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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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How Not to Do Counterintelligence

James Duane. Digital ID: 1224407. New York Public LibraryChristopher Marshall (1709-1797) was an Irish-born Philadelphia merchant active in Revolutionary politics, for which he was eventually expelled from his Quaker meeting.

Here’s the entry from his diary on 9 Jan 1776, which begins as Marshall hears some disturbing news about a valet to a member of the Continental CongressJames Duane, shown here courtesy of the New York Public Library. At the time the royal governor of New York, William Tryon, had chosen to move onto a ship in New York harbor for better security:

At breakfast, I was visited by Paul Fooks’s housekeeper, who informed that their boy, Neal, had heard his sister Rosanna Thompson, who lived at [Richard] Bache’s, [state] that James Brattle, servant man to James Duane, one of [the New] York delegates, was employed by Governor Tryon, to collect and send him all the news he could find, on board the Asia, for which he should be well rewarded and also be preferred to some post, in consequence of which, he had written to him, and in particular the day our fleet sailed with their number, &c.

On this information, I called upon some of our Committee at the Coffee-House. Joseph Dean went with me, but could gain nothing. We returned. Then John Bayard went with me to Joseph Reed’s he not at home; thence to see him at the Committee of Safety; not there; thence to the Court-House; found him.

After taking his advice, went to Halls printing-office; took Richard Bache home with us; called his maid; examined her. She seemed confounded, but, on the whole, denied it. From thence to the Coffee-House, where, consulting Major Cox, he joined us two.

We went to the State-House; called out Mr. Duane informed him; he seemed confounded; requested us to attend him to his house. We did. He called his man, examined him; took him up stairs and made search, all to no purpose.

We then went, took him with us to Paul Fooks’s; examined the boy who persisted. We brought the boy back to Duane’s lodgings; sent for the young woman, who, upon seeing her brother, confessed that what he had said was true.

James was called and interrogated, but all to no purpose. Then Major Cox and Mr. Duane took him upstairs again, and while they were employed at that business, he slipped down stairs, out through the yard, and have seen no more of him. Major Bayard and myself waited for them in the parlor. Thus he escaped.
An 1857 volume of Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York says in a footnote:
James Brattle, who had formerly lived with [i.e., was a servant for] Governor Tryon, was at this time servant to James Duane, a member of Congress, whose minutes he was in the habit of purloining, on his master retiring to bed, and afterwards sending them and other information to Governor Tryon. On being discovered he absconded, and was sent to England by his employer.
Among the intelligence Brattle was able to supply was news of the Americans’ top-secret submarine—which was promptly ignored by the Royal Navy.

Monday, March 30, 2009

“May woud be much plasenter time than April”

In March of 1767, George Washington went to Williamsburg for a legislative session. He wrote back to Mount Vernon that he was going to be there longer than he’d expected, or perhaps that he’d visit the Dismal Swamp before returning.

On 30 March, Martha Washington wrote back, in a postscript to a letter by plantation manager Lund Washington:

My Dearest

It was with very great pleasure I see in your letter that you got safely down. We are all very well at this time but it still is rainney and wett. I am sorry you will not be at home soon as I expected you. I had reather my sister woud not come up so soon as May woud be much plasenter time than April. We wrote you last post as I have nothing new to tell you I must conclude myself

Your most Affectionate
Martha Washington
Fascinating stuff, huh? You might well wonder why Boston 1775 is devoting a whole entry to this letter. That’s because this is the only signed letter from Martha Washington to George that’s known to have survived. (There’s also an unsigned note, now owned by the Virginia Historical Society.)

In 1994, when Joseph E. Fields published a volume of Martha Washington’s papers, he knew the text of this letter but didn’t know where it was. In 2003 the document resurfaced at a Christie’s auction, and Mount Vernon bought it. The image above comes from a report in Antiques and the Arts.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Desertion I’d Most Like to See Reenacted

From Daniel McCurtin’s “Journal of the Times at the Siege of Boston Since Our Arrival at Cambridge, near Boston,” printed in Papers Chiefly Relating to the Maryland Line during the Revolution (1857), the entry dated 29 Dec 1775:

This day five Regular soldiers skated over the Bay on the ice to us, and landed on Brookline, there were several small arms fired after, but they came safe to us.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

David Humphreys Bids Adieu

According to sonnets.org, the first American poet to write sonnets was Col. David Humphreys of the Continental Army. And one of his earliest efforts was:

Addressed to my Friends at Yale College, on my Leaving them to join the Army.

Adieu! thou Yale! where youthful poets dwell,
No more I linger by thy classic stream.
Inglorious ease and sportive songs farewell!
Thou startling clarion! break the sleeper’s dream!

And sing, ye bards! the war-inspiring theme.
Heard ye the din of battle? clang of arms?
Saw ye the steel ’mid starry banners beam?
Quick throbs my breast at war’s untried alarms,
Unknown pulsations stirr’d by glory’s charms.

While dear Columbia calls, no danger awes,
Though certain death to threaten’d chains be join’d.
Though fails this flesh devote to freedom’s cause,
Can death subdue th’ unconquerable mind?
Or adamantine chains ethereal substance bind?
For more on Humphreys’s long and busy life, here’s a biography from the Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution.

Friday, March 27, 2009

“Commodities belonging to the late garrison at Boston”

Back on Evacuation Day, I quoted a letter printed in Britain from an American who observed the departure of the British fleet from Boston. That same letter went on to this detail.

Cambridge, March 27. Among other commodities belonging to the late garrison at Boston, we have got their orderly book, by which it appears, that General [William] Howe had 7575 effective men, exclusive of the staff, so that with the marines and sailors, he might be considered as 10,000 strong.

The following is a true list of the stores, &c. left in Boston by the ministerial troops on evacuating that place:
  • 100 pieces of cannon in town, from 9 to 32 pounders.
  • 100 ditto, at the castle.
  • 4 mortars, 13 and a half inches, two of them with beds weighing 5 tons each.
  • 2500 chaldron of sea coal.
  • 25,000 bushels of wheat.
  • 2300 bushels of barley.
  • 600 bushels of oats in one store.
  • 100 jars of oil, containing 1 barrel each.
  • 150 horses marked G. R.
The marking, short for “Georgius Rex,” signified that those horses had been claimed by the king’s army.

The copy of Howe’s orderly book wasn’t the only sensitive document left behind. Locals also discovered Ens. Henry De Berniere’s report of his scouting trips out to Worcester and Concord in early 1775, which John Gill printed for public consumption. (The orderly book from Gen. Howe printed in 1890 came from a copy in London, and I don’t know what happened to the one reportedly found in Boston in 1776.)

As for all those cannons, Gen. George Washington told the Continental Congress on 24 March:
They left a great Number of the Cannon, but have rendered all of them, except a very few, entirely useless by breaking off the Trunnions, and those they spiked up, but may be made serviceable again; some are already done.
So the Americans didn’t get quite the bounty of supplies that this letter implied.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

“So as to give me a sight of my own brain.”

George Harris (1746-1829) was a captain in His Majesty’s 5th Regiment of Foot during the siege of Boston. He was badly wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill, as he described in this letter:

We had made a breach in their fortifications, which I had twice mounted, encouraging the men to follow me, and was ascending a third time, when a ball grazed the top of my head, and I fell deprived of sense and motion.

