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, February 28, 2021

A Long Search for Hercules Posey

At Zagat, the chef and culinary historian Ramin Ganeshram shared the story of her research into Hercules Posey, head cook at Mount Vernon and the Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia until he freed himself from slavery.

In this article, Ganeshram describes the roots of her quest in childhood. Like me, during the Bicentennial she and her family toured the seat of the Continental Congress and other Revolutionary sites, but with a different perspective:

In 1976, I visited Philadelphia and Washington’s Mount Vernon to celebrate the American Bicentennial with my Trinidadian father. As young as I was, I could sense my father was moved as we stood on a long line to see the Liberty Bell. We didn’t know it, but as we waited, we stood on the buried remains of the President’s House where Hercules had lived.

No one talked about the enslaved Africans in the city of independence. It would be decades before the President’s House site was excavated as an open-air exhibit honoring them. It was a week later while visiting George Washington’s Virginia home that I began to viscerally sense this omission, although I was too young to name it. Instead, I sensed it in how my father’s mood changed, how he asked the tour guides about the enslaved people of the house and the field, and how his questions were deflected with twittering Southern charm. Later he brooded a long time at the slave quarters and the kitchen—Hercules’ kitchen. When I asked what was wrong, he just shook his head darkly. For years after, even the mention of Mount Vernon gave me a shifting sense of unease.
Later learning about Posey, Ganeshram started gathering more facts about him. This project took her through a picture book, cancelled at the last moment; a historical novel; experts’ realization that the painting said for decades to be Posey’s portrait was in fact nothing of the kind; and finally her discovery of records of the man in nineteenth-century New York. (In 2019 I recounted her findings and added a data point.)

Ganeshram ends her essay at another location linked to Posey:
When he died of tuberculosis on May 15, 1812, at age 65, Hercules was buried at the 2nd African Burial Ground in Chrystie Street. The cemetery was overflowing its boundaries by the time of Hercules’ death. He, along with others, was likely buried under what is now pavement and roadway. When the cemetery was disinterred in the 19th century and moved to Cypress Hills in Brooklyn, some were left behind. I believe Hercules was among them.

When I first visited the site in 2019, I looked around Chrystie Street with fresh eyes, seeking clues about Hercules. Seeing none, I spoke to him in my mind as I often do, for we have come a long way together. I brooded as I walked. If only I had a sign that I was on the right track. Stopping for a light at a cross-street, I looked at the curb ahead of me and saw a small white van with Hercules Dry Cleaning emblazoned on its side. I pressed on.

The former burial ground is now a private lot with an apartment building. At the southern end of Chrystie street hulks the Manhattan Bridge. Across the street is a public park where I have been encouraging New York City’s parks department to place a commemorative plaque for the Burial Ground, the once-thriving Free Black community, and for Hercules Posey—who was America’s first celebrity chef and so much more.
This post from the New York Cemetery Project has maps showing where the city’s Second African Burying Ground lay.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Studying America’s Earliest Jewish Communities

The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society is offering an online course on “Freedoms and Challenges: America’s Earliest Jewish Communities, 1650–1840” starting on 2 March.

The course description says:
American Jewish history begins over 100 years before the United States was founded, and the experiences of the earliest Jews lay out the foundational themes of America itself. In this four-part course we will explore the writings, architecture, ideas, and daily lives of American’s earliest Jewish individuals and communities—lives that were vigorous, variegated, and experimental.

Issues they faced still concern us today: desires of individuals vs. communities; the relationships of different communities to one another; how experiences differ by generation, geography, and gender; and the overall strategies, choices, and responses we make in creating and securing our identities in a nation that does not fully define them for us.
The teacher is Ellen Smith, Professor Emerita at Brandeis University. In September 2020 she retired as Director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, having taught in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Heller School for Social Management. Trained as a professional historian and a museum curator, Smith has produced over three dozen books, articles, and exhibitions on American Jewish history. She is the co-author and editor, with Jonathan D. Sarna, of The Jews of Boston and was the chief consultant to the Emmy award-winning WGBH television show of the same name. Prof. Smith is a past Curator of the American Jewish Historical Society, and was the Chief Curator in the planning stage of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

There are four classes scheduled, all at 4:00 to 5:30 P.M. on Tuesdays:
  • 2 March: Accidents and Opportunities
  • 9 March: Promise or Peril?
  • 16 March: American and Jewish Revolutions
  • 23 March: Beyond the Northeast
Participants will continue to have access to course materials until 30 June. The cost for this class is $85. People can register here.

The photo above shows the gravestone of Judah Monis. Its first part reads:
Here lies buried the remains of RABBI
instructer at HARVARD College in
Cambridge in which office he continued 40
years. He was by Birth and Religion a Jew but
embrac’d the Christian faith & was publickly
baptiz’d at Cambridge, AD 1722 and
departed this life April 25, 1764 Aged
81 years 2 months and 21 days.
After that are quotations from five Bible verses, three from the Hebrew Bible and two from the New Testament.

Monis was the most prominent man of Jewish ancestry in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, especially since there was practically no competition. Unlike Newport, Rhode Island, colonial Boston didn’t have enough Jewish people to form a community.

Monis was born in Italy in a family that had converted to Christianity under pressure, but he studied at Jewish academies there and in the Netherlands. He arrived in New York in 1715. Five years later, Monis came to Harvard College, earning an M.A. degree by writing a Hebrew grammar. The college asked him to teach Hebrew but required that he adopt Congregationalism. Monis’s conversion was controversial for both Jews and Christians in America, and he never became a professor, only an instructor connected to the college. Nonetheless, he was respected as the expert on his topic for decades. In his final years Monis lived with relatives in Northboro, where he was buried.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Investigating Slaves at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House

Last month the Cambridge Historical Society issued a report on the history of slavery at its headquarters, called the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House.

In particular, the society wanted to collect information about any enslaved people living in that farmhouse along the street between Cambridge and Watertown.

Among the “Tory Row” mansions, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House is the oldest, built in 1684 and then remodeled inelegantly to look more like its newer Georgian neighbors. It in fact predates the arrival of the Vassalls family, who brought Caribbean slave-labor wealth to the neighborhood.

The elder John Vassall (1713-1747) married Elizabeth Phips (1716-1739), a daughter of Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips. Another daughter, Rebecca Phips, married Joseph Lee in 1755. The society’s report continues the story:
Three years after the marriage the couple bought the house to live among several of her socially prominent and wealthy relatives who resided on [what is now] Brattle Street.

