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 26, 2021

The Lost DeBerniere Manuscripts

On 30 June 1775, Ens. Henry DeBerniere was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the 10th Regiment of Foot.

Nine months later, on 17 March 1776, he evacuated Boston with the rest of the British military.

That departure was rushed enough that Lt. DeBerniere left behind some of his papers, which locals eventually found. Exactly which locals remains a mystery.

In 1779 the printer John Gill issued a collection of those documents, described on the title page as “Left in town by a British Officer previous to the evacuation of it by the enemy, and now printed for the information and amusement of the curious.”

That title page (shown here) rendered the ensign’s name as “D’Bernicre.” Which is only one of the many ways it was spelled at the time.

The documents in that booklet were:
  • Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders to DeBerniere and Capt. William Brown to scout the countryside—thus giving the publication the title General Gage’s Instructions.
  • DeBerniere’s detailed and dramatic narrative of how he and Brown visited Worcester, Framingham, Marlborough, and Weston, barely making it back home in a snowstorm.
  • A much shorter report on the officers’ similar trek to Concord.
  • DeBerniere’s account of the expedition to Concord and the return to Boston under fire on 19 April.
  • A list of the casualties from that action, naming each killed or wounded officer but giving simple body counts for the enlisted men.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has shared scanned and transcribed pages here.

The year before Gill published, the Massachusetts General Court had passed laws banishing Loyalists and empowering the state to confiscate their property. Citizens who read DeBerniere’s narratives could easily recognize the Loyalists who offered them assistance. Most had left the country, but Isaac Jones of Weston was still at the Golden Ball Tavern. By then, though, he had apparently worked his way back into his neighbors’ graces.

The Massachusetts Historical Society reprinted the text of John Gill’s booklet in a volume of its Collections series in 1815, which is how it shared material before the internet.

That reprint was probably the source for another version of the story told in the voice of Brown and DeBerniere’s servant and published as The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe While He Was Employed as a British Spy; Also, While He Was Engaged in the Smuggling Business by Luther Roby in 1827.

There was a young printer named John Howe working in Boston in 1775. A Sandemanian and partner of Margaret Draper in the last months of the Boston News-Letter, he evacuated Boston at the same time as Lt. DeBerniere. Eventually he settled in Nova Scotia, and his son became an important figure in early Canadian politics. So he wasn’t the “John Howe” narrating that “Journal.”

In fact, the “Journal” was just a hyped-up version of DeBerniere’s original report, using all the dramatic bits and adding to them, eventually reaching the point of implausibility. Nonetheless, extracts can seem credible, and many authors have been fooled into thinking that 1827 publication is an authentic historical source.

TOMORROW: Another DeBerniere manuscript, and another mystery.

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