Tuesday, February 27, 2024

"Wholly Worthless for History" - Josiah Austin and His Alleged Role on April 19, 1775

The Nerds were minding our business today when our faithful servant, Kip Winger, suddenly crashed through the front door and stumbled into our well-decorated and fine-smelling parlor. Despite his impressive hair, silky voice, and ballerina-like moves, something troubled him.

“Master Winger,” we asked. “What is it?”

After a moment of stammering, he excitedly blurted out, “The beacons are lit! Minute Man National Park calls for aid!”

Naturally, we assumed Historian Joel Bohy would handle this one. But then we remembered aliens had abducted him and was still missing. But what about J.L. Bell? Certainly, he could address the matter. Unfortunately, Mr. Bell was unavailable and was competing in the next “Survivor” reality series. What about Katy Turner Getty?!? Yes … Katy can handle this issue!! Sadly, she was filming a Dunkin' Donuts commercial with Ben Affleck. 

Thus, we lept up from our red pleather couch (yes, we meant to say “pleather”), pushed Master Winger aside, donned our leopard print spandex, walked briskly to our 1987 Trans Am, and cried out, “To Concord!” as Europe’s “The Final Countdown” was chosen as our soundtrack.

And it is good that we answered the call, as today’s blog post addresses the questionable claim from a digital magazine that it had recently examined and transcribed a previously unknown written account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. 


The magazine “Spared and Shared” asserts that the letter is in the hands of a private collector and that the document was allegedly written on or about 1800. The transcription of the document can be found here. Still, in a nutshell, the document is purported to have been written by Josiah Austin, “formerly of Charlestown, now of Salem, Massachusetts.” According to his account, Austin helped Colonel James Barrett of Concord remove ammunition, namely musket cartridges, from the town as the British approached. According to the account, Austin and Barrett’s son loaded the ammunition into a wagon and drove toward the advancing British column.

You read that correctly. He and the young lad drove their wagon toward the enemy. At some point, it became disabled and was stuck on or near the road. As the column passed the wagon, several “pioneers” allegedly pushed the wagon off the road, oblivious of the wagon’s contents or Austin’s role. The soldiers continued on their march to Concord.

Sometime later, Austin asserts that he encountered Major John Buttrick, who “ordered some of our men with saddle bags to the wagon, and Mr. Austin served out the cartridges in that manner to our soldiers.”

While this account would make a fantastic tale for a movie, it is the Nerds' opinion that this document is likely a late 19th-century or early 20th-century forgery. 

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve encountered such questionable documents. About two years ago, we were asked to examine what was believed to be a period journal detailing a 1780 British raid against a Maine coastal town. After extensive research, we discovered it was a fictionalized account, likely written after the American Civil War. Similarly, the “Lucy Hosmer Diary,” which purports to contain first-hand accounts of the events of April 19th, has also been debunked as a late 19th or early 20th-century fabrication.

There is simply too much wrong with Austin’s account, and very little of the story makes sense. No supporting primary documentation or accounts place Josiah Austin in Concord on April 18-19, 1775. Bohy notes that a “John Austin” was sent to Concord in March 1775 with a team of 7 men to roll cartridges and be kept in secrecy from others, and he was in charge of preparing ammunition with his men for the Committee of Supplies. There is no reference to a “Josiah Austin” ever assisting with preparing or transporting ammunition.

Remember that the goal of the Massachusetts Provincials was to keep its supplies, including ammunition, out of the hands of the British. For Austin to drive a wagon filled with ammunition **towards** the British column defies the logic of the day. 

It should also be noted that Colonel Smith’s vanguard actively intercepted and arrested any Middlesex County men it encountered on the Bay Road that night. Austin did not meet such a fate. Instead, “pioneers” stop and help move Austin’s cart off to the side of the road the column can pass. If anything, this segment of the account was likely fabricated for dramatic flair and little more.

As an aside, Head Interpretive Ranger Jim Hollister of Minute Man National Historical Park has correctly pointed out that only light infantry, grenadiers, Loyalist scouts, and a smattering of soldiers from the Royal Artillery accompanied the column to Concord. There were no pioneers with the column.


Finally, Austin notes cartridges are distributed from the wagon to “saddle bags.” In turn, the ammunition was distributed to militia and minute men in the field. This is completely contrary to how Massachusetts forces were supplied in 1775. The supplies stored in Concord, including ammunition cartridges, were earmarked for the future Massachusetts Grand Army if and when war broke out with England. The minute and militia companies that mobilized on April 19th had either supplied themselves with ammunition or drew it from town supplies. For example, Lexington’s Ensign Harrington was “reimbursed £2.12.10 in full” for providing for 104 lbs. of bullets to Captain John Parker’s Company after “going to Walthame for powdere & to Bostone for leads.” Joshua Read, also of Lexington, also provided gunpowder and ammunition to Parker’s men after purchasing lead in Boston and “running the bullets”. Before its minute company marched off to war on April 19, 1775, the men of Westborough drew gunpowder and ammunition from its town supply.

When contemplating assessing the veracity of the Austin account, the Nerds would like to highlight the words of 19th-century Massachusetts historian George E. Ellis who noted, that many veterans and witnesses who claimed to have participated in Lexington and Concord or the Battle of Bunker Hill, "Their contents were most extraordinary; many of the testimonies extravagant, boastful, inconsistent, and utterly untrue; mixtures of old men's broken memories and fond imaginings with the love of the marvellous. Some of those who gave in affidavits about the battle could not have been in it, nor even in its neighborhood. They had got so used to telling the story for the wonderment of village listeners as grandfathers' tales, and as petted representatives of 'the spirit of '76’, that they did not distinguish between what they had seen and done, and what they had read, heard, or dreamed. The decision of the committee was that much of the contents of the volumes was wholly worthless for history, and some of it discreditable, as misleading and false."

