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, February 28, 2022

“Boston’s Revolutionary Martyrs” Panel in the Back Bay, 5 Mar.

Here’s the second panel discussion about the Boston Massacre that I’ll participate in this week, on the exact anniversary of the event (and of most of the memorial orations that followed).

Saturday, 5 March, 2:00–3:30 P.M.
Boston’s Revolutionary Martyrs
American Ancestors Research Center, 99-101 Newbury Street, Boston

The lineup of topics:
“Young Martyr: The Short Life of Christopher Seider” presented by J. L. Bell — On February 22, 1770, a protest by Boston boys spiraled into a violent confrontation that ended with a customs officer killing a child named Christopher Seider. This young son of immigrants from Germany was thus the first person killed in Boston’s confrontation with the Crown. The town’s political organizers organized a grand funeral for the boy, raising public passions that fed into the Boston Massacre one week later. What does genealogical research reveal about the Seider family, their young son, and the man who killed him?

“Women Witnessing a Massacre” presented by Katie Turner Getty — On the night of March 5, 1770, a crowd, variously described as “a motley rabble of saucy boys,” “mostly boys and youngsters,” “near 200 boys and men,” and “a parcel of Rude boys,” gathered in King Street and famously hurled oyster shells and chunks of snow and ice at British troops. When the soldiers fired on the crowd, five of these boys and men were shot and killed. In the aftermath of the shooting, dozens of male eyewitnesses gave depositions and testified at the ensuing trials. But did any women or girls witness the Boston Massacre? If so, what did they see and how have their voices reached us today?

“The Martyr & the Massacre: The Story of Dr. Joseph Warren” presented by Christian Di Spigna — The Boston Massacre stands as one of the most memorable events in American History. Yet often overlooked is the man who helped immortalize the event—Dr. Joseph Warren. Discover Warren's pivotal role in the Massacre's aftermath as we highlight new discoveries and deconstruct why he remains a forgotten figure even though his fingerprints left an indelible mark on the Massacre’s enduring legacy.
The presentations will be followed by questions from the audience.

This event at the New England Historic Genealogical Society was organized by the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation in partnership with Massachusetts Freemasons, Revolution 250, and the Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution.

Artifacts from the life of Dr. Joseph Warren will be on display as part of a discussion of what martyrdom means in political organizing and historical memory. We’ll have books available for sale and signing as well.

Admission to this event is $15 to benefit the N.E.H.G.S. Register through this site.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Panels on Political Organizing and the Past

Revolutionary Spaces has two online panel discussions in the next week exploring the legacy of violent political protest.

Monday, 28 February, 6:00 P.M.
The Boston Tea Party: 1973 Retrospective
In 1973, as the nation prepared for the bicentennial of American Independence, a different sort of commemoration was brewing. A reenactment sponsored by the City of Boston to mark the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party became the scene of real-life protests calling for environmental protection, racial justice, an end to corporate profiteering, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Some 10,000 people marched in the streets of Boston, mock oil barrels were thrown into the harbor, and an effigy of the President was raised.

Half a century later, this moment of our city’s history is all but forgotten, but as we head towards the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, it raises important questions. How and why do these events deserve to be commemorated? Who inherits a legacy of protest and revolution? Can we look back at a moment frozen in time and still march forward in the spirit of change?
This discussion will will feature former Boston city councilor Larry DiCara and art history professor Henry Adams, with moderator Paris Alston of WBUR. Register here.

Two years later, militant anti-busing protesters commandeered the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre, turning the event into a “die-in” to protest steps to integrate the city schools. Which brings us to the next event.

Thursday, 3 March, 6:00 P.M.
Violence, Revolution, and Memory
In remembrance of the violence perpetrated at the Boston Massacre, we ask ourselves the Essential Question: “What is my ultimate recourse if I am silenced or marginalized?”
The participants in this conversation will be:
  • Mneesha Gellman, associate professor of political science at Emerson College; author of Democratization and Memories of Violence: Ethnic Minority Rights Movements in Mexico, Turkey, and El Salvador and the forthcoming Indigenous Language Politics in the Schoolroom: Culturecide and Resistance in Mexico and the United States; and founder of the Emerson Prison Initiative.
  • Peter Krause, associate professor of political science at Boston College; author of Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight, and Win; and co-editor of Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics and Stories from the Field: A Guide to Navigating Fieldwork in Political Science.
  • Nat Sheidley, president of Revolutionary Spaces and a former professor of early American history at Wellesley College.
Register here.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

“Revolutionary Martyrs” Panel in Framingham, 4 Mar.

There won’t be a reenactment of the Boston Massacre outside the Old State House this year, but there will be other, mostly indoor events commemorating that 1770 milestone. And I’m involved in some of them, including this one.

Friday, 4 March, 7:00 P.M.
Boston’s Revolutionary Martyrs
Framingham History Center

The Boston Massacre is one of the most famous events in American history, but many details about the episode remain mysterious. Was it really the first fatal violence of the Revolution? What do we know about the most famous victim, Crispus Attucks? How many victims ultimately died from the shooting? Was the famous Massacre engraving really designed by Paul Revere? How did Revolutionary leaders like Dr. Joseph Warren keep the memory of the Massacre alive? And how did the idea of martyrdom shape the cause of American liberty?

This event will consist of three presentations followed by a question-and-answer period. The panelists will be:
  • Katie Turner Getty, speaking on women at the Massacre. All the soldiers and all the people shot were male, but women were also on the scene and testified about what they experienced. 
  • me, J. L Bell, talking about Crispus Attucks, a native of Framingham. What clues can we glean about his life from the record of 1770, and what additional sources and theories have surfaced in recent years? 
  • Christian Di Spigna, author of a biography of Dr. Joseph Warren, speaking on the annual orations in Boston that honored the Massacre’s martyrs and how the only two-time orator became a martyr himself.
Also on hand will be the Henry Knox Color Guard, who will demonstrate musket firing on the town common. Inside the Framingham History Center will be a one-night display including a full-scale replica of John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Warren, a portion of the doctor’s missing medical ledger, and the doctor’s Bible, now owned by the Massachusetts Freemasons.

This panel discussion was organized by the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation to observe the anniversary of Warren’s first oration about the˜ Massacre in 1772. Other sponsoring organizations include the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Massachusetts Freemasons, and Revolution 250.

Tickets for this event are $15 to benefit the Framingham History Center. There are no plans to put the presentations online live. To register, follow the instructions on the Framingham History Center webpage.

(The photo above shows Framingham’s Crispus Attucks Bridge, courtesy of David Strauss.)

Friday, February 25, 2022

“So there is a final Issue of the Whole Affairs”

Elisha Gray's signature on an indenture contract with the Boston Overseers of the Poor
Yesterday I shared a letter from 1773 describing how a Barnstable goldsmith named Elisha Gray publicly whipped fifteen-year-old James Paine Freeman as punishment for a prank.

One of my questions was why Gray reacted so angrily to that boy’s joke at a local dance. The man’s life isn’t well documented. It looks like he was born in 1744, married Mary Crosby in 1769, and had small children soon after.

In 1771 the selectmen of Barnstable attested that Gray was a suitable person to take in a little girl from the Boston almshouse called Jane Wiseaker. The Boston Overseers’ paperwork for that transaction can be viewed here.

