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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Friday, September 08, 2006

Who Was Caldwell's Capt. Morton?

Earlier this week, BCaldwell wrote:

As a Caldwell, I've always been interested in Boston Massacre victim James Caldwell (aka "a mate on Capt. Morton's vessel"). Accounts of the event (including the famous Gazette account) refer to "Capt. Morton" as if he were a well known figure to Bostonians of the day. Does anyone know who Capt. Morton was, what the name of his vessel was, or how I can find out more about him?
I don't usually take requests because they so often involve work. But by happy coincidence, I wrote about James Caldwell (or, rather, about his body) and about Capt. Morton's response to his killing in one of my earliest entries, titled "The shoemaker's memory." So I already had an idea about who "Capt. Morton" was. How simple and impressive it would be simply to drop that information, I thought.

And this is why I don't take requests.

The Capt. Morton I had in mind was Capt. Dimond Morton, who died in Littleton, Massachusetts, on 2 Feb 1792 at the age of forty-nine. He was a witness in the trial of Capt. Thomas Preston. However, a little more research showed me that in 1770 Dimond Morton was running a tavern and stable with his father Joseph, not working as a sea captain and living on Cold Lane like Caldwell's master. Morton didn't acquire the title of captain until late 1775, when he was in Henry Knox's artillery regiment. (His younger brother Perez Morton was an attorney who delivered the oration over Dr Joseph Warren's body and then got into a sex scandal with his wife and sister-in-law. But that's gossip for another day.)

So I was back to the beginning with "Capt. Morton." Newspapers referred to lots of sea captains and militia captains only by their title. Since Boston had only about 16,000 people, over half of them children, most readers knew the major authority figures in town. And indeed, looking through the colonial newspaper database shows a great many references to Capt. Morton from Boston, sailing back and forth to Britain's Caribbean islands and mainland colonial ports. But was there one captain with that name or more? And what was his first name?

I started trawling in those newspapers for items with both "captain" and "Morton" as keywords. In 1765, a man named Morton captained the brig Hawk. So I looked for combinations of "hawk" and "Morton." On 9 April 1770, the Pennsylvania Chronicle reported that "T. Morton" was the captain of the Young Hawk from Boston. He had arrived in Boston from Hispaniola in early February, according to the 8 Feb Boston Chronicle. (That seemed to put him in Boston during the Massacre, a good sign.) From Philadelphia T. Morton and the "Young Hawke" headed to Newfoundland, per the 23 April Pennsylvania Chronicle.

Since eighteenth-century Bostonians didn't value a lot of variation in given names, I guessed Capt. Morton might be named "Thomas." Indeed, the 20 June 1768 New-York Gazette identifies the master of the Hawk from Boston as Thomas Morton. So does the 11 Jan 1762 Boston Post-Boy. The 12 Dec 1768 Boston Gazette describes a brig sailing from the West Indies home to Boston, "Thomas Morton, Master," being driven ashore "on the Rocks near the Light-House" in Boston Harbor. So that could explain why Morton was sailing the Young Hawk a year and a half later.

So, with more work than I expected behind me and no claim to a definite answer, I suggest that the ship's captain James Caldwell served in early 1770 might have been Thomas Morton of the Young Hawk. Was he also the Thomas Morton who joined the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1761? The Thomas Morton who owned a house near the Town House in 1798? Hey, do I have to do this all myself?


J. L. Bell said...

Well, clearly I do.

Annie Haven Thwing's database on colonial Boston says that mariner Thomas Morton bought a house on Cold Lane in Sept 1766. Since two sources from 1770 say that Caldwell's master Capt. Morton lived on Cold Lane, I think it's safe to say those two men were the same.

The Thwing database also says that Morton's wife was named Mary, and the couple had two daughters: Margarett (born 1758) and Mary (born 1761). The Thwing database is not free of errors and doesn't always state sources, but is an excellent source of leads to follow up.

Anonymous said...

Don't give your faithful readers grief, you know you love doing this stuff. Carry on.

J. L. Bell said...

But how else to maintain the image of a crusty antiquarian?

I think it's even in the guild bylaws.


