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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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Capt. Kempton Answers the Call

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll speak at the Anderson House museum of the Society of the Cincinnati about this powder horn, inscribed with the name of Capt. Thomas Kempton.

In 1775 Kempton commanded a company raised mostly in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. His part of that town became New Bedford in 1787, and his family remained there for at least two generations.

Leonard Bolles Ellis’s History of New Bedford (1892) drew on that family’s documents about their Revolutionary forebear, and on their lore:

“I well remember,” says John K. Cushing, grandson of the commander, Capt. Kempton, “hearing my mother tell the story as she heard it from my grandfather’s lips, how, when the news arrived in town, he was at work upon his new house, situated on what is now Thomas street. He was at work on the outside of the building when the alarm was brought to him (and it must have been conveyed to him by the swift rider) as the chief military man of the village. ‘You must take care of everything now, for I am going to camp at Roxbury,’ he said to his family, as he hastened away to muster his company of minute men. One of the neighbors took grandfather’s horse, and away he went carrying the startling news into Rhode Island.”
This is an example of what I call a “grandmother’s tale,” passed down to a child who then grows up with it as one of the bases of his understanding national history. The story presents Thomas Kempton as immediately answering the call of duty.

In fact, Ellis’s book also quotes a pay roll of “the minute company which marched from Dartmouth April 21, 1775,” commanded by Capt. Kempton. That was two days after news of the shooting at Lexington had started to spread. And it makes sense for Kempton to have taken a day to gather his men and ensure they were well equipped.

But any intervening time, enabling more humdrum preparation for the call of duty, got shaved off when Kempton’s daughter told her son about the alarm and he later told Ellis. The essence of the story remained valid: the captain left his family, quite possibly with an unfinished house, in order to take part in the first campaign of the Revolutionary War. But the details became just a little more dramatic and heroic.

TOMORROW: Capt. Kempton called back to service.


Unknown said...

I love coincidence. I was checking to see if my 5th great grandfather, Thomas West, was in the company of Capt. Thomas Kempton's in Dartmouth. I decide to look up Capt. Kempton, and along comes this article from, what, yesterday? I love it! Really fine writing here, thank you.

Kevin Thomas West
Los Angeles, Cal.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm glad this was helpful!