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, June 11, 2011

William Russell’s Writing

Last month the Seth Kaller auction house alerted me to this collection of the Revolutionary War documents of William Russell (1748-1784), a Tea Party participant, charter member of Col. Thomas Crafts’s militia artillery regiment after the war began, privateer crewman under Capt. John Manley, and twice prisoner of war.

The collection includes a note from Crafts and several letters written home while Russell was in captivity in Britain or New York harbor. I see mentions of Benjamin Edes and James Brewer. Some of the material has been published in The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, by Ralph D. Paine.

According to Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves, Russell was “sometime usher in Master Griffiths’ school, on Hanover Street, below the Orange Tree.” John Griffith was a private schoolteacher, rather than one employed by the town. I’ve long wondered how he had enough students to hire an usher, or assistant teacher.

Handwriting was a major part of the colonial curriculum, and Russell’s ability to write clearly was a big part of his military career. As sergeant major of Crafts’s regiment, he wrote out the first list of recruits. Later he was the regiment’s adjutant, or administrative officer, during an attempt to drive the British military from Newport.

On board Manley’s ship, Russell was a clerk. The captain was reportedly barely literate, so a clerk would have been a good thing. During his first stint as a prisoner, in the Mill Prison in England, Russell kept a detailed diary, which I believe is now at the Peabody Essex Museum. Someday I’ll quote from the published version.

Russell’s name appeared on the first published list of Tea Party members, in the back of Traits of the Tea Party (1835). One of Russell’s sons, John, had grown up to be an apprentice at the Massachusetts/Columbian Centinel; I’ve theorized that that newspaper’s publisher, Benjamin Russell, was the source of that first Tea Party list.

The same year that book came out, as the Boston Tea Party became famous, John Russell gave a lecture about the event in Salem, and of course he invoked his father’s name. I should note, however, that John Russell was born in 1779, so he had no first-hand knowledge of what happened in 1773. He was also only five years old when his father died, so he probably couldn’t sort out what he’d heard his father say from what he’d heard from other relatives. Still, Russell’s connections to Crafts and other activists make it likely that he did help to destroy the tea.


Phil Wilson said...

William, your blog serves as a wonderful model for scholarly writings that help us in our research. I am interested in the influence of free mason ideals on not only the time in which the Tea Party event took place... but also how these ideas continued throughout the war and after through 1800. Can you direct me to your writings on these ideas? I am not a Free Mason, but have an interest in finding as much info on the Patriot, Capt. Thaddeus Pollard who built our historic farm in Still River (a hamlet in the southern part of Harvard, MA).

Best Regards and keep up the great work!

Phil Wilson

J. L. Bell said...

For information on the Freemasonry movement in the Revolutionary period, I recommend Steven Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood.

Charles Bahne said...

I believe that the archives of the Grand Lodge of Masons of Massachusetts were moved, a few years ago, to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington. In any case, the library at that museum would be a good place for Mr. Wilson to start on his research.