My lieutenant, Lord Rawdon, caught me in his arms, and, believing me dead, endeavoured to remove me from the spot, to save my body from being trampled on. The motion, while it hurt me, restored my senses, and I articulated, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.”

The hope of preserving my life induced Lord Rawdon to order four soldiers to take me up, and carry me to a place of safety. Three of them were wounded while performing this office (one afterwards died of his wounds), but they succeeded in placing me under some trees out of the reach of the balls.

A retreat having been sounded, poor Holmes [Harris’s servant] was running about, like a madman, in search of me, and luckily came to the place where I lay just in time to prevent my being left behind; for when they brought me to the water’s edge, the last boat was put off, the men calling out they “would take no more.”

On Holmes hallooing out, “It is Captain Harris,” they put back, and took me in. I was very weak and faint, and seized with a severe shivering; our blankets had been flung away during the engagement; luckily there was one belonging to a man in the boat, in which wrapping me up, and laying me in the bottom, they conveyed me safely to my quarters.

The surgeons did not at first apprehend danger from the contusion, notwithstanding the extreme pain I felt, which increased very much if I attempted to lie down. A worthy woman, seeing this, lent me an easy chair, but this being full of bugs, only added to my sufferings.

My agonies increasing, and the surgeons observing symptoms of matter forming (which, had it fallen on the brain, must have produced instant death, or at least distraction), performed the operation of trepanning, from which time the pain abated, and I began to recover; but before the callous was formed, they indulged me with the gratification of a singular curiosity—fixing looking-glasses so as to give me a sight of my own brain.

The heat of the weather, and the scarcity of fresh provisions, added greatly to the sufferings of the wounded. As patience was the only remedy for the former, I trusted to it for relief; and for the latter, the attention of the surgeon, and a truly benevolent family in Boston, who supplied me with mutton-broth, when no money could purchase it, was a blessing for which I can never be sufficiently thankful.
The aide who edited Harris’s memoir added: “He also preserved, and afterwards presented to his eldest daughter, in memorial of the owner’s devoted zeal and affection, a silver button which had belonged to the grenadier who lost his life in attempting to save his captain’s.” Wouldn’t it have been more noble to present some silver to the grenadier’s daughter?

Harris survived to fight in more campaigns of the war, including the conflict over the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia. His career really took off during the British conquest of India, and he was made the first Baron Harris when he retired.

Back here is another glimpse of Lord Rawdon at Bunker Hill, from another future general in the British army, Martin Hunter.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

“The Character of a Colony”

During the Revolutionary period, the big north-south divide within the future U.S. of A. was not at the relatively recent Mason-Dixon line defining the southern border of Pennsylvania. Rather, it was at the border between New England and New York.

East of that border, the colonies had been settled by Puritans, and were still dominated by the Congregationalist orthodoxy. Only small minorities adhered to the Church of England and Society of Friends, the largest and/or most influential religions in colonies to the south.

Landholdings in New England were relatively small and equal. The climate didn’t allow for the big cash crops of tobacco, indigo, and rice, meaning plantation slavery hadn’t taken hold. New York grants blocked expansion to the west, so the Proclamation of 1763 didn’t matter so much as it did to whites in the southern colonies.

John Adams expressed these differences to Joseph Hawley, the most prominent Patriot politician in western Massachusetts, in a letter dated 25 Nov 1775:

The Characters of Gentlemen in the four New England Colonies, differ as much from those in the others, as that of the Common People differs, that is as much as several distinct Nations almost.

Gentlemen, Men of Sense, or any Kind of Education in the other Colonies are much fewer in Proportion than in N. England. Gentlemen in the other Colonies have large Plantations of slaves, and the common People among them are very ignorant and very poor. These Gentlemen are accustomed, habituated to higher Notions of themselves and the distinction between them and the common People, than We are. And an instantaneous alteration of the Character of a Colony, and that Temper and those Sentiments which its Inhabitants imbibed with their Mothers Milk, and which have grown with their Growth and strengthened with their Strength, cannot be made without a Miracle.

I dread the Consequences of this Disimilitude of Character, and without the Utmost Caution on both sides, and the most considerate Forbearance with one another and prudent Condescention on both sides, they will certainly be fatal. An Alteration of the Southern Constitutions, which must certainly take Place if this War continues[,] will gradually bring all the Continent nearer and nearer to each other in all Respects. But this is the Most Critical Moment, We have yet seen. This Winter will cast the Die.
I should note that Adams hadn’t actually traveled south of Philadelphia yet. Fortunately for him, this was not one of his letters that fell into British hands that season, or it would probably have cost him even more allies in the Continental Congress.

The thumbnail above shows a 1775 map of New England and Long Island, available from Colonial Williamsburg.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

George Washington’s Pistols

I recently wrote about Capt. Nathan Barrett offering Gen. George Washington two ornate pistols that had been captured with a British officer’s runaway horse on 19 Apr 1775. (Also see Nat Taylor’s further research on the likely identity of that officer, squeezed in while the Taylor family grew by one.)

Why, we might ask, would Capt. Barrett have thought the generalissimo needed pistols? Couldn’t a Virginia gentleman acquire his own weapons? Well, there’s a curious entry in Washington’s personal accounts on 1 Sept 1775:

To Cash for recovering my Pistols which had been stolen, & for repairing them afterwards...£1.10s.
I haven’t found any other information about this moment, alas.

And what might those pistols have looked like? Here’s an entry in Col. William Henshaw’s orderly book for 9 Mar 1776; it didn’t appear in Washington’s general orders, and was therefore probably meant only for troops in the southern wing of the army:
His Excellency the General lost one of his pistols yesterday upon Dorchester Neck, whoever will bring it to him or leave it with General [John] Thomas shall receive two dollars reward and no questions asked. It is a skrew’d barrel’d pistol, mounted with silver, and a head resembling a pugg dog at the butt.
The commander-in-chief was “upon Dorchester Neck,” of course, to see how the final bombardment of Boston was going.

Image above courtesy of the Pug Dog Encephalitis Project.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Toss Up? Pitch and Hustle?

One of the best ways to find out what soldiers were really up to, especially in their spare time, is to find out what their commanders forbade them from doing. Gen. George Washington’s orders to the Continental Army outside Boston on 3 Oct 1775 contain these instructions:

Any Officer, Non-Commissioned Officer, or Soldier, who shall hereafter be detected playing at toss up, pitch and hustle, or any other games of chance, in or near the camp and villages bordering on the encampments, shall, without delay, be confined and punished for disobedience of orders. . . .

The General does not mean, by the above order, to discourage sports of exercise and recreation; he only means to discountenance and punish gaming.
The George Washington Papers in the Library of Congress’s American Memory collections defines the first game this way: “Toss-up was played with a coin and heads or tails called while the coin was in the air.” Which is what we now do before we start to play some games. But those were simpler times.

“Pitch and hustle” was based on a game also called “chuck-farthing,” “pitch-ha’penny,” “pinch,” and, these days, “pitching pennies.” But the “hustle” part was new to me. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England explained it this way:
This is a game commonly played in the fields by the lowest classes of the people. It requires two or more antagonists, who pitch or cast an equal number of halfpence at a mark set up at a short distance; and the owner of the nearest halfpenny claims the privilege to hustle first; the next nearest halfpenny entitles the owner to a second claim; and so on to as many as play.

