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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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Documents Old and New

Last year the Paul Revere House highlighted a document from its collection, a letter from Paul Revere to his second wife, Rachel:
Shortly after the Siege of Boston began in the spring of 1775, Paul Revere took a few minutes to scrawl a hasty letter to his wife, Rachel. In it, he included details of his plan to get most of the Revere family out of occupied Boston.
The letter is datelined only “Charlestown Sunday [Morn?].” Context indicates the silversmth wrote it on 23 or, more likely, 30 Apr 1775.

In 2011, a Revere descendant brought the document to the Paul Revere House, and three years later the museum acquired it.

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia told a similar story this summer:
Discovered in a shoebox in a Northern California garage, the long-lost Revolutionary War diary of John Claypoole is now on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Claypoole was the third husband of Betsy Ross, the seamstress and upholsterer who has long been celebrated by many as the creator of the first American flag.

Claypoole’s handwritten diary, which includes letters and songs he transcribed, was written during the years 1781 and 1782…
At the time, Claypoole and Ross’s second husband, Joseph Ashburn, were in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England, after being captured on American privateers. Ashburn died as a prisoner. Claypoole survived, brought the sad news to the widow, and then married her.

Those documents have something in common besides being connected to middling-class craftspeople who lived through the Revolution and became household names in America’s Colonial Revival. Both were transcribed and published in the nineteenth century.

Elbridge H. Goss published the Revere letter in his 1891 biography, reporting the original as still being in the family. But within a generation scholars didn’t know where it was. They had to rely on Goss’s transcription.

Likewise, the Claypoole prison diary was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1892 but then dropped out of sight until a descendant found it among her late mother’s family papers.

For both documents, scholars already had access to the texts. So where is the value in having the originals? Of course, it’s good to be able to confirm that a transcribed document actually exists, and that the published transcription is accurate and complete. There might be additional information (Goss didn’t publish the “Charlestown Sunday” line), perhaps in non-textual form (What size of notebook could a prisoner of war keep?).

But we also have to acknowledge that the authenticity and antiquity of a historical document produces a magnetic appeal that goes beyond the information it preserves. Though they might be most useful to historians as data repositories, they’re also relics of the past.

Friday, July 30, 2021

“I saw Columbia’s weeping Genius”

On 5 Oct 1778, Benjamin Edes printed a long poem on the front page of his Boston Gazette newspaper. It started:

BENEATH the lofty Pine, that shades the plain,
Where the blue Mount o’erlooks the Western Main,
I saw Columbia’s weeping Genius stand,
A black’ned Scroll hung waveing in her Hand,

The pensive Fair in broken Accents said,
Shall Freedom’s Cause, by Vice be thus betray’d;
Behold the Schedule that unfolds the Crimes
And Marks the Manners of their venal Times;
She sigh’d and wept, the Folly of the Age,
The selfish Passions and the mad’ning Rage,
For Pleasure’s soft debilitating Charms,
Running full Riot in cold Av’rice Arms.
Who grasps the Dregs of base oppressive gains,
While Luxury in high Profusion reigns.
Our Country bleeds—and bleeds at every Pore,
Yet Gold’s the Deity whom all adore,
Except a few, whose Probity of Soul
No Bribe could purchase, nor no Fears controul.
A chosen few, who dar’d to stem the Tide
Of British Vengeance in the Pomp of Pride,
When George’s Fleets with every Sail unfurl’d,
And by his Hand the reeking Dagger hurl’d,
The Furies guide, and Albia’s Offspring feel
The wounded Bosom, from the sharp’ned steel,
The purple Tide the Field and Village stain,
And the warm fluid rushes from each Vein,
Yet back recoils the Tyrant’s bloody Hilt,
And slaughter’d Millions mark the Monster’s Guilt,
But midst the Carnage the weak Monarch made,
Stern bending down his awful Grandsire’s shade,
Bespoke the Pupil of the Scottish Thane;
Why sully’d thus the Glories of my Reign?
The Western World oft for my House has bled,
And Brunswick’s Friends lie mingled with the Dead.
Years later, in 1790, Mercy Warren included a revision of that poem in her collection Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, thus claiming it as her work. You can read the book’s text here.

The newspaper didn’t give that poem a title. In the book, it was called “The Genius of America weeping the absurd follies of the Day.” Curiously, it also carried the date of “October 10, 1778,” five days after it first saw print. Perhaps that was when Warren finished her revisions.

This poem is germane to the question of whether Warren also wrote the lines about Plymouth’s “prophetic egg” that Edes published in January 1777, as I discussed yesterday. The two sets of verses share some qualities:
  • Debut on the front page of Edes’s Boston Gazette.
  • Strongly supportive of the Patriot cause and critical of Loyalists.
  • Reference to “the Genius of America,” also known as “Columbia’s weeping Genius.”
Do those similarities that mean they came from the same pen?

In fact, there’s a significant difference in how the two poems discuss that “Genius of America.” The prologue to the egg poem referred to “a Hermit resembling the Genius of America, who had resided in a certain Forest from the first Settlement of the Country.” That hermit was male.

In contrast, Warren’s 1778 lines leave no doubt that the Genius was female, and more a supernatural symbol than an inspired hermit. (The first version also described a female “Albia,” but that became “Albion” later. I don’t know if anyone’s done a close reading of the two publications.)

There are also stylistic differences between the poems, such as tetrameter versus pentameter, and a generally lower tone in the 1777 lines. That’s not to say Warren couldn’t have worked in a different mode in a quick response to the prophetic egg. But with no external evidence that Warren did write the egg verse, those differences make the hypothesis less likely.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

“Plimouth has producd lately a Prophetical Egg”

Back in 2012 I wrote about the “prophetic egg” found in Plymouth at the end of 1776, forecasting victory for the Howes.

I quoted a couple of men with Plymouth roots, Dr. James Thacher and Elkanah Watson, recounting the story, plus a poem published in January 1777 which appeared to be the only comment about it.

Boston 1775 reader JPC just asked if the author of that poem might be Mercy Warren, as Alice Brown stated in her 1896 biography:
When an egg was found in Plymouth, bearing the legend, “Howe will conquer,” it was Mrs. Warren who at once sat down—possibly in an interval of needlework or brewing—and wrote a counterblast in her customary satirical vein, reducing egg and prophecy to naught.
Brown cited no evidence for that statement, so it’s possible that she merely assumed any Patriot poetry linked to Plymouth must have come from Mercy Otis Warren.

I looked into the question and, while I found no conclusive evidence, found more contemporaneous references to the egg and a provocative link.

On 14 Jan 1777, Hannah Winthrop, wife of Harvard College professor John Winthrop, wrote to her friend Warren:
I hear Plimouth has producd lately a Prophetical Egg that bodes no good to America for the year 77, but as it is said to be laid by a Tory hen I interpret it to be what is wishd, rather than what will happen. The inscription on it is said to be. Howe will Conquer America. but I believe the Prophesy will prove as Brittle as the Tablet on which it is engravd.
Thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society, that letter can be viewed here. It shows that Mercy Warren was informed about the egg, and more importantly—since she’d surely already heard that news by word of mouth in Plymouth—that she knew people in the Boston area were discussing it.

