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, April 13, 2020

Did Josiah Waters Obtain the News of the British March?

Some accounts of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 credit Josiah Waters of Boston with helping to provide intelligence about the British army’s plans to Dr. Joseph Warren. How did Waters enter the historical picture?

Waters’s role seems to have been first mentioned in print in 1853, when the New England Historical and Genealogical Register published an article titled “Revolutionary Incidents,” based on the recollections of Joseph Curtis, then 86 years old.

Curtis spoke of “Col. Josiah Waters of Boston, a staunch whig, and who afterwards acted as engineer in directing the building of the forts of Roxbury.” The article summed up the story this way:
The Americans obtained this news, through an individual by the name of Jasper, an Englishman, a gunsmith by trade, whose shop was in Hatter’s Square; he worked for the British, but was friendly to the rebels; a sergeant major quartered in his family and made a confidant of him, telling him all their plans. Jasper repeated the same to Col. Waters, who made it known to the Committee of Safety. The Colonel has often told this story, years after, to his then young friend, Joseph Curtis, who is still living.
There were two men named Josiah Waters in pre-Revolutionary Boston, father and son. The father was born in 1721, became a militia captain by 1770, and died in 1784.

Josiah Waters, Jr., was born to that man and his wife Abigail in 1747. After the war he became active in the Massachusetts militia, rising to the rank of colonel and collecting “many facts, for a history,” before dying in 1805. So when Joseph Curtis referred to “The Colonel,” he meant the younger man. Curtis was in his thirties when Col. Waters died, so he had plenty of time to hear that veteran’s stories.

Both father and son were involved in building forts in Roxbury early in the siege of Boston. Gen. William Heath’s memoir mentioned “Capt. Josiah Waters of Boston” as an impromptu engineer, and in a 21 October 1775 letter John Adams referred to “young Josiah Waters” as another. In 1776 the Connecticut legislature appointed Josiah Waters as engineer for Fort Trumbull in New London with Josiah Waters, Jr., as his assistant. (However, Gen. John Thomas wrote that neither Waters had “great Understanding” of either fortifications or gunnery “any further than Executing or overseeing works, when Trased out.”)

I mentioned Abigail Waters, Josiah, Sr.’s wife (and Josiah, Jr.’s mother). She was a daughter of Deacon Thomas Dawes and thus an aunt of William Dawes, Jr. In 1773, as discussed here, Capt. Waters and Adjutant Dawes were both asking the Boston selectmen if they could use Faneuil Hall for militia training.

The fact that Josiah Waters, Jr., and William Dawes, Jr., were first cousins becomes significant in looking at another of the details Joseph Curtis recounted about the start of the war:
The intelligence, that the British intended to go out to Lexington, was conveyed over Boston Neck to Roxbury by Ebenezer Dorr, of Boston, a leather dresser, by trade, who was mounted on a slow jogging horse, with saddle bags behind him, and a large flapped hat upon his head, to resemble a countryman on a journey. Col. Josiah Waters…followed on foot, on the sidewalk at a short distance from him, until he saw him safely past all the sentinels.
There was a Roxbury farmer named Ebenezer Dorr, but no other source connects him to the 18 April alarm. Many sources, some contemporaneous, credit William Dawes, and Curtis probably just muddled that name. (After all, Yankees would drop the R in “Dorr.”) But it’s reasonable that Dawes’s cousin might have watched to make sure he got out of town safely.

Was Waters also a conduit of crucial information about the British march for Dr. Joseph Warren? There are multiple stories of Bostonians reporting on British military activity, and we know Warren didn’t rely on a single source. Waters may well have supplied helpful intelligence, but he wasn’t the only Bostonian to do so.

TOMORROW: What about this gunsmith named Jasper?

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