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, January 20, 2013

The Non-Fatal Battle of Golden Hill

Yesterday was the anniversary of what New York historians later called “The Battle of Golden Hill.” That’s a mighty name for what was really the biggest of a series of brawls between British soldiers stationed in the city and local men over the first Liberty Pole.

Some accounts of the fighting 19 Jan 1770 say that it produced “the first blood of the Revolutionary War.” Others even say it included the first death. New York historians were pleased to find an event that predated the killing of Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre (which also got a mighty name).

There was surely some bloodletting in the fight, but there had been blood shed earlier as well. The first violent death of the conflict might have been the killing of Lt. Henry Panton at sea in April 1769, or we might interpret that as part of sailors’ ongoing resistance to Royal Navy impressment, with no direct link to the Revolutionary argument.

As for fatalities, there were indeed early reports that a citizen was killed in the fighting on 19 Jan 1770. For example, a letter dated 22 January and published in the St. James Chronicle stated, “One sailor got run through the body who has since died, &c.”

However, no New York newspaper ever published the name of that dead man, and the local Whigs would surely have made a public martyr of him. We know from the Boston Massacre that activists publicized the names of all the dead and then some. Paul Revere’s print of the shooting says Christopher Monk and John Clark had been wounded “mortally,” but both apprentices lived for years. I think that sailor fell into the same category, dead enough to complain about but not really dead.

A special supplement to the New-York Journal on 1 Mar 1770 printed a long, detailed account of the fighting dated 31 January. Though signed “An Impartial Observer,” the writer clearly leaned toward the local side of the conflict. And that account stated there were no fatalities, though only by luck. Here’s a sample of that blow-by-blow between soldiers wielding bayonets, swords, and clubs and locals wielding, well, swords and clubs:
Those few that had the sticks maintained their ground in the narrow passage in which they stood, and defended their defenceless fellow citizens, for some time, against the furious and unmanly attacks of armed soldiers, until one of them missing his aim, in a stroke made at one of the assailants, lost his stick, which obliged the former to retreat, to look for some instrument of defence; the soldiers pursued him down to the main street; one of them made a stroke, with a cutlass at Mr. Francis Field, one of the people called Quakers, standing in an inoffensive posture in Mr. Field’s door, at the corner; and cut him on the right cheek, and if the corner had not broke the stroke, it would have probably killed him.

This party that came down to the main street cut a tea-water man driving his cart, and a fisherman’s finger; in short they madly attacked every person that they could reach: And their companions on Golden-Hill were more inhuman; for, besides cuting a sailor’s head and finger, that was defended himself against them, they stabbed another with a bayonet, going about his business, so badly, that his life was thought in danger.

Not satiated with all this cruelty, two of them followed a boy going for sugar, into Mr. Elsworth’s house, one of them cut him on the head with a cutlass, and the other made a lung[e] with a bayonet at the woman in the entry, that answered the child. Capt. Richardson was violently attacked by two of the soldiers, with swords, and expected to have been cut to pieces; but was so fortunate as to defend himself with a stick for a considerable time, ’till a halbert was put into his hands, with which he could have killed several of them; but he made no other use of it, than to defend himself, and his naked fellow-citizens.—

Mr. John Targe, hearing from his house, the cry of murder, went out unarmed, to see the occasion of it, and when he came in view of the soldiers, three of them pursued him to his house, with their arms drawn, from whence he took a halbert, with which he defended himself against their attacks (with sticks of wood, which they took from a heap that lay in the street, and threw at his legs, as they could not reach his body with their arms) and obliged them to retire to their companions; in which time their lives were in his power, had he been disposed to have taken them.
And so on. I suspect the man whose “life was thought in danger” was the sailor earlier rumored to have died.

Most modern accounts agree with me and say the “Battle of Golden Hill” produced no deaths, but every so often a chronicler repeats the claim that it was the first fatal confrontation of the Revolution.

(The image above is Charles Lefferts’s painting of “The Battle of Golden Hill,” completed about 1920 and now at the New-York Historical Society.)


Daud said...

Even if someone died at the battle of golden hill it would have been after the death of Christopher Seider.

Does Seiders death count as "of the American Revolution"? Who knows, and frankly who cares other than people immature enough to squabble over superlatives. (First, oldest, biggest, fastest)

J. L. Bell said...

Christopher Seider died on 22 Feb 1770, so if someone had died within a couple of days of this brawl he would have had the "honor" of being first. But all in all, I suspect he preferred to survive.

Some historians do indeed treat Seider's death as the first of the Revolution—certainly the first on the American side.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Its a truly wretched painting, a far cry from NC Wyeth or Howard Pyle!

J. L. Bell said...

Lefferts is remembered for his research into uniforms. Not for his stirring scenes, indeed.