Thursday, December 31, 2020

" To See if the Town Will Call For Those Bayonets" - Lexington's Wartime Effort of November and December 1774

Over the past month, the Nerds have been going back and re-examining Lexington’s wartime buildup over the months of November and December 1774 and we think we finally have a complete picture of the great lengths the town went to prepare for war with England.

While the town had started military preparations as early as September 1774, the true war effort “ramped up” on November 3, 1774. On that date, the town assembled to plan “military discipline and to put themselves in a position of defense against their Enemies.”

A week later, the residents met once again and approved measures to ensure it’s militia company had sufficient ammunition. “Voted, That two half barrells of powdere be addede to the Town stocke. Also Voted that a sufficiency of ball for sd powdere be provided. Votede. That there be a suitable quantity of Flints provided for the Towne if there be found a deficency. . . That the Towne provide a pair of Drums for the use of the Military Company in Towne.”

On that same day, November 10, 1774, the town initiated a discussion to see if the “Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.” By the end of the debate, the residents of the town agreed to purchase the two iron guns. “That a Comtee of three persons go to Watertown & see what the cost of mounting sd pieces will be & whether the carriages cannot be made by work men in this town . . . Captain Bowmane, Mr. Jonas Parkere & Ensign Harrington . . . Be a Comtee for the sd. Purpose.” 

Two weeks later, Lexington was working with town carpenters to build carriages to mount the newly acquired cannons on.

On December 12, 1774 the town voted to start acquiring bayonets for its militiamen. “Upon request of a number of the Inhabitants to see if the Town will call for those bayonets that were providede for part of the training soldiers at the Province cost, and that the remaindere of the soldiers may be providede with bayonets at the expense of the Towne, to be returnable when called for. And that those persons that have purchased bayonets at their own cost may be paid for them, by the Towne, at the price the others cost the Towne.”

Interestingly, the same day, the town received orders from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress instructing the community to ensure its militia company was properly armed and equipped in the event of an outbreak of hostilities. Specifically, the Provincial Congress order drafted by John Hancock stated “The improvement of the militia in general in the art military has been therefore thought necessary, and strongly recommended by this Congress. We now think that particular care should be taken by the towns and districts in this colony, that each of the minute men, not already provided therewith, should be immediately equipped with an effective firearm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls.”

In response to this order, the Lexington selectmen vote “Ordered...the Clerke to . . . warn a Town Meeting to be on Tuesday 27 Decembr. . . at twelve o'clock to act on the following articles . . . To see if the Town will comply with the resolves of the Provincial Congress.”

Approximately two weeks later, on December 27, 1775, male residents of Lexington gathered to discuss the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’ order of December 10, 1775. At the conclusion of the meeting, the town agreed to comply with the directive and resolved “Votede . . . That seven persons be appointed as a committee of inspections to see that the plans of the Continental and Provincial Congresses are faithfully carriede into executione. . . . [seven people listed, including John Parker]”

The next day, residents of the town returned to the issue of supplying bayonets to the soldiers of the town. After some debate, the residents voted “to provide bayonets at the town’s cost for one-third of the training soldiers.”

Over the next four months, the town committee would personally oversee Lexington’s continued wartime effort, which included the production of cartridge boxes, powder horns, bayonet carriage belting and knapsacks. Other activities included the modification of fowlers to accept bayonets, melting lead bricks down into bullets, buying gunpowder and building the artillery carriages to mount the two iron guns the town had purchased from Watertown weeks earlier.

In February 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress notified all the towns in the colony that they were expected to be in full compliance with its December 10, 1774 order. Officers of militia and minute companies were instructed to conduct inspections and submit returns to the Provincial Congress as proof of compliance. Unfortunately, an inspectional return from Lexington does not exist.

However, a review of surviving artifacts, probate returns and period accounts suggests that John Parker and his committee were successful in their mission. As one British officer noted as they approached Parker’s Company assembled on the Lexington Green the morning of April 19th:

“In the obedience to your Excellency's commands, I marched on the evening of the 18th inst. with the corps of grenadiers and light infantry for Concord, to execute your Excellency's orders with respect to destroying all ammunition, artillery, tents, &c, collected there. I think it proper to observe, that when I had got some miles on the march from Boston, I detached six light infantry companies to march with all expedition to seize the two bridges on different roads beyond Concord. 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 accoutrement, and, as appeared after, loaded.”

Saturday, November 7, 2020

"I See Nothing But the Horrors of a Civil War" - The Nerds Return to History Camp Online This Thursday!

 This Thursday the Nerds join History Camp Online to discuss our research findings on the loyalist experience during the Saratoga Campaign.

In anticipation of this event, here is an excerpt from Alexander Cain's 2019 book, I See Nothing But the Horrors of The Civil War. This particular segment examines the makeup of those loyalist refugees who fled the American Colonies and settled in Upper Canada.


It is commonly stated that history is written by the victor and the American Revolution is no exception.  As a result of the rebel triumph at the conclusion of the War for Independence, those who remained faithful to the crown have often been depicted in a negative light.  In countless historical works, legal documents and even in popular culture, loyalists were typically portrayed as corrupt, inept and greedy people whose blind devotion to the British crown led to their downfall.  However, such a glaring and erroneous stereotype only trivialized the struggles that the American loyalist endured during the War for Independence.  

By the conclusion of the American Revolution, between 80,000 and 100,000 loyalists had fled the American colonies.  Almost half of them escaped to Canada.  Of those, 45,000 refugees settled in the Canadian Maritime region.  An additional 9,500 refugees fled to the Quebec Province.  Of those, approximately 7,500 ultimately settled in Upper Canada.  These men, women and children left behind more than their homes.  They left behind their experiences, communities, friends and relatives, businesses and personal belongings.   

