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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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Call for Papers on “Women Waging War”

The Sons of the American Revolution’s annual scholarly conference to be held on 14-16 June 2019 in Philadelphia will be on the topic of “Women Waging War in the American Revolution.”

The lead organizer, Prof. Holly Mayer, has just issued this call for papers:
The conference will examine women’s words, actions, and influence in the War for American Independence. The SAR, as part of its Congressional mandate to encourage historical research, is sponsoring this conference in alliance with the Museum of the American Revolution, which invites people to engage with the Revolution’s ideas, stories, and artifacts.

Mary Silliman wrote in 1776 that she had “acted the heroine as well as my dear Husband [General Gold Selleck Silliman] the hero.” Not all women—or men—acted heroically in the war, but they did act, not just react, and their agency informs this conference. How did women fight the Revolution: that is, fight for it, fight against it, and fight in it?

Proposals for Women Waging War in the American Revolution should introduce how the authors will explore women’s involvement with armies and militias or their actions in defense of persons and property on the home front. The conference intends to examine women warriors, followers, and activists with American, French, British, German, Loyalist, and Native American forces. It also invites comparisons to women’s martial engagements in the broader revolutionary Atlantic World between 1750 and 1800.
Proposals should include a 250-word abstract and a curriculum vitae no more than two pages long. The deadline for proposals is 1 Oct 2018. Send proposals to Holly Mayer in the Department of History at Duquesne University by email at mayer@duq.edu with the subject line “2019 SAR Conference Proposal.”

History scholars of all sorts are invited to submit proposals. For those selected to present their work, the S.A.R. will provide a $500 honorarium plus travel and lodging expenses. There will be an edited volume of the papers, and for that reason the organizers will ask participants to submit versions of their work 5,000-6,000 words long by 10 May 2019.

This year’s S.A.R. conference will take place on 8-10 June at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. It is on the theme of “Spain and the American Revolution.” 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Trail Work at the North Bridge

Minute Man National Historical Park has begun an “extensive rehabilitation” of the North Bridge Trail on the west side of the North Bridge in Concord.

Sections of that trail are closed, meaning that there’s no pedestrian access to the North Bridge from the park’s Concord visitor center or Liberty Street. That situation is scheduled to last until 15 June.

Folks can still visit the North Bridge and its nearby monuments by approaching from the east side, which has its own parking area. And they can separately still visit the Concord visitor center, which houses the “Hancock” cannon (one of the four stolen cannon that ignited the Revolutionary War, I believe).

This phase of work on the trail is scheduled to end on 15 June. Then the contractors will begin similar rehabilitation for the trail east of the bridge, probably limiting access there. But again, people will still be able to get to the bridge from one side.

I talked about what was going on west of the bridge at midday on 19 Apr 1775 during the videotaped conversation with Lee Wright of the History List that folks can view on this page.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“Declaring Independence” Presentations Around Massachusetts

“Declaring Independence: Then and Now,” is an ongoing commemoration and exploration of the Declaration of Independence presented by Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area and the American Antiquarian Society.

Each presentation is tailored to the community where it is staged, meaning no two productions are the same. A “Declaring Independence” performance consists of a reading of the Congress’s Declaration and portrayals of people from the host community during the Revolution as drawn from first-hand accounts. A narrator explains the eighteenth-century terms and ideas, challenging the contemporary audience to consider their relevance today.

There are many different stagings scheduled between now and Independence Day.

Sunday, 20 May, 2:00-3:30 P.M.
Leominster Public Library Community Room
Partner: Leominster Public Library

Thursday, 31 May, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
American Antiquarian Society, Worcester
Followed by “Holding These Truths: A Panel Discussion about the Declaration of Independence” with David W. Blight, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Peter S. Onuf
Partner: American Antiquarian Society

Sunday, 3 June, 2:00-3:30 P.M.
Minute Man Visitor Center (Lexington)
Partner: Minute Man National Historical Park

Wednesday, 6 June, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
Westford’s First Parish Church United
Partner: Westford Historical Society

Sunday, 10 June, 3:00-4:30 P.M.
Boxborough Town Hall
Partner: Boxborough Historical Society

2-4 July, starting at 10:30 A.M. & 1:00 P.M.
Old Sturbridge Village’s Center Meetinghouse
With admission to Old Sturbridge Village

Tuesday, 3 July, starting at 11:00 A.M., 1:00 P.M., 3:00 P.M., 5:00 P.M.
Old North Church, Boston
Partners: Old North Church, Boston Harborfest

Wednesday, 4 July, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
Lexington Depot
Partner: Lexington Historical Society

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Morrison on “Exporting the Revolution” in Exeter, 22 May

On Tuesday, 22 May, the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire, will host a lunchtime talk by Dane A. Morrison on “Exporting the Revolution: American Revolutionaries in the Indies Trade.”

Morrison, a professor of history at Salem State University, is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity. Here’s what he’ll speak about:
One of the notable consequences of the American Revolution was the opening of American trade with the East, commencing with the voyage of the Empress of China, departing New York’s East River virtually at the moment when Congress was ratifying the Treaty of Paris in February 1784. Independence had freed Yankee merchants from Britain’s mercantilist regulations, confining their vessels to the waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean, and triggered the country’s entrance onto a global stage.

This talk will examine the emergence of Americans onto a global stage, raising such questions as:
  • How did early American “citizens of the world” recollect the Revolution?
  • How did they negotiate the complications of culture in their travels around the world?
  • And, how did they hope to defend the legitimacy of the new nation and champion the republican principles that they hoped would define an emergent national identity?
This “Lunch and Learn” session will take place from 12:00 noon to 1:00 P.M. at the Folsom Tavern, 164 Water Street in Exeter. Parking is available in the nearby museum’s parking lot on Spring Street and along Water Street. People are welcome to bring lunch.

This event is free and open to the public. However, the tavern is is a historic building, and the second-floor lecture space is not handicap-accessible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hunter on Dighton Rock in Middleboro, 19 May

On Saturday, 19 May, the Massachusetts Archaeological Society will host a special lecture by Douglas Hunter on “The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Indigenous Past.”

Drawing on his book of the same name, Dr. Hunter will discuss the legacy and mythology behind a petroglyph-covered boulder found in the area that became Berkley:

First noticed by colonists in 1680, Dighton Rock in Massachusetts by the nineteenth century was one of the most famous and contested artifacts of American antiquity. This forty-ton boulder covered in petroglyphs has been the subject of endless speculation that defies its Native American origins. Hunter dissects almost four centuries of Dighton Rock’s misinterpretation, to reveal its larger role in colonization and the conceptualization of Indigenous peoples.
Among the many New England scholars who studied the rock was the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. In 1766, while living in Newport, Rhode Island, he saw a copy of a broadside about the boulder written by the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather. (Other men who had written about the rock included Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard and Dr. William Douglass, best known for opposing smallpox inoculation and Mather’s other ideas.)

