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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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Birth of “Brown Bess”

Last month the Royal Armouries blog posted curator Johnathan Ferguson’s detailed article about the term “Brown Bess” as slang for a British infantryman’s musket.

The article cited three appearances of the term before its first entry in a slang dictionary.
  • John Grose, letter dated 17 Oct 1763: on joining the militia he received a “Coat, Pair of Breeches and musket (alias Brown Bess).”
  • The Adventures of a Kidnapped Orphan, 1767: “he began to handle Brown Bess with tolerable dexterity.”
And the 1771 article about Hannah Snell that I quoted yesterday, which portrays her as saying, “if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march.”

All those items show that the term “Brown Bess” was established in British society during the Revolutionary War. And there’s no indication it applied to some types of army firelocks and not others; it meant a soldier’s musket.

As for the origin of the phrase, Ferguson neatly disposes of several guesses: that “Bess” alluded to Queen Elizabeth, that “brown” referred to browning the musket barrel to protect it, that the whole phrase comes from German.

Instead, English authors were using “Brown Bess” by the late 1500s and early 1600s to mean a common woman or prostitute. In this context, “brown” meant ordinary, nothing special. That adjective was also applied to regular soldiers’ muskets by the early 1700s. So when people started to use “Brown Bess” in the context of the army, they implied that a soldier and his gun were a couple linked for life.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Hannah Snell and the Press Gang

Hannah Snell (1723-1792) was a native of Worcester in England. In 1747, her husband having deserted her and their child having died in infancy, she borrowed a brother-in-law’s clothes and name and enlisted in the British marines.

Over the next three years Snell participated in an abortive expedition to Mauritius and then a long campaign in India. Reportedly she was wounded multiple times to her legs and groin, and at one point whipped on her bare back. Nonetheless, Snell maintained her identity as a male until the ship returned to London, when she revealed her secret to her shipmates.

And then Snell made a deal with a London publisher for her story. The Female Soldier turned Snell into a celebrity. Engravers issued prints of her in her uniform. Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, ensured that she received a military pension.

With Britain at war off and on throughout the century, Snell’s story was frequently republished to encourage martial patriotism from all British subjects. Isaiah Thomas put a version into his almanac for 1775 as Massachusetts prepared for armed rebellion, reusing an old cut of a woman holding a musket. (For more about that image, see my article here.)

In January 1771 the Oxford Magazine published a new anecdote about Hannah Snell, by this point in her mid-forties, a pub owner, and a mother of two new children by a new husband. The item appears to have come from a British newspaper dated 2 January:
Friday last a press gang was very busy at Newington-butts, and having impressed a poor countryman from his wife and children, the distressed woman followed her husband with lamentations, which induced many women to sally from their houses; among the Amazons was the famous Hannah Snell, who immediately demanded the captive from the Lieutenant; he refusing, and bad words ensuing, she collared and shook him; two sailors advanced to rescue their officer, whom she beat, and challenged to fight any of the gang with fists, sticks, or quarter-staff, only let her be permitted to pull off her stays, gown and petticoats, and put on breeches, declaring she had sailed more leagues than any of them; [“]and if they were seamen, they ought to be on board, and not sneak about as kidnappers; but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march through Germany as I have done: Ye dogs I have more wounds about me than you have fingers. By G—d, this is no false attack; I’ll have my man[”]; and accordingly took the poor fellow from the gang, and restored him to his wife.

Thus did the long petticoats, headed by a veteran virago, overcome the short trowsers.——

Mrs. Snell has a pension of 50 l. per annum left by the late Duke of Cumberland, for her many manly services by sea and land.
That story was soon circulating in America as well. It appeared in the 25 Mar 1771 New-York Gazette, the 28 March Pennsylvania Journal, the 2 April Connecticut Courant, the 11 April Massachusetts Spy by Thomas, and the 19 April New-Hampshire Gazette.

In addition to giving us another glimpse of Snell, that article is notable for being one of the earliest print appearances of the phrase “Brown Bess” (or “brown Bess,” as the Pennsylvania Journal rendered it).

