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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Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Literary Legacy of Joseph Strutt

Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) was an English engraver and antiquarian. Most of his career was taken up with researching, drawing, and publishing artifacts of the British past: pictures of kings from old manuscripts, clothing of different periods, and so on.

I’m using Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, published in 1801, as a source in my paper at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife today. The paper is titled “Political Football,” and Strutt described the game as played in his time this way.
When a match at foot-ball is made, two parties, each containing an equal number of competitors, take the field, and stand between two goals, placed at the distance of eighty or an hundred yards the one from the other. The goal is usually made with two sticks driven into the ground, about two or three feet apart. The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder, and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved the game is won. The abilities of the performers are best displayed in attacking and defending the goals; and hence the pastime was more frequently called a goal at foot-ball than a game at foot-ball. When the exercise becomes exceedingly violent, the players kick each other’s shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs.
Strutt also wrote poetry and fiction, including a novel set in the fifteenth century that he hadn’t finished when he died. The publisher John Murray asked a young lawyer and poet named Walter Scott to complete the story, which he did rather perfunctorily. But that book gave Scott the idea of writing historical novels of his own.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Raise the Spitfire?

Earlier this month the Associated Press reported on the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s proposal to raise, preserve, and display a gunboat that sank in 1776.

The boat is the Spitfire, one of Gen. Benedict Arnold’s fleet during the Battle of Valcour Island. The dispatch says:
The Spitfire was found during a 1997 sonar survey of the lake. Museum divers check on it yearly. Its mast is still erect and the bow cannon still in the firing position. The ammunition and other artifacts from the battle are buried in mud.

For almost 250 years, the Spitfire has been protected by the cold water of the lake. But Cohn said its future is in danger because of the expected arrival in the lake of quagga mussels, an invasive species that has reached the Great Lakes and could potentially destroy metal fastenings that hold the vessel together.
Back in the 1930s another gunboat, the Philadelphia, was pulled up from the lake. The museum made a replica that sails on Lake Champlain today, shown above.

Raising the Spitfire is a huge undertaking. The plan being proposed would take twenty-two years and cost an estimated $44 million. The steps involved:

  • two years of planning at a cost of $1 million.
  • building a facility to house the boat in Burlington, Vermont.
  • bringing the Spitfire to the surface around 2025.
  • preserving the boat by strengthening the cells of the wood with chemicals over fifteen years.
  • building a museum to display the boat near Plattsburgh, New York.

If all goes according to plan, the Spitfire would be ready for its close-up around 2039.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Declaring Independence , 27 June–July 4

In connection with other historical organizations and venues, the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area and the American Antiquarian Society are presenting a series of public performances of “Declaring Independence—Then & Now.”

These are presentations about forty minutes long in which a narrator and five costumed re-enactors bring to life the Declaration of Independence as seen from the local level in the community where they are speaking.

Each presentation includes voices from the host town or city in 1776. That spring, the Massachusetts legislature invited town meetings to discuss whether it was time to declare independence from Great Britain. Those responses, as well as newspaper essays and letters, create the tapestry of public debate.

“Declaring Independence” presentations then proceed to a complete reading of the Continental Congress’s Declaration of July 1776 (with the obscure bits explained). Finally, the presenters and audience engaged in a moderated discussion of the issues that the Declaration raises today.

The upcoming performances of “Declaring Independence” are:

27 June, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
American Antiquarian Society, Worcester

29 June, 6:00-8:00 P.M.
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, Sudbury, with the Sudbury Historical Society

1 July, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
First Parish Church, Fitchburg, with the Fitchburg Public Library & Fitchburg Historical Society

1-4 July, 10:00 A.M. & 12:00 noon
Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge

2 July, 1:00, 3:00 & 5:00 P.M.
Old North Church, Boston, with Boston’s Harborfest

4 July, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
The Depot, Lexington, with the Lexington Historical Society

Contact the host organizations for more information about each event. “Declaring Independence” is an outgrowth of the Patriots’ Paths project, in which Freedom’s Way historian Mary Fuhrer works with members of a community to explore its primary documents about America’s move toward independence. If you want your local historical organization to help create and host a future presentation, contact Freedom’s Way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Upcoming Events at Paul Revere House

The Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End has a busy summer of special events coming up. All of these take place on Saturdays unless described otherwise.

