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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Myth in the Making in Framingham?

Sunday’s Boston Globe West Weekly section (i.e., stories that aren’t even important enough for our whole readership, just one region) ran a story headlined:

Revolutionary secrets unfold
Researchers' finding: Framingham had independent spirit of its own
Revolutionary secrets? Of course I’m interested! Unfortunately, it turned out to be a case of trying to make 1 + 1 = 6. Or perhaps even 0 + 1 = 6.

The research started here:
[Framingham] Homeowners Rollin and Betsy Johnson were looking through a folder of historical notes on the house that had been assembled by a previous owner.

The notes included an intriguing suggestion—that [John] Trowbridge, who owned the house during colonial times, may have hosted secret meetings of the Committee of Safety—a group founded by rebellious colonists in 1772 to galvanize towns outside of Boston against the British.
So there are no primary documents yet, just unsourced notes from an interested party. Furthermore, if that’s an accurate description of the notes, they should immediately have raised doubts. In late 1772 Samuel Adams urged Boston to form a “Committee of Correspondence,” which wrote to other Massachusetts towns inviting them to do the same. “Committees of Safety” weren’t formed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and some individual towns until late 1774 when there was a threat of imminent war.

Framingham’s town meeting responded to the Boston Committee of Correspondence’s letter by forming an ad hoc committee to draft a reply on 1 Mar 1773. (Boston’s committee answered in turn on 13 April, the same day it responded to many other towns.) Framingham created its sitting Committee of Correspondence on 18 May 1774, when Massachusetts was hearing about the Boston Port Bill and Massachusetts Government Act. Those were official, public acts of the town, which was the point of such committees—they were supposed to have the force of law behind them, and to represent the whole town.

John Trowbridge (1730-1807) wasn’t selected for either of those committees. In 1776 he was commissioned as an officer in the Continental Army, and on 23 June 1777 Framingham voted “that Maj. John Trowbridge inspect any that shall be thought inimical to the U.S. of America.” So by that year the town clearly considered him important and reliable. But the question being investigated was whether Trowbridge had been involved in something like a “Committee of Safety” in 1772.

The Globe describe’s one researcher’s results this way:
[Kevin] Swope found a tantalizing mention of town moderator Captain Josiah Stone contributing muskets to Boston safety committee members. But nothing more.
As town clerk, Stone carried out business for Framingham. (For example, the Boston Committee of Correspondence’s letter in April 1773 was addressed to him.) This mention might refer to town business or private business, therefore. But this description offers no source, no date, and no connection to Trowbridge.

The Globe gave more importance to another researcher’s discovery:
[Fred] Wallace finally hit paydirt in the Framingham town clerk’s office, where he spent hours poring over original Town Meeting minutes from 1772 to 1776, recorded in amber-colored quill-and-ink script.

It was in a brief entry marked Oct. 9, 1775, recording that [Joseph] Buckminster had asked to be relieved of his Committee on Correspondence duties and that Trowbridge was named to take his place.
This is “paydirt”? A change in committee assignment in October 1775 says nothing about Trowbridge’s activities in 1772. Or about the prewar activity of anyone else in Framingham.

It’s reasonable to consider whether Trowbridge might have hosted town Committee of Correspondence meetings after late 1775. How centrally located was his house? Did he have a liquor license (as Buckminster had)? Significant meetings at Trowbridge’s house were even more likely in 1777 once he was appointed to “inspect” national enemies. But that wasn’t leading the way toward Massachusetts’s independence before the war; that was enforcing loyalty to the new nation during it.

The Globe article positions this historical question as whether Framingham deserves to have the same place in history books as towns where the first fatal battle of the Revolution was fought. It’s no reflection on Framingham (good or bad, colonial or modern) that the war began elsewhere. Gen. Thomas Gage sent troops to Concord because he had good intelligence about Provincial Congress weapons there. Simple as that.


Janice said...