Back in 2012, I wrote that I’d found only one newspaper commenting on the egg, the 28 January issue of The Freeman’s Journal, or New-Hampshire Gazette.

I can now report that Portsmouth newspaper reprinted almost exactly a letter and poem that Benjamin Edes had published on the front page of the Boston Gazette one week earlier, on 20 January. That appearance makes it more likely the author of that poem was based in Massachusetts instead of New Hampshire.

Furthermore, Edes had been the first to print Mercy Warren’s closet dramas The Defeat and The Group and her poem “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs.”

Of course, Warren had supplied some of her work to other printers, such as Isaiah Thomas, and had seen some published without her approval. On his side, Edes published many other poets. So while their previous connection makes it possible Warren sent the egg poem to Edes for publication, it’s not conclusive.

To both JPC and myself, the poem about Plymouth’s prophetic egg doesn’t fit well into Warren’s usual style. But there is one phrase to examine more closely.

TOMORROW: “The Genius of America.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Capt. Brisbane and Two Figureheads

After the sea battle I recounted last week, Capt. John Brisbane (shown here) of the Royal Navy sent his commanding admiral descriptions of the two Continental Navy frigates he had seen.

Presumably that was so the Admiralty Office had a record of enemy vessels, even though one of those was now Britain’s vessel. (I suppose it’s possible Brisbane didn’t know about Cdr. Sir George Collier capturing the Hancock when he wrote his report.)

Those descriptions might be useful in parsing Continental symbolism, or perhaps simply in picturing the scene.

About the Hancock Brisbane wrote, starting with the figurehead:
A Man’s Head with Yellow Breeches, White Stockings, Blue Coat with Yellow Button Holes, small cocked Hat with a Yellow Lace,

has a Mast in lieu of an Ensign Staff with a Latteen Sail on it, has a Fore and Aft Driver Boom, with another across, Two Top Gallant Royal Masts, Pole Mizen topmast, a whole Mizen Yard and mounts 32 Guns,

has a Rattle Snake carved on the Stern,

Netting all round the Ship, Stern Black and Yellow, Quarter Galleries all Yellow.
The figurehead presumably represented John Hancock.

For more on how American Patriots seized on the rattlesnake as their mascot early in the war, you can always return to my article at Age of Revolutions.

As for the U.S.S. Boston, Brisbane recalled:
An Indian Head with a Bow and Arrow in the Hand, painted White Red and Yellow,

Two top gallant Royal Masts, Pole mizen topmast on which she hoists a Top gallant Sail,

painted nearly like the Hancock with Netting all round

has a Garf, a Mast in room of an Ensign Staff with a Latteen Sail on it, and mounts 30 Guns.
A “Garf” was a gaff. That and the latteen sail on a mast at the stern instead of a flagstaff gave the American frigates more maneuverability, especially when tacking.

The Boston’s figurehead might well have been inspired by the arrow-wielding Indian on the old Massachusetts seal, though in 1777 that figure had been briefly replaced by a man in European clothes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

A Change for Email Subscribers

When I compose postings for Boston 1775, I focus on the content and how it looks on the website. Making sure there’s a one-pixel line around the images, for example.

I don’t work on the other ways people see those postings. I know Blogger reformats the page for cellphones, eliminating most of the custom design and the lists of links on either side. The content also looks different after going through R.S.S. feeds.

For people who wanted to receive Boston 1775 postings by email, I chose years ago to attach the Feedburner service since, like Blogger, it was part of Google. Aside from that connection, I didn’t dig into how it worked. Some people told me postings arrived in their in-boxes in the late afternoon, though I always schedule them to appear on the web at 8:30 A.M., and I’ve just lived with that mystery. (As well as why Blogger interprets 8:30 A.M. differently at different times of the year.)

This spring, Google announced that it would no longer support the email subscription feature of Feedburner. Observers suggest the service might disappear completely, like Google Reader, or become unusable. I looked at alternatives and chose to shift to Follow.it.

The transition turned out to be more involved than I thought. There were thousands of addresses on the Boston 1775 email list—far more than I imagined. That required working with the Follow.it help desk, which actually was helpful. Then some chunk of those addresses were probably fictive, snuck on through a particular domain, so they had to be cleared away. With other things demanding my attention, the shift took weeks rather than a couple of days.

Today I got my first look at an example of the new Follow.it email feed, forwarded by a subscriber. The service is asking everyone to confirm that they want to continue to receive emails, which is good.

That email also contains more advertising than I like, and Follow.it wants people to use its service to subscribe to other blogs or news sources as well. Those seem to be the unavoidable prices of a free service. And of course my lovely design features are gone.

This posting is meant to explain the big changes that one set of Boston 1775 readers will see. For people checking in on the web, the blog will keep the same look, at least until I get a brighter idea. But for people reading on other platforms, those are out of my control. I appreciate whatever attention you give to this content.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Back in Halifax Harbor

As described yesterday, on 8 July 1777, after a chase and running battle lasting almost forty hours, H.M.S. Rainbow captured the Hancock, the Continental Navy’s leading frigate.

The Hancock was on its maiden voyage, less than two months out of Boston. It was commanded by Capt. John Manley, the first naval hero of the U.S. of A. There were more than two hundred American sailors on board.

Also captured on that ship was the surgeon, Dr. Samuel Curtis of Marlborough. (Following his story is how I embarked on this voyage.)

The Rainbow’s victory did set some people free: the commander of the captured British privateer Fox and about forty of his crew, being held on the Hancock while a Hancock lieutenant and crew took over the Fox.

Cdr. Sir George Collier, master of the Rainbow, did the same with his new capture. He sent Lt. Thomas Haynes and a prize crew to take control of the American ship.

Once Collier realized there were almost as many American crewmen present as British, he decided both ships should head for Halifax to unload their prisoners before those men got any ideas about retaking their vessel.

“I had the great Satisfaction on my Arrival,” Collier then wrote from that port, “to find the Flora and the Fox both here; she had retaken the latter shortly after I passed her.” Capt. John Brisbane’s Flora had forced the surrender of the American prize crew on the Fox and brought it into the same harbor.

Thus, on 6 July Collier had spotted four vessels in American hands, and two days later two of those ships were under British control and a third destroyed. Only the U.S.S. Boston had escaped. The Royal Navy had suffered minimal casualties.

In addition, the American Tartar, the largest of the privateers to leave Boston at the same time as the Hancock, was captured by H.M.S. Bienfaisant on 28 August with about 130 more men.

Though the spring 1777 cruise had started out well for the Americans, with several captures, it ended in failure. The losses were especially hard on New England since so many of the men on those ships came from the region.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

U.S.S. Hancock and H.M.S. Rainbow

We now return to the sea battle between Capt. John Manley of the Continental Navy’s Hancock and Cdr. Sir George Collier of the Royal Navy’s Rainbow.

Manley was concerned about getting away from the more heavily armed British warship, especially after the other vessels in his fleet, the Fox and the Boston, sailed off in different directions. Before then, he had had a 3:2 advantage over the British, but that was gone.

Collier aimed to capture the Hancock, which one of his officers recognized as a new American vessel commanded by a top American captain, so he kept up the chase.

Capt. Manley ordered his crew to shift his water supply forward, hoping to make the Hancock sail faster. But this was a miscalculation. While the American frigate had “appeared to outsail the Rainbow,” in Collier’s estimation, it was now “out of Trim.”

