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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Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Lord of the Manor Americanized

The new issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s Trend & Traditon magazine offers an interesting article by Jon Kukla about a 1781 copy of the play The Lord of the Manor.

That copy is also featured in this online exhibit from Stanford University, the current owner.

The Lord of the Manor was a loose adaptation of the French comic opera Sylvain. It opened at “the Theatre Royal Drury-Lane” in 1780 and was a hit.

William Jackson of Exeter Cathedral had composed the new score, and once the play was a success the author of the libretto came forward: John Burgoyne, home from his flop in America.

Burgoyne arranged for his script to be published with a preface. A copy of that publication crossed the Atlantic to the household of Patrick Henry, who wrote his name on the title page.

But that wasn’t all. Kukla guesses that some of the many Henry children put on their own production of The Lord of the Manor and that, before they did so, their father edited the text for them.

Henry “deleted three passages with dialogue referring to prostitution or adultery—as well as the sleazy remarks of an upper-class character lusting after a servant girl.” (Not that Virginia aristocrats didn’t lust after their servants—they just didn’t remark about it in front of the children.)

Also edited out were two scenes satirizing British customs that didn’t pertain to America. One went on about hunting laws, and the other portrayed an army recruiting officer. The latter, Kukla says, was already “extraneous” to the plot, created by Burgoyne for some laughs.

Most interesting, Henry made changes to Americanize a few lines, though the play still seems to be set in Britain. He replaced “old Britons” with “our Fathers,” removed the words “king and” from the phrase “enemies of my king and country,” and added a speech about one’s “birth-right as a free man.”

Henry also took out Burgoyne’s criticism of the French—a long-standing national habit made especially acute in wartime. The line “though I hate the French in my heart, as a true Englishwoman, I’ll be friends with their sunshine…” became “though I never was in France, yet I’ll be friends with their sunshine…” After all, in the 1780s France was America’s far-off friend.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Campaigns for Two Portraits in the U.K.

A couple of news stories about British art caught my eye recently.

In 1727 Sir Robert Walpole, then defining the post of prime minister, commissioned the thirty-year-old engraver William Hogarth to paint a portrait of his youngest son, Horace.

The result is “the earliest-known commissioned picture of an identifiable sitter by Hogarth and his first-known portrait of a child.” The painting’s creator, subject, and commissioner were three of the century’s most notable Britons.

Horace Walpole grew up to design and commission his Strawberry Hill mansion, a pioneering Gothic Revival structure. He also pioneered the Gothic in fiction with The Castle of Otranto.

Horace Walpole’s childhood portrait is still in private hands, and Strawberry Hill House & Garden, now a museum, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to buy it. The trust that runs the museum says:
The National Heritage Memorial Fund has generously awarded the Trust £115k and Art Fund has kindly offered £90k, but we now need to raise the final £25k by 14 April 2022, to meet the total cost of £230k.
For a look at the portrait and the fundraising campaign, go to this page.

In 1774, a young man called Omai (Mai to his compatriots) from Raiatea, one of the Society Islands, arrived in London. He had traveled on H.M.S. Adventure, commanded by Capt. James Cook, and was introduced to London society by the naturalist Joseph Banks.

Several leading British artists made portraits of Omai. In 1776 Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a full-length picture of the young man in robes and turban (shown above). In 1777 Omai returned to the South Pacific, and he reportedly died two years later.

In 2001 the Earl of Carlisle sold the Reynolds portrait of Omai to an Irish horse-racing magnate, John Magnier, for £10.3 million ($15 million). A few years later the British government sought to buy the painting for £12.5 million for the Tate Museum, but Magnier declined. He was able to have the picture displayed in Ireland from 2005 to 2011. Since then it has been in a “secure art storage facility” in London.

According to ArtNews, it’s unclear if Magnier still owns the painting, but last year the owner applied to export the picture from Britain again. The U.K. government temporarily barred its removal, designating Raynolds’s portrait as of “outstanding significance in the study of 18th-century art, in particular portraiture,” and “a signal work in the study of colonialism and empire, scientific exploration and the history of the Pacific.”

The latest estimate of the painting’s market value is £50 million ($65 million). Under British law, if any of Britain’s public museums commits by 10 July to try to raise that money, the painting will stay in the U.K. until next March to allow time for that campaign. But the Art Newspaper says, “it is unlikely any cash-strapped national museum can afford the hefty price tag.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

“By the assistance of a 355”

I liked this Smithsonian article throwing cold water on the idea that the Culper spy ring included a woman known as “355.”

As Bill Bleyer writes, the number 355 was in the ring’s codebook as the symbol for “lady,” but that number appears on the record of the spy network only once:
Of the 193 surviving letters written by members of the ring, only one contains a reference to any woman. A coded letter from chief spy [Abraham] Woodhull to [Gen. George] Washington, dated August 15, 1779, includes this sentence: “I intend to visit 727 [Culper code for New York] before long and think by the assistance of a 355 [lady in the code] of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all.”
There’s no evidence of how this lady might help Woodhull, what her real or putative relationship to him was, or what came of that visit—if it ever took place. We do know the codebook had different entries for “lady,” “woman” (701), and “servant” (599), indicating that Woodhull referred to an upper-class woman.

Woodhull and other long-time agents had pseudonyms because they made many appearances in the letters. There was no pseudonym for a woman, and, again, this is the only mention of a 355.

Bleyer discusses the various ways authors have imagined “355” while claiming to write nonfiction. Morton Pennypacker, who first identified the Culper codebook and figured out the ring members, described a lady who was “Townsend’s mistress…arrested, imprisoned on the infamous British prison ship Jersey and given birth to Townsend’s illegitimate son onboard before dying.”

In their book with no citations, Fox talking head Brian Kilmeade and writer Don Yaeger placed “355 in the social circle of British spymaster and legendary party-thrower John André.“ Once again, she ends up on the Jersey. As historian Todd Braisted has noted, we have the names of everyone detained on the Jersey because the Royal Navy kept careful records, and there were no women.

In Washington’s Spies, Alexander Rose portrayed Anna Strong as active in spying out of Setauket, New York. Pennypacker had been the first to bring Strong’s name into the story, printing family lore about her signaling Patriot boats with her laundry in a way I’ve never understood the logic of. Strong was related to Woodhull. But the evidence she took part in spying is beyond thin, much less that she was the 355 of August 1779.

Claire Bellerjeau in Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth proposed that 355 was a woman who escaped slavery on Long Island named Elizabeth or Liss. But the only mention of “a 355 of my acquaintance” came from Woodhull while that woman had been enslaved to the family of another Culper ring spy, Robert Townsend. Also, an upper-class white man like Woodhull wouldn’t identify Elizabeth as a lady.

The many stories about 355 reflect our own society’s wish to imagine an active, daring female spy—and to solve the mystery of that number.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Frictions at James Madison’s Montpelier

Back in June 2021, I noted a news story that the Montpelier Foundation was changing its bylaws to ensure that descendants of people enslaved at the plantation would be on its board.

Under that change, the sixteen-member board has included five descendants of enslaved people, two chosen by the Foundation and three by the Montpelier Descendants Committee, formed by people whose ancestors were enslaved at the site. At the time, that was widely hailed as a progressive step by the site and its supporters, ahead of any other former slave-labor plantation linked to a famous Founder.

