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, December 31, 2016

Carriers’ New Year Messages—“often tip the newsboy”

Longtime Boston 1775 readers know that every year ends and/or begins with some “carrier verses”—the doggerel that newspaper apprentices wrote, printed, and distributed at the turn of the year to earn a few coins for themselves.

The library at Brown University has a website devoted to those broadsides, though almost all are from the early 1800s and not the Revolutionary era. In addition to good digital images of those pages, the site includes helpful introductory essays by Mary T. Russo and Leon Jackson.

Jackson’s essay, which was also published in Common-Place, explains the form in both literary and commercial terms:
The typical newspaper carrier’s New Year’s address—as they were known—began with a salutation to the customer; mythologized the newsboy as the embodiment of Hermes or Mercury, messenger to the Gods; summarized the news of the year in brisk and vivid couplets; and concluded with a plea for money. Appearing first in the 1720s in sporadic numbers, the vogue for addresses caught on in the 1760s, and by the end of the eighteenth century almost every newspaper issued one. . . .

The challenge of the addresses lay in identifying precisely the sort of economic arrangement of which they were a part. Was it a form of extortion, a kind of gift exchange, an instance of charity, a variety of purchase, or some other part of the economic repertoire? . . . The monies associated with carriers’ addresses…were not quite a payment for delivery, since this was included in the cost of the paper; they were not quite charity, since something was given as well as received; and they were not extortion, because of the ongoing nature of the relationship between the carrier and the customer, both of whom knew one another; yet they could not be considered gifts either, since they were not exchanged between equals but given to lower-class men by their social betters. The concept of the tip would seem to capture perfectly the nature of the carriers’ transaction in its ambiguity, its scripted, ritualized nature, its awkwardness, and its potential for social transgression, and I was at first quite happy to call the money the carriers’ received tips. That seemed easy enough.

The only problem is that even though the word tip was used in its modern sense as early as 1733, at precisely the same time that the carriers’ addresses were starting to appear, tip does not appear in even one of the seven hundred or so addresses at which I looked. The money for which the carriers asked was, rather, described as a “boon,” a “bounty,” “a gift,” a “blessing,” “a present,” “a reward,” a form of “charity,” and much else. Indeed, every economy other than tipping was invoked. This surfeit of names led me to three provisional conclusions. Firstly, even as they bestowed addresses on their customers, the carriers were seeking to define the transactions in which they were engaged in terms of economies other than tipping. Secondly, such acts of economic designation obscured the precise—which is to say tipping—nature of the transactions in question. And lastly, this obfuscation was designed to give what was essentially a discretionary bestowal the force of an obligatory act. While tipping, in essence, demanded something for nothing, the economic labels invoked by the carriers’ addresses, as one of them explained, required “something for something.” . . .

In eighteenth-century America, Christmas gift exchange was marked by a powerful reciprocity: one gave a present and received one back, or on the other hand, one received a present and then offered a counter-gift. In arguing that what they were due from their customers was nothing more than a gift well-earned and deserved, the carriers often described a number of gifts they had, or would, offer in return. Typically, the carriers pointed to the broadside poem itself, which they depicted as a gift to their patrons and for which they expected a gift of money in return. . . .

The carrier for the 1791 Baltimore Gazette exploited the reciprocity inherent in this form of exchange still more when he concluded his address by writing,
Then Masters kind reward the Boy,
Whose labours brings the News
To oblige you is his chief employ
The GIFT you’ll not refuse.
His careful use of syntax helps to obscure whether the gift that will not be refused is the broadside the carrier is handing to his customer or the money the customer is giving him in return.

More common still was the practice of making the traditional seasonal gift of a blessing. “I wish you a happy new year,” wrote one Massachusetts diarist in 1838, “is sounded from all most all lips.” Benedictions likewise run rampant through the carriers’ addresses, in which customers receive an endless barrage of May you alwayses, May you nevers, and May you oftens. A typical carriers’ blessing took the form of the hope that the customer would always be rich, never be poor, and often tip the newsboy.
TOMORROW: A few lines from the boys of the Independent Chronicle.

Friday, December 30, 2016

What the United States Are/Is

In the U.S. Constitution, “United States of America” is a plural noun, as in:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State. . . .

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.
Today we refer to the “United States” as a singular entity. And lots of people trace that change to the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. That idea got a big boost in 1988 when historian James McPherson write in Battle Cry of Freedom:
Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were rendered as a plural noun: “the United States are a republic.” The war marked a transition of the United States to a singular noun.
Two years later, historian Shelby Foote gave that statement an even bigger boost by echoing it in Ken Burns’s Civil War television series and accompanying book.

In 2005 Ben Zimmer at Language Log dug back into the record, finding expressions of the idea as early as the 24 Apr 1887 Washington Post:
There was a time a few years ago when the United States was spoken of in the plural number. Men said “the United States are” — “the United States have” — “the United States were.” But the war changed all that. . . . The surrender of Mr. Davis and Gen. Lee meant a transition from the plural to the singular.
In 1902 the U.S. House of Representatives’s Committee on Revision of the Laws decided that henceforth Congress should refer to “the United States” as singular.

In 2009 (after Language Log got a new design), Marc Liberman started exploring the idea through historic newspapers, Presidential speeches, and Supreme Court decisions. He saw usage evolve but didn’t find a clear-cut change around the Civil War.

I decided to use the less sophisticated tool of the Google Books Ngram Viewer, looking for “United States is/was/are/were” across its database of publications from 1780 to 2000.

That method brings up a lot of false hits because it doesn’t distinguish between phrases in which “United States” is the actual subject of a sentence and phrases in which it’s helping to modify the subject, such as “The laws of the United States are based on British traditions” or “The President of the United States is an idiot.” But if those other constructions appear at a steady rate, then the comparison is still meaningful.

Here’s the graph that the Ngram Viewer produced for me.
There was a definite shift toward singular usage, but the big change came a couple of decades after the Civil War, and it really took off in the first decades of the twentieth century—coinciding with the U.S. House’s official choice. So the Civil War might have changed Americans’ thinking about the country, but it took a while for that thinking to be clearly reflected in our language.

Also interesting, the peaks in appearances of any form of “United States is/was/are/were” within the corpus of publications coincide with U.S. entry into the two World Wars and the Vietnam War.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

“George, be King”

John Nicholls (1744-1832) was a Member of Parliament from 1783 to 1787, and again from 1796 to 1802.

Politically, Nicholls leaned to the left, opposing Edmund Burke and then the younger William Pitt and eventually his early ally Charles James Fox. He saw good in the early French Revolution, opposed British war measures, and championed electoral reforms.

Nicholls’s father had been physician to George II, so he was privy to court gossip from an early age. But of course his political views colored how he interpreted gossip about that monarch and his grandson and successor. In his Recollections and Reflections Personal and Political as Connected with Public Affairs during the Reign of George III, published in 1820, Nicholls profiled the new king this way:
The young King (for he was at that time little more than twenty-two years of age) was of a good person, sober, temperate, of domestic habits, addicted to no vice, swayed by no passion—what had not the nation to expect from such a character? . . .

