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, March 08, 2013

The Early Life of Thomas Machin

After the Revolutionary War, Capt. Thomas Machin of the Continental artillery settled in upstate New York, built mills, and raised a family. In his 1845 History of Schoharie County, Jeptha R. Simms (shown here, courtesy of Three Rivers) devoted a great deal of space to Machin, based on documents surviving from the war and afterward and family recollections.

Here’s how Simms described Machin’s pre-war career:
He was born March 20th, 1744, O. S., four miles from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England. His father, John Machin, a distinguished mathematician, had two sons, John and Thomas. The former was killed at the siege of some town near the outlet of the Red Sea; and the later was one of a corps of English cadets, which, with the British infantry became so distinguished for their bravery in the battle of Minden, Germany. The cadets, or fencibles, as called, were almost annihilated in that battle, which took place between the allied army under Ferdinand and the French, in August, 1759.

The Duke of Bridgewater, who may justly be styled the father of the canal navigation of Great Britain, projected at his own expense a canal from the coal measures on his lands in the town of Worsley to Manchester, a distance of some ten miles; obtaining his first act for the same at the session of parliament for the winter of 1758 and 59. A few years after he obtained an act for carrying a branch of it to Liverpool, nearly thirty miles. . . .

Those great works which were looked upon at their commencement by the incredulous as wholly impracticable, were prosecuted to completion under the direction of the celebrated engineer and mechanical inventor, James Brindley. Soon after Brindley began those works, Thomas Machin entered his employ; and it is not surprising that under such a tutor, he, too, should have become a good practical engineer. He was engaged in taking the levels for the Duke’s canal; and as clerk paid off many of the laborers employed by Brindley.

After making a voyage to the East Indies, Machin sailed for America, and arriving in 1772, took up his residence in the city of New York. The principal object of his voyage was to examine a copper mine in New Jersey.

After a short stay in New York, he went to reside in Boston, and evidently intended a permanent residence; as he warmly espoused the cause of the Bostonians against his “father land.” He was one of the celebrated Boston tea party of 1773. He was engaged and wounded (in one arm) in the conflict on Bunker’s hill, while acting as lieutenant of artillery.
That biography is the basis for Machin’s inclusion in many lists of Tea Party participants and Bunker Hill veterans. It’s the source of the information about his background in American National Biography and other reference books.

In every point it’s either false, misleading, or unverifiable.

TOMORROW: What’s wrong with this biography.


G. Lovely said...

Hmmmm. There must be a story here, as I see the Tea Party Museum's website has a biographical sketch of 'Thomas Machin' that doesn't mention mills in upstate NY, though some numismatist's sites do...

J. L. Bell said...

Machin's mills minted some coins without, shall we say, official authorization. (As I recall, he bid on some government contracts but didn't get them, then went ahead anyway.) So numismatists value Machin's Mills pennies as curiosities, but the family didn't mention that episode when speaking to biographers.