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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Thursday, March 19, 2020

When Boston Approved the Short Narrative

On 19 Mar 1770, 250 years ago today, Bostonians gathered for another session of the town meeting they had begun a week before.

Having finished electing men to the municipal offices, the people were now concentrating on how to respond to the Boston Massacre.

There were reports that some of the Superior Court judges were sick, which could delay the trials of Ebenezer Richardson, George Wilmot, Capt. Thomas Preston, and the soldiers of the 29th Regiment for murder. So the town appointed Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and John Barrett as a committee to ask Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Council to approve “special Justices” to ensure those trials could go forward.

Then James Bowdoin, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton “laid before the Town a Draft” of their report on “the late horred Massacre.” This was the first version of what was eventually published as A Short Narrative The town meeting “Voted unanimously, that the same be accepted, and that the draft be recommitted for a further Revision,” which seems contradictory. Was the report complete and approved, or still in the works?

I think the Short Narrative was significantly revised after that approval vote. On 19 March, the French boy Charles Bourgate was in jail, his story discredited. But the published version of the report put a lot of weight on those allegations, citing depositions taken after the vote.

Indeed, the magistrates collecting testimony wrote about sessions on 16, 17, and 19 March, and they dated their report on that process on 22 March. But the final report included Charles Bourgate’s testimony on 23 March, plus (for fairness) responses from Customs employees dated the next day. Nonetheless, the vote on 19 March was Boston’s official approval.

Even as Bowdoin, Warren, and Pemberton were sent off to revise, the meeting turned to how to send it to supporters in England. Someone made a motion “that a Fishing Schooner might be hired by the Town as a Packet to carry home their Dispatches.” The town appointed sea captain John Bradford and merchants William Molineux and John Barrett to hire “a suitable Vessel immediately upon the best terms they can.”

Capt. Samuel Dashwood then stood up and “offered himself in Town Meeting, to go Home charged with the Delivery of such Dispatches as were going by the Packet.” The meeting accepted Dashwood’s offer and agreed to defray his expenses.

All that seemingly settled, the meeting turned to bigger issues, such as encouraging people not to buy tea or patronize shopkeepers who were still defying the non-importation agreement. The town once again expanded its list of importers to shun, this time adding Israel Williams of Hatfield and Henry Barnes of Marlborough.

Last came the biggest issues of all—finding
some effectual Methods to prevent unlicensed Strangers and other Persons from entertaining and supplying the Youth and Servants of the Town with spirituous Liquors; for the breaking up of bad Houses; and removal of any disorderly Intruders to the Places from whence they came; and for the further discountenancing of Vice, and promoting a Reformation of Manners
The meeting dealt with that item by, of course, appointing a committee.

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