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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Thursday, September 30, 2010

“I snatch’d the golden glorious Opportunity”

In late July 1775, a Continental Congress delegate from Virginia named Benjamin Harrison (shown here, at least according to the federal government) wrote a letter to Gen. George Washington, an old acquaintance now commanding the American army outside Boston. He sent it north with a young Boston lawyer named Benjamin Hichborn, who was captured by the Royal Navy. (Someday I’ll tell that story in more detail.)

The British authorities in Boston had Harrison’s letter published in the 17 August Boston News-Letter, then being printed by Margaret Draper and John Howe. It was the only newspaper in town, and firmly in support of (and dependent on) the royal government.

Before Harrison’s letter saw print, someone inserted a few extra lines:

As I was in the pleasing Task of writing to you, a little Noise occasioned me to turn my Head round, and who should appear but pretty little Kate, the Washer-woman’s Daughter over the Way, clean, trim and rosey as the Morning; I snatch’d the golden glorious Opportunity, and but for the cursed Antidote to love, Sukey [Harrison’s wife], I had fitted her for my General against his Return. We were obliged to part, but not till we had contrived to meet again; if she keeps the Appointment I shall relish a Week’s longer stay.
At least historians assume those lines were inserted because they don’t appear in copies of the letter that Gen. Thomas Gage sent to his superiors in the Secretary of State’s office in London. (Harrison’s original has not survived.)

Apparently a British “dirty tricks” artist wanted to smear Gen. Washington, and cause personal problems for him. As for Harrison, the aside might in fact have been in character for him; John Adams later described him as “another Sir John Falstaff,…his conversation disgusting to every man of delicacy or decorum.” If Harrison, back in Philadelphia, denied ever writing those lines, Adams probably didn’t believe him.

The copies of that letter sent to the Admiralty in London included the spurious lines. That’s yet more evidence of something we already knew: the British army and navy commanders didn’t get along during the siege of Boston. Gage and his staff didn’t give their naval counterparts copies of the original letter. Adm. Samuel Graves’s staff must have either received a doctored copy, or transcribed the text from the News-Letter.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Archaeology Office Open House

The City of Boston Archaeology Laboratory has announced that it will have an Open House on Friday, 1 October, from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. That day kicks off Massachusetts Archaeology Month, and the announcement notes another milestone:

After all the digging is done, come see where the artifacts are processed and catalogued. The Archaeology Lab is home to millions of artifacts that illuminate Boston’s history. Please stop by to see the collections and thank Boston’s City Archaeologist, Ellen Berkland, on her fifteen years of dedicated service…and congratulate her as she moves on to her new position as Staff Archaeologist with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Here’s a 2004 interview with Berkland, and here are recordings of her presentations on the Forum Network. And click on the photo above to go to a Boston University article about urban archeology.

The Archaeology Lab is at 152 North Street in the North End, in the basement of the “brick, gold-domed building between the entrance to the Callahan Tunnel and the exit of the Sumner Tunnel.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Washington for Sale to the Highest Bidder

Tomorrow Christie’s will auction this portrait of “George Washington at Princeton” by Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822). Polk used his uncle and mentor Charles Willson Peale’s 1787 portrait of Washington as the basis for the face, and made many copies of this image. This particular copy has been owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and is being sold to benefit the society and the Philadelphia History Museum now growing out of the Atwater Kent Museum.

In January 2009, Christie’s sold another version of the same portrait for over $600,000, well over the estimate. But then the buyer was Mount Vernon.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Problem with “Mark Codman”

Yesterday’s Boston Globe included an article by Francie Latour rounding up several books and a movie issued over the past decade about slavery in New England. It offers a good reading list on the subject, including Elisa Lemire’s Black Walden (and avoiding one unreliable recent title).

The article’s subhead says, “More than we like to think, the North was built on slavery”; a bunch of right-wing commenters confirmed that by showing that they’d prefer not to see such essays at all.

I have my own objection to how the article begins:

In the year 1755, a black slave named Mark Codman plotted to kill his abusive master.
The name “Mark Codman” pulled me up short because that’s not how the man was referred to in his lifetime.

John Codman called his slave “Mark,” with no surname. Massachusetts society and legal practices followed suit. Mark was tried, convicted, and executed under that single name. Referring to blacks by only a given name was undoubtedly a way to signal their lesser status in colonial society. But tacking on their owners’ surnames now strikes me as, in its small way, both a distortion of that history and another imposition on those individuals.

In many cases, we know that people who had been enslaved adopted the surnames of their former masters: Tony Vassall of Cambridge, Prince Estabrook of Lexington, Phillis Wheatley of Boston until her marriage to John Peters, and so on. But in other cases, enslaved people used surnames that differed from their owners’ or former owners’.

Crispus Attucks’s last name hints at a connection to the Natick Indians. Peter Salem also went by the name Salem Middlesex; he apparently took surnames from locations rather than from his one-time owners, Jeremiah Belknap and Lawson Buckminster.

In Framingham in 1721, two African-born slaves of the Rev. John Swift married. They are listed in church records as Nero Benson and Dido Dingo, the latter sounding more like an African name than an English one. Subsequent legal records usually refer to this couple by their first names only, but the surname “Benson” got passed down to their free descendants. (In Maryland later, Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Bailey, and never knew where his original surname came from—clearly not his or his mother’s owner. William S. McFeely’s biography suggests it might be a form of “Belali,” a common African name.)

Sally Hemings’s surname came from the ship’s captain who owned one of her ancestors and fathered another. The Hemings family retained that surname for generations despite owners like Thomas Jefferson usually referring to them only by given names. (Even today, one can often detect writers who want to dismiss Sally Hemings and her descendants’ link to Jefferson by how they refer to her only as “Sally,” or spell the name “Hemmings” as a white Jefferson biographer did.)

Being able to control their own names appears to have been significant for African-Americans. Gary Nash showed in a study of Philadelphia that emancipated black families quickly dropped the classical, geographic, and African day-names that colonial slave-owners liked—no more Pompey, Bristol, or Cuffee. Free blacks instead favored Biblical and common English names, like most of their neighbors.

Given those patterns, I always look for the name that an enslaved or formerly enslaved person appears to have freely chosen and preferred, and to try to use it in the same style as I would for white contemporaries: Attucks, Wheatley, Hemings, &c. (Olaudah Equiano presents a difficult case.) But when I can’t find a surname, I don’t add an owner’s surname because I’ve seen enough examples of individuals choosing otherwise. And recognizing people as individuals is what naming is all about.

