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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Tuesday, February 07, 2023

“To transport these Men to Kennibeck”

When Dr. Benjamin Church wrote his intelligence report on 24 Sept 1775, the latest big event along the Continental lines was the departure of volunteers heading north.

Those men were under the command of Col. Benedict Arnold (shown here), respected for his part in taking Fort Ticonderoga and other Crown positions along Lake Champlain.

Church knew Arnold. In fact, the doctor had been the ranking member of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety who had signed Arnold’s orders for that mission to Ticonderoga on 3 May. In August he headed the committee to review the colonel’s expenses, an interaction that didn’t go so smoothly. (Ironic moments, since Church was already supplying the Crown with secrets and Arnold would do so later.)

In late August, Arnold met with Gen. George Washington and gained approval for a quick thrust through Maine to Québec, meeting up with Gen. Richard Montgomery’s force advancing from New York. The commander’s general orders for 5 September called for “such Volunteers as are active woodsmen, and well acquainted with batteaus,” to march under Arnold’s command. About a thousand men responded, and most of them left Cambridge on 13 September.

Although the destination of that column was supposed to be secret, lots of people suspected. For example, on 13 September Jesse Lukens, a volunteer from Pennsylvania, wrote:
Col. Arnold having chosen one thousand effective men, consisting of two companies of riflemen, (about one hundred and forty,) the remainder musqueteers, set off for Quebec, as it is given out, and which I really believe to be their destination. I accompanied on foot as far as Lynn, nine miles.
Starting on 20 September, newspapers in New York and Philadelphia reported on Arnold’s departure for Québec, citing reports from Cambridge. New England newspapers were more cagy about his destination, but the secret was out.

Dr. Church mentioned the overall Canada campaign three times in his letter, starting with the second sentence and ending just before his request for money:
The fifteen hundred Men that you had news of going to Quebec are going to Halifax (I believe) to destroy that place, . . .

An Express from Ticondiroga, says that they had been Ambushed but foursed their way through with the loss of 13 Men and they on their advancing forward found on the ground ten Indians dead, that the Army was within one Mile and a half of St. Johns, on which they sent a party of Men to Cut of the Communication between Montreal and the Fort. . . .

The Vessells I mentioned that was fiting at Salem was to transport these Men to Kennibeck as I find since, I am not Certain they are gone to Halifax but it is thought and believed they are.
This letter shows that even the British commanders inside Boston had received word of “fifteen hundred Men…going to Quebec” and asked Church about it. But the doctor suspected they were headed to Nova Scotia. When he began this dispatch he was certain about that; by the end, he wasn’t so sure but still thought that was most likely.

In fact, the Continental generals had talked about an attack on Halifax. Immediately after hearing about the shortage of gunpowder on 3 August, Washington and his council of war discussed raiding Crown outposts with powder stores. Col. John Glover leased a schooner called the Hannah.

By mid-September, however, plans had changed. Washington had ordered the Hannah to try attacking British supply ships instead. He wrote to the merchant Nathaniel Tracy to arrange for several more ships to carry Arnold’s one thousand men from Newburyport up to the mouth of the Kennebeck River.

Church’s expectation of an attack on Halifax might have been accurate at one point, but not any longer.

COMING UP: More details from the Continental camp.

Monday, February 06, 2023

“Go down to the ferry ways so as to see Charls”

Even after the siege of Boston began, the nearby ferries continued to operate, at least intermittently. Those boats offered ways to transmit information or goods, sometimes illicitly.

There was a ferry between Boston’s North End and Charlestown, operated by a man named Enoch Hopkins (d. 1778). On 15 June 1775, a Boston magistrate named William Stoddard wrote to James Littlefield in Watertown:
Your letter and the last, dated the 13th instant, by Mr. Hopkins, I have received. I waited on the Admiral [Samuel Graves] this morning, and have got you a fishing pass for your boat and three men, to come in and out of this harbour, which I now send you. You will carefully observe the pass; you must observe to go a fishing from Salem, before you come up here, and then you may come in and go out. I hope you will not meet with any obstruction at Salem; not forgetting, if in your power, to bring up veal, green peas, fresh butter, asparagus, and fresh salmon.

