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, April 30, 2016

The Service of Caesar Ferrit

While Thomas Nichols was locked up in the Concord jail, accused of enticing slaves away from their masters, what was his father-in-law doing?

Caesar Ferrit and his youngest son John, born around 1753, were marching with the Natick militia company on 19 Apr 1775. According to William Biglow’s 1830 history of the town:
Caesar Ferrit and his son John arrived at a house near Lexington meeting house, but a short time before the British soldiers reached that place, on their retreat from Concord. These two discharged their muskets upon the regulars from the entry, and secreted themselves under the cellar stairs, till the enemy had passed by, though a considerable number of them entered the house and made diligent search for their annoyers.
Biglow apparently gathered this story from John Ferrit himself, reporting that he was still alive and receiving a pension.

Lt. Col. Francis Smith’s column withdrawing from Concord met Col. Percy’s reinforcement column in Lexington. The British stayed in that town to tend to wounded, rest, and regroup. Percy made his headquarters at the Munroe Tavern, almost a mile from the meetinghouse near where the Ferrits were hiding. Still, they might have had to stay under those cellar stairs a considerable time until all the redcoats were gone.

According to George Quintal’s Patriots of Color, Caesar Ferrit enlisted in the Massachusetts army in late April 1775 through the end of the year. Seth Kaller, Inc., is offering a May 1775 record of how Natick supplied muskets to Caesar Ferrit and several other soldiers. The firm did considerable research on those men, identifying six of the eleven as African-American. Ferrit also served shorter stints in 1776-77 and 1781.

In 1796 the town of Natick petitioned the state for money to support its poor, among whom it listed “one Ceasar Ferrit, an old man and unable to Support him Self wo has been consistered as an Indian and has been under Gurdians of the Natick Indians.”

Caesar Ferrit died in Natick three years later, on 23 May 1799.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Reviewing Thomas Nichols’s Case

In late February 1775 a Massachusetts magistrate had Thomas Nichols of Natick, labeled variously a “free Negro” or “mulatto,” locked up for “enticing divers Servants [slaves] to desert the Service of their Masters.”

Nichols was still in the jail at Concord when the Revolutionary War broke out. He must have witnessed the British troops under Maj. John Pitcairn force their way into the jailyard to disable three large cannon that belonged to the town.

On 13 May, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety took up Nichols’s case. Its records say:
One Thomas Nicholas, a negro, brought before this committee on account of his suspicious behavior for some time past, having been examined, Resolved, that it be recommended to the council of war to commit said negro, until there be further inquiry into his conduct. . . .

Ordered, That Mr. Isaac Bradish, keeper of the jail in Cambridge, be directed and empowered to confine one Thomas Nicholas, negro, till further orders.
A week later the committee voted:
That Capt. Edward How, Ebenezer Cutler, and Nicholas, a black fellow, now under guard, be sent up to Congress for examination and trial, and Capt. White is appointed to attend Congress, with the above named persons.

Voted, That the general [Artemas Ward] be desired to furnish a guard for the occasion.
On that same day the Committee of Safety recommended against enlisting anyone but “freemen” into the Massachusetts army. There were multiple reasons behind that decision: ideological distaste for forcing slaves to fight in the name of liberty, potential complaints from slaveowners, and a lingering fear of unreliable troops. (The Massachusetts government didn’t decide to bar free black men from the ranks until shortly after Gen. George Washington’s arrival in July.)

On 22 May, a committee of the full Massachusetts Provincial Congress in Watertown, chaired by Edward Mitchell of Bridgewater, considered the evidence against those three jailed men. The decision on Thomas Nichols came last, and it was recorded this way:
Whereas Thomas Nicols, a negro man, hath been brought before this Congress, and there being no evidence to prove any matters or things alleged against him: therefore,

Resolved, That the said Thomas be sent to the Town or District where he belongs, and that the Committee of Correspondence, or Selectmen of said Town or District, take such care of the said Thomas, that he may be dealt with as they, in their judgment, shall think proper.

Ordered, That Captain [Caleb] Kingsbury be directed to appoint some persons to conduct the above-mentioned negro to Natick, agreeably to the foregoing Resolve.
So that was it. The slave conspiracy that had made the papers as far away as Norwich, Connecticut, and resulted in Nichols being jailed for almost three months had “no evidence” to back it up.

And even after that, according to Natick historian Horace Mann, the town “confined” Nichols at the tavern of Pelatiah Morse (shown above courtesy of the Historic Buildings of Massachusetts blog). Morse’s bill for the food he supplied to Nichols and his guard is the evidence for that, but I don’t know how long the confinement lasted.

TOMORROW: Nichols’s in-laws.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thomas Nichols of Natick

On Monday I quoted a Connecticut newspaper report of the arrest of “one Thomas Nichols, a Molatto,” in Natick on suspicion of planning an uprising of enslaved people.

What do we know about Nichols? He appears in the Natick vital records on 17 Dec 1766, listed as a “transient.” He married “Patiance Ferrit” of that town, which was originally a community of “praying Indians” but was in transition to become yet another English-dominated farm town.

Patience Ferrit had been born in Milton in 1743. In Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-century Eastern Massachusetts, Daniel R. Mandell noted how her father Caesar Ferrit moved to Natick from Boston in 1751 “to live among his own Nation the aboriginal natives.” He brought his wife Naomi and four children born in Milton. The couple had three more children in Natick, as George Quintal detailed in Patriots of Color.

According to local chroniclers, Caesar Ferrit later claimed that only one of his grandparents was a Native American. The others were Dutch, French, and African. Ferrit said he himself was born in the Caribbean.

What’s more, Naomi Ferrit was of English extraction. She appears to be the Naomi Isaac who married “Cesar Ferre” in Dorchester in 1738, one of only a handful of marriages performed by a justice of the peace instead of a minister. There was even a local tradition that Naomi was the ward of “a wealthy gentleman in Boston” who employed Caesar Ferrit as a coachman. The young couple had fallen in love, this tale goes, and were forced to choose a poor life in Natick.

All those stories, some of which may even be true, testify to how the racial or ethnic categories that the laws set up were actually overlapping and fluid. The Native part of Natick was a refuge for families that crossed the society’s “color lines.” Did the Ferrits need to have ancestral roots in the Native nations of New England to live there?

