J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hunting for Hezekiah Wyman

The last tale of the Battle of Lexington and Concord I’ll address this season is one I first came across in David H. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. That book says:

Many on both sides remembered a middle-aged militiaman named Hezekiah Wyman, from the outlying hamlet of Woburn that is now the town of Winchester. This day was his birthday. On the morning of April 19, 1775, Hezekiah Wyman turned fifty-five. His wife told him he was too old to fight, but he saddled his “strong white mare” and galloped away. He collided with the British column on the Road east of Lexington, fired at an advancing Regular and brought him down.

Hezekiah Wyman became highly visible on the battlefield—a “tall, gaunt man” with long gray locks, mounted on a white horse. The British infantry saw him many times from Lexington to Charlestown, and grew to dread the sight of him.

Wyman was a crack shot. Again and again he rode within range of the British vanguard, jumped off his horse, and laid the long barrel of his musket across the saddle. As the Regulars approached he took careful aim, and squeezed off a shot with slow deliberation. Then he remounted and rode ahead to a new position—a grim, gray-headed messenger of mortality, mounted on death’s pale horse.
I remember being struck by how cinematic this episode was. Imagine the scene through the eyes of British soldiers: a white horse with its tall rider galloping across the hillsides parallel to the road. The soldiers anxiously watch the man bend his course slightly until he comes within the range they know will be fatal to one of them.

At that time, I wasn’t tracing footnotes, and there weren’t so many great digital resources to consult as there are now. Fischer offered one citation for this paragraph, to Henry Smith Chapman’s 1936 History of Winchester.

Chapman, in turn, cited as his main source a newspaper article reprinting an item about Wyman from an issue of the Boston Pearl published sometime before 1840. Woburn/Winchester records confirm that Hezekiah Wyman existed, but say nothing about his activities on 19 Apr 1775. For that, we need to find and evaluate the earliest accounts.

TOMORROW: Diving deep for the Boston Pearl.


pilgrimchick said...

What I really love about episodes like this one is just how much it transforms the myth of an event in US history into something real--little things like this really transforms it. Excellent.

Roger Fuller said...

Or, more importantly, how it strips the event of the myths surrounding it.

The Lexington Alarm is so shrouded by lore and legends that whole towns, families and ethnic/political groups have their sense of self wrapped up in what their ancestors supposedly did.

It's pretty deflating for them to find out, for example, that not only was great grandpa not the "general" in charge of the troops at the North Bridge, but, actually a Loyalist. (I've seen this happen...)

The truth is usually a lot more prosaic, but sometimes more heroic in its own right, especially when we know better the context.

Charles Ratzke said...

According to the DAR, Hezekiah Wyman served in the Revolutionary war in Capt. Samuel Belknap/1st. Woburn Company, Col. Eleazer Brooks, 2nd. Middlesex Regiment.

DAR A129083 so perhaps Hezekiah did participate in the action at Lexington and Concord. Just because some saw an opportunity to write a story, embellish the facts doesn't mean Hezekiah wasn't there riding his white mare!

J. L. Bell said...

In a historical investigation, we have to collect evidence to support a story. "It could have happened" or "No one can prove it didn't happen" isn't enough. In this case, there's strong evidence of multiple Hezekiah Wymans serving in the militia companies of their towns in 1775. But there's no strong evidence of Hezekiah Wyman shooting down British soldiers from a white horse; that legend goes back only to a fictional story in a literary magazine.