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, May 31, 2021

The Story of a Grave in Medford

In 1849 John Russell was digging a cellar and fence on land in Medford that belonged to Nathaniel Holmes Bishop. He turned up some human bones.

Russell took those remains home and showed them to neighbors. It’s unclear what evidence led to this conclusion, but people settled on the idea that those were “the bones of Revolutionary soldiers.”

Later that year the Medford selectmen paid the sexton Jacob Brooks $2.50 to bury the bones in a box in the town graveyard on Salem Street. But the town didn’t pay for that site to be marked.

[ADDENDUM: In 1855 Charles Brooks wrote in his town history:

Before the battle of Bunker Hill, General [John] Stark fixed his head-quarters at Medford, in the house built by Mr. Jonathan Wade, near the Medford House, on the east side of the street. After the battle, twenty-five of the general’s men, who had been killed, were brought here, and buried in the field, about fifty or sixty rods north of Gravelly Bridge. Their bones have been discovered recently.
Stark was still a colonel in 1775. Other sources put his headquarters in the Isaac Royall House or the Admiral Vernon tavern, though of course he moved around. It’s not clear where Brooks received his information.]

Decades later, the Daughters of the American Revolution was eager to honor the graves of all Revolutionary War veterans. (Those markers were often credited to the Sons of the American Revolution, but it looks like the D.A.R. did a lot of the work involved.)

Eliza M. Gill, a town hall clerk, seretary of the Medford Historical Society, and founder of the local Sarah Bradlee Fulton chapter of the D.A.R., led the effort to identify all the local graves—including those not previously marked. It was well known that some regiments from New Hampshire had arrived in town early in the war and made their camps there.

A local man named Jacob Winslow Vining came forward with a story. He was Jacob Brooks’s grandson, born in 1848. Sometime in his youth, he had been helping his grandfather mow the Salem Street cemetery. The old sexton pointed out a bare spot, described burying the box of bones there, and told the boy to remember it. “Some time some one will want to know,” Grandpa Brooks reportedly said.

No one asked Vining about that information for decades, and he never told the story until Gill came looking for Revolutionary graves. Then he took her to that spot in the Salem Street cemetery.

On behalf of the S.A.R. of New Hampshire, Alvin Burleigh of Plymouth picked out a local boulder and shipped it to Medford. The D.A.R. chapter arranged for that stone to be lettered, placed on the proper spot in the burying-ground, and dedicated on 29 Oct 1904, fifty-five years after the bones had been reinterred.

The boulder reads:
in memory of
New Hampshire soldiers
who fell at Bunker Hill
buried in this town
and interred in this spot
The 1904 ceremonies included a short “dedicatory exercise” on the site, an assembly at the Royall House hosted by Medford’s mayor, and a historical address by Eliza M. Gill.

But were the remains buried under that boulder actually from casualties of Bunker Hill? Col. John Stark’s and James Reed’s regiments did suffer losses at that fight, probably two dozen dead. But how many of those bodies were they able to remove from the field? A few men did later die of their wounds. In addition, men from regiments stationed in Medford no doubt died in camp over the ensuing months.

It’s not clear how many bones John Russell dug up in 1849, or how people then determined that they came from the Revolution. But we can’t doubt the determination of the people of Medford in that year, and in 1904, to honor the men who came a long way to the siege lines and fell in the war.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Service of Pvt. Amos Harrington

Earlier this month I wrote about Lt. Col. Abijah Brown, and how a Continental Army court-martial in October 1775 found him guilty of “employing Harrington for fourteen days, and Clarke for eighteen days, out of Camp, upon his own business.”

In other words, while those two enlisted men were supposed to be on the siege lines with the rest of Col. Benjamin Ruggles Woodbridge’s regiment, Brown actually had them working on his farm in Waltham.

It was a pleasant surprise to be able to identify one of those men from army records. He was Pvt. Amos Harrington of Waltham. That’s the only man named Harrington in the Woodbridge regiment, and of course his home town matches Lt. Col. Brown’s.

Amos Harrington was born in Waltham on 18 Nov 1755, making him almost twenty years old when he became a legal matter.

On 19 April, he marched with Capt. Abraham Peirce’s Waltham militia company. The alarm reached Waltham late, so its men didn’t engage with the British troops that day, but on orders from regimental colonel Thomas Gardner they “served as guards until Saturday, the fourth day after the fight at Concord.”

As of 30 Sept 1775, Amos Harrington was listed in Capt. Seth Murray’s company in Col. Woodbridge’s regiment, assigned to Prospect Hill. Whether he was actually there or not during the harvest season was another question.

Harrington appears to have gone home at the end of the year, but then he mobilized with his local company from 4 to 8 March 1776. At Gen. George Washington’s request, Massachusetts called up militia troops to support the push onto Dorchester Heights and reinforce the lines against possible counterattack.

On 10 Oct 1779 Amos Harrington married his cousin Esther, and their first son arrived less than six months later. According to Frederick Lewis Weis’s Harrington genealogy quoted at this Find a Grave page, they had ten children in all, three dying in infancy. Esther died in October 1794, several months after giving birth to her last daughter, who survived her.

After that, I lose track of Pvt. Amos Harrington. He never applied for a Revolutionary War pension, suggesting that he died before the law made those available for nearly all veterans.

Weis’s genealogy says Harrington died in Weston on 15 Jan 1846. However, Weston vital records make clear that was another man of the same name, born in that town in 1754 and still “single” when he died. He was called up for militia service under Capt. Jonathan Fisk in August 1777, as Gen. John Burgoyne was coming down from Canada. I put his gravestone above.

I’d been hoping the Amos Harrington from Waltham did indeed live into the Polk administration, apply for a pension, and leave some comment about his service under (and work for) Lt. Col. Brown in 1775. But no such luck.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Preservation Panel at Old South, 29 May

This afternoon Revolutionary Spaces is hosting an online panel discussion about the making of one of its landmark buildings: “Boston Beyond: Old South Meeting House’s Global Construction.”

The event description says:
For nearly 300 years, Old South Meeting House has stood in Boston as a testament to its construction and preservation. While the building itself is at the epicenter of America’s founding stories, the history of its construction is far more global.

The enduring assumption for Old South Meeting South, and buildings like it, is a narrative locked into patriotism and hyper-locality. Beyond Boston: Old South Meeting House’s Global Construction will engage our panelists in discussions on the global materials economy in the 18th century, the role of slavery and servitude in the construction of New England’s most iconic buildings, and the emergence of a domestic, regional style born from international influence.

Our panelists are experts in 18th-century architecture with specialties ranging from forgotten New England Histories, Georgian English architecture, and transatlantic building materials.
Those panelists are:
This discussion will start at 2:00 P.M. today. To register, go to this webpage. The event is part of Preservation Month, and made possible by a grant from the Lowell Institute.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Asians in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts

South Indians were enslaved in North America well before the two Continental Army soldiers I discussed yesterday.

The 9 June 1757 Boston News-Letter included this advertisement:

Ran-away from his Master, Ebenezer Webster, of Bradford in the County of Essex, a black Slave, Native of the East-Indies, named James; speaks good English, about 21 Years of Age, wears long bushy Hair, of middling Stature, has a Scar on the left side of his Forehead which enters under his Hair: Had on a light Oznabrigs Coat, a brown homespun Jacket, with brass Buttons, black plush Breeches, a pair of new Pumps, a new Felt Hat, and a white Linnen Shirt.—He formerly belong’d to Mr. Elijah Collins of Boston.