I recollect the expression used to my father by Mr. [Charles] Pratt, at that time Attorney General, afterwards better known by the name of Lord Camden, within four months after the King’s accession: “I see already, that this will be a weak and an inglorious reign.”

I recollect also the relation which a friend of my father’s gave to him of a conversation which he had had with Charles Townshend: “I said to Charles Townshend, I don’t want to know any state secrets, but do tell me what is the character of this young man?” After a pause, Charles Townshend replied, “He is very obstinate.”

It was also observed that the Princess Dowager of Wales had kept the young Prince from having any confidential intimacy with any person except herself and the Earl of Bute: the pretence for this was the preservation of his morals. In truth, they had blockaded all approach to him. A notion has prevailed, that the Earl of Bute had suggested political opinions to the Princess Dowager; but this was certainly a mistake. In understanding, the Princess Dowager was far superior to the Earl of Bute; in whatever degree of favour he stood with her, he did not suggest, but he received, her opinions and her directions. The late Marquis of Bute told me, that at the King’s accession, his father, the Earl of Bute, had no connexion beyond the pale of Leicester House [the late Prince of Wales’s residence]. He added, “I never lived with my father, nor did any of his children.” Could such a man be fit to be a minister?

The Princess Dowager of Wales was a woman of a very sound understanding, and was considered as such by all who had occasion to converse with her. But she had been educated in the Court of her father, the Duke of Saxe Gotha. . . . When the Princess of Wales came to the Court of St. James, she found the British Sovereign a very different character from that which she had seen at Saxe Gotha. She found him controlled by his Ministers, indulged in petty gratifications, but compelled to submit to their opinions on all important subjects. We cannot be surprised that she was disgusted at this; and it is well known that she ever impressed upon the King from his early years this lesson, “George, be King.”
In his History of the Life and Reign of George IV (1831), William Wallace cited Nicholls and repeated his analysis, but turned that quotation from the Princess Dowager into “George, be a king.”

George III indeed tried to influence the ministries that governed under him. But he also sincerely believed in the British constitutional notion of Parliament’s sovereignty. After Gen. Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown, he accepted the defeat of Lord North’s ministry—a major step away from monarchical supremacy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

“To become private secretary to General Washington”?

The Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris (1768-1842) grew up from a poor childhood to regain his family’s place in the cultural establishment of greater Boston. He was the librarian at Harvard College for several years before becoming a Unitarian minister in Dorchester.

And whenever I read the man’s early life life story, I come away feeling dubious.

All the profiles of Harris seem to derive from a letter that the Rev. John Pierce wrote on 1 Mar 1849. One of the anecdotes in that letter is:
On leaving College, he taught a school for a year at Worcester; and, at the end of that time, was applied to, to become General [George] Washington’s Private Secretary. He had consented to serve; but, in consequence of taking the small pox, he was prevented from entering at once on the duties of the place, and it was filled by Tobias Lear.
Using Pierce’s letter, the Rev. Nathaniel L. Frothingham wrote a longer reminiscence for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s his version of the same anecdote:
He was graduated at Harvard College in July, 1787, at the age of nineteen. . . . After completing his collegiate course, he became the teacher of a school in Worcester. In this service he remained for a year; and here he formed the acquaintance of Miss Mary, the only daughter of Dr. Elijah and Mrs. Dorothy Dix, who was to be the partner of his whole life.

Immediately on leaving this pleasant town, he was honored by an application to become private secretary to General Washington. His heart leaped at such a proposal, which promised to bring him into connection with the greatest man of his nation and time, and with the leading events of a wonderful era in the fortunes of his country and the destinies of the earth. His patriotism and his skill with the pen, his love of history and of poetry both, conspired to recommend such a preferment, and promised to open a career for his highest aspirations. Now the course of his life seemed to be beaten out for him in high places, and the motto of his ring was translating itself into distinct prophecy.

But no sooner had he signified his acceptance of the appointment than he was struck down with that terrible malady, the small-pox, which at that time had been relieved of only the smaller half of its original terrors. Public affairs cannot wait for the slow recoveries of sickness and for private convenience; and before he was able to arrive at his post the place was filled by Tobias Lear, a gentleman who left the University the same year that young Harris entered it, and who afterwards went through a long course of diplomatic service as Consul-General at St. Domingo and at Tripoli.
In 1788, Lear had already been Washington’s secretary for four years; he wasn’t second choice to Harris. Lear also remained in Washington’s employ through 1793, moving with the first President to New York and Philadelphia, so there’s no sign of an opening.

I’ve seen no mention of Harris in Washington’s correspondence. And if someone at Mount Vernon wrote to Harris asking him to become the general’s closest employee, as Pierce and Frothingham understood, that would surely have left a paper trail.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

“Reckoning with Slavery” Conference in 2017

The Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, has issued a call for papers for its inaugural conference, “Reckoning With Slavery: New Directions in the History, Memory, Legacy, and Popular Representations of Enslavement.” The conference will be held at the Schomburg Center on 17-18 Nov 2017.

The announcement says:
We seek proposals from scholars whose work may throw new light on the history of slavery, the slave trade, and abolition and opposition to slavery, as well as engage with contemporary debates over the legacies of enslavement, reparations, and the significance of popular depictions of slavery in film, television, and digital platforms.

Papers that address current scholarly debates over the political economy of slavery and its relationship to capitalism, the significance of slave resistance, gender, childhood studies, enslavement in transnational contexts, and digital humanities are particularly welcome.

Established scholars will offer mentoring sessions to graduate students and junior faculty.
This call asks interested researchers to send an abstract of 250-350 words and a one-page curriculum vitae to lapiduscenter@nypl.org by 15 January.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Crucial Days After Trenton

The Battle of Trenton on 26 Dec 1776 was just the beginning of the Continental Army’s strike back against the British in central New Jersey after a very rough campaign season.

Revolutionary New Jersey, the Crossroads of the American Revolution, explains:
After ferrying their Hessian prisoners across the Delaware to Pennsylvania on December 26, Washington’s troops returned to New Jersey to engage the British at Trenton once again on January 2, 1777. Fighting along the Assunpink Creek ended at dusk. During the night, Washington led his troops along a back route to Princeton, where he attacked General Cornwallis’ rear guard on the morning of January 3, 1777.

While the second Battle of Trenton (also known as the Battle of the Assunpink) had no military outcome, it enabled another American victory, at Princeton. In the ten days succeeding Christmas, Washington had engaged the enemy in three battles and by winning two had restored belief in the possibility of ultimate victory.
The Ten Crucial Days organization offers videos, maps, and other information about those events. Its tours cover the Washington’s Crossing sites on both sides of the Delaware, the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, and the Princeton Battlefield.

The small local publisher Knox Press, linked to Ten Crucial Days, offers David Price’s book Rescuing the Revolution: Unsung Patriot Heroes and the Ten Crucial Days of America’s War for Independence.

