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


Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Bearded Portrait Painter in 1753

British and American gentlemen of the middle and late eighteenth century didn’t wear beards.

Revolutionary War reenacting groups have to decide whether their adult male members must shave off their beards, mustaches, or [most distinguished of all] sideburns for events to make the most accurate visual impression.

Sometimes people try to argue that merely because we don’t see beards in portraits doesn’t mean men never wore them. Beards may have been rare but still common enough not to provoke remarks.

Back in 2012 I wrote a couple of postings about the Boston shoemaker William Scott which refute that argument. For religious reasons he grew his beard long. And his appearance was so unusual he scared children on the street.

Recently I ran across another discussion of a bearded man in the eighteenth-century British Empire at the Walpole 300 site. Jean Etienne Liotard was a portrait painter who spent years in the eastern Mediterranean region. The Lewis Walpole Library explains:
European travelers to the Levant commonly adopted local costumes, including caftans and turbans, but upon returning to Europe, they shaved their beards and shed their oriental dress. (Gullström et al., 187.) Not so Liotard, who had taken a liking to the loose Turkish garments and continued to wear them throughout the rest of his life. In 1743, when the artist arrived in Vienna, he caused an immediate sensation with his oriental robes, large fur hat, and the long beard he had grown according to local custom while in Moldova at the court of prince Constantin Mavrocordato. He attracted the attention of Empress Maria-Theresa and soon received prestigious commissions at the imperial court.

In 1748, Liotard traveled on to Paris where he exhibited his beard and costume at the opera in order to stimulate interest in his person, and thus to enhance his business as a portraitist. In fact, some of Liotard’s critics claimed that his success depended entirely on his sartorial performance rather than on his talents as a painter. . . .

In 1753, Horace Walpole described Liotard’s arrival in England in a letter to Horace Mann, pointing out the artist’s exotic looks: “From having lived in Constantinople he wears a Turkish habit and a beard down to his girdle: this and his extravagant prices, which he has raised even beyond what he asked at Paris, will probably get him as much money as he covets for he is avaricious beyond imagination.” (Walpole, Correspondence, 20:362.)
The Lewis Walpole Library owns the miniature portrait shown above, which is inscribed “Liotard / by Himself / 1753.” Lady Maria Churchill gave it to Horace Walpole, her older half-brother. And I’m sure we can agree that that’s an impressive beard—especially since no other man in Britain was wearing anything like it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Preserving the Memories of Lesser-Known Bostonians

This month the city of Boston announced that it had established a “pattern library” for city websites and applications.

One purpose is to ensure that city websites have a common look so citizens recognize them as official and familiar. Another is to cut down on the number of decisions that city employees and contractors must make in setting up a new webpage.

Boston’s pattern library is named Fleet. That name also probably has two purposes. One is to signal the speed that it’s supposed to bring to the task of communicating with constituents.

The second is to keep alive the memory of Peter Fleet, the enslaved engraver and printer who worked on the Boston Evening-Post and many books and pamphlets in eighteenth-century Boston. In making that announcement, the city linked to this Boston 1775 posting about Peter Fleet.

So that’s cool.

Another piece of news this week: The Old North Church has received a generous “Mars Wrigley Confectionery US, LLC Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant” to fund new research into the life of Capt. Newark Jackson, owner of a chocolate mill in the North End in the early 1700s, and to share that work with the public in various forms, including a comic. I played a small part in that grant application and look forward to tasting the results.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Letter on London Politics

Edward Griffin Porter’s Rambles in Old Boston (1886) quotes this letter sent to the private teacher John Leach in Boston. It offers a glimpse of radical politicians in London and of the Boston Whigs’ attempts to make common cause with them.

The writer was the London printer John Meres (1733-1776). He had inherited the Daily Post newspaper from his namesake father, who had gotten in trouble multiple times for printing news the government didn’t like. The younger Meres followed in the family tradition.

Meres’s letter is datelined “Old Baily, May 21, 1769,” and evidently replies to a political essay Leach had sent to the imperial capital:
Dr. Cozn.,—

I had the Pleasure of receiving your political Creed accompanied with the Presents, the One agreeable to my Sentiments, the Other to my Fancy.