Many colonists who ultimately became “Tories” were not distinguishable from their neighbors who embraced independence. Some loyalists were respected members of their towns and communities and included well-educated Harvard graduates who worked as merchants, doctors, lawyers, distillers or ministers.  Individuals such as Sir John Johnson, Richard Saltonstall, Jonathan Sewell and Admiralty Judge Samuel Curwen, who would later enlist in the loyalist cause, were seen prior to the American Revolution as leading and influential members of their respective colonies.  However, most colonists from New York and New England who remained faithful to the crown hailed from the middle and lower classes of the American colonies.  

Encampment of the Loyalists at Johnstown by James Peachey, ca. 1784-1790

These loyalists enjoyed neither wealth nor privilege. Of the four hundred eighty-eight loyalists who eventually settled in the Ontario region of Upper Canada following the American Revolution and submitted claims to the British government for losses sustained during the war, only five held public office.  Three of those were considered modest political posts.  Only one claimant, a physician, would be considered a professional by modern standards.  A small number owned shops, ran taverns or were considered artisans.  Ninety percent of those loyalists who settled in the Ontario region simply identified themselves as farmers.  

In 2016, historian Amber Jolly examined the court records of over eight hundred and fifty loyalist property seizure cases in New York following the passage of the Confiscation Act of 1783.  According to her research, the overwhelming majority of loyalists who lost property in New York were from the laboring, agricultural and artisan classes.  For example, court records assert that almost four hundred loyalists were listed as yeomen, two hundred were identified as farmers, and an additional sixty-four were simply listed as “laborers”.   Nineteen men were listed as blacksmiths, seventeen as tailors, sixteen as carpenters and six as shoemakers..  Other loyalist occupations identified by Jolly included wheelwrights, saddlers, mariners, bakers, coopers, shipwrights and hatters.  Four pieces of confiscated property were owned by single loyalist women, while an additional two were seized from widows.  Only six percent were considered “professional” by modern standards.   

The average loyalist farmer who ultimately took refuge in Upper Canada leased or owned less than two hundred acres of land prior to the American Revolution.  Forty-two percent of the Ontario settlers admitted they had cleared less than ten acres of land prior to their flight.  Fifty-four percent of the farmers hailed from Tyron County, New York.  An additional twenty-five percent had ties to Albany County.  Fourteen percent claimed Charlotte County as their prior residence.

A Warm Place - Hell by Paul Revere, ca 1768

Over half of the refugees who settled in Upper Canada were foreign-born.  Over fifty percent of Ontario loyalists were Scot Highland Roman Catholics.  Second in number were German and Irish immigrants.  An additional eight percent claimed England as their place of birth.  At the start of the American Revolution, many loyalist Scot immigrants had only resided in the American colonies for four years.  English immigrants had resided in America on average for eight years.  By comparison, many Irish and German immigrants had lived in the colonies between eleven and eighteen years.

Joining these loyalists were African-American loyalists.  Almost ten percent of loyalists who fled to Canada were of African-American descent. Whether slave or freeman, many African-Americans cast their lot with the crown in an attempt to secure a better life for themselves and their families.  Likewise, many Native American allies of the crown also retreated to Canada after the war.  Over two thousand Iroquois from the Six Nations, Mohicans, Nanticokes and Squakis had settled in the Ontario region by 1785.

Regardless of their economic or social background, native-born whites, immigrants, slaves, freemen and Native Americans banded together in support of King George and the British government.  Despite the lack of supplies, political support or financial backing, the campaign to defend the British crown was enthusiastically and admirably waged by loyalists from the print of local newspapers to the siege lines of Yorktown.  Granted, their defense of British policy often fell on deaf ears and their military endeavors were often insufficient to turn the tide of war.  However, the willingness of American loyalists to undertake such endeavors is noteworthy.  

Saturday, October 24, 2020

"I Made Me a Cartridge-box": A Quick Primer on Muskets and Cartridge Boxes on the Eve of April 19, 1775

Let’s be honest, the Nerds love it when Joel Bohy and David Wood host a military weapons talk. 

For those who may be interested, this upcoming Wednesday the Concord Museum will be hosting a seminar on the weapons used by Massachusetts Provincials and British soldiers on April 19, 1775. 

According to the Concord Museum’s website:

Learn about the firearms that were used at the start of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775! In this virtual event at 6pm on 10.28, experts Joel Bohy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers & the Concord Museum's Curator, David Wood, explore the objects that played a part in the events of that fateful day. Participants will experience historic objects like never before, all are welcome! 

Go to to register now!

This program is an event of the Cummings Davis Society, which helps support acquisitions & preservation of the Museum’s distinguished collection for future generations.

The Nerds would encourage all of our followers to check out this presentation.

Of course, in anticipation of this event, we went back and examined some of our own notes and research on the makeup of muskets and cartridge boxes within ranks of the American forces on the eve of Lexington and Concord.

Militia and minutemen obtained their firearms from a variety of sources.  These sources included fowling-pieces; imported muskets sold by local merchants; muskets and equipment captured from enemy troops (most notably the French and Spanish); locally produced weapons; stands of arms issued by the British government to Massachusetts provincial and militia soldiers during the French and Indian War; and finally, the rare procurement of a musket from a willing British soldier stationed in Boston.  

Thus, it was not uncommon to observe within the same militia company, 20 gauge fowlers, 12 gauge fowlers, 1742 King’s Pattern musket (often and erroneously referred to as the 1st Model Brown Bess), Dutch muskets, Spanish muskets, American muskets with parts obtained from several sources and French muskets within the same militia company.  

The makeup of muskets within the ranks of the Lexington Company on April 19th was no different.  Benjamin Locke’s musket was of French origin while Captain John Parker’s musket was a combination of English, American and French parts. An archaeological survey of the Parker’s Revenge battle site inside Minute Man National Historic Park yielded several small caliber musket balls of American origin.  The size of these balls suggests that many of the Lexington men were firing fowling guns as the retreating column passed by.