In June 1767 Stiles went to visit a man who lived half a mile from the rock. He used chalk to make the markings more distinct and then drew them in his journal, stating on 6 June: “Spent the forenoon in Decyphering about Two Thirds the Inscription, which I take to be in phoenician Letters & 3000 years old.”

Stiles returned in July for more investigation. He “washed & skrubbed the Rock with a Broom,” fighting the water level, before drawing more surfaces. The next month, two local men did the minister the favor of going out and collecting more drawings, measurements, and even what seems to be a casting of the scrapes in “the Phœnitian rock.”

Here’s one of Stiles’s drawings, courtesy of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
In 1768 the Swiss artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière visited Stiles on his way to settle in Philadelphia. He studied the material that the minister had collected. He looked at the characters on Mather’s broadside and and observed, “They are also totally different from the copy taken by Dr. Stiles.” Indeed, most or all of those researchers were seeing what they wanted to see.

Hunter’s talk about this history and what it shows about colonial New Englanders’ attitude toward the Natives around them will take place at the Robbins Museum of Archaeology, 17 Jackson Street in Middleboro, starting at 1:00 P.M. The program is free, but the society suggests a donation of $5 per person.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

May Events at the Lee Mansion in Marblehead

Jeremiah Lee was a significant figure in the arming of the Massachusetts militia before the Revolutionary War. The wealthy Marblehead merchant was a member of the Patriots’ Committee of Supplies. He paid David Mason of Salem to prepare cannon for battlefield use.

Lee died on 10 May 1775 of an illness that his family believed he’d contracted in the early hours of 19 April from cold and fright. I discussed that here and in The Road to Concord. So May was not a good month for Lee.

This May, however, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, which he had built for him in 1768, has some interesting talks on tap.

Thursday, 17 May, 7:00-9:00 P.M.
Saving the Lee Mansion
Local historian Stanley Goodwin will share the remarkably dramatic story of how the Marblehead Historical Society bought the Lee Mansion in 1909 and turned it into the building and grounds that we know today.

Thursday, 24 May, 7:00-9:00 P.M.
Jeremiah Lee and the Colonial Masons of Marblehead
Join Town Historian Don Doliber as he discusses the Masonic ties that drew Jeremiah Lee, the town’s leading citizens, and the middling classes together in colonial Marblehead.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion is at 161 Washington Street in Marblehead. Admission to each lecture is $15, or $10 for Marblehead Museum & Historical Society members.

Monday, May 14, 2018

American Harmony Concert in Worcester, 15 May

On Tuesday, 15 May, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester will host a concert titled “‘Slices of Time Past’: Choral Music from Eighteenth-Century America.”

Musical scholar Nym Cooke will direct the performance by the chorus American Harmony and offer commentary on the pieces. The songs will be ”psalm tunes, fuging tunes, and anthems” available in Cooke’s new choral collection American Harmony. The concert will thus recreate the sounds that the first generation of American citizens sang and heard.

Nym Cooke’s publications include an edition of the complete music of the Worcester-born hatter and composer Timothy Swan, a chapter in The Cambridge History of American Music, and two volumes of carols and part-songs, Awake to Joy! He has taught at the College of the Holy Cross and Brandeis University and now teaches at Eagle Hill School in Hardwick.

In connection to this concert, the A.A.S. will exhibit some of the early tune books, both printed and handwritten, in its collection.

This concert will take place in Antiquarian Hall, 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester. There is on-street parking on Regent Street, and the A.A.S. has a parking lot at 90 Park Avenue. This event is open to the public free of charge. Copies of the American Harmony anthology will be available for purchase.

(The image above shows the music and words for the song “Ally Croker,” as published in London in 1788. It comes courtesy of the A.A.S.’s online collection of early American broadsides because it was a forerunner of this version, published in America in the 1810s. This satiric love song is probably not one of the more serious compositions to be performed on Tuesday evening.)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Talk, a Video, and Signed Copies of The Road to Concord

On the evening of Thursday, 17 May, I’ll speak at the Bunker Hill Museum on the topic “Meet the New Neighbors: The British Army in Boston, 1768.”

This is a Revolution 250 event organized by Boston National Historical Park. Here’s our teaser:

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?
That talk will start at 7:00 P.M. in the museum’s lower level at 43 Monument Square in Charlestown. It is free and open to the public.

Folks who can’t come to that event can hear me chat with Lee Wright of the History List about the fighting at the North Bridge in Concord through the video in the middle of this page. We were out walking on and around the actual bridge, with wind and tourists whistling by, on a lovely spring day.

Some folks have asked about how to obtain autographed copies of The Road to Concord if they can’t come to my talks. I’ve signed a bunch of copies for the History List, and Lee can ship those signed copies anywhere. Thanks!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Souvenir of Harvard College in 1767

We have a good idea of what Massachusetts Hall and the rest of Harvard College looked like just before the Revolutionary War thanks to a surveyor named Joseph Chadwick and our busy friend Paul Revere. They collaborated to issue the engraving shown above.

On 4 July 1767, Revere entered into his account book a charge of £4 “To one half of Engraving a Plate for a Perspective View of the Colleges” and “To Printing.” Evidently Chadwick and Revere split the cost of publishing this image, and presumably the proceeds.

Harvard held its commencement every year in July. It was a public holiday, bringing big, festive crowds to Cambridge, some people because they had links to the college and others because they wanted to watch or sell things to the first group. In 1767 commencement was on Wednesday, 15 July, and I suspect Revere and/or Chadwick were in Cambridge selling their print to those who would want it most.

That might explain why Revere never advertised this image for sale in newspapers. Advertising might have been much less cost-effective at reaching reach the target audience of Harvard graduates.

Revere may also not have printed many copies. The scholar of his engravings, Clarence S. Brigham, reported in 1954 that he had found only four surviving examples, owned by the Essex Institute, the American Antiquarian Society, Harvard itself, and an individual. However, the image has been reproduced many times, so there are lots of later copies of this view hanging on walls.

In May 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress commissioned Revere to engrave and print currency. His wife Rachel and most their children got out of besieged Boston early that month, and they must have brought the old engraving plates. Revere cut the image of Harvard College in half and used the reverse side to make money. That piece of copper is now at the Massachusetts Archives.

Also at the state archives is Chadwick’s journal of a surveying expedition in Maine in 1764, as recounted and transcribed (with maps) in this article.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Massachusetts Hall to Be Renovated

The Harvard Gazette has an article looking ahead to this summer’s renovation of Massachusetts Hall and looking back on the history of the building—the oldest surviving building of Harvard College.

I particularly liked the deft use of digital graphics to enliven the article.

Massachusetts Hall was built in 1720. It survived because it didn’t really catch fire until 1924. By then American culture had decided that having an old building was a Good Thing, the Colonial Revival was still strong, and Harvard had lots of money to restore it.