By marrying Patience Ferrit, Thomas Nichols became part of that community. The couple had at least three children in Natick:
  • Isaac, born 1 June 1768
  • Ama, born 14 May 1770
  • Cherrity, born 23 July 1773
When their third child was on the way, the couple petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to be allowed to sell real estate. They needed permission to do so because Patience Nichols was listed as a Native American. On 19 Jan 1773 the legislative Acts and Resolves state:
A Petition of Thomas Nichols of Natick a free negro man Setting forth That he hath lately purchased a plantation in Natick, containing near eighty acres of Land with a dwelling house thereon and many good accommodations; that he has lately intermarried with one Patience Terry an Indian, native, of said Natick who had legally heretofore purchased the following tracts of Land, situate in said Natick, which Lands the Petitioner paid for, but the Deed was given in his Wifes name vizt. the first lot containing about forty acres, the second lot about eleven acres more or less, the third thirty five and the fourth lot between seventy and eighty acres; of which last mentioned tract the Petitioner claims only one sixth part That he is considerably in debt for the purchase of his plantation aforesaid and otherwise. And praying that he may be impowered to sell the four pieces of Land aforesaid, which lie scattering to enable him to pay his just debts and to purchase some Stock and Tools for his plantation aforesaid.
The legislature granted the couple permission to make that sale.

Thomas Nichols had thus gone from a “transient” new arrival in Natick to a property-owner, though his economic situation apparently remained precarious. And a little more than two years later he was locked up, accused of fomenting unrest.

TOMORROW: What was the evidence for those suspicions?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Returning to the “Parker’s Revenge” Site, 29 Apr.

On Friday, 29 April, the Lexington Historical Society’s Cronin Lecture Series will present archeologist Margaret Watters and her final report on the “Parker’s Revenge” site in Minute Man National Historical Park.

That site, close to the park’s visitor center near the Lexington-Lincoln border, is a rocky outcrop where tradition held that the Lexington militia company under Capt. John Parker fired at Lt.-Col. Francis Smith’s British column as it was making its way back from Concord.

The big question of this investigation was whether it would find concrete evidence to back up that narrative. The next big question was how the evidence would revise that narrative.

I’ve been following this project for over a year, periodically mentioning updates about it. Last fall, for example, I featured an odd button found on the site. Earlier this month I got to enjoy a preview of Watters’s conclusions courtesy of Joel Bohy and Brown’s Company. I don’t want to reveal other people’s secrets, so all I’ll say about this lecture is: Don’t miss it.

The talk is scheduled to start at 8:00 P.M. at the Lexington Depot. It is free and open to the public. Parking is available nearby. Coffee and cookies will be served by the historical society.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Fears in Framingham and Elsewhere

Yesterday I quoted two Connecticut newspapers from March 1775 reporting on the detection of a slave conspiracy in Natick.

Such worries were nothing new. Back in September 1774, Abigail Adams had told her husband about a similar fear in Braintree:
There has been in Town a conspiracy of the Negroes. At present it is kept pretty private and was discoverd by one who endeavourd to diswaid them from it-he being threatned with his life, applied to justice [Josiah] Quincy for protection. They conducted in this way—got an Irishman to draw up a petition letting to the Govener telling him they would fight for him provided he would arm them and engage to liberate them if he conquerd, and it is said that he attended so much to it as to consult Pircy upon it, and one Liut. [?] Small [Maj. John Small?] has been very buisy and active. There is but little said, and what Steps they will take in consequence of it I know not.
Jason T. Sharples has found a deep tradition of such fears in British North America. The rumors would often take the same form: free blacks were tempting enslaved blacks, many masters and their families would be murdered all at once, blacks planned to burn the town…

The political and increasingly military tensions in Massachusetts in 1774 brought those fears to the surface again, alongside other, parallel rumors: that the British military planned to burn the town, that the provincial militia would raise 30,000 men and storm Boston, that the Crown would ship in thousands of French or Russian or Native soldiers. Most of those conspiracy theories were groundless.

People may have had their own doubts then, but they didn’t feel safe dismissing such dangers. Robert G. Parkinson just wrote about how such a worry affected people in Framingham as the war began:
Josiah Temple, a native of Framingham, Massachusetts (about fifteen miles south of Concord), published a book in 1887 on the town’s history. His recounting of what people remembered about the night of the Alarm was so different from the legend that he found it impossible to believe.

For four generations, the local story of the night of April 19, 1775, was that, as soon as the town’s militia marched north toward Lexington Green, a “strange panic” spread through Framingham. But that’s not what surprised the town historian, nor should it us. But what they said next certainly seems odd: “The Negroes were coming to massacre them all!” Some in the town, Temple noted, “brought the axes and pitchforks and clubs into the house, and securely bolted the doors, and passed the day and night in anxious suspense.”
More specifically, Temple wrote that the “women and children” in two Framingham districts felt this fear, particularly Mehetable, “wife of Capt. [Simon] Edgell,” a slaveholder. Temple also said, “Nobody stopped to ask where the hostile Negroes were coming from; for all our own colored people were patriots.” Peter Salem, for example, was marching with Capt. Edgell’s company. A black trumpeter reportedly roused the town militia. But Framingham is right next to Natick, where a free black man named Thomas Nichols had been arrested for fomenting unrest.

A similar fear affected women who gathered for safety from the regulars at a home in Menotomy, according to the Rev. Samuel A. Smith’s 1864 history:
The report was spread abroad that the slaves were intending to rise, and finish what the British had begun by murdering the defenceless women and children. It excited great consternation, therefore, among the women gathered at George Prentiss’s upon the hill, when they saw Ishmael, a negro slave belonging to Mr. [William] Cutler, approaching the house. They thought their time had come, but one, a little braver than the rest, summoned up courage to ask, “Are you going to kill us, Ishmael?”

“Lord-a-massy, no ma’am!” said the astonished black. “Is my missis here?”
Since Ishmael had stayed behind to save the Cutler tavern from burning, he had cause to be annoyed as well as astonished. In 1780, Ishmael Cutler, then thirty-six years old, enlisted as a soldier. The next year, he paid the town poll tax as a free man.

COMING UP: Who was Thomas Nichols?

Monday, April 25, 2016

An “infernal Scheme” in Natick?

British officers and royal officials weren’t the only folks fearing a treacherous plot by their enemies as the Revolutionary War began. The provincials outside of Boston had plenty of suspicions as well.

The 3 Mar 1775 Connecticut Gazette, published in New London, reported:
On Thursday the 23d Instant [i.e., of this month], one Thomas Nichols, a Molatto, was taken at Natick (in the County of Middlesex) and brought under Examination, before a Justice, for being concerned in enticing divers Servants to desert the Service of their Masters—causing the Minds of the said Servants to be inimical towards their Masters Persons and Property—Endeavouring to form an unlawful Combination against their Masters, and other Injuries contrary to Law & the Peace—and for want of Sureties for good Behaviour was commited.
In other words, Nichols was locked up since he couldn’t make bail.

This item appeared two down from a breathless statement that “We are told that some Blacksmiths in Town [Boston] are employed in making a great Number of Iron SHACKLES, but for whom design’d we know not, certainly not for Boston Folks!” I’m not convinced that there was such ironwork, but there was certainly irony.

