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, May 04, 2010

The True Story of Isaac Bissell

We don’t have the original letter that Joseph Palmer dashed off on the morning of 19 Apr 1775, alerting the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s political allies in Connecticut that the British army had killed people at Lexington and asking speedy passage for the man carrying it. Instead, we have copies of that letter, hastily written at stops along the post riders’ route.

It’s only natural that errors crept into Palmer’s text. By the time the note reached New York, it referred to “Israel Bessel” and “T. Palmer.” Later copies, such as the one transcribed in Charles Burr Todd’s A General History of the Burr family in America (1872), appeared to render the rider’s name as “Trail Bissell.”

So we need to go back to the earliest copies that survive. The one from Brooklyn, Connecticut, now owned by the National Heritage Museum, gives the name Israel Bissell. But according to this article, a copy signed by Connecticut official Silas Deane and owned by the William L. Clements Library in Michigan names the rider as “Mr. Isaac Bissell.” And a copy transcribed from the Springfield archives also names “Mr. Isaac Bissell.”

The name “Isaac Bissel” appears in the records of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, authorizing payment for “a Post-Rider’s Account.”

That brings me to the research that Lion G. Miles has shared through iberkshires.com, the Berkshire Eagle, and Connecticut History.

According to Miles and his citations, all the papers in the Massachusetts Archives about the post rider who carried Palmer’s message are signed by “Isaac Bissell,” who identified himself as from Suffield, Connecticut, near the Massachusetts border. In July 1775, the Provincial Congress approved his bill for six days of expenses while riding “to Hartford,” but then that body dissolved for elections and no one got around to paying the man.

In March 1776 Bissell wrote to Palmer: “Sir you may Remember when Lexinton Fite was you gave me an Express to Cary to Hartford in Connecticut which I did. . . .I think I Earn my money.” Finally on 23 April the Massachusetts House voted to pay Isaac Bissell the £2.1s. he’d asked for.

So I now believe that Isaac Bissell rode to the Connecticut capital of Hartford, probably by way of Worcester and Springfield. An accurate copy of the letter he carried was sent on to Deane, who lived one town below Hartford in Wethersfield. Meanwhile, another rider or set of riders, names unknown to us, was carrying another copy of Palmer’s letter south from Worcester to Brooklyn, Norwich, and New London, and then along the coast to New York. That copy rendered the original courier’s name as “Israel Bissell,” and Isaac wasn’t around to correct that error or further deviations.

According to lineages published by the D.A.R. and S.A.R., after returning home to Suffield, Isaac Bissell (1749-1822) enlisted in a Connecticut regiment and marched back to Boston to participate in the siege. He was a sergeant in Col. Erastus Woolcott’s regiment until March 1776, and later mustered as part of the New Haven Alarm of July 1779. After the war he worked as a blacksmith in Suffield. His grave in the Suffield cemetery (shown in the thumbnail above; click for a full set on Flickr from caboose_rodeo) has been identified as that of a Revolutionary veteran for decades.

What about the Israel Bissell buried in Hinman Hinsdale, Massachusetts? His grave has gotten special attention from the D.A.R., and he’s been lauded in poetry, song, and art as the forgotten equal to Paul Revere. But all that celebration is just because of a spelling error.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Here lie the remains of Israel Bissell,
Proclaimed for being a forgotten rider,
Who carried the news of Lexington Green,
To Worcester, to Springfield, to Silas Dean.

In Suffield Connecticut lies Isaac Bissell,
Paid two quid one bob the actual rider,
Due fame usurped he lies there abjectly,
His name carried from Hartford transcribed ...incorrectly.

Roger Fuller said...

J.L., I'm not aware of any town in MA called Hinman. Could that actually be Hinsdale MA, where Israel Bissell is buried? If so, here is an example of memory creep- it happens to the best of us. ;)

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, like post rider “Israel Bissell,” the town of Hinman is a typo. The man’s body hasn’t been moved from Hinsdale since two days ago.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the verse, Chris!

FirecrackerH2O said...

Can you tell me why Watertown hired Bissell (Israel or Isaac) to ride? They had planned in advance for this rider. Why from Watertown? Are there minutes from meetings that discuss the need, hiring and the communication from Palmer to Watertown? What if Palmer had been killed, was there a plan B? What is the story of preparation for this rider for he was not a Watertown lad, that happened to be available that night but a selected and paid personnel of the Safety Committee (?) to run this particular errand and who was waiting for the "go ahead" to spread the news. Why him? Who chose him? What was his background? Why did they trust him? And when did this planning start? When did they decide they needed someone and what kind of planning was done so it would work? Can you unearth the answers? Can you be the rider of truth to spread the word to all who care and respect the deed?