For reasons I cannot quite understand or explain, I lost your blog and could not find it again after leaving my blog post about Captain Morton, now years ago. I cannot thank you enough for all your hard and meticulous research on this. Absolutely fascinating.

You may be gratified to know I found my way back to your blog by noticing several different historical sites, unlike the time when I made the original post, now all state Boston Massacre victim James Caldwell was a mate on the brig, "Hawk." They obviously are using (although many not crediting, I'm afraid) your research. So you have moved the karmic wheel and your work has filled in another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of history. Thank you so very much, and bravo. Very impressive.

J. L. Bell said...

Glad to know you found your answer at last!

Unknown said...

Have you ever researched or considered the possibility that Crispus Attucks and James Caldwell were shipmates? I looked into whether Captain Morton next traveled to North Carolina, which was where Attucks was heading according to the newspapers. I found evidence that a Captain Morton did travel to North Carolina in March, if it's the same Morton.

“A mulatto man, named Crispus Attucks, who was born in Framingham, but lately belong to New Providence, and was here in order to go for North Carolina, also killed instantly; two balls entering his breast, one of them in special goring the right lobe of the lungs, and a great part of the liver, most horribly.

“Mr. Caldwell, mate of Captain Morton's vessel in the like manner killed, by two balls entering his back.” Source, Boston Evening Post March 12, 1770

The Brig Young Hawk, Captain Morton came into port in Boston and was processed through customs as reported on Feb. 8, 1770. He came ship from Hispaniola, which is modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti (and 500 air miles from the Bahamas where Attucks was from at the time of the Massacre). Source: Feb 8, 1770, Boston Chronicle

Dateline March 29 and April 2, after arriving in Philadelphia, Morton reported of the distress of other ships, which was information he had recently learned while in New Bern, North Carolina Source: April 12, 1770 in Boston Newsletter, April 2, 1770 in Pennsylvania Gazette and April 19, 1770 in Virginia Gazette

April 26, 1770 T. Morton is recorded as leaving Philadelphia on the Brig Young Hawk bound from Philadelphia for Newfoundland in May 10, 1770, Pennsylvania Gazette

A Captain Morton arrived in Savannah Georgia, having been in North Carolina (in March?) Source: May 16, 1770 in Georgia Gazette (not sure about this. Could he have sailed from Philadelphia to Newfoundland to Savannah from April 26 to May 16?)

My conclusion, Captain Morton left Boston some time after the massacre and went to New Bern, North Carolina in March 1770, where he learned about the loss of other ships and then he arrived in Philadelphia at the end of March, on or about the 29th. It seems possible that Caldwell and Attucks were on the same crew because they were the only two strangers who died in the massacre and the evidence suggests that Captain Morton’s next destination was North Carolina.

I'm writing my 10th book. This one is about the pre-Revolution up until Congress issued the first U.S. flag in June 1777. The book is called Uniting the Colors: Revolutionary Patriots in Black and White

Sincerely, Jane Hampton Cook

J. L. Bell said...

I hadn’t considered that Attucks and Caldwell might be shipmates because that seemed like a big coincidence not to be remarked at the time.

After the shooting, Caldwell was presented in the press as a local young man on his way up. He was said to have been at his girlfriend’s house earlier in the evening and to have been studying navigation, presumably to become a captain himself one day. He was closely linked to Capt. Thomas Morton; though the Boston Gazette initially reported he was buried out of Faneuil Hall as a stranger, the 19 March issue corrected that and said, “James Caldwell was borne from the House of Capt. Morton in Cold-Lane, instead of Faneuil Hall.”

No source at the time suggested that Caldwell had any connection to Attucks, or indeed that any of the people shot at the Massacre were connected with each other. For the defense attorneys in the soldiers’ trial, the idea of sailors banding together for violence might have been a powerful argument, but they didn’t make it.

That doesn’t rule out the possibility that Attucks had signed up to sail on Capt. Thomas Morton’s ship with Caldwell as the second mate. But for Attucks and Caldwell then both to be shot with two balls in the chest seems like a big coincidence to go unnoted.