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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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Reuben Brown, the Link Between Lexington and Concord

Reuben Brown was born in Sudbury in 1748. In 1770, soon after coming of age, he moved to Concord and established himself as a saddler. Three years later, on 12 May 1773, he married a girl from his old town, Mary (Polly) How. Their daughter Hepzibath arrived four months later on 15 September, and their second daughter Sally on 9 Mar 1775.

Also in early 1775, according to Concord historian Lemuel Shattuck, Brown made “cartouch-boxes, holsters, belts, and other articles of saddlery” for local militiamen. The town’s Liberty Pole stood in a field behind his shop.

But those weren’t Brown’s most significant contributions to the Battle of Lexington and Concord. He had a unique perspective on the action, as described in his highly wrought obituary in the 3 Oct 1832 The New England Farmer (reprinted from the Boston Courier):
Died at Concord, Mass. on the 25th ult. [i.e., of last month] Mr Reuben Brown, a rare specimen of that hardy, industrious, intelligent and fearless yeomanry which, fifty years ago, was the glory of the Commonwealth and the bulwark of the Union.

Mr Brown, who was a native of Sudbury and a grandson of the first minister of that ancient settlement, removed to Concord about the year 1771, and was of course just in season to witness the earliest scenes of the great Drama of the Age. He did witness them literally, indeed, for on the eventful morning of the 19th of April, long before day-break, he was on his way, alone, at the request of some of the Concord authorities, to reconnoitre the advance of the British to Lexington.

He reached the “Common” just as they were seen marching up the Boston road. He advised the American officers, who were wholly unprepared to meet an enemy, to withdraw; but they declined, chiefly from the firm belief, which their men shared with them, that the British would never think of firing upon them at all events.

Mr Brown waited to see the issue of the meeting—the blood of the first martyrs of American liberty—and he then returned rapidly to Concord and reported progress.

His work had now but commenced. His shop was closed—a large saddler’s establishment in which he had already fitted out several companies of cavalry and infantry—and then his house—standing on the main road in the village—and his wife with her infant children instructed to manage for herself in the woods north of the town, with many other females and infirm people of the place—

Mr. Brown then mounted his horse again, it being now about day-break, and commenced the task of alarming the neighboring country. And his efforts will need no comment when we say that he rode that day about 120 miles in the performance of this noble duty. The result of the exertions in which no single man probably bore so active a part as himself, is well known to all readers of a history which “the world has by heart.” On many other occasions he was equally efficient, though he did not happen to be at any time engaged in fighting the enemy in the field. Two of his brothers were at Bunker Hill.

Universally respected by his fellow citizens for his sound judgment, his energy, his industry, his public spirit, his cordial benevolence, and, above all, for that staunch old fashioned honesty which knew no shadow of turning—his gray hairs were crowned with the praise of a Patriot, and his death with the peace of a Christian. He came to his grave at the venerable age of 84.
Brown was thus the communication link between Lexington and Concord at the start of the fight. His report that the British troops were willing to shoot warned his own neighbors to be cautious about confronting those soldiers, putting off the confrontation in Concord for a few hours until more militia units arrived.

Reportedly, before leaving town the regulars took a chaise from Brown’s shop, perhaps to transport a wounded man. That man might well have been Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould—at least, men in Cambridge later took control of both Gould and Brown’s chaise. Reuben Brown also had a connection to another prisoner, Lt. Isaac Potter of the Marines: the provincials held him for a while in Brown’s house.

Here is an old photograph of that house from the collection of the Boston Public Library. Brown’s account books from a couple of decades later are at the Concord library.


Charles Bahne said...

Although I haven't investigated the genealogy, there's another potential link between David Brown and the story of that day. His wife was Mary How from Sudbury; there was a How family in that town who kept a tavern; and that tavern was the inspiration for Longfellow's "Tales of a Wayside Inn", which included the poem "Paul Revere's Ride".

Brown's house still stands on Lexington Road in Concord, and here's a current view via Google Maps:

John Johnson said...

It sounds like Concord had already received word of the British march and sent Brown out to make sure that the British were still advancing. If he reached Lexington just as the British reached the green (about 5am), then he must have left Concord at 4am or 4:30am (depending on whether he walked his horse or galloped it).

Revere & Dawes were captured about 2am, so Prescott must have reached Concord between 2:30am and 3:00am?

So it seems like as soon as the Concord leaders heard of the British advance they sent out people to verify the continued advance of the British (similar to what Lexington did), and that Reuben Brown was one of these men?

Am I reading that right?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the militia companies in Concord knew that the British column was headed toward them. The news that Brown brought back was that those troops were willing to shoot men they saw as standing in their way.

In Concord, that report probably was a major factor in the militia commanders' decision not to confront the British column as it came into town, but to turn around and march west to a spot of high ground above the North Bridge. That put off the first shots in Concord for a couple more hours.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Charlie, for that genealogical possibility. I try to keep away from researching families named Brown unless I have a lot of free time!