"We in New England are not His Majesty's faithful subjects...We are rebels!"
Soon after John Hunniwell voiced the above words he was arrested by William Beale, a town constable, for uttering a seditious remark. Yet, oddly enough, this unschooled Marblehead fisherman was right. He had not only gauged the temper of the times but had pinpointed the underlying forces that would eventually ignite the Revolutionary War. In short, this rugged, plain-speaking 'Header was to prove himself a first-rate seer and an excellent judge of his fellow colonists, qualities he had gleaned as a result of innumerable bouts with his nemesis: the Essex County Quarterly Court.*
*See: "He Weren't No Rose Geranium"
In the months that followed John Hunniwell's intemperate outburst, he and his salty fellow-Marbleheaders were to become the rebels he had so graphically pictured. Over the years, their never-ending struggle to wrest a living from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean begat a race that was at once tough, enduring, able and zealous. Seasoned by the vagaries of wind and water, of skimpy catches and limited sales, of scrimping and penny-pinching, they early learned to fend for themselves. Close-knit and self-contained, they remained aloof, self-sufficient, irrepressible and headstrong. As they were wont to say: "What have the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony got to do with the town of Marblehead?"
With the passage of years, a series of restrictive measures enacted by a remote and unapproachable Parliament confirmed not only John Hunniwell's trenchant observation but reinforced the 'Headers tendency to flout the laws of the land. Some of the measures crafted by the Crown were designed to serve a dual purpose...to effectively curtail certain rights and privileges the colonists had enjoyed for generations. And some were designed to strengthen and extend the authority of the Crown, while others were aimed at policies and procedures involving commerce and industry, trade and navigation. Although the thrust of these acts and edicts did not escape the increasingly restive and uneasy American colonists, there was little they could do at that time to defeat their Sovereign's compliant Ministry.
And so things continued until the 16th of December, 1773, when a band of Bostonians committed an act of defiance that prompted the British government to approve a series of retaliatory measures. On that cold and wintry night, thirty-five thousand pounds of East India tea were unceremoniously dumped into the murky waters of Boston harbor by a mob garbed as Mohawk Indians.* In an effort to put an end to such disorders, His Majesty's ministers
*In a brief autobiographical letter dated Washington, 23 January, 1831, Joseph Story, the renowned Marblehead-born jurist, informs his son William that "My father...took an early and active part in all revolutionary movements. He was one of the Indians who helped destroy the tea in that famous Boston exploit." Joseph Story. Boston, 1851. v.1.p.2
decided to punish its unruly colonials by adopting a series of measures that would expand the authority of the mother country. At the same time, these measures, when enforced, would undermine the American colonies' economy and simultaneously make them more dependent than ever on the products of the mother country.
The first of the several punitive bills passed by the Parliament closed the port of Boston to all sea-borne commerce; the second returned to the Crown the right to name the members of the Governor's Council; the third granted the Royal Governor the privilege to nominate -- and remove at his pleasure -- the Bay Colony's judges, sheriffs and county officers.
But the measure that dealt the New Englanders the most telling blow was the one that decreed...
"There shall be no Town Meeting but by license of the Governor, Except in the month of March and then only to choose officers and raise money for the coming year."
The reaction of the colonists to this measure was one of unbridled anger, a towering rage that should have warned the Parliament that such policies were alienating their American subjects. This violent explosion stemmed from the fact that town meetings played an important part in their lives. For instance, at the end of each winter the townspeople would assemble to appropriate money to fund schools, maintain and improve roads and byways, and lay plans for other community projects. At any time during the year, whenever a pressing matter surfaced, a special town meeting would be called. On such an occasion the assembly would act as a deliberative body. It would settle grievances, allot land and pasturage, purchase powder and arms for the militia, and weigh, discuss and debate any legislative act or ordinance proposed by his Majesty's provincial appointees which in any way involved their cherished rights and liberties. To limit them to one meeting a year was not only highhanded, despotic, and arbitrary -- but an act that threatened their system of government!
In town after town, throughout the province, scores and scores of citizens -- farmers, storekeepers, fishermen, and dockworkers -- rose in righteous wrath. In some places they proposed fighting the measure tooth and nail; though others, reluctant to fan the flames of discord, favored a strongly worded resolution. Others, however, merely huffed and puffed or raved and ranted, hoping that time would work a miracle.
Here in Marblehead, however, the ever resourceful townspeople took a different tack. Here they plotted a course that not only kept them within the scope of the law but enabled them to thwart the plans of the Parliament. On the 23rd of May,1774, they held the one town meeting permitted under the Crown's latest edict. A meeting that would last until the middle of 1775!
It would become a momentous meeting. For the issues its members had to meet head-on were issues that boded the American colonies no good.
"The whole business of life," wrote Elbridge Gerry, "seems involved in one great question, what is best to be done for our country?..The point is, whether Americans shall enjoy the fruits of their labor, or send them in taxes to Great Britain; whether they shall happily maintain their families by the proceeds of their industry, or remit it to Great Britain to maintain pensioners in luxury.
"If the first is preferred, then the continent will see that falling on Boston is an attack on all the colonies; and as in battle, if on either wing of the army a violent onset is made, that part will be duly reinforced by a good general; so I hope it will be by the people in the attack made on Boston...."
To reassure his good friend, Samuel Adams, that the patriot cause was continuing to gather steam, he added, "Dear Sir, you will not be deserted! The inhabitants of this town and country (as far as I can learn) are incensed by this act... Americans know their rights and the value of them too well not to defend them."
On the fourth Monday in May, 1774, the "Freeholders and other inhabitants qualified to vote in town affairs" met to discuss the Parliament's measure restricting town meetings. As prescribed by law, this meeting was called in His Majesty's name and opened with a prayer, as was the custom in those days.
On this occasion, the prayer was offered by the pastor of the Old North Church, the Reverend William Whitwell. A prudent man of the cloth, he made it a point to stress the need for divine guidance, knowing well the town's anti-British sentiments.
