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, July 31, 2010

“Thus All the Stores Were Effectually Concealed”

The journalist J. Benson Lossing came through Massachusetts in 1848 on an assignment for Harper’s Magazine. He was dogged in looking for elderly survivors of the American Revolution and setting down their stories. On the other hand, he had a tendency to print legends without apparently inquiring too deeply into them.

Among the people Lossing interviewed during his visit to Concord was James Barrett (1761-1850), namesake descendant of the colonel in charge of the town’s militia regiment at the start of the war. Lossing reported:

We rode to the residence of Major James Barrett, a surviving grandson of Colonel Barrett, about two miles north of the village, and near the residence of his venerated ancestor. Major Barrett was eighty-seven years of age when I visited him, and his wife, with whom he had lived nearly sixty years, was eighty. . . .

Major Barrett was a lad of fourteen when the British incursion into Concord took place. He was too young to bear a musket, but, with every lad and woman in the vicinity, he labored in concealing the stores and in making cartridges for those who went out to fight.

With oxen and cart, himself, and others about his age, removed the stores deposited at the house of his grandfather into the woods, and concealed them, a cart-load in a place, under pine boughs. In such haste were they obliged to act on the approach of the British from Lexington that, when the cart was loaded, the lads would march on each side of the oxen and goad them into a trot.

Thus all the stores were effectually concealed, except some carriage-wheels. Perceiving the enemy near, these were cut up and burned; so that [Capt. Lawrence] Parsons found nothing of value [at Col. Barrett’s farm] to destroy or carry away.
I suspect the engraving above was inspired by that anecdote. And I think Barrett’s story is credible. It fits with other evidence we have, doesn’t claim too much, and captures the excitement of 18-19 Apr 1775 and the energy of adolescent boys eager to help.

Today at Col. Barrett’s farm I’m talking about the weapons stored there in April 1775, including four cannons hauled away to a hiding-place, perhaps by his grandsons.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Searching for the Soldiers at Lexington and Concord

Looking ahead to Saturday’s celebration of Col. James Barrett’s 300th birthday in Concord, here’s a new online resource about the Battle of Lexington and Concord: a Soldier Search database of New England militiamen who participated in the fighting on 19 Apr 1775.

As the website explains, the names in this database represent only a minority of the Americans who mustered immediately after hearing news of the shots at Lexington and Concord:

The 4000 minute and militiamen who were engaged in battle that day were just the first of many more to come. By April 21st, nearly 20,000 militiamen were mobilized and marching towards Boston to besiege the British Army, now trapped in the town.

In the following months, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress wrestling with the logistics of such a large and rapid military mobilization, requested that all company commanders who led a company during the Lexington Alarm, to submit a muster roll, a list of names, of the men who served with their respective companies during this event. This was so the men could be paid for their service, mileage, days in camp, etc.

These muster rolls are now kept in the Massachusetts State Archives.
The online database, built on the work of Frank W. Coburn a century ago, lists all the men from the 27 towns whose companies saw combat on 19 Apr 1775, and whose company commanders got around to submitting their names. Here, for example, is Col. Barrett’s entry.

This database was funded by a grant to Minute Man National Historical Park, and is hosted by the Friends of Minute Man National Park.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Celebrating James Barrett’s 300th on 31 July 2010

On Saturday, 31 July, Save Our Heritage is hosting a 300th Birthday party of Col. James Barrett of Concord, with events from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Here’s the group’s tentative schedule for the day, and here’s the summary version from the Friends of Minute Man Park.

Barrett was in charge of the Middlesex County militia regiment, and sometimes a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He became the local point man for assembling military supplies, and then for hiding them from the royal authorities. Those supplies included four brass cannons that members of the Boston militia artillery company had stolen from their own gunhouses and then helped to ship out to Concord. (One of them is shown above, as currently displayed at the M.M.N.H.P.’s Concord visitor center.)

I expect to be speaking at the Barrett birthday party about those cannons, how they got out of Boston and how Gen. Thomas Gage sent troops to Barrett’s farm find them. I may also speak about the so-called “Pitcairn pistols” captured on 19 Apr 1775, which also went through Barrett hands. Save Our Heritage is raising funds to preserve the Barrett homestead and allow it to become part of the larger Minute Man Park.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Twitter Feed, 15-25 July 2010

