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.

Follow by Email

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Tea Party in Review

Old South Meeting House and the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum are hosting their annual reenactment of the first Boston Tea Party on Wednesday, 16 December, starting at 6:30 P.M. (Doors open at 5:45.) Tickets are still available through this website.

I attended last year’s reenactment on a media pass, trying not to block paying customers’ views by standing behind a video camera (see photo). So it’s about time I reviewed that presentation.

The first act of the event takes place at Old South, the exact site of mass meetings about the tea in November and December 1773. Its main floor and first gallery are filled with people, Revolutionary reenactors mostly at the center and the public everywhere else. As people enter, they receive cards with remarks on the controversy over the East India Company’s tea monopoly and how Boston should respond.

At the start, some of the reenactors use first-person interpretation (i.e., portraying individual figures from 1773 Boston) lay out the basics of the debate. Then the gentleman presiding over the meeting opens the floor to other voices—folks in the audience. Everyone who wants to participate can line up at one of the microphones and read an argument from his or her card. As those lines wind down, sea captain Francis Rotch returns to report that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson has refused to permit him to sail away with the tea. Some of the reenactors whoop and head outside.

The audience is then led through the streets (rain, shine, or chill) to a viewing area across the channel from the well-lit Boston Tea Party Ships. From there they watch Sons of Liberty arrive on the ship, demand the keys to its hold, and start breaking open tea chests and throwing the cargo overboard. Finally, there’s a short spoken presentation by performers from the Tea Party Ships about what the tea destruction will lead to.

The tea crisis is a tough political confrontation to explain. The action in Old South lays out the issue on the highest level—Parliament has enacted a tax and granted a monopoly without North American subjects having any say in the matter. It also explains the lowest level—if the tea stays in those ships one more night, the royal authorities win. But the combination of laws, regulations, and circumstances that links those levels is still murky.

But these sorts of public presentations aren’t meant to lay out every detail of a historical event. They’re designed to give the public a vivid experience—in this case, hearing the arguments about the tea in Boston in late 1773 and then watching men destroy that tea on the night of 16 December. If everything works, the visuals the reenactment provides and the emotions it evokes are strong enough to entice people to learn more.

TOMORROW: Historical facts to keep in mind.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Look at Samuel Selden’s Horn

Back when I reviewed the “We Are One” exhibit at the Boston Public Library [closing this weekend!], I finished by saying, “Over the next couple of days I’ll discuss a couple of the ‘We Are One’ items in more depth.“

The first of those artifacts was the Crispus Attucks teapot, and looking into that led to a much longer series of postings about Attucks than I expected. As a result, I never got to the second.

That neglected artifact is the Samuel Selden powderhorn, owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s a blog post from the M.H.S. about it.

The Selden horn is dated March 9, 1776. It identifies its owner (not necessarily its carver) as “MAJOR SAMUEL SELDEN” of Lyme, Connecticut, and identifies itself as “MADE FOR THE DEFENCE OF LIBERTY.” The horn’s main decoration is a schematic map of the fortifications on “BOSTON NECK.” The “YANKES BRESTWORK” and “REDOUTS” with a big “MORTER” face off against “THE REGULARS BRESTWORK.”

But the horn’s unique graphic is a picture of a ship labeled “SHIP AMARACA” flying two flags. At the topmast is a banner with a tree—either the Liberty Tree or a variation of the “Appeal to Heaven” pine tree. At the aft is a flag with a Union Jack near the staff (but not exactly in the place of a canton) and a field that could be a series of horizontal stripes or a colored field denoted by hatching. Thus, it’s possible—but not in my eyes definite—that this horn is one of the earliest representations of the flag that the Continental Congress designed for its navy at the end of 1775.

I held the Selden horn in my (gloved) hands while examining two other powder horns owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society three years back. It was striking to see it again on display at the Boston Public Library.