I can therefore see the motive to give Mark a surname like most of his Massachusetts contemporaries. But he suffered at the hands of John Codman, and killed the man. Would he really want to be retroactively named “Mark Codman”? Enslavement constricted Mark’s life and treated him as less than fully human; the fact that he was called only “Mark” is a significant reflection of that history.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Documenting the Massacre

As long as I’m talking out of season about one new book on the Boston Massacre, here’s another. Neil L. York’s The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents collects contemporaneous reports and commentary on the event with good summary explanations and illustrations.

This book is designed for use in classrooms investigating history through primary sources. Because the Massacre was a public event that led to both political arguments and criminal cases, it spun off an unusually large amount of discussion. There’s only a sample of eyewitness testimony in this book, but many summaries of the evidence from different views.

Particularly valuable are the versions from royal officials, including A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston, published in London. While the Boston-based Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre has been reprinted many times in the U.S. of A., those remarks from future Loyalists are still hard to come by.

The book closes with a couple of novel selections: part of John Fiske’s oration at the 1888 dedication of the Massacre monument on Boston Common, which no one visits anymore, and the National Park Service’s current summary of events, trying for balance and perspective. But to remind us the Massacre was at heart a deadly political controversy, the cover shows a detail from Larry Rivers’s 1968 protest painting.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reviewing the Massacre

The latest issue of the New England Quarterly includes my review of As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, by Richard Archer.

Most of this review (my first for the N.E.Q.) discusses the contrasts between Archer’s book and Hiller B. Zobel’s venerable The Boston Massacre, published for the event’s bicentennial in 1970. The older book brought out a lot of new sources on the months leading up to the Massacre, and the new book has hardly any to add.

On the other hand, I’m more convinced by the interpretations in As If an Enemy’s Country. As some critics noted back in 1970, The Boston Massacre rhetorically tilts toward the Crown, and blames Samuel Adams for manipulating the people of Boston. The real story of this historical period, I believe, is how military occupation can easily produce more militant opponents than were there before.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Frontier Culture Museum’s New West African Space

This month the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, dedicated its latest recreated historical space: a 1700s West African Farm, also called Igbo Farm Village.

The museum’s announcement says:

The West African Farm is an outdoor exhibit that is modeled after the compound of an Igbo yam farmer in the 1700s, and is taking its place among the Museum’s collection of outdoor exhibits representing life in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, Ireland and Germany, and early America.

West African Farm will serve as a place where Museum visitors will learn about the lives and culture of the African ancestors of African Americans, and the contributions of Africans and African Americans to the creation of the United States and of a distinctive American culture.
Here are photos of the site being built, and how it fits alongside farm buildings from other places and times.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Old North As You’ve Never Seen It

Last night I went to Bob Damon’s talk at the Old South Meeting House, part of the Paul Revere Memorial Association’s lectures on the legacy of Paul Revere’s ride and “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the poem.

He showed half of this stereograph from the New York Public Library’s picture collection. (Click on the double-thumbnail above for a webpage that will let you enlarge and pan around the image.) It shows Old North Church, where he works, as it was decorated for the centennial of 1875, with a big painting of a man about to hang two lanterns in the spire, and an only slightly smaller painting of Revere on his horse. Those Victorians had such subdued taste, didn’t they?

The last lecture in this series is next Wednesday at 6:30 P.M.: Prof. Jill Lepore of Harvard and the New Yorker, discussing the various political and cultural ways that Americans have used our Revolutionary heritage.

In other Old North news, I hear that Alex Goldfeld will be signing copies of his book The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood at the Old North Gift Shop on Saturday, 25 September, 1:00 to 4:00 P.M.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ciphers and Secrets

The past week’s postings about John Carnes and his hitherto-unstudied espionage activities were prompted by a query from John Nagy, author of Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution.

This is a study of espionage during the Revolutionary War, organized not by chronology or around a particular group of people but around the methods the two armies used to gather and pass along information.

John cast a wide net for stories, meaning the evidence runs the gamut from questionable family lore (e.g., Lydia Darragh) to contemporaneous documents (e.g., diplomats John Adams and Benjamin Franklin’s letters complaining about how it was impossible to read coded dispatches from James Lovell, their contact in the Continental Congress).

Here’s a C-SPAN video of John talking about the material in Invisible Ink at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Shock for Gen. Washington

If Gen. George Washington’s arrangement to receive intelligence about the British forces from the Rev. John Carnes had been secure, I wouldn’t be able to write much about it.

I wouldn’t be able to quote the 28 July 1775 letter from Washington’s secretary Joseph Reed laying out the communication network. I wouldn’t be able to cite Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin’s notes from mid-August that reports were about to arrive from Carnes. I wouldn’t be able to document rumors circulating out of Cambridge that confirm news from “Parson Carnes” in Boston.

But the security for Washington’s first espionage effort was as full of holes as one of the sieves that steward Timothy Austin bought for the headquarters kitchen. The general took care not to write in his expense notebook the name of the man who had agreed “to go into the Town of Boston; to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemy’s movements & designs.”

However, Reed put that man’s name into the letter to Baldwin, who did not need to know it. Baldwin’s only job in this network was to give a letter to a local man named Tewksbury, and to send any reply to headquarters as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, the wording of Reed’s letter suggests that he contacted Baldwin out of the blue simply because he was the American officer in command at Chelsea. There’s no hint of any preceding discussion in person about intelligence matters, either for Washington and Reed to evaluate Baldwin’s reliability and discretion, or for those officers to establish understandings so they wouldn’t have to put all their crucial information in writing.

Furthermore, Ezekiel Price’s diary makes clear that the intelligence John Carnes sent out of Boston spread quickly, with the man’s name still attached: “this morning a woman got out of Boston, who brought a letter from Parson Carnes…” British agents wouldn’t have needed to infiltrate the little American spy network to learn Carnes’s name. They could simply have kept their ears open. Indeed, on 26 August a Customs official at Newport sent “intelligence of much importance…from the Rebel Camp” to Gen. Thomas Gage.

And, as I noted yesterday, Dr. Benjamin Church had already inserted himself into the communications chain. It’s not certain he ever told his British handlers about Carnes, but the royal authorities did apparently learn that the man was writing to Washington and told him to leave Boston.