  • Exploring 18thConnect, "a community of scholars that shapes the world of digital resources" on 1700s: http://www.18thconnect.org/
  • WASHINGTON POST review of Jaffe's KING'S BEST HIGHWAY: http://bit.ly/cJ4VPs "how to fashion narrative tension out of…a compendium"?
  • Via @JBD1, retraction of dubious story in Michael Bellesiles's CHRONICLE OF HIGHER ED oped: http://bit.ly/9Gu8Yc Imagine the odds.
  • Eius Liber, new blog on grad-studenting in New England intellectual history: http://eiusliber.blogspot.com/
  • NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW on Jack Rakove's REVOLUTIONARIES: http://nyti.ms/a26aA5 “The Revolution made them as much as they made the Revolution.”
  • From @WilliamHogeland, more #RevWar historians from the left, including the excellent, daunting work of Dirk Hoerder: http://bit.ly/9t4rQ4
  • Letter from Dr Thomas Young, late of Boston, to folks in that new country called Vermont, via @WilliamHogeland: http://bit.ly/aWiHUE
  • RT @executedtoday: #onthisday 24 July 1794, #usa revolutionary hero Thomas Paine was set for execution in #fra; a fluke illness saved him
  • RT @wceberly: 234 yrs today, Jul 24, 1776, In letter to Maj Genl Phillip Schuyler, Congressional Pres John Hancock accuses officer. ...
  • RT @alberkes: A Little Piece of Monticello http://fb.me/FmTAOZYS
  • RT @universalhub: Tea Party rally in Lexington canceled http://bit.ly/9zmlMc
  • @56Signers Thanks for praise and link to Richard Stockton postings.
  • COMMON-PLACE review of Manegold's TEN HILLS FARM, about Medford slaveholders: http://bit.ly/ceT8qo
  • COMMON-PLACE review of Jarvis's IN THE EYE OF ALL TRADE, about Bermuda's place in 18c British Empire: http://bit.ly/a2WIMC
  • COMMON-PLACE review of Archer's AS IF AN ENEMY'S COUNTRY, about Boston Massacre: http://bit.ly/a84vyx
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: For my leftist founding-history reading list: http://tinyurl.com/385gegk (Will do my Tory historians next.)
  • RT @NorthShorePatch: Who were Marblehead's Revolutionary War veterans? Historians search for answers. -- http://patch.com/A-xNP
  • @classroomtools Right wing believes its own claims about political ownership of the American founding.
  • RT @alberkes: This review of the Adams-Jefferson Letters made me cry. Like a baby. I admit it! http://fb.me/F7FrZlLO
  • RT @WilliamHogeland: #FoxNews and WSJ give "Declaration 1776" the most attention, yet some call me @Marxist. What gives, #tcot, #marklevin?
  • From Providence, wife's gravestone, husband's cenotaph, spouses died 31 years apart: http://bit.ly/abbkcB
  • Along the King's Highway looks at Minuteman statues: http://bit.ly/duqzYW
  • Peeking in on original jail of Fort Mackinac, built as British outpost in 1779: http://bit.ly/dynAvw
  • Why does download of Cambridge commission's report on Henry Louis Gates arrest look like a blank white page? http://bit.ly/aqAsiy
  • RT @dancohen: history museums & societies grappling w/ whether to trust user-generated content: http://bit.ly/9Q1TKj via @archivesnext
  • RT @ValleyForgeNHP: Check out what the archaeologists found this weekend from the Washington's HQ dig site! http://ow.ly/2dWiC
  • Via C-SPAN, Dennis Fradin on book 56 SIGNERS about Declaration of Independence for young readers: http://cs.pn/bbR4RG
  • RT @HistoryNet: Daily Quiz for July 20, 2010: During the American Revolution, Gnadenhutten Massacre was in what state? http://bit.ly/d2mNMo
  • Vast Public Indifference reports on will of Lydia Dyer, refugee from army-occupied Boston in 1775: http://bit.ly/97XnIp
  • RT @universalhub: Are feds misnaming Revolutionary naval battle? http://bit.ly/9yV1yd
  • RT @history_book: Colonial Georgia & the Creeks: Anglo-Indian Diplomacy on the Southern Frontier, 1733-1763 - Juricek.
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Is your favorite history museum on our Twitter list? Whom are we missing? http://bit.ly/bwjSSf
  • Addressing legend of British soldiers' widows having to remarry quickly thru actual data: http://bit.ly/cBdfnF
  • RT @opheliacat: RT @Gothamist High-Tech Scanning Of 18th Century Ship At WTC Site http://bit.ly/bE5mMc
  • RT @cliotropic: Listening to @TheHuntington's podcasts: Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses: Writing the Life…" http://bit.ly/9Ftysg
  • Seeking info on Mary William Greely Goodridge, author of "Dorothy Dudley" diary of siege of Boston 1775-76. Found birth date, not much else.
  • Finding it much faster to write 750 words of my own from scratch than to edit 450 of someone else's. Don't have to mind-meld.
  • RT @alberkes: I just discovered that Jefferson called his sister Elizabeth "Bet." (She died in 1774) http://fb.me/BDZkvBxS
  • Rereading review of Brendan McConville's KING'S THREE FACES, about Americans' intellectual break with monarchy: http://bit.ly/9mTEx4
  • From SMITHSONIAN, on the trail of Benedict Arnold in London: http://bit.ly/cys7xk
  • @cliotropic Other recent Pope Night analyses in McConville's KING'S THREE FACES and Bostonian Society website: http://bit.ly/3lKvYX
  • @cliotropic Friend working on Pope Night can check out the DUBLIN SEMINAR PROCEEDINGS for 2000, 2002: http://bit.ly/dzGuuT
  • One of my first history publications was on Dusimitiere's drawings of Pope Night 1767 in Boston. Those are in Philly. The man got around.
  • Mystery watercolor of Charleston's Drayton Hall found, may be by Pierre Eugene Dusimitiere: http://nyti.ms/clrt1G
  • Ship's hull from c1800, other artifacts unearthed from site of World Trade Center: nyti.ms/d9ZbTV #
  • RT @lucyinglis: Georgian London to have and to hold, brought to you by Penguin post.ly/nGFG // Felicitations! #
  • RT @teachinghistory: New Website Review: Coming of the American Revolution - 15 topical essays & 150+ primary sources: bit.ly/a6dAD5 #
  • From @quackwriter, 1739 London ad for "Angelick Snuff": bit.ly/bvWasv #
  • View of Boston Common in 1768 plus talks on Boston's outdoor spaces in next few weeks: bit.ly/dbdPpR #
  • Fun this AM polishing short essay on Anthony Haswell—immigrant, teenaged apprentice, printer. Didn't get to him jailed under Sedition Act. #
The service I was using to collect these tweets automatically has ended, so the format changes partway through this roundup. I’m looking for a replacement.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dropping in on the Wymans

Back when I was pondering the legend of Hezekiah Wyman, I meant to link to the Francis Wyman House. But since I overlooked the link, I’m giving it a whole posting to itself.

The Francis Wyman House is a historic site on Francis Wyman Road in Burlington, Massachusetts, one of the towns that spun off of Woburn. Documents and archeological evidence imply that the house was built before 1666; dendrochronology might be able to nail that down. It’s considered the oldest surviving structure in Burlington and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Francis Wyman Association, which owns the property, was established in 1899 to gather Wyman descendants and to maintain the house as an educational resource. The association is now raising money to restore the interior and build a period-style barn nearby as a museum, meeting place, and education center. The Massachusetts Historical Association has approved a grant that requires matching funds.