J. L. Bell said...

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress, through its Committee of Safety member Joseph Palmer, appears to have hired Isaac Bissell. Bissell started from Watertown simply because Palmer was living there, but there was never any question of Watertown paying him.

Watertown was between Lexington and Boston, though not directly on the British regulars’ route. That meant Palmer got word of the British march and the shootings at Lexington relatively early, so he could spread the word.

But was that all planned? To some extent, it was; there was clearly some earlier communication between the Massachusetts Patriots and the government of Connecticut. But I don’t think Bissell was waiting in Watertown for the moment to ride (his bill doesn’t suggest that), and I don’t think the Committee of Safety had delegated Palmer and only him to send the message.

Rather, Palmer took it upon himself to spread the alarm, and other Committee members could have done so as well. Bissell could have been a regular post rider who happened to be nearby on the crucial day. Had circumstances been different, then another Committee man or another post rider could have taken up the same jobs.

Consider the better documented story of Revere’s ride. Revere, Dawes, and the unknown rider out of Charlestown were assigned to carry the message by top Patriot organizers. But Dr. Samuel Prescott and his brother Abel decided on their own to get the message through. Like the Prescotts, most of the riders that night were probably volunteers on the spot, yet they were probably also already involved in the Patriot movement. So the alarm was a combination of preparation and improvisation.

kt said...

Does anyone know about any of his descendants or relatives?

Anonymous said...

oh my that tis googd to know i thought Israel bissel was the guy ill have to fix my report X@

Anonymous said...

thks for the info

Anonymous said...

Than you for this info i happen to be the descendant of Isaac Bissell

The Red Queen said...

This is from the NY Public Library. It's a facsimile of an original, which very clearly states Israel Bissell.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that new link. The lines on the bottom of the page show where Palmer's message was copied and endorsed. By the time it reached New York, the original rider's name had indeed become "Israel Bissell" or "Bessell." (A few ports further south, as I recall, it was "Trail Russell.") Meanwhile, Isaac Bissell is documented as having ridden from Watertown to Hartford and been paid for the work.

Anonymous said...

Are there any accounts of the rider who carried the letter to NYC on Sunday morning, April 23, arriving around noon?

J. L. Bell said...

In this article for the American Antiquarian Society, John H. Scheide quoted from text written on the back of a handbill in his collection. He said that text by Alexander McDougall described the arrival of a rider in New York and the dispatch of other riders to the south.

Note that Scheide is mistaken about the rider coming into New York being named Bissell. Isaac Bissell had headed to Hartford after passing through Worcester, and Israel had no role in the network.

The Red Queen said...

I will point out that Israel Bissell was paid for his services on Oct. 14, 1776, by Wolcott. You can see it here: https://www.fold3.com/image/10324231 Also, both the document held by the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library and the Norwich copy of the alarm say Israel Bissell. Only Israel shows up in Wolcott's muster. You can easily see how Israel in script can be misread as Isaac. As a mother of an Isaac, his name is most often read as Isaiah. I would believe the transcription error turned Israel into Isaac.

J. L. Bell said...

That Fold3 document shows service in a Connecticut militia company starting in June 1776 and ending 14 August. It has nothing to do with a ride for the Massachusetts government in April 1775.

Records from Massachusetts clearly show that Isaac Bissell was paid for riding to Connecticut at the behest of Joseph Palmer at the beginning of the war. Isaac Bissell’s name then appears on a Connecticut army muster roll as he enlisted and returned to eastern Massachusetts as a soldier.

Yes, a transcription error can easily turn Israel into Isaac. An error can just as easily turn Isaac into Israel. And that’s what happened early in the chain of papers created as riders carried the alarm south from Worcester to Brooklyn and Norwich, Connecticut, and then on to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. But the name Isaac Bissell appears on surviving copies west of Worcester in Springfield and Wethersfield.

Tom Hogan said...

I think you are right that it was Isaac who rode from Watertown. A recent writer suggested that the Isaac identified by Mr. Miles carried a different message. It does not seem likely there were two Bissells available in Watertown to carry express messages to Connecticut. In his March 1776 letter to Palmer, Isaac specifically refers to receiving the message "when Lexinton Fite was". You also make a good point that Isaac probably rode from Worcester to Springfield and on to Hartford. Hartford was the home of Connecticut's colonial legislature, not Norwich or New London. It seems plausible that a second, unidentified rider headed south to carry the news separately.