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, March 20, 2018

A Book “Taken in ye Field of Battle”

Last month the blog of the Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, noted an unusual way of identifying books in its collection: as “battle estrays,” or books known to have been picked up in battle. No other library is known to use this term.

One example shown is the third volume of Jonathan Swift’s Miscellanies as published in London in 1742. It is inscribed:
22d-43d-54th-&-63d Regiments took possession of New York
—5 Brigade—
Taken in ye Field of Battle,
the 16th of September 1776—
The library blog said:
First Library director Randolph Adams noted in The Colophon that the British occupied the lower part of Manhatten Island on the 14th and 15th of September, then started up the island on the 16th. The battle [of Harlem Heights] on the 16th, in which this book was picked up, took place about what is now 126th St.
Not mentioned in the blog post, but noted in the book’s cataloguing record, is the bookplate. It shows the volume had been owned by the Rev. Dr. Myles Cooper, the president of King’s College. That institution later became Columbia University. It’s now located near the site of the fighting on 16 Sept 1776, but back then it was housed in one large building near modern New York City Hall.

If a volume from Cooper’s personal library was on “ye Field of Battle,” it had probably been looted from the college hall or his house. Cooper himself had fled America in May 1775. The college shut down, its building becoming a military hospital, so a lot of people might have had access. An American soldier or civilian might have taken the book and then dropped it on the retreat north, where a British soldier picked it up.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Orations at Old South, 21 Mar.

On Wednesday, 21 March, the Old South Meeting House will host “Speak Out!”, its fourth annual remembrance of the Boston Massacre orations.

From 1771 to 1783, Boston had a yearly town meeting to commemorate the fatal violence on King Street. The tradition was started by Dr. Thomas Young speaking at the Manufactory on 5 Mar 1770, and the town’s politicians decided the event was successful enough to make it an official occasion, not just a speech by a radical who wasn’t even from around here.

That year the town had assistant schoolmaster James Lovell speak in April. From then on, the orations were always on 5 March or, if that date fell on a Sunday, 6 March. The invited orator was usually a rising young politician. In order:
In 1783 Boston decided that remembering the Massacre was less vital now that Massachusetts was independent, and the town shifted its annual patriotic oration to the Fourth of July.

The Old South event focuses on the orations leading up to the war. The description says:
Join us to hear selected excerpts of these speeches, performed by an inter-generational group in the grand hall where the orations took place 240 years ago! Learn about the orations and their significance with special guests Bostonian Society Executive Director Nathaniel Sheidley, historian Robert Allison, and Dr. Joseph Warren biographer Dr. Samuel Forman. Audience members will also have the option to read from a selection of excerpts; prizes will be awarded to the most rousing orators in youth and adult categories!
This free event is co-sponsored by the History Department at Suffolk University, the Bostonian Society, and the Boston Public Schools’ Department of History and Social Studies.

All are welcome, but Old South asks people to please register in advance. The speeches start at 6:00 P.M. If the weather is bad, the event might be postponed for a week until 28 March.

ADDENDUM: This event has now been rescheduled for 28 March.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

“Various reports have been current”

I came across this report from America in The North-British Intelligencer: or Constitutional Miscellany, published on 8 May 1776. It gives a sense of the difficulty that the British people, and the British government, faced gathering information about what had happened in New England two months before.

Wednesday arrived a mail from Boston, in New England, brought to Falmouth by the Lord Hyde packet boat, Capt. Jefferys, She sailed from thence March 25, and brought dispatches from General [William] Howe for Government, and several letters, since which various reports have been current;

on one hand it was given out, that the provincial army had erected a battery at Phipp’s Farm [in Cambridge], from whence they began to play upon the town with cannon and bombs, a fortnight before the forces left the place; that on this Gen. Howe found it necessary to attempt to dislodge them; but the wind blowing hard, he found it impracticable to land where he intended; he therefore the next day sent, a flag of truce to General [George] Washington, offering to evacuate the town immediately, leaving behind him his artillery, stores, &c. which request was granted, and the next day he embarked his troops, amounting to about 7000, with 1500 inhabitants, and made the best of his way to Halifax.—

On the other hand it was said, that General Howe, with the troops under his command, after having blown up the works, and taken under his protection the friends of Government, evacuated that place, without being molested by the provincials, and embarked on board the ships in the harbour, and that the vessel which brought this advice set sail before it was known to what part of America the General intended to direct his course; The provincials marched into Boston.

But on farther enquiry this day, a Gentleman of veracity informs us, that General Howe evacuated Boston on the 24th of March, by orders from home, after destroying the works and fortifications. Several men of war are left to block up the harbour, and to prevent any transports falling into their hands. He further says, that a large body of provincials, a little before they embarked, took possession of Noddle Island, and that the General had sent a detachment of 2000 men, who attacked and drove some off, killed a great number, and took the rest prisoners. It was not certainly known where the General intended to go to; but many thought to Virginia, which being a flat country, the men could act to more advantage than farther north, which was in general very hilly.
Each of these reports was partly accurate—but some much more than others.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Blanket the British Army Left Behind

Today is Evacuation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1776 when the British military left Boston.

Back in 2013, Patrick Browne wrote on his blog Historical Digression about something the British left behind, an artifact now at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society:
A number of British regiments were camped upon Boston Common. When they departed, they left all manner of gear strewn across that open space. We can imagine curious Bostonians picking through the debris when the British were gone. Frugal Yankees, they must have scavenged a good number of useful items.

One such Bostonian was William Hickling [1742-1790], a merchant, roughly 30 years old. He was a patriot who had been out and about on the fateful night of the Boston Massacre back in 1770, though, according to the deposition of Richard Palmes, Hickling went home before the real trouble began. Hickling had been, according to family tradition, rather more active during the Boston Tea Party in 1773 as evidenced by the tea leaves that were found in his shoes the following morning.
According to his will, quoted here, Hickling was officially a distiller, but he sold other things besides rum. His father was also a distiller named William Hickling (1704-1774), and he had a son and a nephew of the same name, so there’s opportunity for a lot of confusion.

The name of William Hickling doesn’t appear on most lists of men involved in the Tea Party, even the expansive roster in Francis S. Drake’s Tea Leaves. The family tradition that he helped to destroy the tea was nonetheless in print by 1900.

Other sources do show William Hickling as a participant in Boston’s pre-Revolutionary politics. But which William Hickling attended the Sons of Liberty dinner in Dorchester in 1769? Which was renting rooms to Pvt. James Hartigan and his new wife Elizabeth in 1770? Which was a member of the North End Caucus in 1772? I’ll play the odds and say that Palmes encountered the younger William Hickling (and his brother John) on 5 Mar 1770, and that the younger William was also the caucus member, but I won’t hazard a guess about the other questions.

The William Hickling born in 1742 was almost certainly the man who joined the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in 1764 and served as paymaster of Col. John Brooks’s Continental Army regiment in 1777 and 1778.