In addition to offering information on the house, the website is a repository of historical and genealogical information about the large Wyman family that populated Woburn in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

What Did Washington Do on 3 July 1775?

Gen. George Washington probably didn’t take command in a ceremony on Cambridge common on 3 July 1775. Instead, Gen. Artemas Ward almost certainly turned over the orders book and other necessities late the previous afternoon, as soon as Washington arrived at headquarters in Jonathan Hastings’s house beside Harvard College.

Like most other Massachusetts politicians, Ward was probably pleased to have Washington in command since he embodied the support of the Continental Congress. And since the same Congress had made Ward a major general and second-ranking officer in the army, he didn’t have anything to complain about.

So what did Washington do on 3 July instead? He and Gen. Charles Lee almost certainly spent their first day on the front inspecting the siege lines at what seemed to be their weakest point, near the Charlestown Neck. The British had taken Bunker Hill two and a half weeks before, moving closer to the American camps in western Charlestown and northeastern Cambridge.

Furthermore, it seems likely that Gen. Washington did inspect troops while he was there. That review didn’t involve the whole army, but soldiers stationed near Prospect Hill recorded getting ready for inspections on 3 July.

Lt. Paul Lunt of Newburyport wrote in his diary:

Turned out early in the morning, got in readiness to be reviewed by the general. New orders given out by General Washington.
The same words appear in the diary of Pvt. Moses Sleeper, also from Newburyport; that document is now in the archive of Longfellow National Historic Site.

Lt. John Hodgkins of Ipswich wrote a letter home:
Geaneral Washington & Lees got into Cambridge yesterday and to Day they are to take a Vew of ye Armey, & that will be attended with a grate deal of grandor. There is at this time one & twenty Drummers, & as many feffers a Beting and Playing Round the Prayde.
Forty-two musicians would be about two regiments’ worth, three if they were short-staffed. That passage used to be quoted to support the legend of a big assembly near the Washington Elm, but Hodgkins was probably far from that spot.

None of those diaries or letters records the men’s impression of seeing Washington, or his response to seeing them. The commander might never have actually inspected these men, therefore. But since they don’t write anything about getting all set for nothing, most likely the actual review was routine, and they had nothing to add. They would learn more about the new commander over the next few months.

COMING UP: And the next day?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cambridge’s Revolutionary Elm

Cambridge’s Washington Elm died in 1923 after over two centuries of life, not always in the best of circumstances. The legend of that tree collapsed under its own weight soon afterward. From being what the New England Magazine called “perhaps the best known of all living American trees” in 1900, it went to being a slightly embarrassing lesson in believing everything one saw in one’s textbook.

Yet that tree had stood beside Cambridge common for over two hundred years. It was there when the Rev. George Whitefield preached outdoors, a moment in what a century later was dubbed the “First Great Awakening.” It was there from 1769 to 1772 when the royal governors, Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson, insisted that the Massachusetts legislature meet in Cambridge instead of Boston. It was there when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had a short session in the Cambridge meetinghouse.

The elm was standing when Earl Percy passed through central Cambridge with his reinforcement column on 19 Apr 1775. It was there when provincial troops assembled to march to Charlestown and fortify a part of Bunker Hill on 16 June. It was there on 8 September when volunteers for Benedict Arnold’s march through Maine to Quebec assembled on the common, where, orders said, “tents and everything necessary is provided for their reception.”

I think the most important Revolutionary event the elm “witnessed” was the Powder Alarm of 2 Sept 1774. On that day four thousand Massachusetts men were estimated to have marched onto Cambridge common from the west, mostly along the Watertown road and thus past that elm tree. Alarmed by rumors of an attack on Boston, they refused to leave until all the royally appointed Councilors in Cambridge had resigned their seats and the county sheriff had promised not to assist the Gov. Thomas Gage in further disarming the militias.

This was the Revolution “out of doors,” with the people en masse demanding change from their social superiors. Even the Boston Whigs were worried that the people would go too far. Yet that crowd was orderly enough to choose committees and take votes. On hearing that the worst rumors weren’t true, they had already left their muskets at a tavern near the town border and let their numbers do the talking. It was a hot day, so some men almost certainly stood in the elm trees’ shade.

Violence threatened to erupt when the Customs Commissioners happened by, and later as the crowd surrounded the house of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver to demand that he resign as well. There was a lot of intimidation, but nobody was hurt that day.

By the end of 2 September those men, largely from Middlesex County, had made clear that a revolution in government was already well under way. The Crown no longer had any authority in Massachusetts beyond the range of its guns. Outside of Boston, the only government would be one the people chose. That shift is what the pieces of the “Washington Elm” could signify.

It’s notable that the legend of that elm spotlights a gentleman—a wealthy Virginia planter—coming to tame such militiamen. Textbooks such as Horace Scudder’s History of the United States emphasized how the New England troops were “undisciplined.” James Russell Lowell called the new commander “The incarnate discipline that was to free / With iron curb that armed democracy.”

Basically, the Washington Elm legend captured the site of the “out of doors” revolution of 2 Sept 1774 and turned it into the site of Gen. Washington’s descent into Cambridge, his firm hand calming those too-democratic farmers. And then when it turned out there’s no good evidence that Washington stood under that tree on any important occasion, the Washington Elm’s historic significance disappeared.

If that tree had been dubbed the “Cambridge Elm” or the “Revolutionary Elm,” it would have survived the debunking of one incident. (Though it still wouldn’t have survived city traffic.)

TOMORROW: So what did George Washington do on 3 July 1775?

(Plaque photograph courtesy of Merle Braley’s Just Outside Boston. As a real estate expert, he warns that this spot—right in the middle of traffic—is not one of the more desirable.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Relics of the Washington Elm

Though the Washington Elm beside Cambridge common died in 1923, there are remnants and relics of it everywhere in America. Seedlings from that elm tree were planted in many other places, such as the University of Washington; Rochester, Minnesota; and the state capitol grounds in Nevada and Texas.

