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, June 13, 2014

The Jersey Prison Ship Records on Ebenezer Fox

As I wrote yesterday, on 5 May 1781 two Royal Navy ships captured the pride of the Massachusetts navy, the Protector, and its crew, including young Ebenezer Fox of Roxbury. (The picture here shows him over fifty years later.)

The National Archives in London holds three volumes of bound muster rolls from the Jersey prison ship, then in New York harbor, and those confirm that men from the Protector began arriving on that hulk on 8 May. Even more were listed on 9 May. Those prisoners were credited to the two vessels that had captured the Massachusetts ship, H.M.S. Roebuck and Medea (which Fox recalled in his memoir as the Mayday).

In all, the Jersey rolls list 127 prisoners from the Protector. Only Capt. John Foster Williams is identified by rank. Junior officers like Lt. George Little and Midn. Edward Preble don’t have any special designation; they appear in the midst of the ordinary seamen—including Ebenezer Fox, signed in on 8 May.

And almost immediately those muster rolls show the Protector’s men being transferred off the prison ship, and thus off its books. The first to go were two sailors discharged to the Falmouth on 11 May, possibly having enlisted in the Royal Navy.

Williams and Little were put aboard the Rainbow on 9 June, prisoners bound for England. It’s not clear how many other men listed as discharged to the Rainbow were prisoners and how many had been drafted or enlisted as sailors. In early 1782, Williams was exchanged from the Mill Prison in Britain.

In all, men from the Protector were discharged to eight different British vessels, mostly in small numbers. In addition, one was identified as a British deserter and sent back to his army regiment, and four are listed as, I believe, “Esc[aped].” (At first I’d wondered if that notation might be “Ex[changed],” but Fox’s mention of men disappearing in the night confirms there were escapes.) By the end of June 1781, only 27 of the original 127 were still listed as receiving rations aboard the Jersey.

Ebenezer Fox was not one of those remaining names. On 30 June, the Jersey’s commander had discharged him to the 88th Regiment of the British army. Two other men enlisted in that regiment the same day; five others had already signed up, the earliest on 28 May.

Thus, Fox’s experience of the Jersey prison ship, which took up almost a quarter of his 1838 memoir of the war, lasted less than two months. To be sure, he was on that ship for more days than most of his comrades from the Protector, but he didn’t hold out for a very long time. Furthermore, while he dwelled on the unhealthy conditions in that prison, during those two months none of the Protector men is listed as dying.

Clearly Fox played up the horrors of the Jersey to justify his eventual decision to join the enemy army. In Forgotten Patriots, Edwin G. Burrows showed that some of the anecdotes Fox told in those chapters occurred after he had left the ship and must have been borrowed from other men’s memoirs.

Thus, while the Jersey’s muster rolls confirm that Ebenezer Fox was held captive aboard that notorious ship before enlisting in the 88th Regiment and heading for Jamaica, they also reveal that Fox glossed over one very important detail.

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