TOMORROW: But it wasn’t the very earliest appearance.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Two Maps of Eighteenth-Century Native America

A couple of stories about maps created or co-created by Native Americans in contact with British settlers recently caught my eye.

At Atlas Obscura, Sarah Laskow wrote about a map drawn on deerskin, now lost, in South Carolina in the early 1720s:
It depicted geographic and social relationships among the Native American nations in the surrounding area. Squares represent European settlements, with Charleston at one end and Virginia at the other, and circles in between represent Native American communities, connected by double lines that resemble paths.

This map, now known as the “Catawba Deerskin Map,” is one of the only examples of a map created by a Native American and given to Europeans. Colonial settlers reported that native tribes regularly made maps—etched in ash or on tree bark—and that this local cartographic knowledge helped the settlers develop their own maps of areas they wanted to occupy. . . .

This particular example combined geography with information about the relations between people living in the area, and some scholars argue that the paths drawn between the communities represent social and political distance, rather than geography. “This was a map that was meant to illustrate a trade relationship,” Max Edelson, a historian at University of Virginia, told BackStory radio. Edelson’s new book, A New Map of Empire, explains that the center of the map is the Catawba community of Nasaw, and Edelson compares it to the famous “View of the World From 9th Avenue” map, in which New York City takes on a disproportionate amount of space to represent its inhabitants’ view of the world.

There is some question, though, about who actually made the deerskin map. . . . Historian Ian Chambers, for instance, has argued that the map is of Cherokee origin. One of the keys to his assertion is the path that runs across the top of the map, which connects the Cherokee directly to Charleston. Trade along this connection, Chambers writes, had been logistically challenging, and a Cherokee leader had once promised a trader that “they would make a new path” to ease the way. The central position of the Catawba communities, in this theory, highlights their position as an obstacle to direct trade between the Cherokee and the British, much like a British map might put the Atlantic Ocean at the center of a map of the North American colonies and the British Isles, the center of power, in one corner.
Meanwhile, the Cornell University library spotlighted a recent acquisition “showing Seneca and Cayuga villages and native footpaths in addition to natural features” in what is now upstate New York:
It consists of three maps: a finished map of Hudson County, and sketched maps of Schoharie Creek and Seneca and Cayuga territory.

The Seneca-Cayuga map depicts Cayuga and Seneca lakes as well as six small triangles representing indigenous villages. Five of these villages are named, and all are connected by a network of dotted lines indicating footpaths.

“It’s one of the most detailed early European reconnaissance of what we now call the Finger Lakes, and what’s striking about that from a colonial/historical perspective is how late that is,” said Jon Parmenter, associate professor of history.

The map was likely created between 1760 and 1770. By then, the Finger Lakes region was well known to European colonists, but they had limited access for detailed surveying. . . .

For example, a spot on Cayuga Lake labeled “Tarry” on the map was probably a spot where people waited for canoes to come and ferry them across to the other shore. A spot near what is now Montezuma, N.Y. is labeled, “The resort of gees and ducks of all sorts all the year.”

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Literary Legacy of Joseph Strutt

Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) was an English engraver and antiquarian. Most of his career was taken up with researching, drawing, and publishing artifacts of the British past: pictures of kings from old manuscripts, clothing of different periods, and so on.

I’m using Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, published in 1801, as a source in my paper at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife today. The paper is titled “Political Football,” and Strutt described the game as played in his time this way.
When a match at foot-ball is made, two parties, each containing an equal number of competitors, take the field, and stand between two goals, placed at the distance of eighty or an hundred yards the one from the other. The goal is usually made with two sticks driven into the ground, about two or three feet apart. The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder, and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved the game is won. The abilities of the performers are best displayed in attacking and defending the goals; and hence the pastime was more frequently called a goal at foot-ball than a game at foot-ball. When the exercise becomes exceedingly violent, the players kick each other’s shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs.
Strutt also wrote poetry and fiction, including a novel set in the fifteenth century that he hadn’t finished when he died. The publisher John Murray asked a young lawyer and poet named Walter Scott to complete the story, which he did rather perfunctorily. But that book gave Scott the idea of writing historical novels of his own.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Raise the Spitfire?

