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.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“The Gun He Carried on that Eventful Day”

Normally the people most eager to preserve and retell the stories of a man’s heroism in the Revolutionary War are his descendants. The case of Hezekiah Wyman is unusual in that a heroic story about him was widely published and republished starting in 1835, but there was no family lore about him in print until sixty years later.

Isaac Chauncey (or Chauncy) Wyman (1827-1910, shown here) was an attorney in Salem. He never married, and left over two million dollars to his alma mater, Princeton. (This bequest turned out to affect Woodrow Wilson’s political career in a backhanded way, but that’s a different story.) Edward Wall’s Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848 contains an unflattering and rather sad profile of this Wyman. A member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, he appears to be the source of statements about his family history published around the turn of the last century.

An 1895 volume of The Bench and Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, collecting profiles about lawyers for sale to those same lawyers, says this about Isaac Chauncey Wyman:

His father [Isaac] was born in Cambridge, January 1, 1762, and died in Salem in 1836, having been present at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill and at the siege of Boston, acting as a substitute for an uncle who was a lieutenant colonel under General [John] Stark, and afterwards serving until the end of the war.

Isaac, the father, was the son of Hezekiah Wyman, a soldier in the army of General [James] Wolfe, who was born in Woburn and was the fifth son of Capt. [Seth] Wyman, memorable for the conduct of “Lovewell’s Fight” and who died of wounds received in that affair.
Lt. Col. Isaac Wyman (1724-1792) of Keene, New Hampshire, did indeed serve under Stark from 23 Apr 1775 to the end of that year. He then returned to New Hampshire and became a colonel in the state militia. His son Isaac (1756-1835) received a pension for Revolutionary military service.

I have no idea why this lieutenant colonel would need a “substitute,” and doubt anyone would have seen a thirteen-year-old boy as a fair replacement. Possibly the author meant “subordinate” or “subaltern”—but I’m not finding records to match that.

Capt. Seth Wyman (1686-1725) was indeed celebrated for “Lovewell’s Fight,” a guerilla battle with Pequawket fighters in the Maine woods in 1725 which sounds like a dreadful affair all around. He didn’t die of his wounds, but of dysentery on a subsequent mission.

I’ll address the other statements about Hezekiah and Isaac Wyman as they appear in more detail in volume 4 of Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts (1908). This series, edited by William Richard Cutter [him again!], combined family lore and genealogical research. Like the book on lawyers, the series was probably financed by the families it discussed.

The entry on the Wyman family describes Hezekiah this way:
He was a soldier in the French and Indian war, and was in General Wolfe’s army at the battle of Quebec. Tradition has it that he pointed out the secret path that led to the Heights of Abraham, by which the British and Americans were led to the plateau, met the French on equal footing and conquered the city.

In recognition of his services in this campaign he was granted a manor in New York, but never claimed his grant, and it was finally taken up by squatters.

When the revolution came he marched with his company on the Lexington alarm and took part in the fighting at Concord, April 19. 1775. When he died he bequeathed outside his family the gun he carried on that eventful dav, but it is now in the possession of his grandson, Isaac Chauncy Wyman, of Salem.

He was fifty-five years old at the time of the battle, and lived but a few years afterward. A picture of him, seated upon a white horse, is preserved in the public library at Woburn. His home was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in later years.
I can’t find Hezekiah Wyman listed as a veteran of Wolfe’s campaign against Quebec, or elsewhere in the French and Indian War. In 1890 the Winchester Historical Society published a list of the town’s veterans of that war, and it doesn’t include him.

A “manor in New York” should be well documented. But the only land grant connected to Hezekiah Wyman that I can find was in Massachusetts. In its 1772-73 session, the legislature granted “Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn” and his brother Ross some land in reward for their father Seth’s services in 1725. The province had granted Seth land which turned out to be over the New Hampshire border. In compensation, Ross and Hezekiah were allowed to develop 500 acres in western Massachusetts instead.

As for Hezekiah Wyman pointing out the secret path up the cliffs to Quebec, that’s an incredible feat for someone who’d never been in the area, isn’t it?

Most interestingly, this family lore says Hezekiah Wyman “marched with his company on the Lexington alarm.” It doesn’t mention him riding a white horse alone, though obviously that story had made it to the Woburn public library. Isaac Chauncey Wyman had supposedly brought his grandfather Hezekiah’s gun back into the family, presumably by buying it—yet his lore makes no mention of extraordinary marksmanship.

The same entry states that Hezekiah’s son Isaac was born in 1756, not 1762, which makes service in the siege of Boston much more likely—unless the genealogists simply confused him with his New Hampshire cousin. Further statements about Isaac:
He was an active and influential patriot in revolutionary days, and a distinguished military figure. He was with his father in the battle of Concord, and rose step by step to the rank of colonel of a cavalry regiment, or horse troops, as they were called. . . .

