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 06, 2007

The Framingham Militia [citation needed]

“Wikipedian Protester” from xkcd.com.

I did a little rewriting in the “History” section of the Framingham entry on Wikipedia yesterday. Previously, its paragraph of Revolutionary history said:
Framingham has been at the center of rebellion on two occasions. Prior to the beginning of the American Revolution, Framingham had the largest contingent of Militia outside of Boston. In 1774, the British General Thomas Gage had sent spies out to survey the situation beyond Boston. Two spies, while having a drink in Buckminster Tavern, watched with foreboding as the local villagers mustered in the square. Their report back to General Gage was to avoid Framingham or be prepared for a fight.
There was no citation for these statements, which were entered in November 2006.

Calling Framingham the “center of rebellion” reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s remarks in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table about the way Bostonians looked at their home:
A jaunty-looking person...said there was one more wise man’s saying that he had heard; it was about our place, but he didn’t know who said it. . . . “Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.”

Sir,—said I—I am gratified with your remark. It expresses with pleasing vivacity that which I have sometimes heard uttered with malignant dulness. The satire of the remark is essentially true of Boston,—and of all other considerable—and inconsiderable—places with which I have had the privilege of being acquainted. Cockneys think London is the only place in the world. . . . It is quite as bad with smaller places. I have been about, lecturing, you know, and have found the following propositions to hold true of all of them.
1. The axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the centre of each and every town or city.

2. If more than fifty years have passed since its foundation, it is affectionately styled by the inhabitants the “good old town of” ——— (whatever its name may happen to be.)

3. Every collection of its inhabitants that comes together to listen to a stranger is invariably declared to be a “remarkably intelligent audience.”

4. The climate of the place is particularly favorable to longevity.

5. It contains several persons of vast talent little known to the world.
This passage gave Boston its nickname of the Hub, but Holmes’s point was that every city and town’s native inhabitants believe that the known universe revolves around it.

Was Framingham really “at the center of rebellion” in 1775? Specifically, did it have “the largest contingent of Militia outside of Boston”?

Militia service was legally required of almost all white males between ages sixteen and sixty, so the larger the town, the more militiamen. The Massachusetts census of 1765 found 306 white males over age sixteen in Framingham, plus 84 black males of all ages. (Since blacks weren’t supposed to be in the militia, the census-takers didn’t bother dividing out the males old enough to serve—even though black men were beginning to drill in arms alongside their white neighbors.)

By comparison, the three largest towns in Middlesex County were Charlestown (486 white men), Sudbury (436), and Reading (400). Also larger than Framingham in that year were Concord, Cambridge, Woburn, Marlborough, Groton, and Newton. Billerica was exactly the same size, and then there were many small towns, including Lexington (228), Watertown (179), and Natick (99, plus 10 black and 13 Indian males of all ages). In other words, Framingham was middling in size.

According to William Barry’s history of Framingham and Samuel Adams Drake’s history of Middlesex County, on 3 Oct 1774 the town voted to organize “two Militia Companys beside the Troop.” (I think “the Troop” refers to a small cavalry unit, but that’s just a guess—citation needed.) One company contained 70 men, the other 60. On 19 Apr 1775, one militia captain marched with 77 men, the other with 49. So we can put the number of the Framingham militia at about 130.

As a comparison, Drake wrote that in March 1775 the larger town of Sudbury mustered 60 men in the North Company, 75 in the East Company, 92 in the Lanham Company, 21 in the Troop—248 in all.

So Framingham did its part, like most other Middlesex County towns. But it did not have “the largest contingent of Militia outside of Boston”; it had a militia proportional to its size. It was not a “center of rebellion” in 1775; it was one of many Massachusetts towns behaving the same way.

(I also added more detail to the Wikipedia article on Abolitionist meetings in Framingham before the Civil War. In that period, the town was a significant gathering-place.)

TOMORROW: What about those spies in Buckminster’s tavern?


Robert S. Paul said...

Well, I just discovered something interesting and related to this post. I am direct descendant of Samuel Danforth, whose brother was Thomas Danforth. Thomas was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials (and the one Miller used in The Crucible).

And, according to wikipedia:

Danforth owned 15,000 acres about 15 miles outside of Boston known as Danforth's Farm. Danforth's Farm would later become the town of Framingham, Massachusetts, which Danforth named after his home town in England.

(Incidentally, Samuel Danforth's descendant, Peter Danford, was in the NJ militia, thus making me eligible for SOAR).

J. L. Bell said...

There were father and son Samuel Danforths in the Boston area during the Revolution—perhaps in your line of descent, perhaps not. There were an awful lot of Samuels around then.

I wrote about the son here. I'm preparing something about the father's correspondence with Benjamin Franklin.

Robert S. Paul said...

It looks like, by that time, we had changed it to Danford, although they may have been distant cousins. I'll have to look that up.