Recent research has also revealed the popular assumption that militia and minutemen of Massachusetts carried their ammunition in various, individualistic ways to be incorrect. 

Instead, most towns undertook a variety of steps to ensure its minute and militia companies were somewhat uniformly armed with belting, bayonets and cartridge boxes.  In Bradford, the town resolved “Voted, That the Selectmen provide bayonets and cartouch boxes for the Minute-Men on the town cost, to be returned to the town after they are dismissed from the service.” Residents of Brimfield resolved that it “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.” Finally, in March of 1775, the Town of Ashburnham voted that Captain Jonathan Gates be instructed to procure thirty-six cartridge boxes for the use of the town’s minute-men at the expense of the town.

The most common type of cartridge box constructed on the eve of the American Revolution consisted of a“D” design soft leather pouch with a wooden block inserted to hold nineteen rounds of ammunition.  The box lacked side flaps and would not have kept powder dry during inclement weather.  

Many towns, including Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, and Acton, developed a cottage industry and paid its saddlers to make cartridge boxes for its minute and militia companies. Scituate’s Israel Litchfield recorded in his journal the making of cartridge boxes.  “[January] 14 [1775] I made me a Cartridge-box, I Covered it with a Coltskin it will Carry 19 Rounds.”  In Lexington, Jonathan Harrington, father of the company fifer, and Phillip Russel were hired to make cartridge boxes made out of moose skin.  

As an aside, the only limited exception of individualistic styling appears to have been powder horns.  There is evidence that many militiamen personalized their horns by engraving them with maps, slogans or pictures. 

So, with that background in mind, if you are free next Wednesday, be sure to check out what will be a very informative and exciting lecture!

Saturday, October 3, 2020

"Almost Perished with Cold and Hunger" - The Loyalist Flight to Canada

In the early years of the American Revolution, many rebel committees in New York and New England were reluctant to release loyalist families as they served a useful purpose as hostages. According to historian Janice Potter McKinnon in her work, While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women in Eastern Ontario, the continued presence of loyalist families in rebel communities served as a deterrent against potential military strikes, stemmed the flow of young male recruits into Canada or New York City and encouraged the release of American prisoners held by British authorities.

However, following the commencement of Burgoyne’s invasion of the American colonies in 1777, many communities realized that the presence of loyalist hostages would not stop future raids. As a result, some officials agreed to release men, women and their families so they could travel to loyalist safe havens. At the same time, other authorities passed resolutions preemptively ordering the expulsion of loyalist families from their territories. For example, as Burgoyne advanced further south into New York, the Vermont Council of Safety declared “all such persons as have joined or may hereafter join the British Troops (& left or may hereafter leave) their wives and families within this State, Have their wives and families sent to General John Burgoins [sic] Head Quarters, or some other Branch of the Ministerial Army, as soon as may be.” Similarly, the Albany County Commissioners wrote to the governor of New York in July 1777 asking that “Women whose Husbands are with the Enemy may be sent to the Enemies Lines”.

Photo Published with Permission of Adam HL

As McKinnon noted, when loyalists left their communities (either voluntarily or through expulsion) and traveled north to Canada, they usually followed one of two routes. 

Loyalists from New York typically followed an overland route through Native American territory to Lake Ontario. Because much of the travel was along forest trails, Indian guides were essential. Unfortunately for many refugees, the route included passage through territory held by the Oneidas, an ally of the Americans. Likewise, refugees had to avoid Continental and militia detachments that actively patrolled the region. Once clear of enemy territory, refugees crossed Lake Ontario at Oswego or followed the southern shore of the lake to the Niagara River. The trip along the Niagara was often difficult, especially in times of spring floods. According to a 1781 account from Barry St. Leger, a group of loyalists arrived at Niagara “almost naked . . . they had been so long hiding in the woods that they were almost famished . . . 50 more are on their way but so weak they can scarcely crawl… they are a set of poor forlorn people. . .who cannot help themselves.” 

Those refugees from the Hampshire Grants and Western Massachusetts usually followed a combined land and water route along Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River to Montreal. The roads followed were often muddy and in poor condition. Refugees could only use pack horses, ponies, or hand and horse carts for their belongings and provisions.

Securing water transportation was critical to the flight north. Often refugees were often forced to seek shelter on insect-infested or low lying islands in the middle of Lake Champlain. Because of the difficulties of this combined land and water passage, loyalists were forced to travel in groups whose members could share the burden of carrying boats and provisions.

Photo Published with Permission of Adam HL

While some loyalists might be lucky enough to make the trip in thirteen days, most took much longer. If an expedition moved too slowly or was not lucky enough to make good connections with boats, the trek could take at least two to three months to reach the Quebec Province. 

The delay in travel, combined with the rugged and unforgiving countryside, easily took its toll on the physical and mental well-being of many refugees. A 19th Century letter from  Elizabeth Bowman Spohn to the Rev. Egerton Ryerson underscores the hardships and challenges many loyalists faced as they fled north to Canada.

“My father, Peter Bowman, the eldest son at home, was only eleven years old. As the pillage was at night, he had neither coat nor shoes; he had to cut and draw his firewood half a mile on a hand-sleigh to keep his sick mother from freezing; this he did barefooted. The whole family would have perished had it not been for some friendly Indians that brought them provisions. One gave my father a blanket, coat and a pair of mocassins. A kind Squaw doctored my grandmother, but she suffered so much through want and anxiety that it was not until spring that she was able to do anything. She then took her children and went to the Mohawk river, where they planted corn and potatoes; and in the fall the commander of the British forces at Niagara, hearing of their destitute situation, sent a party with some Indians to bring them in. They brought in five families: the Nellises, Secords, Youngs, Bucks, and our own family (Bowman), five women and thirty-one children, and only one pair of shoes among them all. They arrived at Fort George on the 3rd of November, 1776; from there they were sent first to Montreal, and then to Quebec, where the Government took care of them-that is, gave them something to eat, and barracks to sleep in. My grandmother was exposed to cold and damp so much that she took the rheumatism and never recovered.” 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

“Stopped But a Few Days, and Went Off Privately" - Enslaved People and Lexington

Contrary to popular belief in some circles, slavery did exist in Massachusetts on the eve of the American Revolution. In fact, Massachusetts was the first of the thirteen colonies to legalize slavery in 1741.