(Washington, D.C., claimed its own “Washington Elms” on the Capitol lawn, supposedly planted by George Washington himself as he was viewing the city’s construction. Or perhaps they were already planted and he stood under them. The traditions are unclear, and unsupported by documentation.)

A lot of the wood trimmed from the Washington Elm’s branches over the years, and what was left when it died, was turned into souvenirs. Some of these relics are just scraps of wood. Others are carved artifacts, such as a bench in the Cambridge library and “a carved circular box” that resident and researcher Robert Winters has shared on his website.

Gavels were an especially popular thing to make from the elm. In 1899 the Masonic Grand Lodge of Massachusetts received a gavel with its head made from the Washington Elm. Shortly after the tree fell, Alice M. Longfellow, daughter of the poet, gave a gavel made from its wood to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Another was given to Gen. George S. Patton in 1945. Yet another is in the Henry Ford Museum. And dozens have probably been lost in state houses since the mid-1920s.

Even the phrase “Washington Elm” retains a little resonance: the student newspaper at Washington College in Maryland is named The Elm.

So what meaning do those trees and pieces of wood and memories hold now that most people who do the reading no longer accept the Washington Elm tradition? Are they like religious icons, inspiring respect for what they represent even if people have told dubious stories about them? Or are they evidence of American civic idolatry, built on a foundation of sand?

I think those items deserve to be recalled as Revolutionary relics. But not because of Washington.

TOMORROW: The solidly documented history under the Cambridge elm.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some People Don’t Like Myths Being Taken Away

In 1927, the editor of the Chronicles of Oklahoma, Joseph B. Thoburn, editorialized about Samuel F. Batchelder’s recent attempt to tell the truth about the Washington Elm:

A paper, entitled “The Washington Elm Tradition,” by Samuel F. Batchelder, occupies thirty pages in the “Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society,” for 1925, in a laborious effort to prove that the popular tradition concerning the proximity of General Washington and his army to the noted old tree at the time of his assumption of command, in July, 1775, is without foundation in fact. Numerous authorities are cited, not because any of them throw any real light upon the subject but, seemingly, because none of them even mention it.

It would seem that, if there is a reasonable doubt as to the authenticity of the popular story concerning the Washington Elm, it should be possible to state the same in a few paragraphs. Exploding commonly accepted “traditions” and resolving popular “myths” into their elemental gases seems to be a favorite pastime of some historical writers, who manifest as much zeal, display as much erudition and use as much space in print as if engaged on some really constructive historical composition.
I sometimes see this same attitude today. Thoburn didn’t find any weakness in Batchelder’s evidence or analysis. He must have recognized that quoting diaries that didn’t mention a ceremony on 3 July 1775 was relevant to the question of whether there was one and how strong the evidence was.

But Thoburn was clearly bothered by Batchelder’s conclusion, and apparently by having to accept. So he complained about his colleague spending effort on “Exploding commonly accepted ‘traditions’ and resolving popular ‘myths’.”

Thoburn didn’t seem bothered by the stacks of school textbooks, tourist guidebooks, histories, biographies, and even horticultural catalogues that had devoted many more pages to retelling the “tradition” or “myth” of the Washington Elm without a good factual basis.

TOMORROW: In discarding the Washington Elm, have we gone too far? Or, what should we do with all those souvenirs made from the tree?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Washington Dogwood?

In 1949 Cambridge added a bronze plaque to the granite monument showing Washington on horseback reviewing ranks of troops. The sculptor was Leonard Craske, who also created the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial.

The Cambridge Historical Commission spent a lot of time trying to find correct wording for the caption on that plaque, reflecting both the tradition of the Washington Elm and what could actually be documented. In the end the brass letters say:

having taken command of
the army of the United Colonies
at Cambridge
inspects the troops near this spot
on the fourth day of July 1775.
We know from Gen. Nathanael Greene’s 4 July letter that on that day Washington did have a chance to look at some Rhode Island troops. “Having taken command” separates this scene from whatever earlier moment Gen. Artemas Ward turned over authority. “Near this spot” is vague enough to apply to anything in central Cambridge, if not the whole town. And there’s no mention of a tree.

Similarly, the websites of Cambridge’s historical commission and historical society take pains to say that there’s no evidence for the traditional story of the Washington Elm.

Yet Craske’s plaque shows Washington under a big old elm tree. The earlier markers repeating the legend—the slab of granite with the line said to be written by Longfellow shown above, the D.A.R. plaque—remain on Cambridge common because they have some historic value themselves. And there’s a big tree nearby. Dutch elm disease probably brought down the 1932 replacement elm, so since the 1980s a hardy dogwood has stood in. [CORRECTION: Whoops! That D.A.R. plaque refers to a descendant of Cambridge’s Washington Elm planted in New Jersey. The current replacement for Cambridge’s tree is a younger elm.]

As a result, tourists photograph that dogwood replacement elm beside the monument as historically important, as all these Flickr images show. The last one in that series notes how some guidebooks explain that this isn’t really the tree, and that the basis for the tree’s legend is shaky at best. So does the page for the picture above, by z0xx, which I chose to show because it has a Creative Commons license.

Apparently the dogwood that replaced the elm that was grown from an elm that was grown from another elm that stood in another place in Cambridge when Washington was in town in 1775-76 is now an important symbol of our national heritage. Symbolism’s flexible that way.

TOMORROW: Grumbling about the loss of a tradition.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fall of the Washington Elm

Cambridge’s Washington Elm was in poor shape even before Charles Martyn voiced doubt about its traditional story in his 1921 biography of Gen. Artemas Ward. As the 1889 photograph above shows, the aging tree was surrounded by an iron fence, pruned of several limbs, wrapped with zinc bands, and held up with iron rods.

On 26 Oct 1923, city arborists were in the middle of more pruning when the whole tree collapsed. And right in the middle of the colonial revival, too.

The city cleared away the fallen branches and trunk, cut the wood into souvenirs, and distributed cubes to every state in the union. Workers eventually placed a plaque in the pavement at the site of the tree, and moved the granite monument beside it to the common.