But back to the spring of 1776 and Patrick Browne’s essay:
Foraging across Boston Common, Hickling probably picked up a number of things. One of them was the white woolen blanket of a British soldier. The “standard issue” blanket, bearing the royal symbol of the King’s Arrow and the initials “GR” for George Rex (or King George) eventually made its way to Duxbury, Massachusetts after William’s death when his widow moved in with her daughter [Sarah] and son-in-law, bringing a number of Hickling family objects with her. The son-in-law was Captain Gershom Bradford, a Duxbury master mariner. Fast forward to 1968, Gershom Bradford’s house, along with a vast number of family belongings, was donated to the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society by the captain’s great-grandsons.
It sounds like the blanket didn’t come with a provenance, not like the tea story. But it certainly appears to be a standard-issue British army blanket.

Friday, March 16, 2018

“Enlisted for six months & served that time”

Capt. Moses Harvey’s November 1775 advertisement (which I quoted Wednesday) pointedly described five men who had deserted from his Continental Army company in the preceding summer.

What happened, I asked myself, to those men? And quickly I had to give up on Simeon Smith of Greenfield and Matthias Smith of (I think) Springfield because their names are just too common.

Nor could I find anything about John Daby of Sunderland, even under the spelling Darby or Derby. (There was a different John Daby from Harvard.)

Likewise, there are multiple men named John Guilson or Gilson in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors and U.S. pension records, but their details don’t mesh with the guy in Harvey’s company. White and Maltsby’s Genealogical Gleanings of Siggins, and Other Pennsylvania Families (1918) states that our John Gilson was born in 1750 in Groton, but was in Sunderland in 1769 to marry Patience Graves. According to descendants, they married on 20 June; their first daughter, Lydia, arrived on 30 December, explaining why they married.

The Gilsons were still in Sunderland in 1783, but by 1791 they had moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, where they had a daughter named Betsey. (There may well have been other children.) After some time in New York the family moved out to western Pennsylvania in 1803—different sources say they traveled “by ox-cart” or “in canoes and flat-boats.” John Gilson died in Warren, Pennsylvania, in 1811, and was later considered one of that town’s pioneers.

The best documented of Capt. Harvey’s five deserters is Gideon Graves, though once again I had to sort him out from a man of the same name. Gideon Graves of Palmer (1758-1834), when applying for a Revolutionary War pension, said he had served “two months at Roxbury & four months at Ticonderoga” before joining Col. John Crane’s artillery in March 1777. Somehow he produced two pension files.

The Gideon Graves from Sunderland was a younger brother of Patience (Graves) Gilson. He was a son of Reuben and Hannah Graves, born in 1753. John Montague Smith’s History of the Town of Sunderland (1899) quotes an unidentified local diary from “sometime in the ’70’s” saying: “Gideon Graves caught a buck alive.” Which is rather impressive, though hard to pin down.

Graves applied for a federal pension while living in Stillwater, Saratoga County, New York, in 1818. He stated
That in the year 1775 he enlisted for six months & served that time and was in the battles of Bunker Hill near Boston & in 1776 he served nine months in Capt. [Phineas] Smiths Company Colonel [Elisha] Porters Regiment of the Massachusetts line [a militia regiment assigned to the northern campaign]. That for the last term of his Service he was a Sergeant.
Furthermore, this Graves enlisted for a third time in Bennington in 1777, joining Col. Rufus Putnam’s regiment and serving until 1782. He also testified to having been wounded at Saratoga.

Thus, in his pension application Graves stretched his service in 1775 and said nothing about how he had gone home without permission. But he did reenlist and spent years as a soldier. For him, not wanting to serve under Ens. Eliphalet Hastings wasn’t just an excuse to justify leaving the army for good. The U.S government awarded Graves a pension. He died intestate in Saratoga County, New York, in 1824.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Problem with Ens. Eliphalet Hastings

Yesterday I quoted Capt. Moses Harvey’s newspaper advertisement from November 1775, minutely describing five soldiers who had deserted from his Continental Army company.

Harvey surmised that those men had left for these feeble reasons:
They have been apt to make excuses for their running away, and intimate they took a dislike to one Eliphalet Hastings, who was put in Ensign over them, and found much fault with the continental allowance.
Of course, it’s a soldier’s prerogative to grumble about food and pay. But what was the problem with the new ensign?

Eliphalet Hastings (1734-1824) was a veteran soldier. He had enlisted early in the French and Indian War, a decision that didn’t turn out well. In January 1760 the Massachusetts legislature voted to pay him £8 because
in the Year 1757 being a Soldier in the pay of this Province, he was taken Prisoner by the Indians near Fort William Henry by whom he was sold to the French and carried to Quebeck from whence he was sent to France where he remained till October 1758 when he was sent to England; and did not return home till May 1759
Hastings’s descendants understood that he had also participated Gen. James Wolfe’s Québec campaign and even “assisted in carrying General Wolfe to the rear, when mortally wounded.” But the timing for that would be awfully tight.

In April 1775, Hastings had marched as a minuteman, then rose to sergeant as Massachusetts formed its army. According to his pension application, he
was in the battle of Bunkers hill, commanded a company in Col Jonathan Brewers Regt in the Massachusetts line, had twenty-nine killed and eleven wounded besides myself out of seventy nine in that action, had my right arms and collar bone shot to pieces
Col. Brewer’s regiment was stationed mostly between the provincial breastwork and the rail fence. It got pretty shot up, with Brewer (d. 1784) and Lt. Col. William Buckminster (1736-1786) both wounded. But a Massachusetts report in 1775 said that in all the regiment suffered twelve dead and twenty-two wounded, far less than the figures Hastings recalled for one company decades later.

Col. Brewer had already gotten into hot water for aggressive recruiting tactics in Middlesex and Worcester Counties. He in turn complained about other colonels, on 4 July petitioning the Massachusetts legislature about how
a number of men that enlisted in different Companies in my Regiment have, through the low artifice and cunning of several recruiting officers of different Regiments, re-enlisted into other Companies, being over-persuaded by such arguments as, that Colonel Brewer would not be commissioned, and that if they did not immediately join some other Regiment, they would be turned out of the service; others were tempted with a promise to have a dollar each to drink the recruiting officer’s health; others by intoxication of strong liquor; by which means a considerable number have deserted my Regiment, as will be made to appear by the returns therefrom, as also the different Companies and Regiments they are re-enlisted into.
Around the same date, on 1 July, Eliphalet Hastings was appointed an ensign in the company of Capt. Moses Harvey. I can’t tell which company Hastings had been a sergeant in—perhaps Capt. Edward Blake’s—but it wasn’t Harvey’s.

Capt. Harvey was a late addition to Brewer’s regiment, not listed among his officers in early June. He had also come late to the Battle of Bunker Hill. A soldier from that company named Moses Clark recalled, “I was on the march towards Bunkers Hill on the day that battle was fought we arrived there just after the battle ended, while our men were carrying away the wounded.”