Mr. Miles went away yesterday in the afternoon, by water, in order to come to you, and we suppose he is with you before this. I hope you have received a cloak, with a bag of brown sugar, I sent over yesterday by Mr. Hopkins’s son. I have paid some of the ferrymen, and I shall pay them all for their trouble, when I have done with them. Do not pay them any thing; if you have, let me know; keep that to yourself. . . .

I wish you would send me last Monday’s newspaper, and this day’s paper. I shall be much obliged to you, if you can, before you go for Salem, send me some fresh butter, and half a bushel of green peas. I now send you two dollars in this letter, and an osnaburgh bag, by Mr. Hopkins’s son, to put the peas in. What other charges you are at I will settle with you hereafter.
On 28 July, Joseph Reed, Gen. George Washington’s military secretary, wrote about getting a secret message into Boston via “a Waterman” operating north of Boston, possibly Hopkins. And at some point during the siege, a Boston shopkeeper warned Gen. Thomas Gage that ferrymen named Hopkins and Goodwin were “as bad Rebels as any”:
I have seen them bring men over in Disguise—and they are up in Town every Oppertunity they have gathering what Intelegence they can and when they return communicate it to the Rebels the other side, and they again to the Rebel Officers.
This may be the same Enoch Hopkins who with his wife and seven children arrived in Concord as war refugees in November, as Katie Turner Getty has written about.

The British army took the Charlestown peninsula two days after the Stoddard letter above. That meant the ferry across the Charles River was fully within royal territory, and the Mystic River now defined the siege line. There were two ferries crossing the Mystic to Charlestown, one from Malden called the Penny Ferry and one from Chelsea called the Winnisimmet Ferry (spelled variously, of course).

On 6 August, British army raiders burnt the Penny Ferry landing house in Malden, and it was never rebuilt.

At Chelsea, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin was in charge, stationed at the ferry landing. On 28 July he became part of Reed’s chain of men sending information into Boston, and in return he sent headquarters several reports about people coming over the Winnisimmet Ferry.

As I quoted yesterday, in the summer of 1775 Dr. Benjamin Church discussed using the Winnisimmet Ferry as a conduit for information and what he really wanted, money:
If I am to Continue in your Service Major be so good to send me out a little Cash, Charly the ferry Man if you can trust him may give it me—Slyly—by heavens Major I shou’d loose my life if it was known by these people.

I attempted some time ago to write you, over Chalsey ferry but the Committy would not let me go down to the ferry ways so as to see Charls. After that I did not try but went to Newport and from thence wrote.
Clearly the local Patriot authorities (“the Committy”) understood that people might use that ferry for nefarious purposes and didn’t let Church, or probably anyone, go there alone. 

I’ve tried to identify this ferryman named “Charly” or “Charls” (or, presumably, Charles) without success. While the men granted the right to run a ferry sometimes show up in the records, Charly may well have been an employee instead.

Stymied by that route, Church instead sent information through Newport, and ultimately that led to his arrest.

TOMORROW: Church’s report on the Arnold expedition.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

“I shou’d loose my life if it was known by these people”

In the before times, not only before the pandemic but before I launched Boston 1775, I looked at the 24 Sept 1775 letter from Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., that I’ve started analyzing.

It’s in the Thomas Gage Papers at the Clements Library in Michigan. I was there doing some of the research that eventually became The Road to Concord.

At the time I wasn’t so interested in events after the war had started, so I didn’t transcribe the letter. I merely noted that this document was in the same handwriting as other letters from Church.

That was before cell phones had cameras in them. These days, many researchers spend more time in archive reading rooms photographing than reading, taking home lots of images to decipher later.

