Thursday, August 8, 2019

"Wath a View to Rescue the Soldier" - Who Was the British Deserter Who Trained the Freetown Militia?

A few years ago, we had discussed British army deserter George Marsden and his role in training minute and militia companies in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts.

As you may recall, Marsden was a grenadier from the 59th Regiment of Foot. He and his regiment arrived in New England in 1768. However, by 1769 the 59th was in Nova Scotia. A muster roll from October 1770 reveals Marsden was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Unfortunately, by 1774 he was demoted back to a private. The reason for the demotion is unknown but the regimental muster rolls indicate that on July 24, 17774 he deserted from his regiment. Afterward, Marsden fled to Haverhill.

Marsden was the logical choice to train the minute companies of Andover, Bradford and Haverhill. He was intelligent and had extensive experience within the British army. In March and April of 1775, the units actively worked with Marsden to prepare for war. Haverhill initially voted that its minute men “be duly disciplined in Squads three half days in a Week, three hours in each half day.” On March 14, 1775, the town also voted to raise thirty dollars “to procure a military instructor to instruct the Militia in the Art Military.” One week later, it was voted that the minute-men should train one whole day per week, instead of three half days as previously voted. Furthermore, the minutemen were to be trained by a “Mr George Marsden, whom we have hired.”

Interestingly, this is not the only record of a George Marsden being hired to train minute companies in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. A Haverhill “Independent Corps” commanded by Captain Brickett passed their own resolution “that we hire Mr George Marsdin for 4 days at 12s a day, & that he be paid out of the fines.” Similar records from Andover and Bradford Massachusetts also reference the hiring of George Marsden to train their minute companies.

"The Deserter," an engraving by William Dickinson after Henry William Bunbury and published
in London in 1794 by Robert Laurie and James Whittle. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection)


After we published our findings, J.L. Bell and Don Hagist brought to our attention another British deserter who had been retained by a Rhode Island militia company to train them in the 1764 Crown Manual Exercise. Yesterday we stumbled across a third British deserter who was possibly training a Freetown, Massachusetts militia company.

Col. Thomas Gilbert was a veteran of the French and Indian War and a staunch loyalist. On the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he recruited over one hundred men, organized them into a military company and secured stands or arms for them. In early April, residents of neighboring towns received reports that Colonel Gilbert had left Freetown and was planning to return with military reinforcements. A preemptive strike was quickly organized by local minute and militia companies.

According to a Providence newspaper, “that on Monday before, parties of Minute men, etc. from every town in that County, with arms and ammunition, met at Freetown that morning in order to take Col. Gilbert, but he had fled on board the Rose, man of war at Newport.” Ezra Stiles noted that “above a Thousd Men assembled in Arms at Freetown to lay Col. Gilbert as they had heard he had risen up against his Country. They came from all parts round as far as Middleboro, Rochester &c. They took about 30 of his Men & disarmed them, tho' they had lately taken the Kings Arms.”

Shortly after the Freetown Raid, some of Gilbert’s men returned to Freetown and captured a British soldier who apparently had been training the local militia in the “Military Exercise”. According to the Reverend Ezra Stiles, “Some of Col. Gilbert's Men it is said seized a Soldier of the Regulars a Deserter who was teaching military Exercise at Freetown, & were about carrying him to Gen. Gage at Boston.”

At this time it is unknown who this soldier was, what unit he deserted from or what his fate was after his abduction. According to Stiles, there was an attempt to rescue him from his kidnappers. “The Night before last 50 Men marched from Dartmouth to joyn a large Body wath a View to rescue the Soldier.” Whether or not the rescue effort succeeded remains a mystery. Of course, if the deserter was successfully transported to Boston, we’re curious about whether or not a court-martial was held and what records exist of the hearing.

So, if you are aware of any information about this particular soldier or his fate, please let us know!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

"Repugnant to Its Existence" - A Brief Snapshot of the Legal Rights of Enslaved People in Colonial Massachusetts

In 1700, a royal census report indicated that there were over 27,000 enslaved people in the American colonies. Of course, slavery did exist in Massachusetts, and there were slaves living throughout the colony at the outbreak of the Revolution. In fact, slavery had existed in Massachusetts almost from its founding, but the institution had never flourished when compared to the southern colonies.

In some households, 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. In Boston, slaves worked closely with sailors and merchants. Female slaves were often required to carry out the various household tasks their mistresses demanded.