Earlier this month the Associated Press reported on the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s proposal to raise, preserve, and display a gunboat that sank in 1776.

The boat is the Spitfire, one of Gen. Benedict Arnold’s fleet during the Battle of Valcour Island. The dispatch says:
The Spitfire was found during a 1997 sonar survey of the lake. Museum divers check on it yearly. Its mast is still erect and the bow cannon still in the firing position. The ammunition and other artifacts from the battle are buried in mud.

For almost 250 years, the Spitfire has been protected by the cold water of the lake. But Cohn said its future is in danger because of the expected arrival in the lake of quagga mussels, an invasive species that has reached the Great Lakes and could potentially destroy metal fastenings that hold the vessel together.
Back in the 1930s another gunboat, the Philadelphia, was pulled up from the lake. The museum made a replica that sails on Lake Champlain today, shown above.

Raising the Spitfire is a huge undertaking. The plan being proposed would take twenty-two years and cost an estimated $44 million. The steps involved:

  • two years of planning at a cost of $1 million.
  • building a facility to house the boat in Burlington, Vermont.
  • bringing the Spitfire to the surface around 2025.
  • preserving the boat by strengthening the cells of the wood with chemicals over fifteen years.
  • building a museum to display the boat near Plattsburgh, New York.

If all goes according to plan, the Spitfire would be ready for its close-up around 2039.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Declaring Independence , 27 June–July 4

In connection with other historical organizations and venues, the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area and the American Antiquarian Society are presenting a series of public performances of “Declaring Independence—Then & Now.”

These are presentations about forty minutes long in which a narrator and five costumed re-enactors bring to life the Declaration of Independence as seen from the local level in the community where they are speaking.

Each presentation includes voices from the host town or city in 1776. That spring, the Massachusetts legislature invited town meetings to discuss whether it was time to declare independence from Great Britain. Those responses, as well as newspaper essays and letters, create the tapestry of public debate.

“Declaring Independence” presentations then proceed to a complete reading of the Continental Congress’s Declaration of July 1776 (with the obscure bits explained). Finally, the presenters and audience engaged in a moderated discussion of the issues that the Declaration raises today.

The upcoming performances of “Declaring Independence” are:

27 June, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
American Antiquarian Society, Worcester

29 June, 6:00-8:00 P.M.
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, Sudbury, with the Sudbury Historical Society

1 July, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
First Parish Church, Fitchburg, with the Fitchburg Public Library & Fitchburg Historical Society

1-4 July, 10:00 A.M. & 12:00 noon
Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge

2 July, 1:00, 3:00 & 5:00 P.M.
Old North Church, Boston, with Boston’s Harborfest

4 July, 7:00-8:30 P.M.
The Depot, Lexington, with the Lexington Historical Society

Contact the host organizations for more information about each event. “Declaring Independence” is an outgrowth of the Patriots’ Paths project, in which Freedom’s Way historian Mary Fuhrer works with members of a community to explore its primary documents about America’s move toward independence. If you want your local historical organization to help create and host a future presentation, contact Freedom’s Way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Upcoming Events at Paul Revere House

The Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End has a busy summer of special events coming up. All of these take place on Saturdays unless described otherwise.

27 June, 1:00, 1:45 & 2:30 P.M.
John Adams: The Colossus of Independence
Hear from John Adams himself as he discusses his earliest beginnings in Braintree through his days as delegate of the Continental Congress and foreign ambassador. Hear his opinions of his contemporaries and how he longs to be home with his “dearest friend,” Abigail, and their children. Mr. Adams’ singular wit is appealing to children and adults!