Whoever has taken up the said Servant, or may take him up, and convey him to his said Master, or to Mr. Benjamin Harrod, of Boston, shall have THREE DOLLARS Reward, and all necessary Charges paid.—

All Masters of Vessels and others are hereby caution’d not to conceal or carry off the said Slave, as they would avoid the Penalty of the Law.

Dated, June 7th. 1757.
The same ad ran in both the News-Letter and the Boston Gazette for three more weeks. (I found a pointer to this ad at Ned Hector’s website.)

The China Trade brought another set of Asians to New England—people from China and surrounding countries. The New England Historical Society blog picked up on research by documentary filmmaker Qian Huang about a Chinese youth who died in Boston harbor in 1798.

John Boit (1774-1829) was part of America’s mercantile exploration of the Pacific starting in his own teens. In 1794 he took command of the sloop Union out of Newport, arriving in Canton in late 1795.

While in China, Boit took on a teen-aged boy whom he called “Chow” and his family remembered also as “Libei”—most likely named Zhou Libei. The young captain referred to Chow as “My faithful servant.”

Boit continued sailing the Union west, across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic. The sloop arrived back in Boston in July 1796, the first single-masted ship known to have circumnavigated the globe.

Capt. Boit and his “faithful servant” continued to sail for another couple of years, visiting Mauritius before returning to North America. In late 1798 Boit agreed to take the schooner Mac to Cape Verde.

In September, while the Mac was still in Boston harbor and Boston was in the middle of a yellow fever epidemic, Chow fell from the ship’s mast and died. His death was listed in town records on 12 September under the name “Chow Mandarin.” The expensive, well preserved gravestone that Capt. Boit purchased for Chow stands in the Central Burying-Ground and reads:
Here lies Interr’d the Body
a Native of China
Aged 19 years whose death
was occasioned on the 11th Sepr.
1798 by a fall from the Mast head
of the Ship Mac of Boston
This Stone is erected to his Memory
by his affectionate Master

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Asians in the Continental Army

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia just shared a blog post about evidence of Asian soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

This doesn’t mean the thousands of soldiers who fought battles in India when the British, the French, and their local allies went to war there. That’s another seldom-told story.

Rather, interpreter Daniel Sieh quoted two sources showing how Continental Army officers identified certain enlisted men as from South Asia:
  • “Charles Peters…is an East-India Indian, formerly the property of Mr. Thomlinson in Newbern.” —advertisement for deserters, North-Carolina Gazette, 15 May 1778.
  • John Newton, a barber from “Bengaul, yellow complexion, talks good English” —size roll of Capt. Matthias Ogden’s company in the First New Jersey Regiment, 1779-82.
It’s intriguing to note that on 13 July 1776 Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette included this advertisement for a man named John Newton of the same age and skills as the “Bengaul” in Ogden’s company:
a Servant Man named JOHN NEWTON, about 20 Years of Age, 5 Feet 5 or 6 Inches high, slender made, is an Isiatic Indian by Birth, has been about twelve Months in Virginia, but lived ten Years (as he says) in England, in the Service of Sir Charles Whitworth.

He wears long black Hair, which inclines to curl, tied behind, and pinned up at the Sides; has a very sour Look, and his Lips project remarkably forward. He left his Master on the Road from Williamsburg, between King William Courthouse and Todd’s Bridge, where he was left behind to come on slowly with a tired Horse (which I have been informed is since dead) but has never made his Appearance at Home. . . .

He has been at Richmond, Williamsburg, and in other Parts of the Country, in the Service of Mr. George Rootes of Frederick, and Colonel [Thomas?] Blackburn of Prince William, of whom I had him; and as he is a good Barber and Hair-Dresser, it is possible he may endeavour to follow those Occupations as a free man.
The same notice appeared in other Williamsburg newspapers through September, some referring to Newton as simply “an Indian by birth.” (I first learned of that first ad through Ned Hector’s webpage.)

Sir Charles Whitworth was a Member of Parliament remembered for his use of statistics.

As for Charles Peters, Sieh writes:
Historian Justin Clement has done extensive research into Peters’s years of servitude, court battle for freedom, and subsequent military service. At his querying, historian Todd Braisted discovered that Charles Peters was born around 1757 in Madras (present-day Chennai, India). We can posit that he was born in territory controlled by the British East India Company, and that he was sent as an enslaved person to the Carolinas, where he joined the Continental Army and gained his freedom.

Unfortunately, Peters’s story gets a bit murky after his desertion, and while he occasionally appears in later records, we are still researching what happened to him next. He may have rejoined the Revolutionary forces in time for the reorganization of the North Carolina Line in the spring of 1778. We have tantalizing evidence that Peters participated in the Siege of Charleston, became a prisoner-of-war, and even joined a Loyalist regiment, after which time he died in Kingston, Jamaica.
I must note that, according to the 7 Aug 1783 Pennsylvania Packet, a “pioneer” in the Duke of Cumberland’s regiment named Charles Peters was killed on Jamaica; his murderer, Pvt. John Griffin, was hanged in June 1783.

As Sieh says, both Peters and Newton came to America enslaved. Both had been assigned British names that don’t indicate Asian origin; we need other sources to learn where they came from. And both made multiple moves to gain their freedom.

(It’s a delight to see so many familiar names contributing to the research on these two men: John U. Rees, Don N. Hagist, Robert A. Selig, and Todd W. Braisted.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

“Thereby prevent Inoculation amongst them”

On 25 May 1776, the New York provincial congress sent Gen. George Washington its report about Continental Army officers undergoing inoculation against smallpox.

The congress’s inquiry was instigated by information from Dr. Isaac Foster of the army, acting on orders from Gen. Israel Putnam, so Washington was probably already aware of the basics. But he deferred to the civil government on how to deal with the inoculator, Dr. Azor Betts.

Both the Patriot government and the commander-in-chief had issued orders against such inoculation. They didn’t fear the treatment absolutely. Rather, they worried that unregulated inoculations could end up spreading the disease or weakening the army just as the British military might reappear.

Washington responded to the New York government’s concerns by inserting that report into his general orders for the next day, followed by his own public messages:
The General presents his Compliments to the Honorable The Provincial Congress, and General Committee, is much obliged to them, for their care, in endeavouring to prevent the spreading of the Small-pox (by Inoculation or any other way) in this City, or in the Continental Army, which might prove fatal to the army, if allowed of, at this critical time, when there is reason to expect they may soon be called to action; and orders that the Officers take the strictest care, to examine into the state of their respective Corps, and thereby prevent Inoculation amongst them; which, if any Soldier should presume upon, he must expect the severest punishment.

Any Officer in the Continental Army, who shall suffer himself to be inoculated, will be cashiered and turned out of the army, and have his name published in the News papers throughout the Continent, as an Enemy and Traitor to his country.

Upon the first appearance of any eruption, the Officer discovering of it in any Soldiers, is to give information to the regimental Surgeon, and the Surgeon make report of the same, to the Director General of the hospital.
That certainly sounds tough. But so far as I can tell, it was mostly for show.