Perhaps it was exactly because Gray saw himself as a respectable luxury craftsman, a budding paterfamilias, that he reacted so strongly to young James making him look silly at a community event. James, son of a merchant, might have been from a slightly higher social class than Gray, who still worked with his hands, but was also a mere boy who deserved correction.

As recounted yesterday, Gray’s assault on James caused him to be convicted of breaching the peace and fined. But it was common in colonial New England for people to sue their assailants for monetary damages even after criminal cases.

In this case, Elisha Gray actually sued James Paine Freeman first, employing the young Barnstable lawyer Shearjashub Bourne. The boy’s uncle and guardian, Edmund Hawes, went before magistrate David Gorham to represent his side. Hawes reported the outcome to his cousin Robert Treat Paine:
The Proof was that one Witness Saw James tie the Button to the Chair & two Saw it was tied but did not know who tied it upon which the Justice Made up Judgment that James Should Pay Six shillings Dammage & Costs which was 17 Shilings more
Hawes appealed that judgment, but he also decided to get lawyers of his own. He called Paine in on the case. First, he wanted legal advice “whether I had Best Carry it to the Inferiour Court or Stop it where it is now.” In addition, he asked:
I Desire You to fill up a Writt for April Court for Elisha Gray Goldsmith of Barnstable for this Great Assault upon James Paine Freeman & State the Sum at your Discretion And Send it to Me in a Letter before the time of Service for sd. Court is Out. Also Please to Write me word if you Expect to Come to Barnstable at April Court or at the Superiour Court & I will Satisfy You for your Trouble.
Paine sent his cousin the writ he wanted. Hawes also consulted Pelham Winslow of Plymouth. Following those counselors’ advice, he convinced Gray to submit the mess to arbitration by three local gentlemen.

On 12 Apr 1773, Hawes reported to Paine:
it was Try'd & the Award Brought into Court at April Court & they found for Gray to Pay me three Pounds & for Each to Bear his Own Costs at Law & to Pay the Charge of the Arbitration Equally Between them: & so there is a final Issue of the Whole Affairs.
Elisha Gray died in 1776, leaving a widow and young children.

James Paine Freeman's signature on his Revolutionary War pension application
James Paine Freeman served most of that year in the Continental Army, standing guard on Dorchester Heights and participating in the retreat from New York. He returned to Barnstable, married twice, had children, and died in 1833, more than sixty years after being beaten on the streets of the town for tying a man’s button to a chair.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

“Waited for This Oppertunity to Whip Jame in my Absence”

On 23 Feb 1773, Edmund Hawes (1738–1831) wrote from Barnstable to his cousin in Taunton, Robert Treat Paine, seeking legal help.

Hawes was uncle and guardian of a fifteen-year-old named James Paine Freeman. Years before, that boy’s father had worked as a clerk in the counting-house of Paine’s father.

Hawes’s letter described how that lad got into an altercation with a local man:
Now Acquaint you of an Unhappy Affair Desireing your Advice & Assistance therein. Novr. the 2nd: 1772 On Monday Evening James Paine Freeman was at Husking Corn to Mr. Thomas Annables. Elisha Gray Goldsmith of this Town being there, after Husking they had a Dance the said Gray being Tired Danceing Sot Down in a Chair

And it is Said that the sd. James tied the Button of the Sd. Gray’s Coat to the Chair with a Large Twine & when Gray Jumped up to Dance the Chair follow’d Him & Gray to Get Clear of the Chair Puled of his Own Button which was all the Dammage that was Done:

He Gave out that he would whip James for what He had Done: all which I was not Acquainted with by any Body on Saturday the 7th: of sd. Novr. I went to Eastham and Tarry’d there Exactly a Week. The sd. Gray have’g Waited for This Oppertunity to Whip Jame in my Absence.

On Thursday the Twelfth Day of sd. Novr. at About Eight O Clock in the Evening the sd. Elisha Gray Assaulted the sd. James with a Stick About as thick as one’s thumb as the Witnesses Say and Beat him with Great Violence till the Stick Broak to Pieces then Josep Hinckley haveing heard the Blows at a Distance Ridd up to Se the Affray. The sd. Gray Pull’d his Horse Whip out of his hand & whip James with that till the Lash Came off Then Bid James Down on his knees & Begg & then a Second Time which he Did as Once would Not Satisfy his Wicked Revenge. This was Done between My House & the Bridge.

Then Job Howland the Sheriff who Stood at Lawyer [Shearjashub] Bourns Shop Door Hearing the Blows Came & found James Laying on the Ground & sd. Gray Standing Over him: & would not leave him till the Officer Pull’d him Away By main force and Bid James Get up & Gray should not strike him again: and when He Got up he was much Beat and Bloody. All which I Prov’d Before Col. [James] Otis & I hope I Can Again.

On Thursday follow’g I had sd. Gray Before Col. Otis for the Kings Part and he was convicted of a Breach of Peace & Fine’d.
In a postscript Hawes added, “The Marks of James’s being Whip’d was Plain to be Seen Before Col. Otis as His Honour together with Others Can witness the which was allmost a week after he was whip’d.”

But that local criminal case (“for the Kings Part”) wasn’t the end of the dispute. People could also sue for assault and win damages.

TOMORROW: Back to court.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

“After the steed is stolen Shut the Stable Door”

Yesterday I related, with the help of Dr. Robert A. Selig, how Samuel Talcott, Jr., sent his enslaved young man Addam off to Jeremiah Wadsworth (shown here) in Hartford.

Addam carried a letter describing how an unnamed “French general” wanted to hire or even buy him as a servant for the coming campaign. Having heard of that interest from Addam himself, Talcott asked Wadsworth to close that deal for him.

Incidentally, it turns out that was Samuel Talcott, Jr.’s second appearance on this blog. He was one of the victims of the gunpowder explosion during Hartford’s celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act on 23 May 1766. His brother-in-law Dr. Nathaniel Ledyard was killed, and he was “very much burnt in his face and arms.”

But apparently Talcott recovered quickly enough to be back in business by the end of 1766. He appeared in Connecticut newspapers settling estates, helping to organize a new township in western Massachusetts, and otherwise acting as a respectable man of business.

We might think that experience would make Talcott more savvy than he behaved with Addam, because the next development in this story appears at the bottom of a copy of that letter he had sent off with the young man:
Dear Sr.

The foregoing is a Coppy of Mine to you sent by my negro which I find he did not deliver and hath since disappeard——

ay—after the steed is stolen Shut the Stable Door—very true Sr—but as perhaps [smudge] another old adage—Better Late than never may be applied in this Case I trouble you again

I am Dear Sr
ut Supra [as above] & I hope permanently
Saml. Talcott Junr.
Addam had taken advantage of his owner not expecting to see him back for a while to free himself.

According to Bob Selig, “There is a letter to Wadsworth a few months later asking Wadsworth to check the Black servants of the French officers for his Addam, but Wadsworth could not find him.”

Addam may have attached himself to the French troops, but on his own terms. He may have joined the Continental Army. He may have found other work.

All we know is that Samuel Talcott, Jr., ended up with neither his slave nor any of the money he hoped to see.

