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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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Arrest at the Pepperell Bridge

On Saturday, 4 Sept 2010, there will be a ceremonial reopening of the covered bridge in Pepperell, Massachusetts. One celebration will be a reenactment of something that reportedly took place at a predecessor to that bridge in 1775, soon after the start of the Revolutionary War.

The earliest description of this event that I’ve found appears in Caleb Butler’s History of the Town of Groton: including Pepperell and Shirley, published in 1848:

After the departure of Col. [William] Prescott’s regiment of “minute men,” Mrs. David Wright of Pepperell, Mrs. Job Shattuck of Groton, and the neighborng women, collected at what is now Jewett’s bridge, over the Nashua, between Pepperell and Groton, clothed in their absent husbands’ apparel, and armed with muskets, pitchforks, and such other weapons as they could find, and having elected Mrs. Wright their commander, resolutely determined, that no foe to freedom, foreign or domestic, should pass that bridge. For rumors were rife, that the regulars were approaching, and frightful stories of slaughter flew rapidly from place to place and from house to house.

Soon there appeared one on horseback, supposed to be treasonably engaged in conveying intelligence to the enemy. By the implicit command of Sergeant Wright, he is immediately arrested, unhorsed, searched, and the treasonable correspondence found concealed in his boots. He was detained prisoner and sent to Oliver Prescott, Esq., of Groton, and his despatches were sent to the Committee of Safety.
A footnote identified the detained man as: “Capt Leonard Whiting, of Hollis, N. H., a noted tory. He was in reality the bearer of despatches from Canada to the British in Boston.”

Lorenzo Sabine reprinted Butler’s words without credit in his Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution, the first attempt to compile information on Americans who had sided with the Crown during the Revolution. And since Sabine’s book was more widely distributed than Butler’s, a lot of subsequent authors cited Sabine.

TOMORROW: How the story grew.


Pvt.Willy said...

Possibly 19th c. folklore? Sounds like something Benson Lossing concocted.

RFuller said...

I think it is also interesting that a local writer recently said that the women were armed only with pitchforks, too...


Sure like to know her source on that assertion...

Anonymous said...

In war the history books always focus on the major battles.It's good to read about the smaller tidbits that supported the efforts of those involved in the major fights.

J. L. Bell said...

Some details of this story seem dubious to me, but others seem plausible.

As for Lossing, who was indeed starting to publish articles on Revolutionary history around the same time, I don’t see him concocting stories so much as printing whatever people told him, even if there was no evidence to support that lore.

Judy said...

The photos that are with the article on Capt. Wright in the Summer 2006 Colonial Williamsburg Journal-not online-may part of the source for the pitchforks. The photo only shows 1 musket and the rest pitchforks. When we re-enacted the group in the late 70s we used mostly muskets with only a couple of pitchforks. There is some documentation for the Bridge Guard, someone is researching this and I have directed her to this site.