Surprisingly, Massachusetts slaves were not without rights. Unlike slaves in the southern colonies, New England slaves could hold property and serve in the militia, as was the case, for example, with five of Lexington’s slaves: Prince Estabrook, Pompey Blackman, Samuel Crafts, Cato Tuder, and Jupiter Tree. However, it wasn’t until the eve of the American Revolution that black men were welcomed into the ranks of the militia. In 1652, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law requiring all African-Americans and Indian servants to undergo military training and serve in the militia. Four years later, fearing a slave revolt, Massachusetts reversed the law and prohibited African-Americans providing military service.

Enslaved people could testify in Massachusetts colonial courts against both whites and other blacks, however the weight and value of their testimony were often diminished or discounted because of their status.



A slave could also sue for freedom, as demonstrated by a female mulatto slave named Margaret. On November 20, 1770, Margaret appeared in a court in Cambridge represented by the Boston lawyer Jonathan Sewall. John Adams, who was in the midst of the Boston Massacre trial, represented her masters, the Muzzey family of Lexington. At the end of the hearing, which lasted most of the day, the court freed Margaret.

On rare occasions, enslaved people were also permitted to petition their town selectmen or colonial government for legal assistance. In 1774, several African-Americans addressed the Massachusetts General Court and demanded they be granted the rights and benefits of liberty that their white counterparts were demanding of the crown.

Still, slavery was a degrading and inhumane institution.

By 1643, all of the New England colonies had established laws punishing runaway slaves as “fugitives”. In 1667, England enacted strict laws regulating slavery. A slave was forbidden to leave his master’s property without a pass or permission from his master and never on Sunday. Thus, a slave could not move in search of opportunity or even travel outside of his or her town without the master’s assent. If he were discovered, a slave would be prosecuted as a fugitive. A slave could marry only with the master’s blessing and interracial marriage was illegal.

By 1667, most American colonies had recognized that a slave could not be freed from bondage by baptism, thereby discarding the Christian principle of enslaving other Christians. That same year, the penalty for killing a slave in Massachusetts was a mere £15.




In 1670, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law permitting slaveholders to sell children of slaves into bondage. Thus, a slave, as well as his wife and children, could be sold to another owner at his master’s whim. As late as 1774, the seaside town of Newburyport was hosting auctions for the sale of child slaves.

Finally, a slave was always subject to both actual and potential cruelty against which there was no defense. On Boston Neck, travelers were presented with the view of a cage containing the bones of Mark, a slave who had been convicted of murdering his master. The spectacle was intended to serve as a constant reminder to slaves in Massachusetts of the potential penalties for defiance. If a slave struck a white man, he would be summarily and severely punished. Even worse, by 1682, most American colonies prohibited slaves from asserting self-defense in criminal prosecutions.

By the start of the 18th Century, prominent Massachusetts officials recognized the evils of the practice and called for an end to it. In 1700, Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court published The Selling of Joseph, a book outlining the economic and ethical grounds for abolishing slavery. In 1764, James Otis, a leading proponent of colonial independence, wrote in a highly regarded and influential pamphlet "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black."

Unfortunately, it was not until 1783, through a series of cases known as "the Quock Walker Case," that slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. As Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing asserted "[S]lavery is in my judgment as effectively abolished as it [is] wholly incompatible [with the Massachusetts Constitution] and repugnant to its existence."

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

"Far Beyond Any Honest Means" - Was a Child Arsonist Responsible for the Great Fire of 1811?

Newburyport’s Great Fire of 1811 has recently been on the nerds’ collective mind. The May 31, 1811 conflagration consumed over sixteen acres of the modern downtown area and caused over two million dollars in damage. When taking inflation into account, this roughly translates to somewhere between forty million and seventy million dollars in 2019 USD currency. By the time the fire was extinguished, Newburyport was economically and physically devastated.

Often visitors to Newburyport will ask the historical tour company Untapped History who was responsible for the fire. Admittedly, to this day no one knows who started the fire. At the time, many of the residents suspected that an arsonist set the fire in a stable or shed near Mechanic’s Row. A sizeable reward was offered for information leading to the apprehension of the culprit, but no one came forward.

Recently, we’ve come across several essays and books from modern historians who have indirectly suggested that the teenage arsonist Stephen Merril Clark may have been responsible for the fire. Similarly, we’ve encountered inferences from media sources that imply Clark was also responsible for Portsmouth’s (NH) Great Fire of 1813.

So who was Stephen Merril Clark and was he responsible for the Great Fire of 1811? 




Clark was born on August 20, 1804, and was the son of Moses Clark of Newburyport. According to one early 19th Century account, the boy quickly “betrayed a stubborn and refractory spirit, often too turbulent for control. As he advanced in years it became more and more visible that mischief was his element, and falsehood and profanity became so habitual to him that a lie, or an oath were usually on his tongue, and the most vulgar insolence and abuse to his superiors were his characteristic traits.”