I found no advertisement seeking Addam’s return, though Talcott and his father did advertise at other times in the early 1780s for a missing pocketbook, a strayed mare, and of course the repayment of debts owed them.

Evidently Talcott didn’t want Addam returned that badly. Or he didn’t want to have to explain how the young man got away.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

“I dont want the fellow but I want Money”

Earlier this month Dr. Robert A. Selig shared an interesting document on Facebook.

It may also have appeared in one of the reports Selig has written for the National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association, and he said he welcomed other people writing about it. So here goes.

Samuel Talcott, Jr. (1740–1798), was a Hartford businessman. His paternal grandfather had been governor of Connecticut, he graduated from Yale College, and his father gave him this fine chair around the time of his marriage.

By 1781 Talcott had a growing family, an estate in West Hartford, and at least one enslaved servant. His Talcott ancestors had enslaved people as well, and there’s a record of him selling a six-year-old girl to James Wadsworth of Farmington in 1764.

In June 1781, many French troops under Gen. Rochambeau passed through Connecticut on their way from Newport to New York. Slavery was of course established in the French Empire as well. Bob Selig wrote, “Having a Black servant was somewhat of a status symbol in 18th c France and a number of French officers from Rochambeau on down either hired or purchased slaves.”

On 26 June, Talcott wrote to Jeremiah Wadsworth, who was acting as commissary for the French army in America:
Dear Sir

Notwithstanding the multiplicity of Affairs with which you Are incumbred as there is no one whose good will and Ability to Serve me in this Matter can be so well depended upon I take the Liberty to trouble you

My Negro Man Addam tells me that a French General Lodging at Mr. Caleb Bull Junr’s Wants to hire him as an attendant and will Cloath him and Give Good Wages

he says he doth not know whether the General Wants to Buy—if so he will perhaps as Likely give a Good price as Good Wages
In other words, Talcott was ready to sell Addam to this general if the price was right. Though legally the Frenchman would owe the young man’s wages to him as owner, Talcott was ready for cash now.
The Negro is about three or four and twenty strong sensible active and handy and may do very well in that department—I dont want the fellow but I want Money—he informs me that the General Goes on this Afternoon—

as I cannot Go in I desire you would take the matter up for me & act in it as you Would for yourself & it would be Done to my Entire Satisfaction, & I believe much Better than I should be able to transact it my Self

I am Dear Sr.
your Affectionate friend & Relative
Saml. Talcott Junr.
Talcott sent Addam off to Hartford with this letter for Wadsworth.

TOMORROW: A good bargain.

Monday, February 21, 2022

A Poetic Postmistress

I heartily recommend reading this webpage from Carpe Librum books, written to sell a rare book of poems printed in London in 1773.

Setting out the sparse known facts about the author Ann Williams, Brad at Carpe Librum succeeded in both assembling an interesting life story and in selling the book.

A taste:

Unlike the majority of women authors before 1800, Williams was not to the manor born. She appears [to] have hailed from the middling classes, and worked for a living as the post mistress of Gravesend, Kent. To the extent that she is remembered today, Williams is known as an experimental biologist, who corresponded with the Society of Arts (after 1908 the Royal Society of Arts, or RSA), which awarded her twenty guineas in 1778 for her observations on the care and feeding of silkworms. She kept her “little family” of “sweet innocent reptiles” in the dead letter pigeon-hole at the post office.
Williams’s poems address astronomy, Gen. James Wolfe, women’s equality, and many other topics, including one “Written when I was extremely sleepy, yet obliged to attend business.”

Unfortunately, Williams died after a laboratory accident in 1779.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

“After 28 Years of active and unremitting Service”

This monument is installed in St. Paul’s Church in Bristol, England. It shows an angel mourning over a stone labeled “Monte Video” with a palm tree in the background.

This artwork was installed to honor of Lt. Col. Spencer Thomas Vassall of His Majesty’s 38th Regiment of Foot. As the inscription explains:
after 28 Years of active and unremitting Service, during which he had justly acquired a high Military Reputation [he] was mortally wounded at the storming of Monte Video in South America, on the 3rd of February 1807, at the Moment he had conducted his intrepid Followers within the Walls of that Fortress, and expired on the 7th of the same Month
Vassall’s fellow officers brought his remains back to Britain, and his wife paid for this monument.

Lt. Col. Vassall began life in 1764 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the second son of John and Elizabeth Vassall. He was born in the mansion now known as Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. The Vassall family was immensely wealthy from slave-labor plantations on Jamaica.

On 2 Sept 1774, when Spencer was ten years old, thousands of Massachusetts farmers marched up and down the street outside his house in the event later called the “Powder Alarm.” Those men demanded that several neighbors—including attorney general Jonathan Sewall, Council members Samuel Danforth and Joseph Lee, and Middlesex County sheriff David Phips—give up their royal appointments under the new Massachusetts Government Act or apologize for actions they had taken under that law.

At the end of the day the crowd surrounded Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver’s house, about a mile to the west, and threatened him into signing a resignation. The lieutenant governor was Spencer’s uncle (in two ways). Undoubtedly that experience affected the Vassall and Oliver children, but I don’t think any of them left comments or reminiscences about it.

Nobody in that 1774 crowd knew that Spencer’s father had just written to Gen. Thomas Gage offering to join the Council as well. And John Vassall didn’t want anyone to know. Within a couple of weeks, he packed up his family and moved into Boston for safety. Spencer and his siblings never saw their Cambridge home again.

By early 1776, the Vassalls were in Britain. Later that year, the family bought Spencer, aged twelve, a commission in the British army. He went on active duty a couple of years later. From October 1782 to the end of the American War, he was at Gibraltar while it was under siege from the Spanish and French. In later conflicts he served in Flanders, Antigua, France, Spain, Holland, Ireland, and South Africa. And, as related above, he died leading a British army attack in Uruguay.

One detail not mentioned on Lt. Col. Spencer Vassall’s monument is that he was born in America. His parents had spent even more of their lives in Massachusetts, and their monument in the same church also says nothing about having been born, married, and started a family in Cambridge. The Vassalls left that difficult part of their history behind.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Historical Events for School Vacation Week

This is the start of a school vacation week in Massachusetts, and some greater Boston Revolutionary sites are offering programs particularly for families with kids.

Old North Church will be open Monday to Saturday, 21–26 February, with special admission pricing. The staff has created a new family activity—a scavenger hunt narrated by Prince, a cat who used to frequent the church. For extra fees, visitors can take guided tours of the gallery (balcony) and crypt.

Folks needn’t to go to the North End to experience some North End history, however. The Paul Revere House is signing families up for guided virtual tours that include an introduction to the Reveres’ lives, a live look at colonial Boston’s oldest surviving house, and questions and answers. Those online sessions are scheduled for Wednesday, 23 February, at 10:30 A.M. and Friday, 25 February, at 2:30 P.M. Registering costs $5–$10.

To see what other Freedom Trail and Black Heritage Trail sites are open, and what their Covid-19 health measures are, check out this webpage.