27 June, 1:00, 1:45 & 2:30 P.M.
John Adams: The Colossus of Independence
Hear from John Adams himself as he discusses his earliest beginnings in Braintree through his days as delegate of the Continental Congress and foreign ambassador. Hear his opinions of his contemporaries and how he longs to be home with his “dearest friend,” Abigail, and their children. Mr. Adams’ singular wit is appealing to children and adults!

Friday, 30 June, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
A Visit with Paul Revere
David Connor brings Boston’s favorite patriot vividly to life. Ask him about the details of his midnight ride, inquire about his 16 children, or engage him in conversation about his activities as a member of the Sons of Liberty.

1 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Patriot Fife and Drum
Enjoy a lively concert of music that accompanied colonists as they marched, danced, wooed their beloveds, and waged war. David Vose and Sue Walko provide fascinating insight into each selection they perform.

Monday, 3 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Colonial Dance Tunes and Love Songs
In the guise of itinerant musicians, Al Petty & Deirdre Sweeney perform popular 18th-century tunes such as “Mr. Isaac’s Maggot” and “Jack’s Health” on the penny whistle, flute, fife, & other instruments.

8 July, 1:00, 1:45 & 2:30 P.M.
Fife and Drum Concert by the Boston Alarm Company
Treat yourself to a sprightly concert of fife and drum music! Dressed in civilian clothing reproduced from period originals, alarm company members play marches and beat out cadences used to warn citizens of impending attack.

15 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Glass Harmonica Concert
Vera Meyer plays early American melodies on the intriguing instrument that Ben Franklin invented. The ethereal, haunting tones Meyer creates as she places her wet fingers on the rims of rotating glass bowls will mesmerize all who listen!

22 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Colonial Basket Weaving
Rather than in plastic bags or cardboard boxes, colonists stored cheese, chickens, and candles in specially designed baskets. Fred Lawson weaves and sells reproductions copied from period originals.

29 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
The Tailor’s Craft
Clothing historian Henry Cooke takes on the role of an early Boston tailor. Watch as he “takes the measure” of visitors, then sits cross-legged, fashioning waistcoats from luxurious fabrics and “slops” from coarse weaves.

5 August, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Hammered Dulcimer
Award-winning musician Dave Neiman plays jigs, reels, and Baroque and Renaissance tunes that Paul Revere and his family may have enjoyed.

12 August, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Colonial Leather Working
Find out how colonial era leather workers fashioned scabbards, sword belts, and harnesses. Fred Lawson demonstrates and invites visitors to try their hands at punching holes and sewing leather.

19 August, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Tinsmithing Demonstration
Who made the ubiquitous lanterns, sconces, and other tin wares of the 18th century? A tinker! Larry Leonard produces and sells examples of his craft while describing the techniques, tools, and materials used since the Reveres’ era.

26 August, 1:00, 1:45 & 2:30 P.M.
A Revolution of Her Own!
The captivating story of the first woman to fight in the American Military: in 1782, Deborah Sampson bound her chest, tied back her hair, and enlisted in the Continental Army. Experience her arduous upbringing, active combat, and success as the first female professional soldier (in part, due to the assistance of Paul Revere). Deborah’s passion takes you back in time! Length: 30 min.

All events are included the price of admission, which is for adults $5, for seniors & college students $4.50, and for children aged five to seventeen $1. Members and North End residents are admitted free at all times. The house is open daily 9:30 A.M. to 5:15 P.M. to the end of October.

(The picture above, courtesy of North End Waterfront, shows the Paul Revere House around 1900, before it was restored and turned into a historical museum. Cigars are no longer available inside.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hesse on the Founders’ Thinking in Exeter, N.H., 22 June

On Thursday, 22 June, the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire, will host a talk by Richard Hesse on the topic “Founding Fathers: What Were They Thinking?”
In 1787 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to address a wide variety of crises facing the young United States of America and produced the charter for a new government. In modern times, competing political and legal claims are frequently based on what those delegates intended. Mythology about the founders and their work at the 1787 Convention has obscured both fact and legitimate analysis of the events leading to their agreement called the Constitution. The program explores the cast of characters called “founders,” the problems they faced and the solutions they fashioned.
Hesse is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, concentrating on state and federal constitutional law and international human rights. He was previously a community lawyer in Philadelphia heading a police community-relations project, and later head a Boston-based national project on consumers’ rights. Hesse twice received the Bill of Rights Award from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

This program is scheduled to start at 12:00 noon, and attendees are welcome to bring lunch. The American Independence Museum is at 1 Governors Lane in Exeter. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

This lecture is made possible by support from the New Hampshire Humanities Council, which in turn receives about half of its operating budget from the National Endowment for the Humanities. On the topic of “What were they thinking?” the current administration has proposed eliminating the N.E.H.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wright on “Pedagogues and Protesters” in Boston, 20 June

On Tuesday, 20 June, Conrad E. Wright will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston about the confrontation at the heart of his new book, Pedagogues and Protesters: The Harvard College Student Diary of Stephen Peabody, 1767-1768.