When they hustle, all the halfpence pitched at the mark are thrown into a hat held by the player who claims the first chance; after shaking them together, he turns the hat down upon the ground; and as many of them as lie with the impression of the head upwards belong to him; the remainder are then put into the hat a second time, and the second claimant performs the same kind of operation; and so it passes in succession to all the players, or until all the halfpence appear with the heads upwards.

Sometimes they are put into the hands of the player, instead of a hat, who shakes them, and casts them up into the air; but in both instances the heads become his property: but if it should so happen, that, after all of them have hustled, there remain some of the half-pence that have not come with the heads uppermost, the first player then hustles again, and the others in succession, until they do come so.
The image above is from the Ormskirk and West Lancashire Numismatic Society’s article on coinage. It’s an “evasion” half-penny of the late 1700s, looking close enough to actual British money to circulate, but bearing a meaningless inscription so that the authorities could not charge the maker with forgery.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Clearing the Brush in Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage is a comic saga by Scott Chantler, published in 2005-06 and then collected in 2007. It seems to be an attempt to create the Great Canadian Graphic Novel, or at least to rival Seth’s Clyde Fans for that honor.

The story starts in 1755, at a Hudson’s Bay Company fort and trading post in Canada. Can you see what’s wrong with this picture?

This gentleman is far from “neat in appearance” by eighteenth-century British standards. He’s wearing a bushy beard of a sort acceptable in the 1700s only if he’d just been rescued from the wilderness or a shipwreck.

And this isn’t the only character in Northwest Passage to sport facial hair that would be more appropriate for an early silent-movie comedian. It’s part of several character designs.
I’d like to see more graphic storytelling about the past, but I don’t recognize this eighteenth century. Different periods had different fashions and etiquette, and Chantler is basically drawing men from nineteenth-century North America dressed up in the previous century’s clothing.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How Those Pistols Really Got Here

At the risk of turning Boston 1775 into “all Major Pitcairn, all the time” (and we still haven’t addressed the whereabouts of his body), I return once more to the question of the pistols on display in Lexington that were said to belong to that British Marines officer.

As I reported earlier this week, the heraldic emblem on those pistols is actually that of the Crosbie family, and a Capt. William Crosbie was listed among the British army’s wounded officers that spring.

Nat Taylor, who’s been trying to nail down the family history of Capt. Crosbie, asked about the story behind the pistols. How good is the evidence that they really came from a British officer unhorsed on 19 Apr 1775? How did they come into the hands of descendants of Gen. Israel Putnam, who wasn’t in Massachusetts that day? How did they come back to Lexington?

The evidence for the traditional provenance looks quite solid. The first mention of those pistols that I could find appeared in Samuel Swett’s 1818 addition to David Humphreys’s An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam. The very same paragraph that discusses how “a black soldier named Salem” killed Pitcairn then goes on to say:

It was he [Pitcairn] who caused the first effusion of blood at Lexington. In that battle his horse was shot under him, while he was separated from his troops; with presence of mind he feigned himself slain; his pistols were taken from his holsters, and he was left for dead, when he seized the opportunity and escaped.
A footnote then adds, “This trophy afterwards belonged to General Putnam, and yet remains in his family, from whom we have the above anecdote.”

Nine years later, Ezra Ripley supplied more detail in A History of the Fight at Concord:
From this time, there was a general though not entire cessation of firing, until the enemy had entered the bounds of Lexington, when Capt. [John] Parker’s company attacked the British from the woods on the south of the road. When the enemy were rising Fiske’s hill in the west part of Lexington, they were very hardly pressed, the Americans having run forward and placed themselves advantageously behind trees and fences. The British faced about, and a very spirited and bloody contest ensued. Here Maj. Pitcairn was wounded and unhorsed: his horse, pistols, &c. were taken.
And Ripley has his own footnote:
The horse was taken to Concord and sold at Auction. Capt. Nathan Barrett bought the pistols, and afterwards offered them to Gen. [George] Washington, but he not accepting them, they were given to Gen. Putnam.
We know the Barrett family, headed by Col. James Barrett, was deeply involved in the events at Concord that day. And it makes sense that the Putnam family didn’t know or preserve the detail that their ancestor wasn’t the first choice to receive the pistols. We appear, therefore, to have independent sources corroborating each other. (Note, however, that the Ripley account means Putnam did not have the pistols at Bunker Hill, as some later authors say; Washington didn’t arrive in Boston until July 1775, so Barrett couldn’t have tried to give him the guns until then.)

William Cutter’s Life of Israel Putnam, published in 1859, reported of the guns: “They are still in the possession of one of his grandsons, John P. Putnam, Esq., of Western New York. They are represented as being of exquisite workmanship.” So Cutter learned about them but didn’t see them.

John P. Putnam’s widow Elizabeth loaned the pistols to Lexington for its centennial observance of the battle in 1875. According to Mary E. Hudson, writing in 1900, she had no children to pass them on to. The Secretary of War made noises about buying the pistols, and in 1880 the Lexington historian Charles Hudson [father of Mary?] said Elizabeth Putnam had “several liberal offers in coin” to buy the guns. But she decided to donate them to the town of Lexington, and there they remain.

So the only doubtful part of the pistols’ legend was the most questionable part from the start: how people could be so sure that they came from Maj. Pitcairn as opposed to some other, less notorious British officer unhorsed in the battle. After all, the man didn’t stick around to give autographs.

Speaking of autographs, though, I came across another detail of those pistols while researching this post. Yankee Magazine‘s July/August 2007 issue reported: “These foliate-engraved, ram’s-head-butted pistols bear Pitcairn’s monogram or initials amid the scrollwork.” Or is that wishful looking?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tory Row When the Houses Still Belonged to Tories

My talk last night at Gen. Washington’s 1775-76 headquarters kept coming back to this map of that part of Cambridge in 1776. Some folks wanted yet another look, so here it is.

This is a detail of the wonderful map that Henry Pelham engraved in England after leaving Boston with the British military in 1776. You can explore the whole thing through the Library of Congress’s website of maps from the American Revolution and Its Era. North on this map is at about two o’clock, in case you’re having trouble orienting it with today’s streets and Charles River.

All five mansions that Pelham labeled in the top half of this detail are still standing:

  • The house of “Lt. Govr. Oliver” is Elmwood, official residence of Harvard’s president.
  • The homes of “Mr. Fairweather” and “Judge Sewall” are in private hands, the latter with a redesigned exterior.
  • The house of “Judge Lee” is headquarters of the Cambridge Historical Society.
  • The house of “Col. Vassel” is Longfellow National Historic Site, where I was speaking.
And I bet folks can spot a few other buildings in this part of Cambridge in 1776 that are still standing today. How accurately Pelham was able to depict their footprints while he was stuck behind the British lines is another question.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

“The Cause of His Being Assaulted”

As a foretaste of my presentation at Longfellow National Historic Site this evening at 6:30, here’s an item from the 6 Oct 1774 New York Journal, reporting news from Providence, Rhode Island, datelined 24 September:

We hear from Bristol, that on Tuesday, night last [i.e., 20 Sept], William Vassal, Esq; of that place, in returning home with his Lady from a visit, was assaulted by a number of men, who threw stones at his chaise, which they much injured, and attempted to stop the carriage; but having a fleet horse, he got safe home, and next morning set out for Boston.—

He was suspected by some to be unfriendly to the liberties of America, which we are told was the cause of his being assaulted.
Vassall was suddenly unpopular with his neighbors because in mid-1774 the London government had appointed him to the Massachusetts Council, which had until then been an elected body. Because of the writ of mandamus that named those men, the new body was called the “mandamus Council” or, by Patriots, the “new-fangled Council.”