Shortly after his fourteenth birthday, he was brought before a magistrate for an assault and battery that he committed against an elderly man. Other accounts document how Merrill was the prime suspect in several petty thefts as well as far “more heineous depredations, as he often showed sums of money to an amount far beyond any honest means of obtaining them, which he was known to possess.”

In an effort to dissuade future criminal behavior, Moses Clark placed his son in the service of a relative to learn the trade of a baker. Unfortunately, Steven continued to engage in criminal mischief while with the relative and “was sent away on account of his bad conduct.” Desperate to steer him away from a life of crime, Stephen’s parents then arranged for him to serve as an apprentice to a Newburyport cooper. Unfortunately, “after three weeks' gross misconduct and several thefts from his master” he ran away to parts unknown.

Eventually, he returned and for the next three years Clark “loitered about the streets without employment or restraint; and spent his time in vile company and wanton mischief, insulting all who rebuked him for his conduct with the most hardy insolence.”

His father became so distraught over Stephen’s demise that in early August 1820, he begged the Newburyport selectmen to place his son in protective custody. Unfortunately, town leaders declined to interfere. Desperate to remove his son from a life of crime, Moses Clark appeared before a magistrate and swore out a warrant accusing his son of assault. However, when Stephen made a “show of penitence and promise of amendment, he (Moses) directed the officer not to serve the warrant at that time; and it was reserved in terrorem.”

Stephen Merrill Clark was never arrested and three days later, the teen tried to burn Newburyport to the ground.



According to period accounts, Newburyport had been plagued with suspicious fires throughout the summer of 1820. During the evening of August 16th, a building was torched and completely gutted. A few hours later, during the early hours of the 17th, the inhabitants of Newburyport were awoken to the sound of battle rattles being spun, bells ringing and the fearful outcry of “fire!”. This particular blaze started in a stable and quickly spread to a nearby dwelling where an entire family was sound asleep. Miraculously, the family escaped unhurt.

The fire burned for the next several hours and destroyed no less than nine residences and commercial buildings between Charter and Temple Streets.

Clark was immediately identified as the prime suspect and was quickly arrested. However, his father came forward and swore under oath that his son was at home in bed at the time of the fire. Without sufficient evidence, the boy was released from custody. In a last-ditch effort to get his son out of Newburyport and away from a life of crime, Moses sent Steven to Belfast, Maine to secure employment.

Of course, it didn’t help matters that Steven allegedly declared before his departure “that he would soon return, and set fire to the town in several places, so as it would not be extinguished.”

Unfortunately, Clark was unsuccessful securing work in Maine and sailed to Boston. After spending a brief time in the city, he began to walk home by way of Ipswich.

Meanwhile, a Newburyport prostitute by the name of Hannah Downes came forward and testified before a magistrate that Clark was responsible for the various fires in town. According to Downes, the teen had “smuggled a note telling her that he had started the fires. She immediately informed the authorities and told them also that he had confessed his crime to her the day after.” Later, the prostitute would recount how Clark had “told me he set fire to the building … that he went to his father's cellar, got a candle, broke it and thought it would not do; then took some matches and his cigar and went to Cross' stable between 8 and 9 or 7 and 8, I can not recollect which. He went up into the upper loft of the stable … scraped up a handful of hay and put it under the stairs, put the candle in the hay, lit his match with his cigar and lit the candle and went down from the stable to the fence.”

A warrant for Clark’s arrest was sworn out and the boy was apprehended while he was still in Ipswich.

Clark was tried for the capital offense of Arson in Salem in October 1821. During the proceedings, the prosecution revealed that he had not only admitted his guilt to Hannah Downes but to several other individuals who had visited him while he was held in a Newburyport jail.

However, Clark denied committing the crime and his attorney tried to establish an alibi. Unfortunately, the affirmative defense was rejected by the jury and he was found guilty. The next month the boy was executed. 



Prior to his death he confessed to starting several Newburyport fires and placed the blame for his conduct squarely at the feet of Hannah Downes, who Clark charged had persuaded him to set the fires.

Of course, all of this still begs the question: did Stephen Merrill Clark start the Great Fire of 1811?

At the time of the Great Fire of 1811, Clark would have been approximately six years old. The American Psychological Association has identified child arsonists as young as four. According to the organization, children who only set fires once or twice and then terminate the behavior are typically classified as “curiosity firesetters”. On the other hand, if a child is repeatedly setting fires throughout their childhood and teenage years as a way to secure emotional and physical relief, then they are usually classified as “pathological firesetters”. This group of firebugs will often cause significant property damage and will also engage in aggressive and confrontational behavior.