When walking around Harvard Yard, I recognize Massachusetts Hall by the plainness of its brickwork compared to similar buildings. There’s also the clock on the street side, and of course the signs saying how historic it is. But several other college buildings date from the mid-1700s.

Among the items quoted and shown in the article is the bill from Harvard to the Massachusetts General Court for renovations necessary after the siege of Boston, when the building housed Continental Army troops.
Account of the damages done to the Colledges by the Army after April 19th, 1775, which remain to be made good after the first repairs were made previous to the return of the Scholars to Cambridge, after estimate of the subscribers committee appointed for that purpose by the General Court.

Damages to Massachusetts Hall

27 brass knoblocks for chamber doors

1 knob latch for D[itto]

60 box locks for studies

1 large stock lock for a cellar door

62 rolls of paper

60 yards of paint

Other damages
Why so many locks and latches? Were they broken to gain access to the building early in the siege? Or did soldiers pilfer those devices—which in the eighteenth century were expensive precision products—on their way out?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Man Who Shot Daniel Phelps

The Rev. David Avery identified the fellow provincial soldier who accidentally shot Daniel Phelps as “Mr. —— Yale of Col. [John] Patterson's company.”

In 1854 the Stockbridge chronicler Electa F. Jones referred to the man as  “Mr. Y.” She also wrote:
Mr. Y. became almost distracted, and, it is believed, continued in a gloomy state of mind until his own death many years afterward. He was not suspected of design, but was probably less cautious than he should have been.
We can certainly agree with that last bit.

A little digging reveals that that man was Noah Yale of Lenox. After marching to the siege lines in the town minute company, he enlisted in the Massachusetts army on 5 May through the end of the year. Only three days after enlisting, he shot Phelps while practicing the manual of arms, not realizing his musket was loaded.

This web genealogy for the Yale family says Noah Yale had been born in Wallingford, Connecticut, on 17 Mar 1749, making him twenty-six years old at the start of the war. He (or perhaps his namesake father) had purchased fifty acres in Lenox in 1773. According to state records, Yale served in the Massachusetts and then Continental Army through the end of the year.

This 1850 print genealogy says Yale didn’t live “many years,” as Jones wrote, but “died of a fever, December 28, 1776.” Though that family publication doesn’t mention the death of Phelps, it does implicitly link Yale’s death before age thirty to his experiences near “Boston, whither he had been called to serve his country, in her struggle for independence.” He appears to have come back to Lenox a changed person.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Death of Daniel Phelps

Yesterday I quoted a nineteenth-century account of how Daniel Phelps of Stockbridge was accidentally shot during a drill by a reckless fellow militiaman on 8 May 1775.

We have a contemporaneous account of what followed from the diary of the Rev. David Avery (1746-1818, shown here) of Gageborough, later renamed Windsor, who had also come to the siege of Boston from western Massachusetts:
8 [May]. Monday. Prayed with R[egimen]t.—About 3 o’cl’k Mr. Phelps of Capt. [Thomas] William’s company was wounded in his Breast and Lungs by an accidental discharge of a musket by Mr. ———— Yale of Col. [John] Patterson’s company as he was exercising.

Dr. [Isaac?] Foster & others attended him but found the wound to be mortal.—Mr. Phelps appeared to be very calm & patient—had a good sense of God’s gov’t & ye Equity of Providence.—

Ys’day Four guns were discharged in ye camp & endangered men’s lives. One out of our window—One at ye Piquit guard. Two others hurt. An awful day!

Mr. Phelps died. I closed his eyes—& gave a word of exhortation to ye spectators.

Our Reg’t attended Mr. Phelps funeral. Capt. Williams’ company under arms reversed. I prayed before ye Regiment marched in procession.
Avery also wrote home on 12 May saying:
Mr. Phelps was wounded on Monday, at 3 P. M. He very quietly fell on sleep at about 6 P. M, Wednesday [10 May]. Thus expired the flower of our army. Yesterday he was interred in the Cambridge burying-yard in a very decent and respectable manner. I had the greatest satisfaction and comfort in his death, for he appeared to die in the triumphs of faith…
The chaplain added that Phelps’s brothers Jacob (probably born 1753, listed in a genealogy as Jabez but in state military records as Jacob) and Hezekiah (born 1756) were with him when he died.

With such a loss, the Rev. Mr. Avery was right to complain about how inexperienced soldiers shooting their guns in camp “endangered men’s lives.” Despite their militia training, those men had limited experience being around loaded guns all the time and were on edge at the start of the war. Accidental shootings continued.

Of the younger Phelps brothers, Jacob was the fifer in Capt. Williams’s company while Hezekiah marched with a company from Great Barrington. Jacob would not survive the war, dying at Skenesborough, New York. Hezekiah served several more short stints in the army or Massachusetts militia, married Ruth Dudley, and reportedly died in 1810.

TOMORROW: The man who shot Daniel Phelps.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

“Probably no one supposed it to be loaded”

According to page 1301 of the massive Phelps Family in America and Their English Ancestors, Daniel Phelps was born in Akron, New York, in 1745.

Since Akron is at the western end of that state, and the area wasn’t part of the British Empire at the time, that statement seems unlikely. Phelps’s siblings were all born in Great Barrington or Salisbury and Simsbury, Connecticut, so he was probably a native of the Connecticut River valley as well. (Perhaps Agawam?)

When word of the shooting at Lexington reached western Massachusetts on 22 April 1775, Phelps was part of the militia company from Stockbridge. He and his companions set out for the siege lines around Boston, probably arriving at the end of April.

As of Monday, 8 May, the company was camped in Cambridge. Stockbridge: Past and Present; Or, Records of Old Mission Station, published by the delightfully named Electa Fidelia Jones in 1854, recounts what happened that afternoon:
Daniel Phelps, being an officer, was asked one day by a company of his associates assembled in his room, to give them the manual exercise. Accordingly he took his seat, and, being first armed with guns which were standing by, they arranged themselves before him.

When the order was given to “take aim,” one man pointed his piece directly towards Captain Phelps. He was requested to turn it to one side, which he did, though probably no one supposed it to be loaded. Yet, when Captain Phelps pronounced the word “fire,” Mr. Y. again pointed the gun directly towards him; and its contents, entering the right breast of the officer, took an oblique direction, boring the lungs, and lodging in the back bone. This was inferred, at least, from his appearance, a numbness in all parts below the ball taking place immediately.

As soon as the surgeons had searched the wound, he asked if it was mortal, and was answered “Yes.”
All the records from the time say that Phelps was not “an officer,” much less “Captain Phelps.” His company was commanded by Capt. Thomas Williams. Phelps may have been designated a corporal or sergeant, or his family may just have assumed he had been promoted to a position of authority after hearing about the way he was wounded.

TOMORROW: The mortal wound.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Knoblock on African-American Cemeteries, 7 May

Tonight the Newport Historical Society hosts Glenn Knoblock speaking on the topic of “Hidden Presence: God’s Little Acre and Beyond,” about the historic African-American burial grounds of New England. (This talk is rescheduled from 8 March.)