The publisher explains:
On April 4, 1768, about one hundred angry Harvard College undergraduates, well over half the student body, left school and went home, in protest against new rules about class preparation. Their action constituted the largest student strike at any colonial American college.

Many contemporaries found the cause trivial and the students’ decision inexplicable, but in the undergraduates’ own minds it was the culmination of months of tensions with the faculty.

Pedagogues and Protesters recounts the year in daily journal entries by Stephen Peabody, a member of the class of 1769. The best surviving account of colonial college life, Peabody’s journal documents relationships among students, faculty members, and administrators, as well as the author’s relationships with other segments of Massachusetts society.

To a full transcription of the entries, Conrad Edick Wright adds detailed annotation and an introduction that focuses on the journal’s revealing account of daily life at America’s oldest college.
Peabody (1741-1819) was in his late twenties in this academic year while most undergraduates of the time were in their mid- to late teens. Peabody was also six feet tall, recalled as “large and commanding.” (Here’s his portrait in 1809, painted by John Johnson because Gilbert Stuart was too expensive.) So it’s no wonder he was one of the leaders of the students’ protest.

Conrad Wright is the Worthington C. Ford Editor and Director of Research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among his duties there is editing Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, a series of detailed biographical profiles of every person to be admitted to Harvard in the seventeenth and (so far) eighteenth centuries. He’s also the author of Revolutionary Generation: Harvard Men and the Consequences of Independence, a study of the men who left the college in the crucial war years. Wright is thus a prime source of information about life at Harvard during the tumult of the Revolution.

This event will begin at 5:30 P.M. with a reception. Wright will speak at 6:00 and sign books afterward. The talk is free, but the M.H.S. asks people to register in advance.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Henry Knox’s First Mission” in Framingham, 20 June

On Tuesday, 20 June, I’ll speak at the Framingham History Center’s annual meeting, debuting a new talk on “Myths and Realities of Col. Henry Knox’s First Mission.”

As recounted in almost every history of the Revolutionary War, in the winter of 1775-76 young Boston bookseller Henry Knox traveled northwest to Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York to gather large cannon and haul them back to Gen. George Washington’s army besieging Boston.

By 25 Jan 1776, Knox had brought fifty-eight pieces of artillery as far as Framingham. We don’t know that from his own papers since the young colonel had stopped keeping a journal of the journey. Instead, we have John Adams’s detailed report of what he saw in Framingham that day.

In this talk I’ll address these questions and more:

  • What sort of artillery did the Massachusetts provincial army start with?
  • Who had the idea of fetching cannon from the Lake Champlain forts?
  • How and when did Knox get out of Boston?
  • What were Knox’s main qualifications to become colonel?
  • How did the weather affect Knox’s mission?
  • What does the stop in Framingham tell us about Knox’s route?
  • What happened to the fifty-ninth cannon Knox started out with?
  • What effect did Knox’s cannon have on the British army’s plans?

This event will take place at the Edgell Memorial Library, 3 Oak Street in Framingham. It’s for Framingham History Center members and donors, so if you wish to attend you can join the organization and support local history. The evening will start at 7:00 with some organization business, and there will be refreshments and books for sale afterward.

(The photo above, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows Framingham’s marker along the Henry Knox Trail, tracing his documented or likely route from New York to the siege lines.)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mildred G. Burrage’s “Attack on Bunker Hill”

This map of the Charlestown peninsula in 1775 and the Battle of Bunker Hill comes from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth. It is made of “Painted gesso plaster, with land features shown in relief.”

The creator was Mildred G. Burrage (1890-1983) of Maine. Last year the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland had an exhibit on Burrage’s seventy-year career, which extended from studying Impressionist in Paris as a teenager to pursuing Abstract Expressionism between the world wars in the form of “mica paintings,” incorporating local minerals into her pictures, to promoting artist networks and historic preservation in her later decades.