The Globe really should hire YOU to either write their history articles OR at least to proof them for accuracy.


pilgrimchick said...

I'm not surprised to read yet another example of a lack of historical accuracy. Most of the time, this can really be chalked up to the fact that either the people who are the subject of the story have very little historical background or that the person writing it fell into this category. In this case, it seems like both parties were at a loss. Not surprising given people know so little about history generally and when confronted with situations like this one, rarely add "research" to the docket of "things to do" before jumping to conclusions.

J. L. Bell said...

This particular article seems to reflect great wishfulness. Any document connecting John Trowbridge with any committee was treated as evidence that he, and his town as a whole, were leaders in pre-Revolutionary activism.

A recent New York Times Book Review article (on another topic) suggested that there's a tendency to imagine two alternatives at the start of an inquiry. In this case, they might have been, "John Trowbridge was involved in Revolutionary committees," and, "John Trowbridge was not involved in Revolutionary committees." Finding the Oct 1775 notation disproved the second, but that doesn't mean it proved the first when it comes to any earlier moment.

While lack of historical grounding might have been a problem in interpreting the original notes on the house, the investigation—at least as described in this newspaper story—appears to suffer more from lack of logical thinking.

Greg Afinogenov said...

and, of course, the ink wasn't really amber, it was originally black: eighteenth-century Americans used an ink that faded and changed colors with time.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, one of the laughable details in The Patriot was Mel Gibson writing with brown ink, instead of black ink that would become brown decades later.

Since the Framingham records' ink is amber now, though, I didn't think that was a corrigible error.

Unknown said...

(I had to post in several sections as the 4090 limit was reached. Please read all)

Though I have visited your Blog many times over the years, I am new to blogging on my own and have a great respect for yours. I also have a respect for your ideas. There is much I can learn here and if anything I say below is false, I am open to critique and instruction.

In response to this post, I want to mention that I mean no disrespect and have a high opinion of you, your followers and your site. I am new to research methods and primary sources but I do try to dig for truth, even if it means dredging Books 1-20 of the Massachusetts Registry of Deeds and beyond. The sources for my response below are partly based on actually laying hands on land records which only put the right people in the right places. My other sources include Genealogical Histories including that of Farrar and Trowbridge; Stephen Herring's FRAMINGHAM: An American Town and my own biased opinions.

I was a bit put off by the "closing of the proverbial book" prose of your response on A) John Trowbridge's involvement in "Pre-revolutionary activism" and therefore B) "the town as a whole" [Framingham]

As of late, I have been very interested in Pre-Revolutionary Framingham research and the Trowbridge family which I plan to weave into a historical fiction book I am working on.

24 years as an Infantry soldier (recently returned home) with a mad-passion for history and as a native of Newton, MA now living in a 1795 Colonial Home on former Danforth lands have finally gotten the best of me. (truth be told, I used to skip school and wander along Battle Road and Walden Pond)

I recently crossed the Article you were referring to in the Globe and found it again here on your blog when conducting a search for "Trowbridge"

(BTW, I am also interested in seeing some more on your blog about Justice Edmund Trowbridge - I am generally noticing that this man, a great Massachusetts man and a respected figure by John Adam's own attestation, has been overlooked by your blog and the web and history in general. A tory but a well respected one and as you work on your book about the Incident on King St, I am sure you have run into him many times over. He deserves more attention.)

I have been cross-referencing the Trowbridge's in The Trowbridge genealogy : history of the Trowbridge family in America (1908)

I want to cover some ground on John Trowbridge's activism prior to being on the committee of correspondence in 1775: "It’s reasonable to consider whether Trowbridge might have hosted town Committee of Correspondence meetings after late 1775. How centrally located was his house? Did he have a liquor license (as Buckminster had)?"

How can we shut the door on his (at least potential) activism? Yes, To date, I see no proof but I would not be so quick (especially as a respected historian as you are) to determine he had none prior to late 1775. Your words alone can stop potential research and I know that is not your intent but lets give John Trowbridge some more circumstantial credit to foster more inquiry.