Gerry's fears that His Majesty's government was determined to rob the Americans of their rights and privileges had not escaped his fellow-townsmen. They, too, shared the same fears. So deeply concerned were they over the way things were going that a meeting was called to consider "The Alarming situation to which we are all reduced (it being no less than this, whether we shall hereafter be freemen or slaves), to choose a Committee of Correspondence, and to adopt any measures that may appear constitutional and procure relief from the difficulties which are hastening in the colonies by act of Parliament taxing and unjustly depriving them of their interests."
It was, as planned, a well-ordered, businesslike meeting. Following the election of a moderator, its members proceeded to fill various town offices. It elected Fire Wards, Fence Viewers, Constables, Cullors of Fish, Hog Reeves, Scaler of Leather, Surveyors of Lumber, Shingles and Clapboards, and Cullors of Staves and Hoops. And to keep within the letter of the law, funds were appropriated for the schools, community betterments and other public services. Never once did the voters attending this meeting breach, bend or break any parliamentary rule. Determined to observe every nuance written into the Crown's edict, they warily sidestepped any motion or measure which conceivably could be deemed a violation of that restrictive act.
The meeting then adjourned!
From that day on it would reconvene and adjourn again and again - to become the town's longest town meeting! A meeting the 'Headers kept legally alive by employing a ruse as canny as it was simple!
(Due to a combination of happenstance and the march of events, this long drawn-out town meeting was to witness a number of history-- making skirmishes, brawls and unexpected challenges. The mettle of its members would be tested by a staggering list of alarms and threats, warnings and alerts, conflicts and disputes, discord and strife. By the time it ended many a momentous event would signal the approach of the inevitable -- the War for Independence.)
The first, and certainly one of the most disconcerting, incidents occurred a week later. On the last day of May there appeared in the columns of a Salem newspaper a copy of a letter addressed to ex-Governor Thomas Hutchinson. This letter not only lauded the retired official but thanked him for the many services he had rendered the signers in matters involving "Navigation and Commerce." The fact that all the signers were Marbleheaders was bad enough, but that they had publicly praised a public official considered "an inveterate enemy of the liberties of the province" was unforgivable. In the opinion of the town's combative anti-British zealots they were "passionate thoughtless men...who have strengthened the Hands of a subtile Enemy of the Province...who had destroyed the harmony of the town in its public affairs."
Yet despite the bitter feelings stemming from its publication, how to call to account the thirty-three "Subscribers, Merchants, Traders and others" who had signed the letter was another matter. It so happened that at this time the Patriots and Tories were savoring an uneasy peace, a truce the town fathers wished desperately to maintain. On the other hand, they were being pressured by a band of outraged citizens harboring a desire for some form of retaliation.
It was a problem that if mishandled could rend the town apart, set neighbor against neighbor, and give birth to a veritable sea of troubles. The solution, needless to say, came right to the point: This vexing issue was referred to a committee!
Its members, knowing that they had been handed a "hot-potato," eventually devised a face-saving tactic. If the "Subscribers, Merchants, Traders, and others" would publicly express their regrets for having praised Thomas Hutchinson to the sky, the town would not only forgive and forget but let bygones remain bygones!
Of the thirty-three "mischief-makers," two were so contrite they confessed their error and apologized immediately, saying it would have been better had they addressed the letter "to the devil before they had either seen it or signed it." Only six proved brave enough to face the wrath of their fellow citizens; eventually the rest of them apologized, figuring it wiser to do so than to buck the fire, fury and hostility of the town's cantankerous patriots.
[Marblehead in 1774 was second only to Boston in wealth, population and commerce. It was also the Bay Colony's only port of entry, the Intolerable Acts having arbitrarily closed the port of Boston to all seaborne commerce. Now the only vessels permitted to enter its harbor were coasters laden with the necessities of life...but not until after they had been inspected at Marblehead! A town whose streets were alive with redcoated troops and sober-faced customs officers, jaded public officials assigned by the Crown to search all vessels hailing from a foreign port for illegal goods! If none were uncovered the vessels were allowed to proceed to Boston -- their crews augmented by two British soldiers and one "tidewaiter" (custom officer). Upon their arrival, the three men were promptly dismissed and ordered to foot it back to Marblehead!]
Boston was a port in dire straits. Its wharves were deserted; its merchants, ship chandlers, storekeepers and traders were struggling to survive. And hundreds of its citizens were beset by hardship and want, their services no longer required by the now idled shipyards and empty warehouses.
By contrast, Marblehead was humming with activity, its immediate prosperity assured by the fact that it was the province's port of entry. Scores of schooners, sloops, brigs, barks, and snows crowded its harbor from shore to shore; its lanes and byways were choked with drays and cumbersome two-wheeled barrows carting thousands of gutted fish to the fishflakes that blanketed every hillside, slope and stoney beach.
But cost what it may, the townspeople were unwilling to capitalize on the ill-fortune of a neighbor. "Our hearts bleed for the distressed but truly respectable Bostonians," they announced, "as their sacrifice is a sacrifice of the liberties of this province, and all of America."
Moreover, they went out of their way to lend their hardpressed neighbors a helping hand. A group of concerned businessmen got together and offered their Boston competitors the use of the wharves and warehouses they owned in Marblehead free of charge!
Close on the heels of that offer, young Elbridge Gerry, one of the town's most active patriots, informed Boston's Committee of Correspondence that "the merchants and traders of this place... express their greatest readiness to assist, and convince our enemies that their wicked designs of dividing this people by their stratagems of advantaging some by the ruin of others, are abortive."
A week later Mr. Samuel Adams acknowledged the letter. The citizens of Boston, he wrote, "make their most grateful acknowledgements of the generous and patriotic sympathy of our brethren, the worthy merchants and traders of the town of Marblehead... Our sense of their favour, as it respects individuals is strong and lovely; but the honour and advantage thereby derived to the common cause of our country, are so great and conspicuous, that private considerations of every kind recede before them."
