralist Hannah More was less impressed by the spectacle. ‘You will imagine the bustle of five thousand people getting into one hall’, she wrote to a friend. ‘There was a great deal of ceremony, a great deal of splendour, and a great deal of nonsense’. Of the duchess’s performance, More pronounced ‘Surely there never was so thorough an actress’, and her friend the actor David Garrick even commented that the duchess ‘has so much out-acted him, it is time for him to leave the stage’.
The House of Lords reached a unanimous verdict on Lady Bristol or Lady Kingston. However, as Lord Chief Justice Mansfield had predicted, she pled her privilege as a lady and escaped punishment, beyond having to travel Europe with a large fortune.

The History of Parliament page comes to a fitting close: “She died in France on 26 August 1788, from bursting a blood vessel while in a rage after hearing she had lost a legal action.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Sampling the Massachusetts Spy

The Library of Congress just announced that is Chronicling America database of American newspapers has added images of the Massachusetts Spy from 1770 to 1774—the earliest papers yet included.

The agency credited the Boston Public Library with help. Presumably that was the source of the issues that have been digitized here, some of which show distinct cuts and fraying.

There are gaps in the series, especially early on. The first issue included is volume 1, number 9, followed by number 13. That makes it harder to track Isaiah Thomas’s development of the newspaper from two pages three times a week to a typical four-page weekly.

The last issue now available digitally is at the end of 1774, before the war and Thomas’s relaunch in Worcester.

Searching this site can therefore generate interesting leads for research, but it doesn’t produce comprehensive results.

On the other hand, the Chronicling America database offers some advantages, starting with the fact that it’s free and easily searchable. It’s easy to move around from one page or issue to the next, and the images are crisp.

One feature I haven’t seen elsewhere is a display of a newspaper’s front pages in chronological order. Applying that to Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy in 1774 (Chronicling America is a stickler about formal periodical titles) shows how the “Join or Die” serpent joined its masthead on 7 July.

And then slithered off the masthead two weeks later, for no reason I can see, before returning for the rest of the year. That July, one issue came out on a Friday rather than the usual Thursday, while the next said it came out on Thursday but carried the Friday date. So the shop staff may just have been struggling to keep up and forgot the snake. [ADDENDUM: See comments for the real explanation for why the July issues in this display looked so odd.]

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

“No one could find the law in question”

Last month at Stolen Relations Zoe Zimmerman wrote about a legal case in Virginia tried in 1807 that hinged on the preservation or loss of historic documents.

A man named Pallas sought his freedom in court, invoking his descent from an indigenous woman named Beth. She came into Virginia as a slave in 1703. The question was whether she became free at that moment because the colony’s laws forbade indigenous enslavement. If so, her descendants born after that year were also free.

The problem was that no one was sure about the colony’s laws, and the slave-owning elite always got the benefit of the doubt in their courts. Zimmerman wrote:

Because legal records were poorly maintained, no one really knew exactly when Indigenous enslavement had been outlawed in Virginia. Pallas’ attorneys supposed that it was in 1691, but the opposing counsel denied that. Neither side could be proven right, though, because no one could find the law in question.
Pallas appealed to the state’s highest court, joined by five other descendants of Beth.
At the trial, Pallas’ attorney, the prominent Virginia lawyer George K. Taylor, finally produced evidence of the 1691 act. In order to find it, Taylor had traveled to Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, to procure a manuscript version of the act.

Nevertheless, the court still doubted the law’s authenticity and went as far as to analyze the handwriting in order to figure out if it had ever been officially enacted. It was not until the following year that yet another copy of the same law, also from 1691, would be discovered. At that point, the court determined that it would be too much of a coincidence to find two fraudulent acts from the same year, and thus finally ruled that the 1691 act was legitimate.
Pallas and his relations won their freedom.

However, Zimmerman closed with a note about a “horrible irony”: this law had been cited in another case “just a few decades prior.” The system had conveniently forgotten that precedent as well.

