Sunday, March 18, 2018

Episode 036: Sinking the HMS Gaspee

Last week, we looked at a few of the internal colonial disputes in the Carolinas.  Those issues involved fights between the people and the colonial government.  This week, Rhode Island takes on the British Navy directly by sinking the HMS Gaspee.

Trade Enforcement

Following the repeal of the Stamp Act and most of the Townshend Acts, Parliament focused its attempts to assert authority over the colonies through tougher trade enforcement.  Smuggling had always been common in the colonies, as historically London had not made much of an attempt to enforce trade laws.  Almost no colonists argued that Parliament lacked authority to create and enforce some trade laws, but strict enforcement of existing laws made profitable trade almost impossible.

After the end of the Seven Years War, the British began focusing more on enforcement.  It began as a way to raise revenue, but by 1770, enforcement seemed more about asserting authority than raising any money.  As we saw back in Episode 29, London had placed an American Board of Customs in Boston, responsible for enforcing trade laws and collecting tariffs.  It then sent in Regulars to back up the board, leading to the Boston Massacre (See, Episode 33) and pulling the soldiers out of the city.

The withdrawal of troops did not mean that officials had given up on trade enforcement.  The North Ministry, and Parliament, with the agreement of the King, all felt that colonists could no longer get away with ignoring the laws of the Empire.  Even if authorities had to watch their step on land, the British navy still controlled the seas.

British Dockyard at Woolwich,18th Century (from
Throughout the 1700s, Britain had been regularly at war with one country or another.  The down time between wars presented its own problems.  A peacetime military was expensive.  Yet keeping ships and crew active meant they would be ready for the next war. Otherwise, ships sat in dock, rotting away.  Sailors found other jobs, and officers sat at home on half-pay with little to do.  Putting a few naval vessels to work controlling smuggling seemed like a better alternative.  It kept the ships and men active, raised some revenue, and reminded the colonies who was in control.  Since the end of the Seven Years War, the Navy headquartered in Halifax, deployed dozens of ships patrolling around all the major North American ports.

Despite increased enforcement, many merchant ships still found smuggling profitable, either bringing in goods from foreign ports in violation of trade laws, or simply trying to avoid customs duties.  If caught, officials could seize a ship and its cargo.  If condemned by the Admiralty Court it would be sold at auction, along with additional fines for the ship’s owner.  Since the officers and crew of the naval vessel capturing such a prize received a share of the sales price, they had good incentive to pursue smugglers with zeal.

Rhode Island’s Radicals

Although Boston was the largest port in New England, the coast was dotted with many ports, large and small.  Merchant vessels could land at any of them, or even try to offload their ships via smaller boats at some remote beach.  Rhode Island had a busy port at Newport, and also had a fair share of merchants who made every effort to avoid paying tariffs, or who wanted to trade with foreign colonies in violation of British trade laws.

The people of Rhode Island had a history of challenging British authorities in their waters.  In 1764, following passage of the Sugar Act, a British Navy ship, the HMS St. John  patrolled the waters around Newport looking for smugglers.  While the ship was docked in Newport, some event happened, that is rather vague.  Different accounts say that some of the ship’s crew stole property.  Others say the crew came ashore either to impress local sailors or to capture deserters, resulting in a massive brawl with local sailors on the docks.

Fort George, Newport Harbor (from
As local authorities attempted to make arrests, the St. John attempted to leave port.  Locals occupied Fort George on an island in Newport Harbor.  From there they fired the fort’s cannon at the St. John.  No one was hit, and the locals fled the island before a larger navy ship came in range.  But the incident made clear that colonists in Rhode Island were not afraid to attack authorities if provoked.

The following year, in June 1765, shortly after passage of the Stamp Act, the HMS Maidstone landed a press gang in Newport harbor.  Locals fought with the press gang.  A mob of about 500 men seized the launch craft that had landed, dragged it to the commons, and burned it.

I’ve already mentioned the Liberty, the ship authorities seized from John Hancock in Boston.  The seizure had led to the Liberty riot of 1768 that I discussed back in Episode 29.  By 1769, the British navy was using the HMS Liberty to enforce trade laws.  The crew of the Liberty forced two small Connecticut boats to land at Newport for suspected smuggling violations.  The Captain of the boats accused the crew of the Liberty of abusing him and his men.  Witnesses from Providence had seen the Liberty fire on the unarmed boats after the captain apparently resisted allowing the navy to board his ships.  An outraged mob formed, forcing the crew of the Liberty off of the ship.  They took the ship out into the harbor and set it on fire.

In all of these cases, authorities attempted to bring criminal charges, but no one would identify any of those involved.  Like Boston, the local courts in Newport were stacked with people who would not indict or convict anyone for criminal acts against the hated authorities.  Further, if anyone attempted to cooperate with prosecutors, they might find themselves with a new suit of tar and feathers, or some other punishment.  As a result, locals felt comfortable using violence against the navy when provoked.

William Dudingston

Naval officers tended not to be the most politically sensitive individuals.  A ship’s captain ruled his crew by fear.  He kept his men in line by flogging or other painful punishments for infractions of the rules.  Officers tended to show the same authoritarian contempt for civilians as well.  British crews were not afraid to use violence against civilian crews that displayed any resistance to their orders.  Even for legitimate merchants, a stop at sea could delay a voyage for hours.  A decision to force the ship into docks could mean a delay of several days.  The level of harassment, or strict adherence to the rules, was a largely a matter of discretion for the ship’s captain.  Different officers handled their responsibilities in very different ways.

Lt. William Dudingston, commander of the Gaspee, quickly gained a reputation as being one of the worst, at least from the perspective of the colonists. Dudingston was in his early 30’s.  He came from minor Scottish aristocracy, that had fallen on hard times.  He took command of the Gaspee in 1768 and had been using Philadelphia as a base as he patrolled the waters up and down the east coast.

HMS Gaspee (from
It’s not clear why Dudingston acted especially aggressively in his enforcement of trade regulations. Perhaps he was bucking for promotion.  Perhaps he appreciated the prize money from seized vessels.  As a Lieutenant, he made only £100 per year.  In some years, he nearly doubled his annual income with prize money from seized ships and cargo.  Whatever the reason Dudingston went after everyone.  Even the most politically powerful families and operators of the smallest ships did not escape his strict enforcement of customs laws.

Dudingston also apparently had an attitude, treating all civilians with contempt.  On several boardings, his men beat up ship captains and crew, presumably for resisting in some way.  He quickly developed a reputation for harassing local ships, boarding even small packet boats moving around the bay, demanding papers and wasting everyone’s time.  A British board of inquiry later described it as “intemperate, if not reprehensible zeal to aid the customs service.”

While in the waters around Philadelphia, Dudingston apparently got into several fights.  There is one article about him beating up a fisherman, unprovoked, though the article is written by the fisherman, so we only have that side of the story.  Given that there are many such stories, though, it seems that Dudingston was quite comfortable beating up locals if he thought they did not give him the respect he deserved.

The Gaspee 

The HMS Gaspee itself was a rather small schooner with a crew of only around 20-25 men and six cannon, as well as a few swivel guns.  It was built as a small fast ship, designed to run down merchant vessels, not fight with other ships of war.  It was able to move at a good speed for the day, travel through relatively shallow water and was sufficiently armed to intimidate any merchant vessel it encountered.

The Admiralty had ordered the Gaspee and five similar ships built in the colonies in 1764 for the purpose of customs enforcement.  The Gaspee had been in continuous use since that time, patrolling waters from Nova Scotia to Philadelphia.  It only had one other commander before Dudingston took command in 1768.

Patrolling Rhode Island

In early 1772, Dudingston began to focus his attention on the waters around Newport.  In addition to treating merchants and captains with contempt, he liked to show his contempt for local government officials.  Naval vessels patrolling colonial waters typically presented their credentials to local authorities before searching and seizing merchant vessels.  Dudingston never bothered with this.

Nathanael Greene
(from Wikimedia)
Some who had encountered the Gaspee at sea claimed that there was nothing to identify it as a naval vessel.  Some merchants initially thought they were being attacked by pirates.

