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, April 17, 2011

The Myth of Sam Ballard and the Green Dragon Tavern

In Old Boston Days and Ways (1909), Mary Caroline Crawford published what she called “A brand new and not uninteresting explanation of the celerity with which the news [of the planned British march to Concord] reached [Paul] Revere.”

Crawford’s source was “Mrs. E. Corinna Wheeler, an aged lady still living in Boston,” who had heard the story from her mother. Wheeler’s mother, I’ve found, was Rachel (Ellis) Ayer, said to be born in Boston on 12 Feb 1804. Wheeler said that Ayer in turn had heard the story from her grandmother, Lydia Lewis, born Lydia Ballard about 1760.

And the tale:

It was to her brother, a bright Yankee boy, Sam Ballard by name, that the intelligence of the Committee of Safety was due. . . .

It was a great thing in those times for the boys to hang about the inn doors to pick up a few shillings and sixpences by holding horses, while their owners went inside for a drink. On the week before the eighteenth my great-great-uncle, then a boy of thirteen, overheard in this way the conversation of two British officers. That conversation was important. For they talked of the plan to capture [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams.

Sam went immediately with his news to the landlord of the Green Dragon [Tavern, shown above], and he informed the Committee of Safety which had its meetings in an upper room of that tavern. Acting on this information the committee appointed a spy to hide in the rooms where the British held their councils. The spy learned the rest. Then the committee held another meeting and planned the ride of Paul Revere.

But on the night of the eighteenth the committee was carefully watched, for the British were determined that they should not do the very thing they accomplished,—that is, get news of the march to Lexington and Concord. The committee did not dare to venture out, but somehow they must send word to Revere. It suddenly occurred to Dr. [Joseph] Warren that no suspicion would be aroused to see a boy running up the causeway from the Green Dragon to Revere’s house. So, about ten o’clock, he despatched that same thirteen year old Sam Ballard to carry the message to Paul Revere!
This is a classic “grandmother’s tale,” my term for a story told by an older relative (usually female) to entertain and inspire the children in her care, probably not expecting it ever to leave the household. But those children grow up believing the tale is (a) entirely true, and (b) of national importance.

The legend of Sam Ballard is also an example of what I’ve called “memory creep.” It appears to have been inspired by the anecdote of John Ballard that I analyzed yesterday, but it got better with:
  • a lot more name-dropping: Hancock! Adams! Green Dragon! Paul Revere! Dr. Warren!
  • the listeners’ ancestor put at the center of the action: Sam Ballard not only overhears the British officers, but also brings that news to the Patriots himself, and finally carries Warren’s orders to Revere.
Indeed, one starts to suspect that if the storyteller had seen a way to have young Sam “hide in the rooms where the British held their councils,” she would have included that detail, too.

Furthermore, there are a lot of details that reflect a casual late-nineteenth-century understanding of Revolutionary Boston rather than the historical record.
  • Gen. Thomas Gage never made a “plan to capture Hancock and Adams”; his mission was entirely aimed at seizing cannon and other matérial in Concord. Any spy who was really in the British council room would have had better intelligence.
  • The “Committee of Safety” was part of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and met outside of Boston, never in the upper room of the Green Dragon.
  • The “ride of Paul Revere” was improvised, not planned. 
  • By their own accounts, many Boston Patriots did “dare to venture out” on 18 Apr 1775. We have Revere’s recollection, for example. Dr. Warren’s professional daybook shows two transactions on that date. William Dawes rode out of town. Col. Percy reported hearing local men discuss the march on the Common at night, so somebody must have been up and about.
Finally, I can’t find any record of a girl named Lydia Ballard being born in Boston around 1760, or a boy named Samuel Ballard being born there around 1762. The town’s records are very spotty, but it still would have been nice to have some evidence Sam Ballard even existed besides a story set down over 125 years after the fact.

For a brief time authors accepted the tale of Sam Ballard—it was featured in the New York Times review of Crawford’s book. But historians found this legend not to be credible and stopped incorporating it into their recreations of events. It survives today only on the placemats of today’s Green Dragon Tavern, which has no connection to the establishment that existed in 1775.


Anonymous said...

According to William H. Hallahan, in his book, "The Day the American Revolution Began, 19 April 1775 - British General Gage had orders from King George III to (and I am paraphrasing here), seize the powder, arms and cannon from Concord and Lexington and to capture the leading radicals, Sam Adams and John Hancock.

Also - the Committee of Safety was also called the Sons of Liberty and either met in the cellar or the second floor of several taverns in the area of the Green Dragon - The Bunch of Grapes is also mentioned.

As to the Sam Ballard mystery - do not think any student of history will be able to discover what is fact or what is fiction. The story was "handed down" over several generations of the family - and as stories go - each version gets a bit better as time goes on.

J. L. Bell said...

If you search for “Hallahan” on this blog, you’ll see that I think that book is terribly inaccurate and slanted. It’s a collection of old myths and new ones the author created out of whole cloth.

Gen. Gage’s orders for the Concord march have been published since 1777, and his first draft of those orders was published in the 1920s. Neither says anything about arresting John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

In 1775 the Massachusetts Committee of Safety was an official body of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. It was not the same as the Boston Sons of Liberty, though some men were members of both groups. The Sons of Liberty seems to have been a more informal organization with a larger set of men involved.

There might be some confusion with what Paul Revere called his “committee of observation”—a self-appointed group of men keeping watch on the British military in 1774-75. That did meet in the Green Dragon Tavern until November 1774, when a confidential source (Henry Knox?) told Revere that the royal authorities knew all about their discussions there.

I agree that the story of Sam or John Ballard is impossible to verify. But those retelling the story have a responsibility to provide credible evidence.

Anonymous said...

So Mr. Hallahan's book is inaccurate?... interesting.
It looks as though he did quite a bit of research to write it... And you "think" according to his web site that the book is not accurate. Does anyone have accurate information or writings of the time?.. Most likely not... how do you know that Gage's orders published in 1920 are even accurate? Are they verified with the British records in England?.. Just curious. I think much of what did happen during the time was not recorded or was put into journals and embellished news stories of the time... not much of it is very accurate... just look at the way things are recorded today.

J. L. Bell said...

Apparently you didn’t take my advice to look for the postings about Hallahan’s book on this website. (Not “his web site.”) Those postings list in detail the mistakes in his book, especially about Samuel Adams.

As for the first draft of orders from Gen. Gage that I mentioned, that’s preserved in manuscript at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor. I’ve seen it. So have other researchers. It’s been transcribed and published in scholarly books. It’s in Gage’s handwriting and was preserved with the rest of his papers, with a clear provenance.

You raise larger epistemological questions about how we know anything about the past. Have you applied that level of doubt to the question of whether Gen. Gage ordered John Hancock and Samuel Adams to be arrested? Or other statements in Hallahan’s book that you repeated above?

How should we describe Gage’s orders in April 1775? I suggest we start with the surviving documents (the handwritten papers, the orders published in 1777) and not go beyond them unless there’s strong evidence. And it’s the responsibility of someone making the additional claim to provide that additional evidence.