George Keith Taylor (1769–1815) was one of the Federalist judges President John Adams appointed in 1801 after losing the election to Jefferson. The new Jeffersonian Congress then eliminated the new circuit court Taylor sat on, sending him back into private practice.

In 1796, Taylor had formally proposed St. George Tucker’s plan for a very gradual emancipation of slaves in Virginia to the state legislature. Not only did the legislators vote against the idea, some voted against even considering it.

Monday, March 13, 2023

“Frenchmen at the Siege of Boston,” 23 Mar.

On Thursday, 23 March, I’ll speak at the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site on the topic “Frenchmen at the Siege of Boston.”

This is the site’s annual Evacuation Day lecture, presented in partnership with the Friends of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters. It honors the successful end of the siege of Boston, which Gen. George Washington oversaw from that Cambridge mansion.

Our description of this talk says:
Histories of the French government’s support for the American Revolution usually begin with Lafayette, the secret supply chain organized by Beaumarchais, and the formal alliance in 1778.

But French gentlemen were actually at the siege of Boston in 1775—observing the armies, meeting Gen. George Washington at his headquarters, and even briefly overseeing the provincial artillery force. Washington and his generals were also trying to win over the francophone subjects of Canada.

In this talk, author J. L. Bell will explore the first secret and tentative steps toward French-American friendship in Cambridge in 1775.
I’ll share some of my research about French noblemen and merchants who visited Massachusetts in 1775. I’ll also rely on Rick Detwiller’s excellent research about two more men who went beyond visiting to participate in the siege itself. As shown above, they left their mark on the landscape, or at least on Henry Pelham’s map of Boston: a fortified site labeled “French redoubt.”

I’ll speak in the Longfellow carriage house. Seating is limited, so please reserve seats through this link. This will also be our first attempt at livestreaming a talk through the site’s YouTube page.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Bob Thompson and Revolutionary Roads on History Author Talk, 14 Mar.

On Tuesday, 14 March, History Author Talks will host Bob Thompson answering questions about his new book, Revolutionary Roads: Searching for the War That Made America Independent...and All the Places It Could Have Gone Terribly Wrong.

That online event starts at 7:00 P.M. Register here.

Revolutionary Roads is a road trip to scores of historical sites important in America’s move toward independence to explore how they’re being remembered today as we move toward the Sestercentennial. The publisher calls it “In the ride-along tradition of Sarah Vowell, Tony Horwitz and Bill Bryson.”

In the Berkshire Eagle Bill Everhart writes:
Readers soured on history by leaden textbooks will appreciate Thompson’s breezy style and dry humor. He is wonderfully sardonic, if not caustic, about the foibles and blunders of the Great Men on both sides whose actions and — quite often — inactions determined the course of the war and of history.
But this book doesn’t stop in 1783 with the end of the war. Thompson also explores how people are keeping its stories alive today. And that’s how I come in. Literally.

On page 11 Thompson writes:
The first thing one notices about the proprietor of Boston 1775—a blog with the tagline “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts”—is the pair of nineteenth-century sideburns that threaten to rendezvous under his chin.

Otherwise, he looks like a well-groomed graduate student: jeans, blue-and-white checked shirt, thick dark hair, and a youthful face that made me surprised to hear he was forty-nine when I met him.
Not only is that accurate, but it’s prescient. As of December, when I had to recover from Covid-19, the sideburns I grew when I was sixteen years old have indeed met in a full beard.

This passage goes on to lay out the origin story of my avocation as a writer of Revolutionary history and Boston 1775. So if you’re interested in that, along with conversations with other Revolutionary investigators and lots of observations about the past and present, check out Revolutionary Roads by Bob Thompson.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Waldstreicher and The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley is a new study of the Africa-born, Boston-educated poet that focuses on her as an anti-slavery voice in Revolutionary America.

Author David Waldstreicher is a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His previous books include Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification and Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution.