Regional history was a big subject for Burrage. She recalled receiving drawing lessons from “a lady descended from John Hancock who had me draw one of his chairs, and cut off a piece of the red brocade to go with my drawing!” When Burrage was seventeen, her father, formerly a newspaper editor and minister, became Maine’s state historian. Later she “made recruiting posters for World War I and worked in the shipyards of South Portland during World War II,” the Portland Press Herald reported.

That newspaper article said:
The mica paintings may be the most unique work Burrage attempted, but they are not the most remarkable elements of the show. That distinction belongs to a small series of highly detailed and beautifully crafted maps that Burrage copied and displayed, rather successfully, as artwork. She began making maps after her return to Maine from Paris, and continued doing so among her other art projects into the 1930s.

They are the earliest examples in the exhibition of Burrage’s self-reinvention, [curator Earle G.] Shettleworth said. The maps spoke to both her interest in art and history, he said.

With its detail and near-perfect rendering, the most interesting of the maps is a watercolor copy of Samuel de Champlain’s engraving of “New France,” published in 1613. It includes what is now Maine and Canada. There also are copies of maps of old Portland, Cape Ann and Washington, D.C.
This map of Bunker Hill, which the library dates the sesquicentennial of American independence in 1926, is likewise based on older images. But the gesso plaster seems to be one of Burrage’s many artistic experiments, pushing her work into new areas.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Secrets of Gen. Clinton’s Map of Bunker Hill

Here’s an intriguing document from the maps collection at the Library of Congress.

It’s Gen. Henry Clinton’s hand-drawn map of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

One eye-catching detail is that Clinton sketched a small fortification on top of Bunker’s Hill, at the left of this image. (The redoubt on Breed’s Hill is at the center, as usual.)

There are even lines indicating that one of the warships in the Charles River fired at that site.

On the night of 19 Apr 1775, British troops had dug in a little on Bunker’s Hill to protect the soldiers who had exhausted themselves marching out to Lexington and Concord and back. They abandoned that area by the next morning. After retaking the Charlestown peninsula in June, the British built a much larger, stronger fortification on that site.

But evidently on 17 June, Clinton perceived the provincials as having fortified themselves there as well. Maybe New England men were taking advantage of what the British had left from April. We know there was a great deal of reluctance to leave that high ground and go down to the redoubt and fence where a man could get killed.

Also interesting is that Clinton drew this map on the back of a sheet printed with the lyrics of two drinking songs, “John Barleycorn Is Dead” and “O Good Ale, Thou Art My Darling,” and an engraved line of music.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

EXTRA: Celebrating “Grand Union Flag” Day in Somerville

Somerville usually celebrates the flag-raising on Prospect Hill on the anniversary of that event. Unfortunately, that’s on 1 January—not always the most comfortable time to be outside on a New England hilltop. So this year the city is celebrating that event on the Saturday after Flag Day, or 17 June.

Now that date happens to be the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the major historical event in neighboring Charlestown. Which Somerville split off from 175 years ago—an event the city is celebrating all this year. But Charlestown had its Bunker Hill parade last weekend because that ceremony is always on the Sunday before the exact anniversary. So 17 June was up for grabs.

The Somerville celebration is scheduled to take place from 10:00 A.M. until 12:00 noon. Vexillologist Byron DeLear will speak about the significance of the “Grand Union Flag.” There will be tours of Prospect Hill Tower, colonial-era music, and other happenings. The event is sponsored by the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission and Historic Somerville.

[ADDENDUM: In addition, DeLear will speak in more detail about his research and conclusions on Sunday, 18 June, at the Somerville Museum. That event will start at 2:00 P.M., and a reception will follow at 3:00. The museum’s address is 1 Westwood Road.]

Byron DeLear also spoke about the flag on Prospect Hill a few years back, but that was, you know, in January. He argues that the “Grand Union Flag,” more formally the American naval flag, was not only “flown atop Somerville’s Prospect Hill in 1776” but was also “not just the first flag of the united colonies, but the first flag of the United States.”

Another vexillologist, Peter Ansoff, has expressed doubts about the standard [get it?] story of the “Grand Union Flag,” noting that contemporary accounts are far from clear that it was a single banner with a new design. Supporting that hypothesis is the lack of any document from the Continental Congress informing Gen. George Washington about the naval ensign it had just adopted or enclosing a flag for him to fly near Boston.

