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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Friday, September 09, 2022

“A brave and valiant sea-commander, only a little bashful”

When James Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer ran what it said was a letter alerting British army officers in Boston to the men behind the town’s political troubles, its list of fifteen names included two we don’t usually read among Revolutionary leaders:
Both those men do already have tags here on Boston 1775, but you know this is an unusual place.

Neither Bradford nor Barber were elected to major political offices or wrote significant newspaper essays (that we know about). They weren’t in the top tier of Boston organizers, nor in my view in the next tier, either. They were too old to fight in the war, serving in civil offices instead, and neither survived the 1780s to help construct the federal government, two ways people got remembered.

Nonetheless, as their titles suggest, Bradford and Barber commanded respect in colonial Boston. Both were staunch Whig businessmen, the sort who spoke out in town meetings, signed protests, and served on committees. Indeed, both Bradford and Barber were part of Boston’s first committee of correspondence in 1772 and then the larger committee to enforce the Association boycott in 1774.

John Bradford (1735–84) was a merchant captain, sailing ships to London and Jamaica. In his study Smugglers and Patriots, John Tyler reported evidence that Bradford belonged in both categories. In 1775 the printer John Mein would call Bradford “a brave and valiant sea-commander, only a little bashful, which is well known to the underwriters in London.” Unfortunately, it’s not well known to us what Mein was referring to, probably sarcastically.

In the 1760s Bradford stopped commanding the ships himself, settled into his North End home, and focused on managing imports through his shop in Boston. He was elected an Overseer of the Poor in 1768 and a warden in 1772.

Bradford was also a slave-owner. Among his servants was a teenager born in Africa and renamed Chloe Spear, subject of a biography published in 1832 by Rebecca Warren Brown, daughter of Dr. John Warren. According to that book, Spear sought to learn to read by studying a psalter:
She kept the book secreted in her pocket, and whenever she had a few moments leisure, she would take it out and try to spell a word. While thus engaged one day, her master discovered the book in her hand, and inquired what she was doing. She told the truth, and this led to a full disclosure of the case. He angrily forbade her going again to the schoolmistress for instruction, even under penalty of being suspended by her two thumbs, and severely whipped; he said it made negroes saucy to know how to read, &c.
Nonetheless, Bradford joined the crusade to preserve political liberty for men like him.

In 1769–70 Bradford was among several Boston merchants who enforced the non-importation agreement—walking aboard ships, demanding Customs documents, leaning on merchants who defied the boycott. After James Otis, Jr., and Customs Commissioner John Robinson brawled in the British Coffee-House, Bradford was seen “looking for Mr. Otis’s Hat & Wig.” He was also on the town committee to hire a ship to carry the town’s report on the Boston Massacre to London, though cost worries scuttled that plan.

On 2 Sept 1774, a week before the New York newspaper item appeared, Capt. John Bradford was among the Boston Whigs who went out to Cambridge to calm the militiamen gathered in the “Powder Alarm.” After two colleagues, William Cooper and William Molineux, told the crowd that the gunpowder the royal authorities had seized was probably old and worthless anyway, Bradford had the boldness to publicly disagree. (The next month, Bradford was a pallbearer at Molineux’s funeral.)

The Bradford household appears to have escaped from the siege of Boston as refugees in Andover, boarding with a family named Adams. Their host helped Chloe Spear learn to read and converted her to a fervent Christianity.

In April 1776 the Continental Congress appointed Capt. Bradford its prize agent for all British ships captured and brought into Boston harbor—which some historians estimate amounted to half of all the prizes that Americans captured during the war. Bradford also became an agent for the Congress’s marine committee, purchasing ships and supplies. Those responsibilities reflect both his nautical knowledge and how the Boston Whigs believed Bradford deserved trust and rewards.

According to the Chloe Spear biography:
As a reward of her integrity, her master gave her a certificate of manumission, (freedom) which was to take effect at a specified period not very distant. But shortly after, by a law of the Commonwealth, all the slaves in the State were made free.
That would have been in 1783. John Bradford died in May 1784 “after a lingering illness.”

TOMORROW: Major Barber.

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