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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Monday, June 14, 2010

Young James Russell and a Load of Green Peas

Aside from David Kinnison, who appears to have been ready to tell any Revolutionary story if it would get him a dinner in Chicago around the year 1850, did anyone claim to have actually seen Hezekiah Wyman shooting British soldiers on 19 Apr 1775?

In 1864, the Rev. Samuel Abbott Smith of Arlington believed he had identified such a witness. In his history of that village’s experiences on the first day of the Revolutionary War, Smith wrote:

Through their whole retreat the British had noticed one man in particular, whom they learned especially to dread. He was an old, gray-haired hunter, named Wyman of Woburn, and he rode a fine white horse. He struck the trail as they left Concord, and would ride up within gunshot, then turning the horse throw himself off, aim his long gun resting on the saddle, and that aim was death. They would say, “Look out, there is the man on the white horse.”

He followed them the whole distance, and James Russell, the father of James Russell, Esq., then a boy of a dozen years, from behind a house on Charlestown street, saw him gallop across the brook and up the hill, pursued by a party of the flank guard who kept the plains midway between Charlestown and Main streets. He turned, aimed, and the boy saw one of the British fall. He rode on, and soon the same gun was heard again, this time also with deadly effect.
Smith’s footnotes indicated that he’d heard about Wyman from two people:
  • “James Russell, Esq.,” a former state senator who died in 1863.
  • Thomas Hall, who had married a granddaughter of the Hannah Adams driven from her home on 19 Apr 1775.
Of course, given how widely “The White Horseman” had been reprinted by 1864, lots of people had read about Hezekiah Wyman picking off redcoats with his long gun. The published tale could have supplemented, enhanced, or even launched Arlington’s oral traditions. How, for instance, was twelve-year-old James Russell able to identify the “old, gray-haired hunter” by name if he’d simply seen the man ride past at a distance?

On the other hand, since the published tales said Wyman was from Lexington, how did Smith’s version identify him as “Wyman of Woburn,” the only town with a documented older Hezekiah Wyman?

Was the first James Russell a reliable witness? Arlington vital records say that he was born in April 1763 and died in 1846. He married Rebecca Adams in 1783 (not the daughter of the Hannah Adams mentioned above). James and Rebecca Russell had their first child six months later, and their second son James in 1788. They thus had plenty of time to pass on Revolutionary stories to their kids.

Perhaps too much time. Here’s another Russell family tale, preserved in the second volume of Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County, Massachusetts (1908), edited by William R. Cutter, descendant of yet another Arlington family.
[James Russell] was twelve years old at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill. The day of the battle he and a younger brother drove to Salem with a load of green peas and sold the produce, but the boys were held up by British soldiers at the spot now known as Medford Square, in Medford, and ordered to help carry the dead and wounded from the battle field. The boys had no liking for the dreadful work, and seized an opportunity to make their escape.
How could British soldiers, dying by the score to win the Charlestown peninsula, get to Medford Square? Could these two young boys have ended up on the British side of the siege lines? Was this story garbled in transmission? If so, what does that say about other tales this man’s son passed on in his old age?

TOMORROW: The Wyman family’s own stories.


Militiaman said...

This whole tale of the so-called "white-horseman" reeks of 19th. century sensationalism.It seems to have been embellished over time and serious consideration that this may have been a factual occurrance is foolish.

J. L. Bell said...

“The White Horseman” certainly is sensational, and it’s certainly been embellished. Most likely it was embellished from that start.

And yet for a sensational piece of fiction created just to titillate Americans with a picture of a brave founder, it gets a surprising number of details “right.”

On the other hand, for an oral tradition that’s a little embellished but rooted in fact, there’s an embarrassing lack of corroboration.

Since the Hezekiah Wyman story has been accepted by some serious historians and lots of popular ones, I think it’s worth exploring even if it’s hooey. Such case studies help us to understand how we remember our past, rightly and wrongly.