Your Letter I presented to Mr. [John] Wilkes, who read it with much Satisfaction; desired me to leave it with him & begg’d I would present his best Respects to you unknown & hoped there were many of the same Opinion as yourself; it was shown to Mr. Serjt. [John] Glynn [shown above], the only worthy Member [of Parliament] for the County of Middlesex, who thought it rather too dangerous for the Press except the Inflamatory Paper I now publish entitled the Nh. Briton, the Government having after a serious of Insults upon the People deprived me of printing The London Evening Post, & that Paper is now become the tame Vehicle for Ministers and their Ductiles. The Duke of Grafton promised me in private that nothing should be done prejudicial to me or my Interest, but are Jockeys Words to be taken? but alas! our Ministry consist of few others than that class—but to return.

Mr. Wilkes has been three Times elected Member for the County of Middlesex & was refused his seat in any House (except the King’s Bench). He was chosen by the Inhabitants of the Ward, Alderman for Farringdon Without (the largest in the City), in which I reside; the Court of Aldermen would not swear him in; the Inhabitants rechose him, Ditto, so that the Ward being without an Alderman, the Inhabitants will not pay the Taxes, not being properly represented & the Ward Books not signed by Mr. Alderman Wilkes.

I could add much more of the above Gentles. sufferings, but cannot write with propriety being much afflicted with the Gout…

I remain, your Lovg. Cozn.
The 103rd issue of the North Briton, dated 22 Apr 1769, says it was “Printed for W. BINGLEY, at the King’s-Bench Prison, and sold by J. MERES, in the Old Bailey.” The issue dated one day before this letter indicates that William Bingley was out of jail and back at his shop in the Strand. By then Meres was not only selling the latest issue but all back issues as well.

The magazines didn’t say who did the actual printing, but Bingley spent two years in prison without trial and is usually credited as the publisher of the magazine. However, at least to his cousin in Boston, Meres claimed in May 1769 to “now publish” the North Briton.

John Meres had two sons who became teen-aged Royal Navy officers during the Revolutionary War.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Gen. Gage’s Trunks

The Clements Library at the University of Michigan owns the papers of Gen. Thomas Gage (1719-1787), last royal governor of Massachusetts.

Back in the 1700s, gentlemen involved in politics maintained possession and ownership of the papers they accumulated in their public careers. (Indeed, up until the Watergate scandal Presidents of the U.S. of A. were the legal owners of their own Presidential papers; now those by law go into the National Archives.)

Because of that custom, Gen. Gage’s correspondence with his superiors in London, his intelligence notes, and other important documents went home with him after he sailed away from Boston in the autumn of 1775. He had a house in London and also spent time at the family seat, Firle Place.

Before he died, Gage answered questions about the American War from the historian George Chalmers (1742-1845), but he appears to have relied on his memory and impressions rather than consulting those papers. He never published self-serving arguments that he was right all along like some of his successors in the American command. Gage appears to have preferred to leave the that part of his life completely in the past. So his papers remained packed up.

Gen. Gage’s papers were still sitting in Firle Place when an American construction-equipment magnate called on his descendants in the early twentieth century. The Clements Library blog recently discussed the trunks that those documents sat in:
William L. Clements was fortunate to purchase the papers directly from General Gage’s descendants. Not only was their provenance perfectly documented, but the papers were even shipped from England to Bay City in the same twelve military document trunks in which they had been filed during Gage’s command and then sent to England in 1775. In 1937, following the settlement of Clements’s estate, the twelve boxes full of documents arrived at the Library in Ann Arbor.

The Gage Papers were mounted and bound to make them accessible to researchers. But what of the trunks? Each is a significant artifact of the American Revolution that had spent its days in America at the epicenter of the British command. Unlike the letters and documents, however, the twelve trunks were “realia,” (three-dimensional objects). To many archivists they were of little or no use in a research library. Over the twenty years after their arrival at the Library the trunks were gradually dispersed until only one remained. Even that one had been given away but was later returned to the Clements.

This lone box appeared to be of a standard design, 32 x 21 x 12 inches high, constructed of sturdy pine planks dove-tailed at the corners with wrought iron hinges and handles and a lock. The lid is covered with a sheet of canvas painted in “Spanish brown” (a reddish brown color) to repel water. The rest of the box is painted the same color. On the lid, spelled out in upholstery tacks is the message “Secty Off / N 7 / 1770.” We have interpreted this to mean “Secretary’s Office, Number 7, 1770.” The seventh year of Gage’s actual appointment as commander was 1770, which might explain the number and date. Coincidence? Inside is a level of built-in pigeonholes with 14 slots (2 x 7). Above this is a removable tray with another 14 slots. Small paper labels once identified the contents of each box.
Putting out a call to the Ann Arbor community brought out two more trunks, similarly constructed and marked. That means nine of Gen. Gage’s trunks are still unaccounted for.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Voice from Nantucket

For the last couple of days I’ve quoted newspaper accounts from October 1738 about a violent uprising of Wampanoag people on Nantucket that not only never happened but was, contrary to the first reports, never even planned.