So, did Josiah Austin even exist? According to our research, he did. 

Josiah Austin was born in Charlestown in 1750. Before his teenage years, he became an apprentice to a Charlestown silversmith. He continued his apprenticeship until 1770, when he opened his own shop. According to town records, he resided in Charlestown until 1772 but split his business operations (silver and gold smithing) between Boston, Charlestown, and Watertown. 

By 1775, Austin had relocated to Watertown, although the Nerds came across a secondary source that suggested he may have briefly resided in Medford. He remained in Watertown until 1785, when he relocated to Salem and partnered with several very successful merchants and artisans, including a cabinet maker. The group undertook several business ventures and became quite wealthy. 

Why do we mention a cabinet maker? Because he was none other than Lexington's Elijah Sanderson. Of course, Sanderson signed an affidavit in 1824 describing his role at the Battle of Lexington. Curiously, Austin, who allegedly lived until 1825, never provided a similar affidavit. 

Austin was well-known for his gold and silversmith work. According to the Colonial Society of History of Massachusetts, Austin may have been hired to produce communion silver to Concord before the American Revolution. If true, this may be his only connection to the community. 


A few examples of Austin’s silversmith work still survive and are in the custody of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Monday, February 19, 2024

"Keeping a Very Bad House" - A Snapshot of 18th and Early 19th Century Prostitution in Massachusetts Seaports

From time to time, the Nerds receive requests to discuss prostitution and its connection to Colonial and Federalist-era Massachusetts seaports. While some research has been conducted on the topic, surprisingly, there isn’t as much as expected when it comes to prostitution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Most available research focuses on activities in London, Philadelphia, and New York-based brothels. However, some surviving documentation, particularly newspaper accounts and petitions to local selectmen, suggests the activities of Massachusetts prostitutes mirrored their counterparts.

Prostitution was a common part of life in 18th and 19th-century New England seaports, and Boston, Salem, Portsmouth (NH), and Newburyport were no exception.

For some, prostitution was treated as a transitional meant to support themselves during difficult economic times in their lives. Some eventually married or found another occupation. For many others, theft rather than sex was the main object of their trade.

Many Massachusetts prostitutes, especially those who operated from the streets, picked the pockets of the men they solicited. Prostitutes kept an eye out for inebriated customers stumbling out of taverns, whom they could easily rob. They usually plied their trade in pairs, partly for the company and for mutual protection and partly so they could overpower and rob men.

18th and 19th Century prostitutes faced many dangers attached to their professions. Pregnancy and contracting venereal disease were common risks. Similarly, their health and personal grooming were often failing. According to the English reformer Francis Place, he observed many English prostitutes in the 1780s who "had ragged dirty shoes and stockings and some no stockings at all…many of that time wore no stays, their gowns were low round the neck and open in front. Those who wore handkerchiefs had them always open in front to expose their breasts….and the breasts of many hung down in a most disgusting manner, their hair among the generality was straight and hung in rats tails over their eyes and was filled with lice.”




Worse, there was the risk of being robbed, assaulted, kidnapped, raped or even killed. Mr. Place described many of the prostitutes he encountered as being drunk and with black eyes, as they fought regularly with each other and unknown men who defended themselves during attempted robberies. They were also regularly raped and beaten by clients.

For this reason, many girls would choose to work in a bawdy house or brothel, which an older prostitute typically ran. Some 18th- and 19th-Century New England brothels were also organized by tavern or coffee house owners.

In a basic sense, brothels were inhabited by from two to possibly twenty prostitutes whom the older prostitute managed in a communal or family-type arrangement. The advantages of working from a brothel were that prostitutes had stable shelter, food, the support of the other prostitutes, and security, often in the form of a man employed by the bawd to control both unruly clients and disobedient women.

Still, it also had its disadvantages, the most obvious one being that the bawd rather than the prostitute took most of the money the client paid.

Bawd prostitutes often operated in small groups to lure their customers into the establishment. Similar to their street counterparts, once inside, prostitutes would ply their intended victims with alcohol and then rob them of money and personal valuables. Thus, bawds earned most of their money not from the sexual activities of the women working there but by fencing their stolen goods.

Colonial bawdy houses came in many different types, from the cheap ones in poorer areas of seaport towns, where the prostitutes were often diseased and dirty, to the more exclusive brothels in the richer parts of the community.



Blind eyes were often turned away from the “higher-end” bawds. As for the poorer brothels, local authorities often kept a close watch on these because these houses were known as places where criminals would congregate or were locations of considerable disorder.

An early 19th-century description of a Boston North End bawd house noted, “The whole street is in a blaze of light from their windows. To put them down, without a military force seems impossible. A man’s life would not be safe who should attempt it. The company consists of highbinders, jail-birds, known thieves, and miscreants, with women of the worst description. Murders, it is well known, have been committed there, and more have been suspected.”

In 1753, Bostonian Hannah Dilley was arrested for running a bawd with her husband. She pled guilty to permitting men “to resort to her husband’s house, and carnally to lie with whores.” She was sentenced to stand on a stool “at least five feet in height” outside the courthouse and holding a sign detailing her crime.