Clark was living in Newburyport at the time of the Great Fire of 1811. From the testimony at trial and the accounts of Steven Clark’s childhood, there is some evidence that supports the proposition that he was a pathological firesetter.

For example, the prosecutor at Clark’s trial subtly suggested that perhaps the teen was a firebug who was responsible for the various fires that had plagued the town over the previous decade. During the rebuttal phase of the trial, he also introduced testimony from three witnesses who asserted Clark was a serial arsonist. A blacksmith who had repaired the boy’s shackles while he was in custody awaiting trial asserted Clark had threatened to burn the man’s house and all of Newburyport to the ground if he ever escaped. Ephraim Sweet testified that Clark had previously tried to burn down his shop while a gentleman identified only as S.W. Marston declared that the boy’s father often complained that as a result of his son’s behavior, he “could not sleep nights, for he was afraid he should wake up and find the town on fire.”

Following his conviction, the teen gave a full confession and described the other fires he set prior to the August fire. For example, he described how he and another boy had tried to set fire to a rum distillery located on Brown’s Wharf. When he was asked why he did this, he stated he had no ill will towards the owner of the distillery or the wharf and had “no cause for harbouring the design, which he had meant to execute.”

Of course, one could also argue that Clark was not involved with the 1811 fire. On the eve of his death, Clark was asked when he started setting intentional fires in Newburyport. The teen stated he only started committing arson after he had fallen in love with Hannah Downes and acted solely at her direction. Furthermore, in his post-conviction confession, he never mentions the 1811 fire.

So, was Steven Merrill responsible for the Great Fire of 1811?

We may never know!


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

"A List of Imaginary Grievances" - A Loyalist's Response to the Declaration of Independence

Boston-born Loyalist Thomas Hutchinson held several prominent positions within the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, including chief justice, lieutenant governor, acting governor, and finally governor. 

During his time in Boston, Hutchinson and his family were often the victims of mob violence. On August 15 1765 an unruly crowd descended upon his house after a rumor surfaced that he supported the Stamp Act. When Hutchinson refused to accede to the demand that he come out and explain his position, the mob broke several windows and then dispersed.

Two weeks later, on August 28, 1765, an even larger mob returned to the loyalist’s residence. Fortunately, Hutchinson managed to evacuate his family to safety. Then, as he later described it, “the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of divels and in a moment with axes split down the door and entered. My son heard them cry ‘damn him he is upstairs we’ll have him.’ Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house, others filled the rooms below and cellars and others remained without the house to be employed there. I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o’clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors.”

After General Thomas Gage assumed political and military command of the colony in 1774, Hutchinson returned to England.

Almost two years after his departure from Massachusetts, Americans drafted the Declaration of Independence.  Hutchinson publicly dismissed the document as a “list of imaginary grievances.” He quickly drafted a rebuttal, submitted it to royal authorities and had it published anonymously in English newspapers.



Initially, the former governor noted that “Their designs of Independence began soon after the reduction of Canada, relying upon the future cession of it by treaty. They could have no other pretense to a claim of independence, and they made no other at first, than what they called the natural rights of mankind to choose their own forms of Government and change them when they please.”

With the memories of the Boston mob attacks against him likely still fresh in his mind, Hutchinson was quick to point out that it was Massachusetts Bay Colony that was the driving force behind the move towards independence. “We shall find … that Massachusetts Bay is more concerned in this Declaration than any other Colony … Your Lordship must remember the riotous,violent opposition to Government in the Town of Boston, which alarmed the whole Kingdom in the year 1768. Four Regiments of the King’s forces were ordered to that Town to be aiding to the Civil Magistrate in restoring and preserving peace and order. The House of Representatives, which was then sitting in the Town, remonstrated to the Governor against posting Troops there as being an invasion of their rights . . . How ridiculous then do those men make themselves, who offer it to the world as a ground to justify rebellion?”

In regard to the American claim that England had cut the colonies off from trade via the “Intolerable Acts”, Hutchinson replied “this could not be a cause of Revolt. The Colonies had revolted from the Supreme Authority to which by their constitutions they were subject before the Act passed. A Congress had assumed an authority over the whole, and had rebelliously prohibited all commerce with the rest of the Empire. This act, therefore, will be considered by the candid world as a proof of the reluctance in government against what is dernier resort in every state, and as a milder measure to bring the Colonies to a re-union with the rest of the Empire.”