Not until I came home from the exhibit, however, did I realize that Samuel Selden (1723-1776) was an ancestor of mine. Another branch of the family still uses “Selden” as a given name. After finishing the Boston campaign, Col. Selden took his regiment down to New York. He was captured in a skirmish during the Landing at Kip’s Bay on 15 Sept 1776, fell ill while imprisoned in City Hall, and died on 11 October.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Talking Turkey in Pre-Revolutionary America

For the holiday, John Overholt at Harvard’s Houghton Library shared a look inside one of only five surviving copies of a cookbook that Edes and Gill reprinted for pre-Revolutionary Boston:
Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook (1772) [was] just the second cookbook printed in America. Carter was English, and only in later editions did distinctively American dishes like pumpkin pie begin to appear, but her book was highly influential and went through numerous editions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries before cookbooks by American authors began to predominate.

In addition to its collection of recipes and household hints, the book includes two illustrations by a man then best known as a silversmith and engraver, Paul Revere.
Those pictures show how to prepare turkey, various other fowls, and hare or rabbit for cooking.

The holiday also offers a chance to quote Samuel Adams’s advice to a new husband about preserving a happy house:
Of what Consequence is it, whether a Turkey is brought on the Table boild or roasted? And yet, how often are the Passions sufferd to interfere in such mighty Disputes, till the Tempers of both become so sowerd, that they can scarcely look upon each other with any tolerable Degree of good Humor.
Plus, Benjamin Franklin’s struggle to electrocute a turkey.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mapping Out a Map-Filled Visit to Boston

This weekend is your last chance to see the “We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence” exhibit at the Boston Public Library. And I heartily recommend doing so. Here’s my review of the show.

The exhibit’s last day is Sunday, 29 November. After that, our only solace will be the Leventhal Map Center’s database of Revolutionary-era maps. (The map center at the library also has a smaller exhibit on women cartographers, which I haven’t seen.)

Just a short walk outbound along Boylston Street and you can also visit the Massachusetts Historical Society. Its current exhibit, running through early January, is titled “Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the M.H.S. Map Collection”:
As the M.H.S. approaches its 225th year, Terra Firma celebrates the beginnings of one of its most diverse and interesting collections. Among the maps on display are landmarks of map publishing that include the first published map of New England, the first map of Massachusetts published in America, and a unique copy of the earliest separate map of Vermont, as well as maps of important battles and maps and atlases from the United States and beyond.
There’s a webpage of audio profiles of four of the men who made those maps, including Gov. Thomas Pownall, Col. Richard Gridley, and Henry Pelham [who also serves as the @Boston1775 Twitter avatar]. Admission to the M.H.S. galleries is free, and they will be open this Friday and Saturday, 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.

And if that’s not enough maps, the Boston Athenaeum has an exhibit up through the end of February called “Collecting for the Boston Athenæum in the 21st Century: Maps, Charts, & Plans,” on recent additions to its collection of maps and charts.
Some of the highlights will include a very scarce chart of Casco Bay by J.F.W. DesBarres, a rare French edition of a classic map of the Americas by Petrus Bertius, published in the mid-seventeenth century, and a beautiful example of one of the earliest charts to focus on the New England coastline by J. van Keulen.
There are a number of eighteenth-century maps on the exhibit list, including a 1793 print of Sir Thomas Hyde Page’s Plan of the Action at Bunkers Hill on the 17th of June 1775 (thumbnail above). Admission is $5, free for members. Check the calendar for days when the Athenaeum is open.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What Sort of Gift Do You Get for a 250th Anniversary?

I’ve been promoting awareness of the Sestercentennial of the American Revolution, in part by describing what happened in the American colonies 250 years ago and in part by using the word “sestercentennial” a lot.

On Monday, 30 November, the Old North Church in Boston will host “The 250th is Coming, the 250th is Coming!”, a panel discussion on what more Massachusetts can and should do to celebrate the Sestercentennial. The event description says:
We know from the celebration of the Bicentennial forty years ago that major milestones can bring major benefits to our region: strengthening our brand as a historic tourist destination, creating new education programs, preserving our national heritage sites and renewing our civic commitment to core values of freedom and liberty. We also know that years of advance planning are required to gather the civic and financial resources required to celebrate a major milestone.
The panelists will be:
  • William Fowler, Northeastern University
  • Martha McNamara, Wellesley College
  • Robert Allison, Suffolk University
  • Greg Galer, Boston Preservation Alliance
  • Rep. Byron Rushing
The event is free, but the church asks people to reserve seats through this site.