Friday, 30 June, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
A Visit with Paul Revere
David Connor brings Boston’s favorite patriot vividly to life. Ask him about the details of his midnight ride, inquire about his 16 children, or engage him in conversation about his activities as a member of the Sons of Liberty.

1 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Patriot Fife and Drum
Enjoy a lively concert of music that accompanied colonists as they marched, danced, wooed their beloveds, and waged war. David Vose and Sue Walko provide fascinating insight into each selection they perform.

Monday, 3 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Colonial Dance Tunes and Love Songs
In the guise of itinerant musicians, Al Petty & Deirdre Sweeney perform popular 18th-century tunes such as “Mr. Isaac’s Maggot” and “Jack’s Health” on the penny whistle, flute, fife, & other instruments.

8 July, 1:00, 1:45 & 2:30 P.M.
Fife and Drum Concert by the Boston Alarm Company
Treat yourself to a sprightly concert of fife and drum music! Dressed in civilian clothing reproduced from period originals, alarm company members play marches and beat out cadences used to warn citizens of impending attack.

15 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Glass Harmonica Concert
Vera Meyer plays early American melodies on the intriguing instrument that Ben Franklin invented. The ethereal, haunting tones Meyer creates as she places her wet fingers on the rims of rotating glass bowls will mesmerize all who listen!

22 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Colonial Basket Weaving
Rather than in plastic bags or cardboard boxes, colonists stored cheese, chickens, and candles in specially designed baskets. Fred Lawson weaves and sells reproductions copied from period originals.

29 July, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
The Tailor’s Craft
Clothing historian Henry Cooke takes on the role of an early Boston tailor. Watch as he “takes the measure” of visitors, then sits cross-legged, fashioning waistcoats from luxurious fabrics and “slops” from coarse weaves.

5 August, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Hammered Dulcimer
Award-winning musician Dave Neiman plays jigs, reels, and Baroque and Renaissance tunes that Paul Revere and his family may have enjoyed.

12 August, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Colonial Leather Working
Find out how colonial era leather workers fashioned scabbards, sword belts, and harnesses. Fred Lawson demonstrates and invites visitors to try their hands at punching holes and sewing leather.

19 August, 1:00-3:00 P.M.
Tinsmithing Demonstration
Who made the ubiquitous lanterns, sconces, and other tin wares of the 18th century? A tinker! Larry Leonard produces and sells examples of his craft while describing the techniques, tools, and materials used since the Reveres’ era.

26 August, 1:00, 1:45 & 2:30 P.M.
A Revolution of Her Own!
The captivating story of the first woman to fight in the American Military: in 1782, Deborah Sampson bound her chest, tied back her hair, and enlisted in the Continental Army. Experience her arduous upbringing, active combat, and success as the first female professional soldier (in part, due to the assistance of Paul Revere). Deborah’s passion takes you back in time! Length: 30 min.

All events are included the price of admission, which is for adults $5, for seniors & college students $4.50, and for children aged five to seventeen $1. Members and North End residents are admitted free at all times. The house is open daily 9:30 A.M. to 5:15 P.M. to the end of October.

(The picture above, courtesy of North End Waterfront, shows the Paul Revere House around 1900, before it was restored and turned into a historical museum. Cigars are no longer available inside.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hesse on the Founders’ Thinking in Exeter, N.H., 22 June

On Thursday, 22 June, the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire, will host a talk by Richard Hesse on the topic “Founding Fathers: What Were They Thinking?”
In 1787 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to address a wide variety of crises facing the young United States of America and produced the charter for a new government. In modern times, competing political and legal claims are frequently based on what those delegates intended. Mythology about the founders and their work at the 1787 Convention has obscured both fact and legitimate analysis of the events leading to their agreement called the Constitution. The program explores the cast of characters called “founders,” the problems they faced and the solutions they fashioned.
Hesse is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, concentrating on state and federal constitutional law and international human rights. He was previously a community lawyer in Philadelphia heading a police community-relations project, and later head a Boston-based national project on consumers’ rights. Hesse twice received the Bill of Rights Award from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

