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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Sunday, April 23, 2017

American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference, 8-11 June

On the weekend of 10-11 June, the Fort Plain Museum in upstate New York will host its third annual American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference at the Fulton-Montgomery Community College. I attended last year’s event and was impressed by the scores of people who attended and their avid historical interest.

Speakers during the weekend will be:
  • William M. Fowler, Jr., “An American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783”
  • Gavin K. Watt, “Neighbours Against Neighbours: Fort Schuyler and Oriskany”
  • Eric H. Schnitzer, “Tactics of the 1777 Battles of Saratoga
  • Christian M. McBurney, “Abductions in the American Revolution in Northern New York”
  • Matthew J. Hollis & David A. Ranzan, “Middling Officers in the Mohawk Valley”
  • Dean R. Snow, “Oneidas, Mohawks, and the Saratoga Campaign”
  • Wayne Lenig, “1780, the Year of the Burning: The War on the Mohawk Frontier”
  • Todd W. Braisted, “The Royalist Corps in the Burgoyne Campaign”
  • Robert A. Geake, “From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution”
  • Daniel M. Sivilich, “Musket Balls: Diagnostic Tools for Military Sites”
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing several of those speakers present their expertise. Dan Sivilich’s work on musket balls as archeological artifacts is particularly intriguing.

In connection to the conference, there are two bus tours of the region scheduled on 8-9 June. The tour on Thursday will visit the Fort Plain Museum, the 1747 Nellis Tavern, Fort Klock, Old Fort Johnson, the Stone Arabia Battlefield, the Stone Arabia Church, and the grave of Col. John Brown.

The Friday will feature sites associated with Walter D. Edmonds’s Drums Along the Mohawk: the Palatine Church, Fort Stanwix (Fort Schuyler), the Oriskany Battlefield, the General Herkimer Home, Fort Herkimer, Fort Herkimer Church, and Fort Dayton.

On the evening of Friday, 9 June, there will be a cocktail reception and a sneak peak of the documentary Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed. Filmmakers Tom Mercer and Anthony Vertucci will discuss this new film in progress.

There’s a tavern dinner on the evening of Saturday, 10 June, at the Van Alstyne Homestead with Bruce M. Venter portraying Gen. John Burgoyne explaining “How I Lost the War in America!” Tours of the Van Alstyne Homestead are free, but the period-authentic drinks will come from a cash bar.

The cost is $60 for the speakers’ portion (including Saturday lunch and coffee break), $40 for each bus tour, $50 for the tavern evening and dinner, or the entire package for $180. All proceeds will benefit the Fort Plain Museum. For more information or to register (or to suggest speakers for a 2018 conference), email info@fortplainmuseum.org or call (518) 774-5669.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Children’s Play at the Dublin Seminar in Deerfield, 24 June

On Saturday, 24 June, the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will take place at Historic Deerfield. This year’s theme is “Small World: Toys, Dolls, and Games in New England.”

The day will feature nine talks on the culture of children’s play in New England and adjacent areas of New York and Canada in the 17th through 19th centuries. The event description says:
The conference opens with talks on the material culture of toys by fashion specialists, archaeologists, and historians who will discuss the making of high-style dolls, the distribution of toys in girls’ industrial schools, and toy-making during and after the Civil War.

It continues with an examination of English emblematical books for children, printed board games designed for young minds, and the evolution of children’s libraries in the larger eighteenth century. . . . The Seminar is designed for educators, historians, collectors, independent scholars, librarians, preservationists, and museum curators, as well as students and the general public.
I’ll be there giving a presentation on football (or what we Americans call soccer), its reputation in British culture, and how it took on a political meaning in redcoat-occupied Boston during the late 1760s.

Click here for a complete schedule of lectures and registration information for this year’s Dublin Seminar. Registration costs $70, or $40 for students. Past seminars have been two or three days in length, and this year the committee chose a shorter program to allow more people to attend.

Since the 1970s the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife has presented annual conferences, exhibitions, and publications exploring the life, work, and culture of ordinary New Englanders. The seminars are now sponsored and hosted by Historic Deerfield. The collections of papers from past years are excellent sources on many topics, from gravestones to clothing to supernatural beliefs.

Friday, April 21, 2017

We Actually Have Two New American Revolution Museums

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia isn’t the only new museum focusing on that important national transition. Last month I attended one of the opening days of the other one, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. And it’s well worth a visit.