In early October 1775, Washington and Reed learned that Dr. Church had been sending secret messages to people inside Boston through a different route. That revelation came as a huge surprise to everyone in the American forces. The Massachusetts Whigs were shocked because they had worked closely with Church for years. Washington and Reed must have been shaken to realize that their trust in the doctor had left their agent Carnes completely vulnerable.

Back at the start of this series of postings, I quoted Washington papers editor John C. Fitzpatrick on how the general chided a later intelligence chief, Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, for mentioning an informer in a letter. But Washington and his staff weren’t nearly so careful in 1775. Washington apparently learned about the need for strict security from the nearly disastrous failure of his first spy network.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Spy Network Doomed from the Start

When I said yesterday that the Washington-Carnes spy network had been infiltrated from the start, I wasn’t even talking about how one link in the communications chain, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, was best friends with a secret British agent.

For years Baldwin had traded scientific knowledge with Benjamin Thompson, later known as Count Rumford (shown here). Thompson went over to the British on 13 Oct 1775, became Lord Germain’s favorite and secretary, and eventually commanded dragoons on Long Island near the end of the war.

Nevertheless, Baldwin continued to see Thompson as a friend. He probably influenced the early American portrayals of Rumford as a talented man who would gladly have worked for the cause of liberty if only his New Hampshire neighbors hadn’t been too suspicious to give him a chance.

Twentieth-century scholars found that in early May 1775 Thompson sent Gen. Thomas Gage a secret report about the New England army written in invisible ink. Thompson’s neighbors were right to be suspicious.

In his diary, Baldwin recorded that Thompson had visited him in Chelsea on 4 June, and went home to Woburn on 13 June. Sometime after 23 July Thompson sent Baldwin designs for epaulettes to distinguish the American sergeants and corporals, so the two friends were in touch that summer. Of course, Baldwin may never have told Thompson about the intelligence assignments he received at the end of that month.

But there’s clear documentary evidence of infiltration by another British agent. The letter that Joseph Reed sent to Baldwin to pass on to a Mr. Tewksbury to give to a waterman to deliver to the Rev. John Carnes inside Boston was written by Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

As a Massachusetts official in early 1775, Dr. Church gave inside information to Gen. Gage. By the summer he was medical director of the American army, and still sending messages to the royal authorities. In late July, maybe slightly before this letter, Church tried to send a letter into Boston through his mistress, who had contacts in Rhode Island.

Even if Reed and Gen. George Washington never told Church who their man inside Boston was, the doctor could have used his letter to expose that agent to his British army contacts, or done other mischief. Or he could simply have piggybacked on the Washington-Carnes communications chain; it seems to have worked better than his Rhode Island channel.

Given that situation, it’s not really a surprise that the British military detected Carnes corresponding with Gen. Washington, as the minister’s family recalled.

TOMORROW: In fact, the whole enterprise was riddled with security breaches.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

“Suspected by Gen. Gage”

Yesterday I quoted Ezekiel Price recording a rumor of information slipped out of besieged Boston in August 1775 by John Carnes, a retired clergyman and grocer who was working for Gen. George Washington.

On 13 November, Ezekiel Price recorded another tidbit of information that may have come by the same route:

Mr. Carnes (a son of the parson’s) was here this afternoon: he says that it is reported at Cambridge, &c., and believed, that twenty-five hundred Regulars have lately arrived at Boston; he also says that the Regulars, last Saturday, intended to land a number of them at Chelsea,—having their boats, &c., ready,—but the wind blowing fresh against them prevented their setting off.
That rumor might not have come from the parson inside Boston, however. A Carnes family tradition that appears to have hit print first in an 1898 volume of American Ancestry says:
lived in Boston during the siege 1775. corresponded with Gen. Washington, was suspected by Gen. [Thomas] Gage, had his house and papers searched, and was ordered to leave, which he did
Gage sailed away from Boston on 11 Oct 1775, leaving the command to Gen. William Howe. If the family lore is correct about Gage ordering Carnes to leave, that must have happened before October, and Price’s November rumor had a different source. Alternatively, the family might not have remembered the right general’s name.

John Carnes was definitely outside the besieged town by 1 Mar 1776 when he took the job of chaplain to a regiment in the Continental Army. He didn’t remain in Boston throughout the siege.

The entry on Carnes in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates calls the lore “an unsubstantiated family tradition,” but I think the man’s name in Washington’s papers and Ezekiel Price’s August diary offers a fair amount of substantiation for his espionage work. I wonder if there’s more to be found in the papers of Gen. Gage or Gen. Howe.

After serving several months as a chaplain, at one point taking over his colonel’s correspondence with Gen. Horatio Gates, Carnes returned to Massachusetts. By the late 1770s he had settled in Lynn, his wife’s home town. The Rev. William Bentley wrote that “by the prosperity of his children [Carnes] rose to competence, was in the General Court & became justice of the peace.” He was also part of the Massachusetts convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

And apparently no one outside of the Carnes family suspected the man of having been a spy. In fact, he appears to have come across as an easy mark, which might be why he had so much trouble as a minister. After Carnes died, Bentley wrote:
His talents were small & his manners displeasing but his simplicity had no vice in it. . . . His poverty returned again towards the close of life tho’ not in extreme. We used often to laugh at Carnes, but there was many a worse man in our wicked world.
That harmless impression might have saved Carnes from imprisonment—because his little spy network had been infiltrated from the start.

TOMORROW: The British army’s moles behind the American lines.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

“A Letter from the Mr. J— C— the Grocer”

On 15 August 1775 Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin sent Gen. George Washington some intriguing news from Chelsea:

I hope to be able tomorrow to forward to your Excellency a letter from the Mr. J— C— the Grocer

I heard from him yesterday Informing that he Expected to git further Information by tomorrow if it comes to hand shall forward it with all Convenient Speed
And the next day Baldwin wrote:
I have received a Letter which I supose came from Mr. J. C. by the Hand of the Gentleman Expected who says he is going to Headquarters in the morning to see about the sheep that was brought off from Puding Point which I have wrote to the adjutant General about
At the time Baldwin was dealing with the puzzle of what to do with sheep that his troops had driven out of reach of British raising parties, but which then had nowhere to graze. The people of Point Shirley, evidently including the man named Tewksbury who was part of the communication chain to “Mr. J. C.,” wanted to keep some of that livestock. Baldwin was writing not only to Gen. Horatio Gates, the adjutant general, but also quartermaster general Joseph Trumbull.