(Above is Boston’s own slice of Washington’s crossing, “The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully at the Museum of Fine Arts.)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

“Washington’s Christmas Party” by Ada Simpson Sherwood

Ada Simpson Sherwood (1861-1959) was a teacher, education professor, and prolific author of the sorts of poems that schoolchildren learned to recite or sing around the last turn of the century. She was especially diligent in writing about Revolutionary history.

The 25 Jan 1894 Journal of Education published six poems under the headline “Washington’s Birthday Selections,” for teachers to use in the coming month. Three were by Sherwood. This one is to the turn of “Yankee Doodle.”
Washington’s Christmas Party

Come, all who love a merry tale,
With joke both true and hearty,
We’ll tell you how George Washington
Once made a Christmas party.
Across the Delaware quite plain,
The British flag was vaunted,
His troops ill-clad, the weather bad,
And yet he was undaunted.

“Come, boys,” he said, “we’ll go to-night
Across the raging river;
The troops will be at Christmas sports,
And will suspect it, never.
The Hessians all will keep this night,
With games and feasting hearty,
We’ll spoil their fun with sword and gun,
And take their Christmas party.”

And as they row across the stream,
Tho storms and ice pursue them,
The fishermen from Marblehead
Knew just how to go thru them.
Upon the farther shore they form
And then surround the city,
The Hessians all, after their ball
Were sleeping. What a pity!

And when at last, at call to arms,
They tried to make a stand, sir,
They soon took fright and grounded arms.
To Washington’s small band, sir.
Across the stream they took that day,
One thousand Hessians hearty.
Their fun was spoiled, their tempers roiled,
By this famed Christmas party.
The picture above comes from the same era: “Washington Inspecting the Captured Colors after the Battle of Trenton” by Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935), courtesy of Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

“St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall”

In the 20 Dec 1773 New-York Gazette, alongside the first reports of the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor, printer Hugh Gaine ran this little item about a local event:
Last Monday [i.e., 13 December] the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s, where a great Number of the Sons of that ancient Saint celebrated the Day with great Joy and Festivity.
(Three days later, James Rivington put the same item in Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, which sometimes gets him credit for the first American mention of “St. A Claus.” But Gaine’s paper was earlier.)

According to James Riker’s Annals of Newtown (1852), Samuel Waldron (1738-1799) was a blacksmith who lived in Newtown on Long Island, which is now part of Queens. In March 1771 Waldron hosted what looks like a similar gathering in honor of St. Patrick. I haven’t found any mention of his house or tavern being called “Protestant-Hall” except in connection with those banquets.

The photo above, from the collections of the New-York Historical Society, shows Waldron’s house in 1923. If he hosted the Sons of St. Nicholas in that building in 1773, then it was a significant location in the development of the American legend of Santa Claus.

Friday, December 23, 2016

“He is an impudent, ill-bred, conceited fellow”

In his diary for December 1758, young John Adams got some things off his chest about Robert Treat Paine, who was four years older and had already been admitted to the bar:
Bob Paine is conceited and pretends to more Knowledge and Genius than he has. I have heard him say that he took more Pleasure in solving a Problem in Algebra than in a frolick. He told me the other day, that he was as curious after a minute and particular Knowledge of Mathematicks and Phylosophy, as I could be about the Laws of Antiquity. By his Boldness in Company, he makes himself a great many Enemies. His Aim in Company is to be admired, not to be beloved.

He asked me what Duch Commentator I meant? I said Vinnius.—Vinnius, says he, (with a flash of real Envy, but pretended Contempt,) you cant understand one Page of Vinnius.—He must know that human Nature is disgusted with such incomplaisant Behaviour. Besides he has no Right to say that I dont understand every Word in Vinnius, or even in [. . .] for he knows nothing of me. For the future let me act the Part of a critical spy upon him, not that of an open unsuspicious friend.—

Last Superiour Court at Worcester he dined in Company with Mr. [Jeremiah] Gridly, Mr. [Edmund] Trowbridge, and several others, at Mr. [James] Putnams [Adams’s legal teacher], and altho a modest attentive Behaviour would have best become him in such a Company, yet he tried to ingross the whole Conversation to himself.

He did the same, in the Evening, when all the Judges of the Superiour Court with Mr. [Samuel] Winthrop [clerk], [Chief Justice Stephen] Sewall, &c. were present, and he did the same last Thanksgiving day, at Coll. [Josiah] Quincies, when Mr. [Anthony] Wibirt [a Braintree minister], Mr. [Richard] Cranch &c. were present. This Impudence may sett the Million a Gape at him but will make all Persons of Sense despize him, or hate him.

That evening at Put[nam]s, he called me, a Numbskull and a Blunder Buss before all the Superiour Judges. I was not present indeed, but such expressions were indecent and tended to give the Judges a low Opinion of me, as if I was despized by my Acquaintance. He is an impudent, ill-bred, conceited fellow. Yet he has Witt, sense, and Learning, and a great deal of Humour, and has Virtue and Piety except his fretful, peevish, Childish Complaints against the Disposition of Things. This Character is drawn with Resentment of his ungenerous Treatment of me, and Allowances must therefore be made, but these are unexaggerated facts.
Adams and Paine had parallel legal careers for many years. Both were the leading lawyers in their rural towns with periodic stints in Boston. Adams gradually eclipsed Paine in politics. They both served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence, but Paine returned to Massachusetts government during the war and afterward while Adams went on to a national career. They managed to work together but never seem to have become friends. As we might guess.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

M. Voltaire and “that civil war between mother and daughter”?

On 12 Dec 1775, Pvt. Aaron Wright, a rifleman from Pennsylvania serving in Cambridge during the siege of Boston, picked up a copy of the New-England Chronicle dated five days before.

You can read a copy of that same newspaper here, from the Harbottle Dorr collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Wright was particularly interested in one of the front-page items, which had been reprinted from the 18 November Constitutional Gazette of New York. It was headlined as a letter from Voltaire to a Dutch friend “after the defeat of the Spaniards before Algiers,” which had happened in July.

Wright copied much of that item into his journal:
Ever since the religious wars ceased, Christian knights have been totally useless. . . .

Algiers, which has 2 men-of-war of 50 guns each, 4 of 40, and 5 frigates of 30 each, is sole master of the Mediterranean, and prescribes laws to the Dutch, English, French, and Spaniards, each of whose navies consists of at least 200 ships of war; that is ridiculous, you will say. But no matter; they say it is politic. I congratulated myself when I found Spain, most Catholic, cutting throats, and fitting out a fleet to destroy Algiers. But, to my surprise, I soon beheld ten or twelve thousand of them lie dead before the batteries of Algiers, and the fleet sailing home as fast as possible.

But will not France, Great Britain, and Holland immediately join Spain and put a period to these little but troublesome States? No! by no means! Their High Mightinesses, the Dutch, must remain neuter, to sell their powder and ball, as also their cheese, to both belligerent States.

Great Britain is just now engaged in a war of more consequence with her own colonies. Doubtless to know the cause of that civil war between mother and daughter, which has already cost the lives of hundreds, and is likely to throw the whole nation into convulsions, it is in one word this: the daughter colonies say, “We will supply you with every thing in our power, cheerfully, freely, and voluntarily.” But the mother country replies; “Because you will give every thing cheerfully, freely, and voluntarily, you are rebels, and your throats must be cut.”
On that Wright commented, “Which is pretty d—— near the case, I think.”