Six days later another Connecticut newspaper, the Norwich Packet, printed more rumors from Natick:
By a Gentleman arrived here from Boston, we are informed, that last Week a free Negro was apprehended at Natick, in Massachusetts-Bay Government, and, after Examination, committed to Concord Goal. It appeared that said Fellow has for some Time past been employed in forming a Plot to destroy the white People; for that Purpose he had enlisted Numbers of his own Complexion, as Associates, and they only waited until some Disturbance should happen that might occasion the Militia to turn out, and in their Absence it was proposed to Murder the defenceless Inhabitants.

The same Gentleman also informs us, that, last Monday Evening, another African, in the Vicinity of Natick, was discovered to have been deeply concerned in the above-mentioned infernal Scheme; and that his Master had delivered him up to Justice.
This supposed plot was thus the mirror image of the British officers’ worry that Bostonians were conspiring to murder them after a military alarm or a party.

TOMORROW: What was behind that fear?

[Eighteenth-century shackles above courtesy of the excellent website London Lives.]

Sunday, April 24, 2016

An Attack on St. George’s Day?

On 24 Apr 1775, many British army officers planned to celebrate St. George’s Day, honoring the patron saint of England. St. George’s Day is actually 23 April, but that date fell on a Sunday that year—and that day of the week was presumably not proper for the officers’ form of celebration.

In his diary entry for 5 May, Lt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment wrote:
A most shocking piece of Villany was discover’d about the time of our affairs with the Rebels; it was a scheme to cut off all the Officers of the Garrison. Upon the 24th, the day we were to keep St. Georges day, the Rebels were to make a feint Attack in the night upon the Lines: a number of Men were to be posted at the Lodgings of all the Officers, and upon the Alarm Guns firing they were to put the Officers to death as they were coming out of their houses to go to their Barracks.

What a set of Villains must they be to think of such a thing! But there is nothing be it ever so bad that these people will stick at to gain their ends. Upon the G——l finding this out He order’d all the Officers to lay at their Barracks, where those who are not encamped will continue.
Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton recorded other rumors about the St. George‘s Day dinner or a ball that Earl Percy had planned for two days later. Supposedly locals planned to kill the officers when they returned to their rented quarters “in liquor” after one of those events, or perhaps to blow up the gathering.

Hulton also wrote about fears that “upwards of four thousand men” in Boston would rise up against the royal government. There weren’t actually that many men of military age in the town population.

Like Lt. Barker, Commissioner Hulton said Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders for the officers to sleep in the barracks prevented the planned massacre. And the outbreak of war canceled the officers’ entertainment, anyway. Col. Percy was in no mood for a ball.

Now in all the reading I’ve done, I’ve never come across evidence that provincials planned such an attack, or even kept track of when St. George’s Day was.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Rev. David McClure Finds Refuge with Joseph Mayo

When we left the Rev. David McClure on the afternoon of 19 Apr 1775, he had just managed to get out of Boston to Roxbury by the neck. Here’s what he witnessed the rest of that day.
The sun was about half an hour above the western horizon. Saw several men on horseback, on a rising ground, looking over to Cambridge, I rode up to them & immediately heard the noise of battle from Cambridge across the bay. There was a constant firing of small arms. The sound was dreadful. It was the first time, I had ever heard a gun fired in anger.

I found it difficult to perswade myself that people who had lived so long peaceably together, were now killing each other. But such was the dreadful reality. O War, “thou shame to man!” O why will “men forget that they are brethren!” Were there no other proofs of the deep, and universal depravity of our moral nature, the existence of war, is a sufficiently dreadful proof.

I was informed by one of the gentlemen, Major [Joseph] Mayo, that I could not get to Cambridge, as was my intention, for the bridge was taken up, to prevent the british returning that way. He invited me to go to his house, about 3 miles. I willingly accompanied him.
Mayo (1721-1776) owned a large farm a little past the intersection of modern Washington Street and South Street in Roslindale. He served as foreman of the jury that acquitted most of the British soldiers tried after the Boston Massacre. “I am much inclined to make him a major,” wrote Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, and he indeed promoted Mayo within his Suffolk County militia regiment. Nevertheless, Mayo was a part of many Roxbury town committees protesting new Crown measures.

Since the summer of 1774, Francis S. Drake’s history of Roxbury says, Mayo had hosted Elizabeth Checkley, widow of a Boston minister and first mother-in-law of Samuel Adams; her daughter Nancy; and a cousin named Sally Hatch, among others. The merchant John Andrews (whose numbers often seem to be off by a factor of two) stated that they formed “an agreeable, social family of about twenty-five females, with the master of the house.”

The atmosphere was not so happy on 19 April, McClure reported:
The house was a place of anxiety & sorrow. It was evening. 7 or 8 Ladies from Boston were there, & their husbands & families were in town. The night was spent by them in wakefulness & weeping. About 10 O’Clock in the evening, the Major’s son returned from the battle, to the great joy of his parents, & gave us the first information of particulars. It was wonderful that a collection of militia men, should be inspired with such courage, & drive the disciplined troops of Britain before them.

Several circumstances in providence, appeared to be ordered in favor of our righteous cause. These circumstances, struck the minds of all; and men of no religious principle at other times, now seemed to be affected with them. Among other things, it is proper to mention, that the element of air helped our cause. He who caused the stars in their courses to fight against Sisera, who wared against Israel, caused on this day, the wind to rise, & follow the retreating enemy, covering them with such a cloud of dust, that blinded them, yet not so but that they were, in their crowded ranks in the road, a plain mark for the militia.

All night, the people were silently marching by the house, from neighbouring towns. I did not take off my clothes; but lay down a little while on the bed.
Some traditions among Mayo’s descendants say he was with Israel Putnam at the time of the Lexington Alarm, but McClure’s diary says otherwise. Those traditions also say Mayo became a major in the Continental Army, but it appears his rank came from the militia before the war; no source identifies Mayo’s Continental regiment.

(The picture above is John Ritto Penniman’s painting of Meetinghouse Hill in Roxbury from the 1790s. It is now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.)

Friday, April 22, 2016

John Howland and the Lexington Alarm in Providence

Yesterday I quoted Elkanah Watson’s description of how Providence, Rhode Island, responded to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

According to Watson, the news arrived on the afternoon of 19 Apr 1775, his militia unit spent the whole night equipping themselves, and they marched off on the morning of 20 April, defying the governor’s proclamation that they not cross the border into Massachusetts.

