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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Monday, March 02, 2020

Five Ways of Looking at a Brawl

Here are five men’s perspectives on what happened outside John Gray’s ropewalk in central Boston on Friday, 2 Mar 1770, 250 years ago today.

Samuel Bostwick, ropemaker:
between 10 and 11 o’clock in the forenoon, three soldiers of the 29th regiment, came up Mr. Gray’s ropewalk, and William Green, one of the hands, spoke to one of them, saying, Soldier, will you work?

The soldier replied, Yes.

Green said, then go and clean my s--t-house.

The soldier swore by the Holy Ghost that he would have recompence, and tarried a good while swearing at Green, who took no further notice of him, and then went off…
Nicholas Feriter, ropemaker:
about half after 11 o’clock, A.M. a soldier of the 29th regiment came to Mr. John Gray’s ropewalks, and looking into one of the windows said, By God I’ll have satisfaction! with many other oaths; at the last he said he was not afraid of any one in the ropewalks.

I stept out of the window and speedily knock’d up his heels. On falling his coat flew open, and a naked sword appeared, which one John Willson following me out took from him, and bro’t into the ropewalks.
Pvt. Patrick Walker, 29th Regiment:
Deponant having Occasion to go by the Ropewalkes in Boston, he was assaulted, knocked Down, trod under feet, Cut in several places, and Very much bruised, Without any Provocation Given, by about twelve of the Inhabitants of Boston, (supposed Rope makers) and Left in Danger of his Life
Pvt. Walker had to sign his deposition with a mark.

Ropemaker Feriter, continued:
The soldier then went to Green’s barrack, and in about twenty minutes return’d with 8 or 9 more soldiers armed with clubs, and began as I was told with three or four men in Mr. Gray’s warehouse, asking them why they had abused the soldier aforesaid? These men in the warehouse passed the word down the walk for the hands to come up, which they did, and soon beat them off.
Drummer Thomas Walker, 29th Regiment:
between the Hours of Twelve & two o’Clock in the Day He was Going to His Barracks, that he met Pattrick Walker Soldier in Sd. Regiment in the Street cut & bleeding Very much, that he Asked Sd. Walker Who had used him So,

that he told him that he was Served in that manner by the Rope Makers, that he then asked him What was their Reason for so doing, upon which he informed Him that as he Went for a Buckett of Water to a Yard Adjacent to the Rope Walk, he was asked by one of the Rope Makers if he Would Work, he reply’d he Would, asking him What he was to Work at, to Whom the Rope maker reply’d to Empty his Necessary House,

To Which Sd. Walker reply’d, that if he had no other Work, he might Empty it himself, as he thought it beneath a Soldier, to be Guilty of so Scandalous & Servile as Office upon which they argued for Some time, but at Length fell to blows Upon Which the Rope Makers turned out and Cut him most Desperatly,

upon his Information That he [Drummer Walker] & and one or two More Went down to know the truth how it happened,…
Thomas Walker signed his own deposition, which is striking since the drummers of the 29th were black men, originally purchased as enslaved teenagers.

John Hill, justice of the peace:
I was at a house the corner of a passage way leading from Atkinson’s street to Mr. John Gray’s rope-walks, near Green’s barracks so called, when I saw eight or ten soldiers pass the window with clubs. I immediately got up and went to the door, and found them returning from the rope-walks to the barracks; whence they again very speedily re-appeared, now increased to the number of thirty or forty, armed with clubs and other weapons.

In this latter company was a tall negro drummer, to whom I called, you black rascal, what have you to do with white people’s quarrels?

He answered, I suppose I may look on, and went forward.
Hill was sixty-nine years old. He would soon one of the magistrates active in collecting testimony, including his own, about the shooting on King Street.

Ropemaker Feriter, continued:
In a few minutes the soldiers appeared again at the same place, reinforced to the number of 30 or 40, armed with clubs and cutlasses, and headed by a tall negro drummer with a cutlass chained to his body, with which at first rencounter I received a cut on the head, but being immediately supported by nine or ten more of the rope-makers, armed with their wouldring sticks, we again beat them off.
Peter Slater, then a nine-year-old apprentice at the ropewalk, much later recalled fetching those hickory sticks for his older colleagues to fight with.

Justice Hill, continued:
I went out directly and commanded the peace, telling them I was in commission [i.e., was a magistrate]; but they not regarding me, knocked down a rope-maker in my presence, and two or three of them beating him with clubs, I endeavoured to relieve him; but on approaching the fellows who were mauling him, one of them with a great club struck at me with such violence, that had I not happily avoided it might have been fatal to me.

The party last mentioned rushed in towards the rope-walks, and attacked the rope-makers nigh the tar-kettle, but were soon beat off, drove out of the passage-way by which they entered, and were followed by the rope-makers, whom I persuaded to go back, and they readily obeyed.
Ropemaker Bostwick, continued:
a party of thirty or forty soldiers, headed by a tall negro drummer,…challenged the ropemakers to come out. All hands then present, being about 13 or 14, turn’d out and beat them off, considerably bruised.
Drummer Walker, continued:
that he no Sooner Entered the Rope Walk, then they Rope Makers ordered them to turn back, which they Did, But had not Gone far when they Called him Sd. Thomas Walker back, Saying that they Wanted to Speak to him, that he turned back When Numbers of them Jumped out of the Windows in the Walk, with Clubs in their hands asking What he wanted

to Which the Soldier that was Cut by them, reply’d that he wanted to know in what Shape he had offended them that they should use him so inhumanly as they had done

they Made no Answer but fell upon me and the two that Was with me, most Outragiously in Which time they Cut me in three places in the Head

he remained there as long as I was able but Growing weak with the Great Effusion of blood Which abundantly Issued from his Wounds that it was with Some Difficulty he could reach the Barrack

That the Next Morning as he was Carrying to the Hospital in the Machine for the Conveniency of Removing the Sick, He heard them in a Deriding & Scoffing manner ask the Men that bore him Were they Going to Bury their Dead.
An off-hand, perhaps spur-of-the-moment insult thus grew into a brawl involving dozens of men.

TOMORROW: Drummer Walker’s war.

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