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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Monday, March 10, 2008

Crean Brush in “Very Distressed Times”

On 10 Mar 1776, Boston selectman Timothy Newell described a new development in the British authorities’ evacuation of Boston:

Lord’s day P M. Embarking orders are given to deliver Creen Brush esqr. all the woolen and linen goods—

Some persons delivered their goods, others he forced from them, to a great value. Shops, stores, houses, plundered, vessels cut to pieces &c. &c. Very distressed times.
Gen. William Howe had issued this order:
AS Linnen and Woolen Goods are Articles much wanted by the Rebels, and would aid assist them in their Rebellion, the Commander in Chief expects that all good Subjects will use their utmost Endeavors to have all such Articles convey’d from this Place:

Any who have not Opportunity to convey their Goods under their own Care, may deliver them on Board the Minerva at Hubbard’s Wharf, to Crean Brush, Esq; mark’d with their Names, who will give a Certificate of the Delivery, and will oblige himself to return them to the Owners, all unavoidable Accidents accepted.

If after this Notice any Person secretes or keeps in his Possession such Articles, he will be treated as a Favourer of Rebels.
Brush had been the British governors’ designated collector of valuable goods since 1 Oct 1775, when Gen. Thomas Gage issued this proclamation:
To CREAN BRUSH, Esquire.

WHEREAS there are large Quantities of Goods, Wares, and Merchandize, Chattels, and Effects, of considerable Value left in the Town of Boston, by Persons who have thought proper to depart therefrom, which are lodged in Dwelling-Houses, and in Shops, and Store-Houses adjoining to, or making Part of Dwelling-Houses.

AND WHEREAS, there is great Reason to apprehend, and the Inhabitants have expressed some Fears concerning the Safety of such Goods, especially as great Part of the Houses will necessarily be occupied by His Majesty’s Troops and the Followers of the Army, as Barracks during the Winter Season; To quiet the Fears of the Inhabitants, and more especially to take all due Care for the Preservation of such Goods, Wares, and Merchandize:

I have thought fit, and do hereby authorize and appoint you the said CREAN BRUSH, to take and receive into your Care, all such Goods, Chattels, and Effects, as may be voluntarily delivered into your Charge, by the Owners of such Goods, or the Person or Persons whose Care they may be left in, on your giving Receipts for the same; and you are to take all due Care thereof, and to deliver said Goods when called upon, to those to whom you shall have given Receipts for the same.
For Americans who found that Brush had taken their stuff, receipts or no, he became one of the most unpopular Loyalist officials of the war. Perhaps because of that unpopularity, it’s not easy to find solid information about him, especially about his family life. Americans were primed to believe the worst.

But this seems to be the most reliable information, collected by John J. Duffy and Eugene A. Coyle in their 2002 article “Crean Brush vs. Ethan Allen: A Winner’s Tale” in Vermont History (available as a P.D.F. download). Crean Brush was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1727. He became a lawyer, a militia officer, a husband, and, in short order, a father and a widow. Leaving his young daughter with relatives, Brush set out for the colony of New York, arriving by 1762.

Over the next few years Brush accumulated grants for an estimated 50,000 acres in the part of New York that was also claimed by New Hampshire—i.e., what became Vermont. In 1770, he moved to Westminster, where he was the local grandee and royal officeholder. From 1773 to 1775 he represented the town in the New York legislature, firmly supporting the royal authorities. In March 1774, a law Brush helped to draft offered rewards of £50-100 for the capture of Ethan Allen and other men resisting New York control over what they called “the New Hampshire grants.”

After the war began, Brush made his way to Boston and offered his services to Gen. Gage. In January 1776, he proposed to raise a regiment of 300 men to patrol the land between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain for the Crown. But his main activity was collecting goods, which to some looked like pillaging under the cover of military law. As to why Howe and Brush were so eager to confiscate “Linnen and Woolen Goods,” cloth was relatively rare and expensive before the invention of spinning and weaving machines.

More about Crean Brush’s adventures in Boston to follow. The portrait above of him as a young man appeared in Benjamin H. Hall’s History of Eastern Vermont, copyrighted in 1857.

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