By 1775, Lexington was not immune to the institution. The largest slaveholder in 1771 was Samuel Hadley with three enslaved servants. Other slaveholders included Samuel Bridge, William Tidd, Robert Harrington, William Reed and Benjamin Estabrook.

In some Lexington 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. The few female slaves in Lexington were required to carry out the various household tasks their mistresses demanded.

The enrolling of enslaved men in the colony’s militia system was considered illegal on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In 1652, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law requiring all African-Americans and Indian servants to undergo military training and serve in the militia. However, four years later, as fears of a slave revolt grew, Massachusetts reversed the law and prohibited Blacks from entering military service. According to research conducted by Minute Man National Historical Park,  In 1709, the Massachusetts legislature slightly reversed itself and declared that “free male negro’s or molattos” would be exempt from military training but would still be required to “make their appearance” with their local militia companies “in case of alarm”. 

Nevertheless, in 1775, Lexington turned a blind eye to the law. As a result, during the War for Independence, five of Lexington’s slaves served with the town's militia. These enslaved men were Prince Estabrook, Pompey Blackman, Samuel Crafts, Cato Tuder and Jupiter Tree. 

As an aside, there was a Lexington Black freeman, Eli Burdoo, who later asserted in a pension claim that he served Captain Parker’s Company at the Battle of Lexington.

Lexington slaves were not completely without rights. Unlike slaves in the southern colonies, New England slaves could hold limited amounts of property, and testify in court against both whites and other Blacks. 

On rare occasions, Massachusetts slaves were permitted to sue for freedom. One such case involved a female mulatto slave named Margaret from Lexington. On November 20, 1770, Margaret appeared in a court in Cambridge represented by a local Boston lawyer named Jonathan Sewall. John Adams, who was currently 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. 

In 1774, several African-Americans petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to demand that they too have the right to enjoy the benefits of liberty.
Still, slavery was a degrading and inhumane institution. 

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 was a mere £15. In 1670, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law permitting slaveholders to sell children of slaves into bondage.

By the middle of the 17th Century, all of the New England colonies had established laws punishing runaway slaves as “fugitives”. Under these anti-fugitive laws, a slave was forbidden from leaving his master’s property without a pass or permission from his master. Travel on Sunday was explicitly prohibited. Thus, a slave could not even move in search of opportunity or even travel outside of Lexington without the master’s assent. If he or she were discovered, the enslaved person would be prosecuted. 

Finally, a slave was always subject to both actual and potential cruelty against which there was no defense.

Understandably, these horrific conditions motivated many enslaved people from New England to run away from their masters. In turn, slaveholders would publish advertisements in area newspapers describing the enslaved person, the clothing they wore when last seen and any items they carried with them. 

In the work Escaping Bondage: A Documentary History of Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth Century New England 1700 - 1789, author Antonio Bly catalogs advertisements of runaway Black slaves that appeared in Eighteenth-Century New England newspapers. 

There are four newspaper advertisements Bly identifies that are tied to Lexington. The first three were published by Captain Benjamin Reed after his slave “Sambo” or Samuel Hanks escaped. Reed was particularly determined to apprehend the runaway as he flooded Boston area newspapers with advertisements seeking his slave’s capture. 

Here is Reed’s advertisement from the September 17, 1753 edition of the Boston Gazette

“Ran-away from his Master Capt. Benjamin Reed, of Lexington, on the 14th of this Instant September, a Negro Man Servant, named Sambo, but calls himself Samuel Hank’s, and pretends to be a Doctor, about 30 Years of Age, of a middling Stature, speaks good English: Had on when he went away, a brown homespun Coat with brass Buttons, a brown Holland Jacket, new Leather Breeches, a pair a blue clouded seam’d Stockings, a new course Linnen Shirt, and a Holland one, Trowsers, and an old Castor Hat: has lost some of his fore Teeth. He carry’d with him a Bible, with (Samuel Reed) wrote in it, with some other Books. Whoever shall take up said Runaway Servant, and convey him to his abovesaid Master in Lexington, shall have Four Dollars Reward, and all necessary Charges paid. And all Masters of Vessels and others are hereby caution’d against concealing or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of the Law. Lexington.”

Bly’s book also identifies an incident that involved Lexington tavern owner John Buckman. The account appeared in the January 18, 1776 edition of the New England Chronicle. According to the newspaper account, an eighteen-year-old male slave named Cato had escaped from Hampton, New Hampshire in the Fall of 1775. Surprisingly, Cato did not flee to Portsmouth or Newburyport to join a sailing vessel (18th century New England sailing vessels were notorious for taking on escaped Black slaves). Instead, he traveled into the Massachusetts interior and by November 1775, arrived in Lexington.

According to the New England Chronicle, Cato approached John Buckman seeking work. “He offered his service to Mr. John Buckman, innholder in that town, and called himself Elijah Bartlet, and said that he was free born.” Buckman was suspicious of the young man and believed Cato was “a runaway”. Aware that the tavern keeper was on to him, Cato “stopped but a few days [in Lexington], and went off privately.” It appears after Cato fled, the Buckman reported the runaway to the authorities, who in turn relayed the information to Cato’s owner.

As far as the Nerds can tell, Cato was never apprehended.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

“A Plan of Military Exercise, Proposed by Capt. Pickering” - The Pickering Drill on the Eve of Lexington and Concord

It is commonly known that the Nerds are fascinated with Massachusetts’ wartime buildup on the eve of the American Revolution. One of the topics that consistently draws our attention is the various drill manuals that minute and militia companies utilized in preparation for war with England.