As I described back here, none of the officers found to have gotten inoculated appear to have been punished. Nor are there more penalties noted in the general orders. No names were “published in the News papers throughout the Continent.”

What’s more, in the very same period that Gen. Washington was issuing these orders, his wife Martha was being inoculated for smallpox in Philadelphia. Early the next month he wrote to his brother:
Mrs Washington is now under Innoculation in this City; & will, I expect, have the Small pox favourably—this is the 13th day, and she has very few Pustules—she would have wrote to my Sister but thought it prudent not to do so, notwithstanding there could be but little danger in conveying the Infection in this Manner.
Again, it wasn’t the inoculation process that Washington feared. It was the possible side effects, medical and social. The general didn’t want to risk adverse public opinion—hence the very loud and stern reply to the provincial congress.

But Washington couldn’t smother the epidemic. On 2 June, Gen. John Thomas died of smallpox near Chambly in Canada. Despite being a doctor, he had never contracted the disease or been inoculated against it. Many other men in the northern Continental Army were also ill or dying, destroying the Americans’ only chance to take Canada before Britain sent reinforcements.

This small controversy over inoculation in New York in May 1776 showed how men in the Continental Army were pushing back against the official non-inoculation policy. They understood that isolation and hoping for the best wasn’t going to work. In early 1777 Gen. Washington finally came around to a new strategy for protecting his army from smallpox; that story will be part of Andrew Wehrman’s upcoming book The Contagion of Liberty.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

“Confined in the New Goal of the city of New York”

The four Massachusetts men I named yesterday weren’t the only Continental officers trying to be inoculated against smallpox in May 1776.

Members of the New York committee investigating that incident spoke with Glorianna Betts, wife of the inoculating doctor. She revealed “That Lieut. Seymour from Long Island had informed her, that seven persons of the Army (Officers as she understood) on Long Island, were taking mercurial preparations, and as he supposed, were inoculated, or preparing to be inoculated for the small pox.”

Mrs. Betts was probably trying to win favor for her husband, either by pointing out that officers wanted to be inoculated or by giving up someone else to the authorities.

It didn’t work. The New York government was already familiar with Dr. Betts, having locked him up in January for denigrating the provincial and Continental Congresses. On 3 April the committee of safety had freed him on the condition that he
will not bear arms against the inhabitants of the American Colonies, or do any other act inimical to the liberties of the United Colonies, or contrary to the resolutions of Congress, during the present controversy between Great Britain and the American Colonies
The doctor also had to pay his “expenses while in confinement” and give a bond for £200 for “future good behaviour.”

Yet less than two months later, Dr. Betts had gone back to his “business” of smallpox inoculation despite knowing it was against the provincial and army rules. He thus potentially spread the disease, weakened the army, and panicked the local population. No surprise, the New York congress locked him up again.

The next we hear from Dr. Betts is on 14 June, when he petitioned the congress:
That your petitioner hath been for some time past Confined in the New Goal of the city of New York.

That the cause of his confinement is that he hath violated a Resolve of the Honorable Provincial Congress, he having inoculated some officers in the service of this Country.

That your petitioner meant not to injure those gentlemen who were inoculated, nor to show any contempt to your worshipfull house, but ardently wished to render his best services to those who had the Command in relieving them from those fears which people in general have who are subject to that disorder.

That your petitioner is extreamely sorry for the offence he hath given his countrymen and your honorable Body in particular, and prays that he may be released from his confinement and suffered to go at large, and your petitioner doth hereby promise and engage that he will not for the future by word or deed counteract the orders of your Honorable house
Five days later he petitioned again, adding:
That he is in great distress owing to the great Expense he for a long time past hath been to lay in Confinement, his being out of Business and having a large Family; That he is sorry for his imprudent Conduct and sincerly wishes that the Colonies may Injoy the present glorious strougle and Injoy their rights and Liberties uninviolated and their present Contest be crouned with success.

That the Petitioner is willing and desirous to be removed out of the Goal and to be permitted to live in the Country. He would therefore Humbly pray to be removed to the North Castle in west Chester County and have the Liberty of riding Ten or fifteen miles into the Country to visit his Patients, he will especially give security not to exceed the Limets assigned to him and in all things to observe the orders of this Honourable House.
That offer appears to have been acceptable to the Patriot government. As of 14 July, Dr. Betts was listed as “dischd. gave Bond.”

Years later, Betts rewrote this episode in his testimony to the Loyalists Commission. He didn’t mention treating Continental Army officers, apologizing, or offering to live in rural exile. Instead, his claim was:
After his return from Œsopus the Claimt. was tried by the Provincial Congress for carrying Intelligence to ye Enemies & was sentenced to die, and was lying in Gaol under that sentence just as the Brit. troops came.
Curiously, he also testified that he “Made his escape just before New York was taken.” I guess if you’re going to make up why you were put in jail, you might as well make up a jailbreak as well.

In any event, once the British military took Manhattan in the fall of 1776, Dr. Betts became a firm Loyalist inside the city. He “Had a Warrant as a Capt.’s Lieut. in the King’s American Rangers,” recruiting men, and was also “made Surgeon of Queen’s Rangers by Genl. [William] Howe.”

In May 1783, Azor and Glorianna Betts and their children came to St. John, New Brunswick. He resumed his practice “in the Physical Line,” later moving to Kingston at the urging of settlers there. Reportedly he continued to treat people against smallpox, switching to the new vaccine method.

Dr. Betts died in Digby, Nova Scotia, in 1811, according to a family gravestone. (Printed sources say he died in 1809.) Glorianna Betts died in St. John in 1815.

TOMORROW: Back in New York…

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Continental Officers Inoculated in May 1776

On 24 May 1776, Dr. Isaac Foster of the Continental Army discovered that Dr. Azor Betts had inoculated four officers against smallpox, and also against Gen. George Washington’s orders.

Those men were identified in the commander’s papers as “Lt Colonel Moulton, Capt. Parks, Doctor Hart and Lieut. Brown.”

It might be no surprise those all appear to be Massachusetts officers. Not only did Massachusetts supply the bulk of the Continental Army in early 1776, but its officers still tended to follow their own counsel.

Lt. Col. Johnson Moulton (d. 1793) came from York in the district of Maine. He gained the rank of captain during the French and Indian War, and on 21 Apr 1775 he led a militia company south toward Boston. When he and those men returned home after four days, Moulton discovered that James Scamman had already started to recruit a regiment from the area, which proceeded to the siege of Boston.

In May, Moulton presented Gen. Artemas Ward with a letter from some neighbors suggesting he should be colonel and Scamman his second-in-command. Instead, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress went with Col. Scamman and Lt. Col. Moulton. Then Scamman behaved embarrassingly at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Though acquitted of the charge of “backwardness,” he left the Continental Army at the end of the year.

Moulton remained with the army, but he also remained a lieutenant colonel, assigned to the 7th Continental Regiment under Col. William Prescott. Immediately after the British evacuated Boston, Washington ordered that regiment to head to New York and start fortifying the city. On 7 April they were assigned to build breastworks on Governor’s Island.

(There was another lieutenant colonel named Moulton in the New York campaign: Stephen Moulton of Stafford, Connecticut, captured at White Plains. But in May he was representing his town in the Connecticut assembly, so he couldn’t have been getting inoculated in New York.)