As night fell on 7 July 1777, the Hancock was still ahead of the Rainbow, but by a shorter distance. Collier and his crew kept his enemy in sight “by Means of a Night-Glass.” This was a telescope with large lenses. In The Panorama of Science and Art (1828), James Smith explained:
The telescope called a night glass is nothing more than the common astronomical telescope with tubes, and made of a short length, with a small magnifying power. Its length is usually about two feet, and it is generally made to magnify from six to ten times. It is much used by navigators at night, for the purposes of discovering objects that are not very distant, but which cannot otherwise be seen for want of sufficient light, such as vessels, coast, rocks etc. From the smallness of its magnifying power, and the obscurity of the objects upon which it is employed, it admits of large glasses being used, and consequently has an extensive and well enlightened field of view.
The example above is offered by Fleaglass.

“At Dawn of Day,” Cdr. Collier wrote of Manley, “he was not much more than a Mile a-head of me; soon after which we saw a small Sail to Leeward.”

Remember the brig Victor, which Collier had left behind the previous morning because it was slowing him down? Under command of Lt. Michael Hyndman, it had caught up with the fight at last! Or rather, the fighting ships had come across it.

As the Hancock swept past the Victor, it fired its guns “and killed one of the Men at the Wheel.” The Victor wasn’t fast enough to remain in the action, but it did damage.

At this point the Rainbow was firing regularly from its bow guns, “with occasional Broadsides loaded with Round and Grape.” Suffering damage in its rigging and sails, the Hancock was moving even more slowly.

“At Half an Hour past Eight I was so near as to hail her,” reported Cdr. Collier, “and let them know, that if they expected Quarter, they must strike immediately.”

Capt. Manley didn’t answer right away. Sensing a new breeze, he had his crew “set some of the Steering Sails” on the side away from the Rainbow. Collier responded by firing another broadside. Manley finally “struck the Rebel Colours.”

TOMORROW: In the wake of the battle.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

“We lost Sight of Capt. Manly”

We don’t have Capt. John Manley’s account of the 7 July 1777 sea battle I’ve been recounting, but we do have the entries from Capt. Hector MacNeill’s journal.

We even have MacNeill’s sketches, as published in 1922. The drawing above shows the situation after Manley set fire to a captured coal sloop and cut it loose as two British frigates approached.

Here’s what MacNeill wrote in that journal, spellings, abbreviations, and nautical terms intact:
Mounday, July 7, 1777. . . . two vesails [H.M.S. Rainbow and Victor] to the Eastward of us. At 4 a.m. see them again Bearring to the Eastwart. Still at 5 a.m. made a Saile [H.M.S. Flora] Bairing to W, we going WbS. She past us and gave us two guns, as soon as she got in our wake She put a Bout and stood for us and came up with us fast and we playd a way with our Stairn Chases.

At 11 a.m. Capt. Manly and the fox and frigate till Darck and could see the frigate two guns

after 11 we began to Engage and had it very warm, the fox being to Lewyard the frigat at hir and she Run be fore the wind. Ther was a two Decker [Rainbow] under our Lee, we ware a Stoping our Shot holes, we thought Not Safe to follow.

Tusday, July 8, . . . At 12 p.m. Capt. Manly put a Bout Stood after the fox, the two Decker gave Chace to him and fird Sevral guns. He stood away as fast as posable. The frigate [Flora] and fox made a Running fight, they stood away a Bout NNE, we stood about NWBN.

We lost Sight of Capt. Manly a Bout 4 p.m. But we keep Sight of the fox and our Ship put a Bout and stood for hir; at 35 Minnites shot off the fox, and thought the fox gaind of hir. The frigate mounted 32 or 36 Guns. We are Surrounded with Ships all Round.

At 5 a.m. we heard Guns for a Long time. We Expect some Engagement Soon. We had one [Gideon] Wasborn kiled out Rig[ht], one [Henry] Green a Quarter master wounded in the Leg, had it Cut of at 8 p.m., died at 4 A.M. See the Land.

Wednesday the 9. . . . The first part of this 24 hours Modrate pleasant we going under all the Saile that we Could Tack, the Latter part a fresh Gale in all Small Sailes. Expecting Every moment to make the Land. Saw a plenty of Rock wead and old Logs of wood. I Could hearitly wich the Hancock and fox was with us for we are all Most in a Good harbour thanks Be to God.
The bottom line was that MacNeill had engaged in the battle early on, but on the afternoon of 8 July the Hancock, Fox, and Boston sailed in different directions, and after four hours he “lost Sight of Capt. Manly.”

The next morning, Capt. MacNeill heard guns, so he knew there was a fight going on. But he didn’t head to the action to help. Instead, covinced there were “Ships all Round," he sailed as fast as he could for a safe harbor. “I Could hearitly wich the Hancock and fox was with us,” MacNeill wrote the next day. But the bottom line was that they weren’t.

In letters written a few days later, MacNeill emphasized some details not in his journal, such as Manley letting some captured sailors go, thus alerting the British of his fleet’s presence, while declining MacNeill’s advice to sail down to South Carolina instead.

As for his departure from the action, MacNeill told the Continental Congress’s marine committee: “We were constrain’d to keep the Wind for our own Security being neither able to Run from nor fight such force as then appear’d to Leward.” On Tuesday, 8 July, he now recalled, “I saw five Sail of the Enemy to the Leward of me three on the Lee bow and two on the Lee Quarter”—details not in his journal.

TOMORROW: Back in the action.

Friday, July 23, 2021

“Manly and McNeal do not agree”

As documented yesterday, there were a lot of people that Capt. John Manley of the Continental Navy didn’t get along with.

One of the most prominent was the navy’s next most senior captain, Hector MacNeill. Their animosity was actually a matter of public concern in the spring of 1777, when they were both in Boston preparing frigates for cruises.

On 23 March, state official James Warren wrote to his friend John Adams, who had been on the Continental Congress’s marine committee but was now on the board of war:
The Hancock, Boston, Alfred and Cabot are all yet in port. It is said the Hancock [Manley’s ship] is ready to sail and was to have gone yesterday but remains here yet. I fear the Consequences of their going out single, but McNeil and Manly it is said like the Jews and Samaritans will have no Connections or Intercourse. They will not sail together.
The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper sent a similar warning on 3 April:
Manly and McNeal do not agree. It is not I believe, the Fault of the first. They ought to sail together with all the Force they can obtain here to join them—a large Privateer would have readily done it. McNeal is inclin’d, and has obtain’d Liberty from Congress it is said, to sail alone. All may be lost in this Way. Jointly they might take single Frigates of the Enemy, or oblige them to sail in Fleets, which would greatly open the Ports for the Supplies from France and evry Quarter. Pray let some Orders be taken in this Matter as early as may be.
Later in the same letter Cooper returned to that theme:
Manly and McNeal are now, like Matthews and Lestac [two feuding British captains in the 1740s]. If they are not better united, infinite Damage may acrue. The latter hardly brooks the Superiority of the former—tho no Man has merited more, in the marine than Manly, or promises better.
It’s not clear how Warren and Cooper knew about the captains’ animosity. Were there open arguments? Grousing behind each other’s backs? However the rift opened, a lot of people knew about it.