Watson’s contemporary John Howland, born in October 1757, left his own memoir of that day. He was from a lower class than Watson, apprenticed to a barber instead of a merchant and attached to an ordinary militia unit instead of the Cadets. But Howland grew up to be president of the Rhode Island Historical Society and seems to have been more accurate about important points:
On the afternoon of the 19th of April, 1775, news arrived here that a battle was then going on, as the regulars had marched from Boston into the country. There were four or five boys of us on Mr. Thompson’s wharf, where some hands were unloading a scow load of salt. Mr. Thompson came down and said, “war, war, boys, there is war. The regulars have marched out of Boston; a great many men killed; war, war, boys.” He turned quickly and went up to the street. We all followed, and saw the officers of the companies and many others on the parade before Gov. Bowen’s, seeking intelligence.
Jabez Bowen was never governor of Rhode Island; in 1778 he became deputy governor, and served for several years. But Bowen was a leader of the Providence militia, so it makes sense that people gathered near his house for news.
The drums of the four independent companies beat, and the men paraded as soon as possible. It was sundown, and the officers of the company repaired to Lieut. Gov. [Darius] Sessions, requesting him to give them orders to march towards Boston, as without his orders their authority would cease when they should have passed Pawtucket bridge. He declined doing any thing in the case, having no power out of the colony, or in it, as the Governor [Joseph Wanton] who lived in Newport was above him in authority.

It was then concluded to send an express towards Boston, to know whether the enemy had returned or were yet in the field, and to act or march on further intelligence, orders or no orders. Mr. Charles Dabney, a member of the Cadet company, offered to be the express. A horse was procured and he set off. It was toward noon the next day before he returned, but an express from near the scene of action arrived, stating that the regulars were safe cooped up in Boston.

Before this intelligence arrived here, early in the morning Col. [James] Varnum, with his Greenwich company arrived, but would not stay. They continued their march some miles beyond Pawtucket, when receiving the intelligence they returned here. I viewed the company as they marched up the street, and observed Nathaniel Greene with his musket on his shoulder, in the ranks as a private. I distinguished Mr. Greene, whom I had frequently seen, by the motion of his shoulders in the march, as one of his legs was shorter than the other.
According to Howland, therefore, Varnum’s Kentish Guards were the only Rhode Island company that marched across the colony line on 20 Apr 1775. Watson’s unit, the Independent Company of Cadets, waited for word from their member Dabney about what the situation was. Before noon, Providence received news “that the regulars were safe cooped up in Boston,” so those Cadets probably never marched. Elkanah Watson just wished they had.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Elkanah Watson and the Lexington Alarm in Providence

I previously quoted the part of Elkanah Watson’s Men and Times of the Revolution in which he described his military training as a schoolboy in Rhode Island.

Watson, born in 1758, was still a teenager when the Battle of Lexington and Concord occurred. He was a clerk working for John Brown in Providence. Here’s how Watson described the colony’s response to that news:
The intelligence of the march upon Lexington reached Providence in the afternoon of the 19th of April, 1775. Our five companies flew to arms. The whole population was convulsed by the most vehement excitement. We were unprovided with cartridges, and were compelled to defer our march till morning. I spent the most of that night with many of our company [Independent Company of Cadets under Col. Joseph Nightingale], in running bullets and preparing ammunition.

We mustered early the next morning, and marched for the scene of action. The royal governor, [Joseph] Wanton, issued a proclamation, which was little regarded, interdicting our passing the colony line, under the penalty of open rebellion. Capt. [Nathanael] Green, afterwards the celebrated Gen. Green, with his company of Warwick Greens, and Capt. [James] Varnam, afterwards a revolutionary general, with his Greenwich Volunteers, marched with us at the same time towards Lexington.

We had advanced six miles amid the cries and tears of women, every road we passed enveloped in a cloud of dust from the march of armed men, hastening onward, when an express met us, with the information that the regulars had been driven back into Boston.
Watson misremembered some facts. Greene wasn’t a captain in charge of a company but a private in the company Varnum commanded, the Kentish Guards. The “Warwick Greens” and “Greenwich Volunteers” may just have been bunches of guys in that independent militia company.

Gov. Wanton didn’t issue a proclamation forbidding Rhode Island troops from entering Massachusetts, though Rhode Islanders clearly believed they were taking a risk to do so.

Furthermore, there’s reason to doubt that Watson’s company marched into Massachusetts as he described.

TOMORROW: Another Rhode Islander’s recollections.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Isaac Royall and “the very Day the battle happen’d”

Like the Rev. David McClure, Isaac Royall of Medford was caught by surprise in Boston when the war began.

Earlier this week on Facebook the Royall House and Slave Quarters quoted Royall’s 29 May 1779 letter to his former tutor, the Rev. Samuel Cooke of Menotomy, on how he came to be there:
I packed up my Sea Stores and Cloathes for the passage and came to Boston after attending the public Worship on the Lord’s Day Evening before the Battle of Lexington [i.e., on 16 Apr 1775] to take leave of my children and Friends intending to have gone thence to Salem to embark for Antigua but unfortunately staid in Boston two or three Days and din’d with the Hon’ble Captain [George] Erving the very Day the battle happen’d after which it was impossible to get out of Town for Gen. [Thomas] Gage had issued Orders to prevent any one coming in or going out
Erving was Royall’s son-in-law.

The timing of Royall’s statement matches what Samuel Winship told the Medford committee of safety on 9 Apr 1778:
That, on Sunday before said battle, said Royal went in his coach to Boston, and took with him a pair of pistols and a carabine, but for what end he did not know, nor never heard; that, at the same time, he left in his house two firearms, which Mr. Poor, some days after, carried to Watertown.
However, Royall’s suggestion that Gen. Gage had prevented him from going home to Medford is disingenuous. Gage did make leaving town more difficult, but a lot of people got out. Royall had already planned to leave in the other direction, by sea, and within a few weeks he did.

Royall’s motives and loyalties had become a legal issue in 1778 because the state of Massachusetts was moving to confiscate the property of absentees who supported the British Crown. Royall insisted to some friends in Medford that he wasn’t in that category. Dr. Simon Tufts, for instance, testified:
he knew of nothing said Royal had said or done against the country; but, on the contrary, he believed him to be a friend of the American cause. That said Royal being in Boston at and before the battle of Lexington, the confusion which that battle occasioned in the country made him afraid at that time and afterwards to return home; and that said confusion, which prevailed in Boston, made him afraid to stay there; accordingly he went to Halifax, and from thence retired back into the country, and afterwards went to England.
However, Tufts had received Royall’s power of attorney, giving him every reason to keep the estate from being confiscated.

Peter Tufts testified:
That, about a fortnight before Lexington battle, Colonel Royal told him that it would not do for us to resist Great Britain, for they were too strong for us, and would send over ten thousand Russians, who would subdue us; and that, by his conversation, it appeared to him (the said Tufts) that said Royal was for surrendering up all to Great Britain, rather than make resistance.
Yet Isaac Hall said:
That, the winter before said battle, he went to settle accounts with said Royal, at his house; and that said Royal showed him his arms and accoutrements (which were in very good order), and told him that he determined to stand for his country, &c.
But which country would that be? In the end, Medford’s selectmen ruled that Royall had chosen the side of the Crown and was therefore a Loyalist, making his property vulnerable to confiscation.

Still, as of 1779, Royall was writing to Dr. Tufts to insist that he hoped “to return home as soon as my health will admit of.” He died in Britain two years later, but not from a disease his health was suffering from when he wrote that letter—instead, from smallpox.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Rev. David McClure’s 19th of April

The Rev. David McClure (1748-1820) was a native of Newport who grew up in Boston, a childhood friend of Henry Knox.