Insofar as the citizens of Marblehead were concerned, the die was cast. They and the Bostonians were kindred spirits, as alike as two peas in a pod!
On the first day of the month, Ashley Bowen entered the following paragraph in his ever-present journal: "The Port of Boston [is] blocked up by the British and 14 days allowed the merchants to sail for the port of Marblehead as a free port, and all wood coasters were ordered here to Marblehead and examined before they go to Boston. There were soldiers planted here and guard boats. The Custom House was here and goods were sent to Boston by land and our streets filled with strange faces and Boston full of British troops."
Though a King's man to the core, Bowen was quick to note and summarize the march of events as "Sad Times." By the same token, however, those "Sad Times" gave the town's irreconcilable inhabitants a chance to make known their views and aspirations. From this time on they would be kept on edge, their mettle tested by an unrelieved series of politically taxing events. But, unlike Ashley Bowen, they were not haunted by a sense of gloom and doom; nor were they cast down by the clashes and conflicts, the quarrels and acts of hostility, that soon would engulf them.
Despite the presence of a detachment of redcoats housed on the Neck under orders to enforce the edicts of the Parliament, they refused to be intimidated. Undaunted and defiant, they continued to assemble and express in no uncertain terms their opposition to the Crown's restrictive acts!
An interesting month.
As they had for decades past, the anti-British 'Headers, an incorrigible and truculent blend of unschooled fishermen and well-heeled businessmen, continued to pursue a quixotic course.
On one occasion the assembled citizens gave vent to their wrath. In a fit of anger they pressured the local clergy to "appoint a day of fasting and prayer throughout America."
Curiously enough, the subject of their wrath was tea -- India Tea!
As was their nature, the American colonists were inveterate tea drinkers. They, like their English forebears, annually purchased and consumed vast quantities of this palate-pleasing beverage. As a rule, the tea purchased came from two sources -- it was purchased from the merchants of Boston or obtained, tax-free from smugglers.
But with Boston's harbor closed to seaborne traffic and its citizens adamantly refusing to reimburse the East India Tea Company for the tea they had destroyed months earlier, confirmed tea drinkers had become suspect. Also, it appeared obvious that in all likelihood Marblehead would eventually share Boston's fate, as its citizens were no less mutinous than their insubordinate Boston neighbors.
Thus on a warm summer day the 'Headers, now greatly troubled by the way things were going, reconvened once again. After they had discussed the issue pro and con, this meeting asserted that "the use of tea at the time when our inveterate enemies are causing it to be forced on the American Colonies in the most violent methods, even by armed bands, is no less an injury offered to the Colonies by all who vend or purchase it, than affording assistance to those enemies to raise revenues to pay dragoons to enslave us."
Those voters also issued an ultimatum: they announced "that the town highly disapproves the vending or use of any India Tea... and views all persons who shall offer it for sale as enemies of America and this town in particular...and that anyone caught selling or drinking the beverage after having been warned would not go unpunished." Any person brash enough to purchase, sell or quaff a cup of tea would have their names posted "at the Town House and at several churches, that the town may know their enemies!"
Of its five thousand inhabitants, one -- and only one -- confirmed tea-drinker had the gall to test the mood of the voters -- and he soon came to grief. For committing this heinous misdeed, this shameless soul was compelled to apologize to a large gathering and in their presence burn the tea he had purchased!*
*Interestingly the tax on East India tea is estimated to have cost an American tea drinker, at the time, $1 per year, provided he consumed one gallon a day!
Over the decades innumerable scriveners portrayed our forefathers as a race of irreverent unruly fishermen, given to ignoring the laws of the province and the mores of the era. And all too often a wordy phrase-maker would gratuitously overstate their shortcomings -- such as they were. Why they chose to do so is hard to fathom, for the truth is our forefathers actually possessed many redeeming traits...true diamonds in the rough.
To deny that they habitually mouthed all sorts of searing oaths and unrepeatable expletives would be asinine. They did swear and curse and they did pepper their speech with sailor's blessings, indelicate language, and irreverent remarks and rude retorts. The reason may well stem from the fact that our forefathers were a vigorous and uninhibited people endowed with boundless energy. Whenever they had something to say, they invariably resorted to words both plain and simple, to words of one syllable, for most were unlettered and inarticulate. They were toilers of the sea addicted to blurting out, on the impulse of the moment, any words that came to mind!
On the other hand, however, they were neither selfish nor self-centered. Long accustomed to the quirky moods of the gods of wind and water, they were conversant with the blows those deities dealt those who sailed turbulent sea lanes. And because our forefathers had endured innumerable disasters, they understood the needs of others; they were sympathetic, sincerely interested in the welfare of their fellow-man.
A case in point is corroborated by none other than Ashley Bowen. On the first day of the month, this devout member of the Church of England observed that "the most friendly people to the town of Boston sent 11 loads of the riches of the Banks, one cask of the fatness of Spain, some cash &c., to the relief of the Poor, Poor of the town of Boston."
[The "richness of the Bank" totalled 224 quintals - 25,088 lbs, of good eating fish; a cask of olive oil - the "fatness of Spain" - and 39 pounds, 5 shillings, and 3 pence in coin of the realm.]
It was a timely gift, forwarded to a people in dire straits; to a port whose harbor was sealed tight by His Majesty's navy and its business activities closely monitored by an unfriendly corp of scarlet-coated officers. It was an act of goodwill, a gift without strings, a philanthropic donation proffered a neighbor in distress.
It was a contribution, an act of brotherhood that forged the American colonies into one indivisible union.