Warham Parks (1752–1801) of Westfield and the Harvard College class of 1773 was a captain in Col. Ebenezer Learned’s 3d Continental Regiment. He became a major in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment at the start of 1777.

After being wounded at the Battle of Saratoga, Parks resigned his commission the following March. Washington personally asked him to remain, but he replied, “I am bound in Conciense & honor to Resign my Small Command to those who have health of Body & firmness of mind Sufficient to Carry them through the hardship and dangers of a Soldiers Life.”

Parks returned to his home town, married, and started to win elected and appointed offices. In 1782 he became the brigadier general of the Hampshire County militia and also presided over the court-martial that Col. Paul Revere requested after the Penobscot expedition. His second wife was a daughter of Nathaniel Gorham, president of the Continental Congress in 1786. Parks’s grave marker appears above.

Dr. John Hart (1751–1836) was born in Ipswich and moved to Maine for medical training and his early practice. He became surgeon in Col. Prescott’s regiment in May 1775 and served in that and other Continental regiments until June 1784. After the war he settled in Reading, served in the state senate, and was active in the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

(Again, it’s possible this patient was Dr. Josiah Hart of Connecticut instead, but the surgeon in Prescott’s regiment seems more likely.)

As for “Lieut. Brown,” that man is impossible to identify with certainty. As of January 1776 Prescott’s regiment contained:
  • 1st Lt. Benjamin Brown (1745–1821) of Myrifield (later incorporated as Rowe), who later became a captain and served until July 1779.
  • 1st Lt. Joshua Brown (1742-1817) of Stow, a veteran of the last war and another captain until mid-1779.
  • 2nd Lt. Samuel Brown (1752-1819) of Concord. (Not be confused with Lt. Samuel Brown [1749-1828] of Acton, who was a prisoner at Québec at this time.)
What does identifying those men tell us about their choice to inoculate? First, most of them (or all, if the lieutenant was Benjamin Brown) came from parts of Massachusetts remote from Boston. They were thus less likely to have been exposed to smallpox or had a chance to be inoculated against it.

Second, these were officers, not enlisted men. One was a second-in-command of a regiment. Another was a doctor himself. They had all reenlisted in the Continental Army and would continue to serve on many campaigns. They were clearly committed to the cause. There’s little doubt they sought inoculation so as to be more useful for the army, not less.

Third, none of these four men died from the inoculation. At the end of June they were healthier than before.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there’s no record that these men were punished for convincing Dr. Betts to inoculate them. Some were promoted in the next couple of years. Gen. Washington even asked one to remain in the army. Even though they had disobeyed the commander-in-chief’s order, the commander-in-chief appears to have forgiven them.

TOMORROW: Who took the blame.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

“To return to a proper sence of his Duty to his Country”

On 23 Jan 1776, the New York committee of safety sent Dr. Azor Betts and two other men to the local committee in charge of Kingston in Ulster County.

The provincial committee told their colleagues to lock those men in the town jail since their “wicked practices forbid their being permitted to go at large.”

In the case of Dr. Betts, the “wicked practices” appear to have been saying nasty things about the New York committee of safety and other Patriot authorities.

Kingston’s jail was in the part of town that later broke off as Esopus, the original Native name for the area. On 20 February Dr. Betts sent a petition to the New York provincial congress from “Esopus Gaol”:
your Petitioner fully sensible of his former indiscresions begs leave to return to a proper sence of his Duty to his Country, and your Petitioner further most solemnly assures the Congress, that it shall be his future most earnest study, to convince every individual of his most steady adherence to the utmost of his abilitys in promoting the Liberties of America.

That your Petitioner still flatters himself his crime is not of so atrocious a Nature but that his pardon may be anounced on a due submission, as such he most humbly leaves his case to their tender consideration and should he be so happy to experience their forgivness and protection, it will by him with a most thankfull heart ever be acknowledged and your Petitioner as in duty bound shall ever pray.
The head of the Kingston committee forwarded that on, explaining, “we are entirely strengers to his former conduct.” Betts had “made offers to sign a Recantion and make oath for his futur behaviour,” but the locals deferred to the provincial congress about what to do with him.

Evidently the congress did nothing because a month later, on 25 March, Dr. Betts sent another petition in even more abject language:
I flatter myself my present melancholy situation will be a sufficient pardon for this intrusion but where can the wretched fly for shelter but to those where the power of extricating them is lodged, by the last Post Gentlemen, I troubled you with a Petition the purport of which I am willing most solemnly to adhear to, and as the inevitable ruin of myself and Familly must be the certain Issue of my Confinement, therefore trust to your Clemency for my Enlargement wch. if I am so happy to obtain shall ever with gratitude be rememberd by Gentlemen yr. very obedt. Humble servt.
Dr. Betts’s pleas finally prompted some action, and the Patriot authorities released him in the spring of 1776. He later told the Loyalists Commission what he found on returning home:
About the time of his first confinment by order of the Committee, the Rebel Barrack Master went and broke open his house.

His Books, his Medicines & furniture were lost at that time. The damage done to him was at least £50.
The Continental military probably wanted Betts’s medical resources for their surgeons. After all, there was a war on. 

Dr. Betts was soon back to treating patients. In particular, as described yesterday, in late May he inoculated four men from the Continental Army against smallpox against Gen. George Washington’s express orders.

On 24 May the General Committee of the City of New-York summoned Betts to explain his action. He
allowed the charge against him, and offer’d in his vindication—that he had been repeatedly applied to by the officers of the Continental Army to inoculate them, that he refused, but being overpersuaded, he at last inoculated the persons abovementioned.
That might have gone over better if Dr. Betts wasn’t already suspected of opposing the Continental cause.

TOMORROW: The four inoculatees.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

“Azor Betts be sent to Ulster county jail”

As I quoted yesterday, on 20 May 1776 Gen. George Washington ordered that no one associated with the Continental Army should be inoculated against smallpox.

Four days later, Dr. Isaac Foster appeared before the General Committee of the City of New York and reported:
that information was given to General [Israel] Putnam, that several persons had been inoculated, at the house of one Fisher, in Stone Street, contrary to a resolve of the Provincial Congress of this Colony, he, the examinant (agreeable to Genl Putnam’s order) immediately went to the house of the above mentioned Fisher, where he discovered that Lt Colonel Moulton, Capt. Parks, Doctor Hart and Lieut. Brown had been inoculated by Doctor Azor Betts.
The committee already knew about Dr. Betts.

Back in January, Christopher Duyckinck, the chairman of the city’s committee of mechanics, had accused Betts of
having, in his presence, damned the Congresses and Committees, both Continental and Provincial, and said that they were a set of damned rascals, and acted only to feather their own nests, and not to serve their country; that they had shut up his shop, but that he hoped to see the day when he would shut them up, or overturn them
Duyckinck mentioned a “Captain Buchanan and others as witnesses to support the charge.”

Now Duyckinck was a radical. He himself had defied the committee’s authority, called one member “a usurper and a coward,” and even seized that man’s watch. But Duyckinck had then made some sort of partial apology (while still keeping the watch), and there was no question he supported the Patriot resistance. So when he pointed his finger at Betts, the committee listened.