It’s a bit odd that Vassall was named to that Council because by 1774 he was living mostly in Rhode Island, on his second wife’s estate. The ministers in London probably didn’t know that. They just knew that he was rich, Anglican, and loyal to the Crown.

Which was also apparently enough for people in Rhode Island to stone William Vassall’s chaise. After all:
  • The Massachusetts Council wasn’t really their concern.
  • He had already refused the appointment, and never attended a Council meeting.
By this date, in fact, Gov. Thomas Gage had written to London about a replacement for Vassall. What name did he have in mind? That’s one thing I’m going to talk about this evening.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Where Those Pistols Really Came From

On Sunday I showed these pistols, reportedly taken from the saddle of Maj. John Pitcairn’s runaway horse during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. I didn’t actually have much to say about them; I just thought they were pretty.

On Monday I had dinner with Mike Monahan of the recreated 5th Regiment of Foot, among other fine folks, and he alerted me that there’s some doubt as to whether these really are Pitcairn’s pistols.

And indeed, this Cambridge history site says:

The pistols were made by the famous John Murdoch of Doune. However, the crest on the escutcheon plate is not that of the Pitcairns. Some historians hold to the legend of General [Israel] Putnam and the Pitcairn pistols, but other historians theorize that there was an error in identifying from whose horse the pistols were taken.
And this page on Pitcairn says:
the heraldic crest engraved on the escutcheon plates depicts three swords, with a snake twined around the middle one. This does not resemble the known crest of the Pitcairns of Forthar, a moon rising from a cloud. So whose the pistols really were is uncertain.
And Marianne Gilchrist’s article on Pitcairn at AmericanRevolution.org says both those things.

I’m not surprised to learn that these pistols probably aren’t Pitcairn’s. As I wrote back in my discussion of his death at Bunker Hill, because he was in command of the troops that fired on Lexington common, Pitcairn became the British officer that rural New Englanders loved to hate. So if they knocked any officer off his horse and grabbed his pistols, they’d likely decide that was Pitcairn.

In addition, I don’t think the Putnam family mentioned these pistols publicly until decades after the war—plenty of time for “memory creep” to improve a story.

A bit of Googling tells me that many heraldic authorities say “three swords, handles upwards, one in pale and two in saltier, environed by a snake,” is the family crest of Crosbies. (A bit more Googling could tell me what “one in pale and two in saltier” means.) So was there any British officer with Crosbie connections on Battle Road?

Yes, there was Capt. William Crosbie of the 38th Regiment’s grenadier company. He was apparently wounded on the first day of the war, and went on to serve as an aide de camp to Gen. Sir William Howe and Gen. Sir Henry Clinton. He shows up in Walking the Berkshires’ series on Knyphausen's Raid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Watching the “Wretched Fleet” Sail

Today is Evacuation Day in Boston, the official commemoration of the British military’s departure from the town at the end of the siege of 1775-76. Here’s an account of that evacuation credited to “a passenger from Boston” to Britain and published late that year in Almon’s Remembrancer:

General [William] Howe then began his embarkation. The Refugee inhabitants went first, not being suffered to carry anything but necessaries.——

The mortars and heavy artillery could not be embarked; these, therefore, they endeavored to burst, by charging them full with powder, and firing it off; but this did not answer their wishes. They attempted also to destroy all the small arms belonging to the town. While this work was going on, a deserter from the Provincial camp informed General Howe, on the 10th, that General [George] Washington was preparing for a general storm. Upon this intelligence the General and all the troops immediately embarked, leaving the artillery, stores, &c., damaged only, as the hurry and confusion would permit.

It now appeared by the movements of the Provincial army, that they were taking stations upon Hog and Noddles Islands, and preparing to attack Castle William. If they had succeeded in this, they would have had the command of Boston harbor, and destroyed the fleet. General Howe, therefore, dismantled and blew up Castle William, and then fell down with the whole fleet into Nantasket road, which is an open and exposed station.

The transports were mostly small schooners, under the protection of three men of war. March is the most tempestuous month of the year upon the American coast; so that without a miracle this wretched fleet must be dispersed and lost. It is impossible that more events could concur to render their distress complete, and their ruin almost inevitable.
The letter went on to a section headed “Cambridge, March 27,” so it came from someone who had stayed in Massachusetts after the British military left, and thus probably leaned to the American side. I therefore take the comments about the fleet’s “distress” to be less genuine sympathy and more an attempt to convince the British back home that it would be too costly to try to subdue the colonies.

Monday, March 16, 2009

“Wigmaker’s Boy” from AppleSeeds

A Boston 1775 reader asked me about my article “The Wigmaker’s Boy and the Boston Massacre,” which appeared in this issue of AppleSeeds magazine, on the theme of “Growing Up in the American Revolution.”

The article described the confrontation between apprentice Edward Garrick and Pvt. Hugh White, sentry outside the Customs House on 5 Mar 1770. It’s only a couple of pages, but I tried to capture, using period sources, how the encounter gradually grew violent because neither person would back off.

I’ve heard that this children’s magazine company has been squeezed by the financial default of a major distributor, so I’m posting the link and encouraging educators to consider buying copies of the magazine. AppleSeeds also published my work in its issue on Paul Revere. Each issue comes with web-based teacher’s resources.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

More Braces of Balls

Early this month I quoted a witness in the Boston Massacre inquiry using the phrase “loaded with a brace of balls” to mean that the soldiers in Boston had two balls in their muskets.

Here are three more appearances of the phrase “a brace of balls,” which also offer tastes of life in eighteenth-century America. From the New York Mercury, 15 Dec 1755:

We hear from Baskin-ridge, in New-Jersey, that on Thursday the 4th Instant [i.e., this month], as two Boys about 8 Years of Age each, one named Leonard, and the other Ricky, were playing in the Shop of Brice Ricky of that Place, Leonard took up a Gun that he found at Hand, and after blowing into it, told his Play Mate, it was not loaded; when he cock’d her, and drawing the Trigger, the former standing right before the Muzzle, the whole Charge which was a Brace of Balls, entered his Body under his right Breast, and went out thro’ his left Shoulder Blade, of which Wound he immediately expired.
From the Boston News-Letter, 17 Jan 1765:
Last Evening, just after 7 o’clock, as a man was going over Boston Neck, he was stopped by a fellow, who presenting a Pistol to his Breast bid him deliver, swearing he would send a brace of balls thro him instantly if he refused: but the man replying, he had but 3 Pistareens about him he ordered him to go about his Business; and then ran off—doubtless apprehending a Pursuit, as there was a Number of People hastening towards them. He was a little Fellow had on a surtout Coat, wore his hat flap’d before, and had a pair of Pistols.
And finally a letter from the Rev. John Marrett (1741-1813) of the Woburn parish that split off to become Burlington, Massachusetts, to his uncle, dated 28 July 1775, during the siege of Boston:
An [British] officer afterwards came to our advanced Centry on Charleston Side & inquired of our Centry how we treated deserters. who answered they were treated as they them selves were

Thats well says the Officer and turned about to go away.

Says our Centry where are you go’ng?

back says the Offi[ce]r.

Stop says Centry I have a brace of Balls in my Gun & if you Stir another Step you are a ded man. Come back Upon that the Offi[ce]r returned and they took care of him
Marrett added a postscript: “Since heard that this story is not true”. However, he obviously found the detail of a “brace of balls” in one musket to be credible.