For his part, MacNeill later insisted that in this period he’d been on his best behavior:
The General opinion which had prevail’d, that I was dissatisfied with being under Manley’s Command, made me sett up a resolution to obey implicitly every one of his Commands, (as for Signals, I never could get any from him) to the utmost of my power. I did however endeavour to advise him now and then when in a good mood, and he often appear’d to attend to what I said; but the unstableness of his Temper led him rather to do as he pleas’d. Nevertheless I follow’d him as the Jackall does the Lyon, without Grumbling except in my Gizard.
I find it striking that each of those writers reached for a metaphor as the best way to convey the depths of the two men’s relationship.

After the Hancock and Boston left port in May, the two captains managed to work together well enough to make some captures and avoid being captured themselves. But people back in Boston remembered the bad blood between Manley and MacNeill.

TOMORROW: Back into battle.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Captain Manley’s Temper

One of the striking details of Cdr. Sir George Collier’s account of the sea battle on 6-8 July 1777, recounted yesterday, is how his ship had almost no coordination with the other Royal Navy frigate in the fight.

Capt. John Brisbane had sailed the Flora up from New York on orders of Adm. Lord Howe. He happened to intersect the three Continental ships that Collier’s Rainbow was chasing down from Nova Scotia.

Brisbane and Collier didn’t expect to see each other. At first Collier thought Brisbane’s ship was an enemy vessel only pretending to be British. At one point in the maneuvers, Brisbane’s sailing master warned him that they might be so far north as to be out of their station.

I also wonder if the two Royal Navy officers were wary of giving up authority to the other. Collier was in home territory and (at least when the chase began) overseeing two ships, but as a captain Brisbane outranked him.

But the British captains weren’t the only ones who had trouble coordinating their attack.

Capt. John Manley on the Hancock was the star of the young Continental naval forces. Starting with command of one of Gen. George Washington’s schooners out of Beverly, Manley had racked up more and richer captures than any other captain. There was even a broadside ballad about him, illustrated with the engraving above.

But Capt. Manley also had a temper, and he was in continual conflict with other Continental naval officers. In October 1776 he complained about being ranked as second most senior captain in the navy, thus being “under the Command of one man, whose Ability I had reason to doubt.”

In April 1777, as I recounted back here, Manley insisted on a court-martial for his lieutenant, Joseph Dobel, for disobedience.

Then in early May, Manley summoned other captains onto his ship for a court-martial of eight men, including his pilot, ”for Mutiny.” 

One measure of Manley’s anger about those eight men is that the captains he summoned included Hector MacNeill and John Paul Jones, and they hated him.

TOMORROW: Divided command.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Commander Collier and “Part of the Rebel Fleet”

On the morning of 6 July 1777, H.M.S. Rainbow sailed out of Halifax harbor. It was a fifth-rate frigate equipped with 44 guns. Behind the Rainbow came H.M.S. Victor, a brig carrying 10 guns.

In command of that little Royal Navy fleet was Commander Sir George Collier (1738-1795, shown here).

That afternoon, the Rainbow “discovered Three Sail,” Collier reported. He “could form no Judgement of their Force, or what they were,” so he “immediately gave Chace.” After all, he was the navy.

The Victor was lagging three or four miles behind, so Cdr. Collier sent a signal to its captain to make more sail and speed up. As the day ended, the Rainbow’s crew could see they were chasing “large Ships” which looked “bound to some of the Ports of New England”—enemy territory.

Collier wrote, “I followed them with all the Sail I could croud.” At dawn his crew made out three ships plus a sloop “about 5 or 6 Miles distant.” Meanwhile, the Victor had fallen so far behind it was no longer in sight.

At this point Cdr. Collier was convinced he’d spotted the “Part of the Rebel Fleet, which had sailed some Time before from Boston.” Despite being outnumbered, he continued the pursuit. 

The Rainbow had indeed found Capt. John Manley’s growing fleet, consisting of his Continental frigate Hancock, U.S.S. Boston under Capt. Hector MacNeill, a captured British privateer named Fox, and a recently seized sloop carrying coal.

The last vessel didn’t last long. Manley ordered it set on fire and cut loose. Then he gave orders for “setting Top Gallant Royals and every Sail that could be useful.”

Collier wrote:
A little after Six we discovered another Sail standing towards the Rebel Ships; she crossed us on the contrary Tack at about Four Miles Distance, and put about when she could fetch their Wakes; from her not making the private Signal to me, I concluded that she was another of the Rebel Frigates, and therefore paid no Regard as to an English Red Ensign she hoisted, and two Guns she fire to Leeward.
Ships didn’t have to display their true colors until they actually went into battle. Until then, captains could run up any nation’s flag to bluff another ship into thinking they were friendly or neutral or whatever seemed advantageous. Collier therefore suspected there were four enemy vessels ahead of him, but he kept chasing.

About 10:45 A.M., Collier was surprised to see this new ship and one of the original three exchange fire. He ordered his crew to raise the Union Jack. The match had turned out to be three American ships against two British.

The other Royal Navy frigate was H.M.S. Flora, a 32-gun fifth-rate that had started as the French warship Vestale. Its captain was John Brisbane (1735-1807).

One of the American ships split off from the other two. Brisbane on the Flora “exchanged a Broadside with each.” The Rainbow also fired on one that had fallen behind, seemingly “uncertain which to steer,” but “had not the good Fortune to bring down either a Mast or Sail.”

Cdr. Collier watched “the headmost Rebel Frigate put about,…just out of Gunshot to Windward.” He judged it “a very fine Ship of 34 Guns, with Rebel Colours flying.”

An officer on the Rainbow’s quarterdeck recognized that ship from when he had been a prisoner in Boston. It was the Hancock, and its master was Manley, “the Sea Officer in whom the Congress place great Confidence, and who is the Second in Rank in their Navy.”

Cdr. Collier realized he stood at a decision point. Of the enemy ships, he thought, “one of the three must unavoidably escape, if they thus steered different Courses.” The Flora had apparently picked its target, which turned out to be the prize ship Fox.

Collier decided to “put about and follow the Hancock, which appeared the largest Ship,” as well as the most important—and most dangerous.

TOMORROW: Commanders clash.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Six Weeks on the U.S.S. Hancock

Soon after Capt. John Manley guided the Hancock, Boston, American Tartar, and eight other ships out of Boston harbor in May 1777, the privateers sailed off in different directions.

After all, privateer captains didn’t owe Manley any obedience. Capt. John Grimes on the American Tartar, the largest of those ships, headed across the Atlantic and in July captured several British vessels off the Shetland Islands and the coast of Norway. The little ones stuck to the New England coast.

In contrast, Capt. Hector MacNeill on the Boston was in the Continental Navy under orders to stick with Manley. Their target would be British fishing vessels and unaccompanied merchant ships in the north Atlantic.

Within days the Hancock and Boston caught a prize: a small brig carrying cordage and sailcloth.

On 30 May the two frigates spotted some military transports. Unfortunately for Manley, those ships were guarded by H.M.S. Somerset, the same 70-gun warship that had sat in the Charles River in the spring of 1775 (and that wrecked on Cape Cod in the fall of 1778).

