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 19, 2021

Tay, Hayward, and the Massachusetts Government

On 19 Apr 1775, William Tay, Jr., of Woburn helped to storm a house along the Battle Road, kill two redcoats, and capture the third. He claimed that man’s arms for his own.

The only problem, as Tay saw it, was that Lt. Joseph Hayward of Concord came along and took those weapons for himself.

For his part, Hayward told his descendants that he had fought the redcoats and captured that prisoner. And at the end of the day, he had the gun.

Tay didn’t take that lying down. He appealed to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety, which oversaw the first two months of the war. That body took the time to issue this resolution from its Cambridge headquarters on 24 May:
Whereas Mr. William Tay of Wooburn did on the 19th of april past make prisoner a Sergent of the greniders in the 52th Regiment of the Ministerial Troops and while he the sd Tay had the sd sergent in custody some person known did take the arm of the sd man by him taken and as sd arms are found in the hands of Lieut. Joseph Howard of Concord it is in the opinion of this Comm that as the said Tay can prove he too the abovementioned prisoner that the arms are fairly the property of the Mr. Jay and that they be returned to him accordingly.
That was signed by Benjamin White, a member of the committee from Brookline.

My thanks to Joel Bohy for spotting this document in the Massachusetts state archives and sharing his transcription with me.

The committee’s decree had no effect. So Tay went to a witness who might be deemed neutral: the captured sergeant himself. On 13 June that man deposed:
This may certify, whom it may concern, that I Mathew Hayes, a sergeant of the 52nd Regiment of the Ministerial troops, was taken prisoner on the 19th of April last past by Mr. William Tay Junr. of Woburn—further saith not.
Hayes was then in the jail at Concord alongside other prisoners of war. The local justice of the peace who took down his testimony was Duncan Ingraham, whom neighbors had actually considered a friend of the royal government just four months earlier.

Again, thanks to Joel Bohy for sharing that document.

Months passed, and Tay still didn’t have his gun. This wasn’t just a matter of a trophy and bragging rights. There was monetary value involved. With a war on, good military firelocks were a hot commodity.

Above is a blank printed certificate that the committee of safety issued on 17 June (even as a certain battle raged), as shown on the Library of Congress website. The rebel government was buying people’s guns for the army.

In the summer of 1775, the Massachusetts Patriots decided to return to their regular form of government, acting as if the royal governor and lieutenant governor were simply unavailable. They held elections for a new Massachusetts General Court and chose a new Council, now unencumbered by writs of mandamus or the gentlemen who had previously supported royal policy.

Tay took his case to that legislature late in 1775, restating his claim for the gun and concluding (as transcribed by Richard Frothingham):
all which your petitioner informed the committee of safety for this colony, who, on the 24th day of May, 1775, gave it as their opinion that these arms were fairly the property of your petitioner.

Nevertheless, the said Joseph (though duly requested) refuses to deliver the same, under pretext of his own superior right.

Wherefore your petitioner earnestly prays that your honors would take his cause under due consideration, and make such order thereon as to your honors, in your great wisdom, shall seem just and reasonable, which that he may obtain he as in duty bound shall ever pray, &c.
On 21 September, the Massachusetts House took up Tay’s claim. The published record is garbled, saying that “William Tayie…lost certain Fire Arms” during the battle. But the disposition was clear: “Mr. Tayie has Leave to withdraw his Petition”—a polite and formulaic no.

But Tay still didn’t give up. During the next legislative session he appears to have redirected his petition to the Council. On 14 December those gentlemen took up the matter and issued an order summoning
Joseph Hayward by serving him with an attested copy of the petition and order that he may have opportunity to show cause (if any he hath) on the 26th day of this instant December why the prayer of this petition should not be granted
That’s what the document in the archives says, as transcribed by Joel Bohy. The published House records give the date of 21 December for hearing Hayward’s side of the story.

And there the official record appears to end. What effect did the Council’s summons have? Was there any legal follow-up? Did the two men reach a compromise? All I can say for sure is that in 1835 the sergeant’s gun was in the hands of Joseph Hayward’s son.

COMING UP: The further adventures of Sgt. Matthew Hayes.

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