On this first Monday in the month, the angry and distraught American colonies dispatched fifty-six delegates to Philadelphia to discuss the Intolerable Acts and, if possible, to figure out a way to have them repealed. In a sense, it was hoped that that gathering would devise a plan which would usher in an era of peace and harmony between the mother country and her estranged American provinces. But the obstacles that confronted the delegates were formidable. On the one hand they and their fellow colonists were subjects of the Crown -- on the other hand, however, the people they represented were disaffected nationals, at loggerheads with their sovereign and his Parliament. As a result, the delegates faced a two-fold dilemma: the colonists they knew, though loath to be classed as rebels, were also dead set against becoming His Majesty's slaves!
In the meantime, General Thomas Gage, the Bay Colony's recently appointed Military Governor, had stirred up a political hornet's nest. Thinking to blunt the unrest so evident in and around the beleaguered port of Boston, he cast discretion aside: He dissolved the Great and General Court and transferred the seat of government to Salem. Whatever the Governor hoped to gain by moving the provincial legislature to Salem promptly backfired. The legislators, egged on by Boston's crafty propagandist, Samuel Adams, not only openly defied the Governor but quickly organized the First Provincial Congress. And shortly afterwards, Jeremiah Lee and Azor Orne were elected to that body. The town also voted "to cooperate with other towns in the province for preventing any of the inhabitants from supplying the [British] troops with labor, lumber, spars, pickets, straws, bricks, or any other material, except such as humanity requires."
[Throughout those troubled days the Military governor was living at Danvers -- in the palatial summer home of Robert Hooper, a prominent Marblehead Tory!]
The thunderclouds were gathering; Boston was a port sealed from the rest of the world by the Royal Navy; its hungry thousands were wholly dependent on supplies from near and far, from neighboring towns and distant provinces; it was a town overrun by British troops, a patriot stronghold disinclined to ransom its future by reimbursing the East India Company for the tea a band of citizens had destroyed a few months earlier. In retrospect, it was the lull before the storm.
In Marblehead, the attitude of the townspeople was no longer a matter of wait and see. They now were actively gathering arms, ammunition, powder and ball, a supply of flints and other military gear. Like the sore-beset Bostonians, they also were of the opinion that the only way to secure their liberties and rights was to gird for battle, to be prepared to resort to arms should the need arise.
Years earlier the Marblehead militia had been branded a company of "poor, smoke-dried, rude, ill-clothed" soldiers, this despite the fact the law required every male between the age of sixteen and sixty to possess a gun, a supply of powder and ball, and turn out four times a year for training. In 1774, however, that once ill-trained and awkward contingent was now a crack regiment "well clad, of bright countenances, vigorous and active...and well trained in the use of their arms."
By a vote of the town, its militiamen were required to attend a muster four times a year, a move prompted by an ever increasing threat of war, a move due to a worsening state of affairs and mounting tempers and tension betwixt the patriotic 'Headers and General Gage's foot soldiers.
A day of fire and fury.
On this fine summer day, a scarlet-clad British soldier committed an unforgivable act. He socked a Marbleheader!
Although the blow he dealt Captain John Merritt, a highly respected militia officer, hog reeve, and tithingman, injured the captain's pride far more than it did his body, the overall reaction to that heinous attack knew no bounds. The very fact that one of His Majesty's troopers had struck one of the town's civic leaders was akin to pouring oil on burning embers. Still worse, Captain Merritt's assailant was attached to the British unit stationed on the Neck -- the unit Governor Gage had sent to Marblehead to enforce the law that limited town meetings to one a year!
It so happened that this incident occurred at a time when the sight of a "lobsterback" striding through town or savoring a drink at the waterfront tavern begat many a dirty look and many a salty insult. And as to be expected, those chance encounters frequently fostered a war of words -- scathing jibes, nasty comments, and all sorts of verbal abuse. In this instance one thing led to another, until one of the redcoats stung to the quick, smote the aforementioned John Merritt.
Had the Lobsterback been provoked, a victim of never-ending harrassment, invective and ridicule? Or had he been "squaeled" once too often by the town's rambunctious urchins? Or had the uniform on which he usually spent three hours cleaning, claying and polishing been stained and befouled by a barrage of overripe fish hurled by a roguish patriot? Regrettably, the answer is not known.
But what is known beggars description. Moreover, the way the 'Headers responded to this breach of the peace tells a great deal. They were obviously expecting trouble, and by the same token they were fully prepared to meet it, face to face. Thus the attack on Captain Merritt was viewed as something more than an outrage; as they saw it, it was an overt display of arrogance , intimidation, and imperialism. Unless steps were taken to curb such irresponsible conduct, they and their town would soon be ruled by the redcoated bullies quartered across the harbor.
On the spur of the moment, a gathering of Captain Merritt's friends and neighbors decided the time had come to administer a dose of the same medicine that was being dealt them by the King's rank and file. Blinded by rage, this group seized their flintlocks and set out for the Neck vowing to "exterminate the entire body of soldiers" stationed there!
It was an act fraught with unmentioned risks. For one thing, the troops those irate 'Headers were planning to launch into eternity were well-armed, well-trained and spunky. And had one or more been wounded, stabbed or bloodied, the 'Headers involved in that confrontation could have been accused of treason and arrested for fomenting a seditious act. It was one thing to verbally assail His Majesty's troops, but to attack them was something else.
But as fate would have it, no shots were exchanged that day. By mere happenstance, a British officer appeared on the scene before that potentially explosive affair got out of hand. He not only won the attention of the mob facing him, but used his good offices to come to to an understanding. He succeeded in placating the irate 'Headers by promising to have Captain Merritt's assailant properly punished. He would see to it that the culprit was given his just deserts -- 500 lashes!
[When judged by modern day standards, the punishments administered soldiers and sailors two centuries ago were incredibly severe. Misdemeanors and mental lapses often earned a cat-o'-nine tails -- a whip made of knotted cords attached to a handle. The British, known for their unsparing use of the lash, were sometimes called "Bloody Backs."]