Fortunately for me, Henry Belcher transcribed the letter and published it in The First American Civil War (1911), and that’s now available for everyone. He called the document only “An American Spy’s Report,” not recognizing Church as the spy.

Allan French’s General Gage’s Informers (1932), which confirmed Church (and Benjamin Thompson) as secret agents for Gage, didn’t discuss this letter. Neither did John Nagy’s 2013 biography of Church.

I’m sorry if I’ve missed another study, but as far as I know yesterday’s posting was the first discussion of this letter in the context of Church’s espionage career. So over several days I’m going to analyze all the parts of this letter.

Toward the end is a passage that reveals something of Church’s spycraft:
If I am to Continue in your Service Major be so good to send me out a little Cash, Charly the ferry Man if you can trust him may give it me—Slyly—by heavens Major I shou’d loose my life if it was known by these people.

I attempted some time ago to write you, over Chalsey ferry but the Committy would not let me go down to the ferry ways so as to see Charls. After that I did not try but went to Newport and from thence wrote. I am forced to act with the greatest Caution in this Matter, but now Sir I think a way is open by which I can let you know how matters go with us if you Requist it, If you do not, I am very much obliged to you for your kindness and friendship attested toward me & am Yrs &c. &c.
The “Major” whom Church wrote to was almost certainly Maj. Edward Cane of the 43rd Regiment. He was the addressee on Church’s ciphered letter that I discussed in the last couple of days. Back in June, Cane had participated in the arrest of a couple of suspected spies within Boston.

Almost all of Church’s surviving spy reports include a plea for money, like this one. That pattern strongly suggests that money motivated Church’s betrayal of the Patriot cause.

The passage above also shows the doctor clearly knew he was committing a hanging offense. Yet from the moment of his arrest to when he was sent into exile, Church denied being a spy.

TOMORROW: The ferrymen.

Saturday, February 04, 2023

“To write one time no want of powder and at another not so great a plenty”

The 23 July 1775 letter from Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., that I quoted yesterday never made it into Boston.

Church gave it to his mistress in Little Cambridge, Mary Butler, and she asked her ex-husband in Newport, the baker Godfrey Wenwood (or Wainwood), to pass it on to royal officials to take into Boston.

Instead, the baker sat on the document. But Dr. Church couldn’t know that. Just a few days later, he discovered a quicker way to send messages into Boston, piggybacking on Gen. George Washington’s own espionage route.

Eventually, Dr. Church realized the letter he’d sent by his mistress had never arrived, and he asked her about it. She asked her ex-husband. He grew even more suspicious and took the document to Rhode Island’s Patriot authorities on 26 September.

That set in motion the chain of events that led to the deciphering of the letter, Washington’s interrogation of Mary Butler, and Dr. Church’s arrest by the end of the month.

That summer, Church had sat through a series of inquiries about how he as Surgeon General ran the Continental Army hospitals. (Regimental surgeons disliked him encroaching on their territory.) On 19 September, Church asked for a leave to visit his family in Rhode Island. The next day, he sent Gen. Washington his resignation. Adjutant General Horatio Gates cited the commander’s “his unwillingness to part with a good officer” and asked Church to reconsider.

On 24 September, Dr. Church sent a new letter full of intelligence about the Continental camp into Boston. We know this one arrived because it survives in Gen. Thomas Gage’s files.

Among many other things, Church discussed the Continental gunpowder supply. As I quoted yesterday, back in July he had said there was lots of powder. In late September he wrote:
the Accot I sent you that our Army was Supplyed largely with powder is not so, instead of our peoples having Ninety Tons of powder from Philadelphia they did but Nine as I find by the Commessary and from New York Six for Sixty as is declared all over the Camp, but when it got down here it was no more than I now write you, they have got some little from different Quarters by some means but I am bould to say, not enough to stand a long Siege. We are made to believe that we are to have large Quantitys in a very short time, they have sent different ways, that I know, for powder and without every good look out they will get [difficulties?],

You will think me an odd fellow to write one time no want of powder and at another not so great a plenty—but Sir, never was a people lead on blindfold and so imposed on as this people have been with respect to Arms and Amunition: I am not alone in this matter I heard Mr. [John] Hancock Say the very day he came from Congress that we had more Powder on the Road coming to the Camp, than we could Expend in one twelve months, this was believed by all coming from Hancock.