Meanwhile, Irving W. Bailey, a professor of plant anatomy at Harvard, examined the trunk. He concluded that the tree had been 204 to 210 years old—i.e., that it had started growing in the early 1700s. So much for nineteenth-century authors’ awe at how the elm had been standing when British settlers arrived in Massachusetts Bay.

In November 1923, A. Gardner Bartlett published a letter in the Cambridge Tribune, later reprinted in Old-Time New England, which pointed out the tree had stood in a pretty regular line with five other elms, including the “Whitefield elm.” Bartlett theorized that colonial farmers had planted that line of trees to provide shade for the common.

In December, the Tribune published a letter from another local researcher, Samuel Francis Batchelder, questioning the notion that Washington took command under the tree as much of the American army looked on. Batchelder republished this letter as a 1925 pamphlet titled “The Washington Elm Tradition—Is It True?”, then in the Cambridge Historical Society’s journal, and finally in his book Bits of Cambridge History.

Most of Batchelder’s evidence came from Martyn’s Life of Artemas Ward, but he pounded the points home. Martyn’s analysis appeared in a footnote, but Batchelder devoted a whole essay to the topic, and made his argument from within Cambridge’s historical community. Batchelder also had a nasty way with the sarcasm. “If I point out to my little boy the crack in the parlor floor where I once lost a quarter,” Batchelder wrote, “my descendants will doubtless in time show each other the very room where great-grandfather was declared a bankrupt—but it will be the same parlor.”

Even as those researchers wrote, however, other people tried to keep the Washington Elm tradition alive. Some cities offered seedlings from elms that had been grown from seedlings of Cambridge’s elm. In 1932 a “grandchild” of the Washington Elm supplied by the Maryland D.A.R. was planted on the Cambridge common, with a brass marker retelling the usual tradition.

TOMORROW: How things look today.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The First Blow Against the Washington Elm

The twentieth century brought a more skeptical approach to writing history, even the history of one’s own nation (as opposed to someone else’s). Authors began to look askance on stories based only on “tradition,” demanding support from contemporaneous documents. One casualty of that approach was the legend of the Washington Elm.

Charles Martyn’s biography The Life of Artemas Ward (1921) struck the first blow. He studied Gen. Ward’s orders book, which notes the arrival of the new commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington, in Cambridge on 2 July, but mentions no ceremonial handover scheduled the next day, much less one involving lots of American troops.

Martyn also looked at diaries from men in the New England army besieging Boston. He found nine that mention Washington’s arrival, but none describes him taking command in a public ceremony on Cambridge common.

What’s more, Martyn reported, four “diaries specifically testify that on July 3 there happened ‘Nothing new’ or ‘Nothing remarkable’ or ‘Nothing extraordinary’.” And about other sources:

No one was sufficiently impressed by his assumption of the command to send a letter to any newspaper, though events of much lesser moment were thus reported; no one seems to have described the ceremony in any letter to family or friends; and no diary recorded it.
Only two diaries contain any hint of parading for the new commander.

Martyn quoted a letter that Gen. Nathanael Greene (shown above) wrote on 4 July:
I sent a detachment today of two hundred men, commanded by a colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and major with a letter of address to welcome his Excellency to camp. The detachment met with a very gracious reception, and his Excellency returned me a very polite answer, and invitation to visit him at his headquarters.
This makes clear that after Washington’s first full day as commander in Cambridge:
  • Greene still hadn’t met the generalissimo.
  • Washington hadn’t reviewed most of Greene’s Rhode Island troops.
  • Greene felt that sending two hundred men (less than one regiment) with some well-chosen officers and a nicely written letter was a sufficient welcome. In fact, in sending such a big delegation Greene comes across as a bit of a suck-up.
The obvious implication is that the late-nineteenth-century descriptions of Gen. Washington taking command of the entire American army, or even a lot of it, on Cambridge common were not only unsupported by contemporaneous documents, but actually contradicted by them.

TOMORROW: The Washington Elm crashes to earth.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Earlier Allusion: “Beneath the Venerable Elm…”

I interrupt my analysis of the Washington Elm’s decline and fall to share new information on its rise to fame. Yesterday Cambridge resident Robert Winters alerted me to an allusion to the tree predating John Langdon Sibley’s 1837 magazine article that apparently produced the term “Washington Elm.”

The author was politician, academician, and orator Edward Everett (shown here), and the occasion was his speech in Cambridge on 4 July 1826. He told the crowd how fortunate they were to be right where they were:
Here the first American army was formed; from this place, on the seventeenth of June, was detached the Spartan band that immortalized the heights of Charlestown—consecrated that day, with blood and fire, to the cause of American liberty.

Beneath the venerable elm which still shades the southwestern corner of the common, General Washington first unsheathed his sword at the head of an American army; and to that seat he was wont every Sunday to repair, to join in the supplications which were made for the welfare of his country.
A footnote identified “that seat” as “The first wall pew on the right hand of the pulpit,” which suggests Everett spoke in the Cambridge meetinghouse beside the common. I’ve seen evidence that Washington attended at least one service in that church, but not that he went there habitually.

In addition, on 4 July 1842, the Rev. Charles W. Upham of Salem delivered an oration in that city which said:
A more perfectly fitted and furnished character has never appeared, on the theatre of human action, than when, reining up his war-horse, beneath the majestic and venerable elm, still standing at the entrance of the old Watertown road upon Cambridge Common, George Washington unsheathed his sword, and assumed the command of the gathering armies of American liberty.
Both speeches were reprinted and anthologized in the 1800s, and Upham’s passage was quoted in several elocution textbooks, helping to seal the image of Washington under the elm in Americans’ minds. (Everett was also, you may recall, responsible for putting the Washington Elm on Cambridge’s city seal.)