Similarly, in response to the Declaration’s criticism of imposing taxes without American consent, Hutchinson noted “How often has your Lordship heard it said that the Americans are willing to submit to the authority of Parliament in all cases except that of taxes? Here we have a declaration made to the world of the causes which have impelled separation. . . And I know, my Lord, that these men, in the early days of their opposition to Parliament, have acknowledged that they pitched upon this subject of taxes because it was most alarming to the people, every man perceiving immediately that he is personally affected by it.”



In arguing for separation, the subscribers to the Declaration asserted that His Majesty’s government had committed a wide array of atrocities, including waging war against loyal subjects, kidnapping sailors on the high seas, burning towns and “[destroying] the lives of our people.” These specific claims troubled Hutchinson and led him to assert that the rebelling colonies were solely responsible for their own misery. “These, my Lord, would be weighty charges from a loyal and dutiful people against an unprovoked Sovereign. They are more than the people of England pretended to bring against King James the Second in order to justify the Revolution. Never was there an instance of more consummate effrontery. The Acts of a justly incensed Sovereign for suppressing a most unnatural, unprovoked Rebellion are here assigned as the causes of this Rebellion. It is immaterial whether they are true or false. They are all short of the penalty of the laws which had been violated. Before the date of any one of them, the Colonists had as effectually renounced their allegiance by their deeds as they have since done by their words. They had displaced the civil and military officers appointed by the King’s authority and set up others in their stead. They had new modeled their civil governments and appointed a general government, independent of the King, over the whole. They had taken up arms, and made a public declaration of their resolution to defend themselves against the forces employed to support his legal authority over them.”

In the conclusion of the rebuttal, the former Massachusetts leader stressed that the Declaration was nothing more than a feeble attempt to justify rebellion and there were many men who supported the crown but feared to speak out due to the violent tendencies of American mobs. “They have, my Lord, in their late address to the people of Great Britain, fully avowed these principles of Independence by declaring they will pay no obedience to the laws of the Supreme Legislature … and have endeavored to persuade such as they called their British Brethren to justify the Rebellion begun in America, and from thence they expected a general convulsion in the Kingdom . . .The people have not observed the fallacy in reasoning from the whole to part, nor the absurdity of making the governed to be governors. From a disposition to receive willingly complaints against Rulers, facts misrepresented have passed without examining. Discerning men have concealed their sentiments, because under the present free government in America, no man may, by writing or speaking, contradict any part of this Declaration without being deemed an enemy to his country, and exposed to the rage and fury of the populace.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

"The Armed Schooner Success" - How a Newburyport Privateer Caused a Diplomatic Dispute with Spain

The Privateer Success was a schooner that was owned by the wealthy Newburyport merchant Nathaniel Tracy. In May of 1776, Tracy decided to convert the vessel into a warship and outfitted it with two cannons and eight swivel guns. The ship was commanded by John Fletcher and had a crew complement of two lieutenants and fourteen men. After securing a letter of marque and paying a $5000 bond, the vessel left Newburyport in search of British supply vessels.

Captain Fletcher’s first cruise was uneventful and ended in the Spanish port of Bilbao. While there, the Success rendezvoused with the Massachusetts Privateer Hawke, which was under the command of Captain John Lee. The two captains agree to sail together on a return cruise and left Bilbao on October 23, 1776. Unfortunately for both privateers, several English supply vessels received intelligence on the privateers whereabouts and altered their respective courses to avoid the rebel ships.

However, on January 20, 1777, while off the New England coast, the two vessels encountered the British 100-ton brigantine Betty. After a brief chase, the vessel was captured and escorted into Newburyport as a prize.

Shortly thereafter, the Succes made a second voyage to European waters. By June 16, 1777 she was once again in Bilbao. The following month, she was patrolling off the coast of Ushant, France with the Massachusetts Privateer General Mifflin.

On September 18, 1777 the 120-ton brigantine Isabel was captured by the two privateers. A week later the Success captured the Endeavour as it was travelling from London to Villavisiosa, Spain. Three days later, on September 28th, the privateer captured two more vessels, the William and Polly and a French vessel sailing from the Isle of Jersey to La Rochelle, France.




On September 2, 1778, the Success was back in Newburyport for refit and repairs. A period account suggests that the Success upgraded its armaments and now had “eight guns and ten swivel guns mounted”. Likewise, the privateer’s crew size more than doubled from sixteen men and officers to forty-three.

While in port, command of the ship was turned over to Captain Phillip Trask of Beverly, Massachusetts.