(That letter was published in Henry Dunster and His Descendants, by Samuel Dunster. It had a lot of abbreviations, and I decided to change the thorn y into “th” and spell out those words. Otherwise, lines would read like this: “yy were treated as yy ym selves were yts well says ye Officer.”)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Two Lectures in Cambridge This Week

The Longfellow National Historic Site, which served as Gen. George Washington’s headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776, will host two Revolution-related events this week:

  • Sunday, 15 March, 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.: The Charlestown Militia recreates Col. Thomas Gardner’s regiment at the outset of the war, and Prof. Michael Bonislawski speaks on the history of this unit. What role did they play in the Battle of Bunker Hill? This event is organized with the Cambridge Historical Society.
  • Thursday, 19 March, at 6:30 P.M.: I’ll speak on “Why John Vassall Left His House.” John Vassall had that mansion built in 1759 and raised his family there. He wasn’t politically active, and the crowds of the Powder Alarm of September 1774 left him alone as they demanded that some of his neighbors resign their royal appointments. So why did Vassall feel an urgent need to leave Cambridge that month?
Both events are FREE.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Benjamin Andrews’s “Death by Misfortune”

Last week I mentioned Benjamin Andrews, who helped investigate the Boston Massacre. I can’t resist that opening to share one of Revolutionary Boston’s juiciest bits of gossip, the circumstances of Andrews’s sudden death on 9 Jan 1779, at the age of thirty-eight.

This anecdote comes to us from his sister’s son, Samuel Breck:

Benjamin Andrews, Esq.,...was well educated, active, useful, beloved; in short, a very distinguished citizen. Mr. Benjamin Hichborn, his friend, and a lawyer subsequently of eminence, was with my uncle assisting him to prepare for a journey that was to commence the next day.

While Mr. Andrews was writing, Hichborn was trying a pair of pistols and putting them in order for the journey. He had snapped them against the chimney-back, he said, and, supposing them to be unloaded, was in the act of handing one of them to my uncle when it went off, hit him with the wad in the temple and killed him on the spot.
The Boston Gazette account of Andrews’s death was:
Sitting in his Parlour with Mrs. Andrews and aFriend—He had been comparing an elegant Pair of Pistols which he had bought the preceding Day with a Pair which he had had some Time before, and which were supposed to be unloaded—upon one of these Mr. Andrews observed some Rust in a Place left for the Engraver to mark the Owner’s Name upon—his friend undertook to rub it off—having accomplished it he was returning the Pistol to Mr. Andrews, who was sitting in a Chair at the Table by the Fireside—

Unhappily as he took it from his Friend he (Mr. Andrews) grasp’d it in such a Manner as brought his Thumb upon the Trigger, (which happened to have no Guard) and it instantly discharged its Contents into his Head near his Temple, and he expired in less than Half an Hour—

It is remarkable that, a few Minutes before, he had taken the Screw Pins from both these Pistols, and one of them almost to Pieces, and had handled them without any Caution, and in every Direction against his own Body, and those who were in the Room with him.
This report ended with the detail that a “Jury of Inquest” had already met and determined that Andrews “came to his Death by Misfortune.” Hichborn was already a prominent lawyer—he’d delivered the town’s Massacre oration in 1777—and the Gazette kept his name out of the news.

But locals must have started gossiping about Hichborn’s actions again in March 1780. Here’s Samuel Breck with the rest of the story:
My aunt was a fine-looking, well-bred woman, fond of dress and fashionable dissipation. She had five or six children and an indulgent husband. Suddenly she saw herself a widow overwhelmed with consternation and dismay.

This affair has always appeared mysterious, and made a great noise at the time; and, very strange as it may seem, Hichborn proposed as a remedy and atonement the only measure that could be adduced as a motive for the commission of murder. “I have been guilty,” said he, “of this unintentional manslaughter; Mr. Andrews was my friend; by my instrumentality his children are left fatherless. I will be a parent and protector to them; the best amends I can make is to marry the widow.”

He did marry her, and during a long life he was to her and her children a kind and generous friend, father and husband.
The marriage took place on 2 Mar 1780. Hichborn killed Andrews, married Andrews’s widow, and was admired for it. That would indeed make “a great noise.”

(The picture above shows the Pierce-Hichborn House, now part of the Paul Revere House operation. At the time of this story, it was the home of Benjamin Hichborn’s brother Nathaniel. They were both cousins of Revere on his mother’s side.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Confusion over Henry Pelham’s Massacre Image

During Boston Massacre week, my posting about how Henry Pelham complained that Paul Revere had copied his image of the shooting on King Street prompted some questions from Boston 1775 visitors.

As the links back there show, Pelham’s print looks very much like Revere’s—which is only natural, since Revere appears to have copied it. The silversmith altered only a few details, such as adding the label “Butcher’s Hall” to the Customs House on the right.

Pelham’s can be quickly distinguished from Revere’s by the title “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power” at top and a skull and crossbones at bottom left. Here’s a colored version from Bryn Mawr.

Unfortunately, a few years back, the website for the P.B.S. television show Africans in America offered a lesson plan with this page identifying the image above as Pelham’s print of the Massacre. That image isn’t even in the same medium as the 1770 prints. As the quality of line and coloring shows, it’s a lithograph rather than a painted copperplate engraving.

That lithograph was created around 1856 by John Henry Bufford, working from a painting by William L. Champney. I’ve also seen a grayscale version reproduced in books. And now it’s appeared on a lot of educational websites as Pelham’s picture.

Obviously, there are some resemblances. Champney based his composition on the Pelham/Revere prints: the Old State House and the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy’s meeting-house are again in the background, and the soldiers on the right all fire in a line. However, Champney’s work reflects the political issues of 1856 rather than 1770. He put Crispus Attucks, with clearly African features, at the center of the composition. This print was part of the Abolitionist movement’s recovery of Attucks as a symbol of black patriotism. In contrast, Pelham and Revere buried Attucks in the otherwise-white crowd, if they showed him at all.

The Pelham/Revere print from 1770 and the Champney/Bufford lithograph from 1856 do lend themselves to a compare-and-contrast lesson on visual images as historic documents and/or political propaganda. But it helps to get the names and dates right.

And there’s more digital confusion out there. Several websites attribute the Champney/Bufford image to James Well Champney (1843-1903), a more famous American landscape painter—who was only sixteen when that picture was published. Others misspell the lithographer’s name as “Pufford.” (I did that myself in an early draft of this posting.)

And this site puts the label “Pelham Picture” on an even later painting of the Massacre. Okay, that site’s just an elementary-school project. But still, the real lesson here is not to believe everything you see on the internet without checking other reliable sites.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Testing “a Remarkable Memory”

Today’s New York Times ran a correction to a story over one hundred years old (a level of scrupulosity which I frankly think is showing off a bit):

An article on April 30, 1906, about a New York watch repairer, Jonathan Dillon, who recalled secretly inscribing Abraham Lincoln’s watch while working on it in a Washington jewelry store in 1861, misstated part of the inscription, using information from Mr. Dillon (who the article noted had, at 84, “a remarkable memory.”) The inscription reads:

“Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon. April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.”

The inscription does not say, as Mr. Dillon recalled in 1906: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”
The evidence suggests that the paper accurately reported what the retired watchmaker had said. But that man’s memory wasn’t exact, as the Smithsonian discovered after asking an expert to open Lincoln’s watch and check inside, per this report in the Times Arts section.