Whether the private who belted Captain Merritt ever had the flesh stripped from his back by the promised 500 lashes is not known. What is known, however, is that Marblehead was undoubtedly denied the chance to fire "the shot heard 'round the world" by one persuasive army officer -- and a Britisher at that!
A quiet month.
Still and all, the march of events continued to inch ahead, marred only by an occasional misunderstanding. Rare indeed was the day that failed to witness the arrival of one or more coasters laden with stores enroute to beleaguered Boston. On the second Monday of the month, one schooner crammed with blankets, provisions and medicines entered the harbor, closely followed by some two dozen vessels freighted with firewood. And within the fortnight, Ashley Bowen, a devout Anglican and case-hardened Tory, would record the departure of two brigs and twelve woodcarrying sloops for that blockaded port. (Though an outspoken Loyalist, the town's anti-British shipowners were so dependent on Bowen's skills as a rigger that he had to hire a helper!)
The waterfront was a busy, busy place at this time, a scene of never-ending activity. As the town was now the province's sole port of entry, every vessel that entered its harbor was subject to a thorough search by a customs agent before it was allowed to proceed to Boston. More often than not, these agents would require the vessels to unload their cargoes for inspection, a back-breaking task that served only to further sow discord and dissension. Moreover, the roads and lanes leading to the wharves and warehouses bordering the harbor were clogged with wagons and drays piled high with produce from inland villages and backcountry farms, to be forwarded to Boston to feed its starving populace.
As hostile incident after hostile incident occurred here and there throughout the province, the colonists began to realize their very future was at stake, that day by day, week by week they were being deprived of their cherished liberties and rights.
Although many of the colonists favored reconciliation with the mother country, they, nevertheless, continued to demand that the King restore the privileges the Parliament had taken from them. To that end, the Continental Congress voted on Wednesday, October 26, to adjourn and reconvene in May, if by then King George III had not restored those rights!
A so-so month. Marblehead was the center of activity as vessels from virtually every port along the eastern seaboard came to anchor in the harbor, their holds bulging with goods to be forwarded to Boston, to feed and clothe its idled laborers. And for the next several months it would remain a busy little seaport aiding, abetting and assisting its hardpressed fellow colonists throughout a period marred by unease, ill feeling and discord.
Back in England, the Parliament, when informed that the citizens of the Bay Colony were mischief-makers and worse, immediately provided their King with a ready answer. Its members begged him "to take the most effectual measures to enforce due obedience to the laws and authority of the supreme Legislature." Almost to a man, they were appalled by the colonists' acts of violence, the endless petitions for relief from both real and imagined grievances, and the mustering of thousands of minutemen.
Here, the townspeople dealt the mother country a counterblow. Before the month ended, they formed a Committee of Inspection. Composed of fifteen trustworthy citizens, this committee was instructed to enforce the Non-importation and Non-exportation agreements re: The purchase and sale of goods to Great Britain.
Early this month, the already troubled townspeople were troubled by yet another thorny problem. They were asked to discuss a plan to reorganize its militia, seven companies of well-disciplined, able-bodied men. The issue in question concerned their officers, Loyalists, who had been appointed by a Royal Governor. For that reason, the Bay Colony's zealous sons of liberty, thinking those Loyalist officers would in no event order their men to fire on His Majesty's troops, were able to persuade the Provincial Congress to do something about it.
To that end, the voters were to decide whether it was "safe, prudent or expedient for the good people of this town, while General Gage is seeking their ruin and slavery, to be led or influenced by any Militia officers who conceive themselves obliged to hold and execute said General Gage's Commissions."
But when asked to resign, quite a few of Governor Hutchinson's appointees declined to do so. It was their opinion that the town lacked the authority to make such a demand, that to pressure them to quit the regiment was unwarranted and arbitrary. And because they, too, were 'Headers, they stuck to their guns; they refused to surrender their commissions.
But inasmuch as the town fathers and the officers had been cast in the same mold, this parting of the ways did not die aborning. In short order, the town fathers gave the Marblehead minutemen, (solidly anti-British), the right to elect their own officers!
It was a well-conceived maneuver -- but it didn't work. The so-called Loyalist officers were adamant; they would not yield their commissions!
But, in the end, the town emerged triumphant; the recalcitrant officers were called to task -- they must either resign at once or face arrest for disturbing the peace!
Boston, the colony's premier seaport, closed to all seaborne traffic six months earlier, was actually an occupied town. Its harbor was sealed off, its channels policed by four ships of the line, several frigates and a number of armed cutters. And camped on its common and housed in scores of warehouses were thousands of redcoated troops. In truth, there was an estimated one British soldier for every two Bostonians, soldiers whose only duties were to draw their pay, carry out their military obligations, and, by their very presence, rub the citizenry the wrong way.
Meanwhile, more and more troops from England continued to arrive, dispatched to this country at the request of General Gage, who feared there was trouble afoot. Yet the British high command was inclined to belittle the American minutemen, insisting that any two British regiments "ought to be decimated if they did not beat in the field the whole force of the Massachusetts province; for though they are numerous, they are but a mere mob without order or discipline, and very awkward in handling their arms."
The colonists may have been an ill-disciplined mob, but they had not been idle. They were actively laying in stores of arms and munitions; they had purchased thousands of muskets and tons of bullets, a few light cannon and a huge supply of powder. And in town after town the militia was ordered to hold more drill sessions and be prepared to answer a summons on short notice.
Here the Marblehead minutemen were required to train two hours a day, four days a week, and to possess a musket, bayonet, and a supply of powder and ball. In return, they were paid two shillings a day. Their officers, however, enjoyed a sliding scale; a captain was paid six shillings, a 1st lieutenant four shillings, sixpence; a 2nd lieutenant four shillings; and those of lesser rank -- sergeants, drummers and fifers -- received three shillings each.
