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, June 03, 2020

The Knowles Riot and the Boston Militia

In November 1747, the Royal Navy under Admiral Charles Knowles (c. 1704-1777, shown here) impressed some men in Boston. There was a war on—the War of Jenkins’ Ear or King George’s War—and the navy needed sailors to fight.

Impressment was widely unpopular in Massachusetts, though. Not only did sailors who hadn’t joined the Royal Navy prefer to keep it that way, but sea captains and merchants liked having experienced seamen to sail their ships. People felt there were laws or at least handshake agreements not to impress inhabitants of North America.

What’s more, Knowles’s impressment gangs grabbed some young men who weren’t even sailors, at least not full-time; they were carpenters living in Boston. On top of all that, there was still a man locked up in the Suffolk County jail for killing two locals in a fight over impressment in 1745.

The result was a huge riot, probably the worst popular unrest in Boston between the overthrow of Gov. Edmund Andros in 1692 and the Stamp Act protests of 1765. Yet this riot wasn’t simply destructive—the crowd had particular goals in mind.

As the merchant Samuel P. Savage wrote, this “Mob, or rather a body of Men arose, I believe with no other Motive, than barely to rescue if possible their Captivated Fr[ien]ds.” Savage’s substitution of a “body of Men” for “Mob” showed how he felt sympathy for their goals.

The crowd broke all the windows in the ground floor of the Town House, dragged a barge they thought belonged to the navy onto Boston Common and burned it, and detained a navy officer and local officials who had helped with the impressment.

Gov. William Shirley had opposed the impressment but still demanded peaceful deference to the Crown. He was able to hold off the crowd on 17 November with the help of other officials, including Thomas Hutchinson, then speaker of the Massachusetts house. But the people weren’t satisfied as long as the impressed men were still in naval custody. Crowds massed around the Town House and the Province House, Shirley’s official residence.

To pacify Boston, Shirley tried to call out the militia. As royal governor he was the legal commander-in-chief of that force. Years later Hutchinson wrote in his History of Massachusetts Bay:
The next day the governor ordered that, the military officers of Boston should cause their companies to be mustered and to appear in arms, and that a military watch should be kept the succeeding night, but the drummers were interrupted and the militia refused to appear. The governor did not think it for his honour to remain in town another night and privately withdrew to the castle.
Shirley had no other large law-enforcement force to call on—just a sheriff and a few deputies, plus some constables and watchmen who really answered to the town of Boston. Some of those officials were already intimidated by or sympathetic to the crowd. But the biggest problem for the governor was that Boston’s militia regiment consisted of the same men who were already marching in the streets, trying to help their neighbors.

Of course, the makeup of the militia wasn’t a problem for the people of Massachusetts when they were so united. Without a standing army or other armed force carrying out the orders of the royal authorities, they could stand up for their rights.

TOMORROW: The return of the militia.

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