Recently, we had the opportunity to review a 2004 research paper that analyzed the development of the Massachusetts Grand Army during the early weeks of the Siege of Boston. While the overall premise of the paper was excellent, there was an error that caught our attention. Specifically, the author argued that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted the “Pickering Drill” in late 1774 as the preferred drill manual for its minute and militia companies. In support of this argument, the author pointed to a December 8, 1774, order that referenced “a plan of military exercise, proposed by Capt. Pickering”.

So, did the Massachusetts Provincial Congress recommend militia and minute companies adopt the Pickering Drill?

In the Fall of 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress correctly surmised war with England was inevitable. As a result it had to “consider what is necessary to be done for the defence and safety of the province.” 

On October 26, 1774, the delegates set into motion the formation of minute companies within Massachusetts. As part of its resolution, it declared “[The] field officers, so elected, forthwith [shall] endeavor to enlist one quarter, at the least, of the number of the respective companies, and form them into companies of fifty privates . . . who shall equip and hold themselves in readiness, on the shortest notice from the said Committee of Safety, to march to the place of rendezvous . . . said companies into battalions, to consist of nine companies each.”

Emphasis on proper military skill and logistical supply was strongly emphasized by the delegates. On the same day as the creation of minute companies, the Provincial Congress resolved “That, as the security of the lives, liberties and properties of the inhabitants of this province, depends under Providence, on their knowledge and skill in the art of military, and in their being properly and effectually armed and equipped, it is therefore recommended, that they immediately provide themselves therewith; that they use their utmost diligence to perfect themselves in military skill; and that, if any of the inhabitants are not provided with arms and ammunition according to law, and that if any town or district within the province is not provided with the full town stock of arms and ammunition . . . that the selectmen of such town or district take effectual care, without delay, to provide the same.”

Three days later, on October 29, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress addressed what appropriate military exercise the various militia and minute companies should adopt. The delegates considered the “Norfolk Exercise”. Developed in England in 1757, the Norfolk Exercise, or A Plan of Discipline, Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk, had been adopted by many New England militia companies and was declared the official drill of the colony in the early 1770’s. 

However, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ultimately ordered that “it be recommended to the inhabitants of this Province that in order to their perfecting themselves in the Military Art, they proceed in the method ordered by his Majesty in the year 1764, it being, in the opinion of this Congress, best calculated for appearance and defence.” Known informally as the 1764 Crown Manual of Arms, this was the drill used by the British troops stationed in Boston in 1775.

The adoption of the 1764 Crown Manual of Arms was not universally accepted by Massachusetts communities, especially those in northwestern Worcester County. In the weeks following the resolution, multiple militia officers from that region joined together to draft and submit a petition requesting that “the Provincial Congress ... establish the Norfolk exercise, with such alterations as they shall think proper, instead of the exercise of 1764.” Not surprisingly, the petition was ultimately rejected.

At the same time as Worcester was petitioning the Provincial Congress, a Salem, Massachusetts lawyer named Timothy Pickering was quietly promoting a drill manual he had drafted. Entitled An Easy Plan for Discipline for a Militia, Pickering's drill manual borrowed heavily from the Norfolk Drill. By early December, Pickering had drawn enough attention to his proposed manual that on December 8, 1774, the Provincial Congress ordered  “That Col. Heath, Col. Gerrish, Col, Gardner, Capt. Fuller, Col. Thomas, Col. Oriio, and Col. Barnes, be a committee to take into consideration a plan of military exercise, proposed by Capt. Timothy Pickering.”

Unfortunately for Pickering, the proposal died in committee. When the Provincial Congress reconvened the following month, it never again discussed his drill manual. 

If Pickering attempted to build support for his manual by privately selling it to the public in early 1775, he was equally unsuccessful. According to research conducted by Dr. Niels Hobbs* in his work “There is now such a Martial Spirit running through the Country…” The Evolution and Revolution of Manual Exercises in Massachusetts and the New England Colonies, over the years 1764-1776, there were approximately 203 advertisements, news articles, or editorials released between 1774 and 1776 that addressed drill manual exercises. The majority of these were either promoting the adoption of the 1764 Crown Manual or were advertisements selling copies of the same manual. Even in Pickering’s own Essex County, advertisements and editorials in support of the Crown Manual dominated. 

There is no reference to Pickering’s work being promoted or offered for sale on the even of Lexington and Concord.

Nevertheless, Pickering still continued to quietly promote his manual. During the Siege of Boston, the Salem resident wrote directly to General George Washington and unsuccessfully encouraged the Continental Army to embrace his work.

“Sir, Convinced of the utility, the necessity, at all times, of a well disciplined militia, to every free state; when the united wisdom of the continent, referring to the contest with the parent kingdom, called on every colony to prepare for the most unhappy events; and the more immediate recommendations of our provincial congress demanded a diligent application to the military art; deeming the plans of discipline then extant, inadequate to the instruction of men unused to this kind of study, & destitute of living instructors: I gladly embraced the opportunity which then presented, of applying to the service of my country the little knowledge & experience an office in the militia had led me to acquire, by writing the following plain rudiments of the military art. They were designed, as their title imports, merely for the militia; & chiefly written before the predicted unhappy events had called my fellow citizens to arms. This call, & the various avocations & interruptions consequent thereon, greatly retarded the completion of the work; & perhaps have rendered it less useful than it might otherwise have been: Some parts of it, & those perhaps the most essential, I imagine may well prove advantageous in an army hastily assembled, & frequently called from the exercise of arms to the other equally necessary but more laborious occupations of war. This army being, to the joy of every American, committed to your excellency’s care & direction, both duty & inclination lead me to present you the ensuing plan of discipline for a militia, & to Submit to your decision the expediency of recommending or permitting its use among the officers & soldiers under your command. I am, your Excellencys most obedient & humble Servant Tm. Pickering jr.”