Last week the Washington Post reported that the Montpelier Foundation was preparing to unilaterally alter that arrangement after frictions between the Foundation’s current leadership and the Descendants Committee.

Under the new arrangement, the Montpelier Descendants Committee would no longer choose any new board members. The Foundation board says it will still consider the committee’s nominations and still work toward a goal of half of board members being descendants of enslaved people—but only descendants of the board’s choosing.

According to the Post article, the Montpelier Descendants Committee’s lawyer submitted the names of forty prospective board members whom that group would support, but the Foundation still wants to cut the committee out of the process.

The Post added, “Outside mediators brought in last year eventually quit, criticizing the foundation for taking actions ‘entirely inconsistent’ with a commitment to seek board parity.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which actually owns Montpelier, urged the Foundation not to proceed with this change. Most of the site’s full-time employees signed a petition against the change, made public at a new website.

On Sunday, the Montpelier Foundation announced that it had gone ahead with the vote, which it termed a “broadening” of the pool of descendants of Montpelier’s enslaved eligible to be on the board. Of course, everyone had been eligible before—the only change is that the Descendants Committee can’t choose board members.

The Foundation’s press release quoted one anonymous member of the site’s staff in support of the change and led with a supportive statement from “the Jennings family of Montpelier,” no individual identified. Presumably these people are descended from Paul Jennings, who published a memoir about being enslaved to James and Dolley Madison in 1865.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Art of War in Two Short Videos

As long as I’m linking to videos, here are two from museums about eighteenth-century military art.

The British National Gallery is restoring Joshua Reynolds’s portrait (shown here) of Capt. Robert Orme, one of Gen. Edward Braddock’s aides during the ill-fated expedition west. 

Reynolds didn’t make cleaning easy, as conservator Hayley Tomlinson explains in this behind-the-scenes video. Reynolds’s technique of mixing resin into his paints, especially later in his career, makes it hard for a cleaner to distinguish the original colors from varnishes overlaid in the decades since and now misting the intended view.

On this side of the ocean, the American Revolution Institute at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., shared a short video of collections manager Paul Newman showing off a powder horn carved for Capt. Thomas Kempton.

As Newman shows, this horn was made in Roxbury during the siege of Boston and includes simple images of some local landmarks, such as Castle William.

In 2013 I researched Capt. Kempton and spoke about the horn at Anderson House, as I discussed back then. (I keep meaning to write up my notes in a more presentable form.)

One curious aspect of this horn is that it was originally carved to say “carved by” Kempton. That was changed to “carved for,” with the alteration still visible. There were professonal horn-carvers plying their wares along the provincial lines, and apparently this one thought Kempton would like full credit for the horn, but the captain preferred otherwise.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Revolutionary Lectures from Five Different Years

This has been a busy week in video events for me. I delivered two live talks, video-chatted with the Mount Vernon Book Group, and recorded a story for an upcoming National Park Service project.

Meanwhile, videos of several older events got posted. So if you have nothing else to watch on this weekend—after all, it’s just the basketball and the movie awards—here are some video links.

The Dedham Museum & Archive recorded the talks that Katie Turner Getty, Christian Di Spigna, and I delivered earlier this month on 6 March. Katie spoke about women at the Boston Massacre, Christian about Dr. Joseph Warren’s career, and I about the evidence and unanswered questions about Crispus Attucks. We also fielded audience questions. So be aware, the video of this “Revolutionary Martyrs” program runs about an hour and forty-five minutes.

The Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site has posted the videos of four lectures I delivered around Evacuation Day in recent years. The National Park Service works to ensure all its videos are accessible to people with limited sight or hearing, so these include captions and descriptions.

I started delivering Evacuation Day lectures at Washington’s Headquarters several years ago when I was working on a historic resource study for the agency. At first I drew on chapters from that study. Later I started to pull out stories spread out over several chapters, or topics on which I’d found new material. Looking back, I’m surprised I’ve found so much to say.
Each of these presentations was about an hour long, with questions at the end. They were made possible by the Friends of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters and the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. Enjoy.

Friday, March 25, 2022

“Lifetime Tenure” When the Supreme Court Began

The U.S. senate is holding hearings on the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice. Some senators have come out against giving this nominee a “lifetime appointment” despite having previously approved her lifetime appointment as a federal judge at two levels.

Social-media discussions of this issue got me thinking of what a “lifetime appointment” meant when the U.S. Supreme Court first met.

Lifetime judicial appointments were common in the British and thus British-American legal systems. Although overall life expectancy was lower in the eighteenth century, that’s largely due to childhood mortality, so once a mature man was appointed to the bench he often served for many years.

(Colonial Rhode Island was an exception to that system of lifetime appointments. Under its eighteenth-century constitution, judges were elected for one-year terms, though they could be reelected. Which just shows how anomalous Rhode Island was.)

I decided to look at the Supreme Court justices appointed in the 1790s to see how long they stayed alive and stayed on the court.
  • John Jay / 6 years on the court / 40 more years of life after appointment 
  • John Rutledge / 1 one year on the court, then another stint of a few months four years later / 11 more years of life 
  • William Cushing / 20 / 20 
  • James Wilson / 9 / 9 
  • John Blair / 5 / 10 
  • James Iredell / 9 / 9 
  • Thomas Johnson / 2 / 28 
  • William Paterson / 13 / 13 
  • Samuel Chase / 15 / 15 
  • Oliver Ellsworth / 4 / 11 
  • Bushrod Washington / 31 / 31 
Thus, from early on we see Supreme Court justices serving for a decade or more. Six of these eleven men sat on the bench until they died, with an average tenure of over fifteen years. Three more justices nominated by the Presidents active in the Founding—John Marshall, William Johnson, and Joseph Story—also served more than thirty years.

That said, while the first generation of U.S. politicians could conceive of Supreme Court justices serving for decades, the number of jurists who actually do so has gone up. As of today the historical average tenure on the court stands at sixteen years, but no justice has left the bench before that time since the late 1960s.

The other career model we see these days, a justice serving for decades and then retiring, was less common in the 1790s. Indeed, the three early justices who resigned citing reasons of health—John Blair, Thomas Johnson, and Oliver Ellsworth—did so after only a handful of years. The job was more physically demanding when Supreme Court justices still rode the circuit to hear federal cases rather than staying in the capital.

One path we haven’t seen for a long time was a justice resigning from the top bench because he preferred a different government role. John Jay left the court to be governor of New York, having already run for that offce in 1792 and gone overseas as President George Washington’s treaty negotiator in 1794.

Finally, there’s a storyline we really don’t want to see repeated. John Rutledge (shown above) resigned from the U.S. bench to become chief justice in the home state of South Carolina. Then President George Washington put him back on the Supreme Court as chief justice, only for the senate to decline to confirm him. Rutledge attempted suicide, withdrew from public life, and died five years later.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Giving a Pass to the Jepson Family

Yesterday I gave a presentation about how the Revolutionary War disrupted the lives of women in and around Boston.

Among the documents I used was this item from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections—a pass authorizing “Margarett Jepson” and her family to leave Boston in May 1775.