In the winter 1996 issue of Historic Nantucket, later adapted in his book Away Off Shore, Nathaniel Philbrick discussed another apparent account of the same fear, preserved in the Nantucket Historical Association’s archives.

This story was set down in 1895 by Eliza Mitchell, then close to ninety years old. She recorded a story she remembered hearing as a child in the 1810s from another woman who had then been about the same age—thus putting the origin of the tale in the 1730s.

Philbrick described the older woman’s recollection this way:
As the girl and her older brothers and sisters changed into their night clothes and tightened their beds, there was a sound at the front door. It was their father. He was clearly agitated and yet was trying desperately to remain calm, announcing that mother “need not retire or undress the children.” When asked why, he simply said that “there was trouble brewing with the Indians.” But all of them, especially her brothers and sisters, demanded to know more. Reluctantly, her father explained: The day before, an Indian had come into town and “carefully, though very privately” told of a secret plot by the two tribes to attack the English settlement and take over the island. Even though the character of the Indian informant was somewhat suspect, the town officials were inclined to take the warning seriously. When you lived on an island that was a three-hour sail from the mainland (in ideal conditions), you were not about to dismiss even the wildest rumor.

Word went out to all the men that they would be divided into several companies: some would stay in town to protect the women and children in case the attack materialized; other groups would head out to the various Indian villages in an attempt to discover if, in fact, an uprising was in the works. In the meantime, it had been “thought best not to inform their families until the last minute.”

But now the truth was out, and according to the old woman, there were “many fears and some tears.” Borrowing a page from the frontier towns in the western half of the colonies, the Nantucketers decided to consolidate the women and children into a few, easily defended houses, and so “the families gathered their little ones close around them, club’d together, well as they could.” The old woman remembered laying her head upon her mother’s lap, and gradually falling to sleep, “as children will.”

It was time for the men to search the darkness for Indian war parties. All night they patrolled the treeless moors in the swirling mist, their eyes and ears straining for some indication of the Indian bands their imaginations inevitably placed behind every rise of land and within every hollow. But by daybreak they had found nothing. Exhausted, they returned to town and made their report.

The next day, the town’s sheriff and “fifty well-armed men” set out to determine, if possible, the “meaning of it all.” Instead of finding the Indians in the midst of a war dance, “they found all quiet.” It was harvest time, and the Indians were “merrily husking their corn.” When they learned about the white people’s fears, the natives were deeply disturbed and demanded to know who had told them this false story.

As it turned out, the informant had spent the last three days in a drunken stupor, having used the money the English had paid him to purchase rum. According to the old woman, the Indians were “so highly incensed [that] they came near tearing him apart.” Eventually it was decided that he would receive no less than thirty lashes (the limit allowed by colonial law) at the town’s whipping post.
Mitchell went on to describe the punishment, saying it was the last public whipping on the island.

This story fits the mold of what I call “grandmothers’ tales”—historic stories we hear as children and never doubt, even though the original storyteller might not have meant them to be taken literally. Some of our best legends get into print that way.

In this case, however, the story matches some important aspects of the earliest Boston News-Letter report of the conspiracy: a single Native man alerting the white settlers on Nantucket, prompting a brief but consuming fear “wholly contradicted” a short time later. According to Mitchell, the man initially hailed in Boston as “an honest Indian Fellow” ended up being whipped for lying.

In his Early American Studies article “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” Justin Pope blames John Draper of the Boston News-Letter not only for printing an unfounded rumor but for largely creating it. According to that paper’s abstract, Draper chose to “invent a sensational account of an imminent Indian uprising” based on “conventions established over years of reporting slave unrest.”

The Nantucket tradition that Mitchell wrote down suggests that the island’s British people truly were afraid of a Native uprising around the start of October 1738, enough to gather their women and children and organize patrols. With those “conventions” about uprisings already established, local whites could have sensationalized their fears themselves. Draper might have accurately reported the news that mariners from Nantucket brought to Boston. Or newspaper reports and local gossip could have built on each other in a spiraling account.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Nantucket Conspiracy “wholly contradicted”

Yesterday I quoted items from the Boston News-Letter of 5 Oct 1738 and the Boston Evening-Post of 9 Oct 1738 about a narrowly averted uprising of Wampanoags on Nantucket Island, and ongoing fears that the Native sailors on whaling ships might have risen up, too.