McClure became a student and protégé of the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, received a degree from Yale in 1769, and as a missionary traveled as far west as Fort Pitt.

On 19 Apr 1775, McClure was back in Boston to preach in the Presbyterian meetinghouse as an interim minister. He wrote a detailed account of that day, evidently combining immediate impressions with later commentary. The entry begins:
While at breakfast, at my brother William’s at the South End, a neighbour came in, & said the Regulars had marched into the Country, & killed several men at Lexington. I went into the street & found the inhabitants in great perplexity and fear. They were unwilling to believe the report: but about 10 O’Clock, it was confirmed by a Mr. Pope, just returned from Lexington, who saw the men dead there, said to be 7 or 8.

About 11 O’Clock, Lord Peircy’s brigade marched out of town, with 2 field pieces, to reinforce Col. [Francis] Smith, who, it was said, was driven by the militia, & was hastily retreating. I stood in the street as they passed. They all appeared, except a few officers, to be young men, & had never been in action. Not a smiling face was among them. Some of them appeared to have been weeping. Their countenances were sad. Some of those poor fellows never returned.

Apprehensive that the town was soon to be shut, in the afternoon, with melancholy forbodings of the issue of this day’s awful tragedy, I got my horse & rode to Charlestown ferry, hoping to get out that way. There were some hundreds of the inhabitants there, and among them some of the ministers of Boston, wishfully looking over to the other side, & longing to get out of their once beloved town, where order, peace & righteousness once dwelt, but now murderers. A British Man of War [H.M.S. Somerset] lay in the river, & a barge from her met the ferry boat, crowded with passengers, & ordered it back. The fears of the people there waiting, were greatly excited by this unwelcome circumstance.

I turned about, with a resolution to try to get out at the neck leading to Roxbury, which the british had strongly fortified. Rode by several barracks; saw the soldiers paraded, under arms, and officers pale & running or riding from one barrack to another. It was thought, that they were under apprehension of the inhabitants rising on the remains of the troops now left in Boston; & no doubt, had the inhabitants been prepared, they could have made [Gen. Thomas] Gage & all his men in Boston, prisoners & shut up the town, and those who were without, with Peircy and Smith must have submitted to the militia, who were rapidly collecting from all the towns around; and thus, perhaps, an end would have been put to the war as soon as it was began. But providence was pleased to order it otherwise; & this small movement of the day, was necessary to begin that train of events, which extended through a long & distressing war, & which finally seperated the Colonies of America, from the Mother country. Thus, in his sovereign power & goodness, the Most High divides to the nations their inheritence, & seperates the sons of Adam.

I passed some tories in the street, who seemed to enjoy the confusion, & were calling to each other, “What think ye of the Congress now?”

At the neck, I passed the guards & centinels of the british, bowing to them, as I rode, although with no very pleasant feelings towards them, expecting every moment to be stopped, but they suffered me to pass, and I rejoiced to find myself in Roxbury, & beyond the reach of their arms.
I’ll return to McClure’s diary periodically.

Monday, April 18, 2016

“Now the war has begun and no one knows when it will end.”

When we left the nonagenarian Amos Baker of Lincoln yesterday, he had just described how the commanders of the Middlesex County militiamen massed above the North Bridge in Concord agreed to march toward the British regulars holding that position.

Baker then recounted:
And the order was given to march, and we all marched down without any further order or arrangement.

The British had got up two of the planks of the bridge. It is a mercy they fired on us at the bridge, for we were going to march into the town, and the British could load and fire three times to our once, because we had only powder horns and no cartridge boxes, and it would have been presumptuous. I understood that Colonel Abijah Pierce got the gun of one of the British soldiers who was killed at the bridge, and armed himself with it.
Pierce had come out with nothing but a walking-stick as a weapon. Baker probably exaggerated when he said the provincials had “only powder horns and no cartridge boxes,” emphasizing how much the locals were underdogs. At the bridge they had a clear numerical superiority, which is why the regulars soon retreated.
There were two British soldiers killed at the bridge. I saw them when I went over the bridge, lying close together, side by side, dead.

Joshua Brooks, of Lincoln, was at the bridge and was struck with a ball that cut through his hat, and drew blood on his forehead, and it looked as if it was cut with a knife; and we concluded they were firing jackknives.

When we had fired at the bridge and killed the British, Noah Parkhurst, who was my right hand man, said, “Now the war has begun and no one knows when it will end.”
Baker then told the story of James Nichols, an Englishman in the Lincoln company. Richard C. Wiggin wrote about that story and the records behind it here.
I believe I was the only man from Lincoln that had a bayonet. My father got it in the time of the French war.

I went into the house where [Isaac] Davis and [Joseph] Hosmer were carried after they fell, and saw their bodies. I supposed the house to be Major [John] Buttrick’s.

When we marched down to the bridge, Major Buttrick marched first, and Captain Davis next to him. I did not see Colonel [John] Robinson [of Westford] to know him.

I verily believe that I felt better that day, take it all the day through, than if I had stayed at home.
After justice of the peace Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar finished writing this down, the text was read back to Baker and he signed it in front of three witnesses. Baker died later that year, thought to be the last veteran of the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

(The picture above is Don Troiani’s painting of the fight at the North Bridge. True to form, he has given the provincial militiamen up front bayonets.)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Amos Baker at the Bridge

On 22 Apr 1850, three days after the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, justice of the peace Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar took down the memories of a nonagenarian veteran named Amos Baker.

Baker was thought to be “the sole survivor of the men who were present at the North Bridge at Concord,…and the only man living who bore arms on that day.”

Hoar wrote out an affidavit that said:
I, Amos Baker, of Lincoln, in the County of Middlesex, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, on oath depose and say that I was ninety-four years old on the eighth day of April, 1850; I was at Concord Fight on the nineteenth of April, 1775; I was then nineteen years and eleven days old.

My brother Nathaniel, who was then paying his addresses to the girl whom he afterwards married, was at the house where she was staying, near the line between Lexington and Lincoln, and received the alarm there from Dr. Samuel Prescott, and came over and gave it to me. My father and my four brothers, Jacob, Nathaniel, James, and Samuel, and my brother in law, Daniel Hosmer, were in arms at the North Bridge. After the fight at the bridge, I saw nothing more of them, and did not know whether they were alive or dead, until I found two of my brothers engaged in the pursuit near Lexington meeting house. Nathaniel followed the enemy to Charlestown.

When I went to Concord in the morning, I joined the Lincoln company at the brook by Flint’s pond, near the house then of Zachary Smith, and now of Jonas Smith. I loaded my gun with two balls,—ounce balls, and powder accordingly. I saw the British troops coming up the road that leads on to the Common at Concord. The sun shone very bright on their bayonets and guns.