Col. Brewer appears to have assigned Ens. Hastings to Capt. Harvey’s company, rewarding a wounded veteran and filling out that company’s ranks so he could have more soldiers under him. But that created a problem.

Moses Harvey had been born in Sunderland, in the part of town that became Montague in 1754, and he had recruited men from that area. Of the five soldiers in his deserter ad, three had enlisted in Sunderland: John Daby; Gideon Graves, born in that town in 1753; and John Guilson, born in Groton in 1750 and married to Graves’s sister in 1769. Simeon Smith came from Greenfield and Matthias Smith from Springfield, other towns in the Connecticut River Valley. Capt. Harvey knew them so well he could describe them in acute detail.

In contrast, Eliphalet Hastings lived in Waltham, on the eastern side of Middlesex County. Harvey’s men didn’t know him. By tradition, New England soldiers enlisted under neighbors they knew and trusted. They expected to elect their own officers instead of having someone assigned over them. So over the summer of 1775 those five men decided to head back home to western Massachusetts.

Capt. Harvey was lenient enough not to advertise for their return right away; he didn’t even report them as deserted until 27 September. But as November came around, there was new pressure from Gen. George Washington to recruit soldiers for the coming year. Harvey might have thought his own hopes to remain in the army depended on showing that he could maintain discipline in his company. So on 8 November he finally put his neighbors’ names and descriptions into the newspaper. Did he really expect them to return, or did he just want to make their lives in and around Sunderland a little less comfortable?

TOMORROW: What became of those deserters?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

“Deserted from Col. Brewer’s regiment…”

On 9 Nov 1775 and again a week later, the New-England Chronicle ran this advertisement, which offers characterizations of Continental soldiers worthy of a Smollett novel:
Deserted from Col. [Jonathan] Brewer’s regiment, and Captain Harvey’s company, one Simeon Smith of Greenfield, a joiner by trade, a thin spar’d fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high, had on blue coat and black vest, a metal button on his hat, black long hair, black eyes, his voice in the hermaphrodite fashion, the masculine rather predominant:

Likewise one Matthias Smith, a small smart fellow, a sadler by trade, grey headed, has a younger look in his face, is apt to say I swear! I swear! and between his words will spit smart; had on a green coat, and an old red great coat; he is a right gamester, although he wears something of a sober look:

Likewise one John Daby, a long hump shoulder’d fellow, a shoemaker by trade, drawls his words, and for comfortable says comfable, had a green coat, thick leather breeches, slim legs, lost some of his fore teeth:

Also one John Guilson, a man well known in Sunderland, wears a watch, midling stature, a cooper by trade, has a black beard, wears a light colour’d coat and jacket and has a surly look:

Likewise his brother in law, Gideon Graves, about a midling stature, somewhat stocky, his looks, jestures and words generally crabbed, had a sad red coat, a pale blue vest, dark brown thickset breeches, and had a large cutlass.---

They have been apt to make excuses for their running away, and intimate they took a dislike to one Eliphalet Hastings, who was put in Ensign over them, and found much fault with the continental allowance.

Whoever will take up said deserters and secure or bring hem into the camp, shall have two dollars reward for each, and all necessary charges paid by me,
Prospect-Hill, Nov. 8, 1775.

P.S. Said deserters have been gone some time, and because I expected they would return, I have omitted advertising them.
According to Massachusetts records, John Gilson deserted on 14 July; Gideon Graves, Matthias Smith, and John Daby in early August, and Simeon Smith on 16 September. So Capt. Harvey (1723-1795) had indeed waited for months before advertising for them in November.

Not that he had to get so personal.

TOMORROW: What was the problem with Ens. Hastings?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Newburyport Newspapers

Through Alexander Cain of Untapped History, I learned about this database of digitized documents from Newburyport, Massachusetts.

At the top are the links to (as of today) 646 pages from the 1770s and 1,131 from the 1780s. Those are mostly pages from Newburyport’s only newspaper at the time, the Essex Journal. Or, to give it the full original name, the Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet: Or, the Massachusetts and New-Hampshire General Advertiser.

The format of this newspaper database is different from any I’ve seen before. Clicking on each page opens up first a terrible O.C.R. transcription, then a full page image. The images are quite readable, so thumbing through is a fine way to immerse oneself in the life of a small New England port during the Revolutionary period.

The story of the Essex Journal starts with Isaiah Thomas and his ambition to franchise his Massachusetts Spy operation the way that Benjamin Franklin had sponsored and profited from other newspapers two generations before. Newspaper printers could benefit by building networks to share news, mail, advertising, and bookselling. Often those networks were built along family lines. Thomas was at a disadvantage without many relations, but he did have apprentices.

According to Thomas himself, he launched the Essex Journal in 1773 “At the request of several gentlemen, particularly the late rev. Jonathan Parsons [1705-1776].” Which is to say, Thomas supplied the printing equipment but stayed in Boston looking after his own newspaper and Royal American Magazine.

The actual printer in Newburyport was a young man named Henry-Walter Tinges. Facts about him are hard to come by. According to Thomas, he was “born in Boston” but “his parents were Hollanders,” or Dutch. Suffolk County probate records show that a Henry Tinges was assigned a guardian in 1767. He apprenticed first with John Fleeming and then, perhaps after the Boston Chronicle folded, with Thomas. Presumably he came of age in 1773 and was ready to manage his own shop.

Thomas and Tinges started collecting subscriptions for the Essex Journal in December 1773, distributing a sample issue for free. A lot of the early advertisers were Boston merchants—perhaps Thomas had given them a deal to advertise in both the Massachusetts Spy and the Essex Journal. The initial plan was to publish on Saturdays, but in response to public feedback the newspaper appeared on Wednesdays.

In August 1774, with Boston under army occupation for the second time, Thomas “sold the printing materials to Ezra Lunt, the proprietor of a stage” between Newburyport and Boston who thus had an interest in promoting local business. Lunt was a Newburyport native, thirty-one years old. Tinges remained the junior partner.

That arrangement lasted until May 1775, when Lunt became a captain in Col. Moses Little’s regiment of the Massachusetts army. According to local lore, “a stirring discourse from Rev. Jonathan Parsons” had prompted Lunt and his men to volunteer. The company saw action at the end of the Battle of Bunker Hill, acting as a rear guard during the provincial retreat off the Charlestown peninsula. After the war, Lunt joined the Yankee exodus to the Ohio Territory and died in the town of Marietta.

Meanwhile, back in Newburyport, Tinges had a new senior partner: John Mycall (1750-1833). According to Thomas, Mycall was “born at Worcester, in England; and was a schoolmaster at Almsbury”—Amesbury, where he had married in 1772. A “man of great ingenuity,” within a year he was able to manage the press himself and publish the Essex Journal under his own name. Probably during this time he took on his nephew William Hoyt (1759-1812) as an apprentice.

Henry-Walter Tinges remained in Newburyport at least into January 1777, when his intention to marry Eunice Knight was announced. According to his old master Thomas, at some point he went “to Baltimore, and from thence to sea, but never returned.”