Betts had come to New York from Norwalk, Connecticut, where he was born in 1740, the seventh child of Nathan and Mary Betts. About 1764 he married Glorianna Purdy of White Plains, and their first child came shortly afterward—or before, according to some online genealogies. By the time the war broke out, Dr. Betts was the father of several children and practicing medicine in or near New York City.

The committee summoned Betts to answer the accusation. He didn’t “deny the charge or desire any other witnesses to be called.” He said he expected Buchanan to corroborate Duyckinck’s testimony. The doctor’s only defense was “that he did not mean to include all the members of Congresses and Committees, and supposes there are some good men among them.”

Not surprisingly, that didn’t mollify the New York committee of safety. [ADDENDUM: And its journal shows members heard from other witnesses:
Capt. John Buchanan says he heard Azor Betts damn the Congresses and committeee, and say they had taken the bread out of his mouth; that his business was inoculation; that the said Azor Betts has taken great pains to prevent Joseph Hunt, an ensign in Capt. [Nathaniel] Tylee’s company, from taking his commission.

Peletiah Haws gives the like testimony as to Azor Betts.]
On 17 January the members resolved that “Azor Betts be sent to Ulster county jail, to be there confined in close jail until the further orders of the continental or provincial Congress, or of this committee."

Years later, Betts told the Loyalists Commission that he had been “confined by a Committee for carrying Intelligence on Board the Duchess of Gordon & Asia. [Gov. William Tryon’s base of operations in late 1775 and early 1776], and for attempting to spike same at King’s Bridge.” However, at that time he had reasons to burnish his services to the Crown. The New York Patriots’ records don’t suggest any suspicion that Dr. Betts was a spy, [unlike other men examined the same day]. Rather, the committee of safety locked him up just for saying nasty things about them.

TOMORROW: Dr. Betts in and out of jail.

(The image above is a broadside Christopher Duyckinck had printed in April 1776 during local elections. I have no idea what he was on about, but it gives a sense of the man’s political style.)

Friday, May 21, 2021

“No Person whatever, belonging to the Army, is to be innoculated for the Small-Pox”

This being the two-week anniversary of my second vaccination against Covid-19, I’m going to celebrate by looking at a controversy around inoculation in 1776.

By then it was no longer controversial that inoculation programs helped protect individuals and communities against smallpox. But people still had reasons for fear.

Inoculated people developed the disease—a mild, non-fatal case, they hoped—and were infectious for several days, including some days before visible symptoms. Furthermore, doctors worried that clothing and other goods might be contaminated and spread the pox. Therefore, people wanted any inoculation program to keep its patients strictly isolated until they had fully recovered, and to take other measure to prevent uncontrolled infection.

On top of that, for an army commander, the benefits of having troops inoculated against smallpox had to be weighed against the risk of taking large numbers of men out of action for about four weeks, leaving the force vulnerable to a non-viral attack.

Gen. George Washington didn’t have to worry about smallpox personally. He’d contracted the disease in the “natural way” as a teenager and was therefore immune. But he worried about his troops and the general population, even accusing the British commanders inside Boston of sending out infectious people during the siege.

Smallpox was already damaging another part of the Continental Army. After Gen. Richard Montgomery failed to take Québec at the end of December 1775, the Continental Congress responded by sending even more soldiers into Canada, with Gen. John Thomas to command them. But that American army was steadily disintegrating, and the worst foe wasn’t the small royal force in Québec but the smallpox epidemic.

Meanwhile, Gen. Washington had moved his larger portion of the Continental Army from Massachusetts to New York. He worried that the British would attack that city before his defenses were ready. As usual, he feared he didn’t have enough troops, and he didn’t want to lose any to either epidemic or inoculation.

On 20 May, Washington’s general orders therefore declared:
No Person whatever, belonging to the Army, is to be innoculated for the Small-Pox—those who have already undergone that operation, or who may be seized with Symptoms of that disorder, are immediately to be removed to the Hospital provided for that purpose on Montresors’-Island. Any disobedience to this order, will be most severely punished—As it is at present of the utmost importance, that the spreading of that distemper, in the Army and City, should be prevented.
Montresor’s Island sat at the mouth of the Harlem River to the east of Manhattan, far enough from the city to serve as a smallpox hospital. Since 1772 it had been the property of Capt. John Montresor, the chief engineer of the British army in North America. (After the war Montresor’s Island was renamed Randall’s Island, and in the twentieth century it was connected to two other islands nearby.)

It took only four days for the authorities to hear about men in the Continental Army disobeying Washington’s order.

TOMORROW: A suspicious doctor.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Dublin Seminar on Disabilities, 25-26 June

The 2021 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will take place online on 25-26 June. This year’s theme is “Living with Disabilities in New England, 1630-1930.”

The founder and longtime director of the Dublin Seminar, Peter Benes, passed away in March. As a scholar, organizer, editor, and encourager of other researchers (like me), he embodied the spirit of this annual seminar, which sought to focus on ordinary people and the stuff of everyday life.

Peter and his colleagues held their first seminar in 1976 in Dublin, New Hampshire (hence the name). For over three decades now, the seminar has been hosted by Historic Deerfield. Last year’s meeting had to be postponed because of the pandemic, and this year’s will be online, but it will still come to us through Historic Deerfield.

The full schedule of presentations is available here. Among the papers that caught my eye:
  • Casey L. Green, “The Language of Impairment: Disability among New England Men, 1690-1800."
  • Andrew J. Juchno, “‘The Fancies and Whimsies of People over-run with Melancholy’: Melancholy and the New England Church from Cotton Mather to Jonathan Edwards”
  • Ross W. Beales, Jr. “‘either insane, enthusiastical, or in Liquor’: An Eighteenth-Century New England Minister’s Response to Mental Illnesses”
  • Katherine R. Ranum, “Hearing the Gospel in a Silent World: Understanding the Intersection of Theology, Disability and Religious Practice in the Early Modern British Atlantic”
  • Ben Mutshler, “For Service and Suffering: Invalid Pensioners in Colonial Massachusetts” 
  • Benjamin H. Irvin, “[‘A] number of Toes & a quantity of good health’: The ‘Black Regiment’ and Veterans’ Disability after the Revolutionary War”
  • Jennifer W. Reiss, “‘Pity That So Fine a Man Has Lost His Leg’: Gouverneur Morris and Early American Disability”
  • Jerad Pacatte, “‘Fitness for Freedom’: The Lived Experience of Disability, Enslavement, and Emancipation in Early New England”
Other sessions focus on the Civil War and later periods, and I might have missed some papers with eighteenth-century content because I didn’t see that in their titles.

Among the other sessions are a conversation with Laurie Block, Executive Director of Straight Ahead Pictures and the founder and Executive Director of the Disability History Museum, and a summary address by Nicole Belolan on “Folklife and the Material Culture of Disability History in Early America.”

There will be live captioning provided by CaptionAccess, and K-12 educators can sign up for professional development points.

Registration for the 2021 Dublin Seminar costs $75, $65 for seminar members, and $45 for students, and is available online. Registrants can request complimentary lecture abstracts through e-mail. The goal of the Dublin Seminar is to produce a volume of the best papers on each seminar’s topic a couple of years afterward.