Out in Middlesex County, the Lexington Historical Society has a special tour of Buckman’s Tavern designed for children aged four to seven:
In an 18th century tavern in February, food was scarce, but chores were plentiful. Join us on a special tour of Buckman Tavern to explore the space from the perspective of an 18th century child. Learn what to cook on a kitchen hearth, play colonial games, read a story, and make fresh whipped cream or butter to take home!
That’s scheduled for Tuesday, 22 February, and the suggested donation is $5 per family. Visitors aged five and older need to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination, and visitors over age two need to wear masks.

(Photo above shows drummers of the William Diamond Junior Fife and Drum Corps on New Year’s Eve.)

Friday, February 18, 2022

Quilts and Bed Covers to View in Old Lyme

Here’s a fragment of a quilted petticoat from the mid-1700s that shows a ship under sail.

This handsome fabric art, belonging to the D.A.R. Museum, is now on display in an exhibit at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut: “New London County Quilts & Bed Covers, 1750‒1825.”

Curated by Lynne Z. Bassett,  this museum show “examines the artistic excellence of these pieces within the context of design inspiration drawn from an array of transatlantic sources and explores the question of how the county fostered such exceptional work.” There’s a preview of the variety of quilts and covers on display on the museum website.

There’s also a stellar series of historical talks connected with the exhibit:
  • Lynne Z. Bassett, online lecture on “Something in the Water: Quilts & Bed Rugs in New London County, 1750–1825,” 24 February, 2:00 P.M.
  • Bassett, gallery talk on “Petticoats in New London County, 1750–1825,” 16 March, 11:00 A.M.
  • Camille Breeze, virtual presentation on “Under the Covers: Conservation of New England Bed Rugs,” 23 March, 11:00 A.M.
  • Linda Baumgarten, online lecture on “Wearing Quilts: Regionalism in Quilted Petticoats,” 8 April, 3:00 P.M.
  • Bassett, gallery talk on “Bed Rugs from New London County, 1750–1825,” 13 April, 11:00 A.M.
  • Marla R. Miller, online lecture on “Hidden Hands: Labor and Leisure in Early American Needlework,” 15 April, 3:00 P.M.
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, online lecture on “‘The Second Scene of Mortality’: Courtship and Sexual Danger in Revolutionary Connecticut,” 22 April, 3:00 P.M.
  • Susan P. Schoelwer, online lecture on “Stitching Women’s Stories: New London County Needlework Traditions and Family Connections,” 29 April, 3:00 P.M.
The gallery talks are free with museum admission. The online events are $10, with a discount for registered museum members.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Howard Pyle’s “Bunker Hill”

This is Howard Pyle’s painting of “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” created in 1897.

As Ian Schoenherr discussed here, Pyle had a commission to paint several scenes from the American Revolution for Scribner’s Magazine, which was publishing Henry Cabot Lodge’s The Story of the Revolution in serial installments.

Pyle tried to imagine the scene accurately from one spot on the slope of Breed’s Hill, with Copp’s Hill in the left background, the grenadiers of the 52nd Regiment of Foot in the center, and the smoke from H.M.S. Lively’s guns mixing with the smoke from burning Charlestown behind them. He reportedly sought information from the British Admiralty about military details (though I would have thought an army source would be more helpful).

Even then Pyle wasn’t satisfied with his first attempt. He slashed that canvas with a sword and started over. He then produced something close to this final image in four days.

Pyle sent the canvas to the Scribner’s office so it could be prepared for reproduction in black and white. But he still didn’t consider the picture to be complete, calling it “unfinished in all of its details” and “crude in color.” Balking at the publisher’s proposal to send his paintings on a publicity tour, Pyle asked for this canvas back so he could keep polishing the details.

Behind that anxiety was an ambition that this painting might hang in the Library of Congress or inspire a commission for a mural in the Massachusetts State House. But neither of those hopes panned out.

Pyle’s “Bunker Hill” is not a historically accurate portrayal of British battlefield tactics, as Don Hagist analyzed here. But as a history painting—an illustration of a semi-mythic story—it’s magnificent.

I’m struck by Pyle’s choice not to show any Americans, as other artists usually depicted this battle. Here, for example, is John Sloan’s picture of the provincials “At the Fence.” Even when Pyle had illustrated “Lord Percy’s Hunted Soldiers” a few years before, he put us beside a local militiaman. But in this picture the Americans are simply puffs of deadly musket fire at the top of the hill.

Those Sloan and earlier Pyle images are in the collection of the Delaware Art Museum, and Pyle’s “Bunker Hill” was there as well. No one knows where this canvas is now, and the F.B.I. would like to find out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Grandmothers’ Tales and Grenadier Gibson

The story from Sarah H. Swan that I shared yesterday, about a British grenadier killed in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, has all the hallmarks of what I call “grandmothers’ tales.”

It was literally a story Swan heard from her grandmother, who in 1775 was Mary Stedman, wife of a Boston doctor. The anecdote comes in a meaningful shape, with a little lesson in fate and family patriotism that a good republican woman might want to pass on to her grandchildren.

I don’t think anyone involved in the story was still around when Mary Stedman first told it to the children of her second marriage, who passed it down. Mary’s first husband, Dr. John Stedman, was dead of yellow fever. Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., to whom Stedman had reportedly passed intelligence, had been lost at sea. Dr. Joseph Warren, who dispatched the riders to Lexington, died at Bunker Hill. Of course the unfortunate Pvt. Gibson was dead, and his wife had probably left Boston in 1776. So no one could contradict this claim.

As I poked into the background of the tale, I was struck by how little information remains about Dr. John Stedman. He and his twin brother Ebenezer were the sons of a well established Cambridge farmer, tavern-keeper, militia officer, and town official. They both graduated from Harvard College in 1765, having lived at home instead of in the dorms. The college granted them the usual M.A. degree three years later.

Ebenezer became the Cambridge schoolmaster and his father’s heir while John went into Boston and trained to be a doctor. In 1769, according to a family historian, he wrote in an almanac: “I am a young man just entering into the world with nothing to recommend me but my education and a few friends whom I obtained while I was assistant to a noted Physician in Boston who has recommended me to the world.”

In 1773, Dr. Stedman married Mary Quincy, daughter of merchant Henry Quincy. They moved into a house on Marlborough Street. But I can’t find mentions of Dr. Stedman as prominent in either political or medical circles. He unfortunately died too early for Dr. Ephraim Eliot’s rundown of the town’s medical men, published in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Proceedings.

Was the “noted Physician in Boston” who served as John Stedman’s mentor Dr. Benjamin Church? In addition to this anecdote, I found another tenuous connection: In October 1776, when Dr. Church was locked up on suspicion of treason, Dr. Stedman bandaged Benjamin Church, Sr.’s head. (That bill was still unpaid after Stedman died in 1780 and the elder Church died a year later.)

If Dr. John Stedman was known to be a protégé of the duplicitous Dr. Church, then perhaps his widow and her descendants felt a need to burnish the family’s Patriot credentials. What better way than to say the Stedmans provided crucial intelligence that helped John Hancock and Samuel Adams evade capture in Lexington? (Even if it’s questionable whether Dr. Church would have passed on that information, and the redcoats weren’t searching for Hancock and Adams anyway.)

As for the unfortunate grenadier private, the name Gibson is common enough to seem plausible. Indeed, there’s a Gibson back in the Stedman family tree.