It does appear that Colonel (as he was much later) John Trowbridge (according to the Genealogy) owned a tavern as early as 1757. (All this does is answer the question that he may have been able to offer liquor at his tavern as you questioned earlier as well as provide a location for "secret meetings.")

I was curious as to which house the Globe was referring to that the notes were found in. I have a lead on the location of the former tavern and I am actually due to visit to review "some old documents" they have. I am excited to see for myself.

If the location of the house is where I think it is, it was not as central as you would hope in order to add more circumstantial credence to hosting secret meetings based on the "it should be central" theory.

Unknown said...

That being said, I think it would be a smart move NOT to host meetings central to what was former pre-Revolutionary Framingham and that the location I am referencing would make complete sense. Still, no "pay dirt."

Continuing with the "central theory." Col. Joseph Buckminister Sr. and his tavern were the most central (near to Main St and the green) and whether they knew it or not, it was being watched by Gage as I am sure you know. On a main road to Boston with one of Franklin and Foxcroft's mile markers at its footstep, not the best place for a Son of Liberty to meet. (Then again, neither was Green Dragon)

I was intrigued to learn about the two "intelligence gatherers" (Brown & de Berniere) scouting the road to Worcester in early 75 and I currently subscribe to the school of thought that, had they not personally witnessed the drilling of the Framingham militia on the grounds outside of Buckminister Tavern, Framingham (and/or Worcester) may well have been the target of Gage's April 75 "search and seizure" mission.

"We arrived at Buckminster's tavern about six o'clock that evening, the company of militia were exercising near the house, and an hour after they came and per-formed their feats tefore the windows of the room we were in ; we did not feel very easy at seeing such a number so very near us ; however, they did not know who we were, and took little or no notice of us. — After they had done their exercise, one of their commanders
spoke a very eloquent speech, reconmiending patience, coolness and bravery, (which indeed they much wanted) particularly told them they would always conquer if they did not break, and recommended them to charge us "

This passage of Gage's men clearly shows the leadership Framingham Militia was bringing to bare (as were many Massachusetts towns) and their commitment to the cause. I would not even doubt Trowbridge's attendance at this very moment as he was a member of the militia - Trowbridge Record says he was on [A list of officers
commissioned for the South Part, 3d Regiment of Militia in the county of
Middlesex, August, 1771]

26 April 1757, John Trowbridge is listed as an officer in Joseph Buckministers company under command of Jeremih Belknap during the French and Indian war; He had a long standing relationship with Col. Buckminister in both business (as John had inherited his father's lands which had been deeded by Buckminister) as well as serving in his unit.

John's Father was a selectman of the town in 1750 and 1751 establishing the family's connection with town politics.

Major John Trowbridge was married to Margaret Farrar in 1751. Margaret was the daughter of Major John Farrar who was also appointed to the committee of correspondence in 73.

John Trowbridge was also appointed in Jan 1775 (Prior to his October 1775 appointment to the committee of correspondence) to a "Committee appointed to collect subscriptions in Framingham for contribution for the town of Boston in its present distress." That was January 2nd and I assume he wasn't just appointed overnight and was active at least in late 1774. He himself was elected as a selectman of the town in 1769 like his father before him.

If we keep digging, perhaps we may be able to keep him active politically as far back as 1772 and some form of a committee of safety.

Unknown said...

Other people in the town (Connected to Trowbridge or he to them) were no doubt politically active. The wife of Framingham's new minister Matthew Bridge (ordained in 1746), Ms. Anne Perkins was step-sister to none other than John Hancock. John Trowbridge was a member of the Church in 1752. Matthew Bridge served as Chaplain during the Revolution and was seen with Washington at Wayside Tavern (or Howes or Red Lion - Whichever you prefer) 2 weeks after Bunker Hill. Knox brought his artillery directly through Framingham and hid it in Jan 76 until Washington could decide how to use it. John Adams and Elbridge Gerry went to see it and were given a tour by Col. Buckminister - A known consort of Trowbridge.)