Abijah Pierce of Lincoln, the Colonel of the minute men, went up armed with nothing but a cane.

When we were going to march down to the bridge, it was mentioned between Major [John] Buttrick, and Capt. Isaac Davis, that the minute men had better be put in front, because they were the only men that had bayonets, and it was not certain whether the British would fire, or whether they would charge bayonets without firing. I do not remember which of them said it, but they both agreed to it; and Captain Davis’s company of minute men [from Acton] was then brought up on the right. Then they saw the smoke of the town house, and, I think, Major Buttrick said “Will you stand here and let them burn the town down?”
Local historian Josiah Adams noted that other witnesses were more certain in ascribing these words to adjutant Joseph Hosmer.

That smoke having roused the officers, Baker said, “the order was given to march, and we all marched down without any further order or arrangement.”

TOMORROW: “Firing jackknives”?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

“I wished to ask him more about the Concord Fight”

On 5 July 1850 Josiah Adams called on Amos Baker of Lincoln, a veteran of the fight at Concord’s North Bridge over seventy-five years before. Adams hoped to interview Baker about his experiences.

Adams, a native of Acton, was preparing a pamphlet that championed his own town’s minute company against implications by Concord historian Lemuel Shattuck that it had not marched foremost among the provincial companies at the bridge.

Adams later described his visit to Baker this way:
He was asleep on his bed, and I was unwilling to disturb him. In about half an hour, he awoke and walked very slow and feebly across the room to a chair. I understood he had failed very much in a few days. I told him I wished to ask him more about the Concord Fight, but he seemed so feeble, and so distressed with the idea, that I judged it improper to trouble him further.

It was my purpose to inquire if he heard anything about the hatchet [the killing of a wounded British soldier], either at the time or afterwards; if he knew that both the soldiers who lay side by side were dead;—whether he saw them when he pursued over the bridge, or when he returned;—whether the Concord Minute Companies had bayonets—whether Major [John] Buttrick was present when he saw the bodies of [Isaac] Davis and [Joseph] Hosmer, and whether he or Col. [James] Barrett pursued in the afternoon—whether there was any firing, on the retreat, between the bridge and the village, and some other matters to which his attention did not seem to have been called; but his state was such that it did not appear probable that certain reliance could be placed on his answers.

Mr. Baker died July 16.
Fortunately, the previous April three other men had helped Baker create and sign an affidavit about his memories of the battle.

TOMORROW: Amos Baker’s account.

(That’s actually Josiah Adams’s gravestone up there, courtesy of Find-a-Grave, not Amos Baker’s. The researcher lived only four years longer than the old veteran.)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Abel Benson and Memory Creep

As I described yesterday, in the early 1900s chroniclers of Needham and Framingham began to credit “Nero, or Abel, Benson” as helping to spread the alarm on 19 Apr 1775 with blasts from his trumpet.

It would be unusual for contemporary witnesses to be confused between Nero and Abel. They were grandfather and grandson, one born about seventy years before 1775 and the other only eight. Even at night, it should have been possible to tell them apart.

Furthermore, other records tell us that Nero Benson died in Sudbury in 1757. Which pretty much eliminates him from participating in the uprising eighteen years later.

That’s why the tradition has come to focus on Abel Benson. As strange as it would be for the Framingham militia to rely on an eight-year-old boy, that was at least physically possible. But how strong is the evidence to support that story?

In fact, the evidence points the other way. Abel Benson lived until 1838, long enough to apply for a pension for Revolutionary War veterans. That process required applicants to testify about how they had served: when they enlisted, what battles they were in, who their commanding officers were, and any anecdotes that could add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Abel Benson filed a claim in April 1818. For a while he received a pension of $8 each month, but in 1820 the government cut him off. Framingham had granted him land as a bounty for enlisting, and that real estate meant he wasn’t poor enough. In 1823 Benson reapplied. It took six years, but the federal government started paying him a pension again. Abel Benson died at midnight on 15 Sept 1838. And on 2 October, his widow Rhoda applied to the government to continue that pension. She started to receive $80 per year in March 1843.

That means there were three times—1818, 1823, and 1838—when Abel or Rhoda Benson went to the government and described his military service. The length of that service affected his eligibility for a pension. The Bensons thus had a strong reason to note every time Abel had helped fight the war. But in none of those filings did the couple ever mention the Lexington alarm.

There’s no doubt that Abel Benson served in the Continental Army. He enlisted in early 1781, when he was fourteen. (The recruiting papers state he was sixteen.) His military records even offer a description: “5 ft. 2 in.; complexion, yellow; hair, black; eyes, black...reported a Negro.” (Abel’s mother was a woman of British descent originally named Sarah Perry.) Though listed as a trumpeter, he worked mainly as a “waiter,” or servant to an officer.

So how did the legend of Abel Benson begin? There may indeed have been a black trumpeter riding with the Framingham militiamen in April 1775 (although more than a century passed before it appears anyone wrote that detail down). When Austin Bacon followed up that family story in the early 1900s, he could have looked in William Barry’s 1847 History of Framingham, saw Nero Benson listed as an eighteenth-century military trumpeter, and inserted his name in his account.

Soon afterward, George Kuhn Clarke added Abel’s name as another possibility, seeing him listed as both a trumpeter and Revolutionary War veteran. Later authors spotted Nero Benson’s death record, leaving only Abel.

But Nero and Abel Benson weren’t necessarily the only African-Americans in Framingham who could play the trumpet—just the only ones named in published sources. Who inherited Nero Benson’s trumpet after he died in 1757? Who taught Abel to play the trumpet and other instruments as he grew up in the 1770s? Nero’s son William, Abel’s father, seems like a good candidate, and the region’s African-American community probably includes some others. A lot of life never came to the attention of the white chroniclers.

The story of Abel Benson thus strikes me as an example of “memory creep”—a tendency among people recounting history, whether family, local, or national, to take a little evidence and expand it to make a better story. And the legend of little Abel Benson blowing his horn is a better story. It’s just probably not the accurate story.

(The photo above, from Find-a-Grave, shows the marker now on Abel Benson’s grave. For a well researched study of the Benson family, see Michael Sokolow’s Charles Benson: Mariner of Color in the Age of Sail, published in 2003.)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Legend of Abel Benson

In Framingham, there’s a tradition that the militia alarm on 19 Apr 1775 was spread by an African-American playing a trumpet. Lately, in fact, that tradition has said the trumpeter was a young boy of African and English descent named Abel Benson.

That tradition has been published in Norman Castle’s The Minute Men (1977), David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), Kenneth A. Daigler’s Spies, Patriots, and Traitors (2014), and various web articles and local talks.