So Sarah H. Swan’s family lore might belong in the category of myth, a “grandmother’s tale” developed for entertainment or moral guidance that a later generation grew up believing whole-heartedly and inserted into the national history during the Colonial Revival. Some of those late-blooming tales flourished, like the story of Betsy Ross and the first flag. Others have long been dismissed.

But this tale comes with one more wrinkle. Don N. Hagist, author most recently of These Distinguished Corps: British Grenadier and Light Infantry Battalions in the American Revolution, amasses images from British army muster rolls in this period to track individual soldiers as much as possible. I asked him if those documents had information relevant to this story.

Don answered:
In the regiments for which we have complete muster rolls, there was no soldier named Gibson in the grenadier or light infantry companies. I haven’t looked at all at the regiments in Percy’s relief column, so there’s that possibility.

There are no known rolls for the Marines, and that battalion suffered the most casualties on April 19. And there are no rolls for the 5th Regiment for 1775, so we don’t know which men of that regiment died on or soon after April 19.

BUT: on the 5th’s rolls for the second half of 1774, prepared on 16 January 1775, there is a grenadier named John Gibson. And he’s not on the next set of rolls covering the first half of 1776. That’s true for a lot of men in the 5th, and I suspect most of the missing are Bunker Hill casualties, but it’s entirely possible that John Gibson was among the April 19 casualties.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

“A grenadier in full regimentals knocked at the door”

Here’s another anecdote about how Bostonians learned about the British march to Concord, passed down in a family and first published in the 1880s.

The story is said to come from Mary Stedman (1752–1835), wife of Dr. John Stedman (1743–1780). In the 1770s they lived on the corner of Winter Street and Marlborough (now Washington) in Boston.

Three years after the doctor died, his widow married William Donnison (1757–1834). The Donnisons had four children, and Mary Donnison told them stories about the Revolutionary War. Their daughter Elizabeth Quincy Donnison (1794–1876) married the Rev. Richard Manning Hodges (1794–1878) of Bridgewater.

Richard and Elizabeth Hodges in turn had children, including Sarah (1825–1910, shown here). She grew up in Cambridge, married the minister John Augustus Swan (1823–1871), returned to Cambridge, joined clubs, and did charity work. As a widow, she wrote down the stories that her mother Elizabeth Hodges had passed on from her grandmother Mary Donnison.

Sarah H. Swan fed this particular anecdote to the creators of The Memorial History of Boston, a four-volume edifice published in the 1880s. The tale went into a footnote, credited to “a granddaughter of Dr. Stedman,” though in fact Swan was a step-granddaughter of the doctor. In 1897 she included a slightly different version of the family story in her New England Magazine article, “The Story of an Old House and the People Who Lived in It.”

Here’s the first telling of this story from 1775, in Elizabeth Hodges’s voice:
It was difficult at that time to obtain servants, and Mrs. Stedman had been glad to secure the services of a woman whose husband was a British soldier named Gibson.

On the evening of the eighteenth of April a grenadier in full regimentals knocked at the door and inquired for Gibson. On being told that he would soon be at the house, an order was left for him to report himself at eight o’clock at the bottom of the Common, equipped for an expedition.

Mrs. Stedman hastened to inform her husband of this alarming summons, and he at once carried the intelligence to Dr. Benjamin Church, who lived near by on Washington Street.

Gibson soon came in and took leave of his wife, pale with anxiety at the doubtful issue of this sudden and secret enterprise. “Oh, Gibson!” said my mother, “what are you going to do?”

“Ah, madam!” he replied. “I know as little as you do. I only know that I must go.”

He went, never to return. He fell on the retreat from Lexington. A few minutes before receiving the fatal shot he remarked to one of his comrades that he had never seen so hot a day, though he had served in many campaigns in Europe.
And the second:
In the early evening of April 18, 1775, the young wife [Mary Stedman] was somewhat startled by a peremptory knock at the outer door. She opened it herself, and saw a British grenadier, who inquired if Gibson were there. Gibson was a soldier, whose wife was Mrs. Stedman’s cook. She that he would probably be there soon. “Tell him to report at the foot of the common, equipped, at eight o’clock.”

Gibson soon came in to take Ieave of his wife and child. “Oh, Gibson, what does this mean?” exclaimed Mrs. Stedman.

“Ah, madam,” he said, “I know as little as you do.”

When Dr. Stedman returned home and heard of what had occurred he hastened to carry the intelligence to his neighbor, Dr. Benjamin Church, then a trusted member of the vigilance committee, and thus the warning of the approaching expedition was conveyed to [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams, who had taken refuge at Lexington.

Gibson never returned. He fell on the retreat from Lexington, just after remarking to a comrade that “altho’ he had served in many campaigns in Europe he had never known so hot a day.”
It’s a fine anecdote. It conveys two women’s perspectives on the outbreak of war, with most of the action taking place in the kitchen. It offered the pathos of the doomed soldier while appearing as upper echelons of U.S. society were feeling more sentimental ties to Britain than earlier. But it also gives the tellers’ grandmother a crucial role in the American response to the march.

TOMORROW: But is this story credible?

Monday, February 14, 2022

“Tools and Toolmaking” at the 2022 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife has announced the subject of this year’s conference: “Tools and Toolmaking in New England.”

This event will take place in Deerfield, Massachusetts, on 24-25 June 2022, in partnership with the Early American Industries Association, Historic Deerfield, the Eric Sloan Museum, and the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts.

It will include a keynote address, “Tool Stories,” by Steven Lubar, Professor of American Studies, History, and the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, and author of a book in progress exploring the cultural history of tools.

The Dublin Seminar invites all scholars to propose papers and presentations at this conference on “the history and historiography of tools and toolmaking before 1900 in the region that encompasses present-day New England and adjacent areas of New York and Canada.” The announcement says:
We encourage discussion of Indigenous Native American tools and technologies that predate colonial contact, colonial settler tools, archaeological finds, collections, and reproductions. The Seminar hopes to consider tools in the context of home, farm, and workshop in a variety of uses, including artisanal trades and settings of industrial production. Early examples of tools made and used in traditional trades and crafts employed in New England’s first mills also constitute an important area of interest.

Proposals might address any of the following questions:
  • How did Indigenous people devise and adapt specific tools and technologies utilizing regional resources?
  • How did Indigenous toolmakers resist, adapt, and/or incorporate European materials?
  • What can the sharing and giving of tools tell us about relationships in the past?
  • In what ways were tools and tool creation specific to age, gender, class, and ethnicity in New England before 1900?
  • How were innovations in tool making and work processes devised, shared, and circulated among different groups?
  • How did tools and their making affect lifeways and workstyles in the region?
  • How did patent law and legal considerations impact tool making and tool design?
  • How did small-scale tool making and use change in response to industrial systems?
  • How was training in tool usage accomplished?
  • How did innovations in tool making and work processes represent patterns of knowledge transfer and facilitate the adoption of new tools and methods?
  • In what ways did the making and use of hand tools reflect the shift from agrarian landscapes and small farms to commercial centers and large-scale industrial systems?
  • In what ways did tools lead to class stratification?
  • Why and when did early tools become a focus for antiquarian collectors?
  • In what ways did tools help shape, represent and/or transgress gender or other identities?