The Army begin to inquire for themselves, about these matters, and are not satisfied to find themselves so deceived in a matter of so much importance. but our Chiefs say, it is absolutely necessary, nay Justifiable for such reports when all is at Stake, and the Courage of the Soldiers must be kept up high by some means or other.
This letter would have completely destroyed Church’s claim that his July letter showed he was exaggerating the Continental Army’s strength. After he learned about the gunpowder shortage, he passed that news on to the British commander.

It also hints at another source on the Continentals’ confidence about their gunpowder: none other than John Hancock, chair of the Congress. He visited Cambridge in mid-July and surely met with his longtime colleague there. Shortly afterward, Church sent his original dispatch describing how “Powder mills are erected and constantly employed.” By September, the doctor no longer believed that.

TOMORROW: More from Dr. Church’s letter.

Friday, February 03, 2023

“He particularly enlarged his accounts of our ammunition”?

On 28 Oct 1775, the Massachusetts House put Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., on trial for corresponding with the British military inside Boston.

In his defense, the doctor pointed to a passage in the allegedly incriminating letter, dated 23 July (copy shown here):
20 Tons of Powder arroved at Philad. Connecticut and Providence, upwards of 20 Tons are now in Camp, salt petre is made in every Colony. Powder mills are erected and constantly employed in Philada & New York.
That wasn’t giving sensitive information to the enemy, Church told the legislators. Instead, he
declared that the only motive he had in writing was the publick good; that he took care to exaggerate our strength and firmness, with a view to dishearten and intimidate; that he particularly enlarged his accounts of our ammunition, at a time when an attack might have proved fatal, on account of the scarcity of that article…
Nobody believed that. But nobody could refute it, either. The deciphered letter certainly did declare that the Continental Army had a lot of gunpowder.

Some historians have wondered if Church was writing in a code, in addition to cipher—perhaps the men who received his letter would know by previous arrangement he was actually communicating the opposite of what it said. Or maybe the doctor was sincerely trying to reconcile the royal authorities to the provincial cause.

In fact, Church’s 23 July writing reflected a common understanding around the camp that summer. On 2 July, Ezekiel Price, living in Milton, wrote in his diary: “Mr. E[dmund]. Quincy reports that eighteen hundred barrels of powder is arrived at Philadelphia or New York.”

On 10 August, the Boston Gazette reported, “the Needfull is said to be not wanting,” probably a reference to gunpowder.

Down in Newport, on 15 August the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles noted: “I am told so that I rely on it, that our Army now have Fifty Tons of Powder.”

In fact, on 3 August Gen. George Washington had learned that the army was facing a gunpowder shortage. He and his generals were writing desperately—but secretly—to various governments asking for more. They were coming up with wild plans to grab powder from colonies still loyal to the Crown. But of course the commander worked to keep that news from spreading. (I wrote about that effort in this article for the Journal of the American Revolution.)

By late October, more gunpowder had arrived in the American camp, making it safe to acknowledge there had been a shortage a couple of months before. But when Dr. Church wrote his letter in late July, nobody knew about that shortage, not even Gen. Washington. So the doctor’s claim that he was deliberately trying to fool his correspondents on that point was plausible only if his listeners didn’t remember what happened when.

And those Massachusetts legislators wouldn’t have believed Dr. Church for an instant if they’d seen his next letter.

TOMORROW: Out of the files of Gen. Gage.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

A Ko-fi Reward, Cheap for Cash

At the end of last year, I announced a Boston 1775 membership tier on the Ko-fi platform.

