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, July 13, 2007

American Prisoners Exchanged in June 1775

Last month I wrote about a prisoner exchange on 6 June 1775, and discussed the British officers who were exchanged for American prisoners. Here’s my long-promised look at those Americans, listed in a contemporary newspaper report as:

Messirs. John Peck, James Hews, James Brewer, and Daniel Preston, of Boston; Messirs. Samuel Frost and Seth Russell, of Cambridge; Mr. Joseph Bell, of Danvers; Mr. Elijah Seaver, of Roxbury, and Caesar Augustus, a negro servant of Mr. Tileston, of Dorchester
Shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had issued a report that listed five men as missing. I used to wonder what that meant. Had those men been wounded and died under a bush, still not found? Had they taken advantage of the battle’s chaos to sneak away from home?

No, it turns out that all five of those missing men must have been taken prisoner by the British column as it withdrew to Charlestown. In West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775 (written in 1864), minister Samuel Abbot Smith would add a little more detail about the capture of two of those men, probably based on what they told their families and neighbors after returning home:
Seth Russell and Samuel Frost, of West Cambridge [now Arlington], were taken prisoners. They put Frost on a horse, and cut his waist-band strings so that he could not easily run away. They were carried on board a guard-ship in the harbor, and were soon afterwards exchanged.
So the British troops kept Frost with them by making sure that if he tried to run his pants would fall down.

One of the five provincials captured in April, Breed was exchanged for a wounded British lieutenant on 28 May 1775. The remaining four—Russell, Frost, Seaver, and Bell—were part of this exchange in June. So all the American missing from 19 April are accounted for.

What about the four other exchanged men? What had caused the British military authorities to designate them as enemy combatants and lock them up?

Caesar Augustus was almost certainly an enslaved man. Perhaps he had escaped to Boston, and the authorities insisted on his return. Perhaps he wanted to go back to Dorchester. The only further information I could find is that from 1779 to 1793, the town of Dorchester paid Samuel Pierce to provide room, board, and mending to a man named Caesar Augustus. The implication of that record is that by that time Caesar Augustus had become free, and a pauper.

The remaining four men were from Boston, so had presumably been arrested within the town rather than outside it. According to Boston schoolteacher James Lovell, merchant John Peck’s offense was receiving letters about politics. In a letter to an out-of-town correspondent dated 9-10 May 1775, Lovell said:
You must however give us no State Matters; for ’tis but “you are the General’s Prisoner,” and whip! away to the Man of War; as is the Case of poor John Peck. I carry’d him Breakfast to the main Guard yesterday, and again this Morning but he was carry’d off last Evening and put on Board Ship. Inquisitorial this!
Peck’s arrest was especially odd since he was not politically active and an Anglican member of King’s Chapel (shown above). Curiously, one sponsor of his son Frederick’s baptism in that church in 1772 was “Jacob Whippel,” presumably the man captured by the Americans on Long Island in July 1775 and immediately set free. (Last month a Boston 1775 reader alerted me to a different tale about John Peck’s activities, in a recent book, but I haven’t read and evaluated that yet. There may be more to come.)

Daniel Preston was a housewright living in the North End, according to real estate records from 1774. I’ve found no clue to why he was locked up.

As for James Hews (or Hewes, as in other newspapers), there was a James Hewes (or Hughs) who married a woman named Ann Williams at the New North Meeting-House in 1767 and had a child in 1769. I know no more about him. Then I tried the spelling “Hughes.” Was the exchanged prisoner a fifteen-year-old son of a Loyalist merchant? That James Hughes later complained about the war disrupting his education, and being locked up would do that. But he seems a less likely candidate.

Finally, there’s James Brewer. Again, I don’t know what he did to cause the British military to lock him up in June 1775—but he did plenty of stuff in the preceding years. More about him to come.


Unknown said...

I was reading an older blog of yours re Samuel Frost and Seth Russell of Menotomy who were captured by the British on 4/19/1775.

You might like to know that Seth Russell was a cousin of Jason Russell, killed on his doorstep on hat day, whose home is now the home of the Arlington Historical Association.

I'm not sure the exact relationship but you can get that and all the genealogy from my brother, Norman Wilson -- nrwilson@comcast.net. We are direct descendants of Seth Russell through our mother Cleora Russell Wilson,

Ron Wilson

Anonymous said...

Both Samuel Frost and seth Russell of Menotomy {Arlington} were listed as "Missing" apparently among five prisoners taken prisioner by the British alaem April 1775 see copy of broadside p.36 American Heritage Junior Library "Lexington concord and Bunker Hill"

J. L. Bell said...

The third paragraph in the posting already notes how the Massachusetts Provincial Congress reported Frost and Russell as missing.