This program is scheduled to start at 12:00 noon, and attendees are welcome to bring lunch. The American Independence Museum is at 1 Governors Lane in Exeter. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

This lecture is made possible by support from the New Hampshire Humanities Council, which in turn receives about half of its operating budget from the National Endowment for the Humanities. On the topic of “What were they thinking?” the current administration has proposed eliminating the N.E.H.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wright on “Pedagogues and Protesters” in Boston, 20 June

On Tuesday, 20 June, Conrad E. Wright will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston about the confrontation at the heart of his new book, Pedagogues and Protesters: The Harvard College Student Diary of Stephen Peabody, 1767-1768.

The publisher explains:
On April 4, 1768, about one hundred angry Harvard College undergraduates, well over half the student body, left school and went home, in protest against new rules about class preparation. Their action constituted the largest student strike at any colonial American college.

Many contemporaries found the cause trivial and the students’ decision inexplicable, but in the undergraduates’ own minds it was the culmination of months of tensions with the faculty.

Pedagogues and Protesters recounts the year in daily journal entries by Stephen Peabody, a member of the class of 1769. The best surviving account of colonial college life, Peabody’s journal documents relationships among students, faculty members, and administrators, as well as the author’s relationships with other segments of Massachusetts society.

To a full transcription of the entries, Conrad Edick Wright adds detailed annotation and an introduction that focuses on the journal’s revealing account of daily life at America’s oldest college.
Peabody (1741-1819) was in his late twenties in this academic year while most undergraduates of the time were in their mid- to late teens. Peabody was also six feet tall, recalled as “large and commanding.” (Here’s his portrait in 1809, painted by John Johnson because Gilbert Stuart was too expensive.) So it’s no wonder he was one of the leaders of the students’ protest.

Conrad Wright is the Worthington C. Ford Editor and Director of Research at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among his duties there is editing Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, a series of detailed biographical profiles of every person to be admitted to Harvard in the seventeenth and (so far) eighteenth centuries. He’s also the author of Revolutionary Generation: Harvard Men and the Consequences of Independence, a study of the men who left the college in the crucial war years. Wright is thus a prime source of information about life at Harvard during the tumult of the Revolution.

This event will begin at 5:30 P.M. with a reception. Wright will speak at 6:00 and sign books afterward. The talk is free, but the M.H.S. asks people to register in advance.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Henry Knox’s First Mission” in Framingham, 20 June

On Tuesday, 20 June, I’ll speak at the Framingham History Center’s annual meeting, debuting a new talk on “Myths and Realities of Col. Henry Knox’s First Mission.”

As recounted in almost every history of the Revolutionary War, in the winter of 1775-76 young Boston bookseller Henry Knox traveled northwest to Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York to gather large cannon and haul them back to Gen. George Washington’s army besieging Boston.

By 25 Jan 1776, Knox had brought fifty-eight pieces of artillery as far as Framingham. We don’t know that from his own papers since the young colonel had stopped keeping a journal of the journey. Instead, we have John Adams’s detailed report of what he saw in Framingham that day.

In this talk I’ll address these questions and more:

  • What sort of artillery did the Massachusetts provincial army start with?
  • Who had the idea of fetching cannon from the Lake Champlain forts?
  • How and when did Knox get out of Boston?
  • What were Knox’s main qualifications to become colonel?
  • How did the weather affect Knox’s mission?
  • What does the stop in Framingham tell us about Knox’s route?
  • What happened to the fifty-ninth cannon Knox started out with?
  • What effect did Knox’s cannon have on the British army’s plans?

This event will take place at the Edgell Memorial Library, 3 Oak Street in Framingham. It’s for Framingham History Center members and donors, so if you wish to attend you can join the organization and support local history. The evening will start at 7:00 with some organization business, and there will be refreshments and books for sale afterward.

(The photo above, courtesy of Wikipedia, shows Framingham’s marker along the Henry Knox Trail, tracing his documented or likely route from New York to the siege lines.)