Another example was found in Newburyport. On the eve of the American Revolution, the seaport community had several bawds in full operation. On August 1, 1774, residents submitted a petition for the town to take action against the “widow Mace,”her two daughters and “Moses Davis his wife and two daughters” for “keeping a continual disturbance in the neighborhood where they live, & keeping a very bad House, in the Night Season & that the house is to much out of repair that the Neighborhood is in danger of being set on Fier by the said house if is not put in Better Repair therefore we the subscribers Desire you take the matter in to your Consideration & act in the affair as the Law Directs.”

It should be noted “Keeping a very bad house in the Night Season” was a period colloquialism referring to a bawd or brothel.


Victims of bawd-related thefts occasionally attacked bawdy houses in retaliation. In 1734 and 1737, Boston residents rioted and destroyed a pair of bawd houses that had been a continuous source of aggravation and disruption for the neighborhood.

Prostitution continued to thrive in Massachusetts seaports after the Revolution.

By the 1790s, the presence of prostitutes increased as Massachusetts seaports economically prospered. As a young child, Newburyport’s Sarah Smith Emery recalled how militia musters in the 1790s not only attracted local militia units but "drew a motley crowd, vendors of all sorts of wares, mountebanks and lewd women; a promiscuous assemblage, bent upon pleasure."

A warning in the August 16, 1799 edition of the “Newburyport Herald And Country Gazette” warned sailors and young, impressionable men to avoid “lewd women” and the consequences of “lying ingloriously in the lap of a Harlot.” An anonymous letter that appeared in the November 10, 1801 edition of the same newspaper openly complained about the many “lewd women” of the community. It warned that unless they became “respectable,” they must “yield to that infamy which well regulated societies universally throw upon impure females.”

By 1802, many seaport communities pressured the Massachusetts Legislature to pass laws to punish “the rogues … and lewd persons” that frequented their communities.



Reform efforts were undertaken in the 1820s through the American Civil War to curb the presence of prostitution in Massachusetts communities. Unfortunately, the efforts failed, and the “oldest profession” continued to thrive in Massachusetts seaports well into the 20th Century.

New Bedford’s Reverend Francis Wayland, recognized that not just sailors, but whalemen spent time with prostitutes. In the 1830s, he lamented, “these heroes of a three year campaign…come home to fall into the hands of harpies, to be stripped in grog shops…they land, and are adrift.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

"A Pair of Drums for the Use of the Military Company in Towne" - The Second Drummer of Captain John Parker's Lexington Company

Over the past few months, the Nerds have been fielding more questions about Captain John Parker’s Lexington Company and the men who engaged the British on April 19, 1775.  

A growing topic of curiosity has been whether the militia unit had not one but two drummers.


As a preliminary matter, military drummers were "field musicians" who played a vital role in their company's tactical employment and camp life. They were also used as signal instruments for the infantry, relaying the commander's orders to soldiers. Many Massachusetts minute and militia companies had at least one drummer within their ranks on the eve of the American Revolution.


Lexington was no different. 


On the eve of the American Revolution, the town’s militia company included a drummer named Willaim Diamond. According to research by Steve Cole of the Lexington Minute Men, the musician initially worked in a Cambridge tavern at an early age. According to local tradition, a British soldier from Boston took an interest in the boy and allegedly taught him to play the drum.  Lexington's Abijah Fessenden took the teenage Diamond in as a wheelwright apprentice. In the hours before the Battle of Lexington, the nineteen-year-old Diamond carried out Parker’s command to beat a call to arms and summon the Lexington militiamen to assemble on the village common.



In the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Diamond enlisted as a drummer in Captain John Woods’ Company, Gerrish’s 25th Massachusetts Regiment of the Massachusetts Grand Army. He would serve with Baldwin’s 26th Continental Regiment during the New York and New Jersey Campaigns of 1776. He returned to active military service as part of various militia regiments in 1778, 1780, and 1781. Following the war, Diamond remained in Lexington until approximately 1795, when he relocated to Peterborough, New Hampshire.


Understandably, Diamond is one of the more easily recognized 1775 drummers and, until approximately fifteen years ago, was believed to be the Lexington Company’s only drummer. However, recent research revealed that Captain John Parker’s Company most likely had a second drummer.


The presence of a second Lexington drummer is within the realm of possibility, as the town actively encouraged two drummers for its overly large militia company. As early as September 26, 1774, Lexington voted to form committees whose responsibilities included “ to provide a pair of drums for the use of the military company in town.” On November 10, 1774, Lexington reiterated its desire to acquire a pair of military drums when it resolved, “Votede. That the Towne provide a pair of Drums for the use of the Military Company in Towne.” 


In early March 1775, Lexington purchased and took custody of two drums. On March 14th, the pair were sent to Parker, who signed a document acknowledging receipt.


A continuing theory is that Levi Harrington or Samuel Bowman was Parker’s Company's second drummer at the Battle of Lexington. On April 25, 1775, Harrington signed a deposition stating he and Levi Mead were present at the battle but not part of Parker’s Company. “On the morning of the Nineteenth of April, being on Lexington Common as spectators, we saw a Large body of Regular Troops marching up towards the Lexington Company.”  The first time Harrington was listed as a drummer was as part of a March 4, 1776 muster roll where a company of Lexington men were dispatched to Dorchester to support the Siege of Boston.


Likewise, there is no evidence of Samuel Bowman ever serving as a company drummer either. In fact, according to research conducted by Historian William Poole, Bowman moved away from Lexington in the early 1770s.


So, who was this mysterious second drummer? Based on limited evidence, the Nerds initially believed it was Lexington teenager James Brown. However, we're not entirely convinced he's our guy.