On the back of that pass is a list of names, evidently the family members it covers, as shown in the detail here. Those names are:
Mary Jepson
Margt. Jepson her Mother
Mary Jepson her Aunt
Margt. Jepson Junr.
Benja. Jepson
Mary Jepson her Sister
Mary Jepson Junr.
Mary Jepson her Daugr.
Thus of seven or eight names in this family group, five were named Mary Jepson. How was that possible?

A History & Genealogy of the Descendents [sic] of John Jepson, published by Dr. Norton W. Jipson in 1917, offers the answer.

In 1726 William Jepson (1702–1745) married Margaret Sumner, making her Margaret Jepson. William had a sister named Mary, born in 1710. He also had a brother, Benjamin, who fathered a girl named Mary (c. 1735–1790).

William and Margaret Jepson had ten chldren, including another William, another Margaret, another Mary, and another Benjamin.

In 1761 that second Benjamin Jepson (1734–1811) married Mary Sigourney (1736–1818), making her another Mary Jepson. They had two children, whom they named, of course, Benjamin and Mary.

Thus, the list on the back of the pass appears to start with Mary (Sigourney) Jepson and then adds:
  • her husband’s mother, Margaret (Sumner) Jepson
  • her husband’s unmarried paternal aunt, Mary Jepson (b. 1710)
  • her husband’s unmarried sister, Margaret Jepson (b. 1730)—crossed off, so she may not have made the trip
  • her husband, Benjamin Jepson (unless this was her husband’s uncle, born in 1750, or her husband’s nephew, born in 1766)
  • her husband’s unmarried sister, Mary Jepson (b. 1745) 
  • her husband’s unmarried first cousin, Mary Jepson (c. 1735–1790)
  • her daughter Mary Jepson (1763–1797)
I’m pleased to report that although Benjamin Jepson had four brothers who married, none of their wives was named Mary. Because that could have been confusing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

“Dr. Joseph Warren” Tour, 1-4 June

America’s History, L.L.C., is offering a tour of “The Revolutionary World of Dr. Joseph Warren” on 1-4 June.

The leader will be Christian Di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero, and founder of the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation.

Christian will be assisted by Bruce Venter, proprietor of America’s History, L.L.C., who has years of experience organizing tours like this.

The tour description says:
On Day 1 we will start in the city of Boston to see how the Revolution evolved over the course of a decade and a half with a special emphasis on Dr. Warren’s experiences. Our first stop will be the Roxbury Latin School which Warren attended before going to Harvard; the school has an original Warren letter. We’ll see Boston Common where British troops encamped prior to their ill-fated excursion to Lexington and Concord; you’ll also see the site of the Boston Massacre site and the Boston Tea Party.

Next, Faneuil Hall has Warren’s weskit. We’ll drive along Hanover Street where Warren lived, but his homes are now long gone. We will visit the Old South Meeting House (1729) where Warren delivered two Boston Massacre orations and Patriots deliberated before heading to Griffin’s Wharf for a famous tea party in 1773. We’ll finish the day with a visit to the Old North Church where the “two if by sea” lanterns in the belfry signaled Paul Revere on the 18th of April in ’75. Time permitting, we’ll walk to Copp’s Hill where General John Burgoyne viewed the battle of Bunker Hill.

On our second day we will start at the iconic Lexington Green where local Patriots challenged Lt. Col Francis Smith’s expeditionary force of regulars sent by Maj. Gen. Thomas Gage to capture military supplies on April 19, 1775. In Lexington, we’ll visit the Masonic Museum which has an original Joseph Warren clock. We’ll also visit the Munroe Tavern in Lexington which was used as Lord Percy’s HQ when he brought up a relief column to save Smith’s command.

After lunch in Lexington, we’ll drive to Concord to see the Old North Bridge where the shot heard ‘round the world was fired, other famous sites in Concord and the Barrett House which has recently been restored. Along the way, we’ll stop at the Minuteman Visitors Center. We’ll trace the British retreat route though Menotomy (Arlington) where it is believed that Dr. Warren joined the fight before the Redcoat column disintegrated. We’ll also visit the Lincoln Masonic Lodge which displays a Warren painting in Masonic garb.

On our final day we will start with a tour of the Paul Revere House in North Boston, a must-see historic site. Then we’ll visit the Bunker Hill battlefield, monument and museum in Charlestown. The full story of Dr. Warren’s death will be discussed. After lunch we will visit King’s Chapel where Warren was eulogized after lying in state at the Old State House. Warren’s body was brought to Old Granary and buried. We’ll visit St. Paul’s Church where Warren was reburied in the family crypt in 1825. Exhumed again in 1855, Warren’s body was finally laid to rest in the Warren family plot where a statue was erected in 2016.
The tour fee covers motor coach transportation, three lunches, beverage and snack breaks, a map and materials package, all admissions and gratuities, and the services of the knowledgeable guides. Participants are responsible for reserving and paying for their own hotel rooms (if they don’t have accommodations nearby), getting to the hotel, and finding their own dinners.

This tour has been in the works for a long time, delayed by the pandemic. Given Warren’s place near the center of Boston’s Revolutionary movement, especially in the crucial year before his death, tracing his activity is a way to explore a great deal of the area’s Revolutionary history in a coherent narrative.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

“Wishing you Every Blessing in Time and Eternity”

Among the documents in the Samuel Adams Papers at the New York Public Library is a letter from the politician’s second wife, the former Elizabeth Wells (1735–1808), on 12 Feb 1776.

Small portions of this letter have been transcribed and published, sometimes with an erroneous date and other errors. Here’s my best rendering at the whole text (with added paragraph breaks for easier reading).
Cambridge Feb 12, 1776

My Dear

I Receivd your affectinate Letter by Fesenton [express rider Josiah Fessenden], and thank you for your kind Concern for My health and Safty. I beg you Would not give your self any pain on our being so Near the Camp. the place I am in is so situated that if the Regulars should Ever take prospect hill (which God forbid) I should be able to Make an Escape, as I am Within a few stones Cast of a Back Road Which Leads to the Most Retired part of Newtown.

if a Large Reinforcement should Come in to Boston I propose to send the Best of my things into the Country, and have My Self Nothing but a bed and a few Necessarys, and be in Readiness to Move at an Minutes Warning—

Mr. [John] Adams made me a visit after I Wrote to you, so I Must aquit him of treating me with Neglect. I Should have sent a Letter by Him, but I was unexpectedly sent for three days to dine at Cambridge, With Samey [?] and was treated by General Washington and his amiable Lady With great Friendship.
I hadn’t included Elizabeth Adams on the list of people who visited the Washingtons in Cambridge before, but this letter shows she did.

