J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Riot against the Neck Guard

I have still more to share about the Otis-Robinson brawl, but sestercentennial anniversaries are catching up, so I’ll have to get back to that story. That fight was just the start of an uptick of violence in the fall of 1769.

The next confrontation started on the night of 23 October, when a housewright and Whig activist named Robert Pierpont (also spelled “Peirpoint”) went to the British army guardhouse on Boston Neck. Pierpont owned land nearby, and he had already complained about soldiers stealing his firewood.

Under the Quartering Act of 1765, when the British government stationed soldiers in a town, the local government was supposed to supply housing and firewood. Boston had already balked at the housing back in 1768, and I don’t doubt they resisted supplying firewood as well. As the nights grew cooler, soldiers might not have worried about the such legalities.

The officers of the Neck guard sent Peirpoint away. Sgt. James Hickman and four men of the 14th Regiment later testified that the local man warned “he would go home where he had a brace of Pistols, would Load them and Fire at the first Soldier that came in his way belonging to the Guard.”

The next morning, a little before 10:00 A.M., a constable came to the guardhouse and asked for the officer in charge, Ens. John Ness. He brought a warrant from justice of the peace Richard Dana for “Stealing wood, assaulting, and knocking down one Robt Peirpoint,” in the ensign’s words.

Ens. Ness refused to leave his post until his shift was done. In other words, he placed the authority of the army over the authority of the local legal system. Instead, the young officer promised to obey the summons after he went off duty. The constable was satisfied with that. And really he didn’t have the force to make an army officer protected by armed soldiers do anything.

But there was force in numbers. Ness recalled: “Some minutes after, Peirpoint with a Number of People, came to the Front of the Guard room abusing, and pressing in upon the Centinels.” Ness assembled his whole guard with their bayonets fixed. For fifteen minutes there was a stand-off, during which “the Mob increased, keeping a little distance from us, throwing dirt, and Giveing a great deal of abuse.”

Then another squad of soldiers arrived to take over the post on the Neck. Ness formed his troops into lines to march them back to their barracks. The crowd, seeing no sign of the officer obeying the legal summons, grew angry. They started “Throwing Stones” at the soldiers. One man was hit “in the Face which made the Blood flow from his mouth and nose,” comrades recalled.

Ens. Ness declared:
In forming the Guard again, which by the Crowding in of the People had been divided, a Firelock, which had been loaded unknown to me went off, on hearing the report I turned about to the Guard, and gave positive orders for no Soldier to Load or Strike any of the Mob.
But that shot had hit the doorway of a forge where a young blacksmith named Obadiah Whiston was working. This was, as far as I can tell, the first gunshot in Boston’s Revolutionary history.

Enraged, Whiston ran after the squad to attack the soldier who had fired, Pvt. William Fowler. Ness said the blacksmith caught up opposite “the Officers Barracks of the 14th Regiment,” coming up on the right side of the troops. Fowler said Whiston “Struck him with a piece of a brick, which Cutt his head in a desperate manner, and for some time deprived him of his Sences.”

Whiston charged up a second time. Sgt. Hickman testified that he “placed the Butt end of my Halbred before him to hinder him from passing, but without striking or doing the said Whiston the least Violence.” Ens. Ness kept his soldiers moving, Fowler now staggering. He got the men “into the Barrack yard” and reported to the regimental commander, Col. William Dalrymple. Despite the crowd throwing rocks, despite Fowler’s musket firing, despite Whiston’s counterattacks, no one had been killed.

The conflict then moved to the courts. Ens. Ness reported to Justice Dana to answer Pierpont’s warrant. Meanwhile, Whiston hurried to a magistrate to swear out a complaint against Sgt. Hickman for assaulting him. The next day, Pvt. Fowler tried to start an action against Whiston, and Ness received a second summons, issued by Dana, John Ruddock, and Samuel Pemberton, for having his men fire on the people.

The proceedings that followed over the next few days showed how biased those Whig magistrates were against the soldiers. They tried to put off Fowler’s complaint. They ignored Pierpont shaking his fist and threatening Ness during the proceedings. They refused to hear testimony from soldiers. They declined to accept bail from a British officer and a Customs solicitor. When Sgt. Hickman was finally released, the crowd yelled, “Bail him with a Rope!” Soldiers said the hatter Thomas Handysyd Peck was particularly abusive. After officers complained about that behavior, Justice Dana declared “that he was deaf and could not hear…any abuse.

Eventually all those court cases fizzled out. But the Neck guard riot raised tensions in Boston in late October 1769, 250 years ago.

(The map above shows the British fortifications on the Neck during the siege of 1775-76. Back in 1769, there was just a gate and a guardhouse. And a pile of firewood.)


Don Carleton said...

I don't think the Boston Whig crowd comes off all that well in this one.

Although to be honest, from my vantage point, violent crowd actions driven in part by inflammatory, conspiratorial biased journalism is looking a lot less "quaint" these days...

J. L. Bell said...

I agree, but I think the Whig magistrates come off as worse. Of course, both crowds and magistrates probably argued that they were merely helping to enforce the local law against unwanted, defiant outsiders.

The soldier firing his musket was a significant increase in the lethality of political violence in Boston, though that was most likely accidental. Even though this confrontation devolved quickly into farce in the courts, it presaged what would come that winter.