By the same token, the British, too, were preparing for the worst, for a war that neither Patriot nor Tory truly wanted. Time and again, General Gage ordered squads of soldiers to scour the countryside, to uncover and confiscate the weapons and military supplies the towns had acquired and hidden in barns and secret places. He even had soldiers fitted out in civilian clothes and had them visit outlying villages, hoping they'd ferret out the arms and ammunition the colonists had surreptitiously obtained. It was a ruse that failed; the villagers not only quickly spotted them but laughed them out of town, after noting their stilted mannerisms and singular behavior!
With the threat of war hanging over the colony, General Gage ordered the troops stationed on the Neck to return to Boston. If Boston was a beleaguered town, so too were the redcoated regiments that occupied it!
A typical February day. At daybreak, a British press gang from H.M.S. Lively, defying an icy cold wind, launched a sneak attack; it stormed aboard one vessel after another in a search for able-bodied seamen. It was one of many forays the Royal Navy employed in an effort to flesh out crews decimated by death, disease and desertion. It was an age-old practice carried out by a gang of brawny sailors armed with belaying pins and cutlasses, and a lieutenant "who was unable to distinguish an American colonist from a London-born Cockney."
For this reason, the moment it became known that a press gang was on the prowl the exodus began; the vessels in the harbor spilled forth their crews, the taverns and waterfront grogshops ruefully watched their patrons take flight. Although fishermen, shipwrights and certain laborers were presumed exempt, the distinction was all too often ignored by His Majesty's purblind naval officers.
(In those days, the Royal Navy was always shorthanded. For one thing, its seamen were poorly paid -- nineteen shillings a month, from which was deducted the cost of any tobacco, clothing, medicines, or gear purchased by them. Yet, "by lies they lured them, by liquor they tempted them, and when they were drunk they forced a shilling into their fist." Moreover, the food was poor -- gruel, wormy biscuits, cheese and a daily ration of watered down rum; the discipline harsh, the fo'c'sles filthy, the crew unwashed and flea-bitten.)
On several occasions, a British press gang managed to seize a number of 'Headers, but released them when pressured by a group of angry colonists clutching flintlocks. Impressment, needless to say, was one practice that fired the fury of the colonists, able seamen and landsmen alike.
Sunday the 26th of February,1775, was a quiet day. The pious were at church, the impious absorbed in activities of a more mundane nature, (Tom Bowen's church having earlier closed its doors). It was a typical midwinter Sabbath, raw and cold, a stay- at-home day. A day to snuggle up to a fire, to quaff a glass or two of warm invigorating flip, a day to take it easy, a day when both saint and sinner could enjoy 24 hours free of toil and trouble.
Thus, the arrival of an innocent-appearing vessel slowly nosing its way into the harbor failed to arouse the curiosity of the few citizens abroad at this time. For in spite of the intimidating presence of His Majesty's 20-gun Lively stationed just off Gale's Head under orders to intercept and search every incoming vessel for illegal arms and stores, scores of schooners and coastal traders continued to come to anchor within its waters.
This vessel, however, was neither a broadbeamed merchantman nor sluggish coaster. On orders issued by General Thomas Gage, the Bay Colony's military governor, she had left Boston the previous night, after secreting beneath her hatch Colonel Alexander Leslie and a contingent of 240 British regulars attached to the 64th Regiment of Foot, then stationed at Castle William, a fortress in Boston's harbor. If all things went as planned the Marbleheaders would be caught off-guard, and enable Colonel Leslie's troops to make a surprise landing, streak to Salem and there seize cannon the patriots were said to have stored at a forge operated by one Robert Foster.
But for reasons beyond the ken of man, what happened on that bonechilling February Sabbath was in fact a forecast of history in the making! Whether it was blind chance, the subtle hand of Providence, or plodding destiny, Colonel Leslie's march from Marblehead to Salem and return was unconsciously a dress rehearsal of future events!
For one thing, it knocks the chocks out from under the claim that Paul Revere was the first to mount a horse and ride through the countryside shouting, "The British are coming! The British are coming!"
For on that suspense-filled day while the British with muskets loaded and bayonets attached, were being ferried ashore, it was none other than Major John Pedrick, a Marblehead shipowner and fire ward, who hurriedly saddled a horse and raced to Salem yelling at the top of his lungs, "The Foe! They come! They come!" This a full 8 weeks before Boston's famed silversmith rent the midnight air with his cries!
At approximately two o'clock, the first detachment of the British soldiers landed at Lovis cove, the second at Homan's beach. From there they dog-trotted to Salem, intent on confiscating the cannon before the patriots had a chance to remove them to a safer place.
By this time, however, the ear-splitting clangor of steeple bells and the throb of drums had alerted the Marbleheaders. Within minutes, dozens of sturdy minutemen armed with flintlocks, powder and ball, had taken to the town's streets, determined to give battle should the need arise.
The British never got what they were after. Forewarned by the cries of John Pedrick, the cannon were hastily carted to Danvers beyond the reach of Leslie's troops. Moreover, the bridge spanning Salem's North River was not only raised but guarded by a score or more of armed Salemites, ranged along the far side of the river prepared to stand and fight. Colonel Leslie quickly decided that the patriots had the upper hand. To save face, the two hostile forces finally came to terms: The Salemites would permit Leslie's troops to cross the bridge, and march a short distance only if he promised they'd immediately turn around and return to Marblehead.
This was done. But it need hardly be added that Colonel Leslie's retreat to Marblehead was not only an inglorious and humiliating concession but one fraught with danger. For behind every stone-wall and tree along the way lurked a Marblehead minuteman!
At this time, the Marblehead regiment, commanded by Jeremiah Lee, numbered approximately 1000 men and boys, between the ages of 16 and 60. On this occasion, they were commanded by Colonel Azor Orne. They were also fully prepared to rake the enemy column with a hail of lead had any trigger-happy Britisher made a threatening move. But once again, as fate would have it, no blood was shed. And what might have been a pitched battle or an eye-to-eye confrontation was soon reversed. As it was obvious that Colonel Leslie was determined to avoid any warlike act, the Marbleheaders rose to the occasion: They fell into line and to the measured beat of the British drums squired them back to town! The next day, at 4 A.M., the British transport sailed for Boston, their mission thwarted by the Sabbath day ride of Major John Pedrick.