TOMORROW: But nothing lasts forever.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Growth of the Washington Elm

To return to the Washington Elm, said to be the tree in Cambridge under which Gen. George Washington took command, one of the striking things about that story is how it grew over the years. The first print mention, back in 1837, stated:

when Washington arrived at Cambridge, he drew his sword as commander-in-chief of the American army, for the first time, beneath its boughs, and resolved within himself that it should never be sheathed till the liberties of his country were established.
The image of Washington drawing a sword shows up in many of the subsequent descriptions of the event, though it might simply have been metaphorical.

Gradually, authors and illustrators began to increase the number of troops involved, if not explicitly then implicitly. By 1864, Benjamin Franklin Morris thought it credible for a Continental Army chaplain to describe how Washington “drew his sword and formally took command of the army of seventeen thousand men.” In 1876 Currier & Ives published this lithograph of “Washington Taking Control of the American Army, at Cambridge, Mass. July 1775.” Like the 1797 engraving I started with, it shows ranks of soldiers drawn up for review, equipped with uniforms, flags, and tents. But now there are even more ranks, and the Washington Elm towers over the scene.

Another Centennial manifestation of the myth was the diary of “Dorothy Dudley,” published in a commemorative book titled Theatrum Majorum: The Cambridge of 1776. Many authors have taken that diary of a Cambridge teenager as authentic. But the writer, Mary Williams Greely (later Goodridge, born 1848), created the day-by-day account of the siege as historical fiction. The second edition states that explicitly. An 1885 reference book listed “Dorothy Dudley” as Goodridge’s pseudonym. The true nature of that diary has been stated many times, and yet it keeps getting cited and studied.

The “Dudley diary,” Currier & Ives print, and Lowell poem aren’t the crowning details of the Washington Elm legend, though. It seems impossible to top an unsourced claim that Samuel Adams Drake made in Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex, first published in 1874:
When the camp was here Washington caused a platform to be built among the branches of this tree, where he was accustomed to sit and survey with his glass the country round.
Unfortunately, I’ve found no images of the commander-in-chief in his treehouse.

TOMORROW: The great tree starts to fall.

“He was formerly employed…”

Recently Don Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution quoted what might be the Most Awesome Deserter Ad Ever, from the Edinburgh Advertiser dated 7 Mar 1780:

Deserted from his Majesty’s South Fencible Regiment, quartered at Dumfries, on Friday Feb. 25, 1780, Hector M’Lean, private soldier, born in Glasgow, 25 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches high, fair complexion, fair hair, grey eyes, and a little long chin’d, stout made, and walks very upright, by trade a comb maker; had on when he deserted the regimentals of the light company of the above regiment.

He was formerly employed as a tumbler to a company of Stirling players, and is well known about Edinburgh and Kendal in Westmoreland: and it is supposed when he left the regiment he took the English road.

Whoever can secure the said deserter in any jail shall be entitled to Two Guineas reward, over and above what is allowed by act of parliament for apprehending deserters, and that immediately on giving notice to the commanding officer at Dumfries.
So anyone who sees a former “tumbler” walking “very upright” along the road to England, he’s worth two guineas!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Twitter Feed, 4-14 July 2010