The Somerset went after Manley’s Hancock, which had only half as many cannon. MacNeill’s Boston then closed on the more lightly armed transport ships. That forced the Somerset to break off and return to protect the convoy, allowing both Continental ships to sail away intact.

On 7 June, Manley and MacNeill’s frigates chased another promising ship. The Hancock caught up first, and Manley discovered his quarry was the Fox, a British privateer carrying 28 guns. The two ships fought for half an hour. Then the Boston arrived. Between them, Manley and MacNeill forced the Fox’s surrender. Its mainmast and wheel were shot off, four men killed and eight wounded.

On board the Hancock, a black sailor named John Brick “on fortunetly Lost his Left Legg” in this fight, as a second lieutenant attested. Dr. Samuel Curtis thus did his first major operation as a combat surgeon.

Capt. Manley took a few days to make repairs to the Fox. He put a prize crew aboard and divided its crew as prisoners between the Hancock and Boston. This three-vessel Continental fleet then captured a coal sloop off Cape Sable Island at the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia.

By Sunday, 6 July, Manley’s four ships were near Halifax, a major British base. Two large warships came out of the harbor. Capt. Manley turned and headed back toward New England as fast as his fleet could sail.

TOMORROW: Commander over the Rainbow.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Dr. Samuel Curtis Goes to War

When, last September, I left Dr. Samuel Curtis of Marlborough, his wife Lydia and their two babies had all died in December 1774.

Lydia Curtis had been married before, to Dr. Ebenezer Dexter. Three teen-aged sons from that first marriage were still alive. The oldest, William Dexter, married in Shrewsbury in early 1775, so he was probably already in that town, training under another medical doctor.

I suspect the younger two boys were living with Lydia’s parents, who were wealthy and influential in Marlborough.

Dr. Curtis had served on Marlborough’s committee of correspondence since 1772 and represented the town at the 1774 Middlesex County convention. After his wife’s death, he may have thrown himself even more into the Patriot movement. In March 1775, as I recounted here, Curtis took the lead in hunting for British army spies seeking refuge at Henry Barnes’s house.

There are no records of how Curtis responded to the outbreak of war the next month. His name doesn’t appear in militia records. He continued to serve on town committees, and in the fall of 1775 the Massachusetts legislature appointed him a justice of the peace.

(Dr. Curtis was a son of the Rev. Philip Curtis of the second precinct of Stoughton, which in 1775 became the new town of Sharon. Late the following year, Samuel’s younger sister Susanna Curtis married his former trainee, Dr. Daniel Cony [1752-1842, shown above later in life], whose family had moved out to Shutesbury. Dr. Cony spent chunks of the next few years in military service. Eventually the Conys moved up to Maine, where one of his medical colleagues was the midwife Martha Ballard. But I digress.)

William Dexter turned twenty-one in 1776. I believe that meant he came into his mother’s Marlborough property, where Dr. Curtis had been living as a widower. That gave the doctor three reasons to make a life change:
  • psychological, after his wife and children’s deaths.
  • domestic, as his stepson was taking over the family home.
  • political, to help fight the war.
And impulse control might not have been Curtis’s strength.

In March 1777, Dr. Samuel Curtis signed on to be surgeon aboard the Hancock, the first frigate built for the Continental Navy. He would serve under Capt. John Manley, who in the fall of 1775 had proved to be the most stealthy and successful naval officer in the Continental military, winning several important prizes. Manley had been granted the authority of a commodore, meaning that in company with other Continental vessels he could boss their captains.

The Hancock was an excellent product of Newburyport shipwrights. Some British officers would even deem it “the finest and fastest frigate in the world.” It carried 24 twelve-pounder cannon and 10 six-pounders, plus a crew of 290 men. Dr. Curtis spent his first two months in the navy collecting medical supplies for that vessel.

On 21 May the Hancock slipped out of Boston harbor, past the Royal Navy patrols lurking in the ocean. Along with it came the Continental frigate Boston, 30 guns, commanded by Hector MacNeill; the privateer American Tartar, 24 guns, under John Grimes; and eight other, smaller privateers. Manley’s target was British fishing vessels and unaccompanied merchant ships.

TOMORROW: Dr. Curtis’s first fights at sea.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Past and Future of Pioneer Village in Salem

Last month Donna Seger at Streets of Salem provided a long, informed perspective on Salem’s Pioneer Village, a collection of houses and other structures built to represent the town’s earliest British settlement during Massachusetts’s Tercentenary in 1930.

Seger recounted:
Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. . . .

Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing.
Notably, Pioneer Village is a municipal property, not an independent non-profit, though it’s been run by various private organizations from time to time.

In 1985 Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the village, but that prompted a revitalization effort, and the site reopened in 1988. However, it continued to lack a solid financing base.

Salem has a new plan for the structures: moving them to another city property called Camp Naumkeag, which in the early 1900s was a site for tuberculosis patients. There it would be served by the Salem Willows trolley stop. The park around the village’s old site would have space to expand. If everything falls into place, Pioneer Village would reopen by 2026, the 400th anniversary of British settlement at Salem.

According to the Salem News, the Y.M.C.A. of the North Shore has already moved its summer camp from Camp Naumkeag to Pioneer Village. I actually wonder if running an annual camp at the village after it moves would produce a local constituency for the institution in the future.

Seger went on to consider Pioneer Village as a historian:
I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride.
Seger thus sees Pioneer Village as a monument to how Salem wanted to view itself in 1930. But does that rationale still apply? The city’s tourism industry has shifted to focus on the witchcraft scare of the 1690s, leaving less attention to the “pioneers” of the early 1600s, the Revolution, the China Trade, industrialization, and other notable developments in Salem history. Locals might well want to preserve a monument to local history beyond witchy kitsch, but is that enough to sustain a small museum village?

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Looking Back on the Career of Ann Rinaldi

The novelist Ann Rinaldi died early this month at the age of eighty-six.

Rinaldi was best known for her historical novels about teen-aged girls involved in significant historical events, particularly the American Revolution.

She was a newspaper columnist who published a couple of contemporary young adult novels in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, her son Ronald had become a reenactor in the Bicentennial, drawing his sister into the hobby. So of course the parents had to travel with them.

“My son dragged us to every battlefield, monument, fort, and battleground, north and south, from Saratoga to Yorktown,” Rinaldi told Something About the Author. Reenacting immerses participants in the concerns of daily life—clothing, food, handcrafts. Those same details make historical fiction immersive.

Rinaldi applied her growing history knowledge to the Y.A. field to produce the novel Time Enough for Drums, set around the Battle of Trenton. Though historical fiction isn’t always popular with kids, it had a boom in the 1990s. Rinaldi soon made a specialty of stories set in the past. She often took well documented, well known families as her starting-points and mixed in the concerns of her teen-aged readers. And she was prolific.

Rinaldi’s novels set in the long eighteenth century include:
  • Time Enough for Drums (1986)
  • Wolf by the Ears (1991)
  • A Ride into Morning: The Story of Tempe Wick (1991)
  • A Break with Charity: A Story about the Salem Witch Trials (1992)
  • The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre (1993)
  • Finishing Becca: The Story of Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold (1994)
  • The Secret of Sarah Revere (1995)
  • Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley (1996)
  • The Second Bend in the River (1997)
  • Cast Two Shadows: The American Revolution in South Carolina (1998)
  • Taking Liberty: The Story of Oney Judge, George Washington’s Runaway Slave (2002)
  • Or Give Me Death: A Novel of Patrick Henry’s Family (2003)
In addition, Rinaldi wrote about the U.S. Civil War, westward settlement, immigrant neighborhoods—almost fifty novels in all.