The event description says:
Evidence of the history of African Americans in New England from the 18th and 19th centuries is found in many historic burial grounds and cemeteries in the region, with the most significant and extensive of these sites being God’s Little Acre in Newport.

Through these oft-times forgotten or neglected sites and the gravestones found within, important clues which help to document the lives of African Americans in the region are revealed. Such burial sites and gravestones are often the only physical evidence of an African American presence and the existence of slavery in a given locale, making them historically important beyond their original function and purpose. The presentation will be richly illustrated with photographs of many important gravestones found in Newport and beyond.
Knoblock is the author of African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites of New England, published in 2016. He has lectured throughout New Hampshire via the state’s Humanities To Go program and written many entries for Harvard’s African American National Biography Project.

This talk takes place at the historical society’s Resource Center, 82 Touro Street in Newport. Admission is $5, or $1 for members and active and retired military with identification. Reserve a space online at NewportHistory.org or call 401-841-8770.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Art and Mystery of Mantua Makers

The U.K.’s Arts and Humanities Research Council recently posted an interesting essay by Rebecca Morrison about her research into mantua makers.

Here’s an extract:
Until the late seventeenth century male tailors made almost all fashionable female outerwear. However, in the closing decades of the century a new style, known as the mantua, became fashionable. It was an unstructured gown, worn loose over separate stays (corsets), in stark contrast to the heavily structured bodices and co-ordinating skirts which had typified the formal wear of preceding years. Seamstresses who had previously been limited to making linen underwear and accessories seized this opportunity to make outerwear. And within a few decades women were almost exclusively making clothes for women. In France these seamstresses were known as couturières, and in England mantua-makers. A moniker that would stick with them, long after the mantua was consigned to fashions past.

The French couturières were granted the right to form guilds, and because of this, a large number of records revealing their working lives remain today – indispensable to the modern historian. The English mantua-makers, however, formed no such organisations. In fact most of them worked very privately and usually from their own homes. So, without written records how do we find out about these early dressmakers?

Much of my research has involved studying gowns held by the [Victoria & Albert Museum]. Although many were worn by the gentry or nobility, they reveal much broader patterns of cutting and construction techniques, and even aspects of the relationship between client and maker. I start each study by taking a pattern off the gown, i.e. drawing the pieces of the fabric, the cut and fold lines. I then record the different stitches and where they have been employed. I look at the trimmings and linings – how and at what step of the process they are attached. I also consider alterations – the marks left by earlier seams, and the addition or removal of pieces. This is a time-consuming process, but a rewarding one. The longer I spend with each garment the more intimately I come to know it, and the clearer the process of production becomes.

It is a process that would be unfamiliar to modern consumers. If you were lucky enough to be buying a bespoke dress today a fitting would involve the client trying on the unfinished garment, in either the final fabric or toile made from an inexpensive cloth. However, the eighteenth-century mantua-maker did not have paper patterns or a dress-stand at her disposal, and the cost of using even a cheap fabric for a toile would have been prohibitive. Instead she used the client’s body to shape and fold her cloth. She would pin it in such a way that it could be sewn immediately.

No ‘right-sides’ together, followed by turning inside out. Long petticoats which do not take much strain would be stitched with a quick running stitch. Not only fast, but also easy to remove as fashions changed. Economy was important as the cost of fabrics dwarfed the wages of the mantua-maker. Although these gowns were quick to make they were not ‘fast fashion’. Rather an investment that could be remade, gifted or sold to the thriving second-hand market. Many of the decisions regarding fit and form could be taken together, between maker and client at the earliest stages of construction.
In 1796, eight women were listed as “mantua makers” in the Boston directory: Hannah Boyd, Elizabeth Goddard, Rachel Hall, Mary Laughton, Hannah Moore, Sarah Peirce (who also kept a boarding house), Sarah Snow, and Hannah Tileston. That was distinct from a “sempstress” like Mary Box or a “tayloress” like Abigail Kneeland.

According to Marla Miller, the last woman to call herself a “mantua maker” in the Boston directory was Rebecca Godwin Major in 1845. You can watch Prof. Miller’s talk about “The Last Mantua Maker” here.

(Pictured above is a mid-1700s formal dress owned by the Faneuil family and now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.)

Saturday, May 05, 2018

A Discussion about Writing in Marlborough, 9 May

On Wednesday, 9 May, I’ll appear in the Friends of the Marlborough Public Library’s Author Series, discussing The Road to Concord, Colonial Comics: New England, this blog, and other writing.

Here’s a P.D.F. file of the flyer for this program. The host and interviewer for that evening will be Hank Phillippi Ryan, who’s won multiple awards as both a television reporter and a mystery novelist.

In this sort of event announcement I like to include some material relevant to the venue, so here’s a story about Henry Barnes (1724-1808), Marlborough’s most visible friend of the royal government. He actually held out in town until almost the last moment, as he later told the Loyalists Commission:
He issued out billeting orders for the Kings Troops in 1775 this made him very obnoxious & the Mob threaten’d to pull down his House. He thought himself in danger & went to Boston the 17th of April.
Even then, Barnes’s wife Christian “staid in the Country till the Octr. following.” But then she went into Boston as well, and they sailed for England on 26 December.

That left the Barnes household uninhabited. In November 1775, Henry Knox, about to leave for New York on a mission for Gen. George Washington, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court:
That your petitioner having been obliged to leave all his goods and house furniture in Boston, which he has no prospect of ever getting possession of again, nor any equivalent for the same, therefore begs the Honorable Court, if they in their wisdom see fit, to permit him to exchange house furniture with Henry Barnes, late of Marlborough, which he now has it in his power to do.
The legislators didn’t let Knox simply take possession of the Barneses’ furniture in Marlborough. But they did let him borrow it.

The event at the Marlborough Public Library will start at 7:00 P.M. It is free and open to the public.

Friday, May 04, 2018

“With child Quaco, about nine months old”

Here’s another connection between the Worcester Art Museum’s portrait of Lucretia Murray and the institution of slavery in Massachusetts.

John Singleton Copley painted that portrait in 1763, two years after Lucretia Chandler had married John Murray of Rutland. Copley’s portrait of John, also at the Worcester Art Museum, appears here. (This Murray is often called “Col. John Murray” because he held that rank in the militia and it helps to distinguish him from the Rev. John Murray, the pioneering Universalist.)

Murray was Rutland’s leading gentleman, which meant he had a hand in a lot of legal matters. In 1754, he witnessed this bill of sale, quoted here:
Rutland District, May 4th, 1754

Sold this day to a Mr. James Caldwell of said District, the County of Worcester, & Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, a certain negro man named Mingo, about twenty Years of Age, and also one negro wench named Dinah, about nineteen years of age, with child Quaco, about nine months old—all sound and well for the Sum of One hundred & eight pounds, lawful money, recd. to my full satisfaction: which Negroes, I the subscriber to warrant and defend against all claims whatsoever as witness my hand

Zedekiah Stone.
James Caldwell thus became the owner of a young family consisting of Mingo, Dinah, and baby Quaco.