Of course, credit should be given when it is due. Pickering did not give up and continued to promote An Easy Plan for Discipline for a Militia. By 1776, the drill manual started to become popular with Massachusetts militia officers and shortly thereafter, the legislature ordered that the drill replace the 1764 Crown Manual as the official drill for militia companies in the Commonwealth. 

*Dr. Hobbs is a historian who holds his PhD in Biology. He is also trained to kill only using a pair of lobsters as his choice of weapons. ;-)

Saturday, August 29, 2020

"Pledged His Honor He Would March Not Above Thirty Rods" - The Salem Affair and What Happens When the Newbuyport Militia Goes on a Road Trip

Recently, The Boston Garrison approached the Nerds about writing a brief article about the "Salem Affair", which is considered one of the early acts of resistance of the American Revolution. Our essay appeared earlier this week on the Boston Garrison Facebook Page.

We are republishing our essay it in the event you may have missed it!


On February 26, 1775, there was a confrontation in the port town of Salem, Massachusetts that today is referred to as “The Salem Affair”. Although this event is often glossed over by many historians, the incident nearly triggered the start of the American Revolution and in turn, accelerated Massachusetts’ wartime preparations.

The Salem Affair was the result of General Thomas Gage’s desire to locate and recover four missing pieces of brass cannon. On the eve of the American Revolution, brass cannons were considered “weapons of mass destruction”. They were light, easily maneuverable and deadly. In September 1774, four of these weapons were stolen while under guard and smuggled out of Boston. In mid-February 1775 Gage received intelligence that “twelve pieces of Brass Cannon” were located in the seaport community of Salem. Shortly thereafter, he learned that the “Field pieces [were] in an old store, or Barn, near the landing place at Salem, … [and] are to be removed in a few days.”

The cannons in Salem were actually old iron French pieces that had been purchased in 1774 by Colonel David Mason of Salem. Afterwards, he had Robert Foster, a local blacksmith, mount them to carriages. The guns were then stored in Foster’s shop located along the North River.

The general was unaware of that the pieces were old iron guns and was convinced that the four missing brass cannons were stored in the seaport community. Desperate to recover them, he ordered Lt. Colonel Alexander Leslie and 240 men of His Majesty’s 64th Regiment of Foot to sail from Castle William in Boston Harbor to Marblehead. The strike force would then march four miles to Salem to seize the cannons.

At two o’clock in the afternoon of February 26th, a Royal Navy vessel anchored off the coast of Marblehead. Since it was a Sunday, many of the locals were attending afternoon religious services. The troops landed and commenced a quick march towards Salem.

Of course, the operation was almost immediately detected, and news reached Colonel Mason that “troops were marching into the town … to take possession of his guns”. In turn, Mason raced towards Foster’s blacksmith shop. En route, he stopped at Salem’s North Church to announce, “The regulars are coming after the guns!”. Many of the churchgoers assisted Mason and Foster in either hiding or relocating the cannons. Afterward, they raised a drawbridge over the North River, thereby preventing the regulars from gaining access to Foster’s blacksmith shop.

When Leslie’s strike force arrived, there was a tense standoff between the Salem residents and the troops. The colonel demanded that the drawbridge be lowered. Foster and Mason refused. In response, according to historian J.L. Bell, Leslie contemplated aloud whether he should order his troops to fire into the civilian crowd. Some of his soldiers tried to seize a pair of gondolas moored in the North River but the residents got to the boats first and purposely sunk them. Other regulars got into a shoving match with some of the townsmen, resulting in Joseph Whicher being slightly scratched with the tip of a bayonet.

At the height of the confrontation, Mason loudly announced that alarm riders had been dispatched and Essex militia companies would be converging on the town in mere hours. Violence seemed inevitable. Suddenly, the Reverend Thomas Barnard stepped forward to defuse the situation and negotiate a compromise. Aware that the cannons were long gone, Barnard suggested that the bridge be lowered. Leslie in turn “pledged his honor he would march not above thirty rods beyond it, and then immediately return”. The colonel would not search for the cannons. All parties agreed to the proposal, the 64th marched across the bridge and then marched for Marblehead empty-handed. The troops boarded their transport and sailed back to Boston.

General Gage would later report “The circumstance of the eight field pieces at Salem led us into a mistake, for supposing them to be brass guns brought from Holland, or some of the foreign isles, which report had also given reasons to suspect, a detachment of 400 men under Lieut. Col. Leslie was sent privately off by water to seize them. The places they were said to be concealed in were strictly searched, but no artillery could be found. And we have since discovered, that there had been only some old ship’s guns, which had been carried away from Salem some time ago.”

Of course, one of the more humorous stories that comes out the Salem Affair hails from Newburyport. On the eve of the American Revolution, Newburyport had no less than nine military companies in its community: four militia companies, two minute man companies, two “private” companies composed of the town’s elite, and one private artillery company that apparently was uniformed. In the late afternoon of February 26th, an alarm rider arrived in Newburyport with news of the Salem Affair. The nine military units all mobilized and marched for Salem. It appears the men advanced as far as Rowley when they received word that the confrontation was over. The Newburyport soldiers turned around and stopped at the first tavern they found. While there they raised their glasses to no less than 120 toasts and proceeded to drink the tavern dry. The men then promptly left without paying their tab. For the next two years, the poor tavern keep would write to the Newburyport selectmen asking for the town to reimburse him. At first, the town ignored his please but eventually the selectmen reluctantly agreed to repay the bill.

For more information on the Salem Affair and the four brass cannon, be sure to check out “The Road To Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War” By J.L. Bell

Saturday, August 8, 2020

"A Frock and Trowsers, Spade and Hoe, Will Do For My Remaining Days" - Farmer's Frocks and April 19, 1775

Prior to the start of the 225th Anniversary celebrations of the American Revolution, a large number of New England reenactors turned to the wearing of “frocks”, instead of jackets and coats as their primary outer clothing garments. It appears the dual purpose of adopting frocks was to permit town organizations (i.e. local “minute man companies”) to quickly comply with the existing authenticity standards of the time, as well as provide a visual presentation of uniformity when needed.