  • Snopes on legend of John Hancock's comments on signing Declaration of Independence: bit.ly/abUIYh #
  • Did English Civil War prefigure the American Revolution? Oped from NY TIMES: nyti.ms/aCpq5z #
  • Rather silly essay by Joe Queenan on adages in POOR RICHARD'S ALMANAC: nyti.ms/dmYAA0 Sayings were cribbed from books to fill space. #
  • Visiting Bunker Hill Monument with NY TIMES: nyti.ms/9KUGBJ (Note that URL says "Labor Day".) #
  • New COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG JOURNAL covers crafts, livestock, Wythe, George III, wars with Natives & ice cream: bit.ly/9LugN7 #
  • More historical American ice cream: bit.ly/bKOMfu #
  • AXE COP comic, co-created by six-year-old boy and twentysomething brother, visits the Revolutionary War: bit.ly/aIzmnf #
  • RT @PennyInkwell: Hampton archeological dig uncovers 18th-century structure: (06/25/2010) bit.ly/cjMnI6 #
  • RT @TheOnion: Man Who Fought For Americans' Rights Demands Americans Stop Exercising Their Rights onion.com/aPXW3K #
  • RT @56Signers: 56DaysofSigners/#Jefferson watches anxiously as his words edited by #Congress. 86 changes l8r, doc adopted. #july4 #
  • RT @Deborahkops: The real Betsy Ross was much more interesting than the demure woman in history books. tinyurl.com/24av5rd #
  • BOSTON GLOBE on Freedom Trail Foundation's new "changing of guard" ceremony: bit.ly/df7FrX (Bayonets yay! Beards bah!) #
  • Sam Haselby in BOSTON GLOBE on turning Founding Fathers into legends: bit.ly/dtJk43 #
  • New self-published historical fantasy for kids set in Boston, April 1775: SHADOW FOX: SONS OF LIBERTY – bit.ly/9ZAcP6 #
  • American Independence Museum in Exeter, NH, wants people to come north: bit.ly/bpHMhc #
  • Follow the archeological excavations at Munroe Tavern in Lexington thru UMass Boston's Fiske Center: bit.ly/9OsHC2 #
  • Boston's Museum of Fine Arts hanging Copleys, arranging silver for reopening wing in Nov 2010—hard to wait that long! bit.ly/cEmEjH #
  • Four Cambridge, Mass., historical organizations invite researchers to tour their archives this month: bit.ly/cQYPhQ #
  • Exhibit and sale in Newport to benefit Historic New England includes Copley pastel portrait of "Lady Temple": bit.ly/bT73gB #
  • Marriage of Whig merchant James Bowdoin's daughter Elizabeth to royal official Sir John Temple a huge deal in Revolutionary Boston politics. #
  • After marriage Temple took side of Boston merchants, angered fellow Customs Commissioners, leaked sensitive documents to Franklin. #
  • RT @amhistorymuseum: Today in 1789: US intros tax on imported sugar: 1¢/lb on brown, 3¢/ refined white. Sugar standards: ow.ly/26G1P #
  • RT @larrycebula: Patriotic blogging with a dash of #Deism: bit.ly/aRfPsv #twitterstorian #history #jefferson #4thofJuly #
  • RT @larrycebula: Atlas of Historical County Boundaries shows boundary changes of every US county 1600s to 2000: bit.ly/4V7ALf #
  • RT @lynneguist: names for the war that tore us asunder [that would be US Revolution], plus an aside on barbecue: bit.ly/aWMjX8 #
  • Okay, these #comics I have to read: JERRY DRUMMER, BOY HERO OF THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR: bit.ly/9jrh8g Only three issues, after all. #
  • From Foreign Policy Research Institute, Harvey Sucherman's "Benjamin Franklin & Traditions of American Diplomacy": bit.ly/9iFzHx #
  • From Drexel, Morgan Meis discusses the balance he sees within the Declaration of Independence: bit.ly/cJkd2H #
  • RT @56Signers: 56DaysofSigners/Hancock boyhood home still exists: bit.ly/90i2DY #americanhistory // Also his domicile on 18 Apr 1775 #
  • RT @history_book: The Making of the British Army - by Allan Mallinson - Bantam Press. amzn.to/cTa8Z6 #
  • RT @classroomtools: @Aaron_Eyle r #History link to 2003 BBC broadcast "What if the US had lost the Revolutionary War?" bit.ly/ddEdeU #
  • Speaking up for Gen Horatio Gates, buried (somewhere) in NY's Trinity Church cemetery: nyti.ms/dq7uri #
  • From @lucyinglis, Wedgwood Museum's fate up in the air: bit.ly/drmvB6 #
  • RT @HeritageMuse: Transcription of 1775 authorization to raise the Nova Scotia Volunteers regiment bit.ly/b8tUmb #
  • RT @HeritageMuse: 1784 order from Gov John Parr to lay out grants in Ship Harbour, NS. Includes grantees bit.ly/cBRZzw #
  • RT @HeritageMuse: 1783 permission for Black Loyalist John Williams to go to "Nova Scotia, or wherever else" bit.ly/ajeHDQ #
  • From @seaheff, George Washington & Benedict Arnold working out differences as superheroes do, thru personal violence: bit.ly/ajdvKW #
  • RT @bostonhistory: John Singleton Copley and the Boston Tea Party. tinyurl.com/32o3t4r #
  • RT @bostonhistory: Paul Revere House Sat, 31 July, 1-4 pm - Copper Plate Printing Demo by Gary Gregory. tinyurl.com/2dxbm9j #history #
  • Chris Rodda discusses lies, damned lies, and statistics on the founding generation from David Barton: bit.ly/b9QGeY #
  • When did early American parents name their children? Vast Public Indifference seeks clues in gravestones: bit.ly/chdgJj #
  • There, I Fixed It's visual analysis of Thomas Jefferson's "subjects/citizens" editing in the Declaration: bit.ly/a0SWZz #
  • Grateful to Dedham Library staff for helping me find misfiled town directory/history from 1889 this afternoon. Too bad it was a dead end. #
  • RT @history_geek: Manuscript delights, 1729: Under the Wings of your generous Indulgence ow.ly/26MXK // Or, sucking up to a patron. #
  • .@JBD1: at work, helping clean up after a downpour caused some flooding. // Yikes. I shouldn't have wished so hard the weather would break. #
  • RT @universalhub: Nobody can tell poor tourist Boston Massacre site bit.ly/9KEpLI // Well, the official spot IS in middle of street. #
  • RT @historyfaculty: RT @myHNN: Montpelier begins slave site excavation bit.ly/cJqOPM // That's the James Madison one, not Vermont. #
  • RT @2palaver: Graveyards of New England uniquely anchored in history bit.ly/cI9IIf // aka Indianan finds New England historic. #
  • RT @gordonbelt: What Would George Washington Do? Esquire editor follows 110 Rules of Civility too closely for comfort: bit.ly/2Qbafn #
  • Discussion of 18th-century British men's facial hair sparks conversations among #comics artists, historical reenactors: bit.ly/cfGnlD #
  • RT @56Signers: 56DaysofSigners/Clark suffers sunstroke 1794 watching men build bridge on his property. Rushed home. Lay down. Died. 68yo. #
  • RT @TheFreedomTrail: 1776 - Abigail Adams responds to John's letters and copy of the declaration. "Nor am I... bit.ly/9xkt0S #
  • RT @bostonathenaeum: The Great Places in Massachusetts Commission today released a list of sites to visit. fb.me/EjtWBgmT #
  • Boston cathedral relic of true cross missing: bit.ly/9VjgC3 Brought to Boston in 1788 by French priest who was a bit of a con man. #
  • RT @CapitolHistory: Today in 1798 the Sedition Act outlawed "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government #
  • BOSTON GLOBE tries a citywide book-discussion. Today is last day of voting on title: bit.ly/cojwRc (No JOHNNY TREMAIN on list) #
  • Gravestone in Marblehead for two of Gen. John Glover's children who died at age 1: bit.ly/b0muIo #
  • Joseph Ellis in AMERICAN HERITAGE on compromises at the Constitutional Convention: bit.ly/asCaEX #
  • When future king Louis Philippe was a refugee in Boston: bit.ly/9nn71B And in America: bit.ly/caHdkQ #
  • Review of Michael Kranish's FLIGHT FROM MONTICELLO from @JBD1: bit.ly/b2Pa4P #
  • @_waterman Isaiah Thomas was Federalist nationally. In state? Hated 1785 tax on newspapers, but don't know his views on Hancock v. Bowdoin. #
  • Michael Kenney's BOSTON GLOBE review of Eric Jaffe's THE KING'S BEST HIGHWAY, about Boston Post Road: bit.ly/dyGdsY #
  • Candidate who ignorantly featured tax collector Samuel Adams in anti-tax ads loses in Alabama GOP primary: bit.ly/abV2IH #
  • Chris Rodda debunks old myth and new lies about Rev Peter Muhlenberg: tinyurl.com/28kmqos #

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Enjoying Boston’s Outdoor Spaces, Then and Now

This is a picture of the Boston Common in 1768, based on a watercolor by Christian Remick. At the rear is Beacon Hill, with John Hancock’s mansion and estate on the right and a trio of houses that John Singleton Copley soon bought at the left. The tall pole on the far right is the beacon that gave the hill its name.

