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, June 12, 2010

David Kinnison “saw the old man on his white horse”

Soon after “The White Horseman” appeared in the Boston Pearl and Literary Digest in 1835, it was reprinted in several newspapers. Over the next few years that tale of mounted sharpshooter Hezekiah Wyman cropped up in other periodicals as their editors scrounged for material. Those republications removed “The White Horseman” from its original context in a literary magazine.

In 1851, Henry C. Watson gave the Wyman story wider circulation by including it in his book The Yankee Tea-Party; or, Boston in 1773. This book is set up as a conversation between some admiring young men and a bunch of very old and talkative Revolutionary War veterans. Jonas Davenport, who “lived near Lexington,” and David Kinnison introduce the Wyman tale this way:

”I can tell you folks of something more about that retreat from Concord,” continued Davenport. “The story is generally known up around the country here, but some of you may not have heard it. It’s about old Hezekiah Wyman, who gained the name of ‘Death on the pale horse.’”

“I heard the story, and saw the old man on his white horse,” remarked Kinnison; “but it will interest the young men, no doubt—so drive on.”
Davenport then goes into a shortened version of the Wyman tale, skipping over the fictional young militia captain named Roe but using a lot of the original language without credit to the Pearl. This version ends with Kinnison saying: “I knew the old fellow well. He had the name of being one of the best shots around that part of the country. I should never want to be within his range.”

Davenport appears to be fictional. Kinnison (or Kennison) was a real man who arrived in Chicago about 1848 claiming to have been born in 1736 and to be the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. He lived off people who believed him until he died in 1852, some thirty years younger than he claimed to be. In the twentieth century writers published some thorough debunking of his claims, but he nevertheless continues to appear on lists of Revolutionary veterans. Kinnison’s picture appears above, courtesy of Find a Grave.

Watson’s statement that Kinnison claimed to have seen “the old man on his white horse” doesn’t indicate anything about the accuracy of the Wyman story. But it shows that by 1851 lots of people had heard the tale and believed it to be authentic.

TOMORROW: And then Hezekiah Wyman’s story got better.


Susan Holloway Scott said...

I've enjoyed this series of blogs immensely. Thank you for sharing your splendid historical sleuthing!

pilgrimchick said...

I think it's amazing to hear about how people in the 19th century reflected upon the events of the Revolutionary War. I wonder if anyone has ever studied their perspectives and how they may differ from how people today see the conflict and its aftermath.

J. L. Bell said...

There have been many good studies on changing perceptions of the Revolutionary War, though since it’s a sort of “meta” topic they tend to be written for specialists. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride contains a very good section on how that one incident has been suppressed, revealed, interpreted, mythologized, and reinterpreted over time. Another book I like on this topic is Kammen’s Season of Youth.