One of the most likely candidates for sending that flag to Washington was Joseph Reed, the Philadelphia lawyer who had served as his first military secretary. Reed had shown an interest in flags, proposing that the army schooners fly the “Appeal to Heaven” banner. On 4 Jan 1776 Washington wrote back to Reed about how the army had “hoisted the Union Flag in compliment to the United Colonies.” So should we look for evidence of the Congress’s new flag in Reed’s letters to Washington?

Unfortunately, those letters don’t survive. For late 1775 and early 1776, we have only Washington’s side of the correspondence. He alluded to many letters from Reed that must have been mislaid or destroyed sometime after their falling-out at the end of 1776. So what, if anything, the Congress told its commanding general about a new flag remains a mystery.

A Coffin at Bunker Hill

Nathaniel Coffin (1725-80) was a merchant in Boston who in November 1768 took the job of Deputy Cashier to the American Board of Customs.

That shifted Coffin politically onto the side of the royal government. He would even report to his employers about Boston town meetings and private conversations with Whig leaders, but he never hid his distaste for protest and thus wasn’t really undercover.

With Coffin came his sons, John (1756-1838) and Isaac (1759-1839). They both joined the British military during the Revolutionary War and had long and distinguished careers. John became a general, judge, and legislator in New Brunswick. Isaac became an admiral, baronet, and Member of Parliament in England. Since this branch of the Coffin family still had relatives back in Massachusetts, they corresponded and visited with people in the U.S. of A. between and after the wars.

At the start of the war, it appears, John Coffin was a teenager helping to sail a troop transport ship. On 9 Jan 1819, Josiah Quincy (after he served in Congress but before he was elected mayor) recorded a story about Coffin in his diary:
In conversation with William Sullivan. He dined yesterday in company with General Coffin of the British army. Coffin said, that he had the command of the first boat (being then Lieutenant of a transport ship) which landed the advance of the first regiment of British grenadiers at the attack of Bunker’s Hill. As the boat touched the shore, a three-pound shot from the American lines passed lengthways over the boat, touched not a man, and beat out her stern.

Further service with his boat being thus rendered impracticable, Coffin took a musket, joined the assailants, and was in the midst of the battle. He said that he had been since that time in many engagements, but never knew one, for the time it lasted, so hot and destructive.
Quincy evidently wrote this down because “The anecdote proves what has been denied,—that artillery was used on the American side in the battle of Bunker’s Hill.” There’s ample evidence of such artillery from other sources, but American chroniclers had preferred to portray their side as total underdogs. In fact, the diary of Lt. Richard Williams tells us that the provincials were firing five-pound balls, even bigger than what Gen. Coffin described whizzing past him.

The biography of John Coffin published by his son in 1874 goes into more detail, though not necessarily more reliable detail. It said:
John…was sent to sea at a very early age, and served his time in a Boston Ship; being an active young man he soon rose in the estimation of his Captain: in due time became Chief-mate, and soon after was placed in command of the ship, at the early age of eighteen.

In 1774, Mr. John Coffin brought his ship to England; the following year the Government took her up amongst others for the conveyance of troops to America, where the war had commenced. He had on board nearly a whole Regiment with General Howse (in command of the troops), who was ordered out to supersede General [Thomas] Gage, at Boston.
We know Gen. William Howe actually arrived in Boston on 25 May 1775 aboard the Royal Navy ship Cerberus, along with Gen. John Burgoyne and Gen. Henry Clinton. Other ships and soldiers arrived around the middle of June, and Coffin may well have been working on one of those ships instead.
The vessel arrived at Boston, on the 15th of June, Mr. Coffin landed the Regiment immediately under Bunker’s Hill, and the action having already commenced (17th June, 1775), he was requested by the Colonel “to come up and see the fun;” the only weapon at hand being the tiller of his boat, he immediately (to use a nautical phrase) unshipped it, and with equal determination commenced laying about him, and shipped the powder and belt, and musket of the first man he knocked down, and bore an active part during the rest of the action.
This is even more dramatic than the anecdote Quincy recorded, but the only men who would have been within reach of Coffin’s tiller as he was really “laying about him” would have been British soldiers.
In consideration of his gallant conduct, he was presented to General Gage after the battle, and made an Ensign on the field; shortly after he was promoted to a Lieutenant, but still retained the command of his ship.
There’s no documentary support for any of that. John Coffin was commissioned as a captain in the Orange Rangers, a Loyalist corps, in 1777.