Though no shots were fired on Sunday the 26 of February, 1775, the events of that quiet Sabbath did not pass unnoticed. Sometime later, Dr. James Grahame, a Scottish Historian, noted that ..."At length the [Salem] bridge was lowered; and [Colonel Timothy] Pickering with his men still facing the British troops, retired to the line they had measured and marked. Leslie and his soldiers, after advancing to the stipulated point, returned and embarked for Boston. Thus ended the first military enterprise of the Revolutionary War -- without effect or bloodshed."
Later still a local antiquarian (Charles M. Endicott) observed that "Nothing could have been more injudicious than the selection of a landing place; it showed an entire ignorance or misconception of the temper and spirit of the whole Bay, particularly of Marblehead. More ardent lovers of liberty, more devoted friends of the interests of their country, or more bitter enemies of the arbitrary power exercised by Great Britain over the colonies could nowhere be found throughout the length and breadth of the land."
Peculiarly enough, it was Major Pitcairn, a fellow Scotsman, whose troops fired the fatal shots which ignited the war for independence and not Edinburgh-born Colonel Alexander Leslie. Had the latter failed to control his men, and had he not been a prudent and perceptive officer, he would have reshaped history. John Pedrick's Sabbath day ride would have replaced Paul Revere's midnight ride. And the shot "heard 'round the world" would have been fired either in Salem or Marblehead. By the same token, the 19th of April, 1775 would today read February 26, 1775, a never-to-be-forgotten day in history!
Historically, Sunday the 26th of February, 1775, was a quiet day -- nothing to boast about!
"No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries.
No climate that is not witness to their toils."
Edmund Burke 1729-1797
Early this month a fleet of about fifty fishing vessels sailed for the banks, to be followed within a week or two by nearly as many more. Some would head for the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, some to scour the waters of Banquereau, while others would lay a course for the Georges, one hundred miles east of Cape Cod. And there they'd remain until their crews of men and boys had "wet their salt" -- until the day the holds of their vessels were bulging with thousands of gutted cod and haddock, sandwiched between layer upon layer of salt.
For well over a century, the town's fishermen had combed the North Atlantic for cod and haddock, a privilege that had been granted the American colonists by King James the First. But this time, the fleet was sailing to beat a deadline: By an act of Parliament, those rich fish-laden waters would be closed to the fishermen of New England come July! A Bill that the Parliament would enact before the month was out; this despite the pleas of the London merchants, who were worried for fear that the 5 million dollars owed them by the New Englanders would never be collected if this law was enforced. When put to a vote, however, the New England Restraining Act was approved by Parliament 180 to 80!
At this point in history, Marblehead's future appeared less than rosy. Now that its fishing fleet was to be deprived of the right to garner the wealth of the northern seas, a once-thriving economy was threatened. With the markets of Europe's fish-consuming countries already lost, and its overseas trade limited to England, Ireland and the British West Indies, its people were bound to experience an extended period of hardship and want.
In due course, Great Britain would pay a bitter price for initiating a series of policies that alienated the fishermen, shopkeepers, seamen and public-at-large. But no one aboard the vessels that sailed during those raw spring days had any inkling that within a few weeks a shot fired from a farmer's flintlock would turn the world of the American colonists upside down!
April 19, 1775
The Battle at Concord
On this day, Jeremiah Lee, a prominent shipowner and merchant, died at Newburyport. An "ardent, active and able advocate for the liberties and Independence of his Country," his passing dampened the spirits of hundreds of friends and associates. Three weeks earlier, Lee, accompanied by Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orne, were at Black Horse Tavern at Memotomy (Watertown) attending a Provincial committee meeting, when they were awakened by the measured tread of six companies of British troops enroute to Concord and Lexington. Acting on the impulse of the moment they prudently fled through the back door at the very minute a squad of redcoats entered the front door. Clad only in their night clothes, the three 'Headers were forced to lay stock-still amid the stubble of a fallow cornfield, shivering in the cold, until the search party left the Inn. One month later, Jeremiah Lee died from a cold he contracted that night.
(Colonel Azor Orne, one of Jeremiah Lee's companions on that fateful occasion, was the son of a prosperous Marblehead merchant; he was also a respected town official and a dedicated rebel. And like his two fellow townsmen he gave so freely of his time and money that, like them, he was financially strapped when he departed this life.
As for Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Vice President of the nation he worked so hard to create, none has described him better than John Adams: "If every man was a Gerry," he said, "the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.")
On this rainy day the town echoed to the throb of drums, the shrill wail of fifes and the rumble of martial music: A bevy of Continental Army officers were parading the streets, in search of recruits to fill the ranks of General Washington's ill-trained forces.
It's obvious the 'Headers responded as Ashley Bowen, a tried and true Loyalist, wryly noted that "the fishermen were enlisting quite quick."
A large ship seen entering Boston harbor was soon identified by a sharp-eyed old sea-dog: It was H.M.S. Cerberus, a 28-gun frigate named for the mythical 3-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades! Among its passengers were three Major-Generals -- William Howe, Henry Clinton and John (Gentleman Johnny) Burgoyne. These men were not only members of Parliament but were considered the most competent army officers that England had to offer in the way of military brass. Each had won his spurs in battle, and each was an experienced campaigner, well-suited for the duties assigned them by the King.
But for all their years of active service, their vaunted skills and battlefield successes, it wasn't long before those three Generals met their match. Like scores of their fellow officers, they were convinced that the Americans they had been sent to discipline were in truth a raw, untrained and cowardly rabble. That they had a rendezvous with history may never have entered their minds. For unbeknownst to them, the gods of wind and water would soon arrange for those three to tangle with a regiment of "webfooted" troops, troops that were destined to undercut their celebrated reputations on four momentous occasions! Those troops, needless to say were 'Headers -- Colonel John Glover's famed Marblehead Mariners...