(The picture above shows Gouverneur Morris’s artificial leg, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Miles Sherbrook in the Flesh

Lately I’ve been noodling on John Singleton Copley’s portrait of the New York merchant Miles Sherbrook (1738-1815), now at the Chrysler Museum. As you can see above, Copley painted Sherbrook without a wig.

Copley made several other pictures of men not wearing wigs or powdered hair. The most famous are his portraits of the Boylston brothers. Other examples show Ebenezer Storer, Nathaniel Hurd, Thomas Hubbard, and Joseph Sherburne.

In all those pictures, however, the gentlemen wore nightcaps and banyans in a studious form of casual dress. Viewers could glimpse their shaved scalps, showing how the men kept themselves prepared for formal dress, but for their portraits they made a show of not being dressed for the world, of staying at home to do the work of wealthy scholars. (The Rev. Thomas Cary also posed in a banyan with no wig, but his head wasn’t shaved.)

In contrast, Sherbrook is dressed for a day at the counting-house. He holds a piece of correspondence dated 1771, not a scholarly book, architectural drawing, or artwork.

The pose and costuming are a lot like Copley’s 1764 painting of Benjamin Hallowell, but that Customs official wore carefully curled, “lightly powdered” hair, probably not his own. 

Another comparison is Copley’s portrait of John Bours, who also wore a gentleman’s suit and his own hair. But Bours’s pose, apparently lost in thought about the book he’s reading, seems more scholarly than mercantile.

Sherbrook displays his own receding, thinning, graying hair. Other details of the portrait eschew luxury as well: no gold buttons or trim, no watch or buckles. The jacket has “coattails that Copley made progressively slimmer in the course of painting—as pentimenti evidence,” according to John Singleton Copley in America. Another sign of lack of vanity: Copley included the pockmarks left on Sherbrook’s face by smallpox.

Why did Copley create such an unusual picture? I considered the possibility that Sherbrook’s aesthetic represented a different culture from his neighbors’. But he wasn’t Quaker like Thomas Mifflin, another gentleman Copley painted without a wig. Sherbrook had come to America from Britain as a young man and remained the agent of his London firm, so was he displaying a more progressive fashion from the imperial capital? By 1771, though, he had been in New York for fifteen years, enough time for to marry a local woman and assimilate to local manners.

We know that Sherbrook signed up for a portrait by Copley through Stephen Kemble even before the painter came to New York in 1771. Furthermore, in his house Sherbrook had what Copley called his portrait of “Capt. Richards”—most likely Sherbrook’s wife Elizabeth’s late uncle and guardian, Paul Richard, who was referred to with the rank of captain in a 1746 legislative act. Copley also painted Richard’s widow on his 1771 visit.

According to Copley, that Richard portrait was “so much admired that vast numbers went to see it.” Sherbrook even let the painter display it at his own rooms to attract more customers. That picture is lost, so we have no clue about how Richard was clothed or wigged, but we can be sure that Sherbrook knew and valued Copley’s work and that Copley was grateful to him.

Thus, Copley’s painting of Miles Sherbrook shows the man as he wanted to be preserved, pocks and all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Getting to Know George III

From the Historic Royal Palaces we hear that Kew Palace in London will reopen to the vaccinated public on 4 June with a new exhibition: “George III: The Mind Behind the Myth.”

As assembled by curator Polly Putnam, this exhibit will reveal facets of the monarch who reigned longer than any other British king but is remembered only for losing the colonies that became the U.S. of A. and going mad:
No one is defined just by their symptoms, yet George III is really only ever known as “The Mad King”. In popular culture he is almost always portrayed as a buffoon. Not only is this portrayal not true, but it reflects much of society’s prejudice against people who suffer from mental illness. Like George in plays, books and musicals, real people with mental health issues are often ridiculed and dehumanised.

In the exhibition, we explore George III’s treatment for his ‘madness’ which took place at Kew, in 1789, 1801 and 1804. We have also included objects which tell us something of his passion and interests, and in so doing we have tried to show something of the real person as well as the ‘madness’.
Artifacts on display will include architectural drawings the young prince made as a student, some of the timepieces he loved, artwork he collected, and clothing he wore, as well as his medical records.

The item above is a porcelain flute, illustrating a side of the king that I hadn’t recalled:
Perhaps George’s greatest passion was for music. He could play the organ, harpsichord, and flute, arranged for personal visits from famous musicians such as Mozart and Haydn if he found out that they were in the country, and organised and attended musical concerts. In the early years of their marriage, he and Charlotte would duet together on the flute and harpsichord. During his isolation for his illnesses he would play the flute, which he found consoling.
On this same topic, here’s an interview with the prolific British historian Jeremy Black, author of George III: Majesty and Madness, published last year. (Black published five other books in 2020, and two so far this year.)

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Right Way to Study the Founders

A few days ago Lindsay Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet, shared some thoughts on continuing to include the most famous Founders in the teaching of U.S. history even as we include more people in our study of the past:
We can and should teach the Founding Generation in all of its glorious complexity. Done correctly, this history is actually remarkably inclusive and helpful. Allow me to explain:

The Founding Generation has received a lot of heat during the last year, and rightly so. Previous approaches often glorified the Founders in ways that are incompatible with the flawed humanity we all experience. By focusing only on the rhetoric, military exploits, or political ideals of the Founders, these histories obscured the lives of women, people of color, and men in the lower economic classes.

But the Founders lived colorful, messy lives and they left records of those lives, in ways that others weren’t able to do or their records weren’t preserved because they weren’t the first president. George Washington didn’t just fight a war or serve as president. He loved to munch on nuts, spent hours foxhunting and cared little about actually catching a fox, he just wanted to be outside, and enjoyed the theater with more enthusiasm than many of his contemporaries thought appropriate.

He both included provisions in his will to emancipate the enslaved individuals he owned and spent years trying to track down self-emancipated enslaved individuals that ran away from the President’s House in Philadelphia in the 1790s. By using Washington’s records as an entry point to history, we have access to all of these stories.

Approached holistically, the Founders are very powerful symbols and offer an incredible opportunity to open conversations. Think about the life I just described. Of course, we can use Washington’s experiences to examine the military battles and strategy of the Revolutionary War. But Washington’s war experience also includes interactions with ardent abolitionist voices and Black soldiers for the first time; which played a pivotal role in forcing Washington to rethink his stance on slavery.

As commander-in-chief, Washington regularly hosted congressional delegations, visiting dignitaries, and foreign diplomats. So, his war service also tells us a lot about diplomacy, social customs, and dining practices. And of course, women were regular participants at these events, especially during the winter when officers’ wives joined them at headquarters. Just the war, therefore, offers an excellent window through which to examine American society more broadly.
I think most Americans would welcome that all-inclusive approach. Indeed, I think the best history educators and public historians use it, moving from the best known and best documented names to a fuller picture.

That said, I’m not sure that approach would resolve the tensions of the “history wars,” Chervinsky’s starting-point. Some people equate any level of criticism of the Founders with disrespect, hostility, and, in the latest overblown buzzword, “cancellation.” Some people complain after hearing about slavery while touring Monticello, a slave-labor plantation.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

“A conception that rivers were boundaries”?