Like the M.O.A.R., this museum is a new building for an established location and a new home for an old collection, in this case those of the Yorktown Victory Center. But the curators have been bringing in many new items:
Recent acquisitions, all selected to illustrate specific exhibit themes, include such iconic artifacts as a Declaration of Independence broadside dating to July 1776; a June 1776 Pennsylvania Gazette printing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which directly influenced the composition of the U.S. Declaration of Independence; an official portrait of King George III in his coronation robes; an eagle-pommel sword inscribed with the year 1776 and the name of its owner; one of the earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies that became the United States; and a first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first book to be published by an African American.
Another acquisition is a portrait of Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, later Count Rumford.

Though this museum is at the site of a particular event—the Yorktown siege of 1781—it covers the entire Revolutionary conflict, starting with the imperial situation of the 1750s and running to the expansion of the U.S. of A. in the 1790s. The galleries have the themes of “The British Empire and America”; “The Changing Relationship—Britain and North America”; “Revolution,” meaning the war; “The New Nation”; and “The American People.”

The museum also uses a lot of interactive technology. I didn’t watch the introductory film, “Liberty Fever,” but I was impressed by many of the smaller video displays. One standout was the museum’s Liberty Tree, a metal sculpture draped with “20 electronic lanterns that display liberty messages from all over the world.” Visitors in person and online can type out short remarks (no more than 108 characters) about what liberty means to them, and those appear on the lanterns.

Beside the museum building there’s a feature I remember from Yorktown decades back, a recreation of the Continental Army camp during the siege of 1781. Alongside that is an eighteenth-century farm raising vegetables and herbs; it includes a tobacco barn, representing colonial Virginia’s main crop, but apparently no tobacco fields.

The American Revolution Museum is allied with the Jamestown Settlement, a recreation of the first lasting British settlement in North America—not to be confused with the actual site of that settlement, which is a different attraction. And of course they’re all within a moderate drive of Colonial Williamsburg. As I said, well worth a visit.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

“Charles Willson Peale is literally wearing my pants”

There’s a lot of New England content in Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution, and a lot of New England talent behind it.

The Philadelphia newspapers explain:
Seventeen of the museum’s 32 human resin figures -- and two of its horses -- were dressed by the Randolph, Mass., historian, reenactor, and tailor Henry Cooke, who worked for more than a year with a dozen artisans to create the clothes. Two pairs of trousers in the exhibit are from Cooke’s reenactor wardrobe.

Charles Willson Peale is literally wearing my pants,” Cooke said, referring to a scene depicting James Peale seeing for the first time his brother Charles after the Battle of New York City.

The figures dressed in near-replicas are next to real items -- encased in protective glass -- from that era.

There’s a coat that once belonged to Lt. Col. Benjamin Holden of the Massachusetts militia, along with a New Hampshire soldier’s hunting shirt. (Washington eventually adopted the linen shirt as part of the Continental Army’s uniform because it was considered a sign of good marksmanship.)
In addition, the figures themselves are modeled after real people involved in Revolutionary reenacting, and others posed for photographs or films used in the exhibits and promotional material. Therefore, some of those faces might look strangely familiar.

Another item from New England is the blue riband that Gen. George Washington bought to distinguish himself from other officers toward the start of the siege of Boston. As I discussed back here, museum curator and historian Phil Mead spotted that in a Harvard museum, and it’s now on loan in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Museum of the American Revolution Opens in Philadelphia

Today is the official opening of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. It combines the site of the city’s old Bicentennial Visitor Center, the collections of the Valley Forge Museum, and the best interactive technology available today, as well as some new thinking about public history.

Already the “pre-open” and “preview” days have generated a lot of buzz, and here are samples of the newspaper coverage and reviews.

The Washington Post reported on the thinking behind the museum:
“We’re trying to emulate science museums. They’re a little bit better at asking questions, like ‘Are dinosaurs more like reptiles or like birds?’ They’ll involve you in the scientific process,” [museum vice president Scott] Stephenson said. “So often history museums in the past have been ‘fact, fact, fact, tea cup, fact, painting, fact, fact,’ as if history is something you just gather up and put on display.”
C.B.S. News also explored the museum design.

The New York Times found the new approach refreshing:
If it doesn’t quite throw the old heroic narrative out the window, it does draw on decades of scholarship that has emphasized the conflicts and contradictions within the Revolution, while also taking a distinctly bottom-up view of events.

