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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Saturday, July 14, 2007

James Brewer: pump and blockmaker

Yesterday I listed James Brewer as one of the prisoners that the British military traded for captured soldiers in June 1775, shortly before the Battle of Bunker Hill. That was only one episode in his Revolutionary career.

James Brewer was born in Boston on 18 April 1742, the son of John and Dorcas Brewer. James appears to have grown up as the eldest son, his older brother John dying before he turned four. (The family named their next boy John as well.) James and his siblings, also including Sarah and Thomas, were baptized at Old South Meeting-House.

(I should acknowledge that there was another child named James Brewer born in Boston, in 1756, to parents Giles and Charity Brewer of King’s Chapel. And a man named James Brewer married Mary Burgess at King’s Chapel in 1748, almost a month before the baptism of their child. And yet another James Brewer, born to Moses and Elizabeth Brewer in Sudbury or Sherborn in 1756, was “reportedly brought up in the family of relatives in Boston.” But I think the James Brewer who kept popping up during Boston’s Revolution was the man born in 1742.)

John Brewer was a pump and blockmaker, and his son James went into that profession as well. I’ve been trying to come up with a modern equivalent, and the best might be a tool and die maker. A pump and blockmaker was a precision woodcarver, making two machines that ships needed to sail: the block-and-tackles that could lift heavy cargo or raise sails, and the pumps that kept water from building up below decks.

Pump and blockmaking wasn’t a luxury craft, like silversmith, japanner, or upholsterer, which brought mechanics into direct dealings with gentlemen. But it required advanced technical skills, and there was probably steady demand in the seaport town. John Brewer remarried in 1768 and died at the age of 95 in 1793, leaving a significant legacy to his grandchildren through his first wife.

James Brewer was responsible for five of those grandchildren. On the first day of 1765, he married Jane (or Jean) Black at the Presbyterian Meeting-House—perhaps a reflection of Scottish heritage for the bride. They named their children James, Henry, Thomas, Jane, and Dorcas (not necessarily in that order). Thomas was born on 8 July 1781, but I don’t have exact information on any of the other children.

In 1781 the Brewers lived in “an old wooden house at the foot of Summer Street” in central Boston. As an established manufacturer, James joined the Mechanics Society, formally the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, in 1801. Though one history of the Tea Party says he died in April 1805, death notices in the Boston Gazette and other newspapers make clear he died on 4 Oct 1806.

NEXT: James Brewer at the Boston Massacre.

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