In February, the Gaspee seized the Fortune a small sloop illegally carrying sugar and rum from the West Indies.  Dudingston determined this was illegal smuggling and ordered the ship and its cargo seized.  There was nothing particularly remarkable about this seizure other than the fact that the ship was owned by the Greene family, a wealthy and powerful merchant family in Rhode Island.  One of the owners was Nathanael Greene, a future General in the Continental Army.  Some point to this event as one that help set Greene on the path toward joining the patriot cause. The Gaspee spent the spring harassing ships, even small fishing vessels, often seizing ship and hauling the occupant to Boston for trial.

As merchants began reporting more seizures of ships, they looked to the colonial government for some relief.  Unlike most colonies, Rhode Island had an elected governor, who had to be responsive to the people, or suffer the consequences at the next election.

Adm. John Montegu
(from Royal Museum Greenwich)
Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton sent Dudingston several letters demanding he produce his commission to engage in Customs service.  As an elected Governor, Wanton was more inclined to back the popular will rather than dictates from London.  It also meant that British officers saw him as a colonial political hack rather than a representative of the crown.

Dudingston simply forwarded the Governor’s letters to Admiral Montegu, his commander in Halifax without responding directly.  Montegu backed him up, essentially telling the Governor that Dudingston was doing his duty, and that the Governor should do his duty by assisting the Navy, not annoying its officers.

Both the Governor and Admiral sent copies of all correspondence back to London trying to get support for their positions.  But before London could act, the colonists decided to put an end to the Gaspee’s activities.

The Attack

On June 9, 1772 a small packet sloop named the Hannah made a run from Newport to Providence.  The Gaspee attempted to approach and board her.  The Hannah’s Captain Benjamin Lindsey, knew the Bay much better than Dudingston.  He took the Hannah over a shallow area that his ship could clear but the larger Gaspee could not.  The Gaspee became stuck on the sandbar.  The Hannah escaped while the Gaspee waited for high tide.

Captain Lindsey arrived in Providence and informed others about what happened.  They sent out a town crier to call a meeting of locals.  A group of men assembled at a tavern to discuss how to deal with the Gaspee once and for all.

Burning of the Gaspee (from
Around 10:00 that night, a group of armed men in eight longboats rowed out to the Gaspee, using muffled oars to avoid detection.  A sentry aboard the still grounded Gaspee hailed the men, who did not respond.  However, the sentry’s actions alerted Lt. Dudingston who appeared on deck only half dressed to demand an answer from the approaching boats.  The response he got was a bullet in the gut.

Some accounts say the attackers announced that the Sheriff was in the party and that he had a warrant for Dudingston’s arrest.  They shot Dudingston only after he refused to allow the party to board and serve the warrant. They only shot Dudingston after he struck one of the attackers with his sword.

Whatever the initial encounter, the men then stormed the ship before the crew could mount any resistance.  They forced the crew below deck. At first, Dudingston remained on deck, bleeding to death.  But after a short time, they removed him below deck and treated his wounds.   They also removed some of the ship papers.  The attackers then collected Dudingston and his crew, and removed them from the ship.  They left them on the shore near Pawtuxet Village, the nearest settlement to the ship.

Later that night, shortly before dawn, the attackers set the Gaspee on fire.  The burned it to the water line.  The exploded powder magazine assured the ship’s complete destruction.

The Consequences

Now, burning a naval vessel and shooting a British officer were not things that authorities took lightly.  Such an attack was treason.  Earlier attacks on British naval property had not involved shooting an officer.  So the Gaspee incident created a whole new level of concern about law and order in the colonies.

Gov. Wanton, eager to stay in the good graces of those in London, but not overly concerned about bringing the criminals to justice, issued an reward offer of £100 to anyone with information leading to the arrest of anyone involved.  Later, King George issued a proclamation offering a reward of £500. Although many were well aware of those involved, no one came forward to implicate anyone. Even if someone objected to the attack, knew the perpetrators, and wanted the reward money, they knew that snitching would result in a mob attacking them and destroying their property, if not causing bodily harm.  No one seem willing to risk that for the possibility of even a rather generous reward.

Gov. Joseph Wanton
(from Wikimedia)
Lt. Dudingston refused to speak with any local officials about the attack.  He probably did not trust them to do anything anyway. Since he had lost a ship, he faced an automatic court martial.  He knew any statements he made could be used against him.  Dudingston’s court martial took place a England a few months later.  The Court completely acquitted him and Dudingston received a promotion to Captain shortly thereafter.  Dudingston did apply for a pension that year. His wound required time for rest and recuperation.

A month after the attack, one of sailors on the Gaspee got a job on another ship and recognized Aaron Briggs as one of the men who had seized the Gaspee.  The ship’s captain got Briggs to confess and to implicate two other leading merchants.  Gov. Wanton attempted to arrest Briggs, but the captain refused to allow the Sheriff to board his ship.  I suspect the Captain feared that once in the hands of the colonists, Briggs would recant or suddenly disappear.

The King ordered a Royal Commission in Rhode Island to resolve this matter.  The Commission was supposed to find out who was involved and ship them back to London for a treason trial.  After six months investigating the matter it came up relatively empty.  It even dropped charges against Briggs.  It turned out the Captain had extracted a confession from Briggs by threatening to hang him if he did not confess.  Under such circumstances, the Commission deemed the confession invalid.  Further, the Commission could not identify a single person involved in the incident.

One of the big problems for the Commission is that Gov. Wanton served as one of the commissioners.  He attacked every witness and seemed to shut down every line of investigation as best he could.  As an elected Governor, he knew his political future meant trying to keep prominent citizens from getting caught up in a legal mess over this incident.  He wanted the matter to go away as quickly as possible.

In the end, the Commission reprimanded virtually everyone involved.  The Governor for not pursuing the criminal investigation with enough zeal (prior to his sitting on the commission), the Captain who extracted Brigg’s confession and then refused to turn him over to lawful authorities, and Dudingston for exercising too much zeal in enforcing customs laws.  The Navy, however, did not seem to blame Dudingston for anything.  After a mandatory court martial for losing his ship, the Navy acquitted Dudingston and soon promoted him to Captain.  He would return to active duty in 1776 and go on to become an Admiral years later.

While very little came from the incident directly, the Gaspee affair created even more divisions between England and the colonies.  London saw the incident as yet another egregious example of colonists’ refusal to accept lawful authority, instead engaging mob rule.  The incident increased colonial fears that England was willing to remove accused criminals to London for trial, denying them the right to a local jury trial.  The sinking of the Gaspee itself turned out to be a relatively isolated incident in 1772.  It did not inspire any copycat attacks on the Navy, nor did London overreact by implementing punitive measures against the colony.  This allowed the relative calm to continue for another year and a half.

Next Week: We take a look at the Committees of Correspondence, and the Colony of Vandalia.

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:
Web Sites

For anyone interested in learning more about the Gaspee, this is the most thorough and authoritative website on the topic:

The Story of the Gaspee Attack:

The Gaspee Affair:

Armstrong, Benjamin F. “An Act of War on the Eve of Revolution” Naval History Magazine, 2016:

Watch Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse discuss the Gaspee Affair on the floor of the Senate (June 9, 2015):

William Dudingston:

Admiral John Montagu (1719-1795):

Bryant, Samuel W. “HMS Gaspee - The Court Martial” Rhode Island History, 1966:

Park, Steven “Revising the Gaspee Legacy” Journal of the American Revolution, 2015:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bartlett, John A history of the destruction of His Britannic Majesty's schooner Gaspee, in Narragansett Bay, on the 10th June, 1772, Providence: A. Crawford Greene, 1861.

Staples, William R. The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, Providence: Knowles, Vose, and Anthony,1845.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2015.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Nelson, James George Washington’s Secret Navy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Park, Steven The Burning of His Majesty's Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution, Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2016.

Raven, Rory Burning the Gaspee: Revolution in Rhode Island, Charleston: History Press, 2012.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links). 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Episode 035: Carolina Regulators and Battle of Alamance

Last week we discussed the decision to pull the British troops out of Boston following the Boston Massacre, as well as the repeal of most of the Townshend Duties.  These pullbacks ushered in several years of relative calm, from the end of 1770 until the end of 1773 when the Tea Party broke the peace once again.  Of course, those years were not entirely trouble free.  Today I want to cover the Regulator movement in the Carolinas.

I find the political evolution of South Carolina and North Caroline particularly fascinating.  In both cases settlers of the western part of the colony tended to be German, Scotch, or Irish, as compared to the English who settled along the east coast.  However, when the Revolution broke out, the western North Carolina settlers tended to support the patriot cause while easterners tended to maintain stronger support for the king. In South Carolina the opposite happened. Easterners joined the patriot cause, while westerners tended to remain loyal to the king.

