Two Patriots: One Slave and One Free – James Armistead Lafayette and James Forten

Part Two by Malanna Henderson 

A hero who championed American independence was Revolutionary War hero James Forten; not particularly for what he did, but for what he didn’t do.


James Forten, Possible attribution: Raphaelle Peale, c. 1800-1810, (

At the tender age of fourteen, Forten became a prisoner of war aboard the notorious British prison ship, the HMS Jersey, anchored in New York. Like nearly all of his fellow inmates who perished or survived the horrific tribulation, he remained loyal to the patriot cause in the face of death.

The HMS Jersey was one of many floating prison vessels, where over 11,500 military and civilian patriots died; twice as many as those who felled on the battlefields.

Born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia to free parents, Margaret and Thomas, Forten was the grandson of slaves. Philadelphia was home to the largest free black community on the eastern seaboard. Blacks who held that status had to navigate the spires of discrimination; but in various instances had access to the burgeoning economic opportunities that made the colony one of the most prosperous.  Here, the Quaker influence was strong and anti-slavery sentiment was put into action by its various advocates. Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for colored children was one such opportunity that provided Forten with a formal education.

In 1767 Benezet, a French immigrant wrote that he, as “teacher of a school…for many years, had opportunity of knowing the temper and genius of the Africans,” and could “with truth and sincerity declare amongst them as great a variety of talents, equally capable of improvement, as amongst a like number of whites.”
Freedom also afforded the senior Forten an economic opportunity to earn a livable wage. He was employed as a journeyman at a sail loft owned by Robert Bridges. Thomas wanted to secure a profession for his son, so he took him to work on occasion teaching him the rudimentary skills of sail making. The following year, economic hardship besieged the family when Thomas was killed in a boating accident; and James, at approximately nine years old, was required to work to help support his family. While his mother probably worked as a domestic servant, the youngster became a chimney sweep and clerk in a grocery store. Thus, he could only attend school part-time.

The year 1781 found Forten, an ardent young patriot, caught up in the fervor that enveloped the colonies to be free of British rule, and he enlisted in the navy. Aboard the heavily armed privateer, the Royal Lewis, Forten performed the duties of sailor and powder boy under Captain Stephen Decatur. It was customary for captains to employ boys or teenagers to ferry gunpowder from powder magazines from the ship’s hold to several artillery units. Their speed and small stature were attributes in limited spaces between decks.

Privateers were commissioned by the Continental Congress to act as naval ships for the fledging Continental Navy. They confiscated bounty from enemy ships which included ammunition, gunpowder, provisions as well as military intelligence. Their abundance alone in gunpowder exceeded one million pounds.

The first time Forten sailed with the Royal Lewis, the voyage was successful. However, during his second expedition, on October 9, 1781, it was hijacked by the British warship, Amphion. The British Captain Bazely required James to look after his young son. The children became fast friends. Impressed by James’ intelligence and honesty, the captain offered him a chance to be educated in England, at his son’s side, if he would renounce his loyalty to the patriotic cause.

James refused, saying he could never betray his country.

The doom of being captured held its own particular horrors to all seamen, but Forten had an additional dread. Unlike whites, the possibility of being sold into slavery in the West Indies, (a death sentence, in most cases) was a real danger. Unscrupulous opportunists sold free blacks into slavery without compunction; and in most cases the law turned a blind eye to the practice.

When they reached the New York Harbor, the captain honored James’ right to be treated as a prisoner of war; and thus, the threat of enslavement was eradicated.

One of the most atrocious facets in America’s struggle for independence occurred in the waters near the New York Harbor, close to the current location of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. From 1776 to 1783, when the British ran out of space on land, they appropriated retired warships anchored just offshore on Wallabout Bay to imprison American combatants and private citizens; the latter for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.

Of all the penal ships in the harbor, the most notorious was the HMS Jersey.  For its inhumane conditions and high death rate, the ship earned the nickname: Hell.

This was the prison ship that held James Forten as an inmate.