Yes, bronze reliefs of Washington crossing the Delaware and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (both based on famous paintings) flank the entrance of the red-brick building, designed by Robert A. M. Stern. But upstairs, in the 16,000 square feet of galleries snaking around an airy central atrium, the common man (and woman) is king.
Edward Rothstein in the Wall Street Journal wasn’t so pleased to see new stories, but he did a poor job of explaining why:
This accompanies an attempt to de-sacralize the Revolution. It is no longer portrayed as a struggle between colonists who were either far-seeing patriots or traitorous “loyalists.” The Stamp Tax is portrayed as unexceptional. Examples are given of “propaganda” from both sides. This Revolution poses dilemmas, not doctrinal clarity.

This strengthens the history but weakens the event’s symbolic power. And though much is still excellent (including a map tracing the war’s New Jersey battles in the winter of 1776-7, the armies’ movements represented by moving lights), a price is paid. What scenes, for example, are dramatized by tableaux? The Oneida debate, the African-American conversation about loyalty, a fight among Washington’s soldiers, Loyalist cavalry battling for the British—images having less to do with the war’s significance than with today’s preoccupations with identity-based tensions. . . .

There is, in fact, a recurring tilt leftward here. Thus, while the closing film properly treats the Revolution as a continuing project, finding extensions in civil-rights movements for African-Americans, gay people and women (and less properly in associating “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations with “the fire of the Revolution’s promise”), it doesn’t recognize other aspects of that tradition: the importance of individual liberties, the inevitable messiness of the democratic process, and the exceptionalism that yet remains.
And here I thought blacks, gays, and women were deeply interested in “individual liberties” and a big part of “the inevitable messiness of the democratic process,” especially from the perspective of people who don’t want to see more about them. And I’m convinced that in a history museum what even Rothstein agrees is stronger history should outweigh an “event’s symbolic power.”

Among the museum’s early visitors was Susan Holloway Scott, who shares her perspective at Two Nerdy History Girls. And here is Nichole Louise’s report for the Journal of the American Revolution.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Doing the History of the Concord March with Liz Covart

This is the anniversary of the British army’s march to Concord in 1775, and Liz Covart of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast has recently shared three items related to that event.

First, Liz interviewed me about The Road to Concord and how the Massachusetts Patriots’ effort to build an artillery force—and in particular the theft of the Boston militia train’s four brass cannon—led Gen. Thomas Gage to focus on Concord. You can download that podcast episode here.

Second, Liz wrote about the challenges of recreating the experience of Paul Revere’s ride in the audio medium. Here’s a sample from her essay:
There are many challenges in writing early American history in audio. One challenge is soundscape. Our twenty-first century environment is different from the eighteenth-century environment. Our buildings and spaces have different acoustics because of differences in building materials, construction techniques, and the built environment. Plus, in the twenty-first century, film, video, and modern radio have conditioned our minds to hear certain sounds differently than they really sound in nature. For example, think of the sound a bald eagle makes. Chances are your mind has conjured the call of a red tailed hawk, which is the call sound designers have used to stand in for the bald eagle in film and audio. (Admittedly, the call of the red tailed hawk is a bit more dramatic than that of the bald eagle.)

Narrative style and word choice are important when we write about history. The style we use in our writing positions readers inside or outside of the history we we want to convey. Choosing the right words when we write about historical people, places, and events determines how our readers form mental pictures and think about those people, places, and events. The same careful consideration of language must also go into how we portray early American history in audio.
And third, today we have the podcast episode that Liz was preparing as she wrote that essay: “Paul Revere’s Ride Through History.” It’s part of the “Doing History” series she’s producing in collaboration with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, showing how professional historians practice.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Samuel Haws on the Second Day of the War

Yesterday we left Samuel Haws and his fellow Wrentham minutemen at Nathaniel Richards’s tavern in west Roxbury on the evening of 19 Apr 1775. They had come across two men, one of them a neighbor from Wrentham named Ebenezer Aldis—who was from a family suspected of Loyalist sympathies.

Another version of this event, perhaps juiced up for or by Richards descendants, said the tavernkeeper’s son-in-law had seized a prisoner for trying to interfere with the militia alarm. And that the companies coming through that town wanted to hang him.