Additional topics might include:
  • artisanal efforts to recover and recreate specific modes of individual tool-making
  • the production and acquisition of commemorative and/or souvenir tools
  • tools in children’s or educational literature
  • the ad hoc creation, adaptation, or application of tools
  • the appearance of tools in fine or decorative arts
  • tools as they are uncovered archeologically
  • the hazards of tool usage, e.g. “tailor’s cramp” and other conditions
  • the alteration of tools to accommodate disabilities
The Dublin Seminar has always valued inclusion, both in studying the full gamut of New Englanders and their daily lives instead of the elite and in the researchers who participate, coming from a range of professional backgrounds and disciplines. By tools the committee means not just carpenter’s planes and new-fangled inventions but also knitting needles, fishing gear, and the hoops that children learned to use when fetching buckets of water, as shown above.

This will will be a hybrid conference, held on site in Deerfield and online. It will consist of a keynote address and approximately seventeen lectures of twenty minutes each. Dublin Seminar presenters are expected to submit their papers for consideration to the Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar to be published about eighteen months after the conference.

To submit a paper proposal for this conference, send (as a single email attachment in Word or as a P.D.F.) a one-page prospectus that describes the paper and its sources and a one-page vita or biography by 11 Mar 2022 to dublinseminar@historic-deerfield.org. For the text of this call and additional information, see the conference page at Historic Deerfield.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Kidder on Jacob Francis, 15 Feb.

Back in 2018, I wrote a series of blog posts that turned into the Journal of the American Revolution article “The General, the Corporal, and the Anecdote.”

It discussed the evolution of a story that appeared in the 1832 pension application of an African-American veteran named Jacob Francis.

As those posts appeared, William L. Kidder contacted me with the news that he was researching all of Pvt. Francis’s full life and military career. That, too, became a J.A.R. article, “The American Revolution of Private Jacob Francis.”

Now Larry Kidder has shared his full research in a book titled The Revolutionary World of a Free Black Man: Jacob Francis: 1754-1836.

On Tuesday, 15 February, at 7:00 P.M., Kidder will discuss this new book online as part of Roger Williams’s History Author Talk series. You can register for that event here.

One detail of Francis’s life that I find especially interesting is how he moved around a lot as a teenager indentured to a series of men. Born in New Jersey, he traveled south to the Caribbean and then north to Salem in 1768.

Thus, Francis witnessed the coming of the war in Essex County, enlisted in the Massachusetts army, and fought in the siege of Boston.

After two years as a Continental soldier, Francis settled back in New Jersey. He found his mother after years of separation, married, raised a family, and lived into his eighties. This new book has all the details of that long American life.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

More Praise for the Doctor’s Glassy-Chord

Last month I wrote about Benjamin Franklin’s musical invention, the glassy-chord or, as he rebranded it in 1762, the armonica.

Franklin brought one of those glass instruments back home to Philadelphia in the early 1760s and showed it to friends. He was already famous for his lightning rod, and this looked like another product of American scientific genius.

Among the people who heard the instrument was Nathaniel Evans, who turned twenty-one in 1763. Son of a merchant, he was one of the first boys to attend the Academy of Philadelphia, which Franklin had helped to found in 1750. Evans then served an apprenticeship in a mercantile countinghouse.

On coming of age, Evans decided he preferred the life of the mind and convinced the College of Philadelphia (the higher level of the academy, also co-founded by Franklin) to treat him as a graduate student. After earning a master’s degree in 1765, Evans sailed for London to take holy orders in the Church of England.

Franklin was back working in the imperial capital by then, too. He was no doubt pleased to see the poem that Evans placed in the London Chronicle for 31 Aug–3 Sept 1765. Indeed, Dr. Franklin might have had a hand in that publication.

Evans’s poem was headed “To Benjamin Franklin, esq; ll.d. f.r.s. Occasioned by hearing him play on the Armonica. Written in Philadelphia, 1763”:
Long had we, lost in grateful wonder, view’d
Each gen’rous act thy patriot soul pursu’d;
Our little State resounds thy just applause,
And pleas’d from thee new fame and honour draws.

Envy is now, by merit overthrown,
Oblig’d in thee superior worth to own.
The Muse to sacred virtue ever bound,
Beams the bright ray her glorious sons around;
And sure in thee those virtues are combin’d,
That form the true pre-eminence of mind.

How were we fixt with rapture and surprize,
When first you told the wonders of the skies!
By simple laws deducing truths sublime,
Before, deep-bosom’d in the womb of time.

With admiration struck, we did survey
The lambent lightnings innocently play,
And the red thunder from th’ ethereal round
Burst the black clouds and harmless smite the ground,
As down thy Rod was seen the dreaded fire,
In a swift flame to vanish and expire:
Blest use of art! apply’d to serve mankind,
The noble province of the sapient mind!

This, this be wisdom’s, this the sage’s claim,
To trace the godhead thro’ this wondrous frame;
For this the soul’s grand faculties were giv’n,
To search the chain connecting man with heav’n.
But not alone those weightier thoughts controul
Thy comprehensive far-pervading soul;
The softer studies thy regard command,
And rise with fair refinement from thy hand.

Aided by thee, Urania’s heavenly art
With finer raptures charms th’ extatic heart;
Th’ Armonica shall join the sacred choir,
Fresh transports kindle, and new joys inspire.
Hark! the soft warblings, rolling smooth and clear,
Strike with celestial ravishment the ear,
Conveying inward, as they sweetly roll,
A tide of melting music to the soul.

And sure if aught of mortal-moving strain,
Can touch with joy the high angelic train,
’Tis such a pure transcendent sound divine
As breathes this heart-enchanting frame of thine.
Shall not the Muse her slender tribute pay?
Her’s is no venal, but the grateful lay;
Apollo bids it, where such virtues shine,
And pours a graceful sweetness thro’ each line;
Her country too, responsive to the sound,
Swells the full note, and tells it all around.
After being ordained, Nathaniel Evans returned to America. With the sponsorship of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, he became the Anglican minister in Haddonfield, New Jersey. But the young Rev. Mr. Evans died only two years later of tuberculosis.

In 1772, the head of the College of Philadelphia, the Rev. Dr. William Smith, published a collection of Evans’s poems. The young minister had bequeathed a manuscript to Smith and a young lady he’d met on his trip home who also wrote poetry. The published collection included this poem about Franklin’s armonica, but a version that conveys the same message in less than two-thirds the length.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Looking Back on a Fun Month

I didn’t start this year planning to delve into the mystery of who told Dr. Joseph Warren about the British march to Concord.

After all, there’s so much of the Saga of the Brazen Head still to tell.

But I was intrigued by this essay at the American Revolution Institute about one of its recent acquisitions, an engraving titled “The Hero returned from Boston.”

That essay discussed the possibility that Warren’s informant was Margaret Gage, wife of the British commander. It also dismissed that idea as unlikely and unsupported. I wrote much the same years back, and didn’t think I had anything new to find out or share.