In the New York Times Book Review, Tufts professor Kerri Greenidge calls The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley “at once historical biography at its best, literary analysis at its sharpest and a subversive indictment of current political discourse questioning the relevance of Black life in our country’s history.”

Waldstreicher is being interviewed at several events, online and in-person, in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, March 12, 2:00 P.M.
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, online
Interview with an institute host.
Free to students and educators. Weekly Book Breaks available to others subscription. Register here.

Monday, March 13, 6:00 P.M.
Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston
Conversation with Kellie Carter Jackson, Wellesley College.
Register to attend online or in person here.

Wednesday, March 22, 7:00 P.M.
Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge
Conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University.
In person at the store in Harvard Square. Masks required for public health.

Monday, March 27, 6:00 P.M.
GBH Forum, online
Conversation with L’Merchie Frazier, SPOKE Arts.
Register here.

And if that’s not enough chances to hear about this book, here are:

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Captain Who Hosted Gen. Washington in Boston

In looking for clues about the ship captain who told Gen. George Washington that the British military was preparing to leave in March 1776, I came across this line in an 18 March letter from Thomas Cushing to Robert Treat Paine:
A Detachment of our Troops have gone into Boston and this Day General Washington & his Suit dined with Captain Erving.
Was that the same captain as the Erving, Irvine, Irwin, Erwin, or Ervin who provided the general with useful information about two weeks before?

Did Washington choose to dine inside liberated Boston with the mariner who had first told him the British were preparing to leave?

It appears not.

Rather, the consensus is that Washington’s host was the Boston merchant captain and erstwhile Council member John Erving, Sr. However, as the editors of the R. T. Paine Papers commented:
John Erving (c. 1692–1786), a wealthy Boston merchant originally from the Orkneys, was an odd choice as Washington’s first dinner host. A member of the Council for some twenty years, Erving declined the offer of a seat on General [Thomas] Gage’s Mandamus Council, but his sons John and George accepted. All three of his surviving sons became Loyalists, and at least one of had just left Boston with the British troops.
I think the answer to that minor mystery goes back to James Bowdoin (shown above), the same man whose anecdote about Gen. William Howe sent me looking for Washington’s late informants in the first place.

Bowdoin was a senior member of the Massachusetts Council who had met several times with Gen. Washington in the preceding months. On good days he was the senior figure in the Massachusetts government. And John Erving, Sr., was his father-in-law.

Bowdoin couldn’t host Washington at his own house since he didn’t know what shape it was in after British occupation. But old Capt. Erving had stayed in Boston through the siege and could still host a genteel dinner.

True, most Erving men had shown themselves to be Loyalist, but perhaps that was all the more reason to reward a well-connected patriarch who had decided to remain in town as the British left.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Unabashed Gossip from William North

On 9 Mar 1784, the former Continental Army officer William North (1755–1836, shown here) wrote a catty letter to his close friend Benjamin Walker, part of which is now held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

North was visiting their old commander-in-chief, George Washington, at Mount Vernon.

Only one sheet of what was at least a two-sheet document survives, so the text picks up in the middle. Based on the low-resolution scan on the society’s website, I think it reads:
She drank your health—but she has no breasts Ben! & then you know George Washington is to have her.

Here we are, three meals a day & quadrilles at night—The Great Man retires to his Study after breakfast, & us to our rooms. Could you believe it I have not hump’d a single Mollato since I am here, O tempora O Moses!

It now rains hard, & I pray God it may rain harder, the sooner the ice breaks, the sooner we set out. Miss Bassett & Madam Mew at each other like two cats, such a damned tune [?] I never heard. The Great man won’t stay long at home, he can’t bear this Solitude, this want of parade & flattery.

Poor Walker said Madam, he would only Stay 2 or three days with us & I declare I was sorry to part with him. The Women has a certain [?] goodness of heart, but then she is such a figure & squeaks so damnedly that there is no bearing her.

George Carter the son is married to Miss Skipwith, for to have fortune &c.