By most historians’ lights, the Sestercentennial has already started. Back in August, the Revolution 250 consortium observed the anniversary of the first Stamp Act protest at Liberty Tree. What other Revolutionary events should Massachusetts celebrate in the next ten, eleven, or twenty-five years, and how? We’re inviting people to share ideas at the forum, on blogs like this, or through Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #250isComing.

Here are some potential visions for the future:
  • In June 2018, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum turns one of its vessels into John Hancock’s ship Liberty for a day and recreates how Customs officials seized it for smuggling, and the subsequent waterfront riot.
  • In October 2018, dozens of reenacted British army units disembark from ferries onto Long Wharf, form ranks, and march through downtown Boston to the Common for a weekend encampment recreating the occupation of Boston in October 1768.
  • In February 2020, a recreation of the massive funeral procession of young Christopher Seider winds through the streets to the Granary Burying-Ground, honoring the first Bostonian to die in the political struggle.
  • In August and September 2024, large outdoor public events commemorate the Powder Alarm in Cambridge and the closing of the courts in Hampshire and Worcester Counties, events that helped end royal rule in Massachusetts outside of Boston.
  • By April 2025, the location of Dr. Joseph Warren’s house is marked on City Hall Plaza and added to the Freedom Trail.
What would you like to see happen? What local event deserves a 250th-anniversary commemoration?

Monday, November 23, 2015

“We have now the Stamped Papers in our own Hands”

As related yesterday, on the evening of 5 Nov 1765, Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden handed New York’s supply of Stamp Act paper over to the city government.

Colden reported:
They were carried to the City Hall, and remained safe with a very triffling Guard indeed upon them. The Mob dispersed immeadiately and remain quiet. Can anything give a stronger suspicion who they were that composed the Mob, and under whose direction they acted?
That was the same building (shown here) where the Stamp Act Congress had met the previous month.

Colden’s remark about the crowd was a typical assumption of friends of the royal government, seeing “the Mob” as raised and directed by local politicians rather than the people having wills of their own.

In fact, the city’s political activists were hustling to make sure the populace accepted the compromise they had made with Colden and kept the peace. The next morning, this note was posted at the city’s main coffee house:
To the Freeholders & Inhabitants of the City of New York


We have now the Stamped Papers in our own Hands, so that there is a Prospect of our enjoying Peace once more; all then that we have to do is to promote this Peace; to do which we are under many Obligations; of which what follows will be a Proof;

1st We have entirely accomplish’d all we wanted in rescuing the Stamps from the Hands of our inveterate Enemy; to proceed any farther then would only hurt the good Cause in which we are engaged.

2dly As we have promised, both for ourselves & by our Representatives whom we ourselves have chosen, that if the Stamps were lodged in the Hands of these our Representatives (as they now are) we would be quiet & no Harm should be done, the Honour & Credit of the City lie at Stake, & shall we ruin our own Credit? I am persuaded no one would be so infatuated as to attempt it.

Let us then as we have joined Hand in Hand in effecting the Peace that now subsists also join in preserving it. This will shew that we have Conduct as well as Courage, prove that we have acted, not as a Mob, but as Friends to Liberties & be as strong an Argument as we can use to obtain a Repeal of the Stamp Act.
At the end of the day, that paper was taken down and delivered to Colden, who then sent it with his report to London. But it had done its work.

One week later, on 13 November, Sir Henry Moore, the long-expected new royal governor, arrived in New York from Britain. Colden “had the pleasure of delivering up the Administration,” and the attending headaches, to Moore “in as much quietness as could be expected in the present situation of the public affairs.”

