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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Thursday, January 18, 2007

George Washington Sat Here?

On 19 January, Sotheby's in New York is scheduled to auction this chair. It's Lot 362 in a sale of "Important Americana including Property Approved for Deacession [sic] by the Board of Trustees of Historic Deerfield." (Not that this chair necessarily came from Deerfield.)

The chair comes with a seventy-year-old note that says:

This chair is one of a set of six loaned by William
Greenleaf, High Sheriff of Suffolk County, to help furnish General
Washington's Headquarters when he occupied the building now
known as the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From July 1775
until March 1776.
Washington's Headquarters were in Wadsworth House from July 1 to July 15, 1775.
Wm. Greenleaf
Elizabeth Greenleaf - m. Samuel Eliot
Wm. G. Eliot
Thomas D. Eliot.
Margaret E. Gifford 1933
Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers sold another chair from this set a year ago for $51,920.

During Boston's pre-Revolutionary turmoil, Stephen Greenleaf (1704-1795) was the royally appointed sheriff of Suffolk County, which then included both the capital and all of modern Norfolk County extending to the Rhode Island border. He supported the royal governors' attempts to impose their rules on the Whigs, though not aggressively. In provincial Massachusetts, a sheriff's main job was to deliver and execute warrants and writs in private lawsuits, not to police the county.

After the war broke out and the Continental Army besieged Boston, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress decided that it should appoint a new Suffolk County sheriff under its own authority. On 31 Oct 1775 that legislature chose William Greenleaf (1725-1803), Stephen's younger brother, who had been an apothecary.

When the British military left Boston, Stephen stayed in town, resigned his post, and kept quiet about his Loyalist sentiments. William remained sheriff for five years; the high point was formally reading out the Declaration of Independence from the Old State House with Col. Thomas Crafts. After leaving the job in 1780, William set up a business in New Bedford.

Just to add to the confusion, another William Greenleaf (1738-1793), a nephew of those two brothers, was sheriff of Worcester County for a few years after the Revolution, including the period of the Shays rebellion. So it's quite maddening to sort out references to "Sheriff Greenleaf."

The chairs seem to have come down from the Suffolk County sheriff William to his eldest child, Elizabeth (1750-1841); then to her youngest child, William Greenleaf Eliot (1781-1853), who married his first cousin Margaret Greenleaf Dawes (1789-1875), the better to keep the family property together; then to their eldest child, Rep. Thomas Dawes Eliot (1808-1870)—and then I lose the path.


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. That essay started as an early November posting on this blog. It appeared a little after its time on HNN, but I think the issues are still pertinent.

Joe Enge (one of the teachers whose disputes was characterized by political allies as "Not Allowed to Teach the Revolutionary War!") has written on HNN and even Boston 1775 about his pedagogical concerns. But those are unlikely to get attention if they're obscured by an inaccurate, politicized description of the dispute.

J. L. Bell said...

Sotheby's reports that the chair sold for $48,000 ("Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium"), a little over the middle of the estimate of $30-60,000.