And at the end of last month, on Tuesday, I posted the first reward for “Buff and Blue” members. It’s an essay titled “A Bankruptcy in Boston, 1765,” about Nathaniel Wheelwright’s financial failure and the effect it had on what became the Revolution. This is a much expanded, updated, and citation-festooned version of an article I wrote for Massachusetts Banker magazine way back during the Great Recession.

If you’ve signed up to make a small monthly contribution to Boston 1775, you should have received a message about this essay, or it’s waiting for you on Ko-fi. I’m not sure how exactly the platform works since this is the first time I’ve used it this way. If reading about the ripples of one colonial merchant’s bankruptcy sounds intriguing, you can sign up on Ko-fi this month now and I’ll get you the file. Thanks for your support in whatever form.

While revamping this article, I wondered if Boston shopkeepers became more eager for cash payments in 1765 as the Wheelwright bankruptcy and the impending Stamp Act made specie even more desirable. And how could I measure that?

Shopkeepers signaled that they gave discounts to customers paying with hard currency through the phrase “Cheap for Cash.” I decided to ask the newspaper database at Genealogy Bank to search through Massachusetts newspapers for “cheap for cash” (and “cheap for cafh,” since the system more often doesn’t recognize the long s) in each year of the 1760s.

I realized that approach could be thrown off by the arrival of a new newspaper, like the Boston Chronicle in late 1767, or simply by one or two businesspeople who liked that phrase and advertised with it week after week. Still, it’s better to have flawed data than no data.

Here’s the result as a bar graph:

The year 1765 was indeed the peak of “Cheap for Cash” advertisements. However, the big rise actually occurred the year before. Then the total tapered off until a big drop in 1769.

Looking at those lines brings me to these tentative conclusions:
  • The post-Seven Years’ War economic recession started making business harder for Boston shopkeepers in 1764. That situation might well have been one stress on Wheelwright’s finances. His bankruptcy in January 1765 in turn made everyone else’s hunger for hard cash even more urgent.
  • When the British military was active in the region, as in the war years and then in the occupation of Boston that started in late 1768, the paymasters and commissaries brought enough specie into the province that shopkeepers didn’t feel they needed to advertise special pricing for cash.
This is of course a crude methodology, and I’m sure specialized historians could improve on it. For instance, a more detailed count of advertisers could determine how many different shops used the phrase. Breaking years down into quarters or months might fine-tune the analysis. Other phrases besides “Cheap for Cash” might have carried the same message. The overall number of ads could have waxed and waned. But for ten minutes’ work, I’m happy with this.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

“I don’t want a major city to catch fire”

Via Yale University Press, Prof. Benjamin L. Carp of Brooklyn College blogs:
When you write a book, you have to promote it. When you promote a book, they ask you to pitch ideas to news outlets. When you pitch an idea to a news outlet, they say you should have a “hook” that relates to contemporary events.

I do not want there to be a hook for my book, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, because I don’t want a major city to catch fire.

My book is about an awful disaster—a fire on September 21, 1776, that burned about a fifth of New York City, which was then the second-largest town in the rebelling colonies that became the United States. I think the evidence shows that American rebels burned the city deliberately—and perhaps with George Washington’s blessing. The British had just occupied New York six days earlier, and the Americans had talked about depriving the British of headquarters for the winter. After the fire, however, the rebels insisted that Washington and his men had nothing to do with the fire, and they launched a campaign of correspondence and newspaper items to counteract any suggestion that the Americans were to blame. They succeeded, too: for years, most historians said the fire was either an accident or a mystery.

Our world is currently filled with destructive warfare, climate disaster, and disinformation. It shouldn’t be too difficult for me to connect a tragic event from the past to the catastrophes we face today. But I keep hoping the world won’t give me a hook.
As in Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, Ben Carp spent part of his time researching this book digging below the standard history of this famous event to find early clues about which individuals were responsible.