Lee was thought to be a gentleman, respected by his peers, honorable, honest, and a good friend. He was a founder of the Loyalist Christ Church, Cambridge, gave parties for his neighbors and was an avid gardener on his extensive farm with its many outbuildings. About his outlook on slavery we have a glimpse from a letter a friend wrote to him from St. Johns, probably from a slave-worked plantation: “I remember an opinion you once sported – that Negros seems to be intended for Slaves, from their rank in the Scale of being – I combatted that Opinion then, but I adopt it now. I believe the Maker of all never intended Indians, Negroes or Monkeys, for Civilization.”

Lee was chosen…a special justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1764, a regular justice in 1769 and rose to be a special justice of the Superior Court of Judicature. He was elected to the General Court, or legislature, in 1764.

In 1774 Lee accepted a royal appointment to the much-hated Mandamus Council, a measure taken as one of the Intolerable Acts, which replaced a legislative and executive body elected by Massachusetts Bay Colony citizens. In response, a mob of Cambridge citizens rose against Lee and intended to invade his house, but relented after being offered liquor at a neighbor’s house if they did not. [This was the “Powder Alarm.”] Lee resigned from the Mandamus Council and fled to British-controlled Boston. Perhaps due to his resigning from the Mandamus Council, his house was neither seized nor occupied by the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence, as were others of the neighborhood’s Loyalists. When the British retreated from Cambridge in 1776, Lee returned to his Brattle Street house with its pleasant gardens and view of the Charles River.

Upon Judge Lee’s death in 1802, he left an annuity to Caesar, an enslaved man whom he inherited from his father. Lee also appears to have owned a man named Mark Lee, also known as Mark Lewis, who may have been freed when slavery was abolished in 1783. Mark married Juno and was able to regularly acquire, sell, and rent land. He purchased a house and farmed one-quarter of an acre near Sparks Street in 1786 on the top of the hill that distinguishes the street. Making three more land purchases by 1792, the couple sold nine acres to local landowner Andrew Craigie in 1792 and moved to a farm Judge Lee owned in Sherborn, Massachusetts. In 1798, the couple returned to Cambridge and were taxed for a house, barn, and a small amount of tillage: the following year they rented twenty-nine acres of mowing, tillage, and pasture from Craigie. Lewis continued to farm this Cambridge land until his death in 1808.
The society notes that the records of people like Caesar, Mark Lee/Lewis, and Juno Lewis are frustratingly sparse and sometimes contradictory. But they’re there.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Thorson on “Stone Walls on Minute Man,” 27 Feb.

On Saturday, 27 February, the Friends of Minute Man National Park will host its free Winter Lecture, this time beamed through the walls of our own homes.

This year Prof. Robert Thorson will speak about “The Stone Walls of Minute Man National Park.” Those walls are of course an icon of New England’s agricultural past.

After the battle of Lexington and Concord, many British officers and officials commented on the provincial militiamen using stone walls for cover. Historian and Member of Parliament Edward Gibbon, for instance, wrote: “Our troops during the march and retreat were chiefly harassed by flying parties from behind the stone walls along the road and by many shots from the windows as they passed through the villages.”

James T. Austin’s 1828 biography of Elbridge Gerry may be the earliest publication of Benjamin Franklin’s supposed response to people in London mentioning that detail as evidence of American cowardice: “I beg to enquire, if these same walls had not two sides to them?”

Whether or not that’s true, the Continental Congress delegate Charles Carroll credited Franklin with a parodic song published in the 27 Nov 1775 Boston Gazette called “The King’s Own Regulars.” Written in the voice of the redcoats, it includes this couplet:
Of their firing from behind fences, [Gage] makes a great pother,
Ev’ry fence has two sides; they made use of one, and we only forgot to use the other.
Back to Prof. Thorson’s talk. Thorson is a geologist who has authored several books on stone walls. He has an intimate knowledge of the walls of Minute Man Park through his work on various projects there, notably at the Old North Bridge, Parker’s Revenge, and Bloody Angle locations.

Folks will be able to view this lecture via Zoom, through the Minuteman Media Network website, or in Concord and Carlisle live on cable channel 99. It is scheduled to run from 2:00 to 3:30 P.M. on Saturday.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

“Adventurous Wives” Conference via Chawton House

Chawton House is an Elizabethan manor once owned by Jane Austen’s brother. It houses the research library of the Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600–1830.

In that capacity, Chawton House will host an online conference on 14-15 May 2021 on the theme of “Adventurous Wives in the Long Eighteenth Century: or, Virtue Reconsidered.”

While some of this program was planned for last year and postponed, organizers Alison Daniell and Kim Simpson have reopened the call for papers. This call also gives a sense of what one might expect at the conference:
In Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 novel, The Female Quixote, an eighteenth-century Countess is horrified when she is asked by the romance-obsessed heroine to relate her ‘adventures’, professing:
‘The word adventures carries in it so free and licentious a sound in the apprehensions of people at this period of time, that it can hardly with propriety be applied to those few and natural incidents which compose the history of a woman of honour.’
The idea that during the long eighteenth century virtuous wives were increasingly relegated to the domestic/private sphere, their legal and economic identities subsumed into that of their husbands, is a long-standing one. However, recent and ongoing research is challenging the orthodoxy of this narrative and demonstrating that the roles available to married women were more complex, nuanced and dynamic than mainstream assumptions have generally allowed.

For example, Elaine Chalus has explored women’s engagement with politics and the electoral process; Joanne Begiato’s examination of the divorce process has shed light on the lived experience of married women; Amy Louise Erikson has interrogated the laws relating to women’s property ownership; and Briony McDonagh has examined inter alia how landowning wives managed the combined duties of married life and estate management.

However, research specifically relating to ‘wives’ is often buried amongst the wider topic of ‘women’, and cross-disciplinary patterns and conclusions relating purely to married women may be lost or go unrecognised.
Drs. Daniell and Sampson therefore invite papers that ”bring these revisionist narratives together and examine the role(s) of the wife as seen through the fields of literature, social and economic history, law, art history and material culture.” In particular, they note these topics:
  • The economic and financial autonomy of women following marriage
  • Feme sole traders
  • The visibility of single versus married women in the literature of the period
  • Wives’ involvement in politics and public life
  • Working wives
  • Women and the divorce process
  • Inheritance and the transmission of property through the female line
  • Trusts, property ownership and separate estate
  • Wives as educators
  • Conduct literature and wives
  • The married woman as literary heroine
  • Quasi-marriages and kept Mistresses
  • The married female body
  • Material culture, fashion and taste
  • Housewifery
  • Wives as guardians of morality and social order
  • The historiography of the wife: change or continuity?
Interested scholars should submit abstracts of up to 500 words with a short bio (including one’s time zone) to the conference organizers at adventurousc18wives@gmail.com by 1 March 2021.