It’s striking, however, that the first mention of that story didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century. As far as I can tell, Abel Benson’s connection to the Lexington alarm starts in 1908 in a compendium called Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

In an entry on the Bacon family, this series quotes a man named Austin Bacon describing how he understood his grandfather John Bacon, lieutenant from Needham, responded to that alarm:

In the night or near morning the alarm was given and he set off on horseback to join his company at the more eastern part of the town, and sent his horse back when they got nearly to the Lower Falls. Soon after he had gone a trumpet sounded and some Framingham men came along with one Nero Benson, a negro, for trumpeter, and every house they passed had a blast.
Since Lt. Bacon had left, another relative presumably saw how the “Framingham men came along” and passed down that description.

That lore also surfaced (independently or not?) in George Kuhn Clarke’s History of Needham, Massachusetts, published in 1911. Clarke was a longtime collector of local history, old enough to have met a woman who lived through the first day of the Revolutionary War. Here’s how Clarke described the alarm in Needham:
On the morning of April 19, 1775, the news that the British were on their way to Concord was brought to Bullard’s Tavern, and the alarm was given by Ephraim Bullard, the tavern-keeper, or by his son of the same name, who fired a gun on Bullard’s Hill. . . .

In “The Leg” [a section of Needham later traded to Natick] the alarm was sounded by the trumpet of Abel, or Nero, Benson, a negro.
Unfortunately, Clarke didn’t write out the basis for that statement.

Both Nero and Abel Benson had appeared more than half a century earlier in William Barry’s History of Framingham, published in 1847. Three times in that book, Barry identified Nero Benson as the “trumpeter in Capt. Clark’s company” from Framingham in 1725—fifty years before the Revolutionary War. Another page lists “Abel Benson, trumpeter” among that town’s Revolutionary veterans. And there’s a genealogy that shows Nero was Abel’s grandfather through a son named William.
(Note that Abel Benson was also a brother-in-law of Peter Salem, a soldier at Bunker Hill sometimes credited with shooting Maj. John Pitcairn—though I think that’s dubious.)

It’s significant that Barry wrote about the Bensons without describing either Nero or Abel as being an important part of the area’s militia response in April 1775.

TOMORROW: In fact, there’s strong evidence neither Nero nor Abel Benson sounded the alarm.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

William Dawes After His Ride

Most histories of the start of the Revolutionary War don’t say much about William Dawes after he escaped the British army officers who caught Paul Revere. (I discussed Dawes’s amusing anecdote about that episode here.)

According to David H. Fischer, after losing his horse and his watch, Dawes went back to Lexington and went to bed. There’s a family story that a few days later he went back to the site in Lincoln where he fell off his horse and found his watch. But anything else?

In 1878 descendant Henry W. Holland, relying on family traditions and published sources, wrote:

Dawes at once joined the Continental troops at Cambridge, and, it is said, fought at Bunker Hill, but never, I believe, took commission in the regular army. When Boston became unsafe, he moved his family to Worcester, one of the great centres of rebellion; and when the siege ended, and the war was removed from New England, he was appointed commissary at Worcester by Congress.
Holland’s sources were older relatives born after the war, so he relying on thirdhand information. I’m not sure about that Bunker Hill thing (so many family insisted their ancestors were at Bunker Hill), and I suspect Dawes did take a formal military role.

Below are the entries in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War for men named William Dawes. Each has a separate entry in the state archives. However, some of these could pertain to the same man. And of course some could pertain to multiple men with the same name.
Clearly we can connect the assistant commissary of August 1779 with Dawes, based on his family recollection (as well as a period complaint about how he shortchanged prisoners of war).

But what about the adjutant? What about the major of the Boston militia regiment?

We know that in 1768 Dawes joined the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, then an organization of men who wanted extra training to become militia officers. In April 1772 the printer John Boyle listed Dawes as “Junr. Adjut. Lieuts. Rank” in the Boston militia regiment. In early 1775 Massachusetts Committee of Safety contacted Dawes about getting cannon out of Boston [as discussed in my upcoming book, The Road to Concord], and of course Dr. Joseph Warren sent him out to Lexington.

In short, Dawes had experience in military administration and the trust of the Massachusetts Patriots. And there was a war on. It makes sense for him to serve as Gen. William Heath’s adjutant in the first months of the war, and to become a major (another position of administrative responsibility) in the Boston militia regiment after the British evacuated. But then he resigned and went to Worcester.

As for the first entry, that William Dawes was a junior officer in the Continental Army from January 1777 to May 1778, with a possible short service in late 1776. That stretch doesn’t directly contradict the other entries, but they seem to refer to a younger man.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

“When This You See”

Mystic Seaport’s website shares views of this powderhorn, along with this description:
This powder horn dates from the American Revolution and, due to its large size, was probably used on board a ship for priming the cannons with fine powder. It is inscribed with various symbols, including greenery, animals (cat, bird), a stylized person, a building, a signpost with a checkerboard sign, and hearts. These are likely more decorative than representative. It is also inscribed:
Willm, Dawes 1780. When This You See Think That I Be A Man of Liberty. First Then I Say, Brave Souls Be Well Aware How To Secure And Then Direct The War; Where, When and How To Land and When on Shore Keep Well Your Gaining. I Send More.
That teacher’s lesson goes on to ask whether this horn might have belonged to the same William Dawes who carried Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning to Lexington on 18 Apr 1775.

But as I read it, the name on the horn is actually “Willm: Daues.” The person carving the horn had an unusual shape for a lowercase w, rendering it like an n with a big tail. But that’s not the shape that appears in the name.

As that webpage notes, the horn’s size and inscription ties it to a ship. But the William Dawes of 1775 left no link to the American navy or privateers. In fact, during the war he went inland, serving as an army commissary at Worcester. So this horn seems more likely to be the property of a different man named William Daues.

And possibly carved by Edward Koren.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A New Biography of the Rev. Jonas Clarke

This season has brought a new biography of the Rev. Jonas Clarke, the Lexington minister who was hosting John Hancock and Samuel Adams on 19 Apr 1775 as British regulars marched toward that town.

Clarke wielded a lot of influence in Lexington. People recalled that he drafted many of the town’s resolutions objecting to new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s. His published sermon on the first anniversary of the outbreak of war is not only a significant historical source on the event but also helped to shape its meaning for the people of Massachusetts.

The Patriot Parson of Lexington, Massachusetts: Reverend Jonas Clarke and the American Revolution is the latest book by Richard P. Kollen, a history teacher who has served as the historian for the Lexington Historical Society. The work was supported by that society, custodian of the Clarke-Hancock House where the minister lived and of his papers, and by the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

Kollen’s research seems very thorough, running from Clarke’s birth in Newton in 1730 to his death in 1805. As an educated man, the minister documented his life in sermons, letters, and three surviving volumes of journals. His family and community ensured the preservation of those sources, and Kollen—already author of several other books on Lexington history—has mined them for all they’re worth. It’s hard to imagine a more detailed picture of Jonas Clarke.