James’ parents were Benjamin Brown and Sarah Reed. He was the seventh of eleven children and resided between modern-day Marrett and Maple Avenues in Lexington. 
Sadly, James’ mother died four months before the Battle of Lexington. 

On April 19, 1775, James Brown was only sixteen years of age. Present with him on the Lexington Common were his brother, Solomon, and his first cousins, John Brown and Sergeant Francis Brown. John was killed in the subsequent skirmish. In the aftermath of the battle, James was one of fourteen Lexington militiamen who signed a joint deposition describing the one-sided fight.


“We (fourteen names) of Lexington, in the County of Middlesex, and colony of Massachusetts -Bay, in New England, and all of lawful age, do testify and say, that on the morning of the nineteenth of April instant, about one or two o’clock, being informed that a number of Regular Officers had been riding up and down the road, the evening and night preceding, and that some of the inhabitants as they were passing had been insulted by the officers, and stopped by them;and being also informed that the Regular Troops were on their march from Boston, in order as it was said, to take the Colony Stores then deposited at Concord, we met on the parade of our Company in this Town; and after the Company had collected we were ordered by Captain John Parker, who commanded us, to disperse for the present, and to be ready to attend to the beat of the drum: and accordingly the company went into houses near the place of parade. We further testify and say, that about five oclock in the morning, we attended the beat of the drum, and were formed on the parade. We were faced toward the Regulars, then marching up to us, and some of our Company were coming to the parade with their backs toward the Troops,and others on the parade began to disperse when the Regulars fired on the Company before a gun was fired by any of our Company on them; they killed eight of our Company, and wounded several, and continued their fire until we had all made our escape.”


Brown’s possible identity as the unknown second drummer is based on his service record after the Battle of Lexington. 


A few weeks after the engagement, the teenager enlisted in Captain John Woods’ Company, Gerrish’s 25th Massachusetts Regiment of the Massachusetts Grand Army. He is listed on a surviving muster roll as a “drummer.” Two months later, a subsequent muster roll identifies Brown as a “Drummer, Capt. John Wood’s (5th) co., Col. Baldwin’s regt.” Two more documents from the Fall of 1775 also identify Brown as a “drummer.”


A review of the service records of other Lexington militiamen from the 1774 - 1775 period does not reveal any other drummers except for William Diamond. It also appears Brown did not serve in any other military capacity for the duration of the war. As a result, he was replaced by Levi Harrington as a company drummer in 1776.  


William Diamond's Drum, Currently in the Possession of the Lexington Historical Society

The problem with this assumption is a May 1775 statement by Brown where he describes his role as a combatant, not a drummer at the battle. As Historian Miike DaRu noted in "An Account of the Commencement of Hostilities between Great Britain and America, in the Province of Massachusetts-Bay. By the Reverend William Gordon of Roxbury, in a letter to a Gentleman in England, dated May 17, 1775", Gordon asserts, “James Brown, one of the Lexington Militia, informed me, that he was upon the common; that two pistols were fired from the party of soldiers towards the Militia-men as they were getting over the wall to be out of the way, and that immediately upon it the soldiers began to fire their guns; that being got over the wall, and seeing the soldiers fire pretty freely, he fired upon them, and some others did the same.


Unfortunately, while the Nerds are firmly convinced a second drummer was present, we may never know who it is.


Regardless, where would William Diamond and other musicians have been located as the British column approached? 


When Captain Parker’s Company initially formed on the town common the morning of April 19, 1775, they were in some semblance of a military parade formation. In an official report to London, General Thomas Gage noted, “On these companies' arrival at Lexington, I understand, from the report of Major Pitcairn, who was with them, and from many officers, that they found on a green close to the road a body of the country people drawn up in military order, with arms and accouterment, and, as appeared after, loaded.” Ensign Jeremy Lister recalled, “It was at Lexington when we saw one of their Comps drawn up in regular order.” Finally, Ensign Henry De Berniere of the 10th Foot described the Lexington men drawn up in two “divisions,” with a company-wide space between the two.


According to the 1775 Boston edition of the Crown Manual, the drill manual most likely utilized by the Lexington Company, drummers and fifers were to be formed “on the right of [the] company” during a parade formation. Thus, William Diamond, John Brown, and Fifer Jonathan Harrington would have been in single rank on the extreme right of Captain Parker’s Company, next to a company sergeant and “dressing with the front rank.” Finally, given the instruction outlined in the Crown Manual, the likely order from left to right would have been drummer - drummer - fifer.


Diamond’s drum still exists and is in the custody of the Lexington Historical Society. Brown’s drum's fate is unknown. The Lexington Historical Society has a fragment adorned with French roosters and purported to be from a drum. The Nerds believe this fragment may be part of the drum carried by Brown and Harrington.

Monday, February 5, 2024

"Destroying the Slave Trade, Would Stop the Wheels of New England Industry" - Newburyport and the Institution of Slavery

Last month, the Nerds came across a blog posting and a related series of social media postings discussing Newburyport's “Golden Age” from the eve of the American Revolution through the early 1800s. The blog post was exceptionally well-written and focused on many of Newburyport’s prominent families and the seaport town's economic and cultural accomplishments.

While the blog post generally touched upon slavery in 18th-century Newburyport, it did not address the question of to what extent the seaport community benefitted from the institution. As a result, the Nerds decided to take a deep dive and share some of the research findings we’ve come across on the topic.