His own son fought on the front lines at Bunker Hill under Drury and Nixon...

Clearly, Major John Trowbridge had all the right connections, disposition and heart to CIRCUMSTANTIALLY host meetings and/or be a part of the activism for Framingham which lead up to the Revolution. I believe that Framingham (with the Old Connecticut Path running through it) had a much bigger part in our lead up to the Revolution than history will give it credit for.

All the title of the Article says anyway is "A Myth in the Making in Framingham: Revolutionary secrets unfold. Researchers' finding: Framingham had independent spirit of its own."

I think most factual history starts with a story doesn't it? The Story of Major John Trowbridge (and many others) and pre-Revolutionary Framingham looks like they have much more meat on the bone than both the Globe Article and your response to it give them credit for.

At least between the both, I am inspired to dig further!

Thanks for all you do and looking forward to learning from your response.

~ C. Poe

J. L. Bell said...

I wish you luck with your research and writing.

I think you've mischaracterized what I wrote in this posting, now seven years old. I didn’t say that John Trowbridge could not have been a Whig activist prior to 1775. I said that the evidence reported so breathlessly in the Boston Globe article didn't come cose to showing that he was, and I don't see that you've added much.

For the purpose of historical fiction, you can choose to assume that Trowbridge was an activist in 1774. But in historical research it's a mistake to maintain such an assumption simply because there's no evidence to disprove it. Rather, we have to start with an open-ended question and see what the surviving evidence says.

What was John Trowbridge doing in Framingham in 1774? He was a big farmer, and a selectman for six years after 1769 according to Barry's history of Framingham. He was a father of four, recently remarried. Trowbridge was known as a military veteran, and was chosen one of the town's higher-ranking officers during the militia reorganization of late 1774. However, he had not been named to the town's committee of correspondence, as his previous father-in-law had been, and other Framingham man like Col. Buckingham ranked higher in the militia. That's a summary of what's documented.

If there's more evidence for Trowbridge's political activity in 1772-74, then I'd be interested in seeing it. The Globe article stated conclusions as if there were, but the evidence it described didn't add up to that conclusion, which was the point of my response.

Unknown said...

I do hope its true and I look forward to digging for more of Framingham's past. Thanks for following up on your 7 year old post. Its a reminder to me that 7 years is a very short period of time when we so enjoy researching information that is over 200 years old.

C. Poe

J. L. Bell said...

To minor points in your comments—

I write about what catches my interest and prompts me to find unfamiliar material. Edmund Trowbridge's role in the Boston Massacre trial is discussed in histories of that event. I've looked into some of his less studied activity as attorney general, but haven't got a handle on that yet.

John Trowbridge's tavern was probably his house—i.e., he received a license to serve alcohol and take in guests. Something in your comments made me think you were looking for a separate tavern building, and that wasn't the usual arrangement in the mid-1700s.

Gen. Thomas Gage was not "watching" Buckminster's tavern or many places outside of Boston. He didn't have the manpower to do that. No intelligence reports in his files refer to Buckminster's as a target. Brown, De Berniere, and their servant made one trip to Framingham, happening to stay at Buckminster's because it was on the road to Worcester. At that time, the Massachusetts countryside had been free of royal control for months, and Buckminster felt so safe that he drilled his company and addressed them right in the middle of town.

By that time, in the winter of 1775, John Trowbridge had been elected to the rank of major. With that rank, he probably had some militia administrative duties as well as command of a company. He may well have been at that drill outside Buckminster's tavern; he was certainly involved in setting it up. But of course no one noted his presence there, to our knowledge.

In those small Massachusetts towns, many people were related to each other, and everyone had the same town minister. Trowbridge's connections to the Rev. Mr. Bridge and to other town officials did not distinguish him from most of his neighbors.