Colonel Wyman acquired military habits of arbitrary thought and action during the war, and was rather austere and stern. In business he commanded, and his word was law… Like most of the Continental army officers, he was a Free Mason.

He married, July 2, 1820, Elizabeth Ingalls. born in Lynn, January 19, 1789, daughter of Henry Ingalls, an officer at one time of the famous frigate “Constitution.”
I can’t find any mention of an officer on the Constitution named Henry Ingalls.

The only Revolutionary War officer named Isaac Wyman, “horse troops” or not, was the older man from New Hampshire. It’s possible that Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s father achieved the rank of colonel in the militia during peacetime, as stated in a 1910 N.E.H.G.S. obituary. It’s also possible that’s just one more unverifiable thing he said.

One final curiosity about these entries is that, although they give a detailed portrait of Isaac Wyman’s personality, they don’t offer a specific date of death. The latter doesn’t even state a definite year: “about 1836.” That suggests there was some rupture in the family. Several issues of the Salem Gazette in November 1836 carried an advertisement dated the first of that month saying Isaac’s widow Elizabeth had been appointed to administer his estate, meaning he’d died intestate. Isaac Chauncey Wyman was then only eight or nine.

So what can we conclude from Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s family lore?
  • He really, really wanted to have ancestors with distinguished military records.
  • A lot of the information he passed on can’t be confirmed from reliable sources.
  • Despite his hunger for ancestral glory and his low standards of evidence, Isaac Chauncey Wyman didn’t think of his grandfather as the legendary “White Horseman.”
Instead, this Wyman imagined his grandpa Hezekiah and his father Isaac marching together on 19 Apr 1775.

COMING UP: After a pause for Bunker Hill, some concluding thoughts on Hezekiah Wyman.


R Fuller said...

"When he died he bequeathed outside his family the gun he carried on that eventful dav, but it is now in the possession of his grandson, Isaac Chauncy Wyman, of Salem."

So...I wonder whatever happened to this fabled- and I do mean fabled- gun?

Militiaman said...

My concluding thoughts are that this whole Hezekiah Wyman story is a colossal hoax.A boring one at that.

J. L. Bell said...

Funny you should ask about that gun, Roger. This posting prompted a couple of emails with unexpected information on just that question. More to come later this month?

George Lovely said...

The paragraph about Seth Wyman states he died 1825. That should be 1725.

Charles Bahne said...

The question naturally arises: Do any of the contemporary descriptions of April 19 -- on either side -- make any mention of anyone on horseback on the American side who participated in the military action (as opposed to just being a message carrier)?

For all of the fuss made about "Death on the Pale Horse" in the 19th century, if the story were true, you would think there would have been some contemporary notice, even if they didn't know his name.

J. L. Bell said...

That’s a good question about mounted riders, Charlie, and I’m definitely going to address it.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, George, I’ve made the correction. I must be so used to writing 17— dates that when an entry has a lot of 18— dates I can’t keep ’em straight!

Charles Bahne said...

Sorry for the late posting on this, but it took me a while to figure out all the Isaacs and then do the math. Something doesn't add up here, and I mean that literally.

Isaac Chauncy Wyman's father, also Isaac Wyman, was born either in 1756 or 1762. The uncertainty is because his story may have gotten conflated with his cousin, also Isaac Wyman.

If Isaac Chauncy's father was born in 1756, then he would have been 19 at the time of Lexington and Concord, and may well have accompanied his father that day. He would have been 64 at the time of his (first?) marriage in 1820, and 71 at the birth of his (first? only?) son Isaac Chauncy in 1827. And he was 80 when he died in 1836.

If Isaac Chauncy's father was born in 1762, he would have been 13 on the day of Lexington and Concord, almost certainly too young to have played any military role, unless he was a drummer, which is not what's been claimed. And he still would have been 58 at the time of marriage, 65 when his son was born, and 74 at his death.

While technically feasible, his advanced age at the time of his marriage and his son's birth definitely stretches the bounds of credulity.

Putting both ends of his life together, his accomplishments in youth and in old age are an unrealistic combination. (What did he do in the middle of his life, between 1775 and 1820?) His story isn't quite as far-fetched as David Kinnison, but it's headed in that direction.

Isaac Chauncy's mother, by the way, was about 31 at the time of her marriage, 38 at the birth of her son, and 47 when she was widowed -- all perfectly plausible.