The British prison guards always gave those captured on privateers a choice to stay on the ship and live in draconian misery or pledge allegiance to the crown and join the Royal Navy. Instead of opting for a chance at freedom, nearly one-hundred percent of the prisoners refused.

More than 1000 men, including some women and children, were trapped in the HMS Jersey at any one time. An average of ten prisoners died daily from torture, small pox, dysentery, yellow fever, typhoid, and malnutrition; and most likely from unattended battle wounds, as well. Food and water were scare and medical treatment, practically non-existent.

An article published in the Washington Post in 1991 defined the hellish conditions.

Alexander Coffin, a teenage seaman, described the typical inmates as “mere walking skeletons, with scarcely clothes to cover their nakedness, and overrun with lice from head to foot.” Meals consisted of worm-eaten bread and salt beef, rations the British Navy had condemned for its own men. The cooks boiled the beef in dirty sea water brought up from the side of the ship, the same place where the waste of the 1,000 or more prisoners was dumped daily.

“Up on deck, you damned Yankee rebels, and bring up your dead!” shouted the British officers each morning. The staggering, emaciated skeletons carried their fallen fellow prisoners up the stairs, boarded one of the ship’s boats and rowed to the shores of Wallabout Bay to bury them. 

James Forten spent seven months on the HMS New Jersey. He was freed in a prison exchange in 1782. Afterward, he walked from New York to Philadelphia into the arms of his mother and sister, who thought he was dead.  An industrious young man, he spent a year working in shipyards and sail lofts along the Thames in England, before returning to Bridges’ sail loft as a sail maker. Overtime, he was promoted; and when Bridges decided to retire in 1798, he asked the thirty-two-year-old Forten to take over the business. Pleased with his management, Bridges loaned Forten the money to buy the business and within three years, he owned the sail loft.

By the early 1800s, Forten invented a sail that provided greater speeds on the sea and was easier to maneuver. Independence from England freed American merchants from the restrictive mercantile laws and they were able to make fortunes through trading. Forten’s sails became popular and his profits soared, making him one of the wealthiest Philadelphians, regardless of race.


State Marker, Dedicated: April 24, 1990, Philadelphia (

During his lifetime, Forten’s achievements were remarkable. He was a prosperous businessman, who managed an interracial workforce. Used his considerable income to purchase the freedom of slaves, financed William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator; used his home as an Underground Railroad

Station; founded the American Anti-Slavery Society with Garrison and Robert Purvis; funded a school for black children and supported women’s rights.

Before he died in 1842, he saw opportunities in Philadelphia dry up for African-Americans; most likely due to the improvement of the cotton gin, which revived the economic interest in slavery. Moreover, after the insurrection of Nat Turner of 1831, white fear exploded, resulting in a number of innocent blacks being murdered in retaliation and widening of the Black Codes, restricting slaves and free blacks.

In Philadelphia, African American men lost their right to vote and threats against Forten’s life increased. A patriot no les, Forten worked resolutely to shape his country into one that reflected the values of those golden words in the Declaration of Independence … “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal…”


Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument – Doric column surmounted by a bronze urn, on a terrace approached by 100 steps; eagles at corners of terrace; plaque and tablet. (

As a resident of Brooklyn, New York in the late 1990s, I used to visit Fort Green Park and often passed an impressive monument. One day, I stopped to read the marker and was awestruck by the scant acknowledgement in American culture about the sacrifices of the ship board prisoners, forgotten heroes of the American Revolutionary War.

Named the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument (also called the Soldiers and Sailors Monument) it was dedicated in 1908 by President Howard William Taft. Designed by the famous architect, Stanford White, the 150 feet obelisk is located at the center of Fort Green Park, on the former site of the Revolutionary War-era Fort Putnam, later re-named Fort Greene Park after General Nathanael Greene. A crypt containing 20 coffins of bone fragments from thousands of men, women and children, who died on the HMS Jersey and other prison ships, lies beneath the monument.