Drs. Daniell and Sampson hope people will “pre-record their talks, submitting them by 15 April.” At each session, those presentations will be played, followed by live questions and answers and discussion. (That’s one way of ensuring presenters remain within their allotted time.) Conference updates will come through @AdventurousWiv1 on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

“Perpetual Memorial” from the Paul Revere House, 5 Mar.

Last March we commemorated the Sestercentennial of the Boston Massacre.

There was a big gathering at the Old South Meeting-House with remembrances of each victim. There were book talks and signings. There were many reenactment scenarios around the center of Boston, both before and after our dramatic recreation of the shooting near the original site.

And of course there was the Covid-19 virus. The news and health guidelines were both still hazy, but I remember elbow handshakes, hand sanitizer, and feeling grateful that was a mainly outdoor event.

Now, shameful revelations and half a million American deaths later, we know we have to be more strict about public gatherings. There will be no Massacre reenactment in 2021.

However, the Paul Revere House has organized an online Sestercentennial commemoration of how the silversmith illuminated his house on 5 March 1771 to keep alive the memory of the violent deaths in Boston the previous winter.

I’ve quoted the sources on how Revere illuminated pictures in his windows in 1771, and how those pictures were moved to windows overlooking the shooting site in the following years.

In announcing “‘A solemn and perpetual memorial’: A 250th Anniversary Reimagining of Paul Revere’s Boston Massacre Illuminations,” the Paul Revere House says:
On March 5, 1771, Paul Revere used his recently purchased home to keep the memory of the Boston Massacre and opposition to the British occupation in Boston fresh with a series of three illuminations displayed in the windows facing North Square.

According to contemporary reports, thousands streamed by his house in silence to witness the spectacle which was a key link in the Revolutionary chain between the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.

Our virtual program offers footage of a local artist’s reimagining of the illuminations, descriptions from period newspaper accounts, and an in-depth panel discussion with Revere engraving expert Prof. Nancy Siegel and Boston Massacre scholar Prof. Serena Zabin to add context and color to this incredibly significant event.
Folks can sign up for the online program here. There is a suggested donation of $10. All people who register by 6:30 on 5 March will receive a link to the YouTube premiere of this event and also be able to watch the recording of it later.

Monday, February 22, 2021

“Mentor” Remembers the Massacre

Before February ends, I need to note one event from this month 250 years ago.

On 11 Feb 1771, the Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post ran as its first front-page item a letter signed “Mentor.” It recalled the previous year’s Boston Massacre and repeated the Whig arguments against standing armies and quartering troops in a populous town.

The author then offered a new idea:
I therefore propose it to the understanding and discreet, as well as the zealous, friends of liberty and mankind, that a regular plan be formed for an annual & solemn remembrance of the 5th of March.

I would speak my own mind on this occasion with freedom, tho’ with becoming diffidence. And I own, that in my present view of the matter, it seems to be expedient to exclude, the reverend and worthy gentlemen of the Clergy from being concerned in any part of the exercises of the day. This proposed exclusion does not arise from any aversion to that useful order of men, or from any doubt of their learning, integrity or fortitude. But I conceive that this celebration ought to be considered and conducted solely with a reference to civil society and domestick policy. And it is in general, perhaps, of little advantage to true religion, or good government, that the clergy should interfere in matters purely temporal, and wholly affecting social compacts and political oeconomy.

It may therefore be proper to chuse two persons to deliver (one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon) a dissertation on—THE POLICY OF STANDING ARMIES; AND THE NATURAL TENDENCY OF QUARTERING REGULAR TROOPS IN POPULOUS CITIES IN TIME OF PEACE.—This choice should be at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts, digest his arguments and form his diction.

By this means, it is likely the performance will be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language; and if the audience are not instructed with a sensible, judicious and useful disquisition on so important subjects, yet their time will not be wholly misemployed in giving countenance to those efforts of genius, which may throw some new ray of light upon those sciences, the knowledge of which can never be too generally diffused, or too universally inculcated.—But might we indulge the pleasing hopes, that on these occasions some rising worthy, some genius yet unborn, will pervade the mazy system and perplexed labyrinth of fraud and usurpation;—that will rescue one right from the jaws of power, and restore one liberty to oppressed mankind;—how would the flattering thought inspire our hearts—how would grateful millions bless the institution!

Many benefits resulting from this plan, I decline pointing out; of some plausible objections I am aware, but do not think myself obliged, at present, to obviate them. I have offered my sentiments in a manner becoming a good citizen:—they claim, I trust, some small attention. What is proposed with decency is intitled to candid treatment; but ill-placed ridicule, illiberal and censorious dogmatism, never promoted the cause of GOD or man.
It’s striking that “Mentor” was Josiah Quincy, Jr., the young lawyer whose role in the Boston Massacre had been on the defense teams for Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight British soldiers. He had helped to clear most of those men.

Quincy might have made his public proposal to shore up his standing as a Whig. But how many people knew he made it? Harbottle Dorr’s copy of this issue of the Evening–Post has “J. Quincy” written at top of the “Mentor” letter, but not in Dorr’s usual style and therefore perhaps a later addition. 

It’s striking that Quincy was very clear on what Boston’s Massacre orations should not be. Not a sermon, as much as the town liked a good long religious discourse glancing at the current events. The Massacre arose from a political problem, Quincy felt, and it deserved a wholly political response.

But Quincy was also concerned about ensuring that the orations “be devoid of crude sentiments and inelegant language,” to be “mature.” Was he concerned that some planned public commemorations or some Whig colleagues would be too populist and incendiary?

And what about the article’s wish that orators be chosen “at such a convenient time as to give the speaker opportunity to mature his thoughts”? Was Quincy warning fellow Bostonians that they should hurry up and ask someone because the anniversary was less than a month away, or was he worried about someone less “mature” offering to speak anytime?

The text of the “Mentor” letter is from the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s publication of Quincy’s writings, available here.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Dealing Out the Cards at the B.P.L.

Earlier this month, the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscripts department announced that it had finished scanning its entire card catalogue and uploading the result to the Internet Archive.

“With this project now complete,” the department’s blog said, “information about nearly every manuscript in the BPL’s collections is available online in at least some form — a major first.”

Curator and cataloguer Jay Moschella explained further on Twitter:
The BPL manuscript card catalog is a collection of almost a quarter million index cards, each of which describes a specific manuscript or collection of manuscripts that the BPL holds. . . .

John AdamsBoston Massacre notes, Boston’s early town records, the Frederick Douglass letters, the William Lloyd Garrison papers and the anti-slavery collection — all are parts of BPL’s overall manuscript collections. Think of the card catalog as a *blueprint* to all this. . .