Captain Trask departed from Newburyport on October 4, 1778. (Interestingly, prior to the Success’ departure, Nathaniel Tracy took out not one but two bonds for her ship: a $5000 Continental bond and a “£4000 Massachusetts” bond.) At first, the privateer’s cruise was uneventful and was marked by humorous events such as the sighting of “a damn d Comical Boat by G..d”. 

However, two months later, the activities of the Success nearly triggered an international incident between the soon to be American ally Spain and the United States.

On December 30, 1778, the Newburyport privateer encountered the brigantine Santander y los Santos Martires. The Spanish vessel was en route from London to Cadiz and was loaded with commercial goods. 

When it was sighted by the Success, it was flying a Spanish flag. Nevertheless, the Newburyport privateer bore down on the brigantine and intercepted it. The Americans then boarded the vessel, examined the cargo manifests and declared the ship and all the goods on board were to be seized because they were British in origin.

Horrified, the Spanish captain assured Trask that the cargo was Spanish owned and provided invoices in support of his position. He also provided proof that the vessel was owned by the Spanish merchant Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadder. Surprisingly, Captain Trask ignored the Captain’s pleas and declared the Santander y los Santos Martires a captured prize. The vessel was escorted back to Boston where it was formally forfeited in April 1779. 


The Spanish shipowner appealed the decision to the Massachusetts courts.

Understandably, the Spanish government was outraged at the incident and submitted a formal protest through Don Juan Miralles, the unofficial Spanish representative to Congress. It also submitted a protest through their French allies. On April 24, 1779, the French diplomat to the United States, Conrad Alexander Gerard, submitted a second objection to the seizure of the Santander y los Santos Martires.

Congress was confronted with a diplomatic dilemma. On the one hand, Massachusetts representatives argued that the owner, officers, and crew of the Success were entitled to keep the proceeds of its prize. On the other hand, Spain demanded that the vessel and its cargo be returned to its rightful owner. 


After several competing memorials from Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde, Nathaniel Tracy, Captain Trask and several other individuals were submitted, Congress ordered a special committee be formed to determine how it should best respond. Ultimately, the committee recommended that the Massachusetts appellate courts should decide the fate of the Santander y los Santos Martires. It also recommended that Congress should assure Spanish officials that it would reimburse the aggrieved party if he did not prevail on appeal. Congress quickly agreed to the recommendation.

In October 1779, the Massachusetts appellate court ruled “that the brigantine Santander y los Santos Martires [Holy Martyrs] was Spanish property but that her cargo was British. The court therefore awarded the cargo to Nathaniel Tracy and John C. Jones, merchants and owners of the armed schooner Success, commanded by Philip Trask, which had captured the Holy Martyrs on December 30, 1778”.

Following the ruling, Congress once again intervened in the matter. On November 9, 1779, the American government declared “that the said Brigantine or Vessel called the Holy Martyrs, her tackle, Apparel and Furniture and all and singular the Goods, Wares and Merchandizes laden and found on board her at the Time of her Capture as mentioned in the said Bill be forthwith restored and redelivered and the said Joseph De Lano the Claimant in the said Cause his Agent or Attorney to and for the Use of himself and all others on whose Behalf he claims and appeals.”

Congress then issued a resolution ordering Nathaniel Tracy pay for the legal costs incurred by 
Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde. “And We do further order and decree that the party Appellant pay unto the party Appellee one thousand and fifty six Dollars for his Costs and Charges by him expended in defending the said Appeal in this Court &c.”

Not surprisingly, Tracy refused to pay the costs and petitioned the Massachusetts congressional delegation for assistance. After extensive negotiations, Congress eventually backed down and formally recognized the ruling of the Massachusetts courts regarding the seizure of the Santander y los Santos Martires.

Whether Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde was ever reimbursed by Congress for his loss remains unknown.


The Success continued to engage in privateer operations until 1780 when it was retired from service.

Friday, June 21, 2019

"Scabbards and Tann’d Leather Slings" - Did Massachusetts Militiamen Use Musket Slings on April 19th?

Every now and then, the nerds will go down the rabbit hole of obscurity to discuss miniscule details of the arms and equipment of Massachusetts militia and minute companies on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. This is one of those occasions.
About six months ago, we received an inquiry as to whether or not Massachusetts militiamen utilized musket slings on April 19, 1775. Admittedly we put aside the question for far too long and are finally getting off our collective butts to address this issue now.

The short answer is musket slings were likely not in widespread use on the eve of Lexington and Concord. A careful examination of pre-Revolutionary War Massachusetts militia laws, Provincial Congress and town resolutions, invoices, and lost property claims reveal that the use of musket slings by Massachusetts militia and minutemen was almost unheard at the outset of the war.