Baldwin referred to the American agent inside Boston only by his initials, but the letter he had received from Joseph Reed a couple of weeks before spells out the man’s full name: John Carnes. And as a confirmation that this was the same John Carnes who had been a minister, four days later a refugee from Boston named Ezekiel Price recorded a rumor in his diary:
in the afternoon, Mr. Hill, of Providence, was here, who left Cambridge this forenoon, and says, that this morning a woman got out of Boston, who brought a letter from Parson Carnes, which mentioned that the Regulars in Boston intended to come out this night or tomorrow night,—in consequence of which, preparations were making in the several American encampments to receive them
I’m not sure who “Mr. Hill” from Rhode Island was. Price had been a court clerk, registrar of deeds, notary, and insurance broker in Boston before the war, and was plugged into a lot of information networks.

Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston states, “On the 20th, the British, it was thought, were about to sally out of Charlestown, when the camp was alarmed, and the men ordered to lie on their arms,” in order to be ready for any attack. Nothing happened, and at the end of that week the American forces preemptively attacked Ploughed Hill, as described back here.

TOMORROW: Another message from John Carnes inside Boston?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. Carnes

I’ve been digging for information about John Carnes’s ideological or economic situation in 1775, and coming up empty. While the problems in his ministerial career are well documented, his life for the next decade is misty. He wasn’t rich enough to be prominent, or poor enough to come to the attention of the authorities.

Aside from the episodes I described here and here, all I’ve found is that Carnes bought shoes from the newly arrived merchant John Short, and sold goods to the Box and Austin ropewalk or its proprietors. And in November 1770, he joined the Old South Meeting.

Which leaves a lot of room for speculation. For example, his brother Edward (1730-1782) owned a house that got the name “Carnes College,” but no one knows why. Was “Carnes College” where John Carnes tutored young men for Harvard right after leaving the pulpit? If so, the property kept that name even after John set up his shop on Orange Street. (In the 1790s Harrison Gray Otis bought the “Carnes College” property and built a new house there, now owned by Historic New England.)

Who was the Carnes who announced the opening of a new shop with Nathaniel Seaver in the Boston Evening-Post on 17 May 1773? The next March, Seaver advertised in the Boston Post-Boy that he was carrying on that business alone.

Did John Carnes test business in New York in October 1765, when a man of that name registered as a freeman of the city? In June 1774 a John Carnes was in New York advertising “a quantity of dry goods…exposed to sale at vendue,” or auction. In October the sheriff advertised a different auction of “the four years leases of two houses and lots of ground, situate in Murray’s street, back of the College, late the property of John Carnes.” So if that was the John Carnes of Boston, looking for better prospects, the move didn’t go so well.

But maybe John Carnes was in the South End of Boston the whole time, quietly carrying on his little business, not advertising and not getting into trouble.

A “Reminiscence of Gen. Warren” in the New England Historical & Genealogical Register for 1858 said:

Dr. David Townsend, June 17, 1775, in the morning, went to Brighton to see Mr. Carnes’s family of Boston. About one in the afternoon, Mr. Carnes came and reported that there was hot work. The British at Boston, with their shipping, were firing very heavy on our men at Bunker Hill. Dr. Townsend said he must go and work for Dr. Warren.
Was this John Carnes, having moved from the army-occupied town? Or was it a relative?

In any event, since John Carnes referred to himself in 1770 as being “in the grocery-way,” he’s almost certainly the “John Carnes a Grocer” who had agreed to send information on the British military out to Gen. George Washington in July 1775. Did he do that because he was committed to the cause of liberty? In need of money? In the grip of a grand idea? I have no clue.

TOMORROW: But I know that the Rev. John Carnes sent information.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Battle Road Open House and Trades Fair, 18 September

On Saturday, 18 September, from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., Minute Man National Historical Park hosts “Battle Road Homes Open House and Historic Trades Day”:

This event offers a rare opportunity to see inside the restored colonial homes along the Battle Road in the park. Visit the Meriam House, Sam Brooks House, Noah Brooks Tavern, Job Brooks House, Captain William Smith House, and the Jacob Whittemore House.

Explore different trades and tales of the colonial period including a blacksmith, joiner and planemaker, tailor, cordwainer, and wood carver, along with flax processing, spinning and dyeing, agriculture, and archaeology.

Pick up informational materials at Minute Man and North Bridge Visitor Centers to guide your visit.
Dan Lacroix of the Westford Colonial Minutemen adds:
The vast majority of park visitors never get to see the interiors of the period homes along the Battle Road since they are only occasionally opened to the public. This Saturday is one of those days!
I suspect Dan will also be there demonstrating eighteenth-century joinery.

The photo above shows the Meriam House, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

John Carnes: “in the grocery-way”

As I described yesterday, in 1764 the Rev. John Carnes finished his second unhappy stretch in a pulpit and came home to Boston. He gave a few more sermons, but apparently gave up the idea of trying to find another minister’s post. Instead, Carnes decided to go into business.

Carnes opened a shop on Orange Street (now Washington Street) in the South End of Boston. He applied for a license to sell liquor, which the Boston selectmen didn’t grant until 1766. I haven’t found any advertisements from him in the newspapers announcing what he had for sale, but he did advertise after a robbery at his store in 1769. The notice indicates that Carnes sold cloth, shoes and stockings, penknives, notions, and other goods.

Carnes stayed out of Boston’s pre-Revolutionary politics, except for one odd moment. On 25 Jan 1770 Christopher Prince published an open letter in the Boston News-Letter asking Edes and Gill, the printers of the rival Boston Gazette:

in what Manner I am to obtain Satisfaction of two Person in this Town, who have attempted without the least Foundation to blacken my Character, in an artful Piece in your Paper of last Monday.

One of which Persons I strongly suspect is a quondam Parson, and twice separated from this People, for Reasons best known to himself, and from a Preacher of the Gospel now follows the laudable Calling of retailing Rum to the Soldiers at the South Part of the Town.
The horrible act that the Gazette writer had accused Prince of doing was recommending that a man from Leicester buy from Nathaniel Rogers, a nephew of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson who had at first refused to sign the non-importation agreement, then agreed to do so, then backed out again. Prince insisted that at the time he hadn’t known about that last part.