Each card in the catalog was typed by hand and describes a single item in the collection. Taken as a whole, the manuscript card catalog represents well over a century (100 years!) of painstaking work by BPL librarians.
The cards have been digitized as images, not sent through an optical character recognition system to be converted into 98%-accurate searchable text. That means finding what one might be interested in investigating further requires treating the card catalogue like a, well, card catalogue. You choose a topic, usually a proper noun; go to the right drawer alphabetically; and then thumb through the cards to one that catches your eye.

Those cards have varying levels of detail to alert users into what the actual manuscript holds. For example, here’s a letter from the young lawyer Christopher Gore in 1780, talking about how Boston had been frozen in and discussing prisoner of war exchanges.

Here’s Gore’s father, John Gore, Sr., billing John Hancock for painting his—or rather his aunt Lydia’s—carriage in 1765. I’ve actually looked at that document. That carriage was vermilion.

And speaking of Hancock’s carriage, here’s another bill he received, this one from carriage-maker Adino Paddock in December 1774. That’s interesting because by that time the Boston Patriots were ostracizing Paddock (and the older Gore, a good friend) for siding with the Crown. Yet until recently Hancock had still been doing business with him.

Some of the papers came into the collection through the Boston town government, such as Richard Clarke’s 5 Nov 1773 letter saying he really can’t cancel his order of East India Company tea.

Others reflect private correspondence. Nearly all the documents filed under the name of William Molineux involve the bankruptcy of Nathaniel Wheelwright as Molineux became one of the agents of Wheelwright’s brother-in-law and principal creditor, Charles Ward Apthorp.

Again, these cards don’t transcribe the manuscript but describe them in greater or less detail. For researchers looking for all clues about particular people, or planning a trip when the pandemic ends, being able to flip through those descriptions outside the library will be a great convenience.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

“Leslie’s Retreat” Commemorations, 21 Feb.

On 21 Feb 1775, Dr. Benjamin Church secretly told Gen. Thomas Gage that “Twelve pieces of Brass Cannon mounted, are at Salem, & lodged near the North River, on the back of the Town.”

Gage was hunting for the brass cannon of the Boston militia train, which had disappeared from armories under redcoat watch the previous September. He therefore ordered Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie to lead an expedition to Salem on Sunday, 26 February.

That mission got the name “Leslie’s Retreat,” which shows how well it went for Lt.-Col. Leslie. It’s an episode in many books, including my own The Road to Concord. I’m pleased with two contributions to the story:
  • showing the event through the eyes of nine-year-old Samuel Gray.
  • debunking the familial claim that John Pedrick was crucial to spreading the alarm; he was actually a Loyalist at the time.
In recent years, Salem has revived the celebration of Leslie’s Retreat, not as a period reenactment like some others but as a community event. Unfortunately, the pandemic makes all such events harder.

This year, the Leslie’s Retreat coalition has various ways to commemorate set up for Sunday, 21 February, all designed for safely distanced households.

2:30-2:45 P.M.
City-wide Bell Ringing
And general noise-making.

3:00-4:00 P.M.
Bridging the Divide: Civil Conflict, Violence, and Negotiation in 1775 & Today
An online conversation among historians Robert Allison, Peter Charles Hoffer, and Chenoh Sesay, Jr., moderated by Diana Dunlap. Register to listen here.

As People Choose
Traveling the Leslie’s Retreat Trail
There are two routes mapped, 3.0 and 5.3 miles long, which individuals and families can walk or run when the weather is amenable. One could even award oneself a badge.

As for Lt.-Col. Leslie, he was promoted to general in 1776 and saw action in many campaigns of the war, ending up as the last British commander of Charleston, South Carolina.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Meeting the Scollays Together

In December the Shelburne Museum in Burlington, Vermont, purchased John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mercy (Greenleaf) Scollay (1719-1793).

Unknown to the seller, at least at first, the museum already owned Copley’s matching portrait of Scollay’s husband, John Scollay (1712-1790).

Here’s the backstory recounted by Enfilade, the newsletter of the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art & Architecture:
Completed in 1763, Mrs. Scollay’s portrait demonstrates Copley’s talents and abilities as a painter as evidenced through the beautifully rendered fabric draped around the sitter.

Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb assembled the American paintings collection with the intention of juxtaposing well-known artists such as Copley with lesser-known itinerant or ‘folk’ painters. She purchased the portrait of John Scollay from Harry Shaw Newman at the Old Print Shop in New York City in 1959. The Museum’s extensive collection of American paintings tell a story about how the fine arts developed and came of age in the United States, and the reunion of these pendants continues to enrich the narrative.
To celebrate the Scollays’ reunion on canvas and explore that acquisition, the director of the Shelburne Museum, Tom Denenberg, delivered an online talk which is now available on the museum’s website and Facebook page.

Denenberg’s talk might overstate Scollay’s political activity in a couple of directions. He was a member of the Boston merchants who often opposed Parliament’s new revenue laws and he served many years as a selectman, including during the siege of Boston. In that way Scollay was a “Son of Liberty,” but we shouldn’t view him as a radical; he was part of the establishment. In addition, as chair of the selectmen he was merely first among equals, not equivalent to a mayor.

The most distinct aspect of Scollay’s political career, I think, is how he was a selectman from 1754 to 1764 and then from 1772 to 1790. Why the break? Because he was caught up in the financial failure of Nathaniel Wheelwright in 1765 and had to declare bankruptcy and rebuild his estate. The fact that he succeeded and was able to return to the selectmen as the board’s senior member reflects how his neighbors must have respected him.

Copley produced another pair of portraits of the Scollays as well, in pastel instead of oil. That picture of Mercy Scollay is at the Harvard Art Museums, the picture of John at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Turtles All the Way Down

This advertisement appeared in the 13 Oct 1761 New-York Gazette.

Here are some tasty extracts from Washington biographer Alexis Coe’s conversation with Prof. Mary Draper about the background behind this ad:
Mary: In the 18th century, colonists throughout British America loved eating turtle. No one compared it to chicken (that I know of), but people routinely likened it to venison or veal. Merchants would ship live turtles in the hulls of vessels — alongside the other goods they bought and sold in the Atlantic world. They kept them alive by dousing them with salt water every few days.

When these vessels cruised into port, their arrival was cause for celebration. Merchants took out ads in local newspapers. Tavern keepers announced turtle feasts. And members of the early American elite attended “turtles” — elaborate parties where guests dined on turtle meat and caroused late into the evening. . . .

Alexis: The turtle escaped the day before it was to be cooked and eaten! What drama! But why is “CW” on the turtle’s shell? I hope it was painted, but I’m guessing it was carved.

Mary: Sometimes, these turtles were destined to specific people from the moment they were loaded onto a vessel. A local merchant might solicit a ship captain, asking him to acquire a turtle. Or someone living in a more tropical location might ship a turtle to friends elsewhere in the Atlantic world. When this happened, the turtle was marked with the recipient’s initials. I’ve come across other ads and letters that mention these markings and, sadly, they seem to be carved.