In February 1777, Mycall had to stop publishing the Essex Journal, apparently due to paper shortages and business uncertainty. The Newburyport database therefore has no local material from 1778 until 1784, when Mycall restarted the newspaper. It continued for another ten years, published by either Mycall or Holt, until Mycall finally retired in 1794, first to rural Harvard and then to bustling Cambridge. And that was the end of the Essex Journal.

But the Newburyport database continues uninterrupted with the town’s new newspaper, the Morning Star.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Lecture Series at Bunker Hill Museum Starting 15 Mar.

This week the National Parks of Boston will launch a spring lecture series at the Bunker Hill Museum. Here’s the lineup:

Thursday, 15 March
Curtis White
Customs Enforcement in Massachusetts, 1760-1775: Prelude to War
Ranger White from Salem Maritime National Historic Site will explore how British Customs agents in the colonial ports of Boston and Salem sparked unrest and galvanized colonists to defy British rule. This talk will trace such historic events as the Navigation Acts, the Stamp Act, and the Boston Tea Party as taxes and tariffs shaped public opinion in the prelude to war.

Thursday, 19 April
Jayne Triber
A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere
Dr. Triber, author of the 1998 scholarly biography of Revere, commemorates the start of the Revolutionary War on this date by describing the silversmith’s fateful mission for Dr. Joseph Warren, his busy midnight ride, and “The Shot Heard ’Round the World”—and Revere’s many other activities for the Patriot cause.

Thursday, 17 May
J. L. Bell
Meet the New Neighbors: The British Army in Boston, 1768
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the first military occupation of Boston as army regiments disembarked in October 1768 to assert the London government’s control over the port. That move only escalated social and political tensions. How did Boston residents respond to the sudden arrival of hundreds of soldiers? How did those soldiers find their new American home? What individual stories do the sources hold for us?

All these talks are free and open to the public. Each starts at 7:00 P.M. in the Bunker Hill Museum’s lower level meeting room at 43 Monument Square in Charlestown.

This lecture series is offered in cooperation with Revolution 250, the coalition commemorating the Sestercentennial of events in Massachusetts leading up to 2026.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

“Henry Knox’s Mission” Lecture in Cambridge, 15 Mar.

On Thursday, 15 March, I’ll speak at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge about “Myths and Realities of Henry Knox’s Mission.”

Here’s the set-up:
On November 16, 1775, Gen. George Washington gave Henry Knox a mission to travel to New York and bring back cannons for the Continental Army. Knox was a 25-year-old bookseller with no military rank. His trek back to Cambridge has become a beloved part of the American saga. This talk digs deeper into that story, examining such questions as who first had the idea to fetch cannon from Lake Champlain, how Knox had contributed to the Patriot movement, ways weather affected the mission, and if those cannon changed the British army’s plans.
This is the latest of a series of talks I’ve delivered at this headquarters site around Evacuation Day. This year’s talk is most closely tied to that anniversary since most American histories credit Col. Knox’s mission for the British military’s withdrawal. I won’t say that’s wrong—just that the situation was more complicated.

This event is co-sponsored by the Friends of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters and the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. It’s free, but seating is limited, so please call (617) 876-4491 or email reservationsat105@gmail.com to reserve a spot. We start at 6:30 P.M.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Seasholes on “The Changing Shape of Boston,” 14 Mar.

On Wednesday, 14 March, the Old North Church will host a talk by Nancy S. Seasholes on “The Changing Shape of Boston: From ‘One if by land, and two if by sea’ to the Present.” This talk is co-sponsored by the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

The Old North Speaker Series event description says:
Did you know that Boston was once a small peninsula? How did the fact that Boston was located on a peninsula affect the choices made by both the British and the Patriots on April 18, 1775? What happened to that small peninsula afterwards to transform it into the Boston of today? This talk will explore the changes in Boston’s topography from the time of the Revolutionary War to the present.
Seasholes is the expert on how Boston has physically grown over the years. She is the author of Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston and Walking Tours of Boston’s Made Land.

Right now Seasholes is directing a project to produce an historical atlas of Boston, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in fall 2019. I’m one of the many contributors she’s wrangling to get that book finished.

This talk starts at 6:00 P.M. Reserve seats through this webpage. Admission is on a “pay what you will” basis. (This was Old North Church’s previous general admission policy; it has just announced a big change.)

Friday, March 09, 2018

Peale Portraits of the Hancock Children Brought to Light

Last month Pamela Ehrlich published an article in Antiques & Fine Art magazine and at the Incollect site titled “A Hancock Family Story: Restoring Connections.”

Ehrlich wrote:
While researching portraits of Lydia [Hancock], I discovered a listing in the Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog for an “unlocated” portrait miniature in oil [sic] of “Hancock, Thomas, Mrs. (Lydia Henchman)–Child” painted by Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) in 1777. It was further identified as No. 354 in Charles Coleman Sellers’ Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale (hereafter P&M). However, the death date was incorrect—Lydia Henchman Hancock died April 25, 1776. Furthermore, Peale could not have painted her as a child since she was twenty-seven years old when he was born.
That miniature was at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Investigating further allowed Ehrlich to identify the baby girl in that portrait as John and Dorothy Hancock’s daughter Lydia, named after her great aunt. Little Lydia died in 1777 at the age of only nine months.

Furthermore, Ehrlich found a corresponding miniature of the Hancocks’ son John George Washington Hancock, shown above. (Terribly sad story of that boy’s death here.) And in the same purchase the art school obtained a Peale portrait of John Hancock himself, painted in the year he signed the Declaration of Independence. Read the article for the full story of the investigation, as well as the remaining mystery of a matching miniature of Dorothy Hancock.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

“Myth, Memory, History and Heritage” in Newport, 23 Mar.

Speaking of historical memory, on Friday, 23 March, the Newport and Rhode Island Historical Societies together will host a panel discussion on “Myth, Memory, History and Heritage.”

The panelists will be:
  • Ruth Taylor, Executive Director of the Newport Historical Society, moderator
  • Jason Steinhauer, Director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University
  • James Ludes, Vice President for Public Research & Executive Director, Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy
  • Akeia Benard, Curator of Social History, New Bedford Whaling Museum
  • Morgan Grefe, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society 
The event description says:
The panel will discuss, for an audience of practitioners and the public, questions about how members of a large and diverse “we” perceive the past, and how differences in perspective can have consequences when we try to wrestle with current issues together. How can historic site managers and other public historians approach the myths that families and populations have repeated for generations when scholarship reveals something different? How should we approach cultural differences in how we think about the past? What roles can historical societies play in improving the level of historical literacy in our audiences (and why do we care)?
It also takes as a touchstone a recent remark by the political journalist Ezra Klein: “Basically all democratic theory is built around the idea people have a roughly accurate and shared view of what’s going on. What if they don’t?”

Other questions I’ve wondered about: Are myths more powerful in creating social cohesion than the complexities of shared history? What about myths we know are fiction? Is any origin story, like the American histories of settlement and independence, inherently somewhat mythical? 