All of this leads me to wonder whether Isaac Chauncy Wyman had any relationship at all with the famed Hezekiah Wyman. Yes, his father was named Isaac Wyman, but there seem to be a lot of Isaac Wymans around -- 4 of them in this story alone! Could Isaac Chauncy's father have been descended from some other Wyman family?

And Isaac Chauncy doesn't start telling this story until 59 years after his father's death.

Are there any independent sources, such as census records, that could confirm the birthdate of Isaac Chauncy's father?

As for that "Chauncy" part, wasn't that one of the aliases used by that Gerhartsreiter fellow here in Boston a couple of years ago?

Sad to say, Isaac Chauncy Wyman's story rings about as true as Clark Rockefeller's.

J. L. Bell said...

Adding to the oddity is that a man named Isaac Chauncey was prominent in the American navy around the time Isaac Chauncey Wyman was born, so the baby seems to have been named after someone outside the family. Of course, he could also have received his father’s first name. The Salem newspaper ads from 1836 certainly imply that there was a marriage, but say nothing more.

I don’t think the genealogies associated with Isaac Chauncey Wyman are at all reliable. They seem to have assembled from later research and wishful thinking rather than authentic family knowledge. He was still very young when his father died, yet apparently felt more sure about where his father was on 19 Apr 1775 than about the date of that death.

My main conclusion about Isaac Chauncey Wyman remains that he desperately wanted to be descended from American heroes. He could have presented himself as grandson of Hezekiah Wyman, the “White Horseman.” But either he had never heard that story, or he decided that people wouldn’t believe it.

Charles Bahne said...

A birthdate of, say, 1780 for Isaac Chauncey's father would agree better with what we know about his family life. But of course that would have made it impossible for him to be involved with the Revolutionary War. So perhaps Isaac Chauncey Wyman adjusted his father's age as well as the other details.

R Fuller said...

Thanks, J. L., I look forward to some kind of clarification on this story. Inherent in the tale is the "long-barrelled rifle and stoic rifleman" myth which seems to run like a thread through much of the 19th century reinterpretation of American colonial history.

This myth consists in varying forms (starting with The Leatherstocking Tales) of the lone rifleman winning the war for the rebels. There is of course in this myth, as in all myths, a grain of truth, albeit overwhelmingly exaggerated to fit later romantic sensibilities, but there is no credible evidence of anybody using rifles in the Lexington Alarm or even at Bunker Hill. If the gun was real, or "real" in the sense of the tale being true, then it would likely have been a long, smoothbore fowling piece, with a barrel at least four feet long. Cumbersome to carry on horseback, but doable- barely. It would not have been as accurate as a rifle, but, fired at a group of people, the terrorizing effect might have been noticed or recorded by somebody else.

The horse, on whose back the gun would have rested for a supposedly stable firing platform, would have been gunfire-trained, a considerable effort not expended much by peacetime people too old for militia service (or so goes one version of the story).

The whole tale just sounds more and more like an exaggeration of a basic tale of seeing somebody firing his gun that day, done through wishful thinking and memory creep, if not flat-out self-aggrandizement.

One last thing: are there any British mentions of this? Could Vincent J.R. Kehoe have mentioned this in "We Were There", his collection of accounts of April 19, 1775? Maybe, but I could be wrong. I'll look through my copy when I get a chance.

J. L. Bell said...

The “lone rifleman” theory seems to have had currency even before the Revolution. Boston merchant John Andrews wrote about a country marksman frightening the British soldiers encamped on the Common. So it’s not surprising that it would also show up in historical fiction like “The White Horseman,” given how that genre boils down mass actions into individual ones.

The gun that supposedly belonged to Isaac Chauncey Wyman’s father appears to have a barrel a little less than 4' long. But there are lots of questions about it.

I’m working up to discussing the evidence from the British side. After all, the whole point of “The White Horseman” is that Wyman struck fear into the redcoats’ hearts—“Death on the pale horse”!

Anonymous said...

As a descendant of Hezekiah, I find this very interesting. I can't say that I heard this story while sitting on my grandmother's knee (Cora Wyman, dau. of Daniel Wyman of Arlington). We have a lot of things handed down about their farm on Spy Pond, but I don't recall any earlier Wyman artifacts or documents. I will have to check the boxes my mother has stored away. Interestingly, Cora's husband was Stephen Morse Richardson, named after the Stephen Morse who married Rebekah Howe, descendant of Daniel Howe, who opened "Longfellow's" Wayside Inn in Sudbury. We have an exact duplicate of the coat of arms that hangs in the Wayside Inn. According to extensive research published in a book about the Wayside Inn, however, the coat of arms is made up. It makes you wonder how much of history is more than a little bit off.

Stephen Morse Hollister