*End Notes:

 “Bring Up Your Dead” article by Chadwick Allen Harp, Washington Post, July 7, 1991 (New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center)  Historical Society of Pennsylvania


























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Charleston’s Horn Work Offers Glimpse Into the Walled City’s Colonial Fortifications

Charleston Horn Work.JPGIn Charleston’s Marion Square, an odd chunk of limestone, sand, and oyster shells sits inside a wrought-iron fence just beyond the normal boundaries of the weekend market. While shoppers buy their weekly produce or shop for gifts, the food court along King Street tempts them with just about anything you can image. Someone usually plays live music on the park-side of the market—and there, nearby, sits the hunk of rock. Continue reading

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Sixth Annual Conference on the American Revolution

Is it too early to make plans for March? Never, right?

Well, if you are looking forward to spring and want to mix in some Revolutionary War history, look no further than the America’ History LLC Conference the weekend of March 24 through 26, 2017 in Historic Williamsburg, Virginia.


For those arriving early, you can take advantage of a Yorktown Battlefield Tour led by Bill Walsh on Friday afternoon. That evening the conference adds a new element in 2017 with a welcoming reception with the speakers. A panel discussion with all the speakers will focus on “Lies and Legends of the American Revolution.” In regards to the speakers for the event, America’s History LLC. have compiled an all-star lineup.

Spearheaded by Edward Lengel and David Preston. These two gentlemen will be joined by historians James Kirby Martin, Mark Lender, John Grenier, Michael Gabriel, Dennis Conrad, Robert Smith, and Robert Selig.

The conference wraps up on Sunday. For more information and how to register for the conference, click here.

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“Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Friendship”

On February 1, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. join Emerging Revolutionary War’s Derek Maxfield for the launch of the “Historical Horizons Lecture Series” sponsored by the Genesee Community College History Club.

Two of the most important men in American History are John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  From the time they met in Philadelphia in 1775 until their deaths in 1826, these two men had a most fascinating relationship; much of the time it was one of admiration and love, but it was interrupted by a period of intense partisan strife that nearly ended the friendship.  Come hear the intriguing story of how the friendship was restored.

The lecture is part of the Historical Horizons Lecture Series sponsored by the GCC History Club.  Get the complete spring semester line-up here:

All events are FREE and open to the public at the Genesee Community College Batavia campus, room T102 of the Conable Technology Building.

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Two Patriots: One Slave and One Free; James Armistead Lafayette and James Forten

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Malanna Henderson

Part One

 “It is not for their own land they fought, not even for a land which had adopted them, but for a land which had enslaved them, and whose laws, even in freedom, oftener oppressed than protected. Bravery, under such circumstances, has a peculiar beauty and merit.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The words spoken by “the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War,” so said Abraham Lincoln, according to legend, upon meeting Mrs. Stowe sometime in 1862, rang true for black patriots in the Civil War as well as those in the Revolutionary War.

The Smithsonian tome, The American Revolutionary War: A Visual History quotes a Hessian officer in 1777, as saying, “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance and among them are able-bodied and strong fellows.”

In every battle of the Revolutionary War from Lexington to Yorktown; black men, slave and free, picked up the musket and defended America; and yet, many historians as well as visual artists have omitted their contributions in the history books and their images on canvases depicting historic battles. The need for white historians to “overlook,” “underestimate,” and or “erase,” these sacrifices is a gross negligence that distorts and misrepresents American history; and furthermore, it continues to disenfranchise the patriotic heroes of the past and malign the self-image of millions of Americans today simply because of the color of their skin.

Black soldiers have always fought two wars simultaneously; wars declared by their government and the unspoken wars at home for liberty, equality and before the Civil War, for citizenship.

What kind of men fight for the liberty of others when their own liberty isn’t guaranteed?

True patriots: James Armistead Lafayette was one such person.