However, on 16 October the Boston Gazette, which had reprinted the News-Letter’s news the week before, stated:

The News that we had in the publick Prints of October 9th, that 16 Indians of the Island of Nantucket had lately a horrid Scheme contriv’d to set Fire to the Houses of the English inhabitants in the Night, and kill as many as they could, is wholly contradicted by a Vessel that arrived here a few Days ago:

This Report arose by a drunken Indian Woman of that Island being in Liquor reported such Things, and she and another Woman was brought before a Justice of the Peace and examin’d, an could make nothing of it but a drunken Story.
(One curious detail: None of the earlier reports I’ve seen stated that “16 Indians” had conspired. That number might reflect how details, true or false, circulated without initially getting into the newspapers.)

Other Boston newspapers ran the same correction, as did papers in Newport and Philadelphia that had printed the first story. But of course not everyone saw that second item—especially decades later.

As Justin Pope describes in his recent article, “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” later historians found the initial report but not the refutation. Obed Macy’s 1835 The History of Nantucket and Alexander Starbuck’s 1878 History of the American Whale Fishery both used the News-Letter article as their authority for describing an actual Wampanoag uprising.

So, for that matter, did Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, published in 2000. Except that Linebaugh and Rediker looked more favorably on that alleged bid for freedom. That reflects a larger ongoing debate among historians about whether slave uprisings in the New World were actual attempts by people to free themselves or imagined plots by paranoid slaveholders who coerced confessions from innocent people. The answer to that question offers different pictures of enslaved communities—as resistant rebels or as oppressed victims.

Other historians have caught the printers’ corrections and thus the real significance of this particular story as revealing colonists’ fears. In New York Burning Jill Lepore wrote:
If a single drunken Indian woman could come up with a plot and a completely plausible justification so compelling that it terrified an entire island of English colonists and was reported up and down the Atlantic seaboard, even though there were no fires on Nantucket that fall, the degree of panic inspired by actual fires like the ten that blazed in New York in March and April 1741 is hard to imagine.
TOMORROW: A memory of the fear on Nantucket.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A “horrid Scheme” on Nantucket?

On 5 Oct 1738, the Boston News-Letter published an article describing a planned uprising by Wampanoags on Nantucket Island:
We hear from Nantucket, That there has been lately a horrid Scheme conceiv’d by the Indians of that Island, to set Fire to the Houses of the English Inhabitants in the Night, and then to fall upon them arm’d, and kill as many as they could.

But the Execution of this vile Design was happily prevented by an honest Indian Fellow, whom they could by no means seduce to join with them in so desperate an Undertaking, but gave Timely Notice to the Inhabitants thereof, who accordingly keeping upon their Guard, the Indians have desisted.

It seems these Indians have for some Time past appear’d surly and discontented; and ’tis said the above Affair was conceived last Spring, before the Vessels sail’d on the whaling Voyages; and that the Indians who went out with the English on those Voyages were in the Confederacy, and were to do their Part by destroying the English on the Sea:

As several of those Vessels are not arrived tho’ long expected; and as the greater Number in the Crews were Indians, the Consequence thereof is much to be feared.
On 9 October, the Boston Evening-Post reprinted most of that item, adding in the middle:
The Pretence the Indians have for this cruel Attempt, is, as we hear, that the English at first took the Land from their Ancestors by Force, and have kept it ever since, without giving them any valuable Consideration for it;…

Upon the Discovery of the Plot, the English took to their Arms, and stood on their Defence, which discouraged the Indians from making any Attempt upon them; and we are impatient to hear whether their whaling Vessels are return’d in Safety, and what Measures have been taken to secure the Peace and Safety of the Island.
This summer, Missouri University of Science and Technology history professor Justin Pope published a study of this incident in the Early American Studies journal. The university proudly touted that publication, saying:
The “Nantucket conspiracy,” as Pope calls it, is also a cautionary tale for historians who rely on newspaper reports for their accounts of life in colonial America, Pope says. . . . The 1738 newspaper story began as a rumor that “would have passed into local lore if not for the newspaper men of Boston,” writes Pope. It began with printer John Draper, who first reported the account in his Boston News-Letter on Sept. 28, 1738.
That issue of the newspaper is actually dated 28 Sept–5 Oct 1738 on its front. That means it was printed and distributed on 5 October, collecting news that had arrived since 28 September.

