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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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

“Many were the disputes” with Duncan Ingraham

As part of my ongoing investigation of the cannon in Concord in April 1775, I’ve been gathering information about the merchant Duncan Ingraham, a recent arrival in the town.

Ingraham had made his fortune in business in Boston, then married the widow Mary Merrick and moved into her house in Concord. (A detail of her gravestone appears here.)

Back in Boston, Ingraham had left four iron cannon in his stable. His sold them to the aggressive Patriot William Molineux in early October 1774 without Ingraham’s approval. A few months later, two of those guns were brought out to Concord to be mounted on carriages.

By that time, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson had made Ingraham a justice of the peace for Middlesex County. His neighbors suspected him of supporting the Crown. Indeed, as related by George M. Brooks in Memoirs of Members of the Social Circle in Concord (1888), Ingraham’s stepson Tilly Merrick (1755-1836) recalled arguing over politics: “many were the disputes on the issues of the day with his Tory father-in-law [i.e., stepfather].”

Merrick even described Ingraham welcoming British army officers into his wife’s home on the fateful 19th of April in 1775. The Ingraham/Merrick family lived at the corner of what became Main and Sudbury Streets, with a house, store, warehouse, and other outbuildings.

According to Merrick, when the British column arrived in Concord on 19 April, Maj. John Pitcairn called on Ingraham, leading to this anecdote:
During his call, the major went out of the back door of the house, and seeing one of Mr. Ingraham’s negroes standing by the large pear-tree in the rear of the house, with his hands behind him, commenced on him, as he did on the rebels at Lexington Common a few hours previously, by pointing a pistol at his head, and, in a loud tone of voice, ordering him to give up his arms; but as the unfortunate bondsman replied to order by holding up both his hands over his head, and saying, “Dem is all the arms I have, massa,” the serious consequence of the Lexington order was not repeated in Mrs. Ingraham’s back yard.

At this moment the report of the firing at the North Bridge was heard, and the major precipitately left, having more important business to attend to the remainder of the day than making social calls and bullying half-scared negroes.
For nineteenth-century audiences, this was mainly an entertaining story that bridged two genres: arrogant British officer thwarted and black slave too stupid (or too sly?) to answer a question correctly. Quite early Pitcairn became the subject of stories about British officers getting their comeuppance, even when the evidence points to other men. Need this anecdote have much basis in fact?

Examined against the background of the secret activities in Concord that spring, Pitcairn’s questioning might take on more significance. James Barrett was collecting cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Barrett’s family and some of his Concord neighbors were helping in that effort.

At the same time, someone in Concord was sending Gen. Thomas Gage secret notes detailing where those supplies were being hidden around the town. In March 1775 Gage dispatched two army officers in disguise, Capt. William Brown and Ens. Henry DeBerniere, to Concord to confirm that information. The intelligence that Gage gathered guided his orders to Lt. Col. Francis Smith and Maj. Pitcairn about searching the town.

Because of Ingraham’s political leaning, personal interest in provincial artillery pieces, and genteel standing (Gage’s first intelligence reports from Concord arrived in French), he’s a leading suspect to be the Concord spy.

It might make sense, therefore, for Pitcairn to visit Ingraham on arriving in Concord and collect up-to-the-minute information on where his neighbors were holding the provincial weapons.

Or does it? Going to Ingraham’s house while the whole town was watching would make the neighbors even more suspicious about the squire than they already were. And if Ingraham was ready to share information, why interrogate his human property at pistol point?

I can concoct scenarios in which this story makes perfect sense. For example, imagine the enslaved man had grown up in the household of Mary Ingraham and was plugged into the Concord gossip network. He might have gleaned information about where folks were hiding weapons and talked about that at home, and his new master Ingraham might have collected all that intelligence and sent it to Gage. When the redcoats arrived, Pitcairn sought out Ingraham for the latest, and he answered, “You’ll have to ask my man.”

Conversely, I can also imagine a scenario in which Tilly Merrick simply made up this story to entertain people in Concord in the early 1800s. Or one in which he took an actual visit to his parents’ house by British army officers and tacked on a fictional encounter between Pitcairn and the enslaved man for the sake of a laugh.

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