Lucy Randolph is at [???] I wish I was there too instead of here. The Byers [?] in [???].

The Baron makes a dive [?] at Congress on our return to annapolis, asks for nothing but his due, with months [?] of no plan or pension, retires to his farm & lives [blank] as usual.

With the favoring [?] of God I shall be with You soon.

Adieu May the Good Spirit comfort you
Mount Vernon
March 9th 1784
North apparently referred to his host as “the Great Man” and to Martha Washington as “Madam.” In the first line above “George Washington” meant the general’s nephew George Augustine Washington, who married Martha’s niece Fanny Bassett the following year.

“George Carter” is often referred to as George Hill Carter of Corotoman (1761–1788) to distinguish him from relatives. He married Oratrix Lelia Skipwith (1767–1837), daughter of a baronet. Her next husband was St. George Tucker.

Lucy Randolph might be the daughter of Peyton Randolph who married French consul Joseph Latil in 1787 before dying three years later. No idea about the rest of that paragraph above.

“The Baron” meant Gen. Frederick William de Steuben, who was both North and Walker’s mentor and their charge. Always in debt, Steuben was lobbying the Congress for a bigger land grant and/or pension. North and Walker no doubt expected to clean up his financial affairs.

When North wrote this letter to Walker, they were both bachelors, possibly still living with the baron in New York. North’s remarks about Fanny Bassett’s breasts, the women enslaved at Mount Vernon, and who was marrying whom reflected their social position as both young army buddies and eligible gentlemen. Walker married in August 1784, North three years later.

This letter offers an unusual perspective on the Washingtons, to be sure. I suspect the master of Mount Vernon would have been absolutely furious to know about it. I’ve seen a couple of lines quoted, but I don’t think it’s ever been published in full, and I don’t claim all my transcription is accurate.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

A Redcoat Deserter and a Salem Captain

I’ve looked for more sources about the British army deserter who reached the Continental lines around Boston on the night of 8–9 Mar 1776 and evidently spoke to Gen. George Washington on 10 March.

So far I haven’t found anything besides the reports I’ve quoted from Maj. Samuel Blachley Webb and James Bowdoin.

Neither Washington nor his aide Stephen Moylan mentioned that man in their 10 March letters reporting that the British were planning to leave Boston. I believe they wrote those dispatches before the deserter arrived at the Cambridge headquarters. His information corroborated what they had already heard, so they saw no need to send additional reports about him.

It’s possible that a British army muster roll might identify a soldier who deserted on 8 March. Then we could look for evidence of where that regiment was stationed, and we could look for that man’s name in American records.

Those bits of information could be useful in assessing the man’s credibility when he quoted Gen. William Howe as saying about the works on Dorchester heights, “Good God! These fellows have done more work in one night than I could have made my army do in 3 months. What shall I do?” Was this enlisted man actually in a position to hear the commander speak frankly like that? Or was he flattering the American commander with a story? For now, those are still open questions for me.

As for the person whose information Washington and Moylan did cite in their 10 March letters, that was a sea captain from Salem whose name different American officers rendered as Erving, Irvine, Irwin, and Erwin. Only the form Ervin (or Earven) appears in the Salem vital records.

At least one man from Salem with that surname was reported as commanding a merchant ship before the war. Those maritime records don’t come with first names, but the best candidate is George Ervin. After he died in 1816, his administrator identified him as a “Mariner.”

