J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

“Our Civil and Religious Rights and Liberties”

In the last, posthumously published volume of his History of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson claimed that “the continuance of civil and religious liberties had constantly, perhaps without exception, been mentioned” in royal governors’ Thanksgiving proclamations.

Therefore, in using that language in his 1771 proclamation, Hutchinson said he was merely following tradition. So any objections to his phrasing had to be an artificial controversy.

But what does the historical record say? Gov. William Shirley’s Thanksgiving proclamation for 1754 [all these proclamation links lead to P.D.F. files] and Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips’s for 1756 do indeed include some variant of the phrase about civil and religious liberties.

Gov. Thomas Pownall (shown here), a favorite of the local Whigs, used such language consistently during his short administration:
  • Declaring a Thanksgiving on 27 Oct 1757, “to continue to the People of this Province their civil and religious Rights and Privileges.”
  • 23 Nov 1758, “to support Us in our Civil and Religious Rights and Liberties.”
  • 29 Nov 1759, “to continue to us the Enjoyment of our civil and religious Rights and Liberties.”
At first Gov. Francis Bernard adhered to that tradition:
  • 27 Sept 1760, for war victories “whereby the future Security of our Civil and Religious Liberties is put into our own Hands.”
  • 27 Nov 1760, mentioning “general liberties, as well religious as civil.”
But in 1761, coinciding with the ascension of George III, the writs of assistance case, and the emergence of political opposition under James Otis, Jr., Bernard stopped including language about Massachusetts’s liberties.

No such phrase appeared in the governor’s Thanksgiving proclamations for 3 Dec 1761; 7 Oct 1762, celebrating war victories; 9 Dec 1762; 11 Aug 1763, for peace; 8 Dec 1763; 29 Nov 1764; 5 Dec 1765; 24 July 1766, for the repeal of the Stamp Act; 27 Nov 1766; 3 Dec 1767; and 1 Dec 1768. In August 1769, Bernard left the province.

The responsibility of declaring Thanksgivings thus fell to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson. For the holidays on 16 Nov 1769 and 6 Dec 1770, he stuck to Bernard’s model, not mentioning “liberties.”

Thus, contrary to what Hutchinson the historian wrote, in 1771 Hutchinson the governor didn’t simply use language that “had constantly, perhaps without exception,” appeared in Thanksgiving proclamations. He returned to a tradition that had last prevailed over a decade before—a decade in which a lot had changed in Massachusetts politics.

(Incidentally, Gov. John Wentworth of New Hampshire had included phrases like “the Continuance of our Civil and Ecclesiastical Privileges” in his Thanksgiving proclamations since 1767 But the political conflict wasn’t so deep there.)

TOMORROW: The Whig reaction.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

“They could not join in giving thanks”

Yesterday I shared the 1771 Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Gov. Thomas Hutchinson (shown here). It quickly became a source of controversy.

Why? In his role as historian, Hutchinson presented his side of the story this way:
It had been a long, uninterrupted practice for the governor, as soon as harvest was over, to issue every year a proclamation for a publick thanksgiving, and, among the enumerated publick mercies, the continuance of civil and religious liberties had constantly, perhaps without exception, been mentioned. The proclamation, by advice of council, was issued this year in the usual form.

After the people of the province had been prepared for such an attempt by the publick newspapers, a number of persons, in the character of a committee, attended upon the ministers of Boston, to desire that they would not read the proclamation to their congregations. One had read it; the rest, one excepted [the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton], complied with the desire of the committee. There was not sufficient time to prepare the ministers of the country towns. Some, however, declined reading it; and some declared in the pulpit, that if the continuance of all our liberties was intended, they could not join in giving thanks.

It having been the constant practice to read such proclamations in all the churches through the province, a more artful method of exciting the general attention of the people, which would otherwise, for want of subject, have ceased, could not have been projected.
Hutchinson thus presented the objections to the phrase “the continuance of civil and religious liberties” as an artificial controversy, ginned up by the Whig political faction to attack him.