In its original form, however, that essay quoted a statement about the Gages I hadn’t seen before. That produced a jolting mix of emotions:
  • A relevant source I’ve missed? How exciting!
  • A relevant source I’ve missed? How embarrassing!
So a month ago I had to look into that source. I found it was actually an early-twentieth-century historian misquoted on a British website. (Phew!)

My posting about that prompted the director of the American Revolution Institute, Jack Warren, to revise the essay and to share thoughts in the comments of my posting on why that 1911 historian was so open to the idea of Mrs. Gage betraying her husband’s secrets.

Jack’s comments in turn prompted me to review all the evidence authors have used to point to Margaret Gage, starting in 1788, plus the milestones in the publication of that idea. To my surprise, I saw that for over a century almost every author who brought up that idea did so only to argue against it. So then I had to consider how the evidence came to appear stronger the further we were removed from the eighteenth century.

During that review I also came across a source that didn’t mention Margaret Gage, though it’s been used to bolster a case against her: the Rev. Jeremy Belknap’s diary from late 1775. And I was lucky enough to realize it could link to another source I discussed a couple of years ago, memories of tales told by Josiah Waters around 1800. If both those sources are reliable, they tell us exactly who Dr. Warren got information from and how: the completely overlooked knife-maker William Jasper.

All that, as I suggested above, was a pleasant surprise. It was the result of an intriguing artifact and essay, fortuitous timing, errors to be corrected (including my own), input from commenters, a new approach to the evidence, and the proliferation of digitized sources. 

And a bonus: This week Bob Gross alerted me that the Loyalists Commission claims are available digitized on Ancestry.com, so now I can go explore exactly what Thomas Beaman’s family said about him and a lot more. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

“He collected many facts, for a history”

Another reason I suspect Josiah Waters, Jr., was the “Mr. Waters” who told the Rev. Jeremy Belknap about the Boston Patriots’ intelligence on the march to Concord is that it fits with what people tell us about Waters’s later behavior.

Waters was really interested in preserving military lore. By the mid-1780s he was colonel of the Boston militia regiment. He also served as treasurer of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and one of the first books about that organization’s members says:

He collected many facts, for a history, but never published them. The manuscript is lost. The older members used to speak of it as containing important facts, as well as anecdotes of members, now preserved in the imperfect recollection of survivors.
Specifically, we know that Waters was passing on stories about the beginning of the Revolutionary War before he died in 1804.

In fact, we have another account of how Dr. Joseph Warren learned about the British army mission that came ultimately from this Josiah Waters. It was published in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1853, and I shared it back in 2020.

That account was transmitted orally through a couple of people before being written down: from Col. Waters to Joseph Curtis to Catherine Curtis and into the journal. As a result, some details got muddled—most notably, the name of William Dawes (Waters’s first cousin) morphed into Ebenezer Dorr.

Putting that account together with what Belknap wrote down in 1775 shows how the two complement each other. Here are the passages about the best-placed informant.

Belknap, 1775:
Mr. Waters informed me, that the design of the regular troops, when they marched out of Boston the night of April 18, was discovered to Dr Warren by a person kept in pay for that purpose. . . . [After gathering early indications something was afoot] Dr. Warren…applied to the person who had been retained, and got intelligence of their whole design; which was to seize [Samuel] Adams and [John] Hancock, who were at Lexington, and burn the stores at Concord.
Curtis, 1853:
The Americans obtained this news, through an individual by the name of Jasper, an Englishman, a gunsmith by trade, whose shop was in Hatter’s Square; he worked for the British, but was friendly to the rebels; a sergeant major quartered in his family and made a confidant of him, telling him all their plans. Jasper repeated the same to Col. Waters, who made it known to the Committee of Safety.
Looking at those sources together, I think it’s likely that the Boston Patriots’ paid informant was William Jasper (d. 1786), a maker of cutlery and surgical instruments from Britain. I gathered all the information I could find about Jasper here.

If these two accounts are basically reliable, Jasper rented rooms to a British sergeant major, who trusted him because of his British birth and his work repairing army weapons. But Jasper was also funneling information to Waters and Dr. Warren in exchange for money.

As I understand it, the British army didn’t formalize the duties of a sergeant major until the late 1790s. But it was already the designation of a senior sergeant with more authority than any other enlisted man in that unit. A sergeant major wouldn’t have been privy to Gen. Thomas Gage’s whole plan. But by late on the afternoon of 18 April he may well have been aware of some crucial variables:
  • The troops would leave Boston by water instead of over the Neck, indicating a destination to the northwest rather than, say, Worcester.
  • The troops were preparing to travel farther and stay out longer than the training marches of previous weeks.
The man may even have known about those mounted officers sent out as far as Lincoln on 18 April.

With solid but incomplete information, Warren dispatched Dawes and Paul Revere, as well as an anonymous and unsuccessful rider out of Charlestown, out to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock. Patriots in Concord were already on alert, hiding most of the military supplies stored there. Those mounted officers tipped off Patriots in Cambridge and Lexington. And the result was war.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Josiah Waters, “very serviceable in this line”

Josiah Waters (1721–1784) was a painter by training who became a respected merchant in pre-Revolutionary Boston.

Waters joined the Old South congregation at age twenty. He was elected to several town offices, including constable, fence viewer, clerk of the market, and finally warden, one of the most prestigious. In 1747 he joined the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company and filled many roles in that organization.

Also in 1747, Josiah and his wife Abigail had a son, Josiah, Jr. He grew up to work with his father in the firm of “Josiah Waters and Son” on Ann Street. In fact, it’s difficult to distinguish the two, but fortunately they seem to have acted as a unit, so that task isn’t so important. Josiah, Jr., also became a member of Old South and the Ancient & Honorables, and in 1770 he joined the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons.

In 1768, Josiah Waters invested in land in Maine, buying out partners to become the main proprietor of the Massabesick Plantation. That area included the modern towns of Alfred, Sanford, and what the family would modestly name Waterboro. The Maine Historical Society has digitized the Waters account book and map.

As of 1770, Josiah Waters, Sr., was a captain in the Boston militia regiment. By 1772, Josiah, Jr., was his lieutenant. (I told you they came as a unit.) According to Mills and Hicks’s British and American Register for the Year 1775, as war approached Capt. Waters’s brother-in-law Thomas Dawes was the regiment’s major, and the adjutant, or administrative officer, was their nephew William Dawes, Jr.

When war broke out in April 1775, it looks like the elder Waters quickly got his family out of town and followed by the 22nd. Then as a gentleman volunteer he took on the job of laying out the fort in Roxbury that was to keep the British army from marching over the Neck. In his memoirs Gen. William Heath listed Capt. Waters among the men “very serviceable in this line.” And of course Josiah, Jr., helped his father with those fortifications.

In October, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress started organizing an army for the coming year, with revamping the artillery regiment a big priority. John Adams was a fan of the Waters family. On 21 October, he sent James Warren a letter introducing a couple of Pennsylvanians visiting Massachusetts:
I could wish them as well as other Strangers introduced to H[enry]. Knox and young Josiah Waters, if they are any where about the Camp. These young Fellows if I am not mistaken would give strangers no contemptible Idea of the military Knowledge of Massachusetts in the sublimest Chapters of the Art of War.
Earlier in the same month he wrote to Gen. John Thomas asking about Josiah, Sr.’s work as a military engineer, among other men.

