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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Monday, April 08, 2013

The Myth of Jonas Davenport

Here’s a story of the battle on 19 Apr 1775 that doesn’t get told much anymore. It quotes an aged Revolutionary War veteran named Jonas Davenport:
I lived near Lexington. My house stood on the road. I joined the minute-men when I heard of the comin’ of the British troops, and left my wife and two children home, under the care of my father, then about sixty. I told ’em to keep as quiet as possible and they would be safe.

Well, as I said, I joined the minute-men, and, when the rascals retreated from Concord, followed and did some execution with my firelock. But one of ’em shot me in the shoulder, and I could n’t point my gun any more. I waited till the enemy had got a considerable distance on the road towards Boston, and then managed to reach my house—but such a house as I found it!

The windows were broken in, the doors torn off their hinges, and the furniture broken and thrown about in heaps. I called for my father and wife, but received no reply. I crawled up stairs, for I was nearly exhausted from loss of blood, and there I found my father and oldest child stretched on the floor dead. The old man had his gun still clenched in his hand, and he had, no doubt, done the enemy some damage with it. But his face was beaten in, and he had two or three bayonet stabs in his breast. The little boy had been shot through the head.

I was a pretty tough-hearted man, but I fainted at the sight; and, when I came to myself, I found my wife and the youngest child bending over me crying. How they did hug and kiss me when they saw me revive! I think I did as much to them, for I never expected to see them alive.

My wife told me that the old man would fire at the British as they were passing the house, and some of them stopped, broke open the doors, and knocked the things about. The old man and the little boy ran up stairs, while my wife and the other child ran from the house towards a neighbor’s. As she ran away, she heard the muskets fired, but could n’t stop, as she thought the rascals were after her. She had returned as soon as she knew they were far on the road.

I did n’t grieve long; but sent her for the doctor at Lexington to dress my wound. Boys, boys, I’ve made many a red-coat pay for the lives of that old man and child. I hated them enough before, but that day’s work made me all gall!
That text comes from Henry C. Watson’s 1851 book, The Yankee Tea-Party. Watson had Davenport go on to tell the legend of Hezekiah Wyman. Another voice in the book was David Kinnison, Chicago’s fake Tea Party veteran. In sum, the book is full of spurious stories.

In this case, Watson combined the bloodiest elements of three actual incidents:
Fortunately, no one believed Watson’s tale and repeated it as fact—though he himself reprinted it in The Boston Tea-Party in 1889 and Daring Deeds of the Old Heroes of the Revolution in 1893.


G. Lovely said...

From a brief survey of his work it appears Mr, Watson had just a nodding acquaintance with the truth.

Since I live in a home once occupied by a Henry Watson, I got to wondering and was eventually able to locate the following biographical information that precludes him being my Mr. Watson:

"WATSON, Henry Clay, author, born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1831 ; died in Sacramento, California, 10 July, 1869. He removed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at an early age, adopted the profession of journalism, and was editorially connected with the "North American," the "Evening Journal," and other papers. He subsequently removed to California, and at the time of his death edited the Sacramento "Times." He was the author of several volumes of hunting adventure, besides which his publications include "Camp-Fires of the Revolution" (Philadelphia, 1851) ; "Nights in a Block-House" (1852); "Old Bell of Independence" (1852); " The Yankee Teapot" (1853); "Lives of the Presidents of the United States" (Boston, 1853); "Heroic Women of History" (Philadelphia, 1853); "The Ladies' Glee-Book" (New York, 1854) ; " The Masonic Musical Manual" (1855) ; and "Camp-Fires of Napoleon" (Philadelphia, 1856)."

Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography, Volume 6

J. L. Bell said...

Are you more or less pleased Henry C. Watson didn't live in your house?

Obviously his books about the Revolution in New England aren't accurate. We might ask whether Watson's original audience expected them to be, or were looking for inspiring stories that they knew might have been embellished? The historical "legend" was an established genre in the 19th century, and it would be interesting to know what that meant to readers then.

Some of those legends got into the history books as facts, and others remain in the realm of literature.

G. Lovely said...

I still had a Henry Watson in my house, just not this one.

I suspect books like Watson's were meant to be read aloud in the days before electronic entertainment, and their inspiring tales were intended to give the youth of a rapidly expanding nation role models for what it what it meant to be an American. As such, perhaps a dose of fiction wasn't all bad, at least no more damaging than the steady steam of Saturday kiddies' matinee WWII and Cowboy movies my generation was exposed to during our formative years.

J. L. Bell said...

Last night I watched the Randolph Scott western Westbound. It was certainly set in the historical past, and its conflict rested on a historical fact: the Union government's need for gold from California during the Civil War. But of course the story was fiction, and the movie's simplistic, race-free depiction of the Civil War reflected the values of its own time.

I don't think anyone expected viewers to interpret Westbound as anything but historical fiction for entertainment. But if someone came to that movie expecting it to be retelling "a true story" like the last Oscar season's Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, they'd read more out of Westbound than its creators intended.

That sort of process might be how some stories from writers like Watson ended up being interpreted by later generations as based on more facts than they really were. We lost track of the context or clues that indicated they were just entertaining fiction.