In 1776, The Pennsylvania Evening Post chronicled the capture of a ship sailing from Jamaica to London during the Revolutionary War. On board, there was a turtle to be delivered to Lord North, the British Prime Minister. His name was “nicely cut into the shell.” . . .

Alexis: Tell me everything you know about the turtle’s great escape.

Mary: First, we have to talk about crawls. Once turtles were off-loaded from vessels, they were placed in a crawl. This was an enclosed fence-like structure that was partly underwater. It allowed innkeepers and merchants to keep the turtles alive until the moment they were dressed. But they weren’t the most secure containers. Storms and high tides…could flood crawls and give turtles the perfect opportunity for escape. Hopefully, this turtle made its way back to the Atlantic Ocean, but we’ll never know.
More details and pictures at Coe’s website.

For more turtle content, here’s a P.D.F. download of Megan C. Hagseth’s doctoral dissertation ”Turtleizing Mariners: The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Consumption of Large Testudines in 16th- to 18th-Century Maritime Communities,” with numerous illustrations and newspaper extracts.

And here’s the Sea Control podcast episode in which Walker Mills interviews Dr. Sharika Crawford of the United States Naval Academy about her new book, The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation and Boundary Making.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

“One idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution”

From David Frum’s essay “The Founders Were Wrong about Democracy” in The Atlantic Monthly:

If there was one idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution, it was the one articulated by James Madison at the convention on June 26, 1787.

The mass of the people would be susceptible to “fickleness and passion,” he warned. They would suffer from “want of information as to their true interest.” Those who must “labour under all the hardships of life” would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” Over time, as the population expanded and crowded into cities, the risk would only worsen that “the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.”

To protect property from the people—and ultimately, the people from themselves—the Framers would have to erect “a necessary fence” against “impetuous councils.” A Senate to counterbalance the House of Representatives, selected from a more elite few and serving for longer terms, would be one such fence. The indirect election of the president through an Electoral College would be another. A federal judiciary confirmed by the Senate and serving for life would provide one more. And so on through the constitutional design.

The system of government in the United States has evolved in many important ways since 1787. But the mistrust of unpropertied majorities—especially urban unpropertied majorities—persists. In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate. . . .

American anti-majoritarians have always promised that minority privilege will deliver positive results: stability, sobriety, the security of the public debt, and tranquil and peaceful presidential elections. But again and again, those promises have proved the exact opposite of reality. In practice, the privileged minority has shown itself to be unstable and unsober. . . .

The architects of the Electoral College imagined that indirect election would ensure a careful and thoughtful decision “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of the presidency], and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in “Federalist No. 68.” The mass of the people might be distracted by a lying, vulgar, criminal demagogue, but the select few of the Electoral College would be undeceived by such wiles. They would choose the candidate of dignity and worth over the candidate who crudely appealed to rancor and resentment.

Except, of course, that’s precisely the opposite of what happened in 2016, when the plurality of ordinary citizens made the sensible choice, and the anti-majoritarian Electoral College installed a flimflam man in the Oval Office.
Frum concludes that our republic should leave behind the self-serving prejudices of eighteenth-century gentlemen and resume the gradual democratization Americans enjoyed in the twentieth century. It’s not just a matter of fairness, he argues. It’s also necessary for stability and prosperity. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

“Revolutionary Harbor” Discussion, 17 Feb.

On Wednesday, 17 February, the National Parks of Boston and Boston Harbor Now will host an online discussion on “Revolutionary Harbor: The Transatlantic World of Peter Faneuil,” about the role of slavery in shaping Boston’s eighteenth-century economy.

Peter Faneuil was one of the town’s richest merchants in the first half of that century, honored for giving money that went to building the earliest version of Faneuil Hall.

Much of Faneuil’s inheritance and business was rooted in chattel slavery, either from supplying the sugar-producing slave-labor camps of the Caribbean or from bringing more kidnapped African people to the New World. In that, he wasn’t unusual among leading New England merchants; his family was simply wealthier than most.

Last October, the National Parks of Boston, the city of Boston, the Museum of African American History, and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project installed a marker at the end of Long Wharf recognizing Boston’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

One side, headed “Coming from the Sea,” describes the trade in people in and out of Boston harbor. The other side, which one sees while facing the city, spotlights Crispus Attucks, Phillis Wheatley, Prince Hall, and Paul Cuffee as notable New Englanders of African descent.

It doesn’t look like Peter Faneuil’s name is on that marker, nor the name of any other individual slave trader or slave-camp supplier. Ironically, then, those merchants appear as a faceless mass—precisely what slavery and many decades of historiography reduced the captive Africans to. But in this case, anonymity might erase those men’s individual choices to participate in that trade.

Faneuil’s name remains, of course, on Faneuil Hall, nicknamed the “Cradle of Liberty,” which some people a paradox. I discussed the  potentials of renaming that building last September.

This discussion diving deeper into Peter Faneuil’s mercantile world is due to start on Wednesday at 7:00 P.M. and to run until 8:15. Register in advance here.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Guns that Didn’t Bark

One of my big unanswered questions about the Battle of Lexington and Concord on 19 Apr 1775 is why the provincial forces didn’t deploy any of the cannon they had just spent months collecting and preparing for a fight.

The guns that James Barrett had been overseeing in Concord were probably unavailable after being rushed into hiding-places in other towns. But what about the rest?

We can assume that the men of Lexington and Cambridge, towns along the British route, didn’t want to see an all-out battle along one of their main roads, with houses and possibly civilians nearby. Better to hurry the redcoats along than to make them desperate and angry with artillery.

But what about Watertown, which had actually deployed two cannon on 30 March, according to a British army captain? Jonathan Brown was “captain of the train”—Watertown’s own militia artillery company. The town wasn’t on the regulars’ route but was close enough to reach the road from Concord with mounted cannon. But there’s no mention of the Watertown guns coming out.

What about Newton, where a shot from one of the two cannon John Pigeon had given to the town summoned the militia company on 19 April? Those men reportedly gathered beside the cannon and then marched off to confront the king’s troops, leaving their most powerful weapons behind.

Other towns had also formed artillery companies, but those men marched out with muskets. Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould reported hearing cannon used as alarm guns during the march west, but neither he nor any other British officer saw them.  

Indeed, out of the scores of Massachusetts militia units that mustered independently on 19 April, sometimes zealously and sometimes after long conversations among local leaders, I haven’t found any that brought out their cannon as well. I haven’t read even a mention of that as a possibility under discussion.