Here’s how Haws described what happened:
we marched to [Nathaniel] richardes [in west Roxbury] and Searched the house and found Ebenezer aldis and one pery who we supposed to Be torys and we searched them and found Several Letters about them which they were a going to cary to Nathan aldis in Boston but makeing them promis reformation We let them go home
The Richards family tradition gave credit to the landlord and his son-in-law, Solomon Richards, for preventing a lynching:
In the meantime a body of soldiers arrived, and demanded the tory, that they might hang him during their halt. But Capt. R. and his father-in-law resisted their demands, insisted on giving the man a trial, and through their wellknown patriotism, prevailed, and saved the man from the gallows, but not from 39 lashes, ordered by a court.
It’s of course possible that both these stories are true but refer to different captives. However, it appears that Haws and his company spent the night around Richards’s tavern, and he didn’t record any trial and punishment, however perfunctory. Therefore, I think it most likely his story is the reliable one.

For the next day, Haws’s diary turns to action, or potential action:
then marching forward we met colonel [John] graton [of Roxbury] returning from the engagement which was the Day before and he Said that he would be with us amediately then we marched to Jamicai plain their we heard that the regulars Were a coming over the neck. Then we striped of our coats and marched on with good courage to Colonel [Joseph] Williams and their we heard to the contrary.
In The Road to Concord I suggest that Joseph Williams (shown above), a big Roxbury farmer with family links to William Dawes, was a link in smuggling Boston’s militia cannon out of town sometime in early 1775. The British army expedition to Concord on 18-19 April was aimed at finding those cannon. So having militiamen on his farm brought everything full circle.

Haws then settled into the life of a soldier in a siege:
We staid their some time and refreshed our Selves and then marched to Roxbury parade and their we had as much Liquor as we wanted and every man drawd three Biscuit which were taken from the regulars the day before which were hard enough for flints

We lay on our arms until towards night and then we repaired to Mr. [John] Slaks house and at night Six men were draughted out for the main guard.

D. 21. Nothing remarkable this day.

D. 22. Nothing Strange this D nor comical.
I like how Haws switched from recounting the start of a momentous civil war to looking for anything “remarkable,” “Strange,” or “comical” to write down.

COMING UP: The Aldis brothers.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

“About one a clock the minute men were alarmed”

Samuel Haws of Wrentham, Massachusetts, was one of the militiamen called out on 19 Apr 1775 who left a journal of his experiences.

Haws’s journal would be consulted even more if he’d seen actual fighting that day. But Wrentham is on the Rhode Island border—too far for its militia company to hear of the regulars’ march, to assemble, and to hike all the way to the battle road. Instead, Haws and his comrades saw a lot of taverns and eventually made their own action.

Here’s an extract from Haws’s diary as it appeared in its second publication, in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register for 1976. The annotations are by editor Richard Brigham Johnson and me:
About one a clock the minute men were alarmed and met at Landlord [David] Mann’s.

We marched from there the sun about half an our high towards Roxbury for we heard that the regulars had gone out and had killed six men and had wounded Some more that was at Lexinton then the kings troops proceded to concord and there they were Defeated and Drove Back fiting as they went. They got to charlstown hill that night.

We marched to headens [Jonathan Hidden’s] at Walpole and their got a little refreshment and from their we marched to Doctor [Samuel] cheneys [still in Walpole] and their we got some victuals and Drink and from thence we marched to Landlord ellises at Dedham and their captain parson [Samuel Payson?] and company [from Stoughton?] joined us and then we marched to [Benjamin] Gays and their captain [John] Boyd and company [from Dedham] joined us and we marched to Landlord [Daniel] Whitings [still in Dedham]

we taried their about one hour and then we marched to [Nathaniel] richardes [in west Roxbury, shown above] and Searched the house and found Ebenezer aldis and one pery who we supposed to Be torys
The Wrentham militiamen no doubt recognized Ebenezer Aldis as one of their neighbors. In fact, he even was a cousin of sorts to Samuel Haws. (I can’t identify “Pery”; Aldis’s wife was a Penniman, so it’s conceivable that man was one of her relatives and Haws wrote the name inaccurately.)

Haws’s report might dovetail with a tradition that came down in the family of Nathaniel Richards and was eventually published in Abner Morse’s A Genealogical Register of the Descendants of Several Ancient Puritans, vol. 3. That story focused on the landlord’s new son-in-law (and cousin) Solomon Richards:
On the morning of the battle at Lexington, he was met, on his way to Boston, with the report that the British were on their march to Concord; and as he was turning his course for Dover, to rally men to the scene of conflict, up rode a man direct from Boston, contradicting the report.

