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, December 19, 2010

David Kinnison: “not credible”

I’ve been exploring the stories of David Kinnison or Kennison, hailed after 1848 as the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. Yesterday I quoted his description of that event, and the day before his first detailed account of Revolutionary War service.

You can read more of both those documents on Pamela Bannos’s excellent “Hidden Truths” website from Northwestern University. That was my source for the Chicago newspaper quotations about Kinnison’s fund-raising and death on Friday.

Bannos’s site also details the refutations of Kinnison’s stories. Because he was a nearly complete fraud.

Kinnison’s name pops on and off U.S. pension rolls through the mid-1800s, usually spelled Kenniston or Keniston, when he was living in New Hampshire and Maine. He is reported as being 59 in 1835 (i.e., born about 1776) and 82 in 1840 (born about 1758). Only when he arrived in Chicago in 1848 did Kinnison start to state he’d been born in 1736.

Likewise, Kinnison’s war stories don’t add up. In 1848 he told a Chicago newspaper that he’d seen Cornwallis surrender in October 1781. Yet a couple of years later he told magazine journalist Benson J. Lossing that “in a skirmish at Saratoga Springs,...his company (scouts) were surrounded and captured by about three hundred Mohawk Indians. He remained a prisoner with them one year and seven months, about the end of which time peace was declared,” which leaves him no time to have been at Yorktown.

Kinnison claimed to have fought under a general named “Montgomery.” That must be Richard Montgomery, who died leading the American invasion of Canada in 1775. Yet Kinnison didn’t claim to have been involved in any of that memorable campaign.

Kinnison wrote that during the Battle of Bunker Hill “I also helped roll the barrels, filled with sand and stone, down the hill as the British came up.” Those barrels come from Dr. James Thacher’s account of the fortification of Dorchester heights, months later, and they never had to be rolled.

Kinnison’s name apparently does appear on a list of soldiers at Fort Dearborn in the early 1800s, but there’s no evidence he was there when the fort fell in 1812. Fort Dearborn later became the city of Chicago, so that might explain why Kinnison made his way back out there in 1848, hoping to find support in his old age.

In 1914, Dr. Charles Josiah Lewis dismantled many of Kinnison’s claims, as reported in the local paper. But seven years later a local chapter of the D.A.R. named itself after the man. In 1973, Albert G. Overton did a thorough analysis of Kinnison’s stories; he titled his essay “David Kennison and the Chicago Sting,” and to my knowledge it hasn’t been published, though it’s available in some research libraries.

There’s still a big stone monument to Kinnison in the Windy City, dating from 1903, but the online Encyclopedia of Chicago says he was a fraud. The Chicago History Museum keeps some artifacts associated with Kinnison, but identifies him as a hoaxer. The Chicago Tribune detailed the lies in 2003.

Which brings me back to MassMoments, where I started this series of postings. Whoever wrote its 17 November essay about Kinnison obviously hadn’t gotten the memo. (That essay also repeats an error in saying Kinnison was born in Maine; he said he was born in Kingston, New Hampshire, near Maine.)

Remarkably, the MassMoments webpage cites Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party as its sole source. Yet Prof. Young helped write the catalog for the Chicago History Museum’s “We the People” exhibit, which announced that Kinnison was a fraud. And Young’s book actually says:

In 1848, Chicagoans were so desperate for a link to the Revolution and so credulous that they embraced Kennison, who migrated to the burgeoning city advertising himself as 112 years old, a participant at the Tea Party, and a veteran of every battle from Lexington to Yorktown. In reality, Kennison was only nine or so in 1773 (which put him in his eighties in the late 1840s)...
Elsewhere The Shoemaker and the Tea Party states simply that Kinnison’s claim was “not credible.” (Ben Carp’s new Defiance of the Patriots calls him a “Chicago huckster.”)

I think it’s time for MassMoments to edit its 17 November entry to acknowledge that David Kinnison claimed to be at the Boston Tea Party, but was no more authentic than this John Howe.


RFuller said...

I don't know who is worse- Kennison, or the people who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence contrary to his story, still persist(ed) in believing in him and his obviously false tales.