Historian Susan Harvey noted in her 2011 master’s thesis, Slavery in Massachusetts: A Descendent of Early Settlers Investigates the Connections in Newburyport, Massachusetts, “[M]any individuals and families in Newburyport and Newbury did profit directly and indirectly from the transatlantic slave trade, some handsomely and some in small ways, but profit they did. Only the ports in Rhode Island out-built Newbury in terms of the number of ships constructed for the slave trade. The currency used to purchase the slaves was rum, made in more distilleries in Newburyport than in any other town in Massachusetts except Boston. Even those who died with little wealth but had sugar bowls and silver sugar tongs among their last possessions benefited from the labor of the enslaved by using the sugar they harvested.”


Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first American colony to legalize slavery in 1641, and enslaved peoples were still considered property at the outbreak of the American Revolution. Newbury and Newburyport were no exception. In 1754, Newbury, including the “Waterside District” (which would later become Newburyport), could account for fifty slaves, of whom sixteen were female and thirty-four male. Only two other Essex County towns, Salem and Gloucester, had more slaves.


18th Century Slave Shackles, International Slavery Museum, London, England


18
th Century Massachusetts slave owners, particularly those in Middlesex and Essex Counties, purchased their slaves one of two ways. The first involved traveling to Boston, Salem, or Newburyport to purchase imported slaves from the West Indies or “domestic” slaves. For example, on February 16, 1774, the Newburyport newspaper, the Essex Journal, and Merrimack Packet published an advertisement for the sale of a “Healthy Negro girl, about twenty-three years old, born in this country - likewise a serviceable mare.”

Massachusetts enslaved peoples were often exchanged as gifts or bequeathed as part of a deceased’s estate. Harvey’s thesis paper is replete with Newburyport-specific examples of enslaved peoples being gifted as part of a decedent’s estate. 


In many Newburyport households that owned enslaved peoples, male slaves worked side by side with their masters as coopers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and wheelwrights.  In other homes, they ran errands, functioned as valets, and performed heavy work for their masters. Some Newburyport slaves worked in the community’s shipyards along the Merrimack River. 


Newburyport female slaves were required to carry out the various household tasks their mistresses demanded, most notably laundry. Female slaves were also set to scrub floors and walls, soap-making, garden work, and fieldwork.


However, the mere presence of enslaved peoples in Newburyport did not lead to the town’s economic success. Instead, the town created its wealth by supporting the institution of slavery itself through shipbuilding and rum making.


In the 18th century, shipbuilding was Newburyport’s economic staple. By 1717, Newbury-built ships accounted for almost 9 percent of all Massachusetts-built ships. In 1727, there were nearly thirty shipyards along the Merrimack River, with most centered in the Waterside District (Newburyport). By the middle of the 18th Century, Newbury shipyards were launching approximately fifty ships a decade or five ships per year. By the French and Indian War, The Royal Navy was contracting with Newbury shipyards to construct military vessels to help combat the French Navy.


Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet, February 16, 1774


When a ship was contracted to be built, the ship owner and merchants (often the same) sought investors to help finance the venture. While they understandably secured financing from the Newbury and

Newburyport elite also accepted smaller investment funds from the town's middle- and lower-class residents. As a result, it was not uncommon for shopkeepers, ministers, doctors, lawyers, and yeomen to have a financial interest in constructing a ship, regardless of its purpose. 


For example, Newbury farmer Jonathan Woodman owned “one Eight part of the Sloop Eagle, …one quarter part of the Sloop Speedwell,…(and) one eight part of the Sloop Hannah” at the time of his death. When Deacon Joshua Beck died in 1747, his probate inventory included “a sixteenth part of a Sloop about Eighty Tuns.”  


Economic opportunity also existed for those who could not invest in ship construction. 


Many Newbury and Newburyport shipyards would employ local artisans and skilled tradesmen. According to Joseph Goldenberg’s Shipbuilding in Colonial America, It would not be uncommon to see in a Newburyport shipyard, “Joiners smoothed the outside planking, built rails and did interior cabin work. Caulkers filled seams with oakum to make the ship watertight. With iron more plentiful in the colonies than in England, colonial builders used more iron on masts, blocks, and deckware than British shipwrights did; . . . Responsible for all the iron work on the vessel, smiths also had the task of forging anchors. A mason laid bricks to support the galley, a tinman lined the scuppers, and a glazier installed glass ports. Mast-makers, sailmakers, blockmakers, and ropemakers supplied their respective products. Other tradesmen included painters, riggers, boatmakers, coopers, tanners, and carvers. Before sailing, the ship required the services of instrument makers, chairmakers and upholsterers to complete the officers’ quarters, and brewers, bakers, and butchers to supply provisions.”


The type of ships built in Newburyport and Newbury shipyards included barks, sloops, snows, schooners, and brigantines. These ships served various purposes, including serving as fishing vessels, shipping mercantile goods, and, sadly, transporting enslaved peoples. 


According to Harvey’s thesis, between 1734 and 1800, Newburyport and Newbury shipyards constructed forty-five ships that were used explicitly for the slave trade. If we expand the scope to include neighboring communities along the Merrimack River, 9 additional slave ships were constructed in Amesbury and Salisbury shipyards, brining the total to fifty-four slave ships constructed along the Merrimack River.


Despite the onset of the American Revolution, five Newburyport registered ships departed from the port between 1775 and 1777 to help transport enslaved peoples across the Atlantic to the West Indies. Even after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, Newburyport continued to profit from the construction of these ships. According to one late 18th-century account, Newburyport and other American and English seaport communities experienced an economic boom between 1797 and 1806 due to increased export and transport of enslaved people. 


Construction of Newburyport slave ships seemed to halt by 1810, but two more vessels, the Ardennes and the Marquitta were built in the town on the eve of the American Civil War.  