This event will take place from 10:00 A.M. to 12:00 noon at the Colony House in Washington Square, Newport. Reservations are required, so if you’re interested in attending contact Heather Rockwood of the Newport Historical Society by email

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

“Monumental Narratives” Symposium at Wellesley, 10 Mar.

On Saturday, 10 March, Wellesley College will host this year’s Wellesley-Deerfield symposium, “Monumental Narratives: Revisiting New England’s Public Memorials.”

The event description says:
As southern Civil War memorials have become a flashpoint for politics and protest, New England's public monuments are also due for critical examination. The Wellesley-Deerfield symposium will explore the public commemorations of people, places, and events in New England’s past. Illustrated presentations by scholars from across the country will examine how these public acts of memory tell a particular story of New England and how, whether explicitly or implicitly, they conceal, devalue, or erase other histories. Ultimately, presenters will ask: how can we recast these monumental narratives without simultaneously sweeping aside uncomfortable histories of colonialism and discrimination?
The full schedule of panels can be downloaded here (P.D.F. link). Among the presentations that touch on the Revolutionary era are:
  • Suzanne Flynt, Independent Scholar, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, and Alice Nash, Associate Professor of History, U. Mass. Amherst: “Covering Up History in Deerfield”
  • Kevin Murphy, Professor and Chair of Art History, Vanderbilt University: “Memorializing the Revolution Fifty Years Later: The Contribution of Gen. Lafayette
  • Nancy Siegel, Professor of Art History, Towson University: “The Burning Obelisk: Paul Revere’s Memory of the Stamp Act Monument”
  • Christine DeLucia, Assistant Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College: “Remembering, Rewriting, and Resisting in the Native Northeast: New Approaches to Indigenous Placemaking, Countermemorials, and Histories of Violence”
  • Siobhan M. Hart, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Skidmore College: “Remembering Indians, Forgetting Whiteness”
  • Kate Melchior, Student Program Coordinator, Massachusetts Historical Society: “Stumbling over Slavery: How a Holocaust Memorial Tradition Is Now Telling the Stories of Enslaved New England Residents”
This event is scheduled to run from 9:00 A.M. to about 4:00 P.M. in Collins Cinema. It is free and open to the public, but the organizers ask that all attendees register in advance through this page.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Barbier at Massachusetts State House, 7 Mar.

On Wednesday, 7 March, the State Library of Massachusetts will host a book talk and signing by Brooke Barbier, author of Boston in the American Revolution: A Town versus an Empire.

That publisher explains:
In 1764, a small town in the British colony of Massachusetts ignited a bold rebellion. When Great Britain levied the Sugar Act on its American colonies, Parliament was not prepared for Boston s backlash. For the next decade, Loyalists and rebels harried one another as both sides revolted and betrayed, punished and murdered. But the rebel leaders were not quite the heroes we consider them today. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were reluctant allies. Paul Revere couldn’t recognize a traitor in his own inner circle. And George Washington dismissed the efforts of the Massachusetts rebels as unimportant.

With a helpful guide to the very sites where the events unfolded, historian Brooke Barbier seeks the truth behind the myths. Barbier tells the story of how a city radicalized itself against the world s most powerful empire and helped found the United States of America.
Barbier is the founder of Ye Olde Tavern Tours, offering “spirited tours of the Freedom Trail.” She earned her Ph.D. in American History at Boston College. She’s the only person I know as excited about the Gore family of Boston as I am. (In The Road to Concord, I focused on the young men of the Revolutionary years; in her dissertation, she explored the next generation of women constructing their place in the early republic.)

This lunchtime event will start at noon in Room 341 of the Massachusetts State House. Register in advance through this page. Folks who can’t make this occasion can hear Barbier talk about the stories in her book with the hosts of the HUB History podcast here.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Men Who Brought Us Dorchester Heights

On 5 Mar 1776, Gen. William Howe and his colleagues in the British military woke up to find Continental troops positioned and protected on the heights of the Dorchester peninsula. The cannon up there threatened not only Boston, already under artillery fire from other positions, but the all-important naval and supply ships in the harbor.

The person who deserves the most credit for making the move onto Dorchester Heights possible was Lt. Col. Rufus Putnam, one of the Continentals’ self-taught engineers. As shown by his 11 February letter (quoted here), he knew that soldiers going on to those hills would have to fortify their positions to hold off a British counterattack. But digging in would be hard because the ground was hard—still frozen at the end of the winter.

When Putnam wrote that letter, he could only imagine a long, costly operation that would require fortifying the entire “causeway” or low, narrow approach onto the peninsula. Then, however, Putnam stumbled across a better solution in a book belonging to Gen. William Heath. Some year I’ll tell that whole story. For now, I’ll summarize by saying that Putnam realized the army could build wooden structures in advance of the move, assemble them on the heights, and strengthen them with dirt. Those walls, while not as strong as an earthen fort, would be enough to protect the men as they dug in further.

William Davis, a Boston merchant, suggested adding “Rows of barrels filled with earth” to those fortifications. Heath wrote:
They presented only the appearance of strengthening the works; but the real design was, in case the enemy made an attack, to have rolled them down the hill. They would have descended with such increasing velocity, as must have thrown the assailants into the utmost confusion, and have killed and wounded great numbers.
Heath took credit of relaying Davis’s idea to Gen. George Washington, who loved it.

Finally, the timing of the operation was the brainchild of quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin (shown above), according to the Rev. William Gordon’s eyewitness history of the Revolution. Gordon wrote, “A council of war was called to fix the time for going upon the heights.” However, he didn’t state a date or place for that meeting, and there’s no record of it in Washington’s papers. Perhaps it was a smaller, more informal group than a “council of war.”

Mifflin was brought into the meeting since he was responsible for supplying the carpenters, wood, wagons, tools, and other material essential to the operation Putnam had suggested. Never a shy man, Mifflin also shared his bright idea:
He went prepossessed in favor of the night of March the 4th, a friend having reminded him, that probably the action would be the next day; and that it would have a wonderful effect upon the spirits of the New Englanders, to tell them when about engaging—“Remember the fifth of March, and avenge yourselves for the massacre at Boston.” When required to give his opinion, he spake in favor of the aforementioned night, and supported it in opposition to the contrary sentiment of gen. [Horatio] Gates, who for some reasons deemed it an improper time. After a debate, it was carried for that night, by a majority of one.
Washington would have preferred an even earlier date, though it’s not clear the army would have been ready until the 4th. That night also offered a nearly full moon for the work.

As it turned out, the British were never able to mount an attack on the Continentals’ new position. Gen. Howe was of two minds about that idea, the weather turned bad, and the men on the heights kept working to make their position even stronger. Less than two weeks later, the British military abandoned Boston.

The barrels never got rolled down the hill.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

“Throw up such works on the two commanding Eminences”

I’ve often wondered how Gen. Artemas Ward reacted to the letters he received from the headquarters of his commander, Gen. George Washington, on 2-3 Mar 1776.