South Carolina Regulators

I have not paid much attention to South Carolina since Episode 15, when the British crushed the Cherokee Uprising of 1761.  After the Cherokee gave up a large amount of territory to settle that dispute, colonial settlers moved in and set up farms.  Although parts of what is known as the Piedmont region of the colony had white colonists who had already lived there for a generation or two, the 1760’s saw a period of substantial growth.

Land settlement came quickly, but government in the new settlements did not keep up with the population boom.  This led to what we call the Regulator movement.  South Carolina Regulators were generally farmers and men of property who lived in the western part of the State.  These new settlers primarily, were not South Carolinians moving west. Rather they were immigrants moving into the colony.

South Carolina had a Governor and Council appointed by the King.  The colonists elected a House of Commons, although property requirements greatly limited voting to a relatively small minority of planters.  Elected officials had even more stringent requirements.  Members had to own 500 acres of land or more, at least 10 slaves or equivalent property, and belong to the Anglican Church.

Most of the western settlers were not Anglicans.  They were recent immigrants from Western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina.  Their families tended to be German, Scotch-Irish, or Welsh.  As in England, the colonial legislature did not see any need to redistrict on a regular basis.  So even the few men who might qualify to vote, did not have any representation in Charleston.

The Piedmont region also had no sheriffs, courts, or jails to maintain law and order.  The local property owners formed themselves into vigilante groups, known as Regulators, which enforced their view of law.  Mostly, they targeted what they called hunters.  These were essentially homeless people with guns.  They roamed the back country, killing animals, often farm animals.  They left half eaten carcasses, which attracted wolves and other undesirable wildlife.  They would sometimes start fires to chase game at night. They often wandered into Indian reserves, potentially stirring up another war.  Sometimes they would steal directly from farmers or even raid isolated farms.  There are stories of some brutal home invasions during this time.

War of Regulation (from Wikipedia, artist's conception)
The Regulators first organized to drive these undesirables out of the area.  Regulators would go after anyone believed to be guilty of a crime or other undesirable behavior.  If a suspect was captured, the Regulators would most commonly dispensed punishment with a whipping, sometimes with a demand that the accused leave the area.  Property owners who did something to displease the Regulators might find their barn or home burned to the ground.  Even suspected prostitutes were subjected to whippings as the regulators attempted to make their territory more respectable.

Regulators also had to deal with escaped slaves.  The Regulators tended to be wealthy property owners, many of whom owned slaves.  The communities of ruffians living in the back country often provided asylum to escaped slaves which not only made it easier for slaves to escape, but created a core that might eventually organize into a slave rebellion.

The Regulators operated for most of the 1760s, providing the only source of law, frontier justice for the region.  But even the Regulators wanted a more official and permanent form of law enforcement.  They lobbied the Governor and assembly for influence in the government.  They wanted representation to put in place a more legitimate and stable government in the west.  In 1768, the government obliged by creating new Judicial Districts for the western regions.  It also organized new electoral districts.  Finally, after elections, the western districts sent representatives to the legislature in Charleston in 1770.

By then it was pointless.  I mentioned a few episodes back, after the legislature sent money to John Wilkes in 1769, the Governor prevented the legislature from appropriating any more funds, and in 1771, the Governor stopped all legislation.  So, the 1770 victory got the westerners representation in a legislature that could not pass any legislation, yay!

Even so, the creation of judicial districts, along with sheriffs and courts, largely put an end to the Regulator movement in South Carolina.  Landowners could still serve as posses when the sheriff needed them, but law enforcement system was at least administered by government officials.

Despite bringing the westerners into colonial politics, the east coast elites and the back country Regulators remained divided in many ways, religious, social, and cultural.  When the eastern colonists largely joined in the rebellion against Britain a few years later, the inland groups tended to join the Loyalist side and fought with the British when the war came to South Carolina.

North Carolina Regulators

The North Carolina Regulators evolved in a very different way.  If South Carolina Regulators complained about not enough government, the North Carolina Regulators complained about too much, or at least too corrupt.  Settlers in the western parts of North Carolina came from similar backgrounds as their western South Carolina neighbors.  They also encountered some of the same fundamental differences from those controlling the colony along the east coast.

Like its southern neighbor, North Carolina had a crown appointed Governor and Council, as well as an elected legislature.  Voting was limited to free men of property and districting strongly favored those living along the coast.  The eastern dominated colonial government appointed tax collectors, sheriffs, and judges to administer the inland counties.

Now I know it’s hard to believe today, but in the mid-1700’s North Carolina often had corrupt local officials who harassed and ripped off the residents.  The tax system was bad enough. The colony had a poll tax, which unlike an income or property tax, meant that every person paid the same amount.  It did not matter if you were a subsistence dirt farmer or a plantation owner with 10,000 acres.  As you might guess, such a system was particularly tough on the poor.

Government officials earned a living by going out and extracting money from tax delinquents by any means necessary.  Some had a nasty habit of collecting a tax, then “losing” the paperwork and demanding they pay a second time.

Another big problem was the lack of cash in the economy.  As I discussed in earlier episodes, the lack of gold and silver in the colonies caused serious economic problems.  Some colonies had tried to circulate paper money, but London usually did not allow that.  In North Carolina, especially in the west, most people operated on a barter system, with very little cash circulating.  Keeping money in your home was actually dangerous as it made you a target for theft.

Taxes, however, had to be paid in gold or silver.  If a taxpayer did not have enough ready cash when the tax man came around, the tax collector would put a distrain on the property, effectively seizing it.  The tax collector received fee for doing so, and therefore had every incentive not to give the taxpayer any time to come up with the cash.  Within days, the state would sell the owner’s property, usually at a cut price to a friend of the tax collector, who again collected a fee for his work on the tax sale.  Collectors also added fees if they had to visit the home of a taxpayer who did not show up to pay taxes at a designated time and place.  Tax collectors often would not give much of any notice when they would arrive.  Often, colonists would find the original tax bill to be only a small portion of the total fees added to their bill.

Some locals attempted to take the tax collectors to court.  But the tax collector was the local sheriff or deputy.  He often colluded with judges and lawyers to extract even more court fees and legal costs before finding against the taxpayer anyway.

Westerners did not have many political options either.  Local citizens held town meetings and sent petitions to the Governor for reform, but these all seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Like South Carolina, North Carolina apportioned most of its representatives in the east, meaning the westerners were very underrepresented in the legislature.  For example, two western counties contained 6000 people and had four representatives.  At the same time, five small counties along the coast had a total of less than 2000 people and had 25 representatives.  Although they had some representatives, they did not have enough to convince the legislature to initiate any sort of reform.

Gov. Tryon

In 1764 William Tryon arrived as the new Lt. Governor.  Tryon was a British military officer with close ties to the top of London’s power elite.  His wife had been maid of honor to Queen Charlotte.  She was also a family friend of Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary of State, who appointed him as Lt. Governor.  Tryon became Governor when his predecessor died the following year.

One of his first controversies came with the Stamp Act protests of 1765-66.  His strong support for the Act and its enforcement made him enemies throughout the colony.  After the Stamp tax repeal in 1766, the Governor tried to reduce tensions and rebuild relationships in a customarily North Carolina way: he held a barbecue.  He roasted three whole oxen, brought in wagon loads of beer and bread and invited just about the whole colony to attend.  Many people came, but they were not ready to make nice.  They protested by taking the food and beer and dumping it on the ground or in the river.  A massive fight ensued which included a relative of the Governor’s wife being killed in a duel.

Tryon's Palace (from Eastern Carolina Univ.)
(artist's conception from 1910)
This incident poisoned any chance of a good relationship between the Governor and the colonists.  The following year, he made things worse by demanding £20,000 to build a Governor’s Palace for himself.  For many taxpayers, especially in the west “Tryon’s Palace” was the final straw.  Rather than reforming the burdensome and corrupt tax system, the Governor was adding a huge new expense that would result in even higher taxes.