Harvey’s research findings suggest that the forty-seven Newburyport-built ships were responsible for the transport of 22,000 enslaved peoples to the New World. Of those, 3582 died while crossing the Atlantic.


Shipbuilding was not Newburyport’s only means of supporting the institution of slavery; rum production was a close second. Rum's origin can be traced back to the 17th-century sugar plantations where it was determined that molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol. By the early 18th century, rum was one of New England’s primary exports, often called “the currency of the seas.” 



By 1774, Massachusetts Bay Colony boasted 51 rum distilleries, ten of which were located in Newburyport.
During the Revolutionary Era, Massachusetts rum distilleries produced over two million gallons worth of rum per year, of which almost half was exported overseas. The only town with more rum distilleries operating at this time was Boston, with thirty-six.

By 1790, the number of rum distilleries in Newburyport had exploded to over 50; collectively, Massachusetts distilleries increased their production to over six million gallons per year.

And that is where Newburyport’s connection to the institution of slavery was further solidified. A Newburyport ship filled with rum would sail to the coast of Africa, where its cargo of rum was traded for captured Africans. Sometimes the captives were alone; other times, they were entire families. From Africa, the ships usually went to the West Indies or South America, where they sold most of the captive Africans into slavery and took on new cargoes of sugar and molasses. The sugar, molasses, and remaining captives were brought back to Newburyport, where the sugar and molasses were used to make rum, and any remaining captives were sold into slavery. The rum manufactured in Newburyport was then sent to Africa to begin the cycle again.


Slavery in the West Indies was critical to the success of the New England economy. Professor Lorenzo Greene noted, “The effects of this slave trade were manifold. On the eve of the American Revolution, it formed the very basis of the economic life of New England; about it revolved, and on it depended most of her industries. The vast sugar, molasses, rum trade, shipbuilding, distilleries, many fisheries, the employment of artisans and seamen, and even agriculture depended on the slave traffic.”


The African slaves transported to the West Indies by Newburyport vessels were doomed from the start. According to Hayes, the life span of a male slave working cane might reach seventeen years, but it averaged about seven years. Because the turnover of workers was so great, as was the increase in planting sugarcane, more and more Africans were transported to the West Indies each year as a part of the growing Triangle Trade. 


In 1764, England passed the Sugar Act. This economic reform law directly threatened Massachusetts’ rum and slave trades.  In response to Parliament’s action, a coalition of merchants, including many from Newburyport, drafted a letter of opposition. Entitled “A Statement of the Massachusetts Trade and Fisheries,” they argued “that any duty imposed upon these articles would ruin the fisheries, cause the destruction of the rum distilleries, and destroy the slave trade. Destruction of the Negro commerce would throw 5,000 seamen out of employment and would cause almost 700 ships to rot in idleness at their wharves. It would affect those immediately engaged in these industries, and its blighting effects would topple the dependent economic structure. Coopers, tanners, barrel makers, and even farmers would be reduced to poverty and misery if the Act were enforced. In short, the Sugar Act, by destroying the slave trade, would stop the wheels of New England industry.”


In short, Newburyport needed the slave trade to remain economically successful.


To read Susan Harvey's master’s thesis, which formed the basis for this blog post, please click on this link: Slavery in Massachusetts: A Descendent of Early Settlers Investigates the Connections in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

"Tyed Upon the Knapsack" - How Did Massachusetts Militia and Minute Men Carry Hatchets at the Battles of Lexington and Concord?

Last week, the Nerds were asked to return to the topic of hatchets and their use by militia and minute men. Specifically, we were recently asked to share our opinion on how militiamen carried hatchets when they mobilized in response to the British expedition to Concord.

As a preliminary matter, we posted our updated findings on the use of hatchets here.

Hatchets served a dual purpose of being a camp item and a weapon. With that said, from limited town resolutions, colonial militia laws, and period publications we reviewed, it appears hatchets were an edged weapon of “last resort” to be carried when a militia man could not acquire a bayonet or sword.

Of course, there is evidence Massachusetts militia and minute companies utilized hatchets as sidearms on the eve of the American Revolution. Following a company inspection on March 22, 1775, Sudbury militia captain Aaron Haynes reported, “To the gentlmen field officers of This Rijament these are in complyance to advise of Congress and your request a Return of the Numbr and aquiptnets of the Company of militia under my Care viz. men = 60 – well Provided with fire arms, most of them have either Sword Bajonets or hatchets. about one third with Catridge Boxes. &c.” When the town of Westborough mobilized in response to news of the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, it first issued hatchets to those minute men who did not have a bayonet or sword.

The current confusion centers on how they were carried in the field. Understandably, many assert, perhaps correctly, that these weapons were carried in the same manner as swords and bayonets: suspended from some form of belting. The Nerds do not necessarily disagree.

British light infantrymen followed this method. Historian Rory Nolan of the 52nd Regiment Light Company shared documentation from the Public Record Office in London, England. 

According to a “Report of a Committee of the Board of General Officers dated 4th March 1771, convened to consider the Cloathing & Accoutrements best adapted for the use of the Light Company belonging to each of the Marching Regiments of Foot on the British Establishment. It is agreed … That the accouterments be conformable to Col Howe’s pattern, with a small cartridge box to contain 9 rounds in one row, to be worn before with a belt of tanned leather round the waist – The Belt to be furnished with 2 frogs, one for the bayonet, the other for the hatchet occasionally, which at other times will be tyed upon the knapsack.”



But what about Massachusetts forces in 1774 and 1775? Did they follow the same method employed by the British military?