It’s no surprise that Dillon’s memory had shifted over fifty years. Looking back, he correctly remembered etching a pro-Union political message inside the President’s watch soon after hearing word of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. That action no doubt meant a lot to him emotionally, and thus became a memory.

But certain details of his recollection evolved, reflecting changes in the American culture around him. Dillon’s graffito said nothing about “Slavery”; while that was the main source of conflict between North and South, the U.S. government first went to war to “preserve the union.” Only later did ending slavery become an explicit cause of the American army.

In addition, Lincoln started as an unproven politician, but became respected during the war and venerated after his assassination. His revered place in American memory no doubt prompted Dillon’s memory to substitute a remark about “a President who at least will try” for his original source of hope, a more general “government.”

(The Times article doesn’t say much about this detail, but Dillon’s message apparently prompted some later watch repairer to engrave his own message in the works: “L E Gross / Sept 1864 Wash. DC / Jeff Davis”.)

None of this is about the Revolutionary War, of course. But it’s a valuable reminder that even a witness with “a remarkable memory” for what he did and saw can misremember details under the influence of what he learned and felt later. Much of our history of the Revolution, such as all those dramatic accounts of Bunker Hill, is based on recollections from decades later. Those sources are often the best we have, and most of the people who left such accounts were sincere about what they recalled. But our brains don’t run like clockwork, and our memories slosh around a bit.

Questions on a Silver Mug

Yet another news story with Revolutionary roots appeared in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, this time in the arts news. As Linda Matchan reported, officials in the Massachusetts Treasurer’s office found a mug made in the early eighteen century by Boston silversmith Andrew Tyler in an abandoned safe-deposit box. The Museum of Fine Arts has now acquired the item from the heir of the couple who had rented that box.

The article states:

The mug, it appears, was made by Tyler sometime in the early to mid-1700s for a highly-placed local judge named Robert Auchmuty Jr., famous for being one of the defense attorneys during the Boston Massacre, with co-counsel John Adams.

For reasons unknown, Auchmuty relinquished it. “He had to leave Boston in a hurry because he was a loyalist; he got the boot,” said Harris. “It’s possible the mug went from his family to mine when he had to leave. It might have been a fire sale situation.”

Somehow it ended up in the possession of Harris’s ancestor, Thaddeus Mason Harris, a Unitarian minister who grew up in Charlestown. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British burned Charlestown and the family fled from their home with only a few prized possessions, including the mug.
The source of that information appears to be the handwritten note found with the mug, which goes all the way back to...1976. And I see a number of reasons to do some more research. The details of that story don’t connect.

First, in the video that accompanies the Globe story, M.F.A. curator Gerry Ward estimates that Andrew Tyler made the mug about 1730; at the latest, he must have finished before 1741, when he died. The Robert Auchmuty described above was born about 1723, so he was still in his teens when Tyler made the mug. Perhaps the first owner was actually that man’s father, also called Judge Robert Auchmuty (but a judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court rather than the Vice Admiralty Court).

Yet another complication: Ward states on the video that the initials on the mug’s bottom are “M over T E,” and obviously expects those to be the initials of its first owner. So how is Auchmuty connected?

Then there’s the fact that the Loyalist Robert Auchmuty was living in Roxbury until 1774. The Harrises were living on the other side of Boston and the other side of the Charles River. It seems unlikely that their paths would casually cross, and I don’t see any sign of a family relationship.

The Harris family fled from Charlestown before the Battle of Bunker Hill, as did most of their neighbors; nobody wanted to be caught in the war zone. This is how the move is described in what appears to be the earliest biography of Harris, a letter written in 1849 by a clerical colleague:
After the first hostile demonstrations on the part of the mother country, at Lexington, fears were entertained for the safety of Charlestown; so that, just before the battle of Bunker Hill, Mr. [William] Harris fled, with his family, in the hope that they might somewhere find a refuge from the threatening danger.

Accordingly, with a few necessary articles of clothing, such as they could carry in their hands, they set out on foot,—Thaddeus, then not quite seven years old, leading his twin sisters next in age to himself, the father and mother each carrying a child, and an aged grandmother also making one of the company. They spent the first night at Lexington with a remote relative [another biography says at Munroe’s Tavern]; and, while there, an empty wagon was about leaving, in which they bespoke a passage to any place to which the owner was bound.

Accordingly, they were carried to Chookset, part of Sterling, where Mr. Harris took a small house, and supported his family by keeping a district school. Meanwhile, he went to Charlestown, and brought away a few articles of value which he had left behind. But soon the Battle of Bunker Hill took place, Charlestown was laid in ashes, and the house of Mr. Harris, with whatever of its contents remained, was demolished.

Shortly after this, he joined the Army as Captain and Paymaster; and, on a visit to his family, died of a fever, October 30, 1778, aged thirty-four years.
So even if William Harris did acquire the silver mug before Bunker Hill, it wasn’t there during the battle.

Furthermore, those biographies go on to describe Thaddeus Mason Harris’s poverty after his father died: living with one relative or benefactor after another, begging lunch from schoolmates after giving his own food to his mother, and making brooms, axe-handles, and cat-gut to pay his way toward Harvard. If the family had recently acquired a silver mug with no sentimental value, why didn’t they sell it?

It seems more likely to me that Harris came by the mug in middle age, when he was a minister in Dorchester. During that time he wrote many books and was a leading Freemason. He later served as Librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society. If I’d had a bit of old silver from Roxbury to sell, the Rev. Mr. Harris might well have struck me as a likely customer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This Declaration of Independence Not a Public Record

An anonymous Boston 1775 reader alerted me to this A.P. dispatch describing how a Virginia court just ruled on the ownership of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

In the summer of 1776 the newly independent state of Massachusetts had this copy of the Declaration printed by Ezekiel Russell, then working in Salem, and sent it up to the town of Wiscasset, Maine. In November the town clerk copied the Continental Congress’s words into Wicasset’s official records.

The printed document was later found in the attic of Solomon Holbrook, Wiscasset’s town clerk from 1885 to 1929. His family put it on the market, and after passing through different hands it ended up with a Virginia collector a few years ago. Officials in Maine heard about the sale and sued to get the paper back, on the grounds that it remained an official public record.

The Virginia Supreme Court’s decision (here’s the P.D.F. download) holds that the official Wiscassit record of the Declaration is the version that the clerk copied in 1776—or at least that Maine couldn’t prove the printed document was still a government document.

If the printed Declaration had descended in the family of the 1776 town clerk, then I think it would be easy to accept that the town stopped treating it as government property once that clerk had used the text. But the fact that the paper was in Holbrook’s possession implies that it came to him in his role as clerk, and should have gone on to the next clerk. Holbrook died in office, so he wasn’t involved in that transfer of authority and papers. I suspect the Maine Supreme Court might have decided this case another way.

This story highlights how much public officials’ private and public papers were mixed together until the last century. Indeed, the question of whether U.S. Presidents owned their own presidential papers wasn’t settled until the nation had to preserve its historic record from tampering by Richard M. Nixon.