Uncounted numbers of veterans of the 19th of April left descriptions of that day, some immediately and some decades later. In 1775 there may have been pressure not to mention the province’s artillery because that would acknowledge the countryside had prepared for war. Eventually, however, men did speak of topics that had been politically awkward before. Yet no one talked about cannon.

One possible explanation is that those artillery pieces weren’t as ready for combat as people had been saying. Back in February, representatives from four towns described the four iron cannon as “Nearly Compleated,” but 99% done isn’t done, especially if you’re going into combat. Provincial records show people were still scrambling to finish equipping some pieces in late April and May.

In particular, militia officers may have felt they didn’t have enough gunpowder for an artillery engagement, and the supply they did have was better divvied out to infantrymen. Or they might not have had the horses necessary to drag iron cannon across country and into battle—which farmer was willing to risk his livestock? For that matter, did the provincials dare to risk the guns themselves when there was probably bigger fighting ahead?

I suspect another factor is that on 19 April the men of Massachusetts weren’t yet ready to make an all-out attack on the king’s soldiers. Did they really want to wipe out hundreds of their fellow subjects? Instead of halting and capturing the expedition, wasn’t it better to keep it moving back toward Boston? Like a dog chasing a car, the Massachusetts militiamen wouldn’t have known what to do with that column if they’d caught it.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

“Two peices of Cannon Brought From Watertown to ye Towns”

The 3 Feb 1775 petition to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety about eight iron cannon can’t answer the question of what happened to those guns.

Did the congress assume control of them and add them to their other weapons? Or did they remain under the control of the four towns that had undertaken to equip them for use?

Or did the congress and the towns come to some sort of compromise, in which the towns continued to assume responsibility for those guns but expected the province to pay for the work eventually?

We don’t appear to have enough records from two of the four towns to provide definite answers. For Lexington, Alex Cain has written:
Unfortunately, what became of the guns after February 1775 is unknown. Lexington’s town meeting minutes from the Spring of 1775 were stolen years ago. Records from December 1775 through the remainder of the war do not mention the cannons.
The Weston town records show no payments related to cannon in 1775. In March 1776 the town treasurer’s account for the preceding year includes 12 shillings “Recd. of Capt. Samel. Baldwin for the Use of two Guns Belonging to the Town,” but that price suggests those were muskets, not artillery.

On the other hand, we know there were mounted cannon in Watertown on 30 March. On that day, Col. Percy led troops in a march that was part springtime exercise, part an attempt to get the provincials used to seeing redcoats come through their towns. Capt. John Barker wrote in his diary:
The 1st. Brigade marched into the Country at 6 oclock in the morning; it alarmed the people a good deal. Expresses were sent to every town near; at Watertown about 9 miles off, they got 2 pieces of Cannon to the Bridge and loaded ’em but nobody wou’d stay to fire them; at Cambridge they were so alarmed that they pulled up the Bridge.
Lt. Frederick Mackenzie noted that march, as well as another on 10 April: “The 38th. and 52ed. Regiments marched out this Morning as far as Watertown.” Later, just after the war began, he wrote: “The 38th & 52ed Regiments marched once to Watertown, which indeed occasioned some alarm, and Cannon were fired, bells rung, and expresses sent off, to give the alarm.” So not only did the Watertown militia company have two cannon, but its men could move, load, and fire those guns, and the British army knew about them.

As for Concord, we have the documentation from James Barrett of what ordnance and other material he was storing for the provincial congress. That included:
Two peices of Cannon Brought From Watertown to ye Towns
Eight Peices of Cannon Brought to ye Town by Mr Harrington
Four Peices of Brass Cannon & Two Mortar from Col Robertsons [sic—Lemuel Robinson]
Thus, when Barrett wrote this note, he controlled two iron cannon secured by William Molineux in 1774, sent out to Watertown, and then sent on to Concord for mounting. But he also had the Boston train’s four brass cannon, the two mortars that James Brewer claimed to have smuggled out of Boston, and eight more guns from some guy named Harrington (which is a whole other mystery for me). And in March more ordnance arrived from Salem.

No wonder James Warren wrote to his wife Mercy from Concord on 10 April: “This Town is full of Cannon…” A royal spy specified there were twelve cannon mounted around the Concord courthouse under twenty-four-hour guard, three 24-pounder siege guns in the courtyard of the prison, plus the brass field-pieces from Boston back at Barrett’s farm.

In mid-April, after warnings from Boston, Barrett and his family and neighbors began to move those artillery pieces even farther away. Four cannon reportedly went to the neighborhood of provincial congress receiver-general Henry Gardner in Stow. But four remained behind in Concord at the courthouse, according to Gen. Thomas Gage’s local informant. I suspect those were owned by the town, and it didn’t want to let them go.

I still don’t know who Gage’s spy was, but one candidate is Duncan Ingraham, the merchant captain who had retired to Concord a couple of years before. As described back here, his son had sold four iron cannon to Molineux in October 1774. Those comprised half of the artillery pieces that the 3 Feb 1775 petition discussed. In other words, there was a 50% chance that the pair of cannon assigned to Barrett had come from Ingraham. Had the captain spotted what he still considered his own property rolling through town?

Once again, my thanks to Joel Bohy of Bruneau & Co. and Antiques Roadshow for sharing the document from the Massachusetts archives that added new clues to this inquiry.

TOMORROW: The cannon that didn’t bark.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Who Should Pay for Mr. Molineux’s Cannon?

I’m at last getting to the original purpose of the 3 Feb 1775 petition to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety that I’ve been discussing.

All four men who signed the petition were delegates to the provincial congress that started meeting in Cambridge on 1 February. After explaining that their towns had undertaken to mount and equip eight iron cannon obtained by William Molineux inside Boston in the fall of 1774, they wrote:
Since which the late Congress held [in] Cambridge have Agreed to to [sic] provide Warlike Stores, &c, at the Expence of the province

Wherefore the Inhabitants of Said towns think it Reasonable that the Expence of equiping Said Cannon for Service Should be borne in the Same manner as other Supplys and Desire yould Consider the matter & act thereon [as] you Shall think proper
In other words, this petition is rather similar to what sometimes seems like the majority of correspondence among towns and other governmental bodies in colonial New England—trying to get someone else to pay for something.

This example wasn’t about poor people needing relief or roads having to be mended, but about preparation for war. Yet the principle was the same. As long as the provincial congress was going to spend money on weapons, shouldn’t it also cover “the Expence of equiping Said Cannon for Service”?

The committee of safety actually met at Ebenezer Stedman’s tavern in Cambridge that day and came to some decisions about the provincial artillery. However, the only specific actions placed on the committee’s records involve the four brass cannon hidden at Lemuel Robinson’s tavern in Dorchester. (Yes, those are the Four Stolen Cannon at the center of The Road to Concord.)