And it’s true that 1771 had been a quiet year. With no troops stationed in Boston and most of the Townshend duties repealed, Samuel Adams was having trouble finding ways to demonstrate the imperial government’s overreach that resonated with the people.

But Hutchinson overstated his case as well.

TOMORROW: Examining the Thanksgiving record.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“A Day of Publick Thanksgiving” in 1771

By tradition, the royal governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in the province every autumn, usually in late November or early December.

(Governors sometimes also proclaimed Thanksgivings in response to military challenges or triumphs, but those special days didn’t replace the late-autumn holiday.)

On 23 Oct 1771, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson followed that ritual, announcing that 21 November would be a Thanksgiving. This was the first year he could issue that proclamation as governor rather than as lieutenant governor acting in the absence of a governor.

Hutchinson’s proclamation stated:
FORASMUCH as the frequent Religious Observance of Days of Publick Thanksgiving tends to excite and preserve in our Minds a due Sense of our Obligations to GOD, our daily Benefactor, the Mercies of whose common Providence are altogether unmerited by us.:

I HAVE therefore thought fit to appoint, and I do, with the Advice of His Majesty’s Council, appoint Thursday the Twenty-first day of November next, to be observed as a Day of Publick Thanksgiving throughout the Province, recommending to Ministers and People to assemble on that Day in the several Churches or Places for Religious Worship, and to offer up their humble and hearty Thanks to Almighty GOD, for all the Instances of his Goodness and Loving-kindness to us in the Course of the Year past; more especially for that He has been pleased to continue the Life and Health of our Sovereign Lord the KING—to increase His Illustrious Family by the Birth of a Prince—to succeed His Endeavours for preserving the Blessing of Peace to His Dominions, when threatned with the Judgment of War—to afford a good Measure of Health to the People of this Province----to continue to them their civil and religious Privileges—to enlarge and increase their Commerce----and to favour them with a remarkably plentiful Harvest.

AND I further recommend to the several Religious Assemblies aforesaid, to accompany their Thanksgivings with devout and fervent Prayers to the Giver of every good and perfect Gift, that we may be enabled to shew forth his Praise not only with our Lips, but in our Lives, by giving ourselves to his Service, and by walking before Him in Holiness and Righteousness all our Days.

AND all servile Labour is forbidden on the said Day.
That proclamation sparked a province-wide controversy with committees of protest, newspaper essays, ministers refusing to read the proclamation from their pulpits as written or being criticized by their congregations if they did.

Can you tell what was so controversial about Gov. Hutchinson’s wording?

TOMORROW: The offending phrase.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Visit to Marlborough, 28 Nov.

On Tuesday, 28 November, I’ll speak about The Road to Concord to the Marlborough Historical Society.

The town of Marlborough pops up multiple times in the story that book tells, starting with how it reportedly sent both infantry and mounted militia companies to the “Powder Alarm” on 2 Sept 1774.

The following February, British officers Capt. William Brown and Ens. Henry DeBerniere came to Marlborough dressed in civilian clothing. They had a short but memorable visit, as DeBerniere reported to Gen. Thomas Gage:
At two o’clock it ceased snowing a little, and we resolved to set off for Marlborough, which was about sixteen miles off; we found the roads very bad, every step up to our ankles; we passed through Sudbury, a very large village, near a mile long, the causeway lies across a great swamp, or overflowing of the river Sudbury, and commanded by a high ground on the opposite side;

nobody took the least notice of us until we arrived within three miles of Marlborough, (it was snowing hard all the while) when a horseman overtook us and asked us from whence we came, we said from Weston, he asked if we lived there, we said no; he then asked us where we resided, and as we found there was no evading his questions, we told him we lived at Boston; he then asked us where we were going, we told him to Marlborough, to see a friend, (as we intended to go to Mr. [Henry] Barns’s, a gentleman to whom we were recommended, and a friend to government;)

he then asked us if we were in the army, we said not, but were a good deal alarmed at his asking us that question; he asked several rather impertinent questions, and then rode on for Marlborough, as we suppose, to give them intelligence there of our coming,—for on our entering the town, the people came out of their houses (tho’ it snowed and blew very hard) to look at us, in particular a baker asked Capt. Brown where are you going master, he answered on to see Mr. Barnes.—