James Armistead Lafayette (1760-1832)

Slaves serving in the rebel military was a question that manifested itself early amongst the colonial government agencies. Their presence rankled many, while others welcomed them and praised their bravery. Some men of color had fought gallantly and with distinction as they stood alongside their white compatriots, defenders of liberty on the Lexington Green in April of 1775.

For instance, in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Peter Salem, a slave, served with courage under fire, as varying accounts reported. Salem was introduced to George Washington as “the man who shot Pitcairn,” the British Royal Marine Major who shouted to his men before Salem shot him down, “The day is ours.” Despite the competence and bravery of such men on the battlefield their exploits didn’t convert the wide-spread reluctance of most colonists to accept black men as soldiers.

General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, harbored the same common prejudices of the southern-planter ruling class of which he was a member. In July, he instructed recruiters “not to enlist any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.” Commanders in each colony and regiment made up their own minds. Some ignored his command. Their decision was based on need and experience. Those who had already served successfully with black militia and minutemen may have seen no cause to alter their regiments.

By December of 1776, Washington back-pedaled on his decision, allowing for black veterans of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill to serve; but of the slave, he maintained his objection. However, some junior officers appreciated the contributions of blacks. Col. John Thomas wrote John Adams on October 24, 1775, “We have negroes, but I look upon them as equally serviceable with other men, for fatigue (labor); and, in action many of them have proven themselves brave.”

As the war raged on, the necessity for able-bodied men settled the question. White soldiers, who usually served for only a few months to a year, mustered out, died or were wounded; while others deserted. Black soldiers who expected to receive their freedom if they served were in the war for the duration. This was a positive factor for the commanding officers who had to re-train all new recruits. Around five-thousand blacks served in the Revolutionary War as soldiers. However, a vast unknown number provided a myriad of support services.

Another reason the colonials reconsidered enlisting blacks was the bold military tactic that occurred in November of 1775. Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, ratified a proclamation freeing all indentured servants and slaves of rebels if they would fight for the British. Thousands of people fled the plantations to gain their freedom. This single act struck a devastating blow on two fronts, it threaten their economic stability and increased the tension between master and slave, with the master fearing slave revolts and the permanent loss of their property. Moreover, it upset the social order. Enslaved men serving alongside whites put them on an equal footing in the battlefield, which violated the white supremacy dogma that governed current thought and practice.

Born into slavery on December 10, 1748, in New Kent, Virginia to owner William Armistead, James enlisted in the Revolutionary War under General Marquis de Lafayette in 1781. His owner was a patriot and most likely received the bonus James would have gotten for enlisting had he been free or white. Enlistment bonuses comprised of money, land or slaves.

By the time Armistead entered the war, the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and other colonial agents had secured a military and economic alliance with the French. A long-time imperial rival of British expansion, the French provided naval ships, money and personnel.



Marquis de Lafayette (born Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) was a descendant of ancient French nobility. His father, a colonel in the French Grenadiers had died in the Seven Year’s War (known as the French and Indian War in America) when the young nobleman was only two years old. The political ideals of liberty and equality espoused by the colonials matched his beliefs and fired his military ambitions. Perchance, his yearning to play a role in America’s fight for independence from British rule may have been spawned by a desire to avenge his father’s death.

Since Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, it was easy for Armistead to gain access in the enemy camps as a runaway slave seeking his freedom. While providing varied services to the British, he gained the confidence of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, who by now had defected to the British. He charged Armistead with scouting, foraging and spying. Armistead was able to comfortably go between both camps, in essence becoming a double spy. He carried false and misleading information to the British but provided accurate intelligence on the movement of British forces and details of their military strategies to General Lafayette.

When Arnold left Virginia, Armistead was able to deceive General Charles Cornwallis as well, who rampaged through parts of Virginia and burned Richmond, the capital. He sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton to capture the entire legislative assembly, which included Daniel Boone, Patrick Henry and the governor. The plan was thwarted by an astute young man named Jack Jouett. Although, a few were apprehended, among them Daniel Boone; Jouett’s actions prevented the British from arresting the biggest prize: Governor Thomas Jefferson.