I’m not sure about the name “Samey” or, if that’s the right transcription, who it referred to. Samuel Adams’s son by his first wife was also named Samuel, but at this point he was a grown man and a doctor serving in the army, and he and Elizabeth were usually more formal with each other.
I was in hopes I should had the opportunity of Returning the Compt. by inviting them to dine with you at our house, but by what Fesenton tells Me I fear I shall not see you so soon as I Flatterd My self. I beg (My dear) you would try to Come if the visit is Ever so Short——

I saw the Doct. [I think this is Dr. Samuel Adams, Jr.] this day he is Well and says he Wrote to you last Week. Jobs Father and his family is come out of Boston, but I have not seen him so that I Cannot tell what he has done with the things we left in his Care.
Job was a servant boy the Adams family had hired a couple of years before. I’ve written about wanting to identify him. This paragraph adds a clue: Job was from Boston, not a rural town, and his father was still alive in 1776.
a great Number of the poor Come out Every Week, and are taken good Care of by the Committe Chose for that Purpose——

I Supose you have heard that a great Number of tories are gone to England, old gray among them. young Mr [William] Peperell has lost his Wife. [Thomas] Flukers youngest Daughter [Sally] is an actress on the stage in Boston, and her Father and Mother gone home. Mr. [James] Otis daughter [Elizabeth] is Married to an Regular officer [Leonard Brown].

they have pulled down a great many houses for fire Wood among nothers in our Neighbourhood are old Mr. grays, Blairs Coles [?] and Walcuts and an Number in long Lain. you see that I Write you all the News however trifling.

that house that Mother Lived in of Mrs. Carnes is Burnt, and and [sic] all her goods taken away by the soldrs. I saw her last Week, she is Well, and Boards at one Mr Sanders at Waltham where she is treated very kind. She has her Board and Hannahs paid out of the donations. She sends you her best Love and Blessing.
Elizabeth Adams’s mother, Susanna Wells, was evidently accompanied by her daughter Hannah (c. 1755–1803), then unmarried.

In the following paragraph, “Polly” was someone Samuel Adams sent greetings to as “Sister Polly,” so I’m guessing she was Mary Checkley (b. 1721), sister of his late first wife. “Surry” was an enslaved woman given to the family, whom at some point Adams freed.
Polly desires her particular Regards to you and thanks you for the kind manner you Mention her in your Letters. We are all in good health. Surry and Job send their duty—after Wishing you Every Blessing in Time and Eternity, I subscribe My self yours
Elizah. Adams

PS. I beg you to Excuse the very poor Writing as My paper is Bad and my pen made with Scissors. I should be glad (My dear) if you should not come down soon, you would Write me Word Who to apply for some Monney for I am low in Cash and Every thing is very dear
Back in June 1775, Samuel had closed a letter to Elizabeth, “when I am in Want of Money I will write to you.” The family’s only source of income was the Massachusetts government, which of course was in some flux.

Monday, March 21, 2022

“So much for smug assumptions”

Earlier this year the Yale Alumni Magazine ran a feature headlined “A reckoning with our past,” reexamining the university’s historic ties to slavery in America—and in India, where Elihu Yale made his fortune.

That prompted a striking letter from Chuck Banks, a member of the college’s class of 1959:
I was very struck (if that’s the right word) by the series “A Reckoning With Our Past” in your January/February issue. When I was a freshman, I took classes in Connecticut Hall without any notion of the role of enslaved persons in its construction, and I’ve recently become aware of the role of slaves in many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century public projects, including the White House.

Now I can’t look at these buildings without being reminded of what we owe to generations of slave labor.

Nevertheless, I’ve spent much of my life regarding slavery as a regrettable, tragic historical artifact, but one that didn’t personally affect me or my 11 generations of Yankee ancestors, all farmers and tradesmen. Surely none of them, who lived their entire lives in New England, could have been directly involved in exploiting slave labor.

Or so I thought. Some years ago, a friend who is a colonial history buff brought me a facsimile copy of a colonial-era newspaper which featured an “escaped slave” notice. The fugitive was described not by his name, but by his mutilations: a nick taken out of an ear, and a missing finger joint. The slave owner posting the notice was my fifth great-grandfather James Banks, who lived in the Greenwich/Banksville area of Connecticut in the 1700s.

So much for smug assumptions. Thanks for bringing the series to our attention.
This letter apparently refers to an advertisement that appeared in Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer for 15 Sept 1774, the New-York Journal on the same date, and the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury for 26 Sept 1774, as well as subsequent issues.

James Banks of North Castle, New York, was seeking “A NEGRO MAN, Named WILL, about 27 years of age.” Will had “part of his right ear cut off” and “a mark on the back side of his right hand,” the latter not necessarily an injury but close to the description in the letter. North Castle contains a neighborhood called Banksville, which also spills over into Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut.

According to James Banks, Will was “very talkative.” In searching for this item, I found 160 advertisements using that phrase in 1774 and 1775 alone. It appears to have been a trope, and a trait that masters of slaves and indentured servants considered hard to change and thus identifying.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The 2022 George Washington Prize Finalists

Last week the Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Mount Vernon announced the finalists of the 2022 George Washington Prize.

This prize was created to honor the “best works on the nation’s founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history.” It comes with a significant cash award for the author.

In alphabetical order, this year’s five honored authors are:
  • Max M. Edling, Perfecting the Union: National and State Authority in the U.S. Constitution
  • Julie Flavell, The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America
  • Jeffrey H. Hacker, Minds and Hearts: The Story of James Otis, Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren
  • Bruce A. Ragsdale, Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery
  • David O. Stewart, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father
As usual, the selection includes books about Washington himself but also books that examine the Revolutionary era more broadly.

Mount Vernon would be happy to sell copies of these five books.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

A Study of Women, Finance, and the Law in Newport and Boston

H-Early-America just published Prof. Linda Sturtz’s review of Sara T. Damiano’s To Her Credit: Women, Finance, and the Law in Eighteenth-Century New England Cities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021).

Damiano studied women’s economic pursuits in Boston, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island, across the eighteenth century, delving most deeply into legal records.

Sturtz’s review notes some of the results:
Damiano sampled a vast collection of cases heard by the Newport and Suffolk County courts between 1730 and 1790, assembling a total of over 1,800 cases for each location to identify the significance of debt suits as a percentage of the total cases (around 75 percent). . . . Between 1730 and the Revolutionary War, women made up 12 percent of the participants in the debt suits in Newport County and 9 percent of the litigants in…Suffolk County (p. 180). Her database allows her to trace incremental change over time as well as the impact of more abrupt events like war and postwar economic depressions on family finances. . . .

For example, she shows the importance of female witnesses who were often bystanders to transactions that escalated into court cases because financial exchanges occurred in spaces women frequented, especially homes but also in heterosocial public spaces. . . . men in these port cities engaged in both local and long-distance transactions while women’s cases were generally limited to a more local focus. Women were overrepresented as creditors in debt suits and benefited from courts’ increasing support of creditors. . . .

Damiano’s argument connects to several historiographical debates, most notably the literature on gender, the economy, and the law in New England. . . . After the revolution, according to Damiano, wealthy Newport and Boston women who were creditors in suits increasingly hired professional lawyers to shepherd their cases through the legal system while the women themselves took advantage of their privilege to retreat from direct involvement.
There’s a lot more to the review, including discussion of other scholarly books about American women in business (and in litigation) during the eighteenth century.

Damiano is now a professor at Texas State University. Her current project “investigates interactions between officers of the law and laypeople, both free and enslaved, in early American cities.”

Friday, March 18, 2022

Katie Turner Getty on the “Displaced” of Boston

At the start of this month I had the pleasure of speaking at three events about the Boston Massacre alongside Katie Turner Getty and Christian Di Spigna.

Katie (shown here with me) also spoke this month online via the American Revolution Institute in Washington, D.C., about the Bostonians displaced by the outbreak of war in 1775.