We proceeded to Mr. Barnes’s, and on our beginning to make an apology for taking the liberty to make use of his house and discovering to him that we were officers in disguise, he told us we need not be at the pains of telling him, that he knew our situation, that we were very well known (he was afraid) by the town’s people.—

We begged he would recommend some tavern where we should be safe, he told us we could be safe no where but in his house; that the town was very violent, and that we had been expected at Col. [Abraham] Williams’s [tavern] the night before, where there had gone a party of liberty people to meet us,—(we suspected, and indeed had every reason to believe, that the horseman [Timothy Bigelow] that met us and took such particular notice of me the morning we left Worcester, was the man who told them we should be at Marlborough the night before, but our taking the Framingham road when he had passed us, deceived him:)—Whilst we were talking the people were gathering in little groups in every part of the town.—

Mr. Barnes asked us who had spoke to us on our coming into the town, we told him a baker; he seemed a little startled at that, told us he was a very mischievous fellow, and that there was a deserter at his house; Capt. Brown asked the man’s name, he said it was [John] Swain, that he had been a drummer; Brown knew him too well, as he was a man of his own company, and had not been gone above a month—so we found we were discovered.—We asked Mr. Barnes if they did get us into their hands, what they would do with us; he did not seem to like to answer; we asked him again, he then said we knew the people very well, that we might expect the worst of treatment from them.—

Immediately after this, Mr. Barnes was called out; he returned a little after and told us the doctor of the town had come to tell him he was come to sup with him—(now this fellow had not been within Mr. Barnes’s doors for two years before, and came now for no other business than to see and betray us)—Barnes told him he had company and could not have the pleasure of attending him that night; upon this the fellow stared about the house and asked one of Mr. Barnes’s children who her father had got with him, the child innocently answered that she had asked her pappa, but he told her it was not her business; he then went, I suppose, to tell the rest of his crew.—

When we found we were in that situation, we resolved to lie down for two or three hours, and set off at twelve o’clock at night; so we got some supper on the table and were just beginning to eat, when Barnes (who had been making enquiry of his servants) found they intended to attack us, and then he told us plainly he was very uneasy for us, that we could be no longer in safety in that town: upon which we resolved to set off immediately, and asked Mr. Barnes if there was no road round the town, so that we might not be seen; he took us out of his house by the stables, and directed us a bye road which was to lead us a quarter of a mile from the town,

it snowed and blew as much as ever I see it in my life; however, we walked pretty fast, fearing we should be pursued; at first we felt much fatigued, having not been more than twenty minutes at Mr. Barnes’s to refresh ourselves, and the roads (if possible) were worse than when we came; but in a little time after it wore off, and we got without being perceived, as far as the hills that command the causeway at Sudbury, and went into a little wood where we eat a bit of bread that we took from Mr. Barnes’s, and eat a little snow to wash it down.—

After that we proceeded about one hundred yards, when a man came out of a house and said those words to Capt. Brown, “What do you think will become of you now,”…
Henry Barnes appears above in a portrait by Prince Demah, once one of his slaves. A few years before this encounter, Whigs in Marlborough had tarred and feathered Barnes’s horse to punish him for buying goods from Britain in defiance of the non-importation agreement. I’m sure he remembered that as he led the officers “out of his house by the stables.”

I expect a warmer welcome in Marlborough on 28 November. My talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. in the Little Theater of Marlborough High School, 431 Bolton Street. I’ll bring copies of my book for purchase and signing.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Bearded Portrait Painter in 1753

British and American gentlemen of the middle and late eighteenth century didn’t wear beards.