1. The Retreat from Long Island, 29 August, 1776
2. The Battle of Pelham Bay, 18 October, 1776
3. The Crossing of the Delaware, 25 December, 1776
4. General Burgoyne to Boston, 17 October, 1777
In response to an alarm, said to have come from Salem, the Marblehead Regiment (five-hundred-and-five strong, all but seven native-born 'Headers) hurriedly assembled and rushed to the Ferry (Naugus Head) where a detachment of enemy troops were reported to have landed. The report proved false.
A similar message was received later that day. And again the Marblehead Regiment, alerted by the throb of drums, answered the call to arms. Though these reports were unfounded, they prove beyond doubt that the town of Marblehead was ready, willing and fully prepared to defend its shores, rights and liberties!
Shortly after the frigate Lively sailed for Boston, the 18-gun sloop-of-war Merlin arrived. Although Great Britain was the mistress of the seas, she was having a hard time supplying the several thousand troops stationed in Boston. In the words of the Military Governor, "The trials that we have had show that the rebels are not the despicable rabble too many supposed them to be..."
To their consternation, Generals Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne soon discovered that the British forces in Boston were completely hemmed in. The roads to and from the town were blockaded; food was in short supply, (a pound of mutton could only be bought for its weight in gold!), the ships of the Royal Navy, lying idle at their moorings, expected at any moment to be attacked by shot and shell from land-based cannon; and the sea-lanes leading into Boston were alive with American privateers in search of well-stocked English merchant vessels.
When Burgoyne learned of this he exclaimed, "What? Ten thousand peasants keep five thousand of the King's troops shut up? Well, let us get in and we will soon find elbow room."
For its part, the Provincial Congress was urging all the New England provinces to send powder, military stores, blankets and provisions to fill the needs of the American forces surrounding the port of Boston. Its Committee of Safety, not to be outdone, sent word to Colonel Glover, instructing him to muster the Marblehead Regiment and to be ready at a moment's notice to respond to active duty.
Within the fortnight, the Marblehead Regiment would be inducted into the Continental Army to be known as the Twenty-First regiment. At the same time, the Continental Congress appointed John Glover a Colonel in the army of the United Colonies of America. A truly foreseeing Congress, or had its members a premonition of events to come?
Shortly after this, Colonel Glover and the officers and men of the Twenty-First left Marblehead one bright and early morning and marched to Cambridge. There they awaited the arrival of the man whom John Adams had suggested be made the Commander in Chief of all the "forces then raised, or that should be raised, or that should be raised thereafter in the United Colonies... the modest and virtuous, the amiable generous and brave George Washington, Esquire." And there the 'Headers remained for several months until, in December, Washington dispatched the regiment to Beverly to guard that town against a threatened attack by a small enemy fleet.
In the meantime, the Bay Colony's Military Governor, General Gage, with the advice of his renowned colleagues decided to fortify a promontory designated Dorchester Heights. But when this became known, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety advised the Patriot's Council of War to immediately occupy Bunker Hill in Charlestown and see that it was securely kept and defended.
One day later, some twelve hundred minutemen, bearing their muskets, powder and ball, and one day's rations, gathered on Cambridge Common. At dusk they began a trek to Bunker Hill, after first listening to the President of Harvard College pray for divine guidance and the success of an enterprise, the nature of which was still a secret to all but one or two officers.
At daybreak the next morning, H.M.S. Lively, which had left Marblehead a fortnight earlier, opened fire on the patriots stationed behind some jerry built breastworks. When it became clear that the Americans were determined to stand fast, General Howe and his staff resolved to take the hill by force. Before this battle ended, one hundred and fifteen Americans lay dead; on the other hand, the British losses totalled two hundred-twenty-six -- it was a bloody, hard-fought battle. One Britisher summed up this engagement saying, "Damn the rebels, they would not flinch!"
It so happened that on this never-to-be-forgotten day, Captain Samuel Trevett, the commander of an artillery company, was one of the few Marbleheaders to play an active part in that day-long engagement. Of the three companies that formed the Massachusetts Artillery Company led by Major Scarborough Gridley, only Captain Trevett came through with colors flying. He not only was the sole artillery officer "to get his orders straight" but of the three companies, his was the only one to carry from the field of battle the only cannon captured by the Americans! Sometime later, Major Gridley and Captain John Callender would be dismissed from the service for "drawing to the rear" during the height of the battle. As the King's Secretary of War observed, "It is true they [the Americans] have not been thought brave, but enthusiasm gives [them] vigour of mind and body unknown before!"
He also observed that the conquest of the rebellious United Colonies would not be easy...
The town meeting that Deacon Stephen Phillips had called to order one year and two months earlier had come to an end. On the day it dissolved, it made history; it marked the closing of the longest town meeting ever held in Marblehead! It also marked the last time the towns- people would be summoned to a meeting called in the name of His Majesty, George the Third! And -- believe it or not -- this particular meeting not only circumvented a Parliamentary law, but managed to do so without once violating it!!! This was accomplished by exploiting the rules and procedures governing town meetings -- by resorting to an unbroken chain of adjourned meetings, they succeeded in keeping alive, for over a year, the one annual town meeting permitted by an edict of the King!!!
From this time on, the town of Marblehead and its militant inhabitants would channel their energies and resources into prosecuting the War for Independence. The fort guarding its harbor would be rebuilt and fortified with cannon; its master mariners would scour the sealanes for the enemy supply ships; and its brawny oarsmen would do themselves proud in 1776, the most critical year of the war.
In short, the inhabitants of this tiny seaport, the ever redoubtable 'Headers, made it a point to devote their physical, mental and spiritual resources to help forge a new nation -- the United States of America!