Back in the eighteenth century, many office-holders worked out of their homes. Very few towns had municipal buildings where officials could store papers. Even in Boston, which had Faneuil Hall, the Committee of Correspondence documents stayed with Samuel Adams’s personal papers, and are all now at the New York Public Library. Gen. Thomas Gage’s letters and files as royal governor of Massachusetts went home to England with him, and his descendants eventually sold those papers to the Clements Library in Ann Arbor.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Adams Family Correspondence

On Saturday, 14 March 2009, the Westford Museum will play host to a theatrical presentation on the siege of Boston, using the words of John and Abigail Adams. The couple will be portrayed by Tom Macy and Pat Bridgman. Here’s the event description:

It is a historical fact that Boston was embroiled in war in the years of 1775 and 1776. But few people truly understand the dangers that local citizens had to endure. From Bunker Hill, to the taking of Dorchester Heights, to the evacuation of Boston by the King’s troops, Abigail saw it all, and kept a worried John in Philadelphia well informed. Learn first hand about what really happened to this “much injured town.”

Casual, cabaret style seating is by reservation. Groups may be seated together upon request. Refreshments will be served. Tickets are $14 per person or $11 for members of the Westford Historical Society and can be purchased by contacting the museum.
The show starts at 7:00 P.M. The Westford Museum is at 2 Boston Road.

Graves on Bunker Hill?

I’m going to catch up on some of the recent Revolutionary news for a few says. Yesterday’s Boston Globe ran a story by Brian MacQuarrie about Colonial Williamsburg curator Erik Goldstein’s theory that a grave of British enlisted men killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill lies under some particular house lots in Charlestown.

Goldstein and his colleagues appear to be presenting their research at a meeting of the Geological Society of America’s Northeastern section in Portland later this month. The title of their paper is “Forgotten Landscapes: Geophysical-Based Reconstructions of the Northern Declivity During the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunkers Hill, Charlestown, Massachusetts,” and the abstract says:

In November 2008 a combined team of geologists, archaeologists and historians gathered to begin a research project on the site to locate the mass gravesites and exact position of the Colonial defensive structures. Armed with volumes of historical documentation, the team employed high-resolution ground penetrating radar to search for an area known as the “Northern Declivity”. British officers and 19th c. antiquaries reported this site as the location of one of the British mass grave and the northeastern end of the Colonial earthen breastwork.

Research on the site is ongoing and the team intends to expand its search to locate any of the American mass gravesites, reconstruct the shape of the redoubt and clarify nature of the fortifications connecting the breastwork and the rail fence. Additionally, the team intends to locate the 1775 shoreline of the Mystic River (along today’s Medford Street), site of the initial British attack. The research will be aided by topographic landscape reconstructions based on 2005 LiDAR and historic shoreline representations.
The detail of the Globe coverage I found most interesting appeared in the extensive graphics James Abundis of the newspaper created to accompany the story:
In the late 1830s, the effort to memorialized the historic battle with a granite monument ran low on funds. To raise money to complete it, organizers prepared 11 acres of the 15-acre site for sale and graded them for development.
Grading meant smoothing out the slope, possibly by moving landfill onto that ground. That buried any graves even more deeply in the soil, and might also affect the potential of ground-penetrating radar to identify possible burial sites.

That development also puts into perspective the controversies over commercial buildings and preservation near other, larger battlefield and historic sites, such as Petersburg and Valley Forge. The Bunker Hill Memorial Association sacrificed some of the land where had men fought and died in order to build its monument on the high ground. That compromise might make us more open to development near historic sites, or more worried about the permanent loss such development can produce.

In the early nineteenth century Boston, Charlestown, and other nearby communities were busy filling in land, smoothing steep hills, redirecting rivers, and building canals and dams. That allowed for the creation of busy factories and densely populated urban neighborhoods. The landscape of 1775 is almost completely hidden today.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Their Books

The Boston Public Library, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello are among the organizations presenting a conference titled “John Adams & Thomas Jefferson: Libraries, Leadership and Legacy” in Boston and Charlottesville this June.

The first session will be in Massachusetts from Sunday, 21 June, through Tuesday, 23 June. The action then moves south to Virginia for three more days of activity, from Thursday the 25th through Saturday the 27th.

The event description says, “Each location will feature a keynote speaker, four theme-based panels devoted the discussion of pre-circulated papers, and private tours of significant holdings and historic sites related to Adams, Jefferson, and their reading and book collecting.” The keynoter in Boston will be Ted Widmer, Director of the John Carter Brown Library. The keynoter in Charlottesville will be former U.S. Senator Gary Hart.

This conference seems to owe a lot to Robert C. Baron, who is a benefactor, scheduled speaker, and head of Fulcrum Publishing, which will issue a volume of conference proceedings in 2010. Baron has also been chairman of the American Antiquarian Society and edited books on both Jefferson and Adams.

For full information, registration forms, and papers as they become available, visit www.adamsjefferson.com.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Henry Pelham Complains to Paul Revere

This is an image of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. It’s one of the most elaborate prints he ever produced, with a complex composition and background in perspective. And it went on sale only three weeks after the shooting. How did Revere manage that?

The story starts with this advertisement for this print in Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette on 26 Mar 1770:

To be Sold by EDES and GILL
(Price Eight Pence Lawful Money)
A PRINT containing a Representation
of the late horrid Massacre in King-Street.
That caught the attention of twenty-one-year-old Henry Pelham, half-brother of the painter John Singleton Copley. Pelham had been Copley’s model for “Boy with a Squirrel,” and was an aspiring artist himself. On Thursday, 29 March, Pelham addressed an angry note to Revere:

When I heard that you were cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible, as I knew you was not capable of doing it unless you coppied it from mine and as I thought I had entrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and Trust I reposed in you.

But I find I was mistaken, and after being at the great Trouble and Expence of making a design paying for paper, printing &c, find myself in the most ungenerous Manner deprived, not only of any proposed Advantage, but even of the expence I have been at, as truly as if you had plundered me on the highway.

If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so. However, I leave you to reflect upon and consider of one of the most dishonorable Actions you could well be guilty of.

H. Pelham.

P S. I send by the Bearer the Prints I borrowed of you. My Mother desired you would send the hinges and part of the press, that you had from her.
Pelham had been working on his own engraving of the Massacre, titled “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power.” It looked astonishingly like Revere’s—except the perspective and other artistic details were handled more skillfully. Pelham also had a bill from Daniel Rea, Jr., for “12 Quire of Paper” and “Printing 575 of your Prints,” coming to £5.9s.

Pelham’s print is relatively rare, but here’s an uncolored example from the New York Public Library. Revere had obviously copied this image from Pelham’s sketch or early impression, just as the silversmith copied all of his other major engravings, either from drawings by his partner Christian Remmick or from British models. Revere may not have considered that wrong, since it was a standard way to reproduce art, or he may have felt this copying was justified by the need to show people “the late horrid Massacre.” I also wonder if Revere and his activist allies were getting impatient while Pelham fussed over his art.

Somehow Revere and his friends were able to soothe young Pelham’s temper. On 9 April, Edes and Gill started advertising Pelham’s prints for sale, helping him earn back his investment. The silversmith’s accounts showed he continued to do business with the Copley/Pelham family in the next few years.

Designing this image was the height of Henry Pelham’s Whiggism. His family was Anglican to begin with, which made him more apt to side with the royal government. Then Copley married a daughter of tea importer Richard Clarke, leaving the family beleaguered during the crisis that led up to the Tea Party. By the outbreak of the war in 1775, Pelham was so angry and suspicious about the Patriot cause that he feared a mob would attack another half-brother, Charles Pelham, in Newton. Henry left Boston with the British army and settled in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Revere reused the back of the copper plate on which he had copied Pelham’s Massacre image to carve a design for Massachusetts’ wartime currency.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Bostonians and “Irish Teagues”

The silliest explanation for the Boston Massacre I’ve seen comes from Stuart A. P. Murray’s Smithsonian Q & A: The American Revolution, published in 2006.