The presentation of Britain as a cruel mother obviously spoke to Aaron Wright, and he probably liked the picture of the big European states as militarily weak. He must have been pleased to see those observations coming from the famous European philosopher Voltaire.

In fact, that letter appears to have been created in America for an American readership, according to A. Owen Aldridge’s paper, “The American Revolution and a Spurious Letter from Voltaire,” published in 1974. Still, it’s an interesting moment, the rifleman reading the philosophe.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Preservation Breakthrough in Princeton

Last week, just before I traveled to Princeton, there was a breakthrough in the long-running controversy over new construction on part of the Princeton Battlefield.

Of course, a lot of Princeton was involved that battle, especially if we include troop movements, but some portions of the area had never been built on.

One of those sections is owned by the Institute for Advanced Study, which famously provided a home for Albert Einstein after he had to leave Europe. The I.A.S. had contributed much of the land for the current Princeton Battlefield State Park, but was planning to build more housing for its faculty on adjoining property it retained.

The Princeton Battlefield Society was convinced that acreage was also historically significant. It opposed that plan, using nearly every tactic short of civil disobedience.

A number of public reports trace the controversy. In 2010 John Milner Associates assembled a report for the Princeton Battlefield Society with funding from the National Park Service’s battlefield preservation programs (P.D.F.). It argued that a road crucial to the battle, now lost, crossed that land.

The I.A.S. asked historians to review that argument. We can read the skeptical responses of Fred Anderson (P.D.F.) and Mark Peterson (P.D.F.).

The I.A.S. later commissioned an archeological review of the area in question by the Ottery Group, released in 2015 (P.D.F.). That reported that the area designated for housing contained some signs of the battle:
Hunter Research was successful at identifying 41 Revolutionary War artifacts from surface soils within the faculty housing area. Their finds include 15 lead balls in various sizes and conditions of deformity, 14 grape shot, lead flint wraps, a short bayonet fragment, a brass ramrod holder, a portion of a cartridge box, and other militaria.
I don’t know how that compares to other parts of the town. Nonetheless, that news seems to have changed the situation, though it may have taken a while for the parties to privately work through possibilities.

This month the parties announced a compromise:
Under the plan, the Civil War Trust, through its Campaign 1776 initiative to protect Revolutionary War battlefields, will purchase 14.85 acres of land from the Institute for $4 million, to be conveyed to the State of New Jersey as an addition to the existing Princeton Battlefield State Park. The acquisition includes approximately 2/3 of the Maxwell’s Field property, along with an additional 1.12-acre tract north of the property that has been identified by historians as part of the battlefield.
For the I.A.S., the housing will change from seven single-family homes to eight townhouses; that new plan still needs approval by a couple of local boards. Campaign 1776 is now raising money for the purchase.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

New Study of the Gaspée Incident

The Boston Tea Party of December 1773 produced a forceful response from London: the Boston Port Bill, a new royal governor, army regiments back in town, the Massachusetts Government Act, and other supporting legislation.

To be sure, Bostonians had destroyed more than £9,000 of property belonging to the well-connected British East India Company.

On the other hand, compare that damage to what people in Rhode Island had done over the preceding decade:
  • In June 1765, Newporters upset by naval impressment had seized the boat belonging to the Royal Navy warship Maidstone, dragged it to the town common, and set it on fire.
  • In July 1769, another Newport crowd saw the unpopular Customs patrol ship Liberty, confiscated the previous year from John Hancock, run aground, so they set it on fire.
  • In June 1772, men from Providence and surrounding towns attacked the Royal Navy’s patrol ship Gaspée from rowboats, shooting its commanding officer in the chest. And then, of course, they set it on fire.
According to Rif Winfield’s British Warships in the Age of Sail series, H.M.S. Victory cost £63,176 to build and equip in 1765. So, even though the Victory was a much larger ship than these three, Rhode Islanders did serious damage to the royal government with each ship they destroyed.

But was Newport harbor shut down? Was the colony’s constitution changed? Was anyone brought to trial? No. I suspect the imperial government in London recognized that Rhode Island was a lawless place.

Of course, one might argue that the royal government’s alarm about those mounting attacks, especially the one on the Gaspée, made Parliament more determined to ensure Boston wouldn’t get away with anything of the sort.

The latest title in the Journal of the American Revolution book series is Steven Park’s The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution, published this month. It explores that story in depth:
Between the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773—a period historians refer to as “the lull”—a group of prominent Rhode Islanders rowed out to His Majesty’s schooner Gaspee, which had run aground six miles south of Providence while on an anti-smuggling patrol. After threatening and shooting its commanding officer, the raiders looted the vessel and burned it to the waterline.

Despite colony-wide sympathy for the June 1772 raid, neither the government in Providence nor authorities in London could let this pass without a response. As a result, a Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Rhode Island governor Joseph Wanton zealously investigated the incident. In The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution, historian Steven Park reveals that what started out as a customs battle over the seizure of a prominent citizen’s rum was soon transformed into the spark that re-ignited Patriot fervor.
Steven Park, Ph.D., teaches and is the Director of Academic Services at the University of Connecticut’s maritime campus at Avery Point. My copy of his book is on its way to me from Amazon—presuming, of course, that the delivery vehicle doesn’t go through Rhode Island and get set on fire.

Monday, December 19, 2016

How “Mohawk” Conquered “Narragansett” in Reports of the Boston Tea Party

The Boston Post-Boy’s parenthetical mention on 20 Dec 1773 that the men who destroyed the tea in Boston harbor were “dressed like Mohawks or Indians” wasn’t the first time American Whigs had specifically invoked the Mohawk people during the tea crisis.

On 29 Nov 1773, a handbill was distributed in New York stating:
Whereas our nation have lately been informed, that the fetters which have been forged for us by Great Britain, are hourly expected to arrive in a certain ship, belonging to or chartered by the East-India company; we do therefore declare, that we are determined not to be enslaved by any power on earth; and that whosoever shall aid or abet so infamous a design, or shall presume to let their store or stores for the reception of the infernal chains, may depend upon it, that we are prepared, and shall not fail to pay them an unwelcome visit, in which they shall be treated as they deserve, by THE MOHAWKS.
Invoking the Mohawks in New York made geographic sense since they then lived up the Hudson River. As I quoted yesterday, most of the Boston references to the Tea Party “Indians” in the next few months pretended they were from eastern New England.

Early in 1774 the London press began to reprint American newspaper stories about the tea conflict. As shown here, the authoritative London Chronicle added the Post-Boy’s “Mohawk” reference to the Boston Gazette report about the Tea Party. The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Scots Magazine, and other publications picked up the text from the Chronicle. The same words went into the Annual Register, the new annual summary of each year’s major events, which became a key source for historians to crib from.

