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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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Educating Dr. Warren’s Orphaned Children

When Dr. Joseph Warren died at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, his estate was burdened with debts. Those finances were also tangled up in the estate of the spectacular bankrupt Nathaniel Wheelwright, which the doctor had agreed to administer.

As I described yesterday, Warren left behind four children and a fiancée named Mercy Scollay. (Ironically, Mercy’s father, selectman John Scollay, had been forced into bankruptcy after Wheelwright’s collapse, and had had to dig himself out of that financial hole.)

Mercy Scollay took on the task of raising the Warren children and arranging for their education. The eldest boy was of particular concern, according to the values of the time: as the son of a gentleman and a martyr, Joseph simply had to go to Harvard—but who would pay the fees for schooling (the Boston schools were closed during the siege), tutoring, and the college itself? Scollay asked lots of people for support. The local Freemasons seem to have been the first to respond to her.

In January 1777, Samuel Adams proposed at the Continental Congress that “the eldest son...might be adopted by the continent, and educated at the public expense.” On 18 May, he sent Scollay this letter, shared online by the Massachusetts Historical Society:

With respect [the M.H.S. transcription has “request”] to the youngest Son and Daughter, I mentiond my strong Desire that they might be continued under your care; and that means might be continued to have the eldest son sent to Dummers School [now the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts]. . . .

While I was in Baltimore, an opportunity presented of making a Proposal, which, if agreed to, would be honorary to my friend and beneficial to his Son. General [Hugh] Mercer having been slain in Battle [at Princeton], or rather Barbarously murdered [not really], a Motion was made in Congress for a Monument to be erected to his Memory, and that his youngest Son should be educated at the Expense of the Continent.

I did not think my self partial in judging that the services and Merit of General Warren considered as a Patriot or as a Soldier were not inferior to those of General Mercer, and therefore added to the Motion that the same Honor should paid to his memory and that one of this Sons should be educated—I proposed the eldest. It was agreed that my Motion should be first entered on the Journal, and a Committee was appointed to consider of both.

Congress soon after adjorned to this Place [back to Philadelphia]. The gentlemen of the Committee are not all of them arrived. I am persuaded it will be agreed to in the Committee, but as the Determination in the House may be uncertain, I think it best that it should not be made known abroad [i.e., publicly], till we see the event.
That sort of regional horse-trading in legislation is not unfamiliar today.

What about the three other children: Elizabeth, Mary, and Richard? Gen. Benedict Arnold wrote to Scollay offering $500 in July 1778 and again in late 1779 in case the Congress didn’t offer additional funds. Mercy Warren of Plymouth (her husband no close relation to the Warrens) was apparently interested in bringing up Elizabeth, but the girl chose not to leave her school in Boston.

A 20 Dec 1779 letter from Samuel Adams relays this news from Dr. John Warren, the children’s uncle:
the eldest son was, as early as it could be done, put under the care and tuition of the Rev. Mr. [Phillips] Payson, of Chelsea; a gentleman whose qualifications for the instructing of youth, I need not mention to you. The lad still remains with him.

The eldest daughter...is with the doctor; and he assures me, that no gentleman’s daughter in this town has more of the advantage of schools than she has at his expense. She learns music, dancing, writing and arithmetic, and the best needle-work that is taught here. The doctor, I dare say, takes good care of her morals.

The two younger children, a boy of about seven years, and a girl somewhat older, are in the family of John Scollay, Esq., under the particular care of his daughter
In 1780, Congress took up the issue of the other three children, noting that “it appears no adequate provision can be made out of his [the late father’s] private fortune.” The national government decided that Massachusetts should step up with its own money, but agreed to provide half of a major-general’s pay until the youngest child came of age. The back pay came to $7,000, historian Jared Sparks later calculated. Of course, inflation was eating away the value of that money.

What return did the nation get on its payments for the boys’ education? Not much, alas. The young Joseph Warren graduated from Harvard in the class of 1786, served as a militia officer at the Castle, and died at age 22. His little brother Richard went into business and died at 21. Elizabeth married Gen. Arnold Welles and died without having children. Mary married twice, and is the only child of Dr. Joseph Warren to have left heirs.

The major local legacy of Dr. Joseph Warren came through his younger brother, also a physician. Dr. John Warren helped to found Harvard Medical School. His son Dr. John Collins Warren helped to establish the New England Journal of Medicine and the Massachusetts General Hospital, and performed the first surgery under ether anesthesia.


Anonymous said...


We did an object of the month regarding this topic.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that’s what I linked to, with a credit to the M.H.S.

I often find the “object of the month” helpful and fascinating.

Steven Wyder said...

What happened to Joseph Warren's first wife? Was it as extremely rare as I am thinking to have a widowed father of four in 1775 Boston?

J. L. Bell said...

Elizabeth Warren died in April 1773, in her 26th year. It’s not clear why she died so young, but it may have been complications of her last childbirth months before.

Colonial Boston had a fair number of widowed fathers with several children. About a week after Elizabeth Warren died, Sarah Revere died. She left her husband Paul with seven children, the oldest fourteen years and the youngest just born and to die within months.

What was unusual about Dr. Warren is that he didn’t quickly remarry. (Revere remarried after about a year and a half, having started to woo Rachel Walker earlier.) The doctor must have had someone—perhaps his mother in Roxbury, perhaps in-laws, perhaps servants or slaves—looking after his young children since he was (a) too busy, and (b) a man.

John Cary says that Dr. Warren and Mercy Scollay met in 1774. By that time, the political situation in Boston was really getting nasty, and that may have been why Warren put off remarriage.

So while widowed fathers weren’t rare in colonial society, you’re right in thinking that widowed fathers staying unmarried was unusual.

Ira said...

In addition to the letters you mention there is a third letter from Samuel Adams to Mercy Scollay on this topic, dated February 27, 1779, a copy of which is in Harvard's Houghton Library (MS
Sparks 49, p. 164). I mention it in my biography of Samuel Adams, which will be published in November.
Ira Stoll

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

One typo noted: the letter of 20 Dec 1779 that you cite is "to" Samuel Adams (not "from").

J. L. Bell said...

The quotation comes from a letter from Samuel Adams, but the sentence that introduces it mentions a letter to him and information he received from someone else, making for a confusing situation.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Ah, now I see it! You are right, the letter in indeed "from" Samuel Adams after all. And you are also right in that it is confusing... I read it over multiple times before I came to your same conclusion.