Gen. Thomas didn’t have good things to say, however. He wrote back to Adams that Waters
I Apprehend has no great Understanding, in Either [gunnery or fortifications], any further than Executing or overseeing works, when Trased out, and by my Observations, we have Several Officers that are Equal or exceed him…
Likewise, by 2 November Gen. Washington was writing candidly to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut:
I sincerely wish this Camp could furnish a good Engineer—The Commisary Genl [i.e., the governor’s son, Joseph Trumbull] can inform you how excedingly deficient the Army is of Gentlemen skilled in that branch of business; and that most of the works which have been thrown up for the defence of our several Encampments have been planned by a few of the principal Officers of this Army, assisted by Mr Knox a Gentleman of Worcester
Washington was impressed by Knox, whom he helped to maneuver into the artillery command, but not by Josiah Waters, father or son.

By that fall of 1775 it probably became clear to the Waterses that they hadn’t won over the commander-in-chief. They were unlikely to get appointments in the new army being organized for 1776, at least at the ranks they wanted. But they still had the respect of some New Englanders like Heath and Adams. They took on a new assignment helping to fortify New London, Connecticut. Based on how the state calculated the older man’s pay, he started that work on 25 November. Josiah, Jr., was his assistant, of course.

Before heading south, I posit, Josiah, Jr., traveled north to take stock of the family property in Maine. The Massabesick Plantation sat on the western side of that district. Just over the border in New Hampshire was the town of Dover. And the minister of Dover was the Rev. Jeremy Belknap.

I thus think the “Mr. Waters” who talked to Belknap on 25 October about how the war had started was Josiah Waters, Jr. (1747-1805). We know from Belknap’s later correspondence, preserved at and published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, that the two men were friends in the 1780s and ’90s. Waters collected orders for Belknap’s history of New Hampshire, for example. (By then everyone knew Waters as “Colonel Waters” for his highest militia rank.)

If Josiah Waters, Jr., told Belknap about how the Boston Patriots had learned of Gen. Thomas Gage’s plans, he wasn’t speaking as just some random guy in Dover. He came from Boston, where he had close connections with the town’s militia establishment. Even beyond that, his first cousin, William Dawes, was a key figure in both smuggling artillery out of occupied Boston and Dr. Joseph Warren’s alarm system.

The account Belknap wrote down in October 1775 is looking more reliable.

TOMORROW: More details from Mr. Waters?

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

“The infamous Capt. Beeman”

The Rev. Jeremy Belknap’s account of how Gen. Thomas Gage’s plan for the march to Concord leaked out to the Patriots, quoted yesterday, mentions four men by name.

Three of those people were well known Patriot leaders: Dr. Joseph Warren, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.

The fourth was a Loyalist scout for the British troops identified as “the infamous Capt. Beeman.” Is there any more evidence about such a figure, especially evidence not publicized by October 1775? If so, that would suggest that Belknap truly heard some inside information.

And indeed we can identify “Capt. Beeman.” That must be Thomas Beaman (1729–1780), a Loyalist refugee from Petersham, Massachusetts.

Beaman was born in Lancaster. He joined Gov. William Shirley’s 1755 expedition against Acadia as a sergeant under Capt. Abijah Willard, and before the end of that war he was a captain under Col. Willard at the capture of Montréal. From then on people called him “Captain Beaman” even in peacetime.

In the 1760s Beaman was married and settled in Petersham. The first and so far only minister of that town was the Rev. Aaron Whitney (1714–1779). Unlike most of his Congregationalist colleagues in New England, Whitney strongly supported the royal government in the political disputes of the 1760s and 1770s.

So did Beaman. There was an argument and lawsuit over a schoolhouse around 1770 that I’ll save for later. Instead, let’s skip ahead to late 1774 after royal authority outside Boston broke down. According to Petersham town records, Beaman was among fourteen local men who banded together and agreed:
That we will not acknowledge or submit to the pretended Authority of any Congresses, Committees of Correspondence or other unconstitutional Assemblies of Men, but will at the Risque of our Lives, and if need be, oppose the forceable Exercise of all such Authority.
A 2 January Petersham town meeting summoned those men by name to explain themselves or repent. Only two showed up, defiantly maintaining their position. The meeting then determined:
Therefore as it appears that those persons still remain the incorrigable enemies of America and have a disposition to fling their influences into the scale against us in order to enslave their brethren and posterity forever, and after all the friendly expostulations and entreaties which we have been able to make use of, we are with great reluctance constrained to pronounce those, some of which have heretofore been our agreeable neighbors, traitorous paricides to the cause of freedom in general and the United Provinces of North America in particular…
The meeting urged townspeople not to have any commercial dealings with those men, even planning to print up 300 handbills at town expense. The Boston newspapers reported on that resolution.

Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton left this version of what happened next, starting in February 1775:
A number of Inhabitants in the town of Petersham, who had entered into an association for their mutual defence, finding the spirit of persecution very strong against them, assembled together in an house, resolving to defend themselves to the utmost.

The house was soon surrounded by many hundreds of the people, and they were obliged after some days to capitulate and submit. The people, after disarming them, ordered them to remain each at his own house, not to depart from thence, or any two of them to be seen together upon pain of death.
Petersham’s local historian says that siege concluded on 2 March.

Beaman then probably moved his family into Boston, as many other prominent Loyalists did. [ADDENDUM: Further research cited in the comments below shows that Beaman’s wife and children remained in Petersham until early 1779, when the Massachusetts legislature permitted them to travel through Newport to join him in New York City.] But according to the account his heirs later gave the Loyalists Commission, paraphrased in E. Alfred Jones’s The Loyalists of Massachusetts, “he, at the request of General Gage, frequently traveled the country to discover the real designs of the leaders of the rebellion.”

The Beaman family’s claim also stated that “he was a volunteer (as a guide to Lord Percy) with the military detachment to Concord.” Percy got only as far as Lexington, however. According to Belknap’s informant, Beaman was actually a scout for the first British column under Lt. Col. Francis Smith; those soldiers “landed on Phips’s Farm, where they were met by the infamous Capt. Beeman, and conducted to Concord.”

Furthermore, the New-England Chronicle newspaper of 12 Sept 1776 referred to “Capt Beeman, of Petersham (who piloted the ministerial butchers to Lexington).” And Lemuel Shattuck’s 1835 history of Concord, published before many Loyalist sources became available, stated: “It is also intimated that tories were active in guiding the regulars. Captain Beeman of Petersham was one.” Those sources suggest that locals recognized Beaman among the redcoats, as Belknap’s information implies.

Back in Boston, Gen. Gage rewarded Thomas Beaman in May by appointing him wagon-master to the army. Later in 1775 Beaman became a first lieutenant in the Loyal American Association, a militia company led by his old commander Abijah Willard, which never saw combat.

Beaman kept the position of wagon-master under Gen. William Howe. He traveled with the king's army, working in and around British-occupied New York until he died in November 1780. By then the state of Massachusetts had banished him and confiscated his property. Beaman's widow and children settled in Digby, Nova Scotia.

We thus have our first indication that Belknap’s October 1775 account of the march to Concord came from someone who had at least some reliable, little-known information.