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 17, 2021

William Tay, Jr., Enters the Fight

Here’s a first-person account of the opening day of the Revolutionary War from William Tay, Jr., of Woburn.

There was a long sequence of William Tays in Woburn, and the “Jr.” suffix suggests this account came from the middle of the three then living, born in 1726 and thus in his late forties.

The picture above, which comes courtesy of the Middlesex Canal Association, shows the house where Tay grew up and his father still lived in 1775. It gained the name of the Samuel Tay Homestead after his little brother, who inherited it.

In late 1775, William Tay submitted a petition to the Massachusetts General Court describing his actions on 19 April. Richard Frothingham printed that document in his History of the Siege of Boston. Joel Bohy located the original in the Massachusetts Archives and shared a transcript with me, showing that Frothingham regularized Tay’s spelling, capitalization, and punctuation but didn’t add or remove any words. I’m using Frothingham’s version because tonight I’m too busy to fight autocorrect to reproduce the original.

Here’s what Tay would have written had he followed mid-nineteenth-century standards:
…on the 19th day of April, 1775, being roused from his sleep by an alarm, occasioned by the secret and sudden march of the ministerial troops towards Concord, supposed to intend the destruction of the colony’s magazine there deposited,—to prevent which, your petitioner, with about 180 of his fellow-townsmen, well armed, and resolved in defence of the common cause, speedily took their march from Woburn to Concord aforesaid, who, upon their arrival there, being reinforced by a number of their fellow-soldiers of the same regiment, smartly skirmished with those hostile troops, being deeply touched with their bloody massacre and inhuman murders in their march at Lexington, where we found sundry of our friends and neighbors inhumanly butchered on that bloody field;

and other salvage cruelties to our aged fathers, and poor, helpless, bed-ridden women under the infirmities of child-bearing; together with their horrible devastations committed on their ignominious retreat the same day, (shocking to relate, but more so to behold,) to the eternal infamy of those British arms so frequently and so successfully wielded in the glorious cause of liberty through most of the European dominions, now made subservient to the ambitious purposes of a very salvage cruelty, inhuman butchery, and tyrannical slavery.
Tay appears to have been trying to make a political point there, wouldn’t you say? He was also echoing the Patriot government’s official take on the events of the day, aligning himself with that stance. The petition continued:
These shocking scenes continually opening to view, served to heighten resentment, and warm endeavors to reap a just revenge upon those inhuman perpetrators, and to risk our lives in defence of the glorious cause, as the heroic deeds of our troops through the whole series of the tragical actions of that memorable day abundantly testify.

In which your petitioner, by the joint testimony of all his fellow-soldiers, lent, at least, an equal part through the whole stretch of way from Concord to Charlestown aforesaid, where your petitioner, with several others, passing by an house, were fired upon by three of the ministerial troops planted within, who, returning the fire, killed two of them; thereupon your petitioner rushed into the house, seized the survivor, a sergeant, in his arms, gave him sundry cuffs, who then resigned himself and arms to your petitioner, none others being then within said house.
But then, Tay said, a thief came along!

TOMORROW: A rival claim.

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