Nine years later, Caldwell died unexpectedly. How unexpectedly? According to Hurd’s History of Worcester County:
James was killed in 1763, he, with one of his slaves, having taken refuge under a tree during a heavy thunder-shower. The tree was struck by lightning, and falling, killed him and broke a thigh of the negro.
Not expecting a lightning strike, Caldwell didn’t leave a will. John Murray got involved in settling the estate by becoming guardian for Caldwell’s children, preserving their interest in their father’s property. That property included the enslaved family, assigned to Isabel Caldwell as part of her widow’s third.

A lot happened to those families over the next decade:
  • Mingo escaped from Isabel Caldwell, as shown by an advertisement she placed in the Boston News-Letter on 13 and 20 June 1765. 
  • Dinah Caldwell, the wife Mingo left behind, married a black man named Cumberland Chandler in Worcester on 29 Nov 1767. He was no doubt linked to Lucretia Murray’s relations. 
  • Lucretia Murray died in 1768, and John Murray married again at the end of the following year. 
  • On 28 Mar 1769, Isabel Caldwell married Nathaniel Jennison. They lived in the part of Rutland that had become the town of Hutchinson in 1774 and then the town of Barre in 1776. She brought Mingo and Dinah’s enslaved son, now named Quock and in his late teens, to the new household. 
  • In 1774, Isabel Jennison died, and her property went to her husband, Nathaniel.  
  • The uprising in central Massachusetts late that same summer sent John Murray, recently appointed to the Massachusetts Council, fleeing into Boston for safety. He eventually settled in New Brunswick.
According to Quock, James Caldwell had promised him freedom on his twenty-fifth birthday. And Isabel Caldwell reportedly amended that to freedom on his twenty-first birthday, a promise Nathaniel Jennison committed to when he married her. But as the late 1770s went on, Jennison refused to manumit the young man.

In April 1781 Quock, now using the surname Walker, left Jennison’s house and went to the farm of John and Seth Caldwell—sons of the man who had bought him as a baby in 1754. (John Murray had served as their guardian in the mid-1760s.) The Caldwell brothers, who had probably grown up with Quock Walker, were ready to employ him as a free, wage-earning laborer.

Days later, Jennison violently forced Walker back to his own farm, ignoring the Caldwells’ objections that he deserved to be free. Walker sued Jennison. Jennison sued the Caldwells. The dispute landed in the Superior Court in the spring of 1783, becoming one of the cases by which judges declared that Massachusetts’s new constitution provided no protection for slavery.

(Historical Digression has an excellent discussion of this case.)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

More Glimpses of Sylvia and Worcester

Yesterday I left Sylvia and Worcester, a mother and grown son enslaved to John Chandler when he died in 1762, in the household of Sarah and Timothy Paine, Chandler’s daughter and son-in-law/stepson.

The town chroniclers of Worcester left a couple of glimpses of Sylvia and Worcester—not enough to see them in full, but enough to remind us of their individuality.

A Harvard graduate with powerful connections, Paine held many offices, appointed and elected, in Worcester. In 1774, for example, he was in is twenty-third year as clerk of the county court and his thirteenth year as register of deeds.

In the pre-Revolutionary turmoil, Paine favored the Crown. The government in London rewarded his support by appointing him to the new governor’s Council in the summer of 1774. He took the oath as a “mandamus councilor” in late August.

And then all hell broke loose. Crowds in the western part of the province started closing the county courts. The “Powder Alarm” mobilized thousands of militiamen and showed that the royal government had no power outside Boston. And on 6 Sept 1774, more than 5,000 men flooded into Worcester to make sure its courts wouldn’t open, either.

As a court official and a councilor, Paine was the main target of the crowd. He wrote out a resignation for the five-man committee representing those thousands. The committee deemed that sufficient, and one read the document aloud, but the crowd insisted that Paine read his resignation himself—and with his hat off, as a sign of respect.

According to Caleb A. Wall’s Reminiscences of Worcester from the Earliest Period (1877):
Mr. Paine hesitated, and demanded the protection of the Committee; finally he complied, and was allowed to go to his dwelling. Tradition declares, that in the excitement attendant on the scene, Mr. Paine’s wig was either knocked or fell off.

Be this as it may, from that day he abjured wigs, as much as he had done whigs, and never wore one again. The now dishonored wig in question, he gave to one of his negro slaves, named ‘Worcester.’
Worcester thus benefited from the Revolution to the extent of a used wig. I haven’t found any more references to him, but the fact that he was named after the town he lived in makes that search a lot harder.

As for Worcester’s mother Sylvia, she was remembered in the town for two things. Based on the memories of Eliza Bancroft Davis, a great-granddaughter of John Chandler, George Chandler’s The Chandler Family (1883) described how Sylvia welcomed the “young children of widows” who came to her master’s house on legal matters:
She would sit swaying to and fro with them in her arms, and sing, “Pretty baby, pretty baby! Looks jist like its farder, dear! Who is his farder, dear?”
Through the dialect we can see a woman with a maternal instinct. Perhaps that feeling helped inspire John Chandler’s bequest that Worcester be kept “at as little distance from his Mother as may well be.” It also makes me wonder who Worcester’s father was, and what happened to him.

The Chandler Family twice describes Sylvia rocking those babies. One version says she did it when enslaved to Chandler, who was a probate judge before he died in 1762; the other said it was a habit of “her last days,” decades later. One version also spells her name “Silvia.” The details might be foggy, but there’s a sight of a real woman there.

As for Sylvia’s “last days,” they came in 1805, over forty years after John Chandler died, almost thirty years after his widow did, and more than twenty years after Massachusetts’s highest court ruled slavery unenforceable. The 25 May issue of Boston’s leading newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, reported that “In Worcester, Sylvia, a female African, [died aged] Æt. 105.” Worcester’s National Aegis reported the same four days later.

Sylvia may have still been living with Sarah Paine, who survived to 1811. Eliza Bancroft Davis recalled that at age fourteen she had made a shroud for the old family retainer, marveling at how Sylvia had lived about a century longer than she had.

TOMORROW: Another family connection to slavery.

(The building shown above is Worcester’s 1803 courthouse, designed by Charles Bulfinch.)

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

John Chandler’s Human Property

The Worcester Art Museum recently added a label to its John Singleton Copley portrait of Lucretia Murray noting that her father had two slaves named Sylvia and Worcester when he died.

According to the museum’s old webpage for this picture (which doesn’t mention slavery at all), Copley painted Lucretia Murray in 1763. Her father, John Chandler of Worcester, had died the previous year. His will had granted Murray £340 in two installments.