Back to the university press release:
…the Boston News-Letter story “took off,” Pope writes. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic ran with the story, which soon became the 18th century equivalent of a viral social media post. “Draper’s story made for good copy,” Pope adds.

“Within a week, his rivals in Boston had copied his version of the conspiracy verbatim,” writes Pope. Within two weeks, printers John Peter Zenger in New York City and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia were running the story.
But that wasn’t the final word.

TOMORROW: “wholly contradicted.”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Boles on Jefferson in Boston, 16 Nov.

Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty is a new biography of the third President by John B. Boles, a professor of history at Rice University. He was co-editor of the essay collection Seeing Jefferson Anew.

Jonathan Yardley, longtime book critic for the Washington Post, really likes this book. How much? He recently wrote in that newspaper:
“Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty” is perhaps the finest one-volume biography of an American president. Boles…has spent many years studying Jefferson’s native American South in all its mysteries, contradictions, follies and outrages, as well as its unique contributions to the national culture and literature. This biography is the culmination of a long, distinguished career. I admire it so passionately that, almost 2 1/2 years into a happy retirement, I had no choice except to violate my pledge never again to write another book review.
Boles will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society this Thursday, 16 November. The event will start with a reception at 5:30, followed by the author’s remarks at 6:00 and book-signing to follow. The cost is $10 per person, free for M.H.S. members and fellows. Reserve a seat through this page.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

When Alexander Wished for a War

On 11 Nov 1769, a young clerk on the island of St. Croix wrote to his friend Edward Stevens, who had headed off to King’s College in New York.
As to what you say respecting your having soon the happiness of seeing us all, I wish, for an accomplishment of your hopes provided they are Concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not, tho doubt whether I shall be Present or not for to confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station.

Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.
The clerk who wrote this letter was Alexander Hamilton. He was either twelve or fourteen years old at the time; on reaching North America he consistently stated that he was born in 1757, but some earlier documents from the Caribbean suggest he was born in 1755 and thus revised his age in college to appear to be more of a prodigy. Whichever age Alexander was at this time, his letter is remarkable for its frank ambition.

Earlier this year the Library of Congress made its Hamilton Papers available online, as explained here. This 1769 letter, for example, can be viewed here.

Another source of new perspectives on Hamilton is Michael E. Newton’s blog Discovering Hamilton, which will roll out new documents and theories over time.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Clues to Young George’s Education

A couple of months back, the Oxford University Press blog ran an extract from Kevin J. Hayes’s George Washington: A Life in Books discussing the first President’s school days and early reading.

Here’s an extract from that extract:
Further evidence shows that at one point in his education Washington did attend school with other boys. Friend and fellow patriot George Mason mentioned to him a man named David Piper, whom he described as “my Neighbour and Your old School-fellow.” Like Washington, Piper would turn to surveying once he left school, becoming surveyor of roads for Fairfax County. He was also something of a bad boy. Piper was repeatedly brought to court on various civil and criminal matters. Together Washington and Piper could have attended school at the Lower Church of Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, where Mattox Creek enters the Potomac River, but there is no saying for sure. The story of Washington’s education is shrouded in mystery.

His school exercises indicate what he studied inside the classroom and out. They show him mastering many different subjects, learning what he would need to make his way through colonial Virginia whether that way took him down a deer track or up Duke of Gloucester Street. Some of the exercises are dated, revealing that this set of school papers as a whole ranges from 1743 to 1748, that is, from the year Washington turned eleven to the year he turned sixteen. Other evidence demonstrates that he continued his studies beyond the latest exercises in the manuscript collection. Altogether the exercises and the books Washington read during his school days reveal his early literary interests, his fascination with mathematics, and the genesis of his career as a surveyor.

Washington became curious about poetry in his youth, as two manuscript poems that survive with the school exercises reveal. When he first read these poems, he transcribed them to create personal copies he could reread whenever he wished. His copies reveal Washington’s ambition to excel in penmanship, and their texts shed light on his state of mind at the end of adolescence.
I’m not convinced about that last interpretation. A big part of a gentleman’s education in the eighteenth century was learning elegant handwriting, and boys learned that by copying models provided or written out by their teachers. These poems, which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1734 and 1743, might therefore have been handwriting exercises, with their content mattering less than their form.

Certainly young George set down those two poems in a handsome hand. In the same copybook he wrote out twenty-one pages of legal forms, instructions “To Keep Ink from Freezing or Moulding,” and the famous “Rules…of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”