In the 29 January Gazette Carnes responded with a long letter denying that he had written the earlier essay, and then accusing Prince of doing exactly what it said. As to the sneers against himself, Carnes wrote:
In respect to my being in the laudable Business of Retailing, it is the Fruit of Necessity, and very usual with all persons who are in the grocery-way in the south part of the town where I live.—But how low? how false the suggestion of my selling Rum to the soldiers? Tis true when I first sold liquors, I sold them indiscriminately to all customers; but as soon as I was convinced of the impropriety of supplying the soldiers with that article, I refused to let them have any; and Mr. Prince being a neighbor, must I think have known, that for near eight months past, I have declined selling to them.
Carnes went on to accuse Prince of behaving “like a true Italian, hugging a man in his arms, while that moment he determines to stab him.” (Carnes had probably never met an Italian in his life.) And he concluded about his neighbor’s remarks:
I need no public vindication, other than that has been given me by such their superiors, and consequently am compell’d to despise the little attempt made to injure my character, by a dirty Fellow, remarkable for his want of Education, and may I not add, remarkable for Profanity and Impudence?
Things must have been pleasant along Orange Street that winter.

COMING UP: John Carnes in the siege of Boston.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Unhappy Ministerial Career of the Rev. John Carnes

John Carnes was born in Boston in 1723. His father was a pewterer who improved his social position through militia service. During the Big Dig, archeologists explored his land in the North End and discovered wine bottles personalized with the man’s name in the wax seals. Carnes had many children, but only young John was apparently interested in becoming a minister, so his father sent him off to Harvard, paying the tuition in pewter tableware.

While John was at college in 1740, the Rev. George Whitefield (shown here) made his first visit to Cambridge, reportedly preaching under an elm on the common. John felt inspired by this “New Light” religious revival, though the professors and tutors were more suspicious.

John Carnes graduated in 1742, earned his master’s degree, and was ordained as the new minister at Stoneham in December 1746. The following July, he married Mary Lewis of Lynn, three years his senior and from a comfortably wealthy family. John and Mary Carnes looked like they were in for a typical rural Massachusetts minister’s career: many uneventful years in the pulpit, children every two or three years, &c.

But the Stoneham congregation came to dislike and disrespect Carnes. They never raised his salary, and didn’t pay what they promised in a timely way, and finally drove him to resign in July 1757. He published his side of the dispute in the Boston Gazette the next month.

Carnes and his family moved back to his wife’s home town of Lynn. After preaching in various meetings, he accepted the job of minister at Rehoboth’s Seekonk parish in April 1759. Almost immediately some congregants started to complain. Their objections may not have been about Carnes so much as how people were taxed for his salary. The grousers appear to have been a minority of the congregation, but a loud one.

In 1763 a council of men from eight other churches met to arbitrate the dispute. They questioned Carnes and his opponents and concluded:

nothing has appeared inconsistent with either his christian or ministerial character. We have reason to conclude that he hath been uncommonly supported under his continued trials and temptations, discovered a serious spirit, and endeavoured in the midst of numberless discouragements, to carry on the great design of his ministry.
But his opponents still weren’t satisfied, and asked the Massachusetts General Court to intervene. A committee of the legislature investigated the situation in Reheboth and decided once again that Carnes had done nothing wrong. But they found “an unhappy alienation of affection in his people to him, and incurable.”

In December 1764, at the Rev. John Carnes’s request, the Seekonk congregation dismissed him from their pulpit. He was forty-one years old, had a wife and five children to maintain, and had failed twice at the only profession he was trained for.

TOMORROW: John Carnes comes home to Boston.

Monday, September 13, 2010

“For Your Excellencies Perusal”

As Joseph Reed laid out the scheme in his 28 July 1775 letter, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin was supposed to hand over a letter to one of the Tewksbury brothers at Shirley Point in Chelsea. That man would “deliver it to a Waterman whom he can depend on.”

Reed didn’t name this boatman, possibly because he didn’t know the name. That man might have been Enoch Hopkins, who operated a ferry from Boston’s North End. I’ve quoted a letter dated 15 June 1775 showing that Hopkins and his son were carrying mail and goods in and out of the besieged town.

Even though the town was besieged, there was some water traffic back and forth, and not just the clandestine kind. On the day after Baldwin received Reed’s letter, the officer wrote to Gen. George Washington:

About twelve oClock this day we were all alarmed by the approach of a Boat to Winnisimmit Ferry & by a Signal soon found them to be friends who Landed with their Houshold good there ware several of my Intimate acquaintance

I have taken the names of all the Passengers and stopd the Letters which I now Send for your Inspection & Beg your Excellency would Send them Back to me again as soon as possable as the Bairers are some of them in weighting and others are to Call again tomorrow for theirs Please to Keep the Inclosed Letters in their Respective Covers.

I would Beg your Excellency would Send me some Assistance as the Boats are to Continue passing (That is if we can believe General Gage) and Somthing may Escape for want of Proper assistance that may turn to our disadvantag
Gen. Thomas Gage had first told Bostonians they were free to depart as long as they left their guns. Then he stopped letting people leave easily, and at this point resumed the outflow. That meant frontline officers like Baldwin needed procedures to make sure they collected all useful information coming out, and let no useful information go in.

For example, on 31 July Baldwin debriefed one disembarking passenger:
Colo. [Joseph] Ingersoll…Informed me that there was one Regular Officer & Several other persons badly wounded brought to Boston Just as he came away which was about Eight or Nine oClock A.M. and that there went from Boston in the Night meaning Last night a large number of Granedears & Light Infantry in larg flat bottom Boats for the Southward Shore it was suposd
And on 2 August Baldwin sent the general “two Letters in one Cover Directed to Mr Nathl. Noyes, Andover, which I thought Proper to Send for your Excellencies Perusal.” Presumably British officers were searching the people and letters that ferrymen brought into Boston. But the American commanders trusted that unnamed “Waterman” to get a letter to their secret informant, “John Carnes a Grocer.”

TOMORROW: The Rev. Mr. Carnes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

“One Dewksbury Who Lives about 4 Miles from You”

As I quoted yesterday, on 28 July 1775 Gen. George Washington’s secretary Joseph Reed sent a letter to Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin (shown here) in Chelsea ordering him to join a communications chain for an intelligence network.

Baldwin was supposed to locate “one Dewksbury who lives about 4 Miles from you towards Shirly Point” and give him an enclosed letter. Reed then went on to tell Baldwin what Dewksbury was supposed to do with that letter, and who the ultimate contact in Boston was.