Unfortunately, no direct evidence exists for this practice on the American side. A review of town and legislative records from 1774 to 1776 reveals an ample supply of accounts where local Massachusetts men, many of them saddlers, were making “belting for bayonets” or “belting and scabbards for bayonets.” We have not encountered anyone making belting or frogs for “hatchets” or “tomahawks.”

For example, three men were hired and paid to make belts and scabbards for bayonets in Bradford, Massachusetts. “Voted, To Phineas Carlton, for 22 Bayonets fitted with Scabbards and Belts, 8l. 5s. 0d. Voted, To Phineas Carlton, for Scowering the old Bayonets, and fitting with Belts, 4l. 4s. 0d. For 2 Scabbards and Belts, 0l. 3s. 0d. Wm. Greenough, for fitting one Bayonet and one belt, 0l. 2s. 8d.” None of the men were hired to make belting for hatchets.

In October 1775, Dighton resident Jabez Pierce submitted claims for payment for “belts for bayonets” he had made before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Absent is any request for payment for the production of belts or frogs for hatchets.

Inspectional returns of Chelmsford’s militia and alarm lists also suggest hatchets were not hung from belting. According to the June 15, 1775 inspection, “The whole number of Equipments in the Training Band and Alarm List Present... 83 Good Fire Arms...31 Steel Ram-rods...58 worms...74 Priming — wire and Brushes...74 Belt and Scabboard Bayonets...3043 Bulletts...63 Cartridge-Boxes of 15 Rounds...83 Blanket...5339 Buck-Shott...72 Canteen.” All but 9 men had bayonets. Of those without them, there is no reference to carrying hatchets via belting.

We can also look to the Israel Litchfield Diary for guidance, as that journal includes multiple references to equipment made on behalf of a minute-man company from Scituate, Massachusetts.

For example, throughout February and March 1775, Litchfield recorded his role in producing leather equipment for his minute company. “11[Feb] In the forenoon I went over to ISI' Willcuts Shop and he & I made a Centre bitt to bore a Cartridge box. I Bored off one Box 14 I made me a Cartridge-box, I Covered it with a Coltskin it will Carry 19 Rounds. 25th I wrought with Cap' Sam’ Stockhridge a makeing cartridge boxes … I wrought with Cap’ Stockbridge a Stamping Covers for Catoos boxes Iray Bryand was at work Leathering them.”

Photo used with permission of RB Bartgis

On February 27th, he noted, “I bought me a Back Sword or Cutlefs [cutlass] it Coft me ten Shillings Lawfull money Cap' Stockbridge bought a hide and an half of Moose skin for Catoos box Straps it Cost him 16.10.0' old tennor.”

On March 13th, Litchfield recorded that he “made my Sword Belt and Bayonet belt. In the afternoon, We went to training We met at Lieutenant Cushings.”

Throughout his journal, Litchfield goes to great lengths to document the equipment made for himself or his minute company, including an effort to make matching leather caps. However, his journal is silent on making belts or frogs for hatchets.

So, how were militiamen carrying hatchets if they did not have belting and frogs available?

The Nerds suspect they were likely either tying them to their packs or blankets or storing them inside packs. This would be consistent with the British recommendation that light infantrymen tie their hatchets “upon the knapsack.”

Understandably, there is much work to be done on this topic. We’ll keep researching the matter, and if we find anything new, we’ll update this post.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

"A Witness of the First Revolutionary Conflict" - Lexington's Mary Munroe Sanderson

Recently, the Nerds were contacted by Ruth Hodges, one of the founding members of the Ladies Association of Revolutionary America (LARA). LARA is a progressive, researched-based 18th-century living history group that encourages, supports, and promotes increased women’s voices and stories at historical sites and events. We’ll be honest - the Nerds are super fans of the organization and everything they do.

Ruth brought a surviving mid-19th-century photograph of Mary Munroe Sanderson of Lexington to our attention. The picture was taken in 1852 when Mary was 103 years old. As far as the Nerds know, this is the only surviving image of a female participant of the Civilian Evacuation of April 19, 1775, and eyewitness to the day's horrors.

Mary Munroe Sanderson was born to William and Rebecca Munroe in Lexington on October 10, 1748. Genealogical research suggests she was unrelated to the Munroe clan that owned Munroe Tavern. Instead, she belonged to a family far lower on the town’s social ladder. According to Lexington’s 1771 tax valuation, Mary’s family was part of the 7th decline, with the 1st decline being the wealthiest of residents and the 10th being the poorest.

Like most Lexington girls, Mary would have attended a “female” or “dame” school to receive instruction on reading and writing. In 1747, the town voted to allow girls to enroll in its “grammar” school, which focused on Latin, Greek grammar, and other advanced subjects. (Massachusetts grammar schools were created to help boys prepare for possible admission to Harvard or another educational institution.) It is possible Mary also enrolled in the town’s grammar school, but realistically, by age twelve, her primary education was housekeeping skills. Her mother or another female role model would have taught her to utilize raw materials and transform them into the goods the family needed to thrive. They turned their hands to carding and spinning fibers, sewing, mending, and embroidery; cooking and preserving; doing laundry; nursing and producing home medicines; gardening and making candles and soap.


Growing up, she would have engaged in or witnessed youthful and mischievous activities like her Lexington counterparts. At age 9, Mary likely witnessed the older teenage boys and girls who engaged in wild behavior outside the town’s meeting house during Sunday meetings. The conduct was so bad that residents held a special town meeting and resolved that “strict and special care be taken to prevent all disorders among the children and youth in and about the Meeting House, as well as to prevent their doing damage upon the grass and fruits of those who live nigh the Meeting House.”