In 2017 Laura Ansley, now managing editor at the American Historical Association, wrote at the Junto: “With her focus on teenage heroines, Rinaldi showed that history wasn’t only about important men. Young women experienced these historical events too, and their stories were also worth telling. . . . Speaking with other female academics around my age, I know that I’m not the only one who read and loved these books.”

Friday, July 16, 2021

Charles Adams’s Wish

On 16 July 1775, Abigail Adams had an urgent message to pass on to her husband John, then at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia:
Our little ones send Duty to pappa. You would smile to see them all gather round mamma upon the reception of a letter to hear from pappa, and Charls with open mouth, What does par say—did not he write no more. And little Tom says I wish I could see par.

Upon Mr. Rice’s going into the army he asked Charls if he should get him a place, he catchd at it with great eagerness and insisted upon going. We could not put him of, he cryed and beged, no obstical we could raise was sufficent to satisfy him, till I told him he must first obtain your consent. Then he insisted that I must write about it, and has been every day these 3 weeks insisting upon my asking your consent.

At last I have promised to write to you, and am obliged to be as good as my word.
Charles Adams was then five years old. His father did not use his influence to land him a spot in the Continental Army. But later in the war Charles did accompany his father and older brother John Quincy on a diplomatic mission to Europe.

The “Mr. Rice” who started all this heartache with an offhand joke to little Charles was Nathan Rice (1754–1834, shown above later in life), son of a Sturbridge minister who graduated from Harvard College in 1773. By then his widowed mother had married a man in Hingham, bringing the family to the South Shore.

In August 1774 Rice joined the Adams household as one of John’s law clerks alongside John Thaxter. Because their arrival coincided with the shutdown of the Massachusetts courts and Adams’s service at the First Continental Congress, those young men didn’t get to see much lawyering.

Thaxter transitioned into being the Adams family’s live-in tutor, also going on that mission to Europe. Rice joined the army in May 1775, serving in staff positions for most of the war, including as aide de camp to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln.

Rice settled in Hingham, having married Sophia Blake. He returned to the army during the Adams administration’s Quasi-War, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. In the 1810s, after raising their children, Nathan and Sophia Rice moved up to Winooski, Vermont. The house they built in 1818, remodeled extensively, became known as the “Mansion House”; there was a local dispute over removing it to build apartments in 2019, and I don’t know how that turned out.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

“The idea of a place called Nova Scotia”

One of the most thought-provoking historical articles I’ve read recently is Alexandra L. Montgomery’s essay for the Journal of the History of Ideas blog, “Imagining Nova Scotia: The Limits of an Eighteenth-Century Imperial Fantasy.”

Montgomery, a Nova Scotian herself, writes that the visions of people far from the province have often overlaid actual life there.
Particularly during the decades on either side of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the then-colony became a near obsession among British colonial administrators on both sides of the Atlantic. Generations of men poured over questionable maps, spinning out schemes meant to exploit the region’s rich fisheries, timber stores, and geographically advantageous location along the major ship routes between Europe, the British mainland colonies, and New France. And yet,…while proposals for the region were unending, facts were in short supply.

Indeed, even the idea of a place called Nova Scotia was, for much of the early modern period, unmoored from any objective reality.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Earl of Halifax wanted to mold Nova Scotia into a “model colony,” with lots of British government money and oversight and a new capital named, naturally, Halifax. The French and Indian War made British Canada safer to settle but harder to pay for.
While the new leadership of the province and Board of Trade supported Halifax’s broad vision, they balked at its cost and chose to outsource the next phase of Nova Scotia’s transformation to private individuals and land companies. It was in this post-war context that some of colonial America’s most notable names became involved in the colony to their north. The Board of Trade’s open call for respectable land investors to take up and settle Nova Scotian land attracted no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, and another company from Philadelphia hired a fresh-faced and not-yet-“mad” Anthony Wayne to survey their potential Nova Scotian lands.
But that fuse fizzled instead of booming, and by the time the more populous British colonies to the south were coming together to resist Parliament’s new taxes, American Whigs saw Nova Scotia as what a colony shouldn’t be.
In his 1767/1768 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson pitted the colonies that would eventually break away from the empire against the somewhat newer areas of British control, among which he included Nova Scotia. He rejected the attempts to settle Nova Scotia as damaging to the population levels of the older colonies, not to mention a colossal waste of money.
That attitude colored the American Revolutionaries’ thoughts on whether to treat Nova Scotia as a potential ally, Montgomery writes.

The last image her article left me with was Nova Scotia at the end of the war, firmly within the British Empire and now the Loyalists’ first place of refuge. “Shelburne, Nova Scotia,…transformed from a boom town of as many as 14,000 people in 1783 to a near ghost town with over 300 empty houses just a few years later.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Samuel Adams’s Surviving Sister and Brother

Samuel Adams’s one surviving older sibling was his sister Mary, born in 1717, five years before him. According to descendants, he called her Polly.

In 1742, when Mary Adams was in her mid-twenties, she married a tailor named James Allen. She was his second wife. In 1751 Robert Treat Paine addressed Allen as “Merchant. Taylor living on the Draw Bridge, Boston.”

The Allens’ children included:
  • Samuel (1743-1830), treasurer of Worcester County for about forty years.
  • Joseph (1749-1827), reportedly his uncle Samuel’s favorite, clerk of the courts in Worcester County for more than thirty years and a member of the U.S. Congress for five months.
  • Mary (1754-1842), who married the Rev. Joseph Avery of Holden.
James Allen died in 1755, Mary in 1767.

Samuel’s one surviving younger sibling was his brother Joseph, born at the end of 1728 and thus six years younger. I started looking into the Adams genealogy after a question about this man from an unnamed commenter a few months back.

Joseph Adams followed Samuel to Harvard College, joining the class of 1748. That means there’s a brief profile of him in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates. At college Joseph was a bit of a party boy, once pounding down a door “in a riotous Manner, at Night,” and another time engaging in “contemptuous hollowing” at midnight after a sleigh ride and tavern supper.

After graduating, Joseph Adams trained in medicine. The first documentation of his profession might be that 1751 letter from Robert Treat Paine to James Allen, which offered “My Service to your Spouse and to Dr. Adams.” Paine was a year behind Adams at Harvard.

In 1753 the Boston Overseers of the Poor voted to make Joseph Adams the first “Doctr. for the Alms House,” both “Physition & Chirurgeon.” He was chosen again in 1754 and 1755. In all the Overseers recorded paying Adams about £260 in the currency of the time.

In 1754 Joseph Adams married a woman named Elizabeth Hill. In April 1759, when he was thirty, the doctor was sick enough to make out his will. He died sometime in the next few weeks or months because his estate was probated in September. I found no mention of his death in the newspapers, and no indication he left children.