I went looking for “one Dewksbury,” and found three. They were brothers, all raised locally so they knew the area:

  • John Tewksbury (c. 1735-1816).
  • Andrew Tewksbury (1739-1814). Both he and John are noted as living at Shirley Point with their father in 1750.
  • James Tewksbury (1744-1800). His youngest son, born in 1784, got the first name Washington.
This genealogical information comes from William R. Cutter’s Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts.

All three Tewksbury brothers appear on “A Rool of the men that keept Guard att Pullin Point in Chelsea by order of Capt. Saml. Sprague from April 19, 1775, till Discharged by there officer” after a month.

As of 19 August, according to a document signed by Capt. William Rogers of Baldwin’s regiment, Andrew, James, and John “Duksbury” were all still at Pulling Point. (“Pulling Point” and “Point Shirley” were the traditional and formal names for the same place. Like today, New Englanders enjoyed using the old place names that outsiders like Reed couldn’t find on maps.)

Those two documents were published in A Documentary History of Chelsea, by Jenny Chamberlain Watts and Cutter. The Tewksbury family name is spelled various ways in town and county records.

I’m not sure how Baldwin was supposed to know which Tewksbury to approach with his secret letter. Maybe only one was “about 4 Miles from you,” and maybe they were all in on the scheme.

TOMORROW: Getting into Boston by water.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

“To Obtain Constant & Authentick Intelligence from Boston”

On 28 July 1775, Gen. George Washington’s secretary, Joseph Reed (shown here, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania), wrote a confidential letter to Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, who was commanding the American forces maintaining the siege lines at Chelsea, on the north side of Boston harbor.

Reed was trying to set up an intelligence-gathering operation within besieged Boston, which he helpfully laid out for Baldwin in his letter:

In full Confidence of your prudence & Secrecy as a Soldier, a Man of Honour & a Friend to your Country, the General has directed me to communicate to you a Scheme he is about to put in Execution to obtain constant & authentick Intelligence from Boston.

The Plan is this. The inclosed Letter will be delivered by you to one Dewksbury who lives about 4 Miles from you towards Shirly Point—He will deliver it to a Waterman whom he can depend on who will convey it to one John Carnes a Grocer in the South Part of Boston. The Answers & such Intelligence as he can procure will be forwarded to you thro the same Channell: which you are to transmit to his Excell’y by Express immed’y—

As the Success of the Project & the life of the Man in Boston may depend upon your Conduct let it not escape you to the nearest Friend on Earth & for fear of Accident destroy this Letter as soon as you are sufficiently Master of its Contents—

When you see Dewksbury give him the above Caution in the strongest Terms: And so to pass from him to the other—Your good Conduct & Discretion in this Matter will not fail to be duly noticed.
Reed sent his letter thirteen days after Gen. Washington recorded paying an unnamed man £100 “to go into the Town of Boston [and] to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence.” It’s not certain that man was “John Carnes a Grocer,” but he’s the most likely candidate.

Some historians of American espionage, such as John Bakeless, have cited “Carnes” as the first American undercover agent who can be identified as using “cut outs,” or intermediaries, to transmit their messages while avoiding suspicion themselves.

TOMORROW: “One Dewksbury who lives about 4 Miles from you.”

Friday, September 10, 2010

“For the Purpose of Conveying Intelligence”

On 15 July 1775, Gen. George Washington wrote this entry in his expense notebook:

To 333 1/3 Dollars give to —— ——* to enduce him to go into the Town of Boston; to establish a secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemy’s movements & designs

* The names of Persons who are employed within the Enemy’s lines, or who may fall within their power cannot be inserted.
This £100 expenditure is one of the largest the general made during the first year of the war. Two outlays were bigger. One was the £239 Washington paid for five horses when he started out from Philadelphia. The other came up on 1 Apr 1776, as he prepared to leave Massachusetts:
To amount of Sundry sums pr. Memmo. for secret services to the date … [£]232
Thus, the biggest expenses that the commander personally controlled in 1775-76 involved espionage. In fact, in this article for the C.I.A. website P. K. Rose notes: “During the Revolutionary War, Washington spent more than 10 percent of his military funds on intelligence activities.”

Washington scholar John C. Fitzpatrick wrote as a note to the second of the two expense entries:
The memoranda of accounts for secret service expenditures were carefully destroyed and it is now impossible fully to identify many of the American spies. Later in the war Major Benjamin Tallmadge was placed in charge of the Secret Service, and in the Washington Papers is a letter from him in which he incautiously mentioned the name of one of his spies. It has been so heavily scored over by the pen of the Commander-in-Chief as to defy deciphering and Washington’s answer to Tallmadge’s letter contains a sharp rebuke to the major for having needlessly exposed the spy to such a risk of discovery.
And on the first entry Fitzpatrick said:
The item of $333 1/3 marks the beginning of the official secret service activities. . . . how many and who were employed during the siege of Boston is not known.
This week Boston 1775 sets out to blow the cover on Gen. Washington’s very first spy ring.

TOMORROW: “A Scheme he is about to put in Execution.”

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Going Way Back with Blazing Combat

The Warren company started publishing Blazing Combat in 1965. It was a quarterly comics magazine—larger than a typical comic book, without color, and thus not under the Comics Code Authority. It lasted only four issues before being canceled for lack of sales.

Some people said that Blazing Combat failed because military officers wouldn’t allow the magazine to be sold in PX stores since it offered a jaundiced view of war. Others say it was simply too gruesome for a mass audience. The entire run has been collected in one volume.

All of the stories were written or co-written by editor Archie Goodwin, who worked with some of the medium’s stellar artists. Most of the tales were set during America’s mid-20th-century wars, but in each issue Goodwin reached further back into the past as well. There were two Revolutionary War comics.

The first, “Mad Anthony,” features Gen. Anthony Wayne, but as a supporting character, and hardly mad at all. The tale is really about two fictional soldiers putting out each other’s eye. The pictures suffer from the mustache problem I’ve noted elsewhere, with Wayne drawn like Errol Flynn.