Those letters were full of details about how to manage the Continental Army’s move onto the Dorchester peninsula, down to what sort of barrels to fill with rocks and make ready to roll down onto approaching redcoats. (“Perhaps single Barrels would be better than linking of them together, being less liable to accidents—the Hoops should be well Naild or else they will soon fly, & the Casks fall to Pieces.”)

If I were in Ward’s boots, I’d be thinking, “I’ve been advising you to take this position for months now! You did nothing but come up with foolhardy plans for frontal attacks, and I kept telling you about Dorchester Heights! And now you’re telling me we have to act fast?! You’re telling me what to do in case of wind?!

But we don’t know what Ward would have said to Washington because he didn’t put that in writing. Perhaps he was even gratified that his commander had become so enthusiastic about his suggestion.

On 4 March, Ward issued these orders to his part of the army:
That 2100 Men viz 1 Brigadier Genl. 3 Coll. 3 Lieut Coll. 3 Majors 23 Capts 71 Subs. 100 Sergts. 3 Drums 1916 Rank. & file 3 Surgeons 3 Mates are to be Paraded this Eveng at Six oclock precisely, at Dorchester, completely Armd & accoutred, with one days Provision ready cook’d.

Before the men are marchd from the regimental Parades, they are to be handsomely drawn up two deep. Their arms, Amunition & Accoutraments strictly examin’d, the commission’d & non-commission’d Officers properly posted. The Officers will give particular Attention to their own Divisions, whether they are employ’d in the work, or as a covering Party, & not shift from one part of the Battallion to another. This will give an Opportunity for ye free Circulation to the Orders of the Commanding Officer, & enable him to conduct any movement with less Danger of Confusion, & greater Probability of Success.

The Officers will mark well the Behavior of their men; that ye Bravery & Resolution of the good Soldier may not pass unrewarded; & Meanness & Cowardice meet with just Contempt.

At 3 Oclock Tomorrow morn’g, will be paraded for the Relief of the above Party, at ye same Place, 3000 Men viz 1 Brigadier Genl. 5 Coll 5 Lieut. Coll 5 Majors 30 Capts 92 Subs 118 Sergts 5 Drums 2342 Rank & File 5 Surgeons 5 Mates, Accoutred & posted as above with one Days Provision ready cook’d. The 5 Companies of Rifle men equipt as above are to parade at the same Place & time.

At which time the Remainder of all ye Regts are to be turn’d out & take their respective Alarm Posts. The Party that is reliev’d from Dorchester is not to be dismiss’d as soon as reliev’d; but to join their respective Regts at their Alarm posts, & wait for further Orders.

The Genl. expects that in case of an attack, the Officers exert themselves to prevent their men from throwing away their Fire before the Enemy are within Reach, & recommends that no Soldier fire at any time without a particular Object in View; single Guns well aim’d and briskly fir’d, have a greater Tendency to disconcert & do more Damage to an Enemy, than firing by Plattoons.

The Surgeons and Mates are to be equip’d with every thing necessary for their department. It is ordered that the whole Camp keep by them one Days Provision ready cook’d; & that no Officer or Soldier strole from their Quarters. 2500 Men Are to parade every Morng equip’d, at ye same hour & Place.
Ward’s aide de camp, Joseph Ward, wrote out the general’s instructions to the man who would command the move onto the peninsula, Gen. John Thomas:
Brigadier General Thomas is to take the Command of 2100 Men which are to be paraded at Dorchester at six o’Clock this Evening, with which he is to proceed to Dorchester Point, and there throw up such works on the two commanding Eminences, as with the advice of the Engineer [probably Col. Richard Gridley] shall think most proper for the defence of the ground & annoyance of the Enemy and defend the same.
And there were also instructions to the head of the rifle companies:
Capt. Hugh Stevenson is to take the command of the three Companies of Rifle men in this Incampment, & also the two Companies which are ordered here from Cambridge; & at three Oclock tomorrow Morning proceed to Dorchester Point, there to obey such orders as he shall receive from Brigadier Genl. Thomas, or the Commanding Officer on that Point. 
The length and detail of all those orders on 2-4 March make a sharp contrast to what Ward had told his officers back on 15 June 1775, when the provincials had decided to fortify Bunker’s Hill. Moving onto Dorchester Heights was a more challenging operation, but this time the army had been preparing for weeks.

The 2,100 soldiers Ward sent out first were equipped not just with entrenching tools and their muskets. There were also 300 wagons loaded with bundles of hay to create a shield along the causeway and prefab pieces of fortification to assemble on the heights. There were the riflemen to guard the shoreline. There was the cover of an ongoing cannonade. And Ward had 3,000 more men ready to relieve the soldiers who would build the works—that hadn’t worked well back in June.

And of course there were barrels.

TOMORROW: The men with the bright ideas.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

“Dangerous to delay taking Post on Dorchester Hills”

On 3 Mar 1776, Gen. George Washington followed up his short note to Gen. Artemas Ward (quoted yesterday) with a full set of orders for moving onto the Dorchester peninsula on the evening of the 4th.
My Letter of last Night would inform you that the Genl Officers at this place thought it dangerous to delay taking Post on Dorchester Hills, least they should be possess’d before us by the Enemy, and therefore Involve us in difficulties which we should not know how to extricate ourselves from—this opinion they were Inclind to adopt from a belief, indeed almost a certain knowledge, of the Enemys being apprisd of our designs that way.

You should make choice of some good Regiments to go on the Morning after the Post is taken, under the Command of General [John] Thomas, the number of Men you shall judge necessary for this Relief may be orderd—I should think from two to three thousand, as circumstances may require, would be enough. I shall send you from hence two Regiments, to be at Roxbury early on Tuesday Morning to strengthen your Lines, and I shall send you to morrow Evening two Companies of Rifflemen, which with the three now there may be part of the Relief to go on with Genl Thomas. these Five Companies may be placed under the care of Captn Hugh Stephenson, subject to the Command of the Officer Commanding at the Post (Dorchester). they will I think be able to gall the Enemy sorely in their March from their Boats & in Landg.

A Blind along the Causey should be thrown up, if possible, while the other work is about; especially on the Dorchester side, as that is nearest the Enemy’s Guns, & most exposed. We calculated I think, that 800 Men would do the whole Causey with great ease in a Night, if the Marsh has not got bad to Work again, & the tide gives no great Interruption—250 Axe men I should think would soon Fell the Trees for the Abettes, but what number it may take to get them, the Fascines, Chandeliers &ca in place I know not—750 Men (the Working Party carrying their arms) will I should think be sufficient for a Covering Party. these to be Posted on Nuke-Hill. on the little hill in front of the 2d hill, looking in to Boston Bay—and near the point opposite the Castle. Sentries to be kept between the Parties, & some on the backside, looking towards Squantum.

As I have a very high opinion of the defence which may be made with Barrels from either of the Hills, I could wish you to have a number [sent] over—Perhaps single Barrels would be better than linking of them together, being less liable to accidents—the Hoops should be well Naild or else they will soon fly, & the Casks fall to Pieces.