That same will assigned Sylvia and Worcester to other relatives. That means Lucretia Murray had almost certainly grown up with them as part of the family’s domestic staff but was no longer benefiting from their labor when her portrait was made. And to learn more about those two people as individuals, we have to follow another path.

John Chandler’s will was the topic of a 1905 study by Charles A. Chase. Chandler had married twice. By his first wife, born Hannah Gardiner, he had nine children who grew to adulthood. His second wife was Sarah (Clark) Paine, a widow with children of her own. In writing his will Chandler wanted to provide for his widow Sarah, but only as long as she didn’t become a third husband’s responsibility, while preserving as much property as possible for his own children.

Therefore, Chandler set up a bequest in which his wife could live in his house and receive $40 of silver every six months from his estate as long as she didn’t remarry. And part of living in his house was being served by the enslaved woman Sylvia:
I give to my said Wife in Lieu of her Right of Dower or Power of thirds in my Real Estate as follows namely that she be decently and honorably Supported by my Executors for one Year from my decease, and live in my present dwelling house and that my Negro Woman Sylvia serve my said Wife said Year, and be Also supported by my Executors. . . .

And in case my said Dear Wife shall dwell in Worcester my Will and pleasure is that my Negro Sylvia aforesaid serve her mistress during her continuing my Widow. . . .

And Whereas I have given to my Dear Wife the Service of my Negro Woman during her continuing my Widow and dwelling in Worcester, I also order my said Negro woman to have a proper bed and beding to ly on said time.
Thus, Sylvia remained property of Chandler’s estate but was assigned to work for his widow.

To add to the family complexity, John Chandler’s daughter Sarah had married Sarah (Clark Paine) Chandler’s son Timothy Paine. Chandler left a legacy to her, adding a special proviso about his other slave:
…if my son in Law Timothy Paine Esqr. and my Daughter Sarah Paine his Wife incline to have my Negro boy (Worcester) they may for fifty three pounds Lawfull money in part of her Legacy and towards the first third part thereof desiring whoever has him he may be Treated with humanity & Tenderness and at as little distance from his Mother as may well be, and I desire their Spiritual good may be promoted.
The clear implication is that Sylvia was the mother of the enslaved “Negro boy” Worcester. He was probably a grown man at the time, based on later reports of her age. The phrase about “their Spiritual good” strikes me as an afterthought, like the proviso for Sylvia’s “proper bed and beding” above—Chandler thinking first of how he wanted to bequeath his human property and then remembering he had some responsibility to those people as well.

When the widow Sarah Chandler died in 1778, Sylvia became part of Timothy and Sarah Paine’s household, possibly reuniting with her son Worcester at the house shown above.

TOMORROW: Further glimpses of Worcester and Sylvia.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

New Light from Museum Labels

Last month the Hyperallergic site published an interesting essay by Sarah E. Bond titled “Can Art Museums Help Illuminate Early American Connections to Slavery?”

The essay describes how the Worcester Art Museum has added information about forced labor to its presentation of this 1763 portrait of Lucretia Murray:
While the older museum label for the portrait had underscored the characteristic style of 18th-century painter John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and pointed to his allusion to styles adopted by the British nobility, a new label now caught my eye. It informed me that Lucretia’s father owned two enslaved persons whom he later left in his will to family members. One was named Sylvia and the other Worcester.
The mere mention of those people enslaved to John Chandler reminds us as we view the painting that the wealth evident in it—evident even in its existence—arose from a slave-owning economy.

Bond elaborates:
The economic benefits of slavery are now explicit on the labels at WAM. Beside a painting by John Wollaston of Charles Willing (1746), a newly added label notes that the Philadelphia merchant owned four slaves. Using a copy of Willing’s will and articles from the Philadelphia Gazette, WAM invites viewers to grapple with the fact that Willing owned: a “Negroe Wench Cloe,” a “Negroe Girl Venus,” a “Negro Man John,[”] and a “Negro Boy Litchfield.” These facts make it harder to deify eighteenth and nineteenth century New Englanders and profoundly alter how we view the portrait.
I’m not sure anyone was “deifying” those New Englanders before, but it was easier for visitors to look at them with unabashed nostalgia.

That said, labels that spotlight slavery may leave other fundamental injustices in shadow. In particular, the land under John Chandler’s home, and under the Worcester Art Museum, and under the house I’m typing in, and probably under the place where you’re reading this, was taken from indigenous peoples without fair compensation.

Highlighting slave ownership by people in portraits can remind us of how slavery was enforced in Massachusetts before 1783. But for decades after that date Massachusetts remained part of the U.S. of A.’s slavery economy. The textile industry that fueled industrialization depended on slave-raised cotton.  And some of the other big fortunes of nineteenth-century Massachusetts, and thus some of the other big philanthropic bequests, grew from trafficking opium into China.

Another set of questions involves the labels themselves. If I read Bond’s essay correctly, the Worcester Art Museum’s label for the Lucretia Murray simply notes two people enslaved to her father. Making those names visible is important; it’s the first step to recognizing them as individuals. But more digging produces more information about Sylvia and Worcester.

TOMORROW: Mother and son.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Clark on Work in Revolutionary Boston at Old North, 2 May

On Wednesday, 2 May, the Old North Speaker Series will host Christopher Clark speaking on “Work and Employment in Late 18th Century Boston.”

The event description:
Labor took many forms for Revolutionary-era Bostonians, who conducted work in many types of locations and under a variety of social arrangements. Occupations, levels of skill, and working conditions varied considerably. Men, women, and children, free and enslaved, conducted work in households and workshops, on wharves and slipways, in ropewalks and printing-shops.

Join Professor Christopher Clark as he provides insights into the Atlantic world, the beginnings of the American Revolution, race and gender relations, and the origins of Boston’s subsequent urban growth through the lens of laboring people.
Clark is a professor at the University of Connecticut, currently Head of its History Department. His books include The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860, Social Change in America from the Revolution through the Civil War, and (with Nancy Hewitt and others) Who Built America?: Working People and the Nation’s History.

This event is co-sponsored by the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. After the lecture, there will be a reception and conversation with Clark and institute president Anthony Benoit on the parallels between training and apprenticeships in the eighteenth century and the career training and readiness of our young people today.

The talk is scheduled to start at 6:30 P.M. at the Old North Church, 193 Salem Street in the North End. Register to attend through this webpage.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

“Fresh Goods” at the Concord Museum

Though 8 July, the Concord Museum is hosting an exhibit called “Fresh Goods,” exploring “the sources and context of small-town Massachusetts fashion” in the past.

Curator David Wood worked with historians Jane and Richard Nylander to get the most from “the Museum’s extensive historic clothing, textile, and decorative arts collection, as well as probate inventories, account books, advertisements, photographs, and letters and diaries of the period. . . .  Through twenty evocative documented outfits, the exhibition will consider the shopping habits of Concordians in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

Alongside the exhibition are a range of public programs, including the following.