The Tea Party was carefully controlled destruction while the New York fire was supposed to get out of control. The men who destroyed the tea were Boston Whigs no doubt selected for their reliability. Interestingly, some of the figures whom this book links to the Manhattan arson were people from well outside the American power structure, yet willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Henry Knox Symposium in Springfield, 6 May

Springfield Armory National Historic Site and the Friends of Springfield Armory N.H.S. are organizing a one-day public symposium on Henry Knox, to be held on 6 May 2023.

As commander of artillery for the Continental Army, Knox recommended making Springfield the site of an arsenal and laboratory. That facility remained a federal armory in the early republic while Knox rose to be secretary of war.

The organizers have announced, “We invite scholars, historians, archivists, curators, and other interested parties to submit abstracts for short presentations that address Henry Knox and his role in American history.” These can include explorations of less admirable facets of this “complex and controversial man,” not just heroic portraits.

Presentations will be thirty minutes long (fifteen double-spaced pages when typed out) with ten minutes for questions. Up to eight proposals will be selected for the symposium.

Prospective presenters should send an abstract of no more than 500 words about their topic, including the presenter’s full name, contact information (name, title, organization, address, phone, email), and a 100-word biography. To send proposals, use the “email us” link on this page.

The due date for proposals is 8 March. By 22 March, the organizers will notify prospects if their proposals have been accepted. The presentations will be due on 19 April in order to ensure they will be ready for 6 May.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Matthew E. Henry‘s “self-evident”

Yesterday I went to a New England Poetry Club reading at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard.

One of the poets sharing work was Matthew E. Henry, who is also a schoolteacher. He grew up in Boston and went to school in Wellesley, and in this poem he looked back on those years.
self-evident

as a kid from Boston, the Revolutionary War
was my favorite subject in fourth grade.
a Tea Party I could respect. class trips vainly
searching for musket balls in Lexington treetops.
reading of decapitation by cannonball on Breed’s Hill.
even the sights in Southie— unsafe for me to visit—
were a source of tribal pride. like rooting for the Patriots.

we were told to don our colonial imagination caps
and tell our story of emancipation from the British.
where would we be? the Old South Meeting House?
the Old North Church? what would we see as we rose
to American greatness? our teacher should hear freedom
ringing in the streets through our words. I dropped my head
to begin— oversized pencil in hand— until I remembered.

seeing my inaction, she crouched and began to re-explain.
I patiently waited for her to finish, eyes on her lips,
then asked if she wanted me to pretend to be white,
or to picture myself for sale on the steps of Faneuil Hall,
or stacked in one-half of the Harbor ships heading to
and from the West Indies, explaining my parents’ patois.

after the vocal static— the hems and haws of white noise—
she suggested Crispus Attucks: the hometown boy, the Black
hero of the Boston Massacre. my siblings had taught me
the “one-drop rule,” and when to nod my head politely,
so I pretended he was not half Wampanoag, that Framingham
was not his master’s home, and imagined myself being
the first unarmed Black man shot on these urban streets.
The specific details, from the reminder of neighborhood enmities to the mention of Asa Pollard’s head, really evoke a post-Bicentennial Boston childhood. But they also remind us that nearby childhoods could be vastly different, then and now.

“self-evident” was a published first in the Tahoma Literary Review. It’s included in Henry’s collection The Colored Page, which on its webpage has the sell line: “How it started: Only Black kid in the room. Where we are: Only Black teacher in the building.”

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Naming Names

In my recent sampling of historical fiction set in the Revolutionary period, I see authors having difficulty giving their characters authentic names.

Sometimes they fall into the trap of using given names familiar to us today but not in use then, such as “Suzanne” instead of “Susanna.” But more often writers go the other way and choose names that resonate with so much quaint historicity that we rarely see them today, such as “Norbert” or “Tristram”—but people of Revolutionary times didn’t see those names, either.