In the Aacimotaatiiyankwi discussion of Little Turtle’s speech at the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, the scholars noted how that Myaamia (Miami) leader referred to the territory at stake.
Hunter Lockwood: …one of the things I noticed about that boundary definition is that it’s basically all using the rivers and watersheds. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about also is: what sorts of things are hard to translate, and what sorts of things are relatively easier to translate in general? . . .

David Costa: One thing Rich Rhodes talked about long ago, when I was a grad student, he said that one of the big salient differences between how territory was conceived of back then versus how white people conceived of it is white people came with a conception that rivers were boundaries. Whereas in North America, at least in the Great Lakes and Midwest, rivers were, that was the heart of territory, so conceiving of those as boundaries as Europeans were wont to do was a drastic change. Because, as you know, that was how people got around. People would take huge detours to get from A to B by following rivers when, if you look at it, as the crow flies a direct line will be much shorter but also next to impossible to do. . . .

Daryl Baldwin: The boundaries are probably heavily influenced because treaty negotiations are not about tribal epistemologies, but about American ideas of land ownership and boundaries. Little Turtle and the other leaders are having to figure out how to talk in those terms, and this might have been a good example of an early attempt for Little Turtle to speak in those terms.

David Costa: Yeah, even though I think he did not speak English, it is actually an interesting big adaptation to European ways of thinking. It’s already evident.
That got me thinking about whether making rivers into borders was a European way of thinking or whether it was an eighteenth-century American way of thinking.

When British settlers first came to New England in the 1600s, they built their settlements at harbors, the outlets of rivers. The colonies spread out from both sides of those bays, so when they met and had to define boundaries, the rivers ended up at the center of the territory, not the edges.

Massachusetts thus grew from Salem and Boston harbor and took over Plymouth harbor. Rhode Island got both sides of Narragansett Bay. Connecticut spread from New Haven, New London, and smaller ports. A minor river defined the southernmost part of the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island, but otherwise those colonies’ lines are straight, not natural.

The easternmost border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire is still defined by the Merrimack River, but it is not the Merrimack River. Rather, William and Mary’s grant stated:
That a line shall run Paralell with the sd. river at the Distance of Three English miles north from the mouth of the sd. river beginning at the southerly side of the Black Rocks so called at low water mark… 
That kept the mouth of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts.

Of course, there was another border between the New Hampshire and Massachusetts colonies, now between New Hampshire and Maine. The Crown finally defined that border with a decree in 1742: “the Divideing Line shall pass up thro the mouth of Piscataqua Harbour & up the midle of the river into the river of Newhichwannick (part of which is now called Salmon Falls) & thro’ the middle of the same to the furthest head thereof…” Legally, New Hampshire owns the river, with Maine starting on the eastern bank.

Finally, the Connecticut River became the dividing line between New Hampshire and Vermont. But of course before the Revolution (as shown in the 1755 map above), New Hampshire claimed everything on both sides.

The New England borders thus show us European settlers at first defining borders without little regard to rivers, then using a river but keeping both of its sides within one domain, and only in the mid-1700s making rivers the actual boundary lines. By the time Americans were divvying up the Northwest Territory, rivers like the Ohio, Wabash, and Mississippi were major lines on the maps.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Parsing Little Turtle’s Speech

Last month the Aacimotaatiiyankwi blog of the Myaamia (Miami) community shared an interesting conversation about the records from an 1795 treaty conference.

Representatives of the Myaamia (Miami) and other Native nations and of the U.S. government met in Fort Greenville in the part of the Northwest Territory that became Ohio. Gen. Anthony Wayne had won the Battle of Fallen Timbers almost a year before, and the Jay Treaty had deprived the Native alliance of support from Britain.

The Myaamia leader Mihšihkinaahkwa or Little Turtle (c. 1747-1812, shown here) made a speech that survives in four English forms:
  • The official report of the U.S. government published in the American State Papers.
  • The diary of U.S. military surgeon Dr. John F. Carmichael (1761-1837).
  • A brief report from John Askin, Jr., a British and Ottawa trader held prisoner by the Americans.
  • A translation of the official English text into Miami, seeking to recreate the original a century later, which was then translated back into English.
The blog also hosted a conversation about those different texts among scholars George Ironstack, Hunter Lockwood, David Costa, Daryl Badwin, and Cameron Shriver. The comparison illuminates some facts about the Myaamia situation in 1795 and about language. For example:
George Ironstrack: Gabriel Godfroy’s [doubly translated] version strikes me as a straight up translation from the English he was provided. We know there is a major language shift between Little Turtle’s time (ca. 1795) and Gabriel Godfroy (ca. 1890). Not that Godfroy wouldn’t have understood Little Turtle’s speech, but I don’t think it tells us a lot about the actual words Mihšihkinaahkwa spoke on that day or the oratorical style he might have used for that circumstance.

For the American State Papers version, we know that William Wells was the interpreter and so I tend to trust the interpretation at a pretty high degree on account of his level of fluency and relationship with Little Turtle, and we also see them working hand in glove politically, which helps me to trust the initial translation, at least. . . .

Cameron Shriver: In the John Carmichael version, I’m struck by how similar it is to the American State Papers version. They almost fully agree, but there are some interesting details in the Carmichael version. “Open your ears and I will tell you where they live,” he says. “The marks of my forefather’s houses are yet plain to be seen. … The Potawatomis live on the St. Joseph and the Wabash, the Ottawas live at ‘blank,’ the Ojibwes live on ‘blank,’ and there are other place names that Carmichael apparently could not write down. Little Turtle is saying explicitly where the Ottawas and Ojibwes and Potawatomis live, and Carmichael just doesn’t know what those words mean or Wells is not translating them from the Miami names. . . .

David Costa: I do wonder whether Godfroy put something into his translation that’s not immediately evident, that might not have been characteristic of his normal speech. You know, there was an oratorical style. There might have been some subtle things about how Godfroy translated this that might have been harking back to “well I kind of remember when I was a kid when people would make speeches.” Maybe he tried to throw in a few old-fashioned turns of phrase into it, like [Thomas Wildcat] Alford did when he translated the Shawnee Bible.
One phrase that appears in both of the detailed contemporaneous sources is “any white man who wore a hat.” This might be a bit redundant because the scholars agree that an early term for white people in Miami and other languages of the area was “people who wear hats.” Notably, the back-translation of the late 1800s doesn’t use that language, suggesting the description no longer held power.

TOMORROW: Defining territory.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Fifteen Years of Boston 1775

Fifteen years ago today, the first Boston 1775 posting appeared on the web.

(I later went back and added a couple of introductory posts with earlier dates, but the 14 May 2006 entry was the first to hit the web.)

I’d been planning a website for sharing some of the little stories I was finding about Revolutionary New England, and my friend and fellow author Greg Fishbone told me how blogging software could be the platform for such a site.

Then I went to a writers’ conference workshop by another friend and fellow author, Mitali Perkins, and she encouraged everyone to just share their expertise and ideas with the world, focusing on content instead of website architecture. So I found a template and started blogging.

That was fairly early in the blogging wave, which has now passed. A lot of discourse about history, both among academics and the public, has moved to social media and podcasts. Lately the chattering class is excited about Substack. Yet I’ve stuck with a daily blog.