Did Chicagoans, feeling culturally inferior to the old Yankees in Boston, trump him up and fall for it all because he fit their spiritual need for a hometown Revolutionary War hero? Didn't anybody question his tale while he was still alive? This tale says more about the believers in than the idol.

Yet another porcelain god, that shatters when it falls...

J. L. Bell said...

Chicago as a young city, supposedly without history (the tale of Fort Dearborn was hardly stirring), might indeed have felt culturally inferior to its eastern counterparts in the 1850s. Later the Chicago Museum bought a huge anchor chain in the belief that it was the “chain” stretched across the Hudson River to prevent the Royal Navy from sailing up to Albany. The city wanted some Revolutionary roots.

When I read about stories like this, however, I wonder if there might have been debunkers at the time who just didn’t put their skepticism into print. Maybe they thought he was such an obvious fraud that it didn’t need mentioning, or they enjoyed watching other people get hoaxed, or they figured he was a harmless old liar who wasn’t really causing trouble.

When Tea Party claimants first started to come out of the woodwork in the 1820s and 1830s, there were skeptical voices in the Boston press. In some cases, they identified discrepancies or debunked false claims—particularly about men from out of town. In some cases, however, those men appear to have been authentic participants.

As the numbers of Revolutionary veterans dwindled, the press’s skepticism seems to have shrunk as well. But I wonder how the Boston press of the 1840s and ’50s reacted to these stories out of Chicago.

pilgrimchick said...

I encounter this kind of a phenomenon all the time--no matter how many times certain things are proven wrong (or just simply do not seem to make sense), there are plenty of people intent upon believing them. I have endless problems with this in regards to the history of Plymouth Colony.

Jen said...

MassMoments needs to check the work of their interns, clearly.

Charles Bahne said...

The John Howe you link to in the Mass. Moments site was obviously a fraud. But it appears there was another John Howe, also a loyalist who lived in Boston in 1775, who is claimed to have been a spy for the British -- but his espionage came more than 3 decades later.

This latter John Howe is mentioned in the comments appended to Mass. Moments:


which in turn links to 2 other web sites:



This latter John Howe appears was about the same age as the fictional one. The web sites I've cited here claim that he (or possibly his son of the same name) was a spy in the years before the War of 1812.

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article and the Scribd article don't fully agree about this John Howe's espionage efforts. I'll leave those differences for others to figure out.

J. L. Bell said...

The most solidly based biography of the real John Howe is at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

I’ve read his “spy” reports, and I’m not sure they deserve that name. He traveled in America under his own name, mostly visiting relatives. He didn’t represent himself as anything other than a contented Canadian subject and even (as a postmaster) minor government official.

On returning home, Howe gave a government official a report of what he’d heard and seen, mostly about political sentiments. He wasn’t a paid agent, just a citizen hoping for peace.

I think it's notable that when the British government most needed intelligence about America and influence in it—during the actual War of 1812—no officials sent Howe out again. His reports were found in government archives decades later, and I don’t recall any sign that they had affected decisions.

I see that the author of the Scribd essay also writes about Sarah Bradlee Fulton. She was quite the storyteller as well—not on David Kinnison’s level, but not credible, either.

CycloneArmageddon said...

Hey folks. An Aussie here, who is knew to your site - and to much of US history! I cam here because I was reading about the Boston Tea Party and Kinnison's name cropped up - and some of the claims made about him just didn't seem credible. I was glad to find this site where an open discussion (with solid references) exists. Many thanks for taking the time to right about issues like this - I'll bet a lot of folk come to the site and leave wiser although they don't post. Which is why I thought I should.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you found the site and the links useful.

George Jones said...

Dear Mr. Bell,

In regards to David Kennison / Kinnison I consider myself to know more about this man's backstory. I have not published this info.

Among other things I have identified 2 of his sons who served in the U.S. Military, 1 of his daughters, the family he moved with from New York to Chicago and much about his military service / historical "clamed" exploits, etc.

I am willing to share / trade information with other "serious" researchers.

Drop me an email at jonesge (at) yahoo.com and tell me about yourself and your research on this individual.

George Jones