To protest the corrupt system of tax collection, the citizens of Orange County refused to pay any of their taxes in 1768.  Instead, they gave it to their representative in the legislature, Harmon Husband (sometimes Herman Husbands).  When the Assembly met, the Governor demanded to know why no one had paid taxes.  Husband threw a bag of gold and silver on the table and told the Governor that he had all the taxes.  He was prepared to pay the treasury in exchange for a receipt showing the taxes had been paid.  Husband announced that he had acted as tax collector to keep much of it from "disappearing," as always seemed to happen.

In response, the Governor had Husband arrested and thrown in jail.  He released him several days later after learning that 2000 Regulators were advancing on the jail to free him by force.  Not wanting to have an organized political force against him, the Governor divided Orange County into three separate counties.  He also forced through legislation prohibiting the sale of gunpowder or shot to anyone in those three counties until further notice.

With the Government refusing to consider any reforms, the Regulators simply shut down the government in the western counties.  Armed militia prevented any sheriffs, tax collectors, or judges from operating.  One particular target of the Regulators was a man named Edmund Fanning, a friend of the Governor, responsible for tax collection in Orange County, and also sheriff of Hillsborough.  Fanning was the personification of the corrupt tax collector for the Regulators.  He had also built up large land holdings in the area, much of it from land sold at tax sales.

In 1770, in what became known as the Hillsborough Riot, Regulators shut down the local court, seized Fanning and another lawyer, and beat the men.  They ran Fanning out of town, paraded an effigy of him through the streets, and damaged his home and other property.

Essentially the demands of the regulators were twofold and quite reasonable.  First, they wanted to put an end to the corrupt local government that was cheating them out of their property.  Second, they wanted a reapportionment of the legislature, which currently benefitted the east.

Battle of Alamance Creek

Tryon was not ready to make peace with troublemakers.  Rather than compromise, he got the legislature to pass the Riot Act of 1771. The Act effectively redefined protest as treason.  It made it a felony for 10 or more people to assemble after being warned to disperse.  It exempted officials from prosecution for the murder or injury of any rioters.  Any accused rioters who did not submit to arrest within 60 days were declared outlaws, who could be shot on site.  It also permitted the government to seize and sell any of their property.  Although the law would expire after one year, they made it retroactive to prosecute rioters from earlier events.  Finally, the law authorized the Governor to raise a militia at public expense to execute the new policies.

In March 1771, Gov. Tryon assembled a 1000 man militia and marched them into the heart of the Regulator country.  The two sides played a game of cat and mouse for several months.

Finally, in May, the two sides formed for a showdown.  The judges in Hillsborough informed the Governor that they could not hold a court session due to the Regulators.  Gov. Tryon assembled a militia of over 1000 officers and men to move on Hillsborough and protect the court.  Another militia force of about 300 under Gen. Hugh Waddell advanced on Hillsborough from another direction.  The Regulators blocked Wadell’s advance, and captured part of his supply train, including ammunition.

Tryon moved his larger force to join with Wadell and confront the Regulators.  The two groups met near Alamance Creek on May 16, 1771.  By most estimates, the Regulators had about 2000 men under arms, well outnumbering the militia.  But Gov. Tryon was a professional officer by training, and also had several artillery pieces with him.  By contrast, the Regulators did not have any officers in overall command.  They were far too disorganized to make effective use of their numbers.

By some accounts, the militia were reluctant to fire on the Regulators who were in many cases their friends and neighbors.  Tryon, however, ordered them to fire, at one point allegedly saying “fire on them or on me!”  The militia engaged the regulators in a heated battle lasting several hours.  Some stories say that many regulators fought until they ran out of ammunition, then simply got up and went home.

The Regulator lines broke and the militia spent much of the battle chasing down Regulators through the woods.  In the end, Gov. Tryon and his militia controlled the field and completely dispersed the Regulators.

Battle of Alamance (from Wikimedia) (artist's conception circa 1910)
The militia reported nine dead and 61 wounded.  The number of Regulators killed and wounded is not reported in any official records.  Some reports indicate they also lost a similar number of killed and wounded.  Others report the Regulators took as many as 300 killed and wounded. The militia captured only 15 prisoners, one of whom they hanged that evening.

The following day, Governor offered amnesty for most of the Regulators, as long as they agreed to end their resistance and swear loyalty to the colony.  Eventually, more than 6000 people took advantage of this, taking an oath of allegiance and receiving pardon.

Tryon did not give amnesty to the leaders of the revolt though.  He tried twelve leaders under the Riot Act, and hanged six of them.  Many Regulators took their families and left the colony shortly thereafter.

Among those leaving the colony was Harmon Husband, who had led the political opposition to the governor and was with the regulators shortly before the battle of Alamance.  As a Quaker, he did not participate in the fighting.  Even so, as a leader of the resistance, he decided his time in North Carolina was over.  Husband fled to Maryland and eventually settled in what became western Pennsylvania, around Pittsburgh.  He wrote an account of the Regulator movement, which unfortunately, I cannot find in an available electronic format.  As a pacifist, Husband sat out the Revolution, but would have one more act near the end of his life as a leader in the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s.

London generally credited Tryon with his firm and successful termination of back country resistance.  Later that year, Hillsborough promoted him to Governor of New York and he headed north, taking Fanning along with him as his personal secretary.  His successor, Governor Martin, tried a radical new approach and actually investigated the complaints of corruption in the western counties.  He instituted some reforms, and even prosecuted a few corrupt local officials.

Some historians say the Battle of Alamance Creek should be considered the first battle of the Revolutionary War.  I am not convinced that is a fair characterization.  The Regulator war did not involve the British Army.  The regulators continued to profess loyalty to the King and British rule.  Their dispute was more about local internal colonial corruption, not British taxes or trade.  Still, the Regulator movement stands as evidence that Americans throughout the continent would stand up and fight for their rights, with guns if necessary.

Next Week: Rhode Island colonists attack and sink a Navy Ship, the HMS Gaspee.

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

South Carolina 1769 districts:

Klein, Rachel “Ordering the Back Country: the South Carolina Regulation” The William and Mary Quarterly, Oct., 1981, pp. 661-680 (available to read free online with registration):

North Carolina War of Regulation:

Sadlier, Sarah "Prelude to the American Revolution? The War of Regulation: A Revolutionary Reaction for Reform" from The History Teacher, Nov. 2012:

Kickler, Troy Hillsborough Riot (1770):

Carney, Richard Herman Husband (1724-1795):

Engstrom, Mary Clair Edmund Fanning, 1986:

A 1769 call to join the Regulator movement:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Basset, John “The Regulators of North Carolina (1765-1771)” from Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1894, pp. 141-212.

Haywood, Marshall De Lancey Governor William Tryon, and his administration in the province of North Carolina, 1765-1771, Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell, 1903

Fitch, William Some neglected history of North Carolina; being an account of the revolution of the regulators and of the battle of Alamance, the first battle of the American Revolution, New York, Neal Publishing, 1905.

Otis, James With the regulators. A story of North Carolina in 1768, New York: A.L. Burt Co. 1901 (story based on the NC Regulator events).

McCorkle, Lutie Andrews Was Alamance the first battle of the Revolution? Raleigh: E.M. Uzzell & Co., 1903.

Stockard, Sallie Walker The history of Alamance, Raleigh: Capital Printing, 1900.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brown, Richard M. The South Carolina Regulators, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963.

Kars, Marjoleine Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Klein, Rachel N. Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808,  Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Nash, Gary The Unknown American Revolution, New York: Viking, 2005.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Troxler, Carole W. Farming Dissenters: The Regulator Movement in Piedmont North Carolina, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2011.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links). 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Episode 034: Massacre Fallout, Townshend Repealed

I ended last week with British Regulars having opened fire on a crowd leaving five colonists dead or dying.  The small squad of soldiers then hurried back to their barrack to await the consequences.

Soldiers Leave Boston

As soon the threat of continued imminent violence ended, officials moved to arrest those responsible.  By 2 AM that night, the Sheriff had arrested Captain Preston.  He arrested the other soldiers the following morning.

On the morning of March 6, 1770 about 3500 Bostonians met at Faneuil Hall to discuss the next steps.  A group of radical leaders, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, met with Gov. Hutchinson to demand the removal of all soldiers from Boston.  Hutchinson did not want to remove the soldiers and leave Boston in the hands of mob rule.  At the same time, he did not want to be the one responsible for keeping the standing army in town.  Hutchinson simply punted, saying he had no authority to order the troops anywhere.

