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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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Myth of Major John Pedrick

Another of this season’s new Revolutionary history books is Prelude to Revolution: The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775, by Peter Charles Hoffer. It discusses Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie’s unproductive march and weapons search in Salem on 26 Feb 1775. I look forward to reading it because of that topic and because I found Hoffer’s Past Imperfect very interesting.

However, I’ve already noticed that Prelude to Revolution is yet another account of that event which includes the story of John Pedrick (1733-1780) warning about redcoats on the way. That tale was first printed in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1880, credited to an old family document:
Major Pedrick hastened out and was told that the British had landed on the [Marblehead] Neck; at once he understood their object, hastened to his residence, had his parade horse saddled, rose away with the utmost speed, and met a person who said the troops had formed their ranks on Bubier’s Plain and were marching on towards Salem. He quickly followed, heard the drum and fife playing Yankee Doodle; when he had so gained upon them he leaped his horse over a wall which brought him to a steep hill leading to Gardner’s Mills, which was so steep a descent it was looked upon as a breakneck place and really safest to go down at a gallop.

At the bottom of the hill he came upon Col. Leslie, with whom he was well acquainted and who at that moment was in the rear of his troops. They exchanged a military salute and Leslie ordered his men “to file to the right and left and give Major Pedrick the pass.” This pass was a narrow wooden bridge over a river which emptied into the sea and near which was a great mill; leaving the bridge, the river wound around a sharp point of land, so that after a few yards were passed he was concealed from the observation of any one upon the bridge.

Major Pedrick thanked Col. Leslie for his courtesy, passed between the files of soldiers, and while in view of them rode slowly; but, once around the point of land, put spurs on his horse, went to Salem with all speed, stopped at the door of the North Church (it was during the time of service, being Sunday), explained Col. Leslie’s object, then dashed down to Spike bridge to have the draw raised so as to prevent the passage of the “Regulars.”

Rev. Mr. [Thomas] Barnard and others followed as quickly as possible and it was arranged that Mr. Barnard was to remain in charge of it. Major Pedrick said to Mr. Barnard that Col. Leslie would order the draw to be lowered in the “King’s name;” that he could reply it was not the “King’s” highway, but a private road. . . .

Major Pedrick then requested Mr. Barnard who was on the same side of the bridge with Col. Leslie to say to him that if it were a “point of honor” with him to do it, that the draw should be lowered for him and his men, to cross over and to march so many paces beyond; provided that being accomplished they would return to their place of embarkation. . . . [This] being done the troops wheeled round and the music played by the band was “The world turned upside down.”

Immediately upon Col. Leslie’s accepting the terms, Major Pedrick rode a short distance away, as he felt it would be uncourteous to remain and witness his annoyance.
There are two problems with that story. First, all the contemporaneous sources about Essex County list John Pedrick as a supporter of the royal government. In the spring of 1774 he signed a complimentary address to the departing governor, Thomas Hutchinson. On 27 December the Marblehead town meeting complained that he had “not shewn the least Disposition for recalling it,” as the Essex Gazette reported. Pedrick finally signed a public recantation on 28 April, after the war had started.

Second, the source for that anecdote, “often repeated by Madam Story to some of her grandchildren,” is totally unreliable. That grandmother was born Mehitable Pedrick. John Pedrick’s daughter, she became the second wife of Dr. Elisha Story and the mother of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story. And she told a lot of stories.

The sculptor William Wetmore Story described his grandmother Mehitable this way in 1851:
Her temper was gay, and she was a great talker, telling manifold stories of the Revolution, and of the men and deeds of the past age. Her mind had a romantic turn, and with a sort of half-superstition she used to recount the legendary tales of her native town, never quite believing nor quite disbelieving them.
In other words, even Madam Story’s grandson came to think she was just spinning legends.

And for good reason. Some of Mehitable Story’s stories are obvious romances, like the one about a British major named McGrath “stationed for a time at Marblehead Neck in command of the British troops there” coming back to court her “Shortly before the battle of Bunker Hill”; she rejects him, and he dies in the battle. Of course, there were never army troops stationed in Marblehead, any British officer venturing outside of Boston in the late spring of 1775 risked capture, and the British casualties at Bunker Hill didn’t include a Maj. McGrath.

Some of Mehitable Story’s descendants did credit her stories and got them into print in the late 1800s. Another example is a tale giving her husband credit for stealing two cannon from Boston Common by holding a British sentry at pistol-point. And then attending that soldier’s court-martial. That never happened, either.

Madam Story’s oft-repeated anecdote about John Pedrick thrusting himself into the center of Salem’s confrontation with Col. Leslie has no support from any other source. No other witness recalled Pedrick as playing any role that day. Story’s tale credits her father with doing things that David Mason did. It even borrows the detail of “The World Turned Upside Down” from a dubious anecdote of Yorktown. But credulous chroniclers stripped away the dubious details when they reprinted the story, making the remaining claim appear more reliable. The legend’s not a big part of most books, including Hoffer’s new one, but it shows up a lot. In fact, by now the myth has appeared in so many histories of the start of the Revolution that sheer ubiquity makes it seem reliable.

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