You must take care that the Necessary notice is given to the Militia agreeable to the plan settld with General Thomas. I shall desire Colo. [Richard] Gridley & Colo. [Henry] Knox to be over tomorrow to lay out the Work—I recollect nothing more at present to mention to you; you will settle matters with the Officers with you, as what I have hear said is intended rather to convey my Ideas generally, than wishing them to be adhered to strictly.
And just in case that wasn’t enough detail, Washington’s military secretary, Robert Hanson Harrison, followed that up in the evening with another letter:
I am commanded by his Excellency to Inform you that If the wind which is from the Eastward this Evening shou’d Occasion the Tide to be rather high to morrow, and there shou’d be a probability of Its continuing so for any Time, that he wou’d not have you to call in the Militia ’till you hear further from him—as the propriety of calling them in, depends upon the circumstances of the Tide you will be enabled to form a proper Judgement from appearances To morrow—

His Excellency desires that you will be particularly attentive to the motions of the Enemy, and use every precaution in your power to discover whither they have any designs of Taking possession of Dorchester Heights, as he would by no means have them accomplish It.
Now that’s a lot of detail—Washington really seems to have been micromanaging here, even as he assured Ward that he “intended rather to convey my Ideas generally, than wishing them to be adhered to strictly.”

TOMORROW: What did Ward think of that?

Friday, March 02, 2018

Washington’s “Early notice” to Ward

On 2 Mar 1776, Gen. George Washington wrote a short note from Cambridge to his second-in-command, Gen. Artemas Ward:
After weighing all Circumstances of Tide, &c., and considering the hazard of having the Posts on Dorchester Neck taken by the Enemy, and the evil consequences which would result from it, the Gentlemen here are of Opinion that we should go on there Monday Night.

I give you this Early notice of it, that you may delay no time in preparing for it, as everything here will be got in readiness to co-operate.

In haste I am, Sir, etc.
The commander added a postscript on the back: “Remember [the?] Barrels.”

Evidently no copy of this note was made for the commander-in-chief’s files. He wrote it himself instead of working through aides, and he was “In haste.”

In 1849 the Cincinnati Gazette published the text of the letter and reported that the document, “neatly framed,” was on sale “in the show-window of our neighbor [art dealer William] Wiswell.” Someone had offered its owner the impressive sum of $200.

In 1887 Edward Everett Hale quoted the letter in The Life of George Washington: Studied Anew. By 1909 a copy had gone into the Artemas Ward Manuscripts in Shrewsbury, which Charles Martyn used for his 1921 biography of Ward. (Those papers are now at the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

As John C. Fitzpatrick prepared a new edition of Washington’s writings in 1930, he and his staff looked for the original document and couldn’t find it. All they could find was the report from Cincinnati. So Fitzpatrick published the text in his edition with a footnote.

By 1975, however, the letter in Washington’s hand had resurfaced and was in the collection of Dr. Paul R. Patterson, a professor of pediatrics and coin collector in Albany. That’s how the current edition of Washington’s correspondence refers to this note.

TOMORROW: The full plan.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Panel on Environmental History and Early America in Boston, 6 Mar.

In Tuesday, 6 March, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a panel discussion on the topic “Common Spaces: Environmental History and the Study of Early America.” This session is a crossover event for two of the society’s seminar series, the Boston-Area Early American History Seminar and the Boston Environmental History Seminar.

The seminar description says:

This panel takes the opportunity to bring the fields of environmental and early American history into closer conversation. Environmental historians are concerned with concepts such as ecological imperialism and non-anthropocentric empires, built and natural environments, controlling and organizing space, and the relationship between borders and frontiers. How does or might this influence scholarship on early America? How can work on early American history enrich environmental historians’ understanding of empire, metropoles and borderlands, movement and colonization?
Panelists will be:
  • Christopher Pastore, State University of New York at Albany
  • Nancy Shoemaker, University of Connecticut at Storrs
  • Conevery Valencius, Boston College
  • Matthew McKenzie, University of Connecticut at Avery Point, moderator
This seminar starts at 5:15 P.M. at the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street in Boston. It is free and open to the public, but the society asks people to reserve space so they know how many seats will be needed.

For no particular reason, here’s a graph from the Google Books Ngram Viewer showing how the occurrence of the phrases “Atlantic world,” “built environment,” and “environmental history” changed between 1930 and 2008.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

“Free America” at Last

In 1842, William McCarty published a collection titled Songs, Odes, and Other Poems, on National Subjects in Philadelphia. He told readers he had scoured newspapers “from the period of Braddock’s defeat to the death of President Harrison.”

The first item McCarty included was “The Liberty Song,” credited to the Pennsylvania Chronicle on 4 July 1768. (It appeared in the issue of that newspaper dated July 4–July 11, which was published on the latter date, but the former date had developed more resonance.) At the time, there was still some debate about who had written those lyrics, and McCarty included no author credit.

The fourth song was “Free America,” attributed to “General Warren.” That was the first time the song was given that title. In fact, the phrase didn’t even appear in the first printed versions of the lyrics. But from then on, “Free America” was the standard name.

It looks like McCarty had come across at least a couple different versions of the song, including the one published in 1804. He selected lines he liked and rearranged two middle stanzas to deemphasize their 1770s political argument. The phrase that had been “shall spread his snares in vain” or “shall spread his net in vain” became “shall lay his snares in vain.”

And this time the final stanza played no favorites about which European Atlantic powers America would eventually dominate:
Some future day shall crown us,
The masters of the main,
Our fleet shall speak in thunder
To England, France, and Spain;
And the nations over the ocean spread
Shall tremble and obey
The sons, the sons, the sons, the sons
Of brave America.
In 1846, Isaac C. Disraeli reprinted McCarty’s version in Curiosities of Literature, leaving out two stanzas entirely. Disraeli also wrote:
General [Joseph] Warren was a song writer as well as an orator, but his verses, though very popular at the commencement of the Revolution, have less merit than his reputation as a man of cultivated taste would lead us to anticipate. The following song was probably written near the close of his life.
Faint praise indeed.

McCarty’s seven-stanza version of the song also went into the Duyckincks’ Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855) in a section on Dr. Warren. That version of the “Free America” thus became the canonical one—eighty-five years and many changes after its debut at Josiah Flagg’s concert in February 1770.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

“Composed, it is supposed, by General WARREN”

Yesterday I quoted a letter reportedly sent to the Virginia Argus in Richmond on 6 Nov 1804, referring to a “most excellent SONG composed, it is supposed, by General WARREN, who fell at the battle of Bunker’s Hill, in the year 1775.”

The lyrics that followed were “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song,” to the tune of “The British Grenadiers.”