Families with enough resources to leave the besieged but not enough to sustain themselves outside were subsidized by the Massachusetts government. In the rural towns where they found shelter and some work, they became known as the “donation people.”

Katie Turner Getty’s “Donation People” talk is now available for viewing on the institute’s YouTube channel.

There’s only a little overlap between this talk and the refugee stories I’ll discuss on Sunday because the “Donation People” were sent farther from the fighting than Cambridge. They both show families and local governments dealing with the disruption of war.

As I said yesterday, these talks were planned before that topic became so visible in the present day.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

“Revolutionary War Refugees on Tory Row,” 20 Mar.

This is Evacuation Day in Suffolk County, celebrating when the British military left Boston in 1776.

In commemoration of the Continental Army’s first successful campaign under Gen. George Washington, I’ll deliver an online lecture for the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site and the Friends of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters.

Sunday, 20 March, 2:00 P.M.
Revolutionary War Refugees on Tory Row
register through this page

Our description:
Like all armed conflicts, the start of the Revolutionary War produced a flood of refugees seeking safety. Loyalist families moved into Boston for the protection of the redcoats. Patriot families fled the besieged capital. The Battle of Bunker Hill destroyed most of Charlestown, leaving more people desperate for homes and livelihoods. Tracking the changes in one wealthy Cambridge neighborhood away from the battles shows the impact of war on ordinary women, children, and men.
As I’ve developed this talk, I realized that I should move beyond the 1774–1776 years I usually cover to discuss when thousands of homeless men, women, and children streamed slowly along the road from Watertown into Cambridge.

Hannah Winthrop, wife of a Harvard College professor, described those people rather uncharitably:
To be sure the sight was truly Astonishing, I never had the least Idea, that the Creation producd such a Sordid Set of Creatures in human Figure—poor dirty emaciated men, great numbers of women, who seemd to be the beasts of burthen, having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent double, the contents seemd to be Pots & kettles, various sorts of Furniture, children peeping thro gridirons & other utensils. Some very young Infants who were born on the road, the women barefoot, cloathd in dirty raggs

Such Effluvia filld the air while they were passing, had they not been smoaking all the time, I should have been apprehensive of being Contaminated by them.
Winthrop was so hostile because those refugees were the British and German-speaking soldiers captured at Saratoga, along with their families. They were to be housed around Boston before being sent back to Europe. At least that was the initial plan for what became known as the Convention Army.

When I alighted on the topic of war refugees for this year’s Evacuation Day lecture, I had no idea how loudly it would resonate with current events. Or to be more exact, since war has never stopped sending families fleeing somewhere in the world, how loudly this topic resonates with the current news.

We plan to record this talk and make it available through the sponsoring organizations later this spring.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Frictions between the Army and Locals in Britain

The Society for Army Historical Research was founded in Britain in 1921 to foster “interest in the history and traditions of British and Commonwealth armies, and to encourage research in these fields.”

The organization publishes a quarterly journal, and to encourage memberships it’s just shared a selection of past articles on its website, including J. E. O. Screen’s “The Eighteenth Century Army at Home as Reflected in Local Records” (P.D.F.).

Screen discussed a variety of incidents in Great Britain across the eighteenth century that left a paper trail. The way these things work, that mostly meant events that produced friction or caused change. The issues included quartering and supplies, recruiting, and interpersonal disputes—some of the same problems that army commanders and local officials dealt with in the colonies.

Quartering seems to have played out differently, though. In the American colonies, regiments were usually stationed at the big ports or on frontiers, not in rural towns. But in Britain, army units moved through smaller towns, particularly when companies were traveling to recruit more soldiers. Those places didn’t have so many barracks or large buildings that could be converted to barracks, as in New York and Boston. Screen wrote:
The Nottingham records include a list of the Royal Horse Guards quartered there in July 1779. Although incomplete, this list shows strikingly the degree of dispersal imposed on a unit or sub-unit even in a relatively large centre. Ninety-seven men were distributed among thirty public houses, the largest number in any one being six and the median three.
In 1766 three recruiting parties were in Nottingham at the same time. Fortunately for the local authorities, that meant plenty of soldiers were available to suppress a riot at the local fair.

There are other examples in this article showing how locals disliked the disruption of army units coming through—except when they liked the money those soldiers brought or the protection they provided. In 1768 the Scottish town of Banff council linked the question of who should house the soldiers with who profited from their presence:
all publick brewers, keepers of publick houses or retaillers of ale, beer, wine or spirituous liquors, and all victuallers and bakers, butchers, gardners and barbers, who are presumed to be more immediatly benefited by the soldiers, shall have stated and constant billets upon them before any of the other inhabitants, and house keepers shall be quartered upon, and that none of the above shall have under two and others more according to the extent of their trade.
In 1781 Banff even asked the Crown to station at least two companies of soldiers there over the summer “for the protection of the town and harbour, as both are so very exposed to the depredations of the enemy.”

Screen described violent altercations between locals and soldiers, such as a brawl at Cork in 1755. But that same Irish town’s council complained in 1758 that the commanding officer of the local fort had refused to provide “a detachment of soldiers to aid the civil officer in arresting some persons in the town of Cove charged with felony.” In fact, that captain allegedly “in a very contumelious manner declared he would wipe his britch with twenty such orders.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Dorchester Heights ceremony, 17 Mar.

On Thursday, 17 March, the National Parks of Boston will observe Evacuation Day with a ceremony at the Dorchester Heights site in what is now termed South Boston.

Co-hosted by the South Boston Citizens’ Association, this year’s celebration will take place in the hilltop park where the Dorchester Heights Monument stands. On the program are:
  • Mayor Michelle Wu
  • Rep. Stephen Lynch
  • Other political figures to be named later
  • National Park Service Regional Director Gay Vietzke
  • Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola
  • Student awards of some sort
  • The Lexington Minutemen
  • The Boston University Band
Most notable might be “an announcement of a substantial multimillion-dollar federal investment to restore Dorchester Heights Monument as a local and national landmark.” Since 2012 the observation tower at that site has been closed due to “water infiltration and structural deterioration.” This building was just one item in the National Park Service’s long list of deferred maintenance projects.

With the national Sestercentennial coming up, and Congress eager to stimulate the economy as the pandemic began in an election year, the federal government found the funds for that tower. In a press release last week the park said:
a multi-million-dollar appropriation from the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) [will] restore the iconic 1902 Dorchester Heights Monument tower and landscape. When the project is completed, visitors will be able to enjoy the improved public green space and spectacular 115-foot landmark on Telegraph Hill that commemorates a pivotal event of the Revolutionary War.
The 17 March ceremony is free and open to the public, but space is limited and nearby parking even more so. People who want to attend are asked to register through this webpage. There will be a heated tent in the park and refreshments after the ceremony. Attendees may wish to wear masks for safety in the crowd. A video record of the event will be streamed on Boston National Historical Park’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

Monday, March 14, 2022

“A man of genteel but frantic appearance”

John Frith, formerly a lieutenant in the 37th and then the 10th Regiment of Foot, returned to Britain in the late 1780s, convinced he had been unfairly pushed out of the army.

And all because he, while serving in the West Indies, had a divine vision that convinced him Jamaica wasn’t real, and the British government was covering that up. 