The men of Watertown were hoping for a positive response to the petition. On 6 February, the town meeting voted “that the Committe appointed to mount ye great Guns do not Compleat the Same till after the Congress Rises.” On 11 February the congress took up the question of how its committees should handle military supplies, but four days later it decided to defer that decision until the next session at Concord in late March. On 20 February, the Watertown voters gave up waiting and decided “that the Committe appointed to mount the Great Guns Compleat the Same as Soon as may be.”

The delay and uncertainty had consequences. As of 21 February, committee of safety member Dr. Benjamin Church secretly reported to Gen. Thomas Gage, “Gun Carriages are making at Water Town by McCurtain—an Irishman, who has fallen out with the Select Men there, as he will not permit them to be taken away untill the Cash is forthcoming.”

It’s not clear to me who came up with the necessary cash. But starting on 23 February, the joint committee of safety and supplies became more involved in managing the nascent artillery force. It appointed officers and divvied out guns.

Among other things, the committee directed “That eight field pieces, with the shot and cartridges, and two brass morters with their bombs, be deposited at Leicester,” just west of Worcester, with militia colonel Joseph Henshaw. Those might be the same eight cannon that the towns of Watertown, Concord, Lexington, and Weston had been working on, or they might be eight other cannon. There were dozens being quietly moved around Massachusetts in those months.

TOMORROW: Ready for war?

Friday, February 12, 2021

Four Representative Men

I’ve been analyzing a letter about cannon sent to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety in February 1775.

This posting looks at the four men who signed that letter, in order of their signatures.

James Barrett (1710-1779) of Concord is already a big presence in The Road to Concord and on Boston 1775. He was a sixty-five-year-old farmer, patriarch, and community leader. In the fall of 1774, the town made Barrett a militia colonel and a representative to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

Secretly, Barrett oversaw the collection of provincial military supplies in Concord in the early months of 1775. This letter is one piece of evidence about that effort. Barrett’s lists of weapons, equipment, and food survive in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society. His farmhouse was the furthest target of the British march in April 1775, and that building is now part of Minute Man National Historical Park.

Jonas Stone (1710-1790) was born in Concord, grew up in Sudbury, and then established himself on land his father had purchased in Rutland. In 1751 Stone moved back east to Lexington, having inherited a family estate there. He soon married his second wife in that town.

Starting in 1755, Stone served in many Lexington offices, including treasurer, selectman, and assessor. In the 1770s he became the town’s representative to the Massachusetts General Court and Provincial Congress. Stone was also a deacon and member of the committee of correspondence.

The letter addresses Lexington’s work to prepare two iron cannon for use in 1775. Stone himself may not have been personally involved in that work but rather speaking for neighbors. He didn’t hold an officer’s rank in the militia and did only four days’ of duty himself in May 1775. But his son Jonas, Jr., was among the local militiamen on the town common on the morning of 19 April.

Braddyll Smith (1715-1780) was a long-time town official in Weston. He was clerk of the town militia company in the 1750s and captain by 1774, a selectman from 1758 to 1771, town clerk from 1758 to 1768, and treasurer from 1771 to 1773.

Smith was also a wealthy man. The town’s 1759 tax list, made in part by himself, said he owned more personal property and far more real estate than anyone else on the north side of town. Three men on the south side had larger fortunes, and Elisha Jones (the only “Esquire” on the list) owned more valuable land. In 1773 Smith also held title to two enslaved people, as many as anyone else in Weston; one was named Salem Middlesex, but this seems to have been a different man from the man who became Peter Salem of Framingham.

Smith had several children by his first wife, Mary Hagar, before she died. He remarried to Sarah White of Medford in 1763 and again to widow Ruth Flint of Lincoln in 1766—finding wives in the upper echelon of other towns.

In January 1774, as I mentioned yesterday, Braddyll Smith led a group that petitioned the town meeting to “To Chuse a Committe to take into Consideration the circumstances of our Publick affairs and to Corrospond with the NEIGHBOURING Towns and to Consider what is Best to be Done that our Injured Rights and Priviledges may be Restored and Secured”—i.e., to form a committee of correspondence and participate in Massachusetts’s political resistance. Under the influence of militia colonel and General Court representative Elisha Jones, the town rejected that idea.

But after the Boston Port Bill, Massachusetts Government Act, and other royal measures, local histories say that on 29 September Weston voted to form that committee and to send representatives to the first Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The voters replaced Jones as the town’s representative with none other than Braddyll Smith. Jones soon moved into Boston. By the end of the year Smith replaced Jones as militia colonel and was overseeing the town’s preparations for defense—including cannon.

Jonathan Brown (1724-1797) of Watertown was captain of the town’s military company at Lake George in 1758. When he returned, he began serving in town offices as clerk, treasurer, justice of the peace, and representative to the General Court starting in 1772.

In 1774 Brown as clerk kept the town records showing himself elected to the provincial congress. On 12 December, Watertown also chose him to be “Capt of the train”—the artillery company. That was a couple of weeks after the town had voted to equip two of the eight cannon brought out from Boston that fall.

During the war, Brown remained in town, working in civil posts. He kept busy recruiting soldiers, paying them for their service, and collecting supplies. He continued to represent Watertown in the Massachusetts legislature until 1786.

All four of these men were thus elders in their communities; the youngest was fifty years old. They were all farmers, not professionals and not college-educated, but well off. They had served in town offices for years, and now those civic responsibilities included representing their neighbors in an illegal legislature and preparing for war with the Crown.

TOMORROW: Who will pay for it all?

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Mounting Expenses for Four Towns

This posting continues the analysis of a 3 Feb 1775 letter that I started quoting yesterday, from men in four different towns to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety.

Yesterday’s extract shows the letter was about eight cannon purchased by William Molineux in Boston in the fall of 1774. Somehow the Patriots got those guns out to Watertown. And then…
…and after Some time Information was given yt it was desired that Watertown & the Neighboring Towns would mount them & git them Ready for emediate Service which is now Nearly Compleated (Viz, two by Watertown, two by Concord two by Lexington, & two by Weston[)],…
The Patriots weren’t just spreading those cannon around to make them harder for the British army to confiscate them. They were also spreading around the heavy expense of mounting and equipping those guns so they could be used in battle.

Artillery pieces themselves were big metal tubes, with a wide hole at one end and a very narrow hole near the other. On board ships and in shore batteries and fortifications, they were mounted on heavy, solid, small-wheeled carriages, and most if not all of those had been left behind.

To become ”field-pieces” suitable for a moving army, those cannon needed to be mounted on large-wheeled carriages that were both strong and maneuverable. Gun crews also needed rammers, swabs, worms, and other tools for loading and maintaining those guns. To “git them Ready for emediate Service” would require the best work of wheelwrights, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other craftsmen.