In October 1764, the widow Elizabeth Adams married Gawen Brown (1719-1801), a “Clock and Watchmaker lately from London” in 1749. She was his third wife. He had six children from his first marriage; one, the future artist Mather Brown, from his second; and six more with Elizabeth. The best known of the last batch was William Hill Brown (1765-1793), author of the scandalous roman à clef The Power of Sympathy.

Since 1763 Brown had been established on King Street. Late in that decade he built and installed the clock that still keeps time in the tower of the Old South Meeting-House (works shown above). Timepieces bearing Brown’s signature are in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and Revolutionary Spaces.

As a native of Britain with continuing business ties there, Gawen Brown appears to have been wary of independence, so much so he’s been labeled the “Tory Clockmaker.” There’s even a latter-day report he returned to Britain during the war, but I can’t pin that down.

Despite that loyalty, Samuel Adams entrusted correspondence to the clockmaker’s namesake son, “young Mr Gawen Brown,” in October 1775. (So did John Adams, though we know his judgment about couriers wasn’t perfect.) I think Samuel Adams was willing to do that because he was a sort of uncle to the young men: Gawen Brown, Jr., was Adams’s late brother’s widow’s stepson.

The younger Gawen Brown followed his father into the trade of importing watches. During the war he seems to have bounced around: a captain of marines in 1776, an officer in Col. Henry Jackson’s Continental regiment in 1778, on state expeditions against Crown strongholds at Newport and Penobscot. Later he commanded the Independent Company of Cadets. This Brown died in Petersburg, Virginia, around the start of 1789.

Later that year, the 11 June Independent Chronicle carried a legal notice about the division of some property in Maine. It was signed by Samuel Adams, Gawen and Elizabeth Brown in her right, Joseph Allen, Samuel Allen, and Joseph and Mary Avery in her right—all the remaining heirs of Samuel Adams’s father.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

“Only three of which survived him”

In 1854 the New England Historic and Genealogical Register printed transcript of pages inserted into Samuel Adams’s family Bible, setting down the family genealogy.

Later the same material was reprinted in Samuel Adams Wells‘s biography of his ancestor.

That page showed that Adams’s parents must have been in near-constant mourning for their young children.

The genealogy starts with the births of the senior Samuel Adams in 1689 and Mary Fifield in 1694. They were married at Old South Meeting-House by the Rev. Dr. Ebenezer Pemberton (shown here) in 1713.

Two years later Samuel was among the men petitioning for land for a new church in the South End, which would open in 1719 as the New South Meeting-House.

Meanwhile, the couple was having children:
  • Richard Adams, born 21 Jan 1716, “being on Saturday morning at seven of the Clock. The said Richard Adams dyed on Tuesday the 26th: day of June, about 10 of ye Clock at night.”
  • Mary Adams, born 30 July 1717, “Tuesday morning, at 4 of the clock.”
  • Hannah Adams, born 6 Nov 1720, “at half an hour after eleven at night, 1720, and dyed the 13th Jan. [1721] at eight of the Clock at night.”
  • Samuel Adams the future governor, born 16 Sept 1722 “at twelve of the Clock at noon, being Sabbath day.”
  • John Adams, born 4 Sept 1724, died 9 Aug 1725.
  • A second John Adams, born 28 Oct 1726, died 15 June 1727.
  • Joseph Adams, born 29 Dec 1728, “one quarter after one of ye Clock in ye morning, Sabbath day. Baptised pr. the Rev. Mr. [Samuel] Checkley ye same day.”
  • Abigail Adams, born 20 July 1730, died 29 Aug 1730.
  • Thomas Adams, born 22 Dec 1731, died 16 Aug 1733, “20 minutes after four of the Clock in the morning.”
  • Sarah Adams, born 18 Nov 1733 at 8:30 A.M. on a Sunday morning, baptized the same day, died 28 Feb 1736.
  • A second Abigail Adams, born 22 Oct 1735, died 31 March 1736.
  • Mehetable Adams, born 12 Apr 1740, died 11 June 1740.
At the bottom of that page, Samuel Adams the Patriot wrote of his father:
Samuel Adams aforesaid, dyed on Tuesday the eighth day of March, 1747, about eleven o’Clock in the forenoon; having lived with his wife thirty-four years, and about ten months. By her he had twelve children, only three of which survived him.
Those three were Mary, Samuel himself, and their brother Joseph, not yet twenty years old.

Of the other nine siblings, only one baby had lived more than a year, and six had died in six months or less.

The elder Adams persevered in recording the detail of every birth and death. Indeed, he became more precise as time went on, recording births at the accuracy of five-minute increments instead of “about 10.”

The younger Samuel Adams grew up to marry Elizabeth Checkley, daughter of the minister who had baptized most of the family.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams’s surviving siblings.

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Board of War and Ordnance’s Rattlesnake

Another place we see snake symbolism in Revolutionary America is the seal of the Continental Congress’s board of war and ordnance, adopted in 1778.

We don’t know who designed this emblem, but I imagine the conversation went something like this.

“All right, gentlemen, as you asked, I added the breastplate and the Liberty Cap to pile of weapons and the drum and the flags. So this is the final, right?”

“Yes, that’s good, but we had another idea!”

“Of course you did.”

“We want to add a snake!

“A snake.”

“A rattlesnake! Like on those Pennsylvania militia drums, and that flag Mr. Gadsden brought.”

“If I added a rattlesnake to that pile, wouldn’t that look like no one in his right mind would try to pick up those weapons? Isn’t that the wrong message for a Board of War and Ordnance?”

“The rattlesnake doesn’t have to be on the weapons. It could be somewhere else.”

“There isn’t really room—”

“Oh, we’re sure you could fit it in somewhere.”

And the resulting design, complete with flying rattlesnake, is still in use by the Department of the U.S. Army today.

It’s not always clear in modern versions of this seal that the snake is a rattler. However, as this Revolutionary War document bearing the seal shows, the rattles were originally distinct. They probably numbered thirteen.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Political Significance of Snakes

Last week the Age of Revolutions blog shared my new article “Join, or Die: Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?”

Prompted by a question from editor Bryan A. Banks of Columbus State University, for this essay I delved into how and why Americans adopted snakes as symbols of their resistance when most of the time they didn’t like snakes. At all.

And by “snakes” I mean multiple species. The fractured snake that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper in 1754 and then resurfaced during the Stamp Act debate is sometimes called a rattlesnake, but it didn’t have a rattle. It was a different species, called a glass snake (or joint snake, or brimstone snake).

The rattlesnake slid onto the scene in late 1775 as the American colonies were at war and needed a more forceful, dangerous viper to make their point. In both cases, I argue, traits that natural histories had ascribed to these New World species fit well into the political narrative that American colonists wanted to promulgate at that time.

Researching this essay made me look anew at a couple of pictures that Paul Revere created for Isaiah Thomas’s Royal American Magazine in March and April 1774. They’re both visible on this webpage from the American Antiquarian Society, and I’ve coped a relevant detail above.

The pictures are portraits of John Hancock and Samuel Adams in elaborate frames surrounded by symbolic figures. At the right stands an allegorical woman—Liberty and Britannia, respectively. The woman (and, in Liberty’s case, a lion) is stomping on a grenadier from the 29th Regiment, the unit involved in the Boston Massacre.