Col. Dalrymple, the military commander in Boston, offered to remove the entire 29th Regiment to Castle William, the island out in the harbor.  On this, Adams pounced, saying if he had authority to order one regiment out of town, he also had the authority to order both of them out.

Dalrymple, however, did not want to take sole responsibility for removing all troops from Boston.  He demanded that the Governor at least provide him with a written request to remove the troops.  Eventually, Hutchinson submitted the request.  All British troops in Boston moved out to the Castle Island.

Gen. Gage, still in New York, tried to prevent the evacuation.  But due to the days it took for communications, the troops had moved before he could rescind the order.  Once complete, Gage decided trying to return the troops would only cause more problems.  In May, the 29th Regiment, which included the men responsible for the Massacre left Boston to a new post in New Jersey.  Of course, Captain Preston and the eight accused soldiers remained behind in a Boston jail awaiting trial.

The PR Campaign

Almost immediately after the shooting, both loyalists and patriots began trying to spin events in their favor.  Both sides immediately accused the other of an organized conspiracy - either a loyalist conspiracy to cow the radicals into submission by killing a few of them - or a patriot conspiracy to provoke a shooting in order to get rid of the soldiers.

The Boston Gazette published this
image representing the four victims
who were killed.  A fifth died a week
later.  (from Crispus Attucks Museum)
Loyalists portrayed the soldiers as defending their lives against an out of control mob.  Patriots portrayed the soldiers as wantonly shooting down innocent civilian engaged in simple protest of military occupation.  The Patriots also tried to bring the customs officials into it by claiming several shots came from windows in the Customs House, though there has never been any good evidence of that.  Paul Revere produced a famous engraving, published in papers throughout the colonies, showing the soldiers mowing down innocent civilians in volley fire.

Both sides also took depositions.  A town committee  headed by Samuel Adams, John Hancock William Molineaux and Joseph Warren sent witness accounts to former governor Thomas Pownall, now sitting in Parliament.  The Tory’s side, however, arrived first in London.  Customs Commissioner John Robinson boarded a ship for London on March 11.  He carried with him a series of military depositions and other information blaming the incident on the radicals.  In London someone published the accounts as a pamphlet.  In response the Patriots had their version and depositions published in London in another pamphlet.

The Patriots made the most of the funeral of the four dead (a fifth would die a few days later).  Estimates of the parade of mourners were 10 to 12 thousand, not bad for a town with a population of 16,000.   Samuel Adams and others spoke of the martyred victims and the ongoing struggle against British tyranny.  The anniversary of the massacre would continue as a public event with similar speeches until the outbreak of war.

The Trials

In addition to indicting Captain Preston and the eight soldiers present at the massacre, a grand jury indicted four civilians in the customs house, accusing them of firing from the windows.  Shortly after the indictments, the prosecutor, the Colony’s Attorney General, simply left town.  Apparently, he had Tory leanings and had little desire to prosecute the case against the soldiers.  This began a series of delaying actions, where judges also began leaving town or having illnesses or injuries that delayed trial.  As spring turned into summer and then fall, radicals grew frustrated at the delays.  Many of the witnesses were sailors who could not remain in port for months at a time waiting for a trial that seemed to take forever to get underway.

Samuel Quincy, Solicitor General for the colony, became the new prosecutor.  Despite most of the Quincy family supporting the Patriot cause, Samuel was a loyalist who supported the government.

Samuel Quincy
(from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Given his limited experience as a criminal prosecutor, Quincy brought in Robert Treat Paine as senior counsel for the prosecution. Paine, had a better reputation as a Patriot and would ensure a zealous prosecution.  Paine would also go on to play a more significant role in the patriot cause during the war.

Finally, on September 7th, Preston and his men were arraigned, entering pleas of “not guilty”.  Then came another delay.  On the day following the arraignments, the Court suddenly and without explanation adjourned until the end of October.  Both sides opposed this.  The Radicals had been fighting delays for months.  Hutchinson and the Loyalists believed that tempers had cooled as much as they were going to, and wanted time to send a pardon request after the trial before the winter weather stopped all shipping traffic to London.

Robert Auchmuty served as senior counsel for the defendants.  Auchmuty served as a judge on the Vice Admiralty Court.  He knew though that any chance of winning required some attorneys who had some credibility with the people of Boston.  He reached out to John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Samuel’s brother, to represent the accused soldiers.  Some may find it surprising that two ardent patriots would defend the alleged murderers of their fellow Boston Patriots.  Years later, Adams would say he simply wanted them to have a fair trial, and that politics should not enter into that.  Quincy, however, admitted speaking with key Patriot leaders, including Hancock, Molineaux, and Warren, before taking the clients.  Clearly neither of them was defying the Patriot leadership in defending the soldiers.

Robert Auchmuty
I have mentioned John Adams a few times now, and clearly he goes on to bigger things later in the Revolution.  But a brief background might be helpful here.  John Adams was a second cousin of Samuel Adams.  The two got along well, but were not particularly close growing up.  They did not have a strong familial bond.  John lived outside of Boston in Braintree.  As a lawyer, he found himself in Boston on a regular basis.  He associated and clearly seemed to align himself with the radicals.  But he did not attend most of the political rallies or events of the time.  He had represented clients in some high profile trials, including his defense of Michael Corbett for murder of the press gang officer two years earlier (see, Episode 30).

Despite his patriot leanings, Adams considered himself a lawyer first.  He threw himself into the defense with all the zeal of a good defense counsel.

As Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, Gov. Hutchinson could have presided over the trial. He had no intention though, of going anywhere near that political mess.  Four other judges would preside.

Trial of Captain Preston

First, the defense moved to separate the trial of Captain Preston from those of the other soldiers.  Preston’s defense relied on the argument that he had not ordered the men to fire.  The defense of the soldiers was that they obeyed Preston’s command to fire.  Clearly the two defenses were not compatible.  Today legal ethics would prevent the same lawyer from representing both parties.  But colonial standards were not as strict.  Adams and Quincy represented both parties, but did succeed in getting their trials separated.

At trial, the defense challenged the wording of the indictments (overruled) and the selection of the jury.  They effectively used the jury selection to empanel a jury that had at least some very pro-soldier jurors, ensuring a unanimous conviction virtually impossible from the beginning.

Trials in this era rarely lasted for more than a day.  This trial became a rare exception, mostly because of the number of witnesses.  There was no system for sequestering juries

The prosecution presented 15 witnesses over two days.  They gave conflicting testimony about whether Preston ordered the men to fire.  Some were sure of it, others not so much.  Others admitted they heard people in the crowd shouting “fire.”  Many witnesses indicated Preston was standing in front of the soldiers, which is not where you want to be when ordering your men to fire.

The defense produced even more witnesses, including one who had been standing next to Preston during the events in question.  He testified that he never heard Preston order the soldiers to fire and saw Preston try to stop the firing by hitting the barrels of the soldiers’ muskets.  Preston himself could not testify according to the criminal rules of evidence at the time.

Finally, closing arguments finished around 5 PM on October 29.  The jury reached a verdict several hours later, but the court did not reconvene until 8AM the next day to hear the verdict: not guilty.  Once released, Preston quickly fled to Castle Island to avoid any potential lynching or other mob violence.  Soon thereafter, he resigned his commission and settled in Ireland.

Trial of the Soldiers

Robert Auchmuty declined to participate in the second trial, making John Adams the lead counsel.  He and Josiah Quincy brought in Sampson Salter Blowers, a young attorney with loyalist leanings, to round out the defense team. Blowers and Quincy were classmates at Harvard and had worked together a few months earlier on the defense of Ebenezer Richardson for the murder of Christopher Seider.  Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine, continued to handle the prosecution.

Trial of Soldiers (artist's conception)
(from famous trials)
The case against the soldiers was a little trickier.  Typically, a group of men acting in concert are all criminally liable for any crimes committed.  However, that is only the case if the group is acting as an illegal conspiracy.  The soldiers were not acting illegally when standing on the street as ordered.  Therefore, they could only be held accountable for their individual actions.  It was nearly impossible for the prosecution to establish which soldier shot which victim.  Of course, there was no scientific evidence at that time that could match a bullet to a particular weapon.  Therefore the prosecution had to rely on eyewitness testimony that could establish a particular shot killing a particular victim.