Capt. R. instantly marked him for a tory, took him prisoner, bound him upon his own horse, and escorted him to the Peacock tavern at Jamaica Plain, and detained him until the truth could be known. In the meantime a body of soldiers arrived, and demanded the tory, that they might hang him during their halt.
Morse believed that the Richards family owned the Peacock Tavern, but he was mistaken—its landlord was Lemuel Child. The Peacock Tavern was at the corner of Allandale and Centre; Nathaniel Richards’s tavern was further out along Centre where the West Roxbury post office now stands. The Richards family understood that Solomon Richards took his suspicious prisoner to his father-in-law’s tavern, and it looks like Morse inserted the Peacock Tavern name by mistake.

TOMORROW: Did the Wrentham company hang Ebenezer Aldis?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Conference on Bailyn’s Ideological Origins, 21 Apr.

On 20-21 April, Yale University’s Center for Historical Inquiry & the Social Sciences will host a conference, co-sponsored by the U.S.C.–Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute on Ideological Origins at 50: Power, Rights, and the Rise and Fall of Free States.”

In 1967 Bernard Bailyn published The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. It won a Pulitzer Prize the following year and heavily influenced the next generation of scholarship on the Revolution.

Bailyn’s analysis grew out of his work assembling and synthesizing Pamphlets of the American Revolution, a compendium of the public political debate in the Revolutionary era. He highlighted the recurring themes and arguments of those pamphlets.

Of course, that methodology rested on the belief that the explicit political discussion was significant—more significant than the economic factors or the “consensus” that previous cohorts of historians had emphasized. The book produced the name of the “ideological school” of historiography about the Revolution, also labeled the “neo-Whig” or “republican” school. Other scholars pushed back against that approach at the time and since.

The conference will begin with an opening lecture by Bailyn himself. Now in his nineties, he’s a rare example of an author who can address the fiftieth anniversary of a major mature work.

The other speakers will be:
  • Danielle Allen, Harvard University
  • Patrice Higonnet, Harvard University
  • Daniel Hulsebosch, New York University
  • Colin Kidd, University of St. Andrews
  • Peter Mancall, University of Southern California
  • Eric Nelson, Harvard University
  • Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University
  • Steven Pincus, Yale University
  • Jack Rakove, Stanford University
  • Eric Slauter, University of Chicago
  • Gordon Wood, Brown University
Some commenters have noted how this line-up hearkens back to the period when Bailyn wrote his book, with men far outnumbering women. Does that reflect one of the drawbacks of the “ideological” approach—its focus on the class of people empowered to participate in published debate?

Friday, April 14, 2017

Samuel Adams: “Curer of Bacon”?

In his “Sagittarius” letters of 1774, the Scottish printer John Mein referred to:
the very honest Samuel Adams, Clerk, Psalm-singer, Purlonier, and Curer of Bacon.
Mein was clearly being derogatory, but what exactly did he mean?

To start with, Adams was clerk of the Massachusetts General Court.

As I wrote in this article at the Journal of the American Revolution, Adams was known for psalm-singing, and indeed for recruiting Sons of Liberty at psalm-singing lessons. Loyalists like Mein really harped on that.

“Purlonier” was the printer’s typographically challenged way of spelling “purloiner.” That undoubtedly referred to Adams’s controversial tenure as one of Boston’s tax-collectors from 1756 to 1764. He didn’t supply the town with all the money the law said it was owed. Mein insinuated that Adams kept those funds for himself. But he probably never collected them in the first place, cementing his popularity.

Which brings us to “Curer of Bacon.” What does that mean? A family biography treats that as an allusion to the malthouse business that Adams inherited from his father and couldn’t keep up. But what exactly is the connection between a malthouse and bacon?

I think I found the answer in John Middleton’s View of the Agriculture of Middlesex, published in London in 1807, in a section on hogs:
A very large market is held on Finchley-common for the sale of this useful animal, where great numbers are purchased purchased fat, by the hog-butchers of London, as well as vast quantities of lean stores, brought from Shropshire, and other distant counties, to be fed by the malt-distillers. Here it may be necessary for the Board to use their endeavours to correct an error too much believed by the vulgar, that the malt-distillers’ pork is not good; the hogs, it is asserted, being kept in a state of intoxication; whereas the contrary is the fact; it being notorious, that the best pork for sea voyages is that from the malt-distillers (who always finish them with hard meat); and it is equally certain, that the best bacon in the kingdom is made from those hogs; and he would be a bad workman, who left spirit enough in his wash to make his hogs drunk.
Mein’s London readers therefore might have connected the phrase “Curer of Bacon” with a man in the malt business.