As Roger D. Abrahams’s essay for Common-Place explores, “Mohawk” and related words already had cultural resonance in London:
They came into use at the spectacular and unexpected arrival of four Mohawk “ambassadors” to the court of Queen Anne in 1712. Generally called “kings” or “sachems” only three of them were actually Mohawks—the fourth being a Mohican—and none of them were regarded as leaders. They were encountered by many Londoners, not only those who officially received them at court. They went to all of the best tourist locations, dined well though they were eating foods that were far from their usual diets. Wherever they ventured, they created a traffic jam.

After this visit, the word Mohawk took on a life of its own. Rumors began to spread that a night-marauding group of the Hellfire sort made up of young swells called “Mohocks and Hawkubites” was engaged in night raids on unsuspecting folks who wandered into their clutches. They were said to be a secret group of bucks and blades who had taken blood oaths as part of a membership ritual. They marked their victims by slitting their noses with knives or by placing them in a barrel and rolling them down hill. There is no evidence that the group actually existed, but many specific incidents were attributed to its members. If it did exist, it was probably one of many secret societies that existed in the shadows of the men’s club culture that flourished in eighteenth-century London.

Rumors of the depradations of this group coursed through London, creating the Mohock Scare of 1712-13. A play about them was published, though never acted, called The Mohocks, probably by John Gay, later famous as the author of The Beggar’s Opera. Richard Steele in The Spectator of March 10, 1712, refers to them as “that species of being who have lately erected themselves into a nocturnal fraternity under the title of the Mohock Club.” Just how mysterious were the organization, its costume, and its activities becomes clear in Steele’s report: he thought them “East Indians, a sort of cannibals in India, who subsist by plundering and devouring all the nations about them. The president is styled Emperor of the Mohocks, and his arms are a Turkish crescent.” Jonathan Swift wrote to his friend “Stella” (Esther Johnson), asking, “Did I tell you of a race of rakes, called the Mohocks that play the devil about this town every night, slit people’s noses, and beat them…Young Davenant was…set upon by the Mohocks,…they ran his chair through with a sword.”
One of those 1712 visitors from North America appears above in a London print, courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Thus, for Londoners of the 1710s “Mohawks” could mean young white men up to no good and hiding behind an Indian label—the same way the imperial government viewed the Bostonians who had destroyed the tea. Massachusetts Loyalist Peter Oliver used the term for the same political crowd in his acerbic 1783 history of the Revolution, describing spectators of the Massachusetts General Court:
There was a Gallery at a Corner of the Assembly Room where [James] Otis, [Samuel] Adams, [Joseph] Hawley & the rest of the Cabal used to crowd their Mohawks & Hawkubites, to echo the oppositional Vociferations, to the Rabble without the doors.
Few early U.S. authors adopted that term, however. Histories of the Revolution by the Rev. William Gordon (1788) and Mercy Warren (1805) didn’t use “Mohawk” in discussing the destruction of Boston’s tea. Nor did the two 1830s books based on interviews with George R. T. Hewes, which popularized the name and memory of the “Tea Party” and played up the Indian guises.

It looks like only in the last decades of the 1800s—a century after the event—did American authors use “Mohawk” (always in quotes) as a standard term for the men who had destroyed the tea at Boston. So that’s how we often label them today.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

“They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett

Some of the men who destroyed the East India Company’s tea in Boston harbor on 16 Dec 1773 were disguised. Some were not, according to participant Ebenezer Stevens.

He later told his family: “none of the party were painted as Indians, nor, that I know of disguised, excepting that some of them stopped at a paint shop on the way and daubed their faces with paint.”

But by 20 December, Boston’s political leaders and the printers who supported them were reporting that the men who had carried out the tea destruction all looked like the region’s “Aboriginal inhabitants,” or Native Americans. Using that label allowed people to talk about those men without acknowledging that many folks in town knew exactly who they were. And eventually some people came to insist that all the men at the Boston Tea Party had been impenetrably disguised.

But what sort of Native Americans were they supposed to be? As I quoted two days ago, the 20 December Boston Post-Boy said the men were “dressed like Mohawks or Indians.”

But other accounts connected the tea destruction to a different Indian group: the Narragansett people of Rhode Island. For example, merchant John Andrews wrote on 18 December:
They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appear’d as such, being cloth’d in Blankets with the heads muffled, and copper color’d countenances, being each arm’d with a hatchet or axe, and pair pistols, nor was their dialect different from what I conceive these geniusses to speak, as their jargon was unintelligible to all but themselves.
The 5 Jan 1774 Essex Journal ran this item about a Tea Party follow-up:
Whereas it was reported that one Withington, of Dorchester, had taken up and partly disposed of a chest of the East-India Company’s Tea: a number of the Cape or Naragansett-Indians, went to the Houses of Capt. Ebenezer Withington, and his brother Phillip Withington, (both living upon the lower road from Boston to Milton) last Friday Evening, and with their consent thoroughly searched their Houses, without offering the least offence to any one. But finding no tea they proceeded to the House of old Ebenezer Withington, at a place called Sodom, below Dorchester meeting house, where they found part of a half chest which had floated, and was cast upon Dorchester point. This they seized and brought to Boston Common where they committed it to the flames.
And in the 14 March Boston Gazette, a writer described the second destruction of a shipload of tea in the harbor using this allegorical language:
His Majesty OKNOOKORTUNKOGOG King of the Narraganset Tribe of Indians, on receiving Information of the arrival of another Cargo of that Cursed Weed TEA, immediately Summoned his Council at the Great Swamp by the River Jordan, who did Advise and Consent to the immediate Destruction thereof. . . . They are now returned to Narragansett to make Report of their doings to his Majesty…
In addition, when word reached Boston that some tea had been taken off a fourth ship that had run aground on Cape Cod, a newspaper writer expressed hope that “the Cape Indians” would handle the problem. John Adams wrote to James Warren on 22 December: “We are anxious for the Safety of the Cargo at Province Town. Are there no Vineyard, Mashpee, Metapoiset Indians, do you think who will take the Care of it, and protect it from Violence”? Which is to say, confiscate and/or destroy it?

The newspaper writer and Adams wrote about the Native peoples who lived on or close to Cape Cod, which makes sense. Likewise, the Narragansetts were a lot closer to Boston than the Mohawks, then located mostly on the upper Hudson River. So why do so many authors after 1774 say that the tea destroyers dressed up like Mohawks?

TOMORROW: The meaning of “Mohawk.”

Saturday, December 17, 2016

“The most early advice of this interesting event”

One of the earliest public accounts of the Boston Tea Party was written on 17 Dec 1773, the day after the event, but not published until it appeared in a New York newspaper on 22 December. Here’s the text from the 27 December Pennsylvania Chronicle:

Yesterd we had a greater meeting of the body than ever. The country coming in from twenty miles around, and every step was taken that was practicable for returning the teas. The moment it was known out of doors, that Mr. [Francis] Rotch could not obtain a pass for his ship, by the Castle, a number of people huzzaed in the street, and in a very little time, every ounce of the teas on board of Capts. [James] Hall, [James] Bruce, and [Hezekiah] Coffin, was immersed in the Bay, without the least damage to private property.