In December 1787, according to Steve Poole in The Politics of Regicide in England, 1760–1850, Frith petitioned the House of Commons to “desire His Majesty to enforce his executive power of martial prerogative” and put him back on the rolls.

Frith then appears to have traveled around. I see references to him arriving in Liverpool and visiting Holland, and he commissioned a memorial at his mother’s burying-place in Hempstead.

At the end of December 1789, Frith was back in London promulgating a “manifesto” and a Protest Against the Democracy of the People of the Kingdom of Great Britain. He pinned the latter paper “on the whalebone in the courtyard of St. James’s” and at the Royal Exchange, press reports said. What’s more:
he publicly read it, and, in the most wild and extravagant manner, exhorted the persons who heard him, to espouse his cause, and not to see the constitution of their country subverted.
In Frith’s mind, his dismissal from the army had become a constitutional offense because the king, privy council, and Parliament were shirking their duty to address his petition. He warned:
After waiting upwards of four months and no attention paid, I don’t hesitate to pronounce our Ancient Constitution has given a mortal blow to her libertys and we have only the outward form of government.
Frith compared the situation to “Sweden in 1772,” when King Gustaf III led a coup to introduce absolute monarchy. No matter that Frith was asking the king to act absolutely on his behalf.

On 21 Jan 1790, Frith visited the Treasury Solicitors’ Office for help, only to be turned away. In St. James’s Park he saw George III ride by in his gilded carriage to open a session of Parliament. Frith waved a roll of paper at the king, who by tradition accepted petitions from his subjects. But then the former officer shouted, “You tyrant! You villain! You are going to be hanged like a rogue, as you are guarded by a parcel of rogues of constables!”

The newspapers reported, “a person of genteel appearance threw a large stone with great violence at the carriage, but fortunately missed the royal person.” People immediately seized “a man of genteel but frantic appearance” with “a bunch of orange-coloured ribband” sewn in the middle of his cockade. The press reported on one eyewitness:
Samuel Spurway…saw the prisoner, when his majesty’s carriage was passing him, throw a stone with all his force against it, the stone hit the coach about two inches below the glass, but his majesty was so engaged in conversation as not to observe it. The stone, Mr. Spurway picked up, and found it large and heavy.

On questioning the prisoner as to his motives for so horrid an attempt, he replied, ‘He was very sorry the stone had not hit the king!’ Mr. Spurway ordered Jordan, a constable, to seize him, who also saw him throw the stone.
That prisoner was, of course, John Frith. On searching him, the constables found twopence and a bag containing a copy of his manifesto. Frith identified himself as a former army officer and said he was seeking “a public examination” to restore his good name.

The authorities took Frith to the Whitehall office of the Duke of Leeds, secretary of state for foreign affairs. In crowded many more royal officials: “the lord president, lord privy seal, chancellor of the exchequer, duke of Richmond, two secretaries of state, earl of Chatham, lords Hawkesbury and Kenyon, master of the rolls, attorney and solicitor generals, and sir Sampson Wright,” chief magistrate at Bow Street.

The constables described seeing Frith throw the stone. An unidentified female relative “spoke strongly to the appearance of the prisoner’s derangement of mind, previous to his committing this rash act.” Other people who knew Frith also answered questions about him.

As for Frith himself, he was recorded as telling the magistrate:
Until His Majesty is better advised and gives a Martial Redress…the Liberty of the British Soldier and Subject are Infringed by Despotism which may end in Anarchy and Confusion. . . . our chartered rights in the Tower will Supply the Deficiency to Carry on the Law of the Land. Now the Compact is Disolved as in the case of James II, June 1688.
The august council decided to commit John Frith to Newgate Prison and put him on trial for treason.

COMING UP: Frith at the bar.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

“He wished to reveal what the government wished to conceal”

John Frith was born in Westminster in 1752, according to Joanne Major and Sarah Murden’s All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century.

Frith was the younger son of a brandy merchant and veteran of the Life Guards, but by the end of 1771 his parents and older brother had died, so he inherited the family money.

Some reports say Frith dissipated that fortune, but he retained his genteel education and enough money that, with a push from Chelsea businessman David Burnsall, he bought the rank of ensign in the 37th Regiment of Foot in March 1774.

Frith was promoted to lieutenant the next year, and in 1776 the 37th was part of the Howe brothers’ invasion of New York. An item published in The British Mercury, or Annals of History in March 1790 stated:
The Major and Captain of this regiment, when in America, had, by retreating from the enemy, affixed some stains on their military character; and Mr. Frith, in a moment of irritation, or imprudence, was unguarded enough to reproach them for their dastardly behaviour. This gave rise to an implacable dislike, and brought on a series of ill treatment, which, as his feelings were exquisite, obliged him to quit the service on half-pay.
Lt. Frith retired from the army in March 1778, as noted in Gen. Sir William Howe’s orders. But four years later he rejoined as an officer of the 10th Regiment, which was posted to the West Indies. That stretch didn’t prove to be any more successful.

A man named Fuller later testified about hearing Frist complain about “his ill treatment by Major Amherst, and Ensign Steward, in the West Indies.” I believe these men appear in the 1791 Army List as Lt. Col. Jeffery Amherst (c. 1752–1815, illegitimate son of the field marshal who had led the British army at the end of the French and Indian War) and Lt. Thomas Stewart of the 10th.

As Fuller recalled:
[Frist] declared then the reason he was ill treated, was, that he wished to reveal what the government wished to conceal; for that he saw a cloud come down from Heaven, that it cemented into a rock, and out of that sprung a false island of Jamaica, and because he wished to reveal it, he had, he said, been confined one hundred and sixty-three days
According to Major and Murden, Frith’s commanders asked him to leave in 1786 because they thought he was going insane. He was officially listed on the half-pay roles as a lieutenant from the “1st Foot, 2d Bat.” among the “Additional Companies, reduced in 1783.”

In 1788 Frith went back to Hempstead, where his mother was buried. He commissioned a memorial for his family in that church, including his own name among them. Under the emblem of a sun in a double triangle beneath a rainbow were the words:
And there shall be a standard of Truth erected in the west, which shall overpower the enemy.—May 12, 1786, This glorious phaenomena in Sol of the Almighty came down for my protection in latitude 15, on the Bahama sandbanks, and where the spiritual cities of Sodom and Gomorrha came up in the West Indies. Vide Revelations.

Your dying embers shall again revive,
The phoenix souls of Friths are still alive.
One wonders what the stone carver and churchmen thought of those words, but Frith was paying the bill.

TOMORROW: Lt. Frith and the king.

(The photo above shows a recreated 37th Regiment active in the late twentieth century, courtesy of Flintlock and Tomahawk.)

Saturday, March 12, 2022

“The poor creature is mad”

What did Rebecca O’Hara, Margaret Nicholson, John Frith, James Hadfield, Catherine Kirby, and Urban Metcalf have in common?

They all attacked King George III, and all were deemed mentally ill.

Rebecca O’Hara came at the king as he was stepping out of his sedan chair on 2 Jan 1778. Newspapers reported that she was “going to lay hold on him, but he with difficulty avoided her.”

After guards seized O’Hara, she declared that she was “Queen Beck,” rightful ruler of Britain, or perhaps royal consort. Then she identified herself as Rebecca O’Hara, born in Ireland, living at a particular address—but the authorities couldn’t confirm any of that. O’Hara was committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam.