As a teenage girl and young woman, Mary would have participated in tavern dances or “frolics” and frequented Buckman, Munroe, and other Lexington taverns to consume alcohol and socialize with members of the opposite sex. Of course, the “sinful behavior” of Mary and other teens in the early 1760s caught the attention of both parents and the Reverend Jonas Clarke, who warned the younger members of his congregation to avoid “patterns of youthful behavior: night-walking, frolicking, company-keeping, carousing, merry meeting, dancing, and singing.”

In February 1768, a poor Waltham carpenter named Samuel Sanderson arrived and occupied Lexington. Almost immediately, the town’s selectmen warned Sanderson out. “Warning out” was a practice of notifying non-resident poor that if they could not support themselves, the town would not support them, forcing the poor to return to their town of origin.

By 1771, Sanderson was still among the landless poor. Because he owned no real estate or personal property, such as livestock, or furniture, he did not appear on the town’s 1771 tax valuation.

However, Sanderson’s fortune appears to have changed after he began to court Mary Munroe. On October 22, 1772, the pair married and purchased a simple one-story home located along the Bay Road adjacent to the Munroe Tavern. Sanderson continued his work as a carpenter and was often called upon to make coffins for those Lexington residents. According to both family tradition and historian Michael J. Canavan, “Her husband using the basement for a workshop … Mrs. Sanderson related that many a night she had held the candle while her husband stained the 'narrow house' of some departed neighbor or townsman."

In July 1774, Mary gave birth to the couple's first child, a boy named Amos. Between 1776 and 1782, she had five more children - three girls and two boys.

In late 1774 or early 1775, Samuel was elected a corporal of Captain John Parker’s Lexington Company of Militia. Given his skills as a carpenter, it is possible Sanderson was assisting Jonas Parker (also a carpenter) in cutting down the stocks of fowling pieces so the weapons could accept socket bayonets.

Yet, despite these accomplishments, Mary and Samuel were still economically below the “middling sorts” of Lexington society. A 1774 tax valuation placed the couple firmly in the 7th decile, slightly above the poor of the town.

Samuel Sanderson House, Massachusetts Ave, Lexington, c. 1900

Sometime after 11 PM on April 18, 1775, the Sandersons received word of a British expedition advancing from Boston toward Concord. Realizing that their home was located along the path of the regulars, Mary began to prepare to evacuate her family to safety. According to early to mid-19th-century accounts, as Samuel prepared for war, Mary, her infant child and a pre-teen girl, who likely was a neighbor's daughter who served as a “helper,” gathered family valuables and “by the light of a lantern piloted their way to a refuge, the home of her father in new Scotland.” (New Scotland was a section of Lexington, along the Woburn line and occupied by Scottish immigrants.)

Mary, her son, and the young helper remained at her father’s residence until the afternoon fighting had cleared. Given the proximity of her home to the Munroe Tavern and Percy’s relief force, one would expect that the Sanderson home would have been plundered, torched, or vandalized. However, neither Mary nor Samuel submitted any claims to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress or Legislature seeking compensation for theft or property damage.

However, according to Canavan, Mary’s home was, in fact, damaged by the regulars. “After the British retreated Mary returned home and found a good many things had been stolen. Her cow (which was a good part of her marriage portion) had been killed.” worse, “a wounded British soldier was stowed away in her bed.” Furious, Mary allegedly cried out, “I won’t have him there,” and asked her husband, “Why didn’t you knock him on the head?”

A late 19th-century account by a Lexington resident who  interviewed her before her death asserts Mary stated “'The Satanish critters,' she said, 'stole and destroyed everything in the house, and didn't leave rags enough to dress the wounds of their own man … over one hundred years of age, Mrs. Sanderson described with minuteness many articles of her wardrobe and household goods which were destroyed or missing, rarely failing to mention the cow, and that she was part of her marriage portion.”

Both accounts claim Mary refused to care for the wounded soldier and demanded he be removed from her home. Ultimately, the selectmen ordered Mary to care for the man.

Again, there is no direct evidence of Mary or Samuel caring for a wounded soldier. However, a review of Massachusetts legislative records from 1775 and 1776 revealed wounded British regulars treated by Lexington's residents, including a marine who received extended care before defecting to the American cause.

Mary and her husband remained in town for a few more years before moving to Lancaster, Massachusetts. According to the deed of sale, “In 1783, Samuel Sanderson in the town of Lexington, County of Middlesex, joiner, sold to Samuel Downing, wheelwright, once piece of property with a dwelling house, shop, and barn and one and one half acres.”

Mary and her family remained in Lancaster until Samuel passed in 1803. Afterward, she returned to Lexington. Sadly, it appears she may have outlived most, if not all, of her children. According to historian Heather Wilkinson Rojo, Mary suffered from acute arthritis in her later life. 

On September 23, 1852, the women of Lexington organized a fundraising party and successfully gathered over $300 in funds for her.


That same year, Mary Sanderson sat for the photograph that is the subject of this blog post.

On October 15, 1852, Mary passed at the age of 104 and was buried in the “Old Burying Ground” in Lexington. The engraving on her tombstone aptly describes her contributions to Lexington and the events of April 19, 1775:


Mary Munroe relict of Samuel Sanderson
Born in Lexington Oct 10, 1748
Died in East Lexington Oct 15, 1852
Age 104 years 5 days

A witness of the first revolutionary conflict, she recounted its trying scenes to the last. The vitality of her Christian faith was envinced by cheerfulness under severy bodily infirmity for more than twenty years.