Revolutionary War reenacting groups have to decide whether their adult male members must shave off their beards, mustaches, or [most distinguished of all] sideburns for events to make the most accurate visual impression.

Sometimes people try to argue that merely because we don’t see beards in portraits doesn’t mean men never wore them. Beards may have been rare but still common enough not to provoke remarks.

Back in 2012 I wrote a couple of postings about the Boston shoemaker William Scott which refute that argument. For religious reasons he grew his beard long. And his appearance was so unusual he scared children on the street.

Recently I ran across another discussion of a bearded man in the eighteenth-century British Empire at the Walpole 300 site. Jean Etienne Liotard was a portrait painter who spent years in the eastern Mediterranean region. The Lewis Walpole Library explains:
European travelers to the Levant commonly adopted local costumes, including caftans and turbans, but upon returning to Europe, they shaved their beards and shed their oriental dress. (Gullström et al., 187.) Not so Liotard, who had taken a liking to the loose Turkish garments and continued to wear them throughout the rest of his life. In 1743, when the artist arrived in Vienna, he caused an immediate sensation with his oriental robes, large fur hat, and the long beard he had grown according to local custom while in Moldova at the court of prince Constantin Mavrocordato. He attracted the attention of Empress Maria-Theresa and soon received prestigious commissions at the imperial court.

In 1748, Liotard traveled on to Paris where he exhibited his beard and costume at the opera in order to stimulate interest in his person, and thus to enhance his business as a portraitist. In fact, some of Liotard’s critics claimed that his success depended entirely on his sartorial performance rather than on his talents as a painter. . . .

In 1753, Horace Walpole described Liotard’s arrival in England in a letter to Horace Mann, pointing out the artist’s exotic looks: “From having lived in Constantinople he wears a Turkish habit and a beard down to his girdle: this and his extravagant prices, which he has raised even beyond what he asked at Paris, will probably get him as much money as he covets for he is avaricious beyond imagination.” (Walpole, Correspondence, 20:362.)
The Lewis Walpole Library owns the miniature portrait shown above, which is inscribed “Liotard / by Himself / 1753.” Lady Maria Churchill gave it to Horace Walpole, her older half-brother. And I’m sure we can agree that that’s an impressive beard—especially since no other man in Britain was wearing anything like it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Preserving the Memories of Lesser-Known Bostonians

This month the city of Boston announced that it had established a “pattern library” for city websites and applications.

One purpose is to ensure that city websites have a common look so citizens recognize them as official and familiar. Another is to cut down on the number of decisions that city employees and contractors must make in setting up a new webpage.

Boston’s pattern library is named Fleet. That name also probably has two purposes. One is to signal the speed that it’s supposed to bring to the task of communicating with constituents.

The second is to keep alive the memory of Peter Fleet, the enslaved engraver and printer who worked on the Boston Evening-Post and many books and pamphlets in eighteenth-century Boston. In making that announcement, the city linked to this Boston 1775 posting about Peter Fleet.

So that’s cool.

Another piece of news this week: The Old North Church has received a generous “Mars Wrigley Confectionery US, LLC Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant” to fund new research into the life of Capt. Newark Jackson, owner of a chocolate mill in the North End in the early 1700s, and to share that work with the public in various forms, including a comic. I played a small part in that grant application and look forward to tasting the results.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Letter on London Politics

Edward Griffin Porter’s Rambles in Old Boston (1886) quotes this letter sent to the private teacher John Leach in Boston. It offers a glimpse of radical politicians in London and of the Boston Whigs’ attempts to make common cause with them.

The writer was the London printer John Meres (1733-1776). He had inherited the Daily Post newspaper from his namesake father, who had gotten in trouble multiple times for printing news the government didn’t like. The younger Meres followed in the family tradition.