Thursday, 3 May, 7:00-8:00 P.M.
The Indigenous Look: Attire in 18th-century Massachusetts 
Aquinnah Wampanoag artist and designer Elizabeth James-Perry will discuss the period from 1750 to 1900 in terms of indigenous Massachusetts attire and jewelry. Museum members free, non-members $5.

Saturday, 12 May, and Friday, 8 June, 2:00-2:30 P.M.
Fresh Goods Gallery Talk
Curator David Wood will offer a closer look at the exhibition. Free with museum admission.

Thursday, 31 May, 7:00-8:00 P.M.
Shift, Stays, and Pannier
Join historians and living history interpreters Linda Greene and Michele Gabrielson for an in-depth look at how women got dressed every day in the 1700s. Museum members free, non-members $5.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

“Unfolding Histories” at the Cape Ann Museum

The Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester is hosting its first major archival exhibition, showcasing notable documents from its collection and those of seven other local institutions.

“Unfolding Histories: Cape Ann before 1900” is organized around ten themes: Native American history, education, religion, African-American history, literary imagination, charity and welfare, women’s history, temperance, warfare, and transportation. The museum says:
Organized thematically, Unfolding Histories lets the documents tell the stories of Cape Ann, thereby highlighting often neglected experiences and perspectives. This archival record richly depicts the political and social structures of our nation before its founding, through its early years and on up to 1900, and provides windows into the working and cultural life of a place that would become a haven for artists and writers.
The Boston Globe reported, “The show consists of some 80 items: letters, books, maps (one of them executed by no less than Samuel de Champlain), official documents, photographs, diaries, Native American artifacts, even stereopticon cards.”

The Cape Ann Museum’s Twitter feed has been sharing items from the exhibit under the hashtag #unfoldinghistories. Highlights from the Revolutionary era include:
The exhibit was curated by Gloucester resident Molly O’Hagan Hardy, who is also director for Digital and Book History Initiatives at the American Antiquarian Society. The other organizations lending documents for the exhibit are the Annisquam Historical Society, Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum, Essex Town Hall, Gloucester City Hall, Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library, Manchester Historical Museum, Sargent House Museum, and Sandy Bay Historical Society.

“Unfolding Histories” will be on display until 9 September.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Sometimes a Kitchen Just Wants to Look Pretty

With Patriots’ Day putting the Arlington Historical Society’s Jason Russell House back in the news, I followed a path to this 2015 article from the Arlington Advocate about something else notable in that house: the dotted pattern the kitchen ceiling.
Surviving free-hand painting in Colonial interiors is rare, but it is preserved on the ceilings (and sometimes the wall sheathing) of a few other 17th and 18th century New England houses. For example, the kitchen ceiling of the Buckman Tavern in Lexington is enlivened with roughly painted chevrons; the White-Ellery House in Gloucester displays a pattern of semi-circular slashes; and a portion of a preserved ceiling from a demolished house in Dartmouth goes wild with a combination of commas, chevrons and a few splashes of color.

The decorative technique employed in the Russell kitchen is one that Colonials called “spotting,” now sometimes referred to as “sponge painting.” Only a handful of similar examples still exist. The wall sheathing of the upper hallway of the Boardman House in Saugus reveals a fairly regular pattern of black dots of about one and a quarter inches in diameter on a light background, while the kitchen ceiling of the Sherburne House in Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is boldly decorated with larger grey dots on a dark red ceiling.

Closer to home, the inside of a small, bullet-scarred door panel from the old Adams House, now in the Arlington Historical Society collection, shows an irregular distribution of starburst-like black spots on an unpainted wood ground. In none of these instances does it seem that the painters employed an actual sponge; instead, they may have applied their spots by skillfully twirling a round brush or by stamping the pattern on with a blunt, semi-absorbent object such as the broad end of a corncob.

Spotting and other decorative ceiling designs reached their popular peak around the turn of the 18th century, and the Russells’ spotted ceiling therefore would seem to support an earlier theory that the house was built the 1680s. However, later scholarship and a dendrochronology study in 2012 suggest a construction date of 1740-1750. Such a late date for the Russell polka dots is not out of the question. In 1738, for example, the painter Samuel Heath charged the Province of Boston for “colouring and spotting a Large Kitchen” in the no longer extant Province House.

The Jason Russell House’s polka-dotted ceiling probably owes its survival to the fortunate decision by a later Russell resident of the house to ‘modernize’ by plastering it over. Thus, it was safely preserved until the Historical Society’s restoration in 1924.
The Jason Russell House is open for visitors every Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. until Columbus Day.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Grave of Cato Stedman/Freeman

Earlier this month the Cambridge Chronicle reported on the mystery of Cato Stedman/ Freeman’s gravesite.

Cambridge records show that Cato Stedman was buried in the public cemetery across from the common. A historical marker memorializes him as well as Neptune Frost, a fellow Continental Army veteran. (That marker includes the date of 1775, but that’s not when they died.)

Ruth Wallis Herndon collected information on Stedman/Freeman in her book Unwelcome Americans. She reports that he was owned as a child and young man by tavern owner and militia captain Ebenezer Stedman of Cambridge. Cato served in the town militia company at the start of the war and became free about the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. He then enlisted in Col. Thomas Gardner’s regiment of the Continental Army under the name of Cato Freeman.

In his report on soldiers of color in the early Continental Army, George S. Quintal states that Stedman is “also listed on a 27 May 1777 roll as having joined the Continental Army from Cambridge, for the length of the war.” His regiment, commanded by Col. William Shepard, served in the Saratoga campaign.

Herndon, however, writes that Freeman/Stedman was at Valley Forge in 1777-78, followed by West Point in 1781. That appears to be based on information the veteran gave to Cranston, Rhode Island, authorities in the early 1800s when he became impoverished. Those authorities sent him back to his original home parish of Cambridge, which is why he was back there using the name Cato Stedman when he died.

Lesley University student Jonathan Hill has noted that sources from the early 1900s say Cato Stedman was buried either in the Stedman family tomb or in a plot next to his former owner. Hill therefore posits that the now-unmarked space next to Ebenezer Stedman’s grave is where Cato Stedman was buried. Unfortunately, a tradition first in print a century after a man’s death isn’t the strongest evidence.

The Cambridge city council has voted to have officials seek more information about Stedman/Freeman and Frost to determine their specific grave sites and mark them. The head of the city’s historical commission isn’t certain that enough evidence will come to light to make that possible. Meanwhile, the veterans’ names continue to appear prominently on the cemetery fence.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

“Remember the Ladies” and More

The Panorama, the online magazine of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, just published an interesting article by Sara T. Damiano on “The Abigail Adams ‘Problem;’ or, Teaching Women’s History of the Revolutionary Era.”

Damiano considers Abigail Adams’s famous letter to her husband written over the week of 31 March to 5 April 1776, easily read at the Massachusetts Historical Society. This is the letter in which she wrote, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors…” But that’s not all she wrote.