First, a review of late 17th and 18th century Massachusetts militia laws for the term “sling” or “slings” surprisingly comes up with no results. For example, a late 17th century militia law stated “Every listed souldier ... shall be alwayes provided with a well fixt firelock musket, of musket or bastard musket bore, the barrel not less then three foot and a half long, or other good firearms to the satisfaction of the commission officers of the company, a snapsack, a coller with twelve bandeleers or cartouch-box, one pound of good powder, twenty bullets fit for his gun, and twelve flints, a good sword or cutlace, a worm and priming wire fit for his gun.” Similarly, a 1733 militia law that appeared in the Boston Newsletter makes no reference to musket slings. “Every listed Soldier, and other Householder shall be always provided with a well fixt Firelock Musket, of Musket or Bastard-Musket bore, the Barrel not less than three Foot and an half long, or other good Fire Arms to the satisfaction of the Commission Officers of the Company; a Cartouch Box: one Pound of good Powder: Twenty Bullets fit for his Gun, and twelve Flynts; a good Sword or Cutlass; a Worm, & priming Wire, fit for his Gun, on Penalty of six Shillings.” 



Likewise, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued a list of recommended arms and equipment for its minute companies, musket slings were conspicuously absent. Similarly, there is not a single reference to musket slings in any of the forty Massachusetts town resolutions the nerds reviewed. For example, On November 21, 1774, the Town of Danvers resolved its minute companies would be equipped with “an effective fire-arm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls”, but no musket slings. In Bradford, the town voted to only supply its men with “bayonets and cartouch boxes for the Minute-Men on the town cost” but never ordered the procurement of slings. On October 24, 1774, the Town of Newburyport resolved to equip its militia companies “with arms and ammunition according to Law, and that they have, also, Bayonets fixed to their Guns as soon as may be.” Consistent with other Massachusetts communities, the resolution made no reference to militiamen being supplied with slings for guns. Finally, in Brimfield, the town declared it would “provide for 50 minute men a Cartridge Box, Knapsack, and thirty rounds of cartridge and ball a sett for each private in said Company to be provided imemdiately.” Again, there is no reference of musket slings.

Many, if not most, Massachusetts towns were making or providing arms and equipment to those residents who either could not afford or did not own such items. Each town subcontracted the work to skilled residents within their respective communities. For example, John Parker of Lexington was making powder horns, Phineas Carlton of Bradford was repairing bayonets and Israel Litchfield of Scituate was making cartridge boxes. In almost every instance, the makers submitted bills to their respective towns for services provided. A review of those invoices suggests that musket slings were not high priority. In Bradford, residents were compensated for repairing bayonets and carriages to carry them, but not for slings. “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.” In Springfield, several individuals were compensated for making cartridge boxes and knapsacks, repairing bayonets and securing muskets. However, there is no reference to musket slings being made or repaired.


Similar requests for compensation in Haverhill, Ipswich, Methuen, Chelmsford and Lexington also lack references to slings.

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, many militiamen submitted financial claims for lost or stolen property to either the Massachusetts Provincial Congress or the Massachusetts Legislature. Similar claims were also submitted following the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Once again, references to musket slings were noticeably absent. For example, several families from Lexington submitted claims for property stolen from the dead or wounded during the Battle of Lexington. According to one such claim, “Petition of Benja Wellington, & others of Lexington, setting forth that they sustained the aforementioned losses by the Kings troops on the 19th of April 1775 viz: Benja Wellington, a gun, bayonet, &c. … Jno Muzzy, a gun, powder horn, &c. Taken from his son … Lucy Parker, a musquet, &c. Taken from her husband … Marrit Munro, a gun & hat taken from him.” 

Nathan Putnam took out a newspaper advertisement describing his “French Firelock”. Although he describes certain markings on the gun, he makes no reference to a sling. Finally, claims for property lost at Bunker Hill included the terms “gun”, “knapsack”, “hat”, “Jaccat”, “tumpline”, “stockens”, “breeches” and “hankerchief”. Unfortunately, we could not locate any reference to slings.



We do want to stress that this does not mean that musket slings were simply non-existent within the ranks of Massachusetts forces in 1775. There is evidence that musket slings were issued to Massachusetts provincial troops in the spring of 1756. The shipment sent to the colony included “Land service muskets of the King’s pattern with brass furniture, double bridle locks, wood rammers with bayonets & scabbards and tann’d leather slings.” It is possible some of these issued slings survived to see service on April 19th.

Of course, more research needs to be conducted on this issue. If you happen to have any additional information or insight, we’d love to hear from you!