Meres’s letter is datelined “Old Baily, May 21, 1769,” and evidently replies to a political essay Leach had sent to the imperial capital:
Dr. Cozn.,—

I had the Pleasure of receiving your political Creed accompanied with the Presents, the One agreeable to my Sentiments, the Other to my Fancy.

Your Letter I presented to Mr. [John] Wilkes, who read it with much Satisfaction; desired me to leave it with him & begg’d I would present his best Respects to you unknown & hoped there were many of the same Opinion as yourself; it was shown to Mr. Serjt. [John] Glynn [shown above], the only worthy Member [of Parliament] for the County of Middlesex, who thought it rather too dangerous for the Press except the Inflamatory Paper I now publish entitled the Nh. Briton, the Government having after a serious of Insults upon the People deprived me of printing The London Evening Post, & that Paper is now become the tame Vehicle for Ministers and their Ductiles. The Duke of Grafton promised me in private that nothing should be done prejudicial to me or my Interest, but are Jockeys Words to be taken? but alas! our Ministry consist of few others than that class—but to return.

Mr. Wilkes has been three Times elected Member for the County of Middlesex & was refused his seat in any House (except the King’s Bench). He was chosen by the Inhabitants of the Ward, Alderman for Farringdon Without (the largest in the City), in which I reside; the Court of Aldermen would not swear him in; the Inhabitants rechose him, Ditto, so that the Ward being without an Alderman, the Inhabitants will not pay the Taxes, not being properly represented & the Ward Books not signed by Mr. Alderman Wilkes.

I could add much more of the above Gentles. sufferings, but cannot write with propriety being much afflicted with the Gout…

I remain, your Lovg. Cozn.
The 103rd issue of the North Briton, dated 22 Apr 1769, says it was “Printed for W. BINGLEY, at the King’s-Bench Prison, and sold by J. MERES, in the Old Bailey.” The issue dated one day before this letter indicates that William Bingley was out of jail and back at his shop in the Strand. By then Meres was not only selling the latest issue but all back issues as well.

The magazines didn’t say who did the actual printing, but Bingley spent two years in prison without trial and is usually credited as the publisher of the magazine. However, at least to his cousin in Boston, Meres claimed in May 1769 to “now publish” the North Briton.

John Meres had two sons who became teen-aged Royal Navy officers during the Revolutionary War.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Gen. Gage’s Trunks

The Clements Library at the University of Michigan owns the papers of Gen. Thomas Gage (1719-1787), last royal governor of Massachusetts.

Back in the 1700s, gentlemen involved in politics maintained possession and ownership of the papers they accumulated in their public careers. (Indeed, up until the Watergate scandal Presidents of the U.S. of A. were the legal owners of their own Presidential papers; now those by law go into the National Archives.)

Because of that custom, Gen. Gage’s correspondence with his superiors in London, his intelligence notes, and other important documents went home with him after he sailed away from Boston in the autumn of 1775. He had a house in London and also spent time at the family seat, Firle Place.

Before he died, Gage answered questions about the American War from the historian George Chalmers (1742-1845), but he appears to have relied on his memory and impressions rather than consulting those papers. He never published self-serving arguments that he was right all along like some of his successors in the American command. Gage appears to have preferred to leave the that part of his life completely in the past. So his papers remained packed up.

Gen. Gage’s papers were still sitting in Firle Place when an American construction-equipment magnate called on his descendants in the early twentieth century. The Clements Library blog recently discussed the trunks that those documents sat in:
William L. Clements was fortunate to purchase the papers directly from General Gage’s descendants. Not only was their provenance perfectly documented, but the papers were even shipped from England to Bay City in the same twelve military document trunks in which they had been filed during Gage’s command and then sent to England in 1775. In 1937, following the settlement of Clements’s estate, the twelve boxes full of documents arrived at the Library in Ann Arbor.