The other legal question to answer was whether the soldiers fired out of self-defense, in other words, an immediate fear for their lives.  In such a case, they would be not guilty.  Another possibility was a finding that they fired after being attacked but not in immediate danger of death.  In that case, they would be guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. Finally, if they fired out of malice, the could be found guilty of murder.  Since the traditional penalty for both murder and manslaughter was death, it might appear not to make much difference.  But manslaughter could result in a lesser sentence in most cases.

Following Preston’s acquittal on October 30, the court adjourned yet again, leaving the soldiers to sit in jail for another month.  Finally on November 20, the court reconvened with the same four judge panel who had heard the Preston trial.  Again, both sides fought over the jury.  In the end, all twelve jurors came from outside Boston.

Opening arguments began on November. 27.  Like the Preston trial, the large number of witnesses meant that the trial would last far longer than one day.  Dozens of witnesses took weeks to testify.  The prosecution made every effort to provide witness testimony to specific soldiers firing.  The defense made the most of the confused and often contradictory testimony.  It also painted the mob as a dangerous threat to the soldiers.  Adams called them “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars.”  In his closing argument, Adams famously told the jury “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  Even though the jury might not like the soldiers, it could not ignore the fact that the men were under attack.
In the end, the jury found two soldiers, Privates Kilroy and Montgomery, guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.  In both cases the jury found compelling eyewitness testimony that both men fired their guns into the crowd, killing victims.  The jury found the other six soldiers not guilty, with lack of credible proof that they had even fired their guns.

The court gave Kilroy and Montgomery the benefit of clergy - a legal term to avoid the death penalty.  Instead the court ordered their thumbs branded as punishment.  The six soldiers found not guilty rejoined their regiment in New Jersey.  It appears that Kilroy and Montgomery also rejoined their unit, though it is possible they were assigned to another unit.  Both men appeared before a British Pension Board in 1776 seeking to be discharged.

Trial of the Customs Officials

The court impaneled the same jury for the soldiers to sit again in December to hear the charges against the four civilians in the customs house.  The witnesses in this case proved rather weak and pathetic.  The jury did not even leave to deliberate after the close of arguments before delivering a verdict of “not guilty.”  The court ordered the arrest of one of the prosecution’s witnesses, a 14 year old boy named Charles Bourgate arrested for perjury.  A court later convicted him and sentenced the boy to 25 lashes.

Parliament Repeals Townshend Duties (mostly)

Even before word of the Boston Massacre reached London, Lord North began pushing through Parliament a partial repeal of the Townshend duties.

North rejected proposals for a full repeal.  He believed that backing down would not solve anything.  During the 1769 debates on repeal, North allegedly said “America must fear you before she can love you …. I will never think of repealing it until I see America prostrate at my feet.”  Clearly he fell into the camp that required Parliament establish its dominance over the colonies before they could reach any resolution.

Lord North
(from Wikimedia)
For this reason, North adamantly opposed a full repeal.  He did, however, agree that the tax on manufactured goods, made little sense.  Over the three years the Townshend Acts had been in force, the total duties collected among all colonies on manufactured goods was less than £5000.  By comparison, the tea taxes had raised over £16,000.  That was true even though British tea imports to the colonies fell to less than half of what they were prior to the implementation of the Townshend Acts.

If a partial repeal could break the already wavering resolve on colonial nonimportation agreements, revenues overall would likely increase.  Britain benefited by promoting export of manufactured goods.  It created jobs in England and produced local revenue that was subject to taxation.

At the same time, North insisted on maintaining the tea tax.  This was the largest revenue producer by far of all the taxes.  It was not a locally manufactured good.  Most importantly, it would force the colonists once and for all to accept that they were subject to taxation.  Parliament had to establish that precedent through an actual tax, not some vague declaration of its authority.

As with many such proposals, members of Parliament attacked North’s proposal from both sides.  Radical Whigs like Isaac BarrĂ© and Henry Conway still called for full repeal.  Thomas Pownall, former Governor of Massachusetts and now member of Parliament also joined them in calling for full repeal.  On the other side Welbore Ellis, a member of the Grenville faction, argued that there should be no repeal of anything.  Regardless of any financial issues, any repeal would only show weakness to colonial temper tantrums.

Pownall offered an amendment to North’s bill, essentially making it a full repeal.  Parliament rejected that 204 to 142.  After that vote, North’s bill sailed through the Houses of Commons and Lords with voice votes.  The partial repeal became law on April 12, 1770.

Colonists End Non-Importation Agreements (mostly)

Word of North’s repeal had its intended effect in America.  Non-importation agreements had already faltered. Radical patriots still wanted complete non-importation of anything until all Townshend duties, and in some cases all duties including older sugar act and others, were repealed.

The problem was that these non-importation agreements affected different regions differently.  New England made up much of its trade through smuggled goods, which could continue despite non-importation agreements.  Many of the southern colonies were cheating on the agreements so much that they were not feeling much pain.  New York, however, had seen a massive drop in imports as a result of the agreements, now in their third year.

New York merchants sent around a circular letter calling for the agreements to be revised, so that they would only refuse to import items that were being taxed, at this point, primarily tea and sugar.  When other colonies rejected this change, New York decided in July 1770 to amend their own agreements anyway.  Over the next few months, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and others made similar revisions.  After all, if New York would import these items, merchants in other colonies could not be put at a disadvantage.  With the agreements collapsing, it appeared as if North’s gambit had been a success.  Yes, the colonists would still refuse to drink tea, but that would not impact any businesses in England, other than the East India Company.  Atlantic trade could get back to normal.

To ease tensions even further, North allowed the Quartering Act, which had to be reauthorized every year, to expire in 1770.  That was one less thing to remain a sticking point between Britain and her colonies.  North was well on his way to returning things to calm, normal, and profitable trade.

The radicals tried to point out that accepting these small taxes would set a precedent that meant Britain might levy greater taxes later.  But others argued that the colonies were still boycotting the taxed items.  They just didn’t want to continue boycotting everything they needed from Britain, whether it was taxed or not.

Through much of 1771 and 1772, things seemed to return to normal.  Governors once again allowed colonial legislatures to meet.  The fact that Massachusetts Assembly had to meet in Cambridge rather than Boston still irked the radicals, but it was not exactly a rallying point to set the colony aflame.  Peace returned, the economy improved and everyone seemed to relax.  It short, it looked like North’s strategy was succeeding.

Next week, We will look at regulator movements in the Carolinas as colonists along the western frontier fight for their rights.

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

The Boston Massacre Trials:

Boston Massacre Trial Resources:

Boston Massacre Trial:

Boston Massacre Trials:

The Adams Papers:

What happened to Privates Montgomery and Kilroy?

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The trial of the British soldiers of the 29th regiment of foot, (1824) (detailed trial notes of the Boston Massacre Trials).

The trial of the British soldiers, of the 29th regiment of foot, (1807) (different version of Boston Massacre Trial notes).

A Fair account of the late unhappy disturbance at Boston in New England, London: B. White, 1770 Loyalist account of the Boston Massacre, written in the days following the event.

Boston Registry Dept. Records Relating to the Early History of Boston, Vol.  18, Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1887.

Orations, delivered at the request of the inhabitants of the town of Boston, to commemorate the evening of the fifth of March, 1770, Boston: Wm. T. Clapp, 1807 (collection of annual speeches remembering the Massacre on its Anniversary, 1771-1783)

Bowdoin, James; Warren, Joseph; & Pemberton, Samuel A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, New York: John Doggett, Jr., 1849 (this is a reprint of the original 1770 pamphlet produced in London by Patriot citizens of Boston).

Chandler, Peleg W. American criminal trials, Vol. 1, Boston: Charles Little & James Brown, 1844 (Boston Massacre Trials).

Cushing, Harry (ed) The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 2, New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1906.

Hosmer, James Samuel Adams, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1913.

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, John (ed) The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774,  London: John Murray 1828 (This book was edited and published using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (ed) The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1884 (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Kidder, Frederic History of the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770, Albany: Joel Munsell, 1870.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Books Worth Buying

(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  University Press 2010.

Fowler, William The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1980.

Galvin, John Three Men of Boston, Potomac Books, 1976.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links). 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Episode 033: The Boston Massacre

Despite the ongoing street riots in various colonies during 1768 and 1769, no one had been killed as a result.  In 1770, that would change.