Wednesday, May 29, 2019

It's Not Easy Being William Jenkins

The nerds would like to apologize for being among the missing the past several weeks. We were hit with a very nasty illness and we needed some time to recover. Rest assured, we’re feeling much better and what better way to kick off a return than a discussion about 18th-century smuggling!

In previous postings, we’ve alluded to how Newburyport on the eve of the American Revolution was a hotbed for smuggling activities.

Traditionally, the seaside community has always been an ideal location for smugglers to operate from The Merrimack River, as well as the Plum Island and Salisbury coastlines, provided ideal havens for criminals to unload their goods underneath the nose of royal custom officers stationed in the town. Of course, the illicit operations were so successful that by 1766 it caught the attention of Governor Francis Bernard. The leader of Massachusetts Bay Colony was horrified by the reports coming out of Newburyport and ordered Surveyor General John Temple to crack down on the illegal activity. After careful consideration, he turned operational oversight of the crackdown over to William Jenkins.

Jenkins was a “tidewaiter” assigned to the royal custom office in Newburyport. As a tidewaiter, he was responsible for boarding ships that arrived in port and ensuring custom regulations and procedures were strictly followed during cargo inspections. The custom officer readily accepted his assignment and went to work gathering intelligence from the few willing informants he had. He quickly discovered Newburyport smugglers were bringing in illegal goods from two separate locations: the French colonies in the West Indies and St. Petersburg, Russia.

The tidewaiter wasted no time and moved against a Newburyport schooner that was smuggling goods to and from Saint Petersburg. “I have learned from private intelligence that the Schooner which brought in these goods is a common trader to St. Petersburg … She was seized upon an information that She had tobacco on board.” 

Surprisingly, Jenkins did not keep a close watch on the vessel and left it unguarded. A group of Newburyport men quickly boarded the vessel and removed the tobacco before custom officers could seize it. Without any evidence, Jenkins was forced to release the vessel.


The customs officer did not give up and made a second attempt to seize the same ship. On March 9, 1766, the vessel returned from a subsequent voyage to Russia, Jenkins moved singlehandedly to seize the schooner and its cargo. In response, a large group of Newburyport dockworkers and laborers rushed the custom officer, overpowered him, boarded the ship and carried off the illicit goods. As Jenkin’s superior later noted, “After She was discharged She went immediately to St. Peters & returned with a cargo ... Upon this occasion People do not wonder at the goods being rescued, but at an Officer’s being so hardy & foolish (as they say) as to seize them & think he would be able to retain them. Under the present Dominion of the people I have never expected that Any goods, tho’ ever so notoriously forfeited, would be seized, or secured, or prosecuted.”

To his credit, the events of March 9th did not deter Jenkins from trying to stop local smuggling operations. The next day, the customs officer watched as the same schooner engaged in unusual activity between Rings Island and the mouth of the Merrimack River. According to official reports, Jenkins believed there had been “goods landed from said schooner contrary to Acts of Trade.” He gathered several of his men, boarded a batteaux and went to investigate.

Late in the afternoon, Jenkins and his men stumbled across four barrels of sugar and twelve hogsheads and four tierces of molasses hidden on a narrow strip of beach located on the Salisbury side of the mouth of the Merrimack River. He quickly declared the items to be smuggled goods and ordered his men to load them onto the batteaux. 

Little did Jenkins know that he was being watched the entire time by the owners of the seized property.

As the custom officials were loading the batteaux, six boatloads of “armed Men in Disguise” arrived to rescue the goods. They quickly drove Jenkins and his men back, seized the barrels and hogshead and quickly escaped. To add insult to injury, the raiders stole the custom officers’ boat, leaving them stranded on the beachhead. As the sun set, it started to snow heavily. Stranded and facing no hope of rescue until the next morning, Jenkins and his men were forced to huddle together for warmth, “sheltering from a snowstorm as best they could.”

Governor Bernard was quickly informed of the incident by John Temple. Enraged, the governor and his council issued a proclamation seeking the apprehension of Jenkins’s attackers and the recovery the smuggled goods. Bernard even offered a handsome reward of £50 for any information about “these riotous and unlawful proceedings” and a pardon to anyone who might turn king’s evidence. No one in Newburyport came forward.



On March 17, 1766, John Temple upped the ante and added “a reward of 100 dollars” for any information leading to the arrest of Jenkins’ assailants. Although “private intelligence” provided to Jenkins by an informer revealed the comings and goings of a Newburyport vessel trading illegally with the French island of St. Pierre in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the residents of Newburyport remained tight-lipped about who was behind the March 10th attack on the customs officers.