The Gage Papers were mounted and bound to make them accessible to researchers. But what of the trunks? Each is a significant artifact of the American Revolution that had spent its days in America at the epicenter of the British command. Unlike the letters and documents, however, the twelve trunks were “realia,” (three-dimensional objects). To many archivists they were of little or no use in a research library. Over the twenty years after their arrival at the Library the trunks were gradually dispersed until only one remained. Even that one had been given away but was later returned to the Clements.

This lone box appeared to be of a standard design, 32 x 21 x 12 inches high, constructed of sturdy pine planks dove-tailed at the corners with wrought iron hinges and handles and a lock. The lid is covered with a sheet of canvas painted in “Spanish brown” (a reddish brown color) to repel water. The rest of the box is painted the same color. On the lid, spelled out in upholstery tacks is the message “Secty Off / N 7 / 1770.” We have interpreted this to mean “Secretary’s Office, Number 7, 1770.” The seventh year of Gage’s actual appointment as commander was 1770, which might explain the number and date. Coincidence? Inside is a level of built-in pigeonholes with 14 slots (2 x 7). Above this is a removable tray with another 14 slots. Small paper labels once identified the contents of each box.
Putting out a call to the Ann Arbor community brought out two more trunks, similarly constructed and marked. That means nine of Gen. Gage’s trunks are still unaccounted for.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Voice from Nantucket

For the last couple of days I’ve quoted newspaper accounts from October 1738 about a violent uprising of Wampanoag people on Nantucket that not only never happened but was, contrary to the first reports, never even planned.

In the winter 1996 issue of Historic Nantucket, later adapted in his book Away Off Shore, Nathaniel Philbrick discussed another apparent account of the same fear, preserved in the Nantucket Historical Association’s archives.

This story was set down in 1895 by Eliza Mitchell, then close to ninety years old. She recorded a story she remembered hearing as a child in the 1810s from another woman who had then been about the same age—thus putting the origin of the tale in the 1730s.

Philbrick described the older woman’s recollection this way:
As the girl and her older brothers and sisters changed into their night clothes and tightened their beds, there was a sound at the front door. It was their father. He was clearly agitated and yet was trying desperately to remain calm, announcing that mother “need not retire or undress the children.” When asked why, he simply said that “there was trouble brewing with the Indians.” But all of them, especially her brothers and sisters, demanded to know more. Reluctantly, her father explained: The day before, an Indian had come into town and “carefully, though very privately” told of a secret plot by the two tribes to attack the English settlement and take over the island. Even though the character of the Indian informant was somewhat suspect, the town officials were inclined to take the warning seriously. When you lived on an island that was a three-hour sail from the mainland (in ideal conditions), you were not about to dismiss even the wildest rumor.

Word went out to all the men that they would be divided into several companies: some would stay in town to protect the women and children in case the attack materialized; other groups would head out to the various Indian villages in an attempt to discover if, in fact, an uprising was in the works. In the meantime, it had been “thought best not to inform their families until the last minute.”

But now the truth was out, and according to the old woman, there were “many fears and some tears.” Borrowing a page from the frontier towns in the western half of the colonies, the Nantucketers decided to consolidate the women and children into a few, easily defended houses, and so “the families gathered their little ones close around them, club’d together, well as they could.” The old woman remembered laying her head upon her mother’s lap, and gradually falling to sleep, “as children will.”

It was time for the men to search the darkness for Indian war parties. All night they patrolled the treeless moors in the swirling mist, their eyes and ears straining for some indication of the Indian bands their imaginations inevitably placed behind every rise of land and within every hollow. But by daybreak they had found nothing. Exhausted, they returned to town and made their report.

The next day, the town’s sheriff and “fifty well-armed men” set out to determine, if possible, the “meaning of it all.” Instead of finding the Indians in the midst of a war dance, “they found all quiet.” It was harvest time, and the Indians were “merrily husking their corn.” When they learned about the white people’s fears, the natives were deeply disturbed and demanded to know who had told them this false story.

