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.