By early August, Cornwallis had made plans to establish fortifications in Yorktown, expecting reinforcements to increase his troops of approximately nine-thousand.

General Washington, in the meantime, had joined forces with Comte de Rochambeau to recapture New York. With intelligence supplied by James Armistead, they learned that Cornwallis was in Yorktown waiting for military support. French Admiral de Grasse, with a fleet of about twenty-eight naval ships, was on his way to the Chesapeake from St. Dominick (present-day Haiti). A plan to surround Cornwallis by land and sea appeared possible. The French naval fleet, along with the Washington’s Continental and Rochambeau’s French forces, headed to the enemy’s headquarters. Once Washington reached Yorktown, General Lafayette’s regiment joined him. Thus, Armistead’s accurate and meticulous reports were vital to the American victory that culminated in Yorktown on October 19, 1781.



The surrender of the British forces at Yorktown, Painting by John Trumbull (US Capitol) (


Later Cornwallis met the Marquis at his headquarters and was flabbergasted to find his spy James Armistead present.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 severed ties from Britain, the mother country, and established America as an independent nation. That same year, the Act of 1783 was passed freeing slaves who had fought in the Revolutionary War on their masters’ behalf. However, it excluded slave-spies. Ergo, James Armistead, who risked his life by providing information to help win the freedom of many, was himself denied freedom. Was his life in less danger operating under subterfuge as a spy amongst the British than it would have been, had he served as a soldier on the battlefield? I think not. Had his espionage been discovered, he surely would have had to forfeit his life.

After the war, Armistead was returned to slavery. Even his own master didn’t have the legal right to free him because of the Act of 1783, omitting slave-spies from emancipation.

When learning of his compatriot’s status, the Marquis penned a certificate to the Virginia legislator in October of 1784 imploring them to grant Armistead his freedom, declaring:

“This is to Certify that the Bearer By the Name of James Armistead Has done Essential Services to me While I had the Honour to Command in this State. His Intelligences from the Ennemy’s Camp were Industriously Collected and More faithfully deliver’d. He properly Acquitted Himself with Some Important Commissions I Gave Him and Appears to me Entitled to Every Reward his Situation Can Admit of. Done Under my Hand,” Richmond, November 21st 1784.

The legislator didn’t act upon the request straightaway. However, again in 1786, James Armistead applied for his freedom and it was duly granted on January 9, 1787, with a fair compensation to his master, William.

In honor of his benefactor, James Armistead added Lafayette to his surname. After emancipation, he moved a short distance south of New Kent, near Richmond, Virginia and acquired forty acres of less than suitable farmland. He married and had a family. He even owned slaves. History doesn’t tell us if he bought enslaved relatives to free them or if they were bought to farm his land as field hands.

It wasn’t until 1819 that he applied to the state legislature for financial assistance to ease his poverty. This time, the response was immediate; he received $60 and an annual pension of $40 for his service during the Revolutionary War.

Unlike James Armistead Lafayette, many blacks who worked as laborers, guides, messengers and spies were not as fortunate. Whether they were pressed into service or willingly answered the call, most neither received their freedom nor wages for their behind-the-scene contributions to the war.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States and was lauded as a hero of the American Revolutionary War in Richmond with festivities and a parade. Spying Armistead in the crowd, it is said he halted the procession, dismounted from his horse and embraced his old comrade.



End Notes


  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.1996) pages 32-34.




  • Col. Michael Lee Lanning (Ret.) Defenders of Liberty: African Americans in the Revolutionary War. (New York: Kensington Publishing Corp. 2000) pages 45-46; 130




  • Smithsonian The American Revolution, A Pictorial History. (New York: DK Publishing, First Edition 2016)


  • Harry M. Ward, For Virginia and For Independence: Twenty-Eight Revolutionary War Soldiers from the Old Dominion, Chapter 26 “Spy”, pages 155-159.



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The Epic Tarring and Feathering of John Malcom

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome back historian Katie Turner Getty.