The Spirit of the people on this occasion surprised all parties, who viewed the scene.

We conceived it our duty to accord you the most early advice of this interesting event, by express, which, departing immediately, obliges us to conclude.

By Order of the Committee.

P.S. The other vessel, viz. Capt. [Joseph] Loring, belonging to Messrs. [Richard and Jonathan] Clark, with fifty-eight chests, was, by the act of God, cast on shore, on the back of Cape-Cod.
This letter was clearly written by Boston’s anti-tea activists to their counterparts in New York. The ports to the south had gotten ahead of Boston in ensuring the tea was shipped back to Britain, confiscated, or burned. In Massachusetts, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Customs service had cut off those possibilities. The Boston Whigs were reported that they had caught up.

This letter leaves out a detail that’s crucial to our national image of the Tea Party. It implies that the “number of people [who] huzzaed in the street” were responsible for destroying the tea, but it never states that they were disguised—much less disguised as Indians.

Another early report in the 18 December Providence Gazette was even more explicit about who destroyed the tea:
By a Gentleman from Boston we learn,…on Thursday Evening the Populace assembled, and proceeded to the Long-Wharff, where they threw a great Quantity of the Tea overboard, destroyed what remained, and then dispersed. The Quantity shipped in these two Vessels was about 300 Chests.—This is the best Account we have yet been able to obtain of this very interesting Event.
There were three vessels, and they were at Griffin’s Wharf, so this gentleman’s information wasn’t accurate. But for this discussion the pertinent detail is that he blamed “the Populace” rather than outsiders with paint on their faces.

By Monday, 20 December, when the Boston Gazette was published, the town’s political leaders were making sure to give themselves cover. One page before the account I quoted yesterday, Edes and Gill’s newspaper carried a long description of the event over the signature “An Impartial Observer.” That writer claimed that he had “accidentally arrived at Boston upon a visit to a friend” just before the tea meetings started. That’s almost certainly false. The whole letter lays out how the Boston Whigs wanted people to perceive the event.

Here’s how “An Impartial Observer” described the end of the tea meeting:
Previous to the dissolution, a number of persons, supposed to be the Aboriginal Natives from their complection, approaching near the door of the Assembly, gave the War Whoop, which was answered by a few in the galleries of the house where the assembly was convened; silence was commanded, and a prudent and peaceable deportment again enjoined: The Savages repaired to the ships which entertained the pestilential Teas, and had began their ravage previous to the dissolution of the meeting
This account put on record that the destruction of the tea began before the meeting at Old South Meeting-House ended. That meant everyone inside Old South, including the political organizers visible at the center of the room, had an airtight alibi during the actual property destruction. In addition, this writer insisted that the meeting returned to being “prudent and peaceable” after only a brief disturbance.

This Gazette article called the tea destroyers “Aboriginal Natives” and “Savages.” Likewise, the same day’s Boston Post-Boy declared that they were “a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians),” as I quoted yesterday. Yet that striking detail was not part of the very first reports to other towns.

TOMORROW: Paint and plausible deniability.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Appearance of the Mohawks

This is the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, so I’m going to examine how that event was first reported in the newspapers of 1773 and early 1774.

This is a snatch of the Boston Gazette of 20 Dec 1773 reporting on the destruction of tea in Boston harbor four days earlier. Specifically, this is from Harbottle Dorr’s copy of Edes and Gill’s newspaper, now preserved and digitized at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The passage reads:
The people finding all their efforts to preserve the property of the East India company and return it safely to London, frustrated by the sea consignees, the collector of the customs and the governor of the province, DISSOLVED their meeting.—But, BEHOLD what followed! A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted, in less than four hours, emptied every chest of tea on board the three ships commanded by the captains [James] Hall, [James] Bruce, and [Hezekiah] Coffin, amounting to 342 chests, into the sea!!
The following is a passage from the 22 Jan 1774 London Chronicle displayed by Timothy Hughes’s Rare and Early Newspapers, quoting the Boston (New England) Gazette of 20 December.
The London printers made changes in capitalization and punctuation, but there’s also a significant addition. The phrase “A number of brave & resolute men” was turned into “A number of resolute men (dressed like Mohawks or Indians).”

Where did that phrase come from? One possibility is that it appeared in some copies of the Boston Gazette but not others. However, the parenthetical phrase doesn’t show up in the copy microfilmed for Early American Newspapers or in other American newspapers repeating the story from the Gazette. So that seems unlikely.

Instead, the phrase appears in the edition of Green and Russell’s Boston Post-Boy published on 20 December, the same Monday as the Boston Gazette:
Immediately upon the Dissolution of the Body a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians) of grotesque Appearance, approached the Meeting where the People were assembled, with a most hidious Noise, and proceeded immediately to Griffin’s Wharf, where three Ships lay that contained the East-India Company’s Tea, which they boarded without Ceremony, and immediately proceeded to disburthening of, at which they were so dexterous, that from 7 to 9 o’Clock, they broke open 342 chests and discharged their Contents over board.
So I suspect that the London Chronicle printers had copies of both newspapers in front of them, and transferred a significant phrase from the Post-Boy report into the Gazette’s to give their readers a more complete sense of the event. The result was the international dissemination of the earliest example of calling the tea destroyers “Mohawks.”

TOMORROW: Blaming the “Aboriginal inhabitants” in general.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Two Small Cannon in Lexington

In Chapter 7 of The Road to Concord I described how several towns in Massachusetts moved toward establishing their own small artillery forces in the months leading up to the Revolutionary War. After all, what traditional New England town is complete without artillery?

I included every such town I’d come across, which wasn’t easy. While the book was in proofs, Gary Gregory of the Edes & Gill Print Shop told me how he’d recently moved to Westboro and saw a cannon mentioned in its records. So I quickly confirmed that fact and squeezed it into an endnote.

I don’t claim that The Road to Concord lists every Massachusetts town that looked into buying cannon or training with artillery in the seven months after the “Powder Alarm.” Assembling such a list would require searching every town’s local history and town-meeting records, most unpublished, since there’s no central source for that information. Alas, I didn’t have the time or the grad students to do that work.

I focused on the towns close to Boston, as shown on a map in the book. Gen. Thomas Gage had received intelligence about some of those guns, and a British officer had even seen one at the Watertown bridge in early 1775. I think that adds a new layer to the British expedition to Concord—those regulars were potentially marching into the mouths of cannon.

But that map doesn’t note big guns at one significant location: Lexington. In October author Alexander R. Cain shared his findings about that town’s artillery at his blog, Historical Nerdery:
Some of the guns, mostly iron cannons, were taken from coastal defenses around Boston and sent to Watertown. While there, two of the guns caught the attention of Lexington. Its residents quickly pressed the selectmen to acquire a pair of cannons for the town.

On November 3, 1774, the town selectmen relented and announced the issue would be addressed at the next town meeting. Specifically, “Upon a request of a numbre of Inhabitants to see if the Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.” . . .