Damiano points out:
As a teacher, I am tempted to play up this exchange between Abigail and John. It seemingly stands in for the revolution writ large: Despite some women’s urging, the Founders failed to “Remember the Ladies.” And, it captures undergraduate interest. Particularly in my upper-level women’s history courses, students admire the spunk and assertiveness of Abigail Adams, whom they see as articulating an early version of modern feminism.

Yet…I worry about my role in facilitating such views of the American Revolution and Abigail Adams. If we aim to teach students to analyze the foreignness of the past, then we undercut our work by focusing only on the quest for “rights.” Doing so arguably flattens other aspects of historical actors’ lives and even marginalizes those individuals who were not necessarily thinking in terms of “rights.” . . .

By reading more widely in the Adams letters, students can discover how Abigail Adams’s injunction to “Remember the Ladies” was but one component of the couple’s correspondence. To take just one example, in her March 31, 1776 letter, Abigail devoted only two paragraphs out of twelve to patriarchal authority. She also wrote about Virginia politics, conditions in Boston in the aftermath of the British occupation, neighbors’ illnesses, the health of the Adams’s children, Abigail’s home manufacturing efforts, and a manuscript concerning “the various sorts of powder, as fit for cannon, small arms, and pistols.” Even examining this single letter in its entirety provides a more complete snapshot of the Adams marriage than does the famous quotation extracted from its context.
John’s reply likewise runs through many topics, from privateering to the house of Loyalist colleague Samuel Quincy. But then he got to Abigail’s request concerning women’s rights (most likely property rights, not political rights) and wrote, “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”

At the time, the Adamses were writing to each other every couple of days even though the letters took a week to travel, so their correspondence was a set of overlapping exchanges. As Elaine Forman Crane pointed out in her 1999 article “Political Dialogue and the Spring of Abigail's Discontent,” John’s reply broke that pattern. As soon as Abigail received it, she found other tasks besides writing were more important. It wasn’t until 7 May that she replied: “I believe tis near ten days since I wrote you a line. I have not felt in a humour to entertain you.” And then she returned to her plea:
I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—
So some part of Abigail’s wide-ranging letters may have meant more to her than others.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Barbier on Occupation at Old South, 26 Apr.

On Thursday, 26 April, the Old South Meeting House will welcome Brooke Barbier to speak on the topic “Boston in the American Revolution: Occupation 1768.”

This is a Sestercentennial event, examining the 250th anniversary of the arrival of royal troops in Boston in the fall of 1768. It’s part of a series of events Old South is hosting this season titled “Occupation.”

The event description says:
In 1768, British Parliament enacted a military solution to what was not yet a military problem by dispatching thousands of British troops to Boston. Many Bostonians feared standing armies and struggled with the presence of these armed men in their streets and buildings. Brooke Barbier, author of Boston in the American Revolution: A Town Versus an Empire and founder of Ye Olde Tavern Tours, will discuss the bewildering and curious ways the two groups interacted with one another – It will surprise you!
This event is free and open to the public, but Old South asks people to register for a seat at this site. There will be book sales and signing after the talk.

Monday, April 23, 2018

“Dr. F. with a number of boys of his age”

Last year I discussed how the experiences of Pvt. Jacob Frost had inspired and informed the Rev. W. B. O. Peabody’s 1829 sketch “The Young Provincial”—though that account changed significant details for dramatic effect.

Peabody heard about Jacob Frost through the veteran’s younger brother, Dr. Joshua Frost, according to an article in the 25 Nov 1829 Springfield Republican.

That same newspaper also put into print Dr. Frost’s own anecdote about the beginning of the war. Jacob was then “about nine years old” and living in Tewksbury:
We cannot help here adding an anecdote related to us by Dr. F. as it illustrates so well the feeling which prevailed even among children at the time to which the story relates. His parents lived not many miles [actually fifteen] from Lexington, and on the morning of the memorable 19th of April, when every person capable of bearing arms had gone to the theatre of action, it was feared by the women and small boys that a certain “old tory” in the neighborhood would communicate such information to the enemy, as would injure the cause of liberty, or bring destruction upon their heads. Accordingly Dr. F. with a number of boys of his age, went to the house of this tory, and pinioned him down in his bed.
I haven’t found any other version of this tale or identified a notorious “old tory” in Tewksbury. But I can’t help but sympathize with a man who, simply because of political differences, was suddenly attacked in his own bedroom by a riled-up bunch of ten-year-olds.

[The picture above doesn’t actually illustrate this anecdote. It’s from Bill Nye’s History of the United States (1894) and reflects that humorist’s version of the moment in January 1775 when Boston schoolboys protested to Gen. Frederick Haldimand about not being able to sled outside his house on School Street.]

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Another Robert Newman Story

As a postscript to last week’s discussion of the stories of hanging lanterns in Old North Church, I have to acknowledge yet another version of that tale from Robert Newman.

This version was preserved by Edward Everett—later a governor, senator, Secretary of State, and president of Harvard University—in a footnote to the published edition of the oration he delivered in Concord on 19 Apr 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle there.

Carefully following Paul Revere’s own account of that day, Everett mentioned the signal lanterns hung in the Christ Church spire. His note added this anecdote:
A tradition by private channels has descended, that these lanterns in the North Church were quickly noticed by the officers of the British army, on duty on the evening of the 18th. To prevent the alarm being communicated by these signals into the country, the British officers, who had noticed them, hastened to the church to extinguish them.

Their steps were heard on the stairs in the tower of the church, by the sexton, who had lighted the lanterns. To escape discovery, he himself extinguished the lanterns, and passing by the officers on the stairs, concealed himself in the vaults of the church.

He was, a day or two after, arrested, while discharging the duties of his office at a funeral, tried, and condemned to death; but respited on a threat of retaliation from Gen. Washington, and finally exchanged.

This anecdote was related to me, with many circumstances of particularity, by one who had often heard it from the sexton himself.
That sexton had to be Robert Newman. And that story had to be balderdash.

First, there’s only one way up or down to the upper windows in the steeple, and those stairs are narrow. There’s no way people can “pass” each other unnoticed. Perhaps a man who knew the building well could hide on the second or third level while others climbed past him, but could he go down to the vaults without being sure there weren’t more soldiers waiting on the ground floor? Plus, Newman’s family later stated that he had locked the church doors so British troops couldn’t easily enter. And escaped out a back window.

Second, there’s no evidence from British sources of them catching Newman, let alone trying him and condemning him to death.

Third, George Washington didn’t arrive to take command of the Continental Army until 2 July, more than two months after Newman’s supposed arrest and conviction. And there’s no evidence in the general’s papers that he ever heard of the sexton, much less made “a threat of retaliation” to get him freed.

It seems significant that the outlandish details of this story weren’t part of what Newman’s son told the rector at Christ Church around 1870. If Robert Newman told this hair-raising tale in the early republic, and I rather suspect he did, he reserved it for tourists.