“Mr. Malcom, I hope you are not going to strike this boy with that stick.”[1]


George Robert Twelves Hewes portrait, entitled “The Centenarian” by Joseph G. Cole, 1835.

The speaker was 31-year-old Boston shoemaker and Tea Party participant, George Robert Twelves Hewes. Hewes had been walking along Fore Street in Boston on the afternoon of January 25, 1774 when he came across 50-year-old Loyalist and Customs officer, John Malcom, furiously shaking a large, heavy cane at the head of a small boy.

Five weeks earlier, on December 16, 1773, Hewes had “dressed [himself] in the costume of an Indian, painted [his] face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith”[2] and participated in the Tea Party.  Appointed boatswain, he and his company boarded one of the three ships and proceeded to soak 342 chests of East India Company tea in Boston Harbor. After dumping the tea that night, the men “quietly retired to [their] several places of residence… No disorder took place… and the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.”[3]

Hewes had encountered no trouble when destroying the tea that night. But on this frigid Tuesday afternoon in January, trouble had found him—and was brandishing a cane.

Malcom turned his attention from the small boy to the shoemaker and exclaimed, “You are an impertinent rascal! It is none of your business!”[4]

Undeterred, five-foot, one-inch Hewes further protested Malcom’s rough treatment of the boy. Malcom called Hewes a “vagabond” and further declared that Hewes “should not speak to a gentleman in the street.”[5]

Hewes replied that he was “neither a rascal nor a vagabond, and though a poor man, was in as good credit in town as [Malcom] was.”[6] The exchange between the two men became even more heated.

Malcom called Hewes a liar and Hewes then retorted, “be that as it will, I never was tarred and feathered any how.”[7]

Malcom, overcome with fury, then struck Hewes in the head with his heavy cane, opening a bloody gash in the shoemaker’s forehead and causing him to fall to the ground unconscious.

John Malcom was one of the few people in the American colonies who had been tarred and feathered. Before this night was through, he would earn the dubious distinction of having been tarred and feathered twice.


“A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practised at Boston”, 1774.

Malcom’s first encounter with a sticky suit of tar and feathers was in October of 1773 in Falmouth (now Portland, Maine). While working as a Customs officer, Malcom had overzealously seized a ship called the Brothers for not having a register. Once aboard the ship, he “heartily damned the sailors, menaced the mate, [and] threatened to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.”[8]

So enraged were local sailors by Malcom’s behavior, that he was “disarm’d of Sword, Cane, Hat & Wig”[9], tarred and feathered over his clothes, and paraded through the streets for about an hour before being released.

This episode was common knowledge in Boston. In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson indicated that Malcom had complained to him on several occasions of “being hooted at in the Streets for having been tarred and feathered”[10]  Clearly, the Boston populace was not sympathetic to Malcom. And after his assault on Hewes, they would become even less so.

When Hewes regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who urged him to visit the prominent Boston physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, to have his wound treated. In the meantime, Malcom had “contrived to get a weapon in his hand and keep [the crowd] at bay, till he could flee to his house”[11] on Cross Street.

When Hewes visited Dr. Warren at his office on Hanover Street, the doctor made a cheerful comment relating to the fortuitous thickness of Hewes’s skull. He said, “you are the luckiest man I know of, to have such a skull—nothing else could have saved you.”[12]

Word of Malcom’s assault on Hewes had quickly spread through Boston and people had started gathering outside his house. Far from being cowed by the unfriendly crowd, Malcom “bullied the people”[13], slinging verbal taunts and threats. In response to jeers, Malcom shouted “You say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better!”[14]

Even 243 years later, Malcom’s defiance of the crowd is astonishing. From inside his house, he ran his sword out through the window and inflicted a flesh wound on an unlucky bystander named Waddel. He threatened the crowd with pistols and proclaimed that he would receive a thirty pound reward for every person he killed[15]. The formidable Malcom was eventually removed from his house “amidst the huzzas of thousand[s]”[16] He was dragged on a sled to King Street, site of the Boston Massacre, and was stripped of his clothes.