Eight years later, on 2 Aug 1786, another woman attacked George III as he was exiting his carriage. Holding up a petition (actually a blank piece of paper), Margaret Nicholson suddenly lunged at the king with an ivory-handled dessert knife. Guards arrested her and later searched her lodgings. There they found letters in which Nicholson claimed to be the rightful monarch, a virgin, mother of Lord Mansfield, and more.

As his men grabbed Nicholson, George III called out, “The poor creature is mad; do not hurt her, she has not hurt me.” This was widely reported as a sign of royal mercy. There was much more public discussion about Nicholson than about O’Hara, perhaps because the first incident happened in wartime, perhaps because the second involved a knife. The picture shown above, by Carington Bowles, is one of several prints depicting Nicholson with the king.

The press blamed an unhappy love affair for driving Nicholson insane. Radicals objected to her being confined in a mental hospital without trial, conservatives to her not being punished as an assassin. As late as 1810 Percy Shelley co-wrote a book of satirical verse in Nicholson’s name. She died, still confined in Bedlam, in 1828.

Ironically, in 1788 George III himself started to show signs of serious mental illness. By that fall he was speaking at extraordinary length in manic fits. Though the young king appears to have suffered a debilitating depression in early 1765, he had recovered quickly, so people assumed that was a one-time problem. By early 1789, with the king still not well, the younger William Pitt’s ministry prepared a law to establish a regency.

But then King George recovered. Just in time for another assault.

TOMORROW: An army veteran with a complaint.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Ethan Allen, Potential Loyalist

At Borealia, the blog about early Canadian history, Benjamin Anderson, a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, shared some of his research on the Loyalists of Vermont.

More specifically, Anderson wrote on the question of whether Ethan Allen, conqueror of Fort Ticonderoga and then a prisoner of the Crown for three long years, was ready to fall into that category:
It was the summer of 1780 when Ethan Allen, Vermont’s self-proclaimed leader, was approached by a man on a dusty road to Arlington. Beverly Robinson, a Virginian Loyalist and friend of British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton, looked down at Allen from atop his horse and handed him a piece of paper. It was a proposal to Allen and Vermont: renounce their commitment to the Union, return to the British Empire, and they could potentially be rewarded with a “separate government under the king and constitution of England” with their lands validated.
Allen, and later his brother Ira and their friend Joseph Fay, tried to play the British and Americans off against each other for local advantage. Ultimately the Franco-American victory at Yorktown changed the equation.
Yet that was not the end of the matter for Ethan Allen. Throughout the 1780s, he maintained contact with the British and continued to push for Vermont rejoining the British Empire. He was “as rapacious as a wolf,” according to [Gen. Frederick] Haldimand. As late as 1788, he made overtures about a potential alliance or Vermont rejoining the empire as a means of protecting Vermont from a threatening United States, as well as its invaluable trade that was dependent on Quebec and the St. Lawrence River.
Allen’s fame grew from his 1779 Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, which appeared before his negotiations with British commanders. His infamy in early America came out of publishing Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, the argument for deism he created with Dr. Thomas Young. As a result, Allen’s dance with Loyalism, and what that says about his status as an American hero, got lost in the shuffle until recent decades. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

West Ford and the Washingtons

The New Yorker just published an article by Jill Abramson titled “Did George Washington Have an Enslaved Son?”

It discusses the paternity of West Ford (1784/5–1863, shown here), a man of both African and European ancestry enslaved at Mount Vernon as an adolescent in the early nineteenth century. Legally freed on reaching maturity, he helped to manage the plantation and tourist spot for decades.

I remember reading about this question in the New York Times in 1999. In the wake of discoveries about the Jefferson D.N.A. haplotype, Nicholas Wade filed a story headlined “Descendants of Slave’s Son Contend That His Father Was George Washington.”

There doesn’t appear to be new evidence on the question. The link between George Washington and West Ford still appears to rest on an oral tradition passed down by descendants of two different Ford grandsons and first mentioned in print in 1940.

That’s not negligible, but it’s not as strong as the evidence about Thomas Jefferson. We have public statements about Jefferson’s enslaved children from the period of his presidency. We have a detailed 1873 statement from Madison Hemings about how he and his siblings were Jefferson’s children. That description of Sally Hemings’s family turned out to be entirely consistent with the D.N.A. findings more than a century later while other claims proved untenable.

One of the last-gasp arguments that “defenders” of Thomas Jefferson then seized on was that the father of Sally Hemings’s children was the President’s brother, Randolph Jefferson. That relied on overlooking the facts that:
  • Thomas, not Randolph, owned and controlled Hemings.
  • Thomas lived at Monticello with Hemings while Randolph lived on his own slave-labor plantation twenty miles away. (Not to mention Thomas and Hemings were in Paris while Randolph remained in Virginia.)
  • Thomas is documented to have been at Monticello around every period when Hemings conceived children, and there is no strong evidence that Randolph visited Monticello at any of those times.
The theory that George Washington was the father of West Ford looks like a mirror image of that claim about Randolph Jefferson:
  • John Augustine Washington, not his brother George, owned and controlled West Ford’s mother, Venus.
  • John Augustine lived at Bushfield with Venus while George lived on his own slave-labor plantation ninety miles away.
  • It’s not clear when Venus gave birth to West Ford and thus when that child was conceived, but George’s movements are well documented and there’s no strong evidence showing that he and Venus were near each other at the crucial time. (By one interpretation of the ambiguous birthdate, George was still away commanding the Continental Army.)
In addition, we know that Thomas Jefferson impregnated his wife Martha six times in their ten-year marriage while George and Martha Washington never had children together. Most historians therefore believe the “Father of His Country” was infertile.

The West Ford descendants have pushed for D.N.A. testing of the sort that produced new evidence about Jefferson and Hemings. However, that sort of testing wouldn’t distinguish among George Washington, John Augustine Washington, or the latter’s sons.

West Ford came to Mount Vernon after George Washington died and the property passed to his nephew Bushrod, a son of John Augustine Washington.

To me it appears likely that West Ford and Supreme Court justice Bushrod Washington (1762–1829, shown here) were related in some way—probably more closely than West Ford and the late President.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

American Revolution Conference in Williamsburg, 19-20 Mar.

I’d missed this good news, but America’s History L.L.C. is hosting its Ninth Annual Conference of the American Revolution in Williamsburg, Virginia, on 19-20 March 2022.

The presenters will be:
  • Edward G. Lengel, head of faculty: “Some Desperate Glory: The Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, June 1780”
  • Michael Gabriel, “‘To Induce the Officers & Soldiery to Exert Themselves’: Plunder and Trophies in the Revolutionary War” 
  • Michael Harris, “Germantown: The Battle for Philadelphia, October 1777” 
  • T. Cole Jones, “Captives of Liberty: British, German and Loyalist Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance”
  • Larry Kidder, “Ten Crucial Days: Washington’s Campaign against Trenton and Princeton”
  • Mark Edward Lender, “Cabal!: The Plot against George Washington” 
  • James Kirby Martin, “Reconciliation or Independence: Understanding the Rebel Insurgents of 1775-1776”
  • David Preston, “General George Washington: Echoes of the Seven Years’ War in the Revolutionary War”
  • Eric Schnitzer, “Make Way for New Interpretations: Don Troiani’s Campaign to Saratoga – 1777”
  • Gary Sellick, the Dr. Robert J. Christen Emerging Scholar: “Black Men, Red Coats: The Creation of the Carolina Corps in Revolutionary South Carolina”
Bruce Venter and his America’s History team had to cancel the last two years of conferences because of the pandemic, with all the anxiety and frayed relations that produces. I’m pleased to see this event back on the calendar for Revolutionary War buffs even though I can’t attend.