The problem is that the most common given names in Revolutionary times are quite familiar. Daniel Scott Smith showed this in a study of Massachusetts’s 1771 tax lists, published in the William & Mary Quarterly in 1994.

Among men, the names most frequently found were: John, Samuel, Joseph, William, Jonathan, Thomas, James, Benjamin, Daniel, and David.

Among women, the top names were: Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, Lydia, Ann (or Anne or Anna), Rebecca, Martha, and Ruth.

All of those names are familiar today and have been familiar for a long time, meaning they don’t evoke any particular era. We have to go down the list to #11 for men and #12 for women before finding names we rarely use now: Ebenezer and Mehetabel.

What’s more, common names were more common in 1771—meaning that more of the men and women you met had the same popular given names. About 46% of all taxpaying men had one of those top-ten names listed above.

Among women, there was even less diversity. Slightly over two-thirds of all female taxpayers in Massachusetts shared the ten given names above. If you’ve ever done genealogy in this period, it feels like half of all the women are named Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hannah, or Abigail. Smith’s number-crunching showed that’s actually a slight understatement. The correct figure is 52.8%.

In contrast, in the decades since World War 2, and especially in the decades since 1980, American parents have chosen an increasingly wider range of names, Sam Weinger reported through Medium. Notably, female names are now far more diverse than male names.

In 2014, a FiveThirtyEight article stated, “almost 30 percent of Americans have a given name that appears in the top 100 list.” Back in 1771, 30% of Massachusetts male taxpayers had a given name appearing in the top 5 list, and 27% of women were named either Mary or Elizabeth.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Fundraising for Security at Carpenters’ Hall

Carpenters’ Hall was built and owned by the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia.

The guild started meeting in the building in 1771, though they continued working on it until 1775. By the fall of 1774 it was in good enough shape to host the First Continental Congress.

With delegates from twelve colonies participating, this was the broadest continental resistance gathering yet. It sent a petition to King George III, trying to go over the head of his ministers, and it called on Americans to adopt the Continental Association, a widespread boycott of British goods.

Later the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference and Convention met in Carpenters’ Hall to declare independence for that state, take control of the militia, and set up a new state constitution. (Meanwhile, the Second Continental Congress had taken over the nearby Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall.)

Carpenters’ Hall remains the property of the Carpenters’ Company, but it’s also part of Independence National Historical Park, with National Park Service rangers leading free tours and programs.

For most of 2022, the building was closed for a $3 million renovation. It was due to reopen early this year.

On Christmas Eve, an N.P.S. officer discovered a fire in the building’s basement. Sprinklers went off, containing the flames, though that water harmed some files. Upper parts of the building sustained only smoke damage. Investigators determined the fire had been deliberately set.

The Carpenters’ Company has set up a Go Fund Me page for recovering from this arson, saying:
While insurance will cover much of the destruction, Carpenters' Hall will need to commit to new improvements to prevent another tragedy from occurring again in the future. Public donations will help to fund an improved security system, including new security cameras, fire protection systems, fireproof archival storage, and environmental protections for our collections.

As we look towards the 250th anniversary of the First Continental Congress in just over a year, it is more vital than ever that we reopen the Hall as it was intended: as a meeting place for the community, a civic forum, and a building for the people.
This effort seeks to raise $100,000 to preserve this historic building from future harm.

Friday, January 27, 2023

“I am (as we say) a daughter of liberty”

For a presentation this week that didn’t come off, I picked out three extracts from the letters of young teenager Anna Green Winslow to her mother in Nova Scotia, showing her political awakening. She wrote between November 1771 and May 1773.

Richard Gridley, retired artillery colonel, explained the political factions to Anna.

Coln. Gridley…brought in the talk of Whigs & Tories & taught me the different between them.
As a girl, and an upper-class girl at that, Anna wasn’t supposed to demonstrate in the streets. But the Whig movement encouraged girls to participate in other ways, such as learning to spin so that local weavers could make more cloth so that local merchants didn’t have to import so much from Britain.