There were, however, two new complications. Moore’s ship had also brought:
  • nine more big boxes of stamped paper for New York and Connecticut.
  • Colden’s grandson Peter De Lancey, Jr., with the proud news that the royal government had appointed him stamp inspector for Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Hampshire.
So I expect we’ll be coming back to New York for more sestercentennial updates.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How the New Yorkers Came to a Deal

On 5 Nov 1765, Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden of New York sent a report to London about how an angry crowd was besieging him inside Fort George with the province’s stamped paper.

In his letter to the Marquess of Granby, Colden wrote, “I expect the Fort will be stormed this night—everything is done in my power to give them a warm reception.”

Capt. John Montresor of the Royal Artillery, who had been busy strengthening the fort, wrote in his journal that 5th of November:
Advertisements and many papers placarded throughout this city declaring the storming of the Fort this Night under cover of burning the Pope and pretender unless the Stamps were delivered.
But in fact there was a compromise in the works. The next day Colden updated his messenger on the developments:
In the forenoon yesterday the Common Council of the City presented an Address to me Requesting that in order to restore Peace to the City & to prevent the effusion of Blood, I would deliver the Stamp’d Paper into the care of the Corporation, who in that case undertook to protect them. I was surprised at the Proposition, but upon their adding a Clause whereby the Mayor & Corporation became engaged for the full amount of the Paper &c and Duty, in case they were lost, destroyed or carried out of the Province, I consented to take the advice of his Majesty’s council upon it.
Colden was worried about the slippery slope: “The delivering the stamp’d Papers on the threats of a Mob, who may still make further demands greatly affects the dignity of his Majesty’s Government; & may have a tendency to encourage perpetual mobish proceedings hereafter.”

New York’s provincial Council advised that “the City appeared to be in perfect annarchy, and the power of Government either Military or Civil insufficient—that the defense of the Fort would involve the destruction of the City.” Those gentlemen recommended taking the deal. Colden then asked Gen. Thomas Gage for his advice as commander of the king’s army in North America, and he concurred. Colden had thus covered himself bureaucratically as much as he could.

Therefore, on the evening of 5 November the lieutenant governor turned the stamped paper in Fort George over to a committee led by Mayor John Cruger (shown above), who had participated in the Stamp Act Congress the previous month.

Cruger signed this receipt:
Received of the Honble. Cadwallader Colden, Esq. his Majesty’s Lt. Govr. and Commander in Chief of the Province of New York, Seven Packages containing Stamp’d Paper & Parchment all marked No. 1, J. McE., New York which I promise in behalf of the Corporation of the City of New York to take charge & care of, and to be accountable in case they shall be destroyed, or carried out of the Province as particularly set forth and declared in the Minutes of the Common Council of the said Corporation of this Day. Witness my hand in the City of New York this fifth day of November 1765.
TOMORROW: Was that enough to calm the populace?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Lt. Gov. Colden’s Unsafe Situation

As November 1765 began, New York acting governor Cadwallader Colden was holed up in Manhattan’s Fort George (on the far left of the map above) with a contingent of the king’s military forces and the stamped paper for three colonies. Outside was a crowd of thousands of men convinced that the Stamp Act was tyrannical and determined to keep it from taking effect.

Maj. Thomas James commanded some men from the Royal Artillery inside the fort. That, and his contemptuous remarks, had caused the crowd to tear apart the mansion he was renting in town on the night of 1 November. 

Capt. Archibald Kennedy had sent “Lieutenant Owen & twenty four Marines” to the fort to support Colden. However, he added, “by doing this I leave the Ships without Marines, & as most of our men are imprest there is a great risque of their deserting.” But he declined to take charge of the stamps, lest the crown attack his home and property.

Colden asked the military engineers how they would strengthen Fort George. On 2 November, Capts. Harry Gordon (d. 1787), Thomas Sowers, and John Montresor delivered their report:
The most necessary & Expeditious way of putting this Fort in an immediate posture of defence.

A Number of Barrells Boxes or such Instruments as will contain a sufficient quantity of earth to make them Musquet proof to be put on the Salient Angles of the Bastions to form a Lodgement for 12 Men each, filld with earth 4 ft. 6 in. high. The Earth for filling them to be taken from the inside of the parapet leaving only a Banquet inside of the Barrells Boxes &c. A piece of artillery behind those lodgements towards the shoulders of the Bastions.