The other Revolutionary tale is “Saratoga!”, illustrated by Reed Crandall. That story is a straightforward retelling of the battle’s crucial American counterattack, with the final panel’s twist being that the general who carried the day was Benedict Arnold. But the story’s real stunner is the art. Click on the panels above for a larger image, and just look at that hatching!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

George Washington Sat Here

The invoice for cleaning the John Vassall house in Cambridge before Gen. George Washington moved in, which aide-de-camp Thomas Mifflin paid on 15 July 1775, includes this item:

Necessary house — [£]1.2.6
A few weeks later, on 25 August, Washington noted in his expense notebook a payment of £1.10 to “James Campbell—Necessaries for the House.” Four days later he made an equal payment to Jehoiakim Youkin for “D[itt]o. D[itt]o.”

“Necessary” was an eighteenth-century euphemism for an outhouse. Apparently the general had paid for Campbell and Youkin to clean out the headquarters latrines, or dig new ones. (The unusual name of Jehoiakim Youkin or Yokum also appears in the records of the Stockbridge Indians. His signed receipt for 30 shillings from the general’s secretary Joseph Reed is in the headquarters files.)

As autumn arrived, that outdoor facility no doubt seemed less enticing in the middle of the night. On 20 September steward Timothy Austin bought “3 Chamber Potts & 1 Pitcher.”

The house became more crowded in early December when Martha Washington, her son, and his wife arrived, along with some enslaved servants.

Late the next month the weather turned cold, with ice covering the Charles River for the first time. On 26 January 1776 and then on 14 February, Austin added six more chamber pots for the household, so on chilly nights the family wouldn’t have to visit that necessary house.

(The image above shows the pieces of a Rhenish chamber pot uncovered in an archeological dig at Mount Vernon.)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

George Washington’s Teeth, Even Closer

Back in 2007, Boston 1775 ran an item titled “George Washington’s Teeth, Close Up.” It featured an image from the American Dental Association website of the first President’s false teeth, made by North End native John Greenwood. That A.D.A. webpage got edited away into the aether, as sometimes happens, and the image disappeared off the ’net.

But this year (actually next, judging by the copyright date) Lerner Classroom is publishing John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill, by Marty Rhodes Figley. The back of that book kindly recommends Boston 1775’s material on Greenwood. And then it says this site includes “a picture of the false teeth John made for George Washington!”

I can’t let the schoolchildren of America down. So with Google’s help I restored a smaller image of those teeth to the original posting. And now, thanks to Barista, I have the pleasure of sharing this larger picture of the same dentures. So now, children of America, you can sit down happily to your school lunches.

Still hungry? Here’s another set of Washington’s teeth on display at Mount Vernon.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Boston Preservation Awards

The Boston Preservation Alliance has given two of its Preservation Achievement Awards for this year to local landmarks that reach back into the lifetime of the Revolutionary generation.

One goes to the Old South Meeting House for how it restored its tower clock (works shown here).

Created in 1766 and installed in 1770, the Tower Clock became a prominent icon of the Boston cityscape and is believed to be the oldest tower clock in New England still in operation in its original location.

The year-long restoration process started in 2009 and brought together many expert preservationists. The North clock face was carefully restored and the South clock face (too damaged to restore) was replicated in solid mahogany. With paint analysis, a more accurate understanding of the earlier clock appearance was gained. The faces of the clock now appear in their earliest known vibrant black color, made with a traditional smalting process. Along with the exterior, the clockworks were carefully disassembled, cleaned, and replaced when necessary.
Another award went to the Park Street Church, which was built in 1809. (During the Revolution, that corner was the site of the town granary, and nearby were the institutions for the poor: the bridewell, almshouse, and workhouse. The award citation says:
the recent renovations strove to make the church more accessible to parishioners and visitors, as well as improve deteriorated exterior conditions. An open space Welcome Center was created to connect the historic Tremont Street and contemporary Park Street entrances.

Other accessibility-related improvements included the rebuilding of a central elevator and an upgrade of the public entrance on Park Street. Exterior work consisted of masonry repairs to brick and brownstone facades, replacement of deteriorated roofing and gutters, and the removal of abandoned fire escapes.
Here is the full list of this year’s honorees. The Boston Preservation Alliance is celebrating this year’s awards in the Modern Theatre on 21 October at 5:30 P.M. Tickets for this fundraiser are $35 per person.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Seminars in September

Okay, I got a few more September events that caught my eye.

The Massachusetts Historical Society hosts the Boston-Area Early American History Seminar, and this academic year’s sessions start with Francis J. Bremer’s paper “Not Quite So Visible Saints: Reexamining Church Membership in Early New England” on Thursday, 16 September, at 5:15. This series is usually open to the public, but attendees get a lot more out of the discussion if they’ve read the paper in advance. Printed copies are usually available at the M.H.S. on the day of the seminar, and subscribers can access the papers online.

The next day, 17 September, the M.H.S. has a “brown-bag seminar” with Sara Damiano describing her research there on “Financial Credit and Professional Credibility: Lawyers and Laypeople in 18th-Century New England Ports.” There’s no homework necessary for this one, but folks are encouraged to bring brown-bag lunches to munch on while the researcher speaks. (I don’t know when she gets to eat.)

Near the other end of the Back Bay, the New England Historic Genealogical Society is hosting a talk on Wednesday, 22 September, at 6:00 P.M. by Eric Jay Dolin based on his book Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. The announcement:

Beginning his epic history in the early 1600s, Dolin traces the dramatic rise and fall of the American fur industry, from the first Dutch encounters with the Indians to the rise of the conservation movement in the late nineteenth century. Dolin shows how the fur trade, driven by the demands of fashion, sparked controversy, fostered economic competition, and fueled wars among the European powers, as North America became a battleground for colonization and imperial aspirations.

Populated by a larger-than-life cast—including Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant; President Thomas Jefferson; America’s first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor; and mountain man Kit Carson—Fur, Fortune, and Empire is the most comprehensive and compelling history of the American fur trade ever written. Dolin’s talk, accompanied by slides, will tell the story of fur trade in America, from East to West.
Dolin also wrote Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America and Political Waters: The Long, Dirty, Contentious, Incredibly Expensive But Eventually Triumphant History of Boston Harbor. He holds a Ph.D. in environmental policy from M.I.T., and lives in Marblehead. (He’s also speaking about the fur trade at the M.H.S. on Wednesday, 29 September, at 5:30 P.M.)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Reenactment and Round Table at Minute Man Park

Two different sorts of interesting events are coming up this month at Minute Man National Historical Park.