This practice continued well past the 225th Anniversary reenactment of the Siege of Yorktown and only ceased when historians and researchers began to question whether or not militia and minutemen would have worn frocks during the various military engagements of 1775. Around 2010, Minute Man National Park and many other historical sites revised their authenticity standards and started to phase out the wearing of frocks by living history volunteers.

The purpose of this post is to once again examine the appropriateness of wearing frocks in battle reenactments and living history demonstrations that focus on the events of April 19, 1775 in light of current 

A frock (often erroneously called a “smock”) was an oversized shirt made out of heavy linen, wool or osnaburg that was worn by laborers, farmers, sailors and soldiers to protect their clothing from dust, tears, rips and bad weather while in the field or at work. 

Frocks were quite common in Europe. In the 1770 mezzotint entitled A Scene Near Cox Heath, or The Enraged Farmer a pitchfork-wielding farmer is depicted in a knee-length frock, flop hat, and farmer’s boots. However, sources do indicate that frocks were also in existence in New England on the eve of the American Revolution. To quote John Adams, “a frock and trowsers, spade and hoe, will do for my remaining days.” Ebenezer Blancher had on “frock and trowsers, over a dark homespun jacket and breeches” when he fled from his employer in 1770. Finally, period paintings also seem to support the existence of frocks in 18th century England and her colonies. In Copley’s Watson and the Shark, at least one of the sailors depicted is wearing a linen frock. 

A frock should not be confused with a hunting shirt. According to John Trumball, “you express apprehension that the rifle dress of General Morgan may be mistaken for a waggoner’s frock, which he, perhaps wore when on expedition with General Braddock; there is no more resemblance between the two dresses, than between a cloak and a coat; the waggoner’s frock was intended as the present cartman’s to cover and protect their other clothes and is merely a long coarse shirt reaching below the knee . . . the dress of the riflemen . . . was an elegant loose dress . . . with fringes in various locations.”

Given the documentation that frocks did exist in 18th century Massachusetts, the next logical question is whether frocks were considered fashionable clothing items to be worn at town meetings, religious gatherings and political protests or a piece of equipment limited in use to the field, along the docks, onboard a vessel or in a shop or mill. A review of probate inventories, period political cartoons and run away descriptions suggest that on the eve of the American Revolution frocks were little more than a coverall and were rarely worn outside of the workplace.

Probate records comprise all materials related to a deceased’s estate. Documents often found in probate records include wills, administration accounts and estate inventories. Of these documents, estate inventories are often the most significant as it lists a person’s possessions at death and their rated or fair market value. Interestingly, estate inventories from 18th Century Middlesex, Essex and Norfolk Counties reveal extensive information about male clothing and their worldly possessions and include a smattering of references to frocks. For example, an inventory of the estates of Jonas Parker of Lexington and Samuel McCall of Deerfield both list frocks as part of the deceased's' belongings. 

However, a review of runaway descriptions from 1745 to 1775 reveals ample evidence of frocks being worn by yeoman and laborers over other clothing for the purpose of keeping it clean. A casual search of runaway advertisements from Boston newspapers from those selected periods resulted in 34 results. A similar search of Newburyport area newspapers from 1773 to 1776 revealed six references to “frock”. For example, a 1746 advertisement in the Boston Gazette described “John Craister of Boston … had on when he went away a Frock over a cloth jacket and a red pair of breeches.” In 1770, a runaway advertisement in the same newspaper described a runaway laborer with a “brown fustian Frock, cloth colour’d waistcoat and leather breeches.” In October 1774, the Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet described a wanted loyalist, known only as “M. Cadegan”, as having fled Cambridge wearing a “waggoner’s frock”.

Finally, period paintings and cartoons support the theory that frocks were unlikely to be worn beyond the field or shop. For example, Revere’s Bloody Massacre depicts the Boston populace clad in jackets and frock coats. A 1773 print of a tarring and feathering of a government official in Boston shows a Boston mob clad in jackets and sailors coats but absent are frocks. The cartoon Political Electricity depicts the Boston working-class clad only in jackets. The 1774 print The Bostonians Paying the Excise Man or Tarring and Feathering shows five Bostonians assaulting a customs commissioner. The Bostonians are all wearing frock coats and sailor’s jackets. Even the simplistic drawing of the Battle of Lexington by Doolittle depicts the Lexington militiamen clad only in brown and blue coats. Not a single militiaman is wearing frocks. 

So, with that in mind, were frocks worn by Massachusetts militia on April 19, 1775? It was highly unlikely that frocks were worn by militia men from Central Middlesex County, including Lexington and Concord, due to the fact they were alarmed well before sunrise on April 19, 1775 and had time to change or dress in better clothing. In fact, there are multiple accounts from those towns of provincial soldiers wearing their best clothing to go out to meet the regulars. 

Of course, militia and minute companies located in Northern and Eastern Essex, Northwestern Middlesex, Worcester, Norfolk and Barnstable Counties all received the Lexington alarm much later - between 5 AM and Noon. One may argue that these militiamen were already working in the fields or shops when news of the British expedition arrived. The common assertion is many of these farmers and laborers immediately sprung into action, abandoned their plows and stores and raced to an appointed assembly site dressed in their work clothes. While such a scenario is plausible, there is also evidence that minute and militia companies from Andover, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newburyport, Ipswich, and Plymouth mobilized one to three hours after being alarmed. As a result, these men also had time to change into better clothing before marching to war.

More importantly, there are no period accounts describing provincials as fielding with smocks nor any petitions submitted to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress or the legislature by militiamen for lost or destroyed frocks on April 19th.