Two Pieces of light artillery covered with their mantelets &c. to be mounted on each Flank & the shoulders rais’d to cover them.

A Howitzer to be mounted on each Curtin towards the Town

The Crows feet to be scetterd to the Gate, Sorties and other practicable Avenues to the Fort.

All the Remainder of the Chevaux des frises to be fix’d and ready to plant along the places where the parapet remains en harbet and to be steadied by some Earth thrown against them

A Lodgment of Mattresses or Bedding or any thing proper to make a Covering a top of the large House for a Serjeant & 12 good men who have been practised to firing.

One hundred hand Grenades to be lodg’d at each Curtin & forty near each small lodgment on the Points of the Bastions to be loaded & ready to be lighted & thrown.

The Gate to be Barricaded within at Night as fast as possible & two pieces of large artillery to be planted against it, & two light pieces at some distance behind the Chevaux des frises.

The several Fronts of the Fort to be disencumbered from the Buildings &c

’Twould be necessary for the defence of the Fort if Capt. Kennedy’s House was taken possession of as it commands two Fronts the most accessible of the Fort.

Proper Instruments & Workmen for the defence should be immediately provided and a sufficient number of Men at least three hundred.

Notwithstanding the above Improvements for the defence of the place, its still under great inconveniences arising principally from the want of proper cover within, & being commanded by the Circumjacent Buildings.
In other words, even with at least 300 men, plenty of weapons, Kennedy’s full cooperation, and a lot of hard work, Fort George would still be vulnerable. It had been built to protect the city from attack by sea, not to withstand a siege by land. And was there time to do all those things anyway?

The next morning, a paper was found inside an oyster shell at the gate of Fort George, addressed to Colden himself:

As one who is an enemy to Mischief of all kinds, & a Well wisher to you & your Family, I give you this Notice that Evil is determined against you & your Adherents & will in all human Probability take Effect, unless Speedily prevented by your public Declaration upon Oath, That you will never, in any Manner, countenance, or assist, in the Execution of the Stamp Act, or anything belonging to it; and also, that you will, to the utmost of your Power, endeavour to get it repealed in England, and meanwhile prevent its taking Effect here. Your Life may depend upon the Notice you take of this Advice.


P.S. I well know the Guides of the People would only shew you that they may dare also; but don't incense them, for God’s Sake, by an unpolitical Contempt! You are not safe at Flushing.
Flushing was where Colden had his country estate. He was probably wishing he were there.

TOMORROW: Reaching a compromise. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Capt. Kennedy and the Stamped Paper

On the night of 1 Nov 1765, after the Stamp Act was supposed to take effect, a New York mob signaled its disapproval of that development by burning the coach and other vehicles of Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden. Then some of that crowd destroyed the estate being rented by Maj. Thomas James, the commander of the fort protecting Colden and the stamped paper.

The acting governor responded with a public announcement early on the morning of 2 November that he was suspending enforcement of the new law until the new royal governor arrived. That calmed the immediate situation.

Colden also sent a letter to Capt. Archibald Kennedy (c. 1723-1794, shown here), the highest-ranking officer in the Royal Navy at New York, aboard his ship Coventry. The acting governor asked the captain if he was willing to take over the protection of the stamps:
The Gentlemen of the Council are desirous that the Stamp’d papers now in the Fort, should be put on board one of the Men of War—and I desire to know as soon as possible from you whether or not you will order them to be received on board—
Capt. Kennedy quickly wrote back to Colden:
I have this Instant received yours of this date informing me it is the desire of the Council that the Stamp’d paper should be sent on board one of the Kings Ships,

as they are already lodged in Fort George which is a place of security sufficient to protect them from any attempt the Mob can possibly make to destroy them. cannot see any plausable reason for moving them, and indeed the very attempting to move them must be attended with much greater risque than they can possibly be exposed to while there,

I shall ever be ready when necessity requires to give you all the assistance in my power
Though it seems clear Kennedy wasn’t assisting at all at that moment.