That grenadier in turn is grasping a snake. When I first saw these pictures, I thought the grenadier might have been trying to introduce the snake into American society and gotten caught. Now I wonder if Revere meant that snake was American society, and the grenadier was trying to squash it, only to be squashed by higher forces.

And what about Revere’s engraving of a “Hooded Serpent” or cobra in the June 1774 issue of the Royal American Magazine? Thomas copied the text of that from a 1771 British magazine and had Revere duplicate the engraving. It doesn’t seem like it would have any allegorical significance for the American colonies. But now that I’ve explored political snake symbolism, I wonder.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Unpaid Taxes and a Stolen Horse

As I said yesterday, I searched Massachusetts newspapers for any mention of the Quock Walker cases in July 1783 or any other month of that and preceding years—without success.

I searched not only for Walker’s name but also for the names of Nathaniel Jennison and John and Seth Caldwell, the white men involved.

I didn’t find reports of the case. But I did come across advertisements showing some of what those men were dealing with in 1783.

On 30 Dec 1782, Jotham Houghton, constable for Petersham, sent out a long, detailed notice about the taxes on tracts of land in that town and how much tax was owed on them. It was printed in the 16 Jan 1783 Independent Chronicle in Boston.

According to Houghton’s accounts, “Nathaniel Jennison, of Barre,” owed more than £30 going back to June 1780, plus “for hiring a soldier, 1s 5d.”

In apparent response, Jennison placed an advertisement in the 3 July 1783 Massachusetts Spy offering fifty acres in Petersham and “A LOT of new LAND lying in Rutland” for sale “for State securities or good private security, hard money will not be refused.”

On 2 July, Jennison was on the eastern side of the state. The 10 July Independent Chronicle ran this ad from him:
Twenty dollars reward,
STOLEN from a pasture in Roxbury, on the 2d of July instant, a large dark bay HORSE, sixteen hands high, black mane and tail, trots and paces, high carriage, about nine years old. Any person who shall take up said horse, and give intelligence to Nathaniel Jennison, of Barry, in the county of Worcester, shall receive ten dollars, with all necessary charges; and if the thief is apprehended, and brought to justice, they shall have the above reward of twenty dollars
It wasn’t turning out to be a great year for Nathaniel Jennison, even beyond the judgment against him in the Walker cases. 

But Jennison wasn’t the only figure having troubles. On 19 February, David Puket, the tax collector of Greenfield, issued a notice, printed in the next day’s Independent Chronicle, that he was selling “One farm belonging to John Caldwell, Esq;” for unpaid taxes. As a measure of inflation, Duket calculated the tax bill to be worth:
  • “79l. 4d. old emission.”
  • “4l. 6s. 11d. State’s money.”
  • “16s. silver.”
The sale was to take place on Monday, 17 March.

On 10 June, John and Sarah Caldwell bought a notice in Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy (published first on 12 June), saying that they would sell “By PUBLICK AUCTION” three horses and “A NUMBER of good likely COWS” at “the house of Mrs. SARAH CALDWELL, widow, in BARRE.”

Finally, the 26 June Independent Chronicle ran a notice from Daniel Wells, new tax collector in Greenfield, stating that “John Caldwell, Esq;” now owed nearly £2.13s., and he would sell off the man’s property on 21 July if that bill was still unpaid.

Because of the number of Caldwells in Barre and nearby, I’m not sure those three notices involved the same John Caldwell involved in the Quock Walker cases. Nor can I figure out how this John Caldwell was related to the widow Sarah Caldwell; her late husband was possibly William, who died young in 1780.

Despite those genealogical uncertainties, those advertisements show how farmers in central Massachusetts, including relatively prosperous men who had been able to invest in land in different towns, were under economic pressure by 1783. That was part of the background to the Quock Walker decisions.

One bit of pleasant news: Seth Caldwell married Mary (Polly) Jones of Worcester in 1782, and they started a large family the next year. He died in 1805 at age forty-seven, styled a militia major. She died in 1828 at age sixty-four.

Friday, July 09, 2021

How Did the 8th of July Become Quock Walker Day?

Back in 2006, while discussing a proposed Juneteenth holiday and how the Quock Walker cases had more relevance to Massachusetts, I wrote:
…despite the Walker decision, Massachusetts didn’t become a slavery-free zone right away. That case wasn’t reported or publicized, so only in retrospect did it become a landmark. We still don’t know the exact date of the decision (which makes it hard to observe its anniversary).
At this remove, I’m not sure where I read that scholars didn’t know the date of the decisions that confirmed Walker’s freedom, but I certainly didn’t find any.

When I read that in 2020 the Massachusetts General Court passed a law stating that the decision came out on July 8 and making that date Quock Walker Day in Massachusetts, I naturally became curious. Had new documentation come to light?

First I went back through the scholarly articles studying the case, from the 1960s to the 2000s, seeing if any of them cited a date or a newfound document. Nothing.

Then I looked for books stating the decision came on 8 July. Most of those have been published just in the last few years. The earliest I found was Charles M. Christian’s Black Saga: The African American Experience, published in 1995:

On JULY 8, the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison abolished slavery in the commonwealth by virtue of the Declaration of Rights of 1780.
A similarly organized book, Junius P. Rodriguez’s Chronology of World Slavery (ABC-Clio, 1999) said:
In a landmark judicial decision on July 8, slavery was abolished in Massachusetts by action of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison, which involved the efforts of a slave, Quock Walker, to obtain his freedom. The decision was based upon an interpretation of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
Neither of those books cited sources. Nor did any of the more recent books that echo the same date. This timeline from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Case for Ending Slavery website, a teachers’ resource created in 2010, gives the 8 July date, based on the Chronology of World Slavery quoted above.

Massachusetts’s official guide to the constitutional cases that ended slavery in the state, the Long Road to Justice website, and Historical Digression’s narrative of the cases don’t state a specific date.

I took another look in my newspaper database, again finding nothing.

I decided to go to the expert on both state government records and the end of slavery in Massachusetts, John Hannigan of the Massachusetts Archives. I asked him, Do we know when the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its decision in the commonwealth’s case against Nathaniel Jennison?

Hannigan swiftly replied:
Jennison appeared before the Supreme Judicial Court to answer the indictment during the April session, which opened on April 15 and adjourned on April 24, 1783. [Chief Justice William] Cushing issued his now-famous instructions and the jury found Jennison guilty at some point during the course of those ten days. I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint a more accurate date, as none of the documents are specifically dated beyond the month and year of the session. Indictments were usually entered at the end of the record book for each session, possibly indicating that the justices reserved those for last, but there's no way to prove that.

Ironically, the SJC was not even in session on July 8, 1783. The justices adjourned the session for Cumberland county on July 5, 1783; they didn’t meet again until the Suffolk county session opened on August 26, 1783.
The image above is from the surviving record of the Jennison indictment. Clerk Charles Cushing (brother of the chief justice) wrote “April Term at Worcester A.D. 1783” with no further detail.

Thus, there appears to be not a scrap of historical documentation that the final decision in the Quock Walker cases happened on 8 July 1783, and some strong evidence that it couldn’t have. However, the 8th of July observance is now a matter of state law.

TOMORROW: What Nathaniel Jennison was doing in July 1783.