At some point after November 28, 1774, it received the two guns from Watertown. “Voted…that the Selectmen receive the two pieces of cannon with their beds [from] the Towne of Watertowne and give receipts for the same on behalf of the Towne.” By late February, 1775, Thomas Robbins of Lexington was already making ammunition cartridges for the guns. On February 27th, the town “Granted an ordere to pay Mr. Tho Robbins 1/9 in full for his trimming the (balls) & providing baggs to put them in.”

Unfortunately, what became of the guns after February 1775 is unknown. Lexington’s town meeting minutes from the Spring of 1775 were stolen years ago.
The records of a 17 October town meeting in Watertown refer to “pieces of Cannon now lodged in the Town,” suggesting that inhabitants hadn’t bought those guns, just found themselves in possession of them. That explains why Watertown offered Lexington two of those cannon the next month. (Yankees don’t give way expensive goods that easily.)

Watertown kept two cannon for itself. And Cambridge had one gun, of unknown origin. Is it simply coincidence that the Charlestown shore battery had contained five cannon in 1770, and all the guns from that battery had vanished early in September 1774? Coming from a battery might explain why the Lexington guns still had “their beds” attached.

Simply possessing cannon wasn’t enough, though. Lexington needed to spend £40 to buy field carriages to make its two guns useful in battle. Towns also had to pay for artillery tools and ammunition like Thomas Robbins’s cartridges, and militiamen had to train to fire those guns safely. That process required time and expense. It looks like none of the towns who had moved to create artillery companies had their cannon ready on 19 Apr 1775. At least, no town deployed artillery against the British army that day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

“You all perhaps have heard the tale of the search”

Yesterday I quoted a Robinson family tradition printed in A Family Story in the late 1800s. It described how Lemuel Robinson smuggled two brass cannon out of Boston past British army sentries and hid them in his Dorchester barn, even foiling a search by British officers.

In assessing whether that story is reliable, I’ll start by saying that there’s no doubt Lemuel Robinson hid brass cannon from Boston at his “Liberty Tree” tavern estate (shown here, courtesy of the Dorchester Atheneum website). In all, there were four brass cannon from Boston’s militia train and two brass mortars, probably brought out by James Brewer. Those weapons were in Robinson’s custody from before 5 January 1775 to shortly after 10 February, when they were quickly moved on to Concord. All that is shown by contemporaneous documents.

But the Robinson family seems to have lost some of those details and filled them in with others. For example, A Family Story speaks only of two brass cannon—meaning the two that were enshrined in the Bunker Hill Monument from 1842 to the 1970s. There’s no mention of the other ordnance, lost during the war.

The book also dates the removal of cannon to after the outbreak of war, when Robinson had sent his wife and children to safety in Stoughton. (Yet it also says “women and children” were in Robinson’s house to see the British officers’ frustrated search.) Sources closer to that time say that Col. Robinson was consumed with army business soon after the war broke out; in 1788 the Rev. William Gordon wrote of him, “For nine days and nights the colonel never shifted his clothes, nor lay down to sleep.”

The story says that Robinson drove a load of vegetables into Boston as part of the smuggling scheme, but that would have been impossible once the war began. The whole point of the siege was that the Continentals were blocking food to the British garrison. Could Robinson have driven in those vegetables instead in December 1774 or January 1775, when the guns came to his farm, and his family misremembered the timing? That’s possible, but the middle of New England’s winter is not the right time for “fresh garden truck.”

Then there’s the question of the British army search. I’ve seen no contemporaneous evidence for such a search in Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders or in the memoirs and letters of British army officers. Late in the winter Gage occasionally sent troops marching out of Boston into the countryside for exercise, and to accustom the population to seeing soldiers, but no officer appears to have mentioned orders to search for artillery along the way.

Locals later recalled a couple of those marches, to Watertown and Jamaica Plain, as unsuccessful searches for cannon. However, in 1775 even Patriots quick to complain about military activity didn’t mention officers intruding on the Robinsons. To be sure, it’s conceivable that resistance leaders decided not to complain too loudly about cannon searches because they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they actually had cannon.

Then there’s the anecdote about the search itself. According to the family tradition, Robinson moved the cannon into his barn through a back door. Then British officers came and threw open the big front doors, saw that opening covered with spiderwebs, and concluded that no one had entered the barn for a long time. That story fits into the long national tradition of sly Yankees fooling the British. But surely a group of British gentlemen would have known that it was unlikely for a farm family to simply stop using their barn, and that barns can have more than one entrance.

Stories of Patriots bringing those cannon out of Boston date from 1823, or more than sixty years before A Family Story appeared. Many of those stories, like the Robinsons’, involved hiding the cannon under manure. In The Road to Concord, I found a family link that lends credence to the oldest of those stories, cited another as a possibility, and dismissed a third.

Having considered the Robinson tradition after the alert from Earl Taylor, I’m not convinced by it. So many of its details seem unreliable, probably added as people in the family passed the tale down to children. After all, in A Family Story a Robinson great-grandchild tells younger relatives, “You all perhaps have heard the tale of the search by the exasperated British officers…” It’s possible that there’s a kernel of truth at the core of this legend, that Lemuel Robinson truly was involved in moving two cannon out of Boston. But all I can say for sure is that he and his family guarded four cannon and two mortars for the Patriot cause during the winter of 1775, and that deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Legend of Lemuel Robinson and Two Brass Cannon

After The Road to Concord was published, Earl Taylor of the Dorchester Historical Society sent me some pages from a book that preserves another family tradition about the Boston train’s stolen cannon.

The book is titled A Family Story, and the author was a great-grandchild of Lemuel Robinson of Dorchester. Which great-grandchild is unclear—there’s no author name on or inside the book. It ends with an 1888 letter, so the University of California cataloguer guessed the book was published around 1889.

The opening page quotes from an 1870 Robinson genealogy by the author’s brother Edward. That quotation matches a passage in William and Anne Robinson of Dorchester, Mass., by Edward Doubleday Harris (1839-1919, possibly shown here—see Leigh McKinnon’s Flickr page for the mystery). That genealogy was published in 1890, so either the author of A Family Story alluded to an earlier edition or that 1870 date is a misprint.

Edward’s book lists his siblings still living in 1890. Given the reticence, I suspect the Family Story author was one of his sisters—which narrows our search down to a mere five candidates.

The oldest Harris sibling, William Thaddeus Harris, had been librarian of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Several other relatives wrote antiquarian and historical books, so the family standards for historical evidence were above average. At the same time, the audience for this book was clearly other members of the extended family, unlikely to be skeptical about tales of ancestral heroism.

So here’s what A Family Story says:
We have found mention in the Provincial Records of the field pieces which Col: Robinson succeeded in taking out of Boston under the very eyes of the sentries. . . . The patriot army needed much these field pieces, the property of the province, but no fire arms nor ammunition were allowed to be taken out of Boston; strict watch was kept that none should be removed.

Col. Robinson donned a carter’s frock and mien, and drove into Boston with a large load of fresh garden truck which the inhabitants would gladly welcome;—later why should he not drive innocently out again, past all the keen-eyed, vigilant sentries[,] his large wagon heaped with a huge load of manure which the town desired to be rid of? (When I look at the portrait of the Colonel, I wonder that his eyes had not betrayed him!) Before many hours passed[,] the field pieces—two brass cannon—from beneath their malodorous cover, were snugly hidden in Colonel Robinson’s barn, northeast of his dwelling house.