The Death of Christopher Seider

By the end of 1769, merchants began to waver in their resolve of the non-importation agreements.  These were the agreements to to protest the Townshend acts, which had been in place for two years.  The agreements were hurting merchants in Britain, but they were also hurting the colonials.  Some had always cheated, and some loyalist merchants had refused to participate.  As a result, the cheats and loyalists were benefiting at the expense of patriot merchants who upheld the agreements.  Eventually, more and more merchants would have to give up their resolve and resume trade.

Broadside attacking a Boston merchant for
violating the non-importation agreement
(from Mass. Historical Society)
For the radicals, the only answer was to coerce the merchants into continuing the agreements.  Many agreements were due to expire at the end of 1769.  Most merchants opposed an extension.  Samuel Adams and other radicals used public shaming and threats of mob action to compel most of the merchants to remain on board.

Eight prominent Boston merchants, however, refused to sign any extension.  The eight holdouts found themselves named as traitors in a broadside published all over town.  One tactic the Sons of Liberty used was to post signs in front of the stores that had refused, in order to keep customers away.  On February 22, 1770 a group of boys posted a sign in front of one of the holdouts’ store.  Another man, Ebenezer Richardson attempted to run over the sign with a horse and carriage he had borrowed.

Richardson already had a bad reputation.  He had been a customs informer and was now working for the Customs Board.  Many thought he had been the informant on Daniel Malcom that I discussed in Episode 25. Richardson immediately found himself a target as the boys pelted him with rocks and chased him into his house.  They continued to throw rocks, smashing his windows and hitting people inside.  The size of the mob increased as men joined the mob, threatening to kill Richardson.

Richard showed his face several times, threatening the growing mob.  But that only seemed to enrage the mob even more.  At some point, Richardson decided it was a good idea fire a musket full of bird shot into the assembled crowd in front of his home.  His shot, and wounded two young boys.  One of them, Christopher Seider (sometimes reported as Snider), a boy about 11 or 12 years old, died from his wounds later that evening.  Some historians argue that Seider should be considered the first casualty of the American Revolution.

Sketch of Richardson firing from his house into the
crowd, killing Seider (from Boston 1775)
After the shot fire, the crowd stormed his house and captured everyone inside.  Amazingly, the crowd did not kill Richardson.  Some tried to lynch him, but the mob leaders convinced them otherwise.  Instead, they took him to the sheriff’s office, where he was charged with murder.  Several months later, a Boston court convicted him and sentenced him to death.  Richardson languished in jail for a year as London considered a royal pardon.  There really was not much doubt that he would get one, but the bureaucratic delays and the slow pace of transatlantic communications stretched out the proceedings.  Hutchinson announced the pardon only after freeing Richardson and giving him a chance to get out of town before the mob came after him.  Richardson at first fled to Philadelphia where he continued to work for the Customs Board.  Soon though, he appears to have had to leave the colonies altogether.

The death of a child only made the situation worse.  Christopher Seider’s funeral on February 26 drew thousands of mourners.  It soon turned into a rally where Samuel Adams and others spoke to the crowds about British tyranny and the occupation by British Regulars.

Boston Fights with the Soldiers

This may be a good time to address the question, what the heck were the soldiers doing?  Weren’t they supposed to be in Boston to maintain law and order?  Why were mobs of thousands roaming the streets without military opposition?

Although soldiers were in Boston, they did not do law enforcement unless the Governor requested their help.  Like his predecessor, Gov. Hutchinson feared the consequences of calling on the army to do anything.  Even as his two sons, who were tea importers, suffered ruthless harassment throughout 1769, he knew that calling in soldiers would only enrage the people and probably lead to a mob trashing his house again, or perhaps worse.

The soldiers maintained a guard on the customs house.  As we saw with the George Gailer tar and feather incident a couple of weeks ago, the soldiers did not get involved in violence even when it happened right in front of them.

Town of Boston, 1770s (from Wikimedia)
The soldiers had a few other stations around town, including a check point at Boston neck.  At that time, the neck was the only land that allowed people to pass in and out of Boston to the rest of the colony.  The Boston we know today looks very different as engineering projects filled in much of the water and swamp land that surrounded Boston in the colonial era.

The townspeople did their best to make the soldiers feel unwelcome, but typically limited attacks to name calling, or other minor incidences.  There are a few reports of fights between off duty soldiers and locals.  Newspapers exploited every minor incident they could find.  One example from July 19, 1769 when a soldier named John Riley was being taunted by the local butcher.  Riley knocked the man down.  The butcher complained to to commanding officer who said he was glad Riley had taught him a lesson.  The butcher then had Riley arrested, after which he was convicted of assault and fined.  Riley then refused to pay the fine and attacked a constable who tried to arrest him.

Bostonians resented the British occupation for a whole range of reasons I already discussed.  These included having to pay for the soldiers’ living costs and their use in enforcing the hated customs laws.

Beyond those reasons, there were the inevitable disputes related to almost any military occupation.  Within weeks of arriving in Boston, dozens of soldiers deserted their posts and left to start a new life in the colonies.  As a result, a big part of military duties involved posting guards to keep deserters from leaving Boston, and sending search parties into the countryside looking for deserters.

Of course, Bostonians did not like being stopped at military checkpoints all the time.  After dark, drunken Bostonians, at times, assaulted guards at checkpoints.  Similarly, many civilians filed complaints over overzealous guards who threatened or assaulted them.

Boston had its own civilian night watch.  Night watchmen stopped anyone on the streets after dark.  British officers and soldiers took offense at being stopped by civilians to answer their questions.  Military protests that their people were above the law and did not have to answer to civilian law enforcement remained a continuing source of tension at night.  Both night watchmen and soldiers were attacked and beaten on multiple occasions.

Soldiers tend to be young single men, who get into trouble with drinking and womanizing.  Drunk soldiers frequently got into brawls with civilians in taverns.  Soldiers would also hit on local women, or just make lewd comments at them.  This also led to fights as local pounced to defend the honor of their women.  There is one account of drunk officers encouraging slaves to rise up against their masters, telling them that the soldiers were there to bring them freedom if they would only fight for it.  Encouraging slave insurrection, was of course a serious crime.  So this incident got a fair amount of attention at the time.  It’s not so much remembered now as later generations wanted to forget about Massachusetts’ history of slavery.

There were also accounts of soldiers committing petty crimes, burglarizing homes, stealing property at checkpoints, and other minor matters.  Newspapers even reported an attempted rape, although this does not seem to be true.

Even when soldiers were doing their duty properly, they still managed to annoy the locals.  Many complained about interruption of church services on Sunday as soldiers shouted out orders on the streets outside.

At the same time, civilians regularly picked fights with the soldiers, levied numerous complaints about exaggerated or even clearly invented wrongdoing.  Soldiers on or off duty were regularly taunted.  Children would often throw rocks or snowballs at soldiers and then run away.

Col. Dalrymple, commander of British troops in Boston put it this way: “I don’t suppose my Men are without fault, but twenty of them have been knocked down in the Streets and got up and scratched their heads and run to their Barracks and no more has been heard of it whereas if one of the Inhabitants meets with no more than a Kick for an Insult to a Soldier, the Town is immediately in an Alarm and not one word the Soldier says in his justification can gain any credence.

Both sides developed a bunker mentality.  Complaints against soldiers often went ignored or received extremely minor punishment.  Similarly, legal actions in local courts by soldiers against civilians who wronged them, regularly found their cases dismissed, or summary findings for the defendant.  Both sides came to realize that legal remedies were impossible.  Only street justice would provide satisfaction for wrongs.

Workmen though, had yet another reason to dislike the soldiers.  Many of the poorly paid soldiers took odd jobs while off duty.  They were willing to work for lower rates, thus reducing wages for all laborers.  So the competition for jobs increased rivalries and friction between soldiers and civilians.

The same week as Christopher Seider’s funeral on Feb. 22, Boston newspapers reported accounts of the Battle of Golden Hill in New York.  This news only served to increas tensions on both sides.  Everyone remained on edge, looking for a fight.

Rumbles with the Regulars

On March 2, Private Thomas Walker, a British regular walked down the street past John Gray’s Ropewalk, a rope making enterprise.  A rope maker named William Green called out to Walker, asking if he wanted to work.  Walker responded yes, to which Green retorted “then go and clean my shit house.”  The exact wording of the retort is a matter of dispute, but it clearly angered Walker.