Aboard his warship, Kennedy was safe from any angry crowds, but his property wasn’t. The captain’s father had been a major businessman in New York, he had earned a lot of money from naval prizes in the wars against France, and he had married a Schuyler sister. Through inheritance, investments, and marriage, Kennedy owned a whole lot of New York real estate, including his own mansion at 1 Broadway.

The lieutenant governor explained that to British officials the next month:
Kennedy absolutely refused to receive them [the stamps], & with good reason, for he was aware of their design to force Him to deliver them by Threatning to destroy the Houses he was possesst of in the City, of which he had in his own & his wife’s Right more than perhaps any one Man in it.
I sense that Colden might have been more exasperated at his Council for suggesting this unrealistic solution than at Kennedy for resisting it. But Parliament didn’t like Kennedy’s action, or inaction, and recalled him to Britain over it. Of course, Kennedy didn’t need the navy’s salary, so he retired.

TOMORROW: Lt. Gov. Colden assesses his defenses.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The New Yorkers’ “private Unnatural and Brutal Revenge”

When New Yorkers were demonstrating against the Stamp Act on the night of 1 Nov 1765, they knew that the colony’s supply of stamped paper was inside Fort George. And they knew that the man in charge of Fort George’s defenses was Maj. Thomas James of the Royal Artillery.

In the words of the New-York Gazette, Maj. James “had unfortunately incurred the resentment of the public, by expressions imputed to him” during the dispute over the stamps.

Specifically, James later stated he’d been accused of the following:
  • “I threatened to cram the Stamps down their Throats with the End of my Sword”
  • “If they attempted to rise I [said I] would drive them all out of the Town for a pack of Rascals, with four and twenty men”
  • “I had in Contempt to the Gentlemen thrown an Almanack into the Fire that had not been stampt”
  • “I had turnd some Ladies and Gentlemen off the Ramparts of Fort George, because they should not see the Works I was carrying on”
  • “I had been over Officious in my Duty”
When Parliament asked him about those accusations the next year, he “answer’d in the Affirmative.” The legislators wouldn’t let him go on to say that, even so, “it was no Sanction for their [the protesters’] private Unnatural and Brutal Revenge or an Indemnification for their Insults upon Government.”

Unfortunately for the major, though he was safe inside Fort George, his property was not. That’s because, with the British military making New York its base for North American operations, he had rented a mansion called Vaux Hall, beside the Hudson River near King’s College.

The New-York Gazette continued:
It is said he had taken a Lease of the house for three years, and had obliged himself to return it in the like good order as he received it; it had been lately fitted up in an elegant manner, and had adjoining a large handsome garden stored both with necessaries and curiosities,—and had in it several summer houses; the house was genteely furnished with good furniture; contained a valuable library of choice books, papers, accounts, mathematical instruments, draughts, rich clothes, linen, &c. and a considerable quantity of wine and other liquors.—

The multitude bursting open the doors, proceeded to destroy every individual article the house contain’d,—the beds they cut open and threw the feathers abroad, broke all the glasses, china, tables, chairs, desks, trunks, chests, and making a large fire at a little distance, threw in every thing that would burn—drank or destroy’d all the liquor—and left not the least article in the house which they did not destroy—after which they also beat to pieces all the doors, sashes, window frames and partitions in the house, leaving it a meer shell; also destroyed the summer houses, and tore up and spoiled the garden.

All this destruction was compleated by about 2 o’clock [A.M.]. The imagined cause of resentment operated so powerfully, that every act of devastation on the goods of this unhappy gentleman was consider’d as a sacrifice to liberty.—Many military trophies, even the colours of the royal regiment, were taken and carried off triumphantly.
New York’s anti-Stamp demonstration thus ended as Boston’s and Newport’s had done, with the destruction of a house. And not necessarily the house of the man designated to collect the new tax, but the house of a royal official who spoke up for enforcing the law.

TOMORROW: Naval support?