As it turned out, the informant had spent the last three days in a drunken stupor, having used the money the English had paid him to purchase rum. According to the old woman, the Indians were “so highly incensed [that] they came near tearing him apart.” Eventually it was decided that he would receive no less than thirty lashes (the limit allowed by colonial law) at the town’s whipping post.
Mitchell went on to describe the punishment, saying it was the last public whipping on the island.

This story fits the mold of what I call “grandmothers’ tales”—historic stories we hear as children and never doubt, even though the original storyteller might not have meant them to be taken literally. Some of our best legends get into print that way.

In this case, however, the story matches some important aspects of the earliest Boston News-Letter report of the conspiracy: a single Native man alerting the white settlers on Nantucket, prompting a brief but consuming fear “wholly contradicted” a short time later. According to Mitchell, the man initially hailed in Boston as “an honest Indian Fellow” ended up being whipped for lying.

In his Early American Studies article “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” Justin Pope blames John Draper of the Boston News-Letter not only for printing an unfounded rumor but for largely creating it. According to that paper’s abstract, Draper chose to “invent a sensational account of an imminent Indian uprising” based on “conventions established over years of reporting slave unrest.”

The Nantucket tradition that Mitchell wrote down suggests that the island’s British people truly were afraid of a Native uprising around the start of October 1738, enough to gather their women and children and organize patrols. With those “conventions” about uprisings already established, local whites could have sensationalized their fears themselves. Draper might have accurately reported the news that mariners from Nantucket brought to Boston. Or newspaper reports and local gossip could have built on each other in a spiraling account.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Nantucket Conspiracy “wholly contradicted”

Yesterday I quoted items from the Boston News-Letter of 5 Oct 1738 and the Boston Evening-Post of 9 Oct 1738 about a narrowly averted uprising of Wampanoags on Nantucket Island, and ongoing fears that the Native sailors on whaling ships might have risen up, too.

However, on 16 October the Boston Gazette, which had reprinted the News-Letter’s news the week before, stated:

The News that we had in the publick Prints of October 9th, that 16 Indians of the Island of Nantucket had lately a horrid Scheme contriv’d to set Fire to the Houses of the English inhabitants in the Night, and kill as many as they could, is wholly contradicted by a Vessel that arrived here a few Days ago:

This Report arose by a drunken Indian Woman of that Island being in Liquor reported such Things, and she and another Woman was brought before a Justice of the Peace and examin’d, an could make nothing of it but a drunken Story.
(One curious detail: None of the earlier reports I’ve seen stated that “16 Indians” had conspired. That number might reflect how details, true or false, circulated without initially getting into the newspapers.)

Other Boston newspapers ran the same correction, as did papers in Newport and Philadelphia that had printed the first story. But of course not everyone saw that second item—especially decades later.

As Justin Pope describes in his recent article, “Inventing an Indian Slave Conspiracy on Nantucket, 1738,” later historians found the initial report but not the refutation. Obed Macy’s 1835 The History of Nantucket and Alexander Starbuck’s 1878 History of the American Whale Fishery both used the News-Letter article as their authority for describing an actual Wampanoag uprising.

So, for that matter, did Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, published in 2000. Except that Linebaugh and Rediker looked more favorably on that alleged bid for freedom. That reflects a larger ongoing debate among historians about whether slave uprisings in the New World were actual attempts by people to free themselves or imagined plots by paranoid slaveholders who coerced confessions from innocent people. The answer to that question offers different pictures of enslaved communities—as resistant rebels or as oppressed victims.

Other historians have caught the printers’ corrections and thus the real significance of this particular story as revealing colonists’ fears. In New York Burning Jill Lepore wrote:
If a single drunken Indian woman could come up with a plot and a completely plausible justification so compelling that it terrified an entire island of English colonists and was reported up and down the Atlantic seaboard, even though there were no fires on Nantucket that fall, the degree of panic inspired by actual fires like the ten that blazed in New York in March and April 1741 is hard to imagine.
TOMORROW: A memory of the fear on Nantucket.