In future, I hope the topics will once again broaden to include more than the military side of the Revolution, and the presenters will be similarly diverse. But after all the organizational angst of the last two years, it’s good to see this conference in any form.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Two Online Events in One Evening

Here are two online events scheduled for tomorrow evening.

Wednesday, 9 March, 6:00 P.M.
Joseph Warren, Medicine, and Activism
through Revolutionary Spaces

This panel discussion celebrates the legacy of Revolutionary icon Dr. Joseph Warren by exploring the unique and profound intersection of medicine and activism. There are the panelists:

  • Dr. Katherine Gergen Barnett is the Vice Chair of Primary Care Innovation and Transformation in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston Medical Center. She is also a Clinical Associate Professor at Boston University School of Medicine and a fellow at BU’s Institute for Health System Innovation and Policy. She has become an active public voice in radio and television and a regular contributor to The Boston Globe opinion pages.
  • Christian Di Spigna is the author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero. He is the Executive Director of the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation and also serves on the board of the Bunker Hill Monument Association.
  • Dr. Scott Harris Podolsky is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Medical Library.
Register for this online discussion through this page.

Wednesday, 9 March, 7:00 P.M.
The Witness Stones Project
through Historic Deerfield

Inspired by the Stolpersteine project in Germany, the Witness Stones Project began in Guilford, Connecticut, in 2017 to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. The Witness Stones Project now partners with historical organizations across southern New England and beyond, strengthening relationships between local organizations, educators, and students as they work together to share the story of slavery in their communities.

Co-founder Dennis Culliton and Pat Wilson Pheanious, Chair of the Board of Directors, will discuss the Witness Stones Project and the exciting relationships it is forging with Historic Deerfield and other historical organizations and schools to share more diverse and inclusive place-based histories.

This webinar is free and open to the public, and registrants can view a recording for two weeks afterwards. Register in advance through this page.

Monday, March 07, 2022

“We turn over the historic page…”

When we turn over the historic page, and trace the rise and fall of states and empires, the mighty revolutions which have so often varied the face of the world strike our minds with solemn surprise, and we are naturally led to endeavour to search out the causes of such astonishing changes.
That’s the opening of Dr. Joseph Warren’s first oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, delivered on 5 Mar 1772.

That year was the first time Boston had an official Massacre anniversary oration. To be sure, there had been two orations in 1771:
  • Dr. Thomas Young spoke on the event’s March anniversary at the Manufactory building. Young’s political and religious radicalism made the town fathers wary of him, but they liked his idea, so…
  • The selectmen invited assistant schoolmaster James Lovell to deliver an official oration in April. 
In 1772 Boston succeeded in bringing all those details together, commissioning an oration as part of an official town meeting on the actual 5th of March. That established an annual tradition that lasted until 1783, even through the siege when Boston’s oration had to take place outside Boston.

Warren began his speech, as the passage above suggests, with a deep dive into history, or at least the standard Whig understanding of the British constitution. That government was an ideal mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, the doctor declared, and the Massachusetts provincial constitution worked the same way.

That meant new taxes on the people of Massachusetts had to arise in the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature—not the lower house of Parliament. From there it was a quick jump to the dangers of a standing army, and then:
Language is too feeble to paint the emotions of our souls, when our streets were stained with the BLOOD OF OUR BRETHERN; when our ears were wounded by the groans of the dying, and our eyes were tormented with the sight of the mangled bodies of the dead. When our alarmed imagination presented to our view our houses wrapt in flames, our children subjected to the barbarous caprice of the raging soldiery; our beauteous virgins exposed to all the insolence of unbridled passion; our virtuous wives, endeared to us by every tender tie, falling a sacrifice to worse than brutal violence, and perhaps, like the famed Lucretia, distracted with anguish and despair, ending their wretched lives by their own fair hands.
Well, that escalated quickly.

You can read the whole text here, courtesy of biographer Samuel Forman.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Learning More about Hammond Green and Mary Rogers

This afternoon at the Dedham Historical Society is the third of the panel discussions I’m participating in with Christian Di Spigna and Katie Turner Getty (shown speaking here) in commemoration of the Boston Massacre.

This will be Katie’s fourth event, and Christian is going on to do a fifth. Jonathan Lane of Revolution 250 has moderated all sessions, and Bob Allison spoke in Charlestown last night.

Katie Turner Getty’s presentation was about the two women who gave detailed, preserved testimony about the Massacre, Jane (Crothers) Whitehouse and Elizabeth Avery.

From Avery’s testimony we know two more women watched the confrontation from an upper floor of the Customs house with her: Ann Green and Mary Rogers.

Ann, also called Nancy, was the sister of Hammond Green, one of the men tried for allegedly shooting a gun out of that room into the crowd below. Hammond was baptized in Christ (Old North) Church in January 1749, Ann in September 1756—and thus was still only thirteen on the night of the Massacre.

Not until I heard Katie’s talk did I learn that Mary Rogers, also called Molly, went on to marry Hammond Green. In fact, they married in Christ Church on 29 Nov 1770, just a couple of weeks before Hammond went on trial for murder. As Katie pointed out, this might have made the jury skeptical about anything Mary might say to clear her husband. The defense attorneys called Elizabeth Avery to testify instead, and Ann Green to corroborate the exoneration of her brother.

The record from 1770 makes clear that Hammond Green’s father worked for the Customs Commissioners, but it isn’t clear to me that the young man himself did. Legal records identified Hammond as a “boat-builder.” As of the evacuation of March 1776, however, Hammond Green was a Customs house “Tidesman.”

Notably, Mary Green didn’t leave with her husband that month. He evacuated as a party of one. In July 1777 the Massachusetts General Court passed a special law:
Upon the Petition of Mary Green, Wife of Hammond Green, late of Boston, praying Leave to go to her Husband now resident at Halifax

Resolved that the Prayer of the Petition be granted & that the sd. Mary Green with her Child have Leave to go by such Opportunity & under such restrictions as the honorable Council judge proper—& that she have Leave to take with her, her Bed & other necessaries
I presume Mary (Rogers) Green and her child arrived in Halifax soon afterward.

Mary Green probably died in the following years because Hammond remarried to Elizabeth Mott in 1785. This second wife was still in her teens, having been born to a retired British artillerist and his wife in Halifax in 1768. Hammond and Elizabeth Green had a few children together before she died in 1802. He continued working as a tidesman until at least 1807, according to a local almanac.

On 26 July 1808, the New-England Palladium reported that Hammond Green had died in Halifax, aged sixty. (He was in fact fifty-nine.)

One other personal detail about Hammond Green: In accusing him of murder, Charles Bourgate referred to him as “a young man one Green, he with one eye,” pointing him out in court. So Green didn’t simply become a Customs inspector; he became a one-eyed Customs inspector.