But Anna didn’t know how to spin.

So she contented herself by visiting the Manufactory where her cousin Sally’s yarn had been woven into cloth, and doing a little dance there.
I was at the factory to see a piece of cloth cousin Sally spun for a summer coat for unkle. After viewing the work we recollected the room we sat down in was Libberty Assembly Hall, otherwise called factory hall, so Miss Gridley & I did ourselves the Honour of dancing a minuet in it.
Anna could also participate in the movement as a consumer, choosing to buy more locally produced goods. In one letter she proudly described herself to her mother as a “daughter of liberty.”
As I am (as we say) a daughter of liberty I chuse to wear as much of our own manufactory as pocible. . . . I will go on to save my money for a chip & a lineing &c.
I’m not sure how Anna’s family felt about the politics she was learning in Boston. Her father, Joshua Winslow, was more closely allied with royal officials. Later in 1773 he lucked out (he thought) in being named one of the East India Company’s tea consignees in Boston. But when the town mobilized against allowing that tea to be landed, he had to lie low in Marshfield. Eventually, he left Massachusetts as a Loyalist.

Anna Green Winslow remained in the state, living in Hingham, but she died in 1780. Alas, outside of those letters to her mother in 1771–1773 we have almost no sources about Anna’s life, so we don’t know how her political outlook changed after the Whigs made her father an enemy for agreeing to sell tea, and after the war began.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Davis on Ragsdale, Washington at the Plow

Camille Davis recently reviewed Bruce A. Ragsdale’s Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery for H-Net.

Davis writes:
Going beyond much of the historical analysis that presents farming as primarily an occupation that Washington held before the Revolution and a retirement activity that he reestablished after relinquishing command of the Continental Army, Ragsdale proves that farming was at the nexus of the first president’s personhood, an indelible component of his identity that he consistently developed. Additionally, Ragsdale uses Washington’s preoccupation with land ownership and cultivation to illuminate Washington’s decision-making processes as a slaveowner. Ragsdale believes Washington’s roles as landowner and slaveowner were inextricably linked.

Ragsdale’s work illustrates that Washington’s preoccupation with agriculture was tied directly to the Enlightenment impetus of using science to assess, understand, and control one’s physical environment. Specifically, for Washington, this meant using scientific principles to improve soil conditions and crop growth. . . . As a private citizen, he continuously looked for ways to maximize the efficiency of enslaved persons working on his plantation. Additionally, he insisted that enslaved persons be kept aware of and trained on the most recent English farming techniques.
That overlap between what seem like the latest thinking and the most barbarous custom is provocative. Davis also notes some unanswered questions in Ragsdale’s analysis. Read the whole review here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Researching Historic Carpentry

The North Bennet Street School (one of my mother’s multiple alma maters) just shared a blog post about graduates working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Of the alumni profiled, Jeremy Tritchler (shown above) and Brian Weldy studied in the Cabinet and Furniture Making program and Melanie Belongia in Violin Making—though she’s now applying those skills to harpsichords.

Tritchler was a geologist before trying the North Bennet Street School, and Belongia was a professional musician and law student. (My mother had also worked in several careers, in addition to raising two kids, when she decided to study piano tuning and repair.)

Today these three graduates are in the part of Colonial Williamsburg’s costumed staff who also work with wood and other eighteenth-century materials to produce cabinets, musical instruments, and other objects.

Meredith Fidrocki writes of Weldy, a master in the joiner’s shop:
Projects require meticulous research. How did a colonial Joiner make this efficiently and economically? Figuring that out is one of Brian’s favorite parts of the job. “Not too many people can say they’ve crawled up in the steeple of the Bruton Parish Church,” he laughs, recalling up-close exploration of the 18th-century church on the museum grounds. “The beams come together in a beautiful latticework.” In the shop, he’s currently recreating one of the circular windows from the church.
In fact, all three craftspeople speak of enjoying the research side of the job.