On 17 October, the Watertown town meeting considered the challenge:
Then the Question was put whether the town will mount & Equip two pieces of Cannon now lodged in the Town at their own Charge and it past in the affeirmative.—

Then it was Voted to Choose three persons a Committe to git Said work don
The cost “to git Said work don” became an issue. The selectmen called another town meeting on 21 November to consider how “to Grant money to pay for the two Carriages to the two pieces of Cannon that were ordered to be procured at the Expence of the town.” The men of Watertown voted to allocate £20 for those carriages, and only £15 for their schools.

Concord followed a similar course, as its town records (transcript now online) show. On 15 October the selectmen called a meeting with the top item being: “To See if the Town will Mount the Cannon brout into this Town by the Committee of Correspondance, and also Provide ammunition for Said Cannon agreeable to the Request of Said Committee.”

That meeting took place on 24 October, and the townspeople agreed that “the Selectmen take the Care that the Cannon brought into this Town by the Committee of Correspondance be Mounted at the Expence of the Town and that there be provided one hundred pound weight of Cannon Ball 4 pound Each Ball, and two hundred weight of Grape Shot, and Seven half Barrels of powder.” How was Concord to pay for all that? From tax revenues collected by the town constables but not yet forwarded to the provincial treasurer, Harrison Gray.

Lexington held its vote early the next month, as Alexander Cain has recounted:
On November 3, 1774, the town selectmen relented and announced the issue would be addressed at the next town meeting. Specifically, “Upon a request of a numbre of Inhabitants to see if the Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.”

A week later, the town approved the purchase of two guns. “Voted. . . to bring the two pieces of Cannon (mentioned in the warrant) from Watertown & mount them, at the at the Town charge.”

After approving the purchase of two cannons, in true Yankee fashion, the residents voted to create a committee to explore the cheapest methods of mounting of the guns on carriages and building of ammunition boxes. “That a Comtee of three persons go to Watertown & see what the cost of mounting sd pieces will be & whether the carriages cannot be made by work men in this town”
Lexington men didn’t go to Watertown and actually pick up those guns until after 28 November, though.

Weston’s published town records recorded only one meeting in all of 1774, on 13 January. With militia colonel Elisha Jones in the chair, the town voted “by a very great majority” to reject the idea of forming a committee of correspondence. And yet, by the end of the year, Jones had fled into Boston as a Loyalist and the man who had made that proposal was overseeing two cannon at the expense of the town.

TOMORROW: The signatories.

(The picture above shows the Watertown meetinghouse, site of town meetings.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Searching for Mr. Molineux’s Cannon

Last month I wrote about William Molineux obtaining eight cannon for the Massachusetts resistance in the last weeks before he died on 22 Oct 1774.

When I did, Joel Bohy of Bruneau & Co. and Antiques Roadshow, a truly dedicated local and living historian, sent me a letter from the Massachusetts state archives showing what happened to those guns.

Dated 3 Feb 1775, this letter was addressed to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of supply by four men from four different towns. It began:
We the Subscribers beg leave to Inform the Gentlemen of the Committe of Supply, that there was eight peices of Cannon Sent to Watertown last Fall & Committed to the care of ye Selectmen of Said town and Some time after they were informed they were under the Direction of the late Mr. Molinux,…
How Molineux and his Sons of Liberty got those guns past the army sentries on the Neck we still don’t know, but here’s confirmation they were in the hands of the Patriots by the fall of 1774.

Indeed, people had started talking about cannon in Watertown soon after the “Powder Alarm” on 2 September and the people of Charlestown removing the cannon from their shore battery five days later.

On 13 September, Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton wrote to a friend about the Patriots’ military preparations: “The people for their part are all arming, melting their lead into bullets, and draging Cannon into the Country.” From the timing that appears to refer to the Charlestown guns. In a postwar memoir Hulton wrote about how people had “secretly removed several Cannon from Boston, and dragged them into the Country beyond Watertown.” I suspect that when Hulton looked back he conglomerated several instances of cannon movement in the fall of 1774, but it’s notable that he remembered Watertown as a transport point.

Patriots expected the royal military to respond. On Sunday, 18 September, soldiers of the 38th Regiment of Foot turned out for inspection with knapsacks, suggesting they would be away from their barracks for midday dinner. Those men were actually ordered out to help built fortifications as Gen. Thomas Gage strengthened the town’s defenses. But the Boston merchant John Andrews described the local reaction in a letter:
[That] manoeuvre rais’d a suspicion in some people’s minds (who were more credulous than wise) that they were going to Watertown after the cannon: which, by being often told, came to be believ’d, and the committee here sent to inform their brethren of Charlestown, which broke up their morning service and induc’d them to proceed to Cambridge, and from thence to Watertown, alarming all as they went, to be prepar’d and ready to act upon the defensive, if attack’d.
Andrews’s phrasing suggests he’d been told there actually were cannon in Watertown, but even if he was just repeating “a suspicion in some people’s minds,” that was a good guess. Because by early October 1774, Molineux’s cannon were there, and the townspeople had to decide what to do with them.

TOMORROW: Mounting costs.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Losing Sight of William Molineux—Live Chat

From the Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts:
A Stated Meeting of the Society was held at the house of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, No. 28 Newbury Street, Boston, on Thursday, January 28, 1926, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Samuel Eliot Morison, Ph.D., in the chair.

The Records of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.

Mr. George P. Anderson spoke on William Molineux (1717–1774), a militant Boston Patriot, giving a biographical account of him and pointing out his connection with the political activities of the time.

[FOOTNOTE: Mr. Anderson’s paper will be printed in the Transactions of a future meeting.]
Alas, no such paper was ever published by the Colonial Society or elsewhere.

According to this finding aid from the University of Vermont, Anderson also “collected transcripts, chronology, notes, photocopies, articles, and other research on Thomas Young, an important figure in the American Revolution and the early history of Vermont, for a biography that was never published.” Again, alas.

Other scholars have studied Young, but Molineux has kept out of focus, in large part because he didn’t leave a body of written work. Indeed, when his public-works spinning venture prompted one of those long, drawn-out newspaper arguments in the early 1770s, someone else (maybe Young) wrote the articles on Molineux’s side. 

But we can’t understand Boston politics between 1767 and the end of 1774 without factoring in Molineux. I had a very long chapter about him and his untimely death in The Road to Concord, but it overloaded the book, so I took it out. Hopefully, it will evade the curse of Anderson’s paper and pop up somewhere else.

Tonight I’m scheduled to chat about Molineux with Jason on the Founder of the Day livestream, going live on Youtube at 8:15 Eastern time. We’ll see if I can control myself. Molineux couldn’t always do that.