In Falmouth, during his first tar and feathering in 1773, the tar was splashed onto his clothes. This time, Malcom’s clothing was torn off, exposing him to the frigid winter air. The tar was poured over his bare flesh. He was then transferred to a cart and gleefully hauled to various points across town.

Sixty years later, Hewes reflected upon the event in his biography. “Then they drove to Liberty Tree—to the gallows on the Neck—back to the Tree—to Butcher’s Hall again—to Charlestown Ferry—to  Copp’s Hill—flogging the miserable wretch at every one of these places.”[17] Four hours later, he was unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of his house, frostbitten and senseless.

The reader may feel a slight twinge of disappointment, or perhaps even a grudging respect, upon learning that throughout his ordeal, John Malcom comported himself with “Great Fortitude and Resolution”.[18] Malcom’s recovery was lengthy. When frostbite caused his tarred and feathered flesh to peel off in strips, Malcom packed the skin in a box to preserve it and present to the King as proof of his service and sufferings.[19]

In May, 1774 Malcom sailed for England (presumably with his box of tarred flesh and feathers). Once in England, Malcom embarked on a letter-writing campaign to request redress for all of the suffering and expense he endured in America in furtherance of his service to the King.

In 1776, Malcom wrote a letter to the Lords of the Treasury. In referencing the altercation with Hewes in Boston and his subsequent tarring and feathering, Malcom stated that in “endeavoring to do my Duty in getting the Tea landed, [he] was barbarously and inhumanely treated…[and] was obliged to quit America”.[20]

Also in the letter, he accused his former Customs supervisor in Falmouth, Francis Waldo, of various misdeeds. Waldo had strongly disagreed with Malcom’s seizure of the Brothers and the two had never reconciled.

Waldo’s ire is still palpable 240 years later as, in response, he meticulously dismantles Malcom’s claims in a letter to the Lords of the Treasury, point by painstaking point:

“Mr Malcom went to Boston and brought upon himself a second Taring [sic] and Feathering…which happened some time after the India Companys Teas were destroyed and was occasioned by his beating a Boy in the Street in such a manner as to raise a Mob”[21]

Many factors probably contributed to the second tarring and feathering of Malcom, but any efforts he might have made to land the tea were not among them. As Waldo pointed out, the tea had been destroyed over a month before Malcom was tarred. Malcom was already unpopular in town due to objectionable past actions such as the Brothers seizure. He was a particularly overzealous and aggressive Customs officer. And the man he assaulted was a Patriot and tea party participant.


“Bostonian’s Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering”, attributed to Philip Dawe, London, 1774.

Additionally, Bostonians felt a simmering resentment toward the authorities. When some men tried to persuade the crowd to stop tormenting Malcom, they refused to relinquish him.[22] They believed the government would fail to punish him for his wrongs—assaulting the boy and Hewes, threatening the populace, and sticking Waddel with his sword. Instead, the crowd chose to maintain possession of Malcom and mete out the justice that they believed the government would not.

Malcom was in England barely a year before he demonstrated a desire to return to Boston. In a petition to the King, Malcom states that he “long[s] to be sent out to my Family in Boston and to my Business in the Customs in the Boston Government…I would Humbly Implore your Majesty let Me be soon sent from London to Boston…”[23]

In the end, Malcom was assigned to the Independent Company of Invalids at the Plymouth Garrison. He penned several more letters and petitions asking for additional compensation from the British government.

In 1782, the Commissioners on American Loyalist Claims reviewed his case and decided to allow him another 60 pounds per year on account of his having been tarred and feathered, but in no small part because “he appears to be in some degree insane.”[24]

Malcom lived out the rest of his days in England, passing away in 1788 at age 65. He never went back to Boston, nor ever saw his wife or children again.

Hewes lived to be 98 years old. In 1775, after war broke out