You all perhaps have heard the tale of the search by the exasperated British soldiers sent out by the orders of Gen: [Thomas] Gage, when it became known that the field pieces were gone, and suspicion turned upon Col: Robinson; how they came to our ancestor’s house and found only women and children to answer their angry questioning, who could give them no information concerning the missing treasure. After searching the premises, they turned to the barn and swinging open the great [front] doors, were confronted by such a mass of cobwebs across the entrance, that a laugh burst from them all, and they turned horse and rode away—leaving the field pieces for the use of the Continental Army.
The first line about “Provincial Records” produces some skepticism for me. Our unnamed author has clearly done some research about the brass cannon taken from Boston, two of which at that point had been on display in the Bunker Hill Monument for decades. As a result, we’re not getting the unvarnished Robinson family tradition. We’re getting that tradition polished and perhaps trimmed to fit around the enshrined cannon and the author’s other sources.

TOMORROW: Assessing the details.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Key Location in The Road to Concord

The image above comes from this hand-drawn map in the collection of the Library of Congress. I’ve flipped it so the street labels are easier to read; that puts north to the lower right. You can click on the image for a bigger view or follow the link for the whole map.

The library has no information about who created this diagram, but we can deduce its approximate date from the labels on the right side. Moving from the far right, they show the locations of camps of His Majesty’s 4th Regiment (on a hillock), the 47th, and the Marines.

The Marines arrived in Boston harbor on 5 December and remained aboard ship until sometime in January, according to Lt. John Barker’s diary. Barracks were prepared for them in the North End for the winter. On 26 April, they finally camped on the Common. Barker likewise wrote that the 47th was then on the Common and the 4th upon “Whoredom Hill.”

Given those positions and the map’s lack of gun emplacements and fortifications along the Charles River shore, this map seems to date from the spring of 1775, soon after the Revolutionary War began. More British regiments arrived the next month, and the engineers began to fortify the town.

At the center of this image are two parallel lines of squiggles. That’s the Mall, a line of elm trees, along the edge of the Common. On the left side of those trees we can see streets branching off of Newbury Street, part of the main thoroughfare through town now called Washington Street.

At the bottom are Summer and Winter Streets, which still bear those names. Above them are Pond Street and Water/Watch Street. Pond Street has been built over. Other eighteenth-century maps label the Water/Watch as West Street, suggesting this mapmaker wasn’t a local; that street is still called West today. Slanting off to the right above West is “Hog A[lley].”

Where Water/Watch/West Street runs into the mall is a six-sided orthogonal shape, probably a land lot. That was where the South Writing School and the Boston militia train’s new gunhouse shared a fenced yard. Back in September 1774, two of the train’s brass cannon disappeared from that gunhouse. The British military never found out, but those guns lay hidden for two weeks inside that school. By the time this map was drawn, they had been spirited out west as far as Concord and probably Stow, and were headed back to the siege lines.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Road to Concord Leads to the David Library, 14 Dec.

On Wednesday, 14 December, I’ll be speaking about The Road to Concord at the David Library of the American Revolution in Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania.

Our event description:
When British soldiers marched to Concord on April 19, 1775, what were they searching for? As far back as September 1774, royal governor Gen. Thomas Gage and the Massachusetts resistance movement had begun to seize all the cannon they could.

The resulting “arms race” included a massive militia uprising, raids on shore batteries, thefts from armories under redcoat guard, spies and counterspies, and an armed takeover of a harbor fort—all before the traditional start of the Revolutionary War. This lecture explores how Massachusetts’ political conflict with the Crown turned military, and why both sides kept this history secret.
I call this talk “The Guns of the Boston Train.” The event begins at 7:30 P.M., and there will be a book-signing afterward.

I understand that enough people have made reservations that the library has now started a wait-list for seats. I look forward to seeing everyone who can come.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

“We advise you to resign your arms immediately”

I’ve been exploring the turmoil in Great Barrington during the spring of 1776. The trouble surfaced when the town elected officers for its militia companies.

As described by a local Patriot leader named Mark Hopkins, a group of Anglicans who had never participated in the Revolutionary actions voted as a bloc and narrowly elected some officers who were suspected Loyalists, lukewarm Patriots, or simple embarrassments.

While some men in the town wanted new elections, others felt that now that they had chosen officers under the prescribed methods it wouldn’t be right to change things.

In addition, Hopkins told the Massachusetts Council, men from the remote part of town called the Hoplands disliked having been shunted into neighboring Tyringham’s militia company.

Over the next two years, the Massachusetts legislature and local politicians took a number of steps that forced solutions to that situation. First, the legislature decided Berkshire County should organize three militia regiments instead of two, prompting a reshuffle of companies and officers. By July the once-court-martialed Peter Ingersoll was a militia captain in the new third Berkshire County regiment.

Second, in February 1776 the General Court had passed a resolve asking every town to elect a unified “Committee of Correspondence, Inspection, and Safety,” empowered “to Inspect whether there are any Inhabitants of or Residents in their respective Towns who violate the Association of the Continental Congress.” The Continental Association had started out in 1774 as yet another non-importation agreement, but by this point it was functioning as a loyalty oath. Hopkins thus became head of Great Barrington’s Committee with a mandate to root out Loyalists.

On 9 July 1776, the Great Barrington Committee served notice to thirty-three men who had “refused to subscribe” to the Association. Hopkins and his colleagues told them:
The People of this Town are very uneasy that you have not yet Resigned your arms, and we find they are determined to take your arms in their own way unless you resign them of your own accord. In order to prevent further confusion and mischief we advise you to resign your arms immediately to Sergeant Joshua Root who the committee have desired to receive & take the charge of the same, and we have desired him to give you Notice of this our advice.
Of those thirty-three men, at least nineteen were listed as regular worshippers in the Church of England the year before. The men asked to surrender their guns also included that church’s minister, the Rev. Gideon Bostwick, and the owner of the tavern where its members hung out, Timothy Younglove.

By October, Committee member William Whiting certified that Root had collected one gun from fourteen of those men, particularly in the Van Deusen and Burghardt families. Younglove went from being elected a militia officer at the beginning of the year to being disarmed. Furthermore, town officials gave four of those muskets to other men who were going off to military service.

According to local historian Charles G. Taylor, the town also confiscated “‘a cutlash without a scabbard’ from Asa Brown, who had renounced toryism a few months previous, but found the articles of Association too stringent for his compulsory patriotism.”

As for the dissatisfied Hoplanders, the Massachusetts government let them break off from Great Barrington and form a new town in 1777. They chose, perhaps too quickly, to have the town named after Gen. Charles Lee. Its first meeting-house, a traditional Congregationalist building put up in 1780, appears above.

Hopkins didn’t see the end of that process. He left to join the Continental forces in New York, fell ill, and died at White Plains on 26 Oct 1776, two days before the battle.