Calculating back from his reported age at death, George Ervin was probably born in 1749. He married Mehitabel Gardner at Danvers on 12 Oct 1773. She had been baptized on 31 Jan 1748. They started having children a little more than nine months later:
  • George Gardner Ervin, born 31 July 1774, died 12 Oct 1781.
  • Hetty, born 21 Jan 1777, died in May.
  • another Hetty (Mehitable), born 11 Oct 1778, married Joseph Felt (not the Salem chronicler) in 1799, and died in 1843.
  • Joseph, born 8 Dec 1780, died in Martinique in 1816.
  • another George, born 8 Sept 1782.
  • Sally (Sarah), born 5 Sept 1784, died 15 Oct 1813.
  • Betsy, born 23 July 1786.
  • Ernest Augustus, born 25 Jan 1789, a privateer captain in the War of 1812, died in December 1860.
According to Washington’s letters, he spoke to “A Captain of a Transport” who told him “That the Ship he commanded was taken up, places fitted & fitting for Officers to lodge, and Several Shot, Shells & Cannon already on board” for the evacuation of Boston. That of course meant that the captain, his ship, and his crew were all in Boston harbor, either voluntarily or by force. I haven’t found any sources putting George Ervin in that situation.

George Ervin served as first lieutenant on the privateering sloop Rhodes, commanded by Nehemiah Buffington and sailing out of Salem in the summer of 1780. He was listed as thirty-one years old, 5'8" tall, with a light complexion.

In 1785 Salem elected George Ervin as one of the town tax collectors. When he died decades later, he owned two houses on Mill Street. His estate was a few hundred dollars in debt.

There were other men named Erwin in Salem, including Samuel, “heretofore of Bristol in England, now of Salem,” who married Lydia Chever in 1770; John, who married twice in the 1770s; and Joseph, who had twin girls with his wife Mary baptized in July 1774. But I can’t connect any of those men with the sea like George.

COMING UP: Gen. Washington’s dinner with “Captain Irving.”

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

“Came to Head Quarters and gave the following Intelligence”

After Continental troops moved onto Dorchester heights on the night of 4–5 March 1776, Gen. George Washington and his commanders waited anxiously for the British response.

As of 8 March, Gen. Horatio Gates was telling John Adams that headquarters still didn’t know what was going on inside Boston “as neither Townsman, nor Deserter, has yet come in to acquaint us!”

But some men were making their way out of Boston, bringing intelligence. Maj. Samuel Blachley Webb (shown above, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society), stationed with Gen. Israel Putnam’s brigade in Cambridge, wrote in his journal on 8 March about “Capt. Erving, of Salem, who last night stole out of Boston.”

Four different letters sent from Washington’s headquarters on 9 March, the next day, described that man in slightly different ways:
After looking at Salem vital records, which provide yet more variant spellings, I think this captain was most likely named Ervin, so I’m going to refer to him that way.

At first I thought Capt. Ervin was the most likely person to have reported Gen. William Howe’s exclamation on seeing the Dorchester heights fortifications. His rank as a captain in command of a “Transport,” or troop ship, suggested that the general was more likely to have spoken frankly in front of him.

However, the timing doesn’t quite work. In one of his 9 March letters Gen. Washington wrote that it was “Yesterday evening,” or 8 March, when this captain “came to Head Quarters and gave the following Intelligence.” James Bowdoin understood that the general questioned the source we’re looking for at or after midday dinner on 9 March.

In addition, Bowdoin used the term “deserter.” None of the headquarters letters used that word for the sea captain, even when Washington described him as “A Captain of a Transport,” presumably working for the Crown.

But Maj. Webb did use that language in describing another man in his diary on 9 March: “Three Inhabitants and one Soldier last night deserted to us from Boston—they confirmed the accounts Rec’d yesterday…” If that soldier reached Washington’s Cambridge headquarters on 9 March, then the general would have seen him as an army deserter and questioned him that day, as Bowdoin described.

Finally, while Ervin and the deserter told the same basic story about the British authorities preparing to leave, they provided different details—about numbers, hospital ships, and so on.

It therefore looks like Gen. Washington spoke to Capt. Ervin on the evening of 8 March, received a letter from the Boston selectmen with similar news (as discussed here), and dispatched reports based on all that information to the Congress and nearby colonies in the middle of 9 March. Later on that day the deserting soldier arrived, offering yet more corroboration and the story of Gen. Howe exclaiming, “Good God! These fellows have done more work in one night than I could have made my army do in 3 months. What shall I do?”

TOMORROW: Digging into these intelligence sources.