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, March 16, 2007

Capt. Charles Conner: mariner, trader, letter of horses

Yesterday I quoted Charles Conner’s testimony about how Patrick Carr was shot during the Boston Massacre. Unless I’m combining two men of the same name, which is always possible, Conner seems to have been around Boston for quite a while, involved in several significant events, though never fully embraced by the town’s leaders nor coming fully into focus.

Charles Conner was born in Ireland in 1734, according to later statements about him. He pops up in my sources first in 1755, sailing along the coast of Maine under Captain Hector MacNeill, another Irish immigrant to New England. In his 1773 memoir, MacNeill wrote about how a sailor named Charles Conner proved reliable during an attack on his ship by native soldiers, an early skirmish in the Seven Years’ War.

On 1 April 1758, Conner married Hannah Davis in King’s Chapel. The couple had three children baptized there: Charles, Jr., in 1762; Hannah in 1768; and Mercy Thompson in 1770. (They also sponsored other families’ children for baptism.)

In 1760 the Conners were living on Mackrel Lane. Unfortunately, we know that because they were burned out in the last of Boston’s disastrous colonial fires. By then Charles had the title “Captain,” so he’d become a ship’s captain while still in his twenties. He also seems to have been trading or supplying ships since he lost far more than one small family would need: 13 barrels of rum, 50 barrels of cider, 60 bushels of potatoes, 6 barrels of pork, 7 barrels of beef, 600 pounds of Smoked Beef, 300 pounds of sugar, 3000 pounds of cheese, “12 doz Neats Tongues” [calves’ tongues—yum!], 200 pounds of spun yard, 12 pairs of new shoes, 11 dozen shirts of different kinds, 24 Guns and two Swords, a “Hanging Compass,” a mainsail for a sloop and most of a ship’s rigging, 96 “Wooden Cans & Dishes,” and so much more. In all, Capt. Conner lost £414 and fourpence worth of property.

Conner was apparently involved in the “coasting trade,” sailing up and down the North American coast instead of crossing the Atlantic. For example, the 11 Mar 1771 Boston Post-Boy announced:

Just arrived from Virginia, the Schooner Nancy, Charles Conner Master, with Bread and Flour, which is to be sold by Wholesale or Retail, on board the said Schooner lying at Minot’s T [a particular dock].
John Adams’s legal notebooks include a model document taken from a trader’s complaint against Conner for not delivering goods; lawsuits were an ordinary part of New England business.

In 1761, Conner joined the Charitable Irish Society of Boston, a mutual-aid organization. He shows up in other sources connected to other Irish immigrants. Horse doctor Malachy Field arrived in Boston from Cork aboard the Freemason on 27 Dec 1764, and by the following August advertised that he spent two weeks each month at “Mr. Charles Connor’s, at the Queen’s Head Roxbury”—presumably an inn outside town, which the Conners might have taken on after the fire. Three years later Field reported that his base was “at Capt. Conner’s near the Mill-Bridge” in Boston. And of course in 1770 Conner was with Irish breeches-maker Patrick Carr when the younger man was shot. So the town’s Irish immigrants seem to have stuck together.

In May 1771, Conner bought a house on the corner of Salt Lane and Scott Alley, near Union Street in the North End, from widow Elinor Coley. In 1772 one Capt. Conner’s neighbors there was “Mr. Mc’Cluer,” another Scotch-Irish name.

Capt. Conner appears to have joined in the Boston Tea Party on 16 December 1773, and to have precipitously left. As I’ve quoted in the past, merchant John Andrews wrote to a friend in Philadelphia about
Captain Conner, a letter of horses in this place, not many years since remov’d from dear Ireland, who ript up the lining of his coat and waistcoat under the arms, and watching his opportunity had nearly fill’d ’em with tea, but being detected, was handled pretty roughly.

They not only stripp’d him of his cloaths, but gave him a coat of mud, with a severe bruising into the bargain; and nothing but their utter aversion to make any disturbance prevented his being tar’d and feather’d.
Conner wasn’t totally persona non grata with the Patriots after that, however. On 20 Oct 1775, the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap was visiting the provincial troops in Roxbury, and wrote in his diary:
After breakfast, came into General [Artemas] Ward’s quarters several persons who had the preceding night made their escape from Boston; viz., Captain Mackay, Captain Conner, and Mr. Benjamin Hitchborn.
Conner had brought out copies of the Loyalists’ complimentary addresses to Gen. Thomas Gage, then sailing for England. (Hitchborn had escaped from British custody after being captured with letters that embarrassed John Adams, but that’s another story.)

By 1775, Hannah had probably died and Conner remarried, to Abigail Davis. They had a child named Juliana around the end of that year. On 17 Oct 1776, the Conners had her baptized in Trinity Church, back in Boston, and four days later she was buried. In June 1779 the couple had a son named Daniel.

In Dec 1776, Conner was drafted for the Continental Army from Boston’s ward 5, but he paid a fine to get out of that duty. He cooperated with the Revolutionary government a different way. In Sept 1779, the Boston selectmen “Agreed with Capt. Conner to improve a Building belonging to him as a Slaughter house, & to allow him a reasonable rent therefor.” That month the Continental Journal ran this ad:
Our Brethren in the Country are informed, That SLAUGHTER HOUSES are provided for the Reception of CATTLE and SHEEP, by the Country, viz.——At Mr. Robert Hewes’s, in Pleasant-Street; at Capt. Conner’s, by the Mill Creek; and at Capt. John Ballard’s Wharf, North End.
In 1784, Capt. Conner put his “House and Land, Situated in Boston, near Union-Street,” on the market. He might be the “Mr. Connor” living in Boston with two white females in the 1790 U.S. census, but by then the town had other notable inhabitants named Conner or Connor.

Trinity Church records state that “Mr. Charles Connor” died on 3 Nov 1793 at age 59.

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