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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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Timothy Pickering Oversees the Essex Militia

Timothy Pickering, later U.S. Secretary of State, was colonel of the Essex County militia at the start of the Revolutionary War. He was also the author of An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia (available from King's Arms Press) and a Whig activist, though by no means the most radical leader in Salem. Pickering's papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society include some documents from before the war that offer clues about how the militia trained and what equipment men came with.

On 26 February 1775, Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie and 250 British soldiers entered Salem to search of cannons said to be in a shop north of town. David Mason, secretly employed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to gather and prepare those weapons, forced a stand-off at the North River by having the drawbridge hauled up.

Pickering called the first militia drill of the year less than three weeks later, on Tuesday, 14 March. Obviously, war with the Crown army was a serious possibility, and he wanted his men prepared.

Pickering's drill manual listed the equipment for every militiaman as "A firelock, bayonet, waistbelt, a cartridge box, cartridges, and a knapsack." However, in reckoning what his own companies had at hand, he had his officers count the following:

  • firelock
  • bayonet
  • pouch
  • flints
  • cartridges (and loose gunpowder)
  • sword
  • cartouche box
  • balls
  • knapsack
  • screwdriver
Every man in the regiment apparently came with a musket, but far fewer had bayonets or swords. And at least one of the seven companies in the regiment didn't bother to provide an inventory at all, just the men's names.

Pickering's papers also offer insight on the work of the regimental musicians: the drummers and fifers who were the signal corps of the unit. For example, what did the regiment pay a drummer to play at training musters? On 11 Dec 1767, regimental clerk Samuel Derby paid David Hillard “fifteen Shilling Lawfull money for my Son Druming 4 Day in Sd: year.” That was the same amount Derby paid on 12 May 1769 to James Barr, Jr., for “my Last years Druming.” On 14 Feb 1769, Thorndick Dellano provided a receipt for “Six Shilling for Druming in 1768.” Either Dellano didn't work as many days as the other drummers or he ate more. Pickering himself paid for the drummers’ “dinners at the Tavern,” but then deducted the cost from their wages.

The collection also includes a bill for “2 Months Schooling, for John Archer Fifer” and “1 months Schooling for Benja. Thomson on the Fife.” Was this the Benjamin Thompson who became Count Rumford? He worked in Salem from Oct 1766 to sometime after Nov 1768 as a teenaged assistant to merchant John Appleton, and he'd be just the sort of clever, ambitious lad to attach himself to the regiment.

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