Exactly what happened next is also a matter of dispute.  Walker claims that the workmen then jumped him and beat him up unprovoked.  Green claimed that Walker came over and struck him, resulting in the fight that left Walker badly beaten.  He also claimed Walker dropped a sword during the fight, which he kept.

A short time later Walker returned with 30 or 40 soldiers from his regiment, and called out Green and his fellow rope makers.  Both sides were armed with nothing more than clubs or sticks, but a massive street brawl ensued.  The soldiers quickly became outnumbered as more local workers joined the brawl.  The soldiers eventually retreated. Several of them had to be hospitalized for their wounds.  Fighting continued for the next two days with both soldiers and civilian workers attacking others on site.  Fighting finally seemed to subside on Sunday March 4.  Tension and ill-will between the two groups remained at an all time high.

The Massacre

Monday March 5, 1770 started out with this tense foreboding.  Most of the day passed with little violence.  However, large numbers of Bostonians roamed the streets. Rumors swirled that British soldiers might attempt to burn some buildings that evening.  Both sides expected another street brawl.  Gangs of armed civilians were alert and ready for action, just in case the soldiers decided to make more trouble.

Even after sundown, the frozen streets remained alive with activity.  Boston did not yet have lighting for its streets, so groups of soldiers and civilians either had to carry a candle or make their way through the darkness.

Around 8 PM, Captain John Goldfinch walked down King Street, near the Customs House.  A young wig maker's apprentice named Edward Garrick, commented loudly to his friends that the officer was a deadbeat who had not paid his master for a hair treatment.  His exact words, like much of the evening’s events, are a matter of dispute.

State St., (formerly King St.) Boston, painting from 1801.
The red building on the right is the Customs House, where
the Massacre occurred.  (from Rev. War and Beyond)
Captain Goldfinch had the good sense to ignore the comment and walk away.  Private Hugh White, a British soldier on sentry duty in front of the Customs House, overheard the comments and decided not to ignore it.

He confronted the boy and said something about the officer being an honorable gentleman who paid his debts.  Garrick then made some insulting comment directly at White.  We don't know exactly what he said, but some accounts say it was something like there are no gentlemen in your regiment.

White approached Garrick and said “let me see your face”.  Garrick stood up to him and said “I am not ashamed to show my face.”  White then hit Garrick on the ear with the butt of his rifle, knocking him to the ground.

The boy's screams quickly caused a group of mostly boys and young men in the area to confront the lone sentry.   Within minutes, White found at least a dozen apprentices, mostly teenagers, surrounding his post, calling him names and daring him to come fight them.  Garrick's cries and the boys’ shouts only caused the crowd to grow quickly.  Those roaming bands of civilians moved toward White’s guard house, surrounding him.

After a few more minutes, the crowd grew to over 50 people.  Someone rang the bells in a nearby church (taken as an alarm bell) which drew even more people.  Private White backed up to the top of the stairs in front of the Customs House so that he was elevated and no one could get behind him.  He fixed the bayonet on his musket and loaded it.

There were several customs officials still in the Customs House.  White banged on the door with the butt of his gun to be let in.  No one dared open the locked door for him though.  He remained alone on the stairs facing the mob in the dark.

A local bookseller named Henry Knox, who would go on to bigger things in the revolution, warned White not to fire on the crowd, or they would kill him.  White responded angrily, “if they molest me, I will kill them.”  The crowd began pelting White with snow and ice.  Finally White yelled to “call out the guard.”  The main guard was only about a block away from White and the Customs House.

At the same time, there were several other fights between soldiers and civilians around the town.  The officers were making every effort to get the soldiers into barracks to prevent a fight.  The soldiers were in no mood to retreat and wanted a confrontation.  So getting them into barracks while mobs of men and boys harassed them remained difficult.

At the main guard. Captain Thomas Preston served as officer of the day.  Civilians reported to him about White’s situation and the danger that the mob might carry him off.  Preston delayed doing anything for about a half hour, perhaps hoping the mob would eventually disperse on its own.  Taking more soldiers into the mob might only make things worse.  Eventually he assembled a corporal and six privates to relieve Private White.  The squad’s lieutenant, a twenty year old boy, could have led them, but Cap. Preston decided to lead the squad himself.

Preston marched the soldiers with fixed bayonets and unloaded muskets through the crowd to the Customs House.  He ordered Private White to fall in with the squad and attempted to march everyone back to the main guard.  However, the mob, now numbering in the hundreds by some accounts, pressed around the squad, preventing them from leaving.

The soldiers formed a defensive semi-circle line with Captain Preston in front of them.  The mob continued to yell and throw snowballs, ice, and rocks, daring the soldiers to fire.  Perhaps hoping to intimidate the mob, Preston ordered his men to load their muskets.  This only seemed to enrage the crowd.

The Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, 1770
(from Boston Discovery Guide)
Preston and his men left the main guard only about 15 minutes earlier.  Someone threw a club that hit Private Montgomery in the head, knocking him to the ground.  Angrily, he stood up and fired his weapon.  Seconds later, a member of the mob struck Captain Preston with a club.  The attacker slipped on the ice at the last second, causing the attempted blow to the head to glance off Preston’s arm.

After the first shot, there were several seconds, some witnesses say a minute or two, as some in the crowd attempted to run, while others pressed forward.  The others soldiers also fired their weapons into the crowd.  Preston, having recovered from his fall, angrily asked why they had fired.  They said they thought they had heard him order them to fire.

By this time the entire 29th Regiment was in formation under arms.  They turned out in a defensive formation.  A few hundred soldiers would not fare well against an angry and armed mob of thousands.  Fortunately the mob opted not to wage a full scale attack against the regiment and retreated.

The situation remained tense though, until Gov. Hutchinson arrived on the scene.  He promised that the soldiers responsible would be tried for murder. The soldiers returned to their barracks and the crowd dispersed.  Groups of armed civilians, however, continued to patrol the streets.

The Casualties

As a result of the fire, three men died instantly.  Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and Native American descent, was in his late 40s and had been at the front of the mob taunting the soldiers.  He had been active with the Sons of Liberty. Samuel Gray, age 52, a rope maker who had been involved the fights with soldiers over the previous few days, also died .  James Caldwell, age 17, served as a sailor.  He had no family in Boston so little is known of his background.

Eight others suffered wounds.  One of them, Samuel Maverick, died the following morning.  A 17 year old carpenter’s apprentice, Maverick had been at the front of the mob daring the soldiers to fire.  The final fatality, Patrick Carr died nine days later.  Carr was a 30 year old Irish immigrant.  He had lived long enough to testify about the incident that night.  Because he said the soldiers had shown great restraint and that he forgave them, the radicals tried to discount his testimony as that of a Papist who did not appreciate liberty.

Next Week: we will discuss the fallout from the Massacre, as well as the long awaited repeal of most of most of the Townshend Duties.

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

Christopher Seider (aka Snider) murder:

More on Christopher Seider (aka Snider):
(You may want to explore this blog further.  Lots of good articles on Boston just before the Revolution).

A traitor in my family tree (Ebenezer Macintosh)

Two good blog articles on the March 2, encounter that led to fighting between the soldiers and citizens of Boston:

Scene of the Boston Massacre:

The Boston Massacre       

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

A Fair account of the late unhappy disturbance at Boston in New England, London: B. White, 1770 Loyalist account of the Boston Massacre, written in the days following the event.

Boston Registry Dept. Records Relating to the Early History of Boston, Vol.  18, Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1887.

Orations, delivered at the request of the inhabitants of the town of Boston, to commemorate the evening of the fifth of March, 1770, Boston: Wm. T. Clapp, 1807 (collection of annual speeches remembering the Massacre on its Anniversary, 1771-1783)

Bowdoin, James; Warren, Joseph; & Pemberton, Samuel A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, New York: John Doggett, Jr., 1849 (this is a reprint of the original 1770 pamphlet produced in London by Patriot citizens of Boston).

Chandler, Peleg W. American criminal trials, Vol. 1, Boston: Charles Little & James Brown, 1844 (Boston Massacre Trials).

Cushing, Harry (ed) The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 2, New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1906.

Hosmer, James Samuel Adams, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1913.

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, John (ed) The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774,  London: John Murray 1828 (This book was edited and published using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (ed) The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1884 (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Kidder, Frederic History of the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770, Albany: Joel Munsell, 1870.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  Univserity Press 2010.

Fowler, William The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1980.

Galvin, John Three Men of Boston, Potomac Books, 1976.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).