I had no idea what the effects of Boston 1775 would be. It became my bona fides when I didn’t have institutional credentials to point to, and it opened doors for new projects. It also led me into many topics I hadn’t considered exploring. That’s probably why I enjoy writing new essays every day—I keep being drawn into learning new things.

One example is the series earlier this month on Abijah Brown of Waltham. I’d never heard of him before. Those posts grew from my longer-term project on the first months of the Continental artillery regiment, what I hope is the eventual follow-up to The Road to Concord.

A few years back, I noticed a letter from Samuel Adams in which he referred to Scarborough Gridley with the rank of colonel. Since I knew that the Continental Army had cashiered Scar Gridley out of the artillery regiment in the fall of 1775 while he was still only a major, that mistake amused me. Last year I tracked down the letter again and wrote a couple of postings about what Scar was up to.

Researching that episode led me to the petitions that Gridley’s father, Richard, who really was a colonel, sent to the Continental Congress. I didn’t want those documents to go to waste, so I started what I thought would be a short series on them. One of those was about a debt to “Major Brown,” so I took my usual approach and tried to identify who that could be.

All I initially wanted to find was a given name to insert in brackets in the middle of the phrase “Major Brown.” I had no idea that Abijah Brown would turn out to have gotten into so many disputes, received special (disapproving) mention in Gen. George Washington’s general orders, or inspired Massachusetts General Court resolutions. Before I knew it, Lt. Col. Brown had taken over a week.

The freedom to go off on tangents like that is one reason I’ve resisted monetizing Boston 1775 with ads. If I get intrigued by a man like Abijah Brown, I’d rather not worry, even a little bit, about whether he’ll keep the numbers up.

I do have a Ko-fi account for tips, but I don’t push it. I’m trying to figure out whether the Patreon model could work, offering something extra to financial supporters. Ideas are welcome, but I expect to continue chasing rabbits on this site for a while yet.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

“A Well Regulated Militia” at Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga has just opened an exhibit titled “A Well Regulated Militia: Citizen, Soldier, and State.”

The museum’s description says:
The militia, one of the most important institutions of American life for centuries, is today almost totally absent from American life. Throughout colonial and early national America, the militia formed the largest and often only means of defense. Regular military forces did not appear regularly until British regulars arrived during the French and Indian War, and even after the creation of the Continental and late[r] US Army, militia forces greatly outnumbered them.

For much of American history, the militia was thought to be more useful and more virtuous. Formed of the people themselves the militia represented the power of citizens that underlay the creation of the American Republic. Obligatory participation in the militia provided citizens with a means of defense and a critical role in the institutions of the state.

At its peak, the militia may have comprised as much as 10% of the US population, compared to well under 1% of the population serving in the National Guard today (the descendant of the militia).

This new exhibit explores this often misunderstood institution from its formation in the colonial period through its decline in the early 19th century. Despite being central to debates over the Constitution and American identity, the militia never truly represented all of “the people” and had a mixed record in military campaigns throughout our history.

Learning about the development of the American militia allows us to go beyond battles and campaigns and reflect on what our nation values, the obligations and benefits of citizenship, and who participates in American society.
From the photographs on the exhibit webpage, it seems to include a lot of nineteenth-century militia uniforms. As handsome as those are, I think it’s crucial to recognize that the essence of the Revolutionary-era militia was that it did not require uniforms.

Officers and companies that drew from the upper class, such as the Company of Cadets in Boston, could afford special matched outfits, and they certainly provided a more showy and military experience at drills and parades. But the strength of the militia was how it drew on nearly every able man in society, meaning mostly farmers and artisans. They were expected to come dressed as they were.

Militia service also had a social function. As I discuss in The Road to Concord, the local company was a community institution and potentially a ladder of class mobility. In nineteenth-century cities, militia companies became increasingly like social clubs, with less connection to either military preparation or government control.

By the late 1800s, for example, the organizational descendant of the Company of Cadets was known for its fundraising theatricals, and those theatricals were known for their cross-dressing men. (See Anne Alison Barnet’s Extravaganza King.) Even by the standards of nineteenth-century militia uniforms, that was showy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Preserving Red Jacket’s Peace Medal

This portrait shows the Seneca leader Red Jacket wearing the silver medal engraved with a symbolic picture of him meeting President George Washington in 1792.

In the early 1800s, Red Jacket faced pressures from both inside and outside his community. White settlers bought and encroached on the land in western New York that he had helped to negotiate for the Senecas. Many of his fellow Haudenosaunee were pushed west to Wisconsin, though he remained.

Red Jacket also adhered to his traditional religion, resisting the revivalist faith preached by Handsome Lake and the Christianity that his second wife and her children espoused. At his death, his family had him buried in a Christian cemetery.

When Red Jacket died in 1830, he left the medal to a nephew named James Johnson, another Seneca leader. According to an article in the 29 Oct 1865 New York Times:
In 1851, however, unknown to the Indians generally, some parties prevailed upon Johnson to part with it for a small consideration, to the New-York State Museum at Albany. In its transit it was intercepted by Col. Parker, then living at Rochester, New-York, who paid the consideration that Johnson expected for it.
Ely S. Parker (1828-1895) was also a Seneca, more distantly related to Red Jacket. He had studied the law but was prevented from taking the bar exam because he wasn’t white, so he then trained as an engineer.

According to the Times article about the medal:
Col. Parker retained it until 1852, when the principal sachemship of the the Senecas and the Six Nations having become vacant by the death of John Blacksmith, he was installed into the office and formally invested with the medal as an official badge.

Col. Parker has since retained the medal as an official medal, although it is not probable that it will be continued after his death, as the Indians are gradually abolishing the system of government by chiefs and adopting republican forms of government.
Parker himself wrote about the medal in 1891:
…at my installation as leading Sachem of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1851, I was formally invested with it by the master of ceremonies placing it about my neck, the speaker remarking the fact that it was given by the great Washington to my tribal relative, Red Jacket, and that it was to be retained and worn as evidence of the bond of perpetual peace and friendship established and entered into between the people of the United States and the Six Nations of Indians at the time of its presentation.
In late 1865, when that New York Times article appeared, Parker had arranged for the medal to be displayed at a jewelry store in New York. By then he was well known as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant, the man who wrote out the terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. When Grant became President, he made Parker the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Parker left the federal government after two years and started investing in the stock market. But his early returns were wiped out by the Panic of 1873. By then married with a daughter, Parker had to seek state and local government jobs that let him support his family. He died in poor straits in Connecticut in 1895.

Members of the Seneca nation prevailed on widow Minnie Parker to send her husband’s body to Buffalo for burial on what once was tribal land. At the same time, the Buffalo Historical Society convinced her to sell it the Washington Peace Medal—an ironic turn of events, given Parker’s action more than forty years earlier to keep the object out of the state museum.

The society has treated the artifact as a treasure in its Buffalo History Museum, and in 1919 it published a biography of Parker. However, as a symbol of peace between the U.S. government and the Seneca nation, passed along as an emblem of office, the engraved medal qualified as cultural patrimony of the tribe, not the property of any individual.

Last fall the Seneca Nation asked for the medal to be returned under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. This month the Buffalo History Museum delivered Red Jacket’s Peace Medal to the Senecas. It is now being held at the Onohsagwë:dé Cultural Center in Salamanca, New York.