The Patriot Parson is thus reminiscent of early-19th-century clerical biographies, which likewise extolled their subjects’ values and long careers in detail. I’m sure Kollen didn’t set out to write a Congregationalist hagiography like so many of those volumes. It’s just that Clarke doesn’t seem to have had notable faults or been involved in many juicy controversies (aside from, you know, the split with Britain). Lexington didn’t go through the theological or political arguments of other, larger communities nearby.

Kollen doesn’t shy from noting difficult parts of Clarke’s life. For example, the minister’s older brother, Thomas Clarke, suffered from some sort of mental illness. Kollen quotes from a letter that Jonas wrote in 1753 about Thomas’s “roving mind” and tracks Thomas from the house of the family’s one surviving sister back to Jonas’s household after the war. But the sources simply don’t provide Kollen with grounds for much more than speculation about this aspect of family life.

Another potential area of controversy is slavery. It was common for New England ministers to have an enslaved household servant or two. Clarke’s predecessor, the Rev. John Hancock, owned a man named Jack, and his Concord contemporary, the Rev. William Emerson, owned a man named Frank. Indeed, in smaller New England towns the only slaveholder might be the town minister. On the other side of the issue, such ministers as the Rev. Samuel Cooke of Menotomy, who was stepfather to Clarke’s wife, preached in 1770 that slavery “degraded human nature nearly to the level of the beasts” and urged the Massachusetts General Court to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade.

There’s no evidence that Clarke ever owned anyone. Kollen quotes records of the minister hiring day laborers before his sons grew old enough to work the fields. The book suggests that it is “not unlikely” that Clarke agreed with Cooke. However, Kollen has to acknowledge, Clarke left no statement about slavery, making his personal choice opaque. (The topic of slavery, a focus of so many historians these days, doesn’t even appear in the book’s index.)

The Patriot Parson will be the authoritative book on Clarke for a long time to come. People writing about him or eighteenth-century Lexington in the future will have to consult this book as a source. At the same time, the lack of evident internal and community conflict in Clarke’s life limits the book’s wider appeal. But history doesn’t guarantee that being near the center of a dramatic event means that one leaves behind a dramatic life story.

The Patriot Parson comes from the History Press, so it follows that publisher’s standard design: a paperback of slightly more than 200 packed pages. There are many black and white photographs throughout the book, good notes, and a basic index.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lawrence Sweeny, “of most facetious Memory”

In January I introduced the figure of Lawrence Sweeny, New York newspaper carrier of proud Irish descent. He was a loud opponent of the Stamp Act in 1765.

During the Seven Years’ War he reportedly became known as “Bloody News” Sweeny as he shouted out that phrase to sell the latest news. But most New Yorkers seem to have associated Sweeny with humor, though I can’t always tell whether they were laughing more with him or at him.

In the spring of 1770, this broadside appeared around the city:
On the much lamented Death of LAWRENCE
SWEENY, ESQ; of most facetious Memory,
who departed this Life at New-York, upon
Tuesday April 10, 1770.

Ye Yorkers lay aside your jocund Farce
Of Freedom now, and hollow till your hoarse;
For LAWRENCE SWEENY’s Dead to all below,
Look to each Face and read it in their Woe.
Is SWEENY dead? Enquire the sorrowing Throng,
Who cry’d News, News, in Accents loud and strong.
He who was wont to raise the gen’ral Smile,
And for whole Days a World of Cares beguile,
Is now no more. How comes it SWEENY, now,
Has plac’d such gen’ral sadness on the Brow?
’Tis not his fault, replies the Comic Muse.
He never did a Chearful strain refuse;
Nor never did promote Domestic Strife,
But flogg’d Old PROSER, and caress’d his Wife.

See HOUSE, the Dutchman, who but t’other Day,
Did with our Hero, “News Via Boston” Cry;
He also join’d him in the hum’rous Song
Of SAWNEY’S Rant, and GEORGE’S Derry-down.
To Day he Views his Friend a load of Clay,
Frantic he raves, and throws his Songs away.

The Black-Ey’d Virgins, Ladies of the Green,
With streaming Eyes and sable Weeds are seen,
Along the Streets in Solemn Pomp they go
With downcast Looks expressive of their Woe---
Their Patron Dead---Their Patriot close confind---
Pale is their Face and discompos’d their Mind.
To MILLS’s Palace moves the Beauteous Throng,
Where SAWNEY Chears them with a Merry Song,
With Hands uplisted and distorted Eys.
Says he dear Nymphs can I your Grief asswage?

To asswage our Grief is more than Mortal can,
Not you the boldest of the race of Man,
Can chear our Souls or Alleviate our Pain.

SUN, MOON, and STARS with Watery Aspect Shine
And be their choicest Influence New-York, thine,
For Great’s the Loss this City has sustain’d,
And Great’s the Grief of Gen’rous SWEENEY’s Friend.
The 16 April New-York Gazette stated that Sweeny was “as well known in this City as any Man in it, and will be perhaps as much missed.”

Saturday, April 09, 2016

“Great difficulty about the teams“

After the end of the siege of Boston, Gen. George Washington ordered Col. Henry Knox (shown here) to move most of the Continental Army’s artillery south to defend New York.

The Massachusetts General Court promised to supply 300 teams of horses or oxen to start moving those guns across the province by 6 Apr 1776. However, as that day approached, only 50 teams had shown up. The legislature assigned more members to hire animals, and Knox sent off some ordnance along two different routes to Norwich, Connecticut.

Here’s a snapshot of the trouble one of Knox’s subordinates encountered in a letter addressed to Knox or Ezekiel Cheever, quartermaster of artillery:
Grafton, April 9, 1776.


I am at great difficulty about the teams and their loading at present, and last night likewise in shifting them, the which I did with three of them, and the three fresh teams that I got then are already tired, and say that they cannot go any farther than Sutton, which is six miles from hence, and there I expect to find them all to-morrow morning, and all of them wanting to have their teams shifted; and you may depend that they cannot go farther, for I have had a survey of all their cattle, by all the Selectmen of this town, and their Representative; and they say they cannot go on, their cattle are so much galled and lame.

I am informed by the Selectmen that there are many teams in this town, but they cannot get any of them to go forward with a load, not even so far as Sutton; and in the whole town can get but one team, and he is gone forward; and there are three now remaining; and how to get them any farther I know not, without a special order from you or the General Court, to impress any of them that can be found, and the order to continue in force until they arrive at Norwich.

The bearer hereof is one of the teamsters, who I thought proper to despatch, and he will inform you of more particulars.

Waiting your answer, I remain, sir, with impatience, your very humble servant,


P. S. I hope you will satisfy this man for coming to you, which he desires.
Two days after that letter, the Massachusetts legislature authorized town selectmen to impress animals for the army’s use. With all that trouble, Knox didn’t get on the road himself until 14 April, as this letter reported.

Though not as lauded as Knox’s efforts to transport about half of that same artillery down from Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga the preceding winter, this trip to New York in springtime seems to have been almost as much trouble.