On 4 July 1807, the Virginia Argus reprinted those lyrics with this explanation:
The following most excellent SONG composed it is supposed, by general WARREN, who fell at the battle of Bunker’s hill, in the yesr 1775, was published in the Argus some years ago:—But believing it may not be unacceptable to our readers at the present time, we have thought proper to republish it.
That item was picked up, prefatory paragraph and all, in Salem’s Essex Register on 10 August for its “Selected Poetry” column. Thus, a Massachusetts newspaper credited Dr. Joseph Warren with writing “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” within the lifetime of people who knew him during the political contention of pre-Revolutionary Boston. Other newspapers ran the article as well.

That question of attribution is what started me looking into this song, and the preceding “Liberty Songs,” and the patriotic British tunes they were written to. I didn’t expect to learn about Arthur Lee’s early career, or to contemplate why a Whig newspaper printed a Loyalist song and a Loyalist newspaper printed a Whig song, or to puzzle through all the changes in lyrics.

For over a century, American authors have linked “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” to Warren, but the evidence was sparse. Musical scholars could trace that credit back only to the DuyckincksCyclopaedia of American Literature (1855), which said: “Warren wrote for the newspapers in favor of freedom, and turned his poetical abilities in the same direction. His Free America, written probably not long before his lamented death, shows that he possessed facility as a versifier.”

The 1804 and 1807 newspaper items aren’t solid evidence. We don’t know who the “Subscriber” who wrote to the Virginia Argus was, or on what basis he or she told the newspaper that “it is supposed” that Warren composed the lines. It’s conceivable that the correspondent had known Warren personally. It’s also conceivable that someone had heard vague talk about a Whiggish Boston physician writing political verses and assumed it was the famous Dr. Warren when it was in fact Dr. Benjamin Church.

But those early newspaper publications push the attribution to Warren back to a period when his family and friends—his brother John, his medical student William Eustis, printer Isaiah Thomas, manufacturer Paul Revere, and so on—could have corrected the record. Again, that situation doesn’t mean Dr. Warren definitely wrote “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song,” but it does make the attribution more credible.

TOMORROW: “Free America” at last.

Monday, February 26, 2018

“The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” in the Early Republic

On 6 Nov 1804, more than a quarter-century after the previous newspaper publication of “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” that I’ve found, a letter was addressed to the Virginia Argus in Richmond.

It read:
Mr. [Samuel] Pleasants,

When you can find a convenient corner of your paper, please republish the enclosed most excellent SONG composed, it is supposed, by General WARREN, who fell at the battle of Bunker’s Hill, in the year 1775, thereby you’d oblige

The newspaper published the letter and the accompanying lyrics.

I haven’t seen that publication; the newspaper database I can access is missing some issues of the Virginia Argus from November and December 1804. But the Republican Star of Easton, Maryland, published the letter and lines in its 1 Jan 1805 issue in a section headlined “Apollo’s Fount.” (The “Poets Corner” had gotten fancy.)

I’ll discuss the attribution tomorrow. Today I’ll stick to the question of textual variation. The lines that appeared in the Republican Star were based on what Edes and Gill had first printed in 1770 with three variations.

First, the stanzas that began “We led fair Freedom hither” and “Torn from a world of Tyrants” were switched in order.

Second, “And blast the venal Sycophant” had become “And blast the venal Tories,” sacrificing metre for a more specific villain.

Finally, that last verse changed to:
Some future days shall crown us,
The masters of the main!
Our fleets shall speak in thunder,
To England and to Spain!
When all the Islands, o’er the ocean spread,
Shall tremble and obey,
The Sons, the Sons, the Sons, the Sons
Of brave America.
No longer did that conclusion speak of “giving Laws and Freedom” to other countries—this verse was now a non-ideological boast of naval power. Instead of “their Lords of brave America,” this version celebrated “the Sons.”

Most striking, the target countries weren’t “subject France and Spain”—not in the newspaper with the Jeffersonian word Republican in its name. (The Virginia Argus was also Jeffersonian.) Here the young nation’s big rivals were England and Spain.

TOMORROW: Dr. Warren, songwriter?

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The 2018 Boston Massacre Reenactment, 3 Mar.

On Saturday, 3 March, the Old State House Museum and a large contingent of dedicated volunteer interpreters will reenact the Boston Massacre and events surrounding that historical milestone.

There will be once-a-year events for the public all afternoon.

1:00 – 4:00 P.M.
Talk of the Town
Immerse yourself in Boston’s colonial past and meet citizens who lived through the contentious period of the military occupation. Gain insight and perspective on historic events that led to the American Revolution by asking questions and hearing accounts from living historians.
Inside the Old State House. Included with museum admission.

1:30 & 3:30 P.M.
History Hunters
Unique and personal stories take center stage in this activity for young visitors, ages 5-12, and their families. Use the tools of a historian to interact with the past and help colonists and soldiers discover the truth! Space is limited. Sign up with museum staff as early as 9:30 A.M. on Saturday.
Inside the Old State House. Included with museum admission.

6:00 P.M.
Convening of Bostonians
Before the action unfolds, watch downtown Boston transform into its colonial past as the citizens of the city gather outside the Old State House. Arrive early to hear from patriots, loyalists, and moderates who lived through the events that sparked the Revolution.
Outside the Old State House. Free and open to all.

7:00 P.M.
The Tragedy on King Street
Witness the violent and tumultuous incident on King Street, reenacted by living historians. Once the smoke clears, explore the galleries of the Old State House and discover how the aftermath of the Boston Massacre led to the birth of a nation.
Outside the Old State House. Free and open to all.

As in recent years, I’ll participate in that final presentation as the narrator of the scenes leading up to and after the fatal violence. Last year frigid weather forced us to cancel that part, which was a real shame since top reenactors come in from up and down the eastern seaboard to participate. This year we’re all hoping for a crisp, clear March evening, just like in 1770.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

“Black Experience in Concord” panel, Lincoln, 25 Feb.

On Sunday, 25 February, as part of its “Winter Learning Series,” the Friends of Minute Man Park will sponsor a panel discussion on “The Past We Never Knew: New Research and Reflections on the Black Experience in Concord.”

The event description says, “In the last couple of years alone, historical scholars and site staff have made dozens of intriguing discoveries as they have engaged in uncovering and recovering the lives of Concord’s black residents and visitors.”

The panelists sharing their findings will be:
  • Maria Madison, President of the Board of the Robbins House (shown above), the Concord home of the descendants of an African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War. She is also the Dean of Diversity at Brandeis.
  • Dr. John Hannigan, scholar-in-residence at both Minute Man National Historical Park and the Robbins House and now the Head of Reference Services for the Massachusetts State Archives. His original focus was on black soldiers in the Revolution; his work eventually broadened to encompass a broad range of African-American experiences over a long span of time.
  • Jane Sciacca, curator of the Wayland Historical Society, retired after twenty-eight years as an interpreter for the National Park Service. Jane has studied local slavery in the Revolutionary War period and done extensive research on the man who escaped slavery to take up temporary residence with the Alcott family at the Wayside.
The panel will be moderated by local historian Jayne Gordon. It will take place at Bemis Hall, 15 Bedford Road, in Lincoln, starting at 2:00 P.M. This event is free and open to the public.