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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Sunday, July 07, 2024

A Guide to the “Powder Alarm” and More

The sestercentennial of the “Powder Alarm” is coming up on 2 September, and American Heritage revisits the event with “The Revolution Could Have Started Here,” an excerpt from Bob Thompson’s book Revolutionary Roads.

Here’s a taste:

Today, 42 Brattle houses the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. In 1774, as tensions between Great Britain and New England neared an all-time high, it was home to William Brattle, a 68-year-old gentleman farmer and Massachusetts militia general who had kicked off the September craziness by writing the governor a letter. Composed in late August, it informed [Thomas] Gage, who was his boss, that gunpowder was starting to disappear from the Powder House. Gage took the hint. Before dawn on September 1, longboats ferried some 250 Boston-based British soldiers three miles up the Mystic River, where they got out and marched another mile to their destination. Removing hobnailed boots, lest a spark blow them to kingdom come, they collected the remaining powder in the tower; a few went to Cambridge to confiscate a couple of artillery pieces, as well. All were safely back in Boston by noon, and the governor was a happy man.

Not for long, though.

Later that day, Gage’s enemies somehow got their hands on Brattle’s letter. A crowd of local protesters showed up outside his house, but, by then, the owner was gone. “He went into Boston,” Bell said, “and never saw Cambridge again.” Unsatisfied, the crowd reassembled half a mile up the street, at the home of a colonial official named Jonathan Sewall, whose wife said he wasn’t home. The protesters didn’t believe her and tried to break in. Someone inside fired a pistol—accidentally, it was claimed—which sobered everybody up, and the crowd dispersed.
You may have noticed the name “Bell” in there. I was Thompson’s tour guide along Brattle Street nearly a decade ago. This article also profiles me, in case you were curious.

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