De Berniere's report about his first trip into the countryside was not as complimentary about the Framingham militia as the town history presents it. The full text includes more sarcastic commentary. We don't have definite evidence of why Gage chose to send troops to Concord instead of Worcester. The militia in Framingham may have been a factor, but I suspect Gage had other things on his mind.

The heading of my posting was “A Myth in the Making?” The headline in the Globe was "Revolutionary Secrets Unfold…” Since the two articles are at odds over the significance of the documents discussed, we should keep them separate.

Again, it would be interesting to see new evidence about John Trowbridge and Framingham in general. But the people who theorize they were more significant than hitherto thought have the job of providing that evidence. It's not up to others to disprove that hypothesis.

J. L. Bell said...

One thing that’s happened in the last seven years is that in 2011 the Trowbridge Genealogy was digitized for Google Books. More and more printed material is becoming widely available again, so information that got buried can come to the surface. Who knows what might appear next year?

Another source that might shed light on Framingham just before the war are records of its town meetings, if they survive. They might show if John Trowbridge or others were on committees not mentioned in the town histories.

Unknown said...

Thanks again...

Understand it was his own house... and according to the Trowbridge Genealogy, Justice Edmund Trowbridge was the Uncle of our John Trowbridge as John's father was Edmunds 1/2 brother. I thought that as an interesting connection. A well educated Tory in the mix of such a patriot family.

Regardless, It will all be my focus.

Coincidentally, I am also digging for information on Framingham's School system considering my protagonist is 14 years old in 1768.

I have pooled much of the basic information including the locations according to the Nixon map of 1825 corresponding with Temple's History. (I like Temple's History because the Temple's were long standing Framingham Residents. JH Temple was the grandson of Josiah Temple (Served in the War) and G. Grandson of Thomas Temple who resided in Framingham from about the 1730's and served as the town clerk and selectman in 1768.

I know that children during the pre-war period are one of your interests.

Perhaps we should open this dialogue in another post. I am aware of school Dames and that boys did not attend through the farming season. Framingham seems to have a history of educating females early on though under the political blanket of Joseph Buckminister (as the richest man in town - to the west anyway) failing to maintain proper buildings despite the actions of the town council.

Any insights on pursuing a good round understanding of what school was like including schedule (AM vs PM), curriculum and reasons why parents would choose to send their kids to a public school vs. home school?

Thanks for all you do!

~ Chris

J. L. Bell said...

It looks like Edmund Trowbridge's links to the rest of his father's family may have thinned when he was raised by his uncle. He even changed his surname for a while. And that probably affected his politics.

As for school, I've done a lot of research on the Boston system but less on rural schooling. At fourteen, your main character would be at the end of his schooling or nearly so. If he doesn't go on to Harvard (and only a handful of boys did), he would start working full-time on the family farm, on another person's farm, or possibly in a workshop (which probably had a farm attached).

The best source I've found for the daily life of a young teen boy in rural Massachusetts is Quincy Thaxter's diary at the Massachusetts Historical Society. John Adams left some jaundiced comments about rural schools from the perspective of a young teacher. And the Framingham town records might have clues about schoolmasters, when in the year schools were in session, how many there were in town, and so on.

"Dame schools" were for younger children learning to read up to the age of about seven. Then came the town schools. All the town schoolmasters in this period were men. Although Massachusetts law required towns to provide schools for boys only, it does look like girls were also attending in significant numbers. (John Adams's comments include both boys and girls.)

The Boston schools were in two kinds: grammar/Latin schools and writing schools. The former taught Latin and Greek, the latter handwriting and business arithmethic. No English reading or composition, no science, no geography, no modern languages, no other skills. Smart children from famiies with resources learned those other subjects through private lessons or relatives. My sense is that rural schoolmasters mostly taught writing and arithmetic, and if a boy seemed especially smart some Latin, but rural boys who showed real promise in that subject would be assigned a private tutor, such as the town minister.