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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Friday, October 19, 2012

The Vassalls of Cambridge

Although the title of my book-length study for the National Park Service is Gen. George Washington’s Headquarters and Home—Cambridge, Massachusetts, it gets a running start with the building of that house sixteen years before Washington arrived.

In 1759 John Vassall (1738-1797) turned twenty-one and came into his inheritance of large sugar plantations on Jamaica. He had the best upbringing that his maternal grandfather, Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips, could provide. He had a Harvard degree. And from his late father he had farmland in Cambridge with a house on the north side of the road out to Watertown.

But that house evidently wasn’t exactly what John Vassall wanted, so he had it torn down and a handsome new Georgian mansion built nearby. Over the next fifteen years Vassall added to the estate until he owned 90 acres, paying more real-estate tax than anyone else in Cambridge.

In January 1761, John Vassall married Elizabeth Oliver (1741-1807), daughter of a Dorchester man with Caribbean plantations. Seven months earlier, John’s sister Elizabeth had married Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Oliver. Miss Elizabeth Vassall thus became Mrs. Elizabeth Oliver, and Miss Elizabeth Oliver became Mrs. Elizabeth Vassall. In 1766, the Olivers moved to Cambridge, commissioning a handsome mansion of their own, now called Elmwood.

John Vassall’s life in Cambridge in the late 1760s would have given Bertie Wooster fits: he was surrounded by aunts. His father’s brother Henry Vassall and wife Penelope lived pretty much across the street. Near the college was his father’s sister, Anna Borland, and her husband. Two of his mother’s sisters, Mary Lechmere and Rebecca Lee, lived along the Watertown road to the west with their husbands. Then came another paternal aunt, Susanna Ruggles, with hers. And finally the Olivers. All those houses are still intact, too, though one has been moved. They comprise most of “Tory Row.”

This chapter describes the “Powder Alarm” of 2 Sept 1774 from the Vassalls’ point of view. Imagine being Spencer Vassall, John and Elizabeth’s ten-year-old second son, watching 4,000 men with sticks march past your house to the town common to demand that all the men appointed to the new royal Council step down. Then watching those thousands of men walk back past your house to your uncle’s, where they threatened his life until he signed a resignation under protest. Did Spencer know that his father had recently told Gov. Thomas Gage he was willing to sit on the Council as well? (That news was kept secret, and John Vassall never actually took the seat.)

The Vassalls left their Cambridge home for their Boston home that September, then left Boston for Halifax in 1775 and were in London by June 1776. With most of his wealth coming from Jamaica, John Vassall easily weathered the loss of his Massachusetts properties. In fact, the memorial inscriptions for him and his wife in St. Paul’s Church in Bristol don’t even mention Massachusetts, where both were born and where they had seven of their eight children (two dying young).

And what about Spencer Vassall? He was ready to fight in the American war. His father bought him an army commission, and he apparently entered the service in 1778 at the age of fourteen. Lt. Vassall served at Gibraltar from October 1782 to the end of the war; for the British, staving off Spain’s attempt to regain this territory was an important and heroic campaign. Vassall remained in the army through the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, serving in Flanders, Antigua, France, Spain, Holland, Ireland, and South Africa. He died leading a British attack on Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1807.

Amelia Opie wrote an epitaph to Capt. Spencer Vassall that began:
Stranger, if e’er you honor’d Sidney’s fame,
If e’er you lov’d Bayard’s reproachless name,
Then on this marble gaze with tearful eyes,
For kindred merit here with Vassall lies!…
The first chapter of the report includes more mediocre poetry about the captain, plus the family’s vital records, descriptions of John Vassall’s social and public life, details of a mysterious shooting in Lincoln, and remarks on whether Vassall was really a figure in Mercy Warren’s The Group or involved in a Loyalist disinformation campaign during the war.


Unknown said...

I grew up in up in Vassalboro, Maine. Most sources say that the town was named after William Vassall, however this one names Florentius:


J. L. Bell said...

WIlliam was this John Vassall's uncle. Florentius was William's cousin in London. Both William and Florentius received land grants in the incorporation of Vassallboro. Florentius probably never saw the region, but he may have been in a better position to benefit the investment.

My bet is that the town was named after the whole Vassall family as a way of honoring or currying favor with both William and Florentius and perhaps gaining support from the next generation.