In the middle ground is the Common. I believe the small building at the left is the town’s gunpowder storage house. At the right are tents and a military unit drilling—presumably representing the British army regiments that arrived that October. Meanwhile, other figures are strolling and riding in arcadian comfort. There should also be some livestock grazing.

In the foreground is a feature that the British immigrants who set aside the Common probably didn’t foresee: a line of trees producing a shady mall for walking. Those trees represented the beginning of the Common’s shift from functional agricultural land to public park, preserving a quasi-natural landscape for urban citizens to enjoy.

Boston’s outdoor parks and resources are the focus of several free public talks in the next few weeks. I’m hoping that kinder weather will make it comfortable to enjoy those places, but even if the heat returns we can enjoy these talks in air-conditioned comfort.

On Thursday, 15 July (that’s tonight) at 7:00, Todd Forman will present “Legacies in Stone,” an illustrated talk on Boston’s public statuary at the main library in Newton. Local sculptor Nancy Schön, who produced the ducklings in the Public Garden and gets to reproduce one every ten years or so, will also be on hand.

On Thursday, 22 July from 6:30 to 8:30, Christopher Klein will talk about his book Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: A Guide to the City’s Hidden Shores at the Community Boating Boathouse on the Esplanade. Chris wrote about the fight over the Boston Light as a Boston 1775 guest blogger back in 2008.

On Thursday, 29 July at 7:00, Meg Muckenhoupt will will present a slideshow and talk based on her new book Boston’s Gardens and Green Spaces at the Westborough Public Library.

Finally, on Thursday, 12 August at 7:00, Christopher Klein will be at the Westborough library to discuss Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands once again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

“Soldiers Gathered Around the Tree Under Which the General Sat”

As I quoted back in 2007, as early as 1846 a story circulated about Gen. George Washington reading aloud the 101st Psalm as he took command of the Continental Army. The Rev. Daniel Waldo (shown here) told that story at an Independence Day gathering in Westfield, and it was picked up by the Abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator. Waldo was a Revolutionary veteran, but he wasn’t in the army in 1775 and never saw Washington.

In 1872 Harriet Beecher Stowe retold the tale in one of her books through the voice of a fictional character. In 1878 the Farmer’s Cabinet magazine quoted a description of the event, said to have taken place on 2 July 1775. The reported eyewitness was the late Amherst, New Hampshire, farmer Andrew Leavitt:

After the officers had succeeded in getting the men into tolerable order, Gen. Washington came upon the field and reviewed them [the soldiers], he was a large noble looking man, apparently in the full strength of manhood, mounted upon a magnificent black horse, in whose shining coat you could almost see your face, so carefully was he groomed. After the review the soldiers gathered around the tree under which the General sat, and listened to his address. At the conclusion he read to them from his Psalm book the 101st Psalm.
The local historian who wrote that passage said he’d heard the story from Leavitt about 1842. Descendants of another veteran from the same company, Joseph Wallace, recalled him telling a similar anecdote.

Leavitt and Wallace were in Capt. Josiah Crosby’s company in Col. James Reed’s New Hampshire regiment. On 21 June, according to that state’s Provincial and State Papers, that whole regiment was camped at Winter Hill in modern Somerville, and they seem to have stayed there. There’s no evidence that they were pulled away from the front line so that Gen. Washington could review them on Cambridge common. On the other hand, those two psalm-singing stories didn’t actually claim that event took place on the common, or that the “tree under which the General sat” was the Washington Elm.

The big problem with that tale is that anyone who’s studied Washington recognizes that it would be completely out of his usual pattern to sit under a tree and read a psalm to soldiers gathered around him. He valued hierarchy and rank, especially when he first arrived in Cambridge. His religious behavior was not demonstrative. His main concern on arriving in Massachusetts was to review and strengthen the siege lines.

This sort of behavior might make sense coming from Gen. Artemas Ward or some other New England officer who valued his work as a church deacon. From the new, closely-watched Virginian commander-in-chief the act would have been remarkable—yet nobody remarked on it for more than seventy years.

Another religiously tinged account of Washington taking command appeared in The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, published in 1864 by a minister named Benjamin Franklin Morris. Morris claimed to quote “from the journal of a chaplain in the American army”:
July 4th, 1775.—I have seen the new general appointed by Congress to command the armies of the colonies. On seeing him I am not surprised at the choice. I expected to see an ardent, heroic-looking man; but such a mingled sweetness, dignity, firmness, and self-possession I never before saw in any man. The expression “born to command” is peculiarly applicable to him. Day before yesterday, when under the great elm in Cambridge he drew his sword and formally took command of the army of seventeen thousand men, his look and bearing impressed every one, and I could not but feel that he was reserved for some great destiny.
Even among ardent Patriots around Boston, this would be an enraptured description of Washington.

Morris never stated the name of this chaplain. The manuscript has never surfaced. No other author that I’ve found has relied on that journal entry. The diary says the event took place on 2 July (“Day before yesterday”), but authentic contemporaneous sources indicate that Washington and Gen. Charles Lee arrived in Cambridge that day in the middle of the afternoon, when it was raining. The traditional date for Washington taking formal command or reviewing American troops is 3 July.

Morris obviously wrote his book to argue that Christianity underpins the government of the United States—a familiar claim today. He seems to have been overly credulous about, or simply invented, a quotation to support his position—again, a familiar situation today. And Morris’s book is still being cited by people who share its core idea.

COMING UP: George Washington’s treehouse.