On the weekend of 11-12 September, the New England Campaigners will recreate Captain David Brown’s Company of Concord Minute Men in an encampment near the North Bridge. There will be 18th-century military drill and musketry, and presentations on the role of Brown’s company on 19 April 1775. The event is open to the public from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. on Saturday, and 10:00 to 3:00 on Sunday. And it’s free.

On Monday, 27 September, the park’s Lexington Visitor Center will host the inaugural meeting of a new American Revolution Round Table, from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M.. As the Friends of Minute Man Park describe, this group:

is sponsored by the Lincoln Public Library, the Minute Man National Historical Park, and the Tufts University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The purpose of ARRT-MMNHP is to provide a nonacademic, informal continuing forum to review and discuss notable and recent books and research findings about the major events and personalities of the American Revolution.

In addition, the Round Table is intended to:
    (1) Encourage the study and discussion of the ideals of the American Revolutionary War;
    (2) Promote better understanding of the pivotal events and personalities of the American Revolution; and
    (3) Increase public awareness of the meaning, significance and legacy of the American Revolution.
At the September 27th meeting, the group will first discuss organizational plans, to be followed by a discussion of Ray Raphael’s book, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord.
The organizers ask folks who want to participate to contact moderator Mel Bernstein (or call 781-259-9926) to reserve a place. This first meeting is free, but there will be a $25 annual membership fee to fund future sessions. The plan is to hold three meetings per year, in the fall, winter, and spring.

American Revolution Round Tables have been meeting in other parts of the country for years, and organizers like Bill Welsch, John Nagy, and Thomas Fleming have been asking me why we don’t have one here in Massachusetts. I’m very grateful to Mel Bernstein and the sponsors for starting one up, so now I can attend without any extra work!

(Boston 1775 comments on The First American Revolution here.)

Friday, September 03, 2010

Drumming Up Interest

This month brings two big fife and drum musters in Massachusetts.

Old Sturbridge Village hosts its annual Drummers’ Call on Saturday, 11 September: “The Sturbridge Village Martial Music Adult Corps and Youth Fife & Drum Corps will be joined by visiting fife & drum corps.”

Two weeks later on Saturday, 25 September, is the annual Sudbury Muster, hosted by the Sudbury Minutemen and Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. In addition to the music, there will be sutlers, crafts vendors, and vaguely-historically-based family games.

(My photo shows a member of the William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps a few years back.)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Facts, Fables, and Fiction about “Paul Revere’s Ride”

On the remaining Wednesdays in September, the Paul Revere Memorial Association [i.e., the Paul Revere House, getting fancy] is presenting a series of lectures on the theme “One Hundred and Fifty Years of ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’: Facts, Fables and Fiction.”

These lectures will start at 6:30 P.M. each Wednesday at the Old South Meeting House on Washington Street in Boston. The series is free to the public, thanks to a grant from the Lowell Institute. Here are the topics.

Wednesday, 8 September
Listen, My Children: Paul Revere’s Ride in Poetry and Legend
Using new research, historian and author Charles Bahne [a Boston 1775 guest blogger] will examine how Henry W. Longfellow created one of America’s most enduring legends—a tale which, like all legends, often strays from the truth. What did Longfellow know when he wrote the poem? Why did he include some details, and ignore or omit others? What about William Dawes and Samuel Prescott? Included in the program will be a world-premiere: the first-ever public reading of Longfellow’s complete first draft, including an entire stanza which was later deleted, and has never been published.

Wednesday, 15 September
The Lost and Legendary Riders of April 19th
Beyond Paul Revere and his companions, Americans have passed along stories of other notable riders on April 19, 1775. Historian J. L. Bell [that’s me!] investigates the facts and fiction behind such figures as Hezekiah Wyman, the dreaded “White Horseman”; Abel Benson and Abigail Smith, children said to have helped raise the alarm in Middlesex County [and never explored on Boston 1775]; and Israel Bissell, the post rider credited with carrying news of the fight all the way to Philadelphia.

Wednesday, 22 September
“A Friend” of Paul Revere: The Role of Family Histories in the Ongoing Mystery of Who Hung the Lanterns in Old North Steeple, April 18, 1775
On April 18, 1875, in front of a packed house at Boston’s Old North Church, Samuel Haskell Newman presented his family’s account of the night of April 18, 1775. Specifically, he identified his father, Robert Newman, as the man who hung the lanterns in Old North steeple on that historic night. One year later, in July, 1876, Reverend John Lee Watson of Orange, New Jersey, argued in a letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser that it was his relative, Captain John Pulling, who hung the signal lanterns. Old North Foundation historian and educator Bob Damon will evaluate these competing narratives and explore the important role that family histories play in our understanding of history.

Wednesday, 29 September
Revering America: The Politics of Remembering the Revolution
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not the first, nor by any means the last, to make use of Revolutionary War history for other purposes. Just this past spring, George Pataki launched an anti-health care petition drive called RevereAmerica, from Boston’s Paul Revere Mall. Americans have always put the past to political ends. Jill Lepore, Kemper Professor of History at Harvard University and New Yorker staff writer, will discuss the fraught relationship between reverence and revolution.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Meeting Prudence Wright

As I said yesterday, I think there are dubious details in some versions of the story of local women stopping a Loyalist (or two) at the bridge in Pepperell. But there’s no doubt about the political fervor of the woman remembered as their leader, Prudence Wright. We don’t need family lore set down decades after the Revolution to see evidence of that.

On 14 July 1774, town records say, Wright gave birth to a son whom she and her husband David named Liberty. Unfortunately, that child didn’t live long: he died on 11 March 1775. (His parents would give the same name to their next baby boy, born in 1778, and this one lived until 1877.)

July was after the Boston Port Bill and Massachusetts Government Act had taken effect, but before the countryside began to mobilize against the royal government. The court-closings and county conventions would start the next month, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and new militia elections that fall. In giving their baby such an obviously political name, the Wrights were on the cutting edge of resistance.

I understand that Eleanor Gavazzi has researched Prudence Wright in depth as a student at Fitchburg State and as head of Groton’s D.A.R. chapter, which bears Wright’s name and erected the grave marker above a century ago. Gavazzi provided background material for an article on the Pepperell bridge incident that Colonial Williamsburg magazine published in 2006 (unfortunately, not one of the articles available online) and for this Saturday’s reenactment. Gavazzi gives talks about Wright and her world to school and civic groups.