Q: What made Boston such a hotbed of unrest and eventually the seat of open rebellion in the colonies?

A: The fact that Boston had a large anti-English Irish population was not the least of the factors involved in Boston’s radical temperament. . . .

That there often were brawls between soldiers and civilians should have surprised no one, since many Bostonians were Irish and the soldiers came to the city directly from serving in restive Ireland.
In fact, Boston and Massachusetts as a whole had a large anti-Irish English population. Eighty-five percent of the provincial population was English, according to Jon Butler’s Becoming America; less than ten percent was Irish, Scottish, and Welsh combined. Boston society was much less welcoming to non-English immigrants than Philadelphia, New York, Newport, and Charleston, the other four big American ports. Check out the story of young Hector McNeill’s arrival to see how Bostonians welcomed people from Ireland, even Protestants of Scottish extraction.

There were definitely some Irishmen in the crowd on King Street, including victim Patrick Carr and witness Charles Conner, as explained by the latter’s testimony. There were also a few established businessmen from Ireland, such as John Field and James Forrest. Boston’s Irish population was big enough to start a mutual-aid society—but it was excluded enough to need one.

Carr’s presence among the Massacre victims allowed John Adams to characterize the mob on King Street as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.” Of course, as a defense attorney he was highlighting the elements of that crowd that seemed most dangerous and expendable. Adams could make that argument because he knew the Suffolk County jury was prejudiced against all those other parts of the population.

The Smithsonian Q & A book misses the major fact that the greatest concentration of Irishmen on King Street that night were the soldiers themselves. Just look at their names:
Boston’s Whigs were happy to tie the soldiers to Ireland, and drop hints about their likely Catholicism.

There are lots of other errors in this Smithsonian Q & A book. Page 26 says that “ten comrades” joined the sentry on King Street, for example, while page 27 says that “seven soldiers” were tried for the shootings; neither figure is correct. But the assumption that the fabled Irish-American dominance of Boston began in the late 1700s is the biggest error, at least in the section about the Revolution in New England, and apparently original to this book.

Zobel Revisits the Massacre, Lexington, 27 Mar

As part of its Cronin Lecture Series, the Lexington Historical Society will host a talk by the Hon. Hiller B. Zobel on how the Boston Massacre appeared in last year’s John Adams miniseries. He’ll contrast scenes from the show with the historical record, which he’s thoroughly examined as co-editor of The Legal Papers of John Adams and author of The Boston Massacre. The event starts at 8:00 P.M. on Friday, 27 March, in the Lexington Depot.

I’m booked to be in Seattle that weekend, speaking briefly on a panel at the Organization of American Historians conference, and I’m sorry to miss this. For my own comments on how the miniseries portrayed the Massacre, see “What John and Abigail Really Saw” and John Adams on Trial.”

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Memories of Samuel Maverick

Samuel Maverick was the youngest person to die in the Boston Massacre: only seventeen years old. Printers Edes and Gill of the Boston Gazette and their engraver Paul Revere highlighted Maverick’s youth in the woodcut to the left by decorating his coffin with a sickle and hourglass—symbols that he’d been cut down before his time.

I recently wrote a short script about Maverick’s death, which forced me to reconcile the three overlapping but different accounts of what he was doing before the shooting.

First, keg-maker Jonathan Carey provided a few details at the trial of the British soldiers:

Did you know young Maverick, who was killed by the firing in King street, on the 5th of March?

Yes, very well.

Did you see him that night?

He was at my house that night at supper with some young lads, and when the bells rung, as we all thought for fire, he run out in order to go to it.
Maverick wasn’t one of Carey’s apprentices, however. He worked for ivory carver and dentist Isaac Greenwood, and bunked with Greenwood’s son John.

In a 1922 publication of John Greenwood’s memoir, editor Isaac Greenwood (yes relation) included what is apparently that family’s memory of how Maverick went to his death:
Isaac Greenwood, Jr., the elder brother of John..., was a witness of the massacre, being then in his twelfth year.

Attracted by the ringing of bells, indicating a fire, Maverick and Greenwood were proceeding along hand in hand when, in King Street, Samuel left his companion and joined in the popular tumult about some soldiers at the custom-house. In the volley which ensued Maverick fell just as he was throwing up his arms and shouting, “Fire away, you d—— lobster-backs!”
The word “lobsterbacks” might well be an anachronism, and a sign that details of this tale had changed before it was written down, but its core can easily fit with Carey’s testimony from 1770.

Finally, William H. Sumner felt he was doing a great service to history when he put into his A History of East Boston an account of Maverick’s death that he’d heard from a son of Joseph Mountfort (1750-1838):
He, with Samuel Maverick, Peter C. Brooks, Samuel and Thomas Carey, were playing marbles in the house of Mr. Carey, at the head of Gardner’s wharf, near Cross street, at the time the bells rang the alarm, and were thereby attracted to State street before the British troops fired.

Here they observed that a tumult had arisen between some men and boys and the soldiers. Angry words were being exchanged, and missiles of various kinds were thrown. Some one threw pieces of ice, when the soldiers, exasperated by the boldness and taunts of their rebel opponents, discharged their guns at the crowd.

Young Maverick cried out to his relative Mountfort, “Joe! I am shot!” and ran down Exchange street, then called Royal Exchange lane, to Dock square, where he fell to the ground, and was conveyed to his mother’s house. He died the next morning. At that time the widow [Mary] Maverick kept a genteel boarding-house in Union street, at the corner of Salt lane.

It is not a little singular, that Mr. Mountfort’s name does not appear among the witnesses examined at the trial. . . . Yet, there can be no doubt as to the authenticity of Mr. Mountfort’s narrative. The writer has it from his son, Judge Napoleon B. Mountfort, of New York [1800-1883], who is well informed on the subject.
As Hiller B. Zobel pointed out in The Boston Massacre, Peter Chardon Brooks was only three years old and living in Medford in 1770. So he was very unlikely to have been playing marbles with the seventeen-year-old Maverick on the 5th of March.

Sumner got the impression that Joseph Mountfort was a “relative” of Samuel Maverick. I believe that became true only later, when Mountfort married Maverick’s first cousin Mary Gyles.

The Mountfort family seems to have been earnest in putting their ancestor on the scene of patriotic events. His name doesn’t appear on the earliest and most reliable list of men involved in the Boston Tea Party, but it surfaces in Samuel A. Drake’s Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1876). Mountfort did not, however, make the roll in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves (1884).

Nonetheless, the Mountfort family tradition does seem accurate in putting Maverick at the Carey house. I’m just not convinced that Mountfort was really there, too. This may be what I call a “grandmother’s tale”—a historical tale that older relatives embroider for children as a private entertainment or special lesson, yet is so vivid that the children grow up believing that every detail is true, that their relatives were in the thick of history, and that the tale should go into history books.

Curiously, the editor of John Greenwood’s memoir theorized that Greenwood and Mountfort encountered each other as prisoners of war, with Mountfort (remembered by the Greenwood family as “Mumford”) spilling hot soup on Greenwood. It was a small world.