As an aside, even after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, there is little evidence that the Massachusetts Grand Army adopted frocks as part of a uniform appearance during the Siege of Boston. Although there is a single early 19th-century account of Connecticut troops donning blue frocks before marching to join the Battle of Bunker Hill, there are no known primary descriptions of New England troops adopting a uniform appearance via the wearing of frocks in 1775. 

In the Summer of 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress met to discuss the issuance of uniforms for the provincial soldiers surrounding Boston. According to Henry Cooke, Congress chose to clothe these troops in “bounty coats”. These coats were modeled after common laborer jackets and from a “deliberate political standpoint represented the citizen soldier and America’s self-sufficiency in the face of England’s colonial policies.” Interestingly, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress never considered clothing its soldiers uniformly in frocks.

Given the above, the Nerds believe reenactors portraying militia and minute companies that mobilized on April 19, 1775, should continue to discourage the wearing of frocks from its ranks during battle reenactments or living history events commemorating the commencement of the American Revolution. 

Does not mean that frocks should be outright banned or excluded? Of course not. Instead, the Nerds would humbly suggest that this particular garment would be best utilized at living history events demonstrating fieldwork, laboring activities or perhaps maritime activities.

Nerds Note...If you are looking for a period-correct frock, we do recommend AHL Tailor & Naval Clothier. Adam’s site can be found here:

Friday, June 26, 2020

"The Rank or Age of the Counties" - The Raising of the Massachusetts Grand Army of 1775

In the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British army found itself trapped; surrounded by an army of Massachusetts Yankees.

Over the next few days, scores of Bostonians discovered they were prohibited from fleeing the town. General Thomas Gage was fearful that if the residents were permitted to leave, they would provide material assistance to the American army. As a result, he issued orders barring residents from leaving Boston. Boston resident Sarah Winslow Deming despaired “I was Genl Gage's prisoner -- all egress, & regress being cut off between the town & country. Here again description fails. No words can paint my distress.” According to merchant John Rowe, Boston’s economy immediately collapsed. Businesses stopped operating and fresh provisions for market stopped coming into town. “Boston is in the most distressed condition.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety were confronted with their own dilemma. Within a very short period of time, the provincial army surrounding Boston began to slowly disappear. Regiments lacked any organization and soldiers were continuously coming and going. At first, militiamen left in small groups, and then by the hundreds, as lack of provisions along with the tug of responsibilities back home weakened their senses of duty. Artemas Ward, the overall commander of the American army besieging Boston, opined that soon he would be the only one left at the siege unless something was done. To meet this problem, the Provincial Congress agreed to General Ward’s requests that the men be formally enlisted for a given period of time. On April 23, 1775, the legislative body resolved to raise a “Massachusetts Grand Army of 13,600 men and appoint a Committee of Supplies to collect and distribute the necessary commodities.”


In undertaking this venture, Massachusetts turned to the model it had followed to attract recruits for provincial regiments during the French and Indian War. When the Massachusetts government appointed a regimental colonel to serve in the French and Indian War, he was given a packet of blank commissions for officers that he could dispense as he saw fit. Often, commissions would be contingent upon the prospective officers’ success in recruiting men. To secure enlistments of private soldiers, junior officers often made arrangements with prospective non-commissioned officers, promising posts as sergeants or corporals in return for their assistance in recruiting drives. While many recruiters operated within the confines of their own minute man or militia regiment that fought on April 19th, recruiters were also authorized to beat their drums anywhere in the province to enlist volunteers. Local militia officers were prohibited from interfering with beating orders and required to muster their companies and assist the colonel and his prospective officers with the drafting of recruits.

For example, between May 4 and May 8, 1775, recruiters arrived in Lexington. Over the next four days, twenty men from Lexington enlisted in a company commanded by Woburn’s John Wood. The company was to be part of Colonel Samuel Gerrish’s Regiment. In exchange for his enlistment, which was to expire at the end of December 1775, each man was paid £5 and promised a bounty of a coat. 

After the regiments were raised and certified, they were adopted into the Massachusetts Grand Army and assigned regimental numbers. It appears that the regiments were assigned regimental numbers based upon the “rank or age of the counties” from which they were raised. As a result, the regimental numbering of the Massachusetts Grand Army appears to be as followed during the early months of the Siege of Boston:

Numerical Assignment
Date Certified
Regimental Strength at Certification
Samuel Gerrish’s Regiment
May 19, 1775
Ebenezer Learned’s Regiment
May 19, 1775
Joseph Read’s Regiment
May 20, 1775
James Scammon’s Regiment
May 24, 1775
John Thomas’ Regiment
May 26, 1775
Artemus Ward’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Thomas Gardner’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
John Patterson’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
William Prescott’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Theophilus Cotton’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Ebenezer Bridge’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Asa Whitcomb’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
James Frye’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Ephraim Doolittle’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Timothy Walker’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
Timothy Danielson’s Regiment
May 26, 1775
John Mansfield’s Regiment
May 27, 1775
John Fellows’ Regiment
May 29, 1775
John Nixon’s Regiment
June 2, 1775

John Glover’s Regiment
June 7, 1775
William Heath’s Regiment
June 14, 1775
David Brewer’s Regiment
June 17, 1775
Jonathan Brewer’s Regiment
June 17, 1775
Benjamin Woodbridge’s Regiment
N/A but likely certified after the Battle of Bunker Hill
Moses Little’s Regiment
N/A but likely certified after the Battle of Bunker Hill
Richard Gridley’s Regiment
Artillery, no regimental number assigned
N/A but likely certified after the Battle of Bunker Hill

Following General Washington’s assumption of command, the Commander in Chief made it quite clear that his mission was to turn the various forces assembled around Boston into a unified army. On July 22, 1775, Washington attempted to impose a more rational organizational structure by issuing orders dividing the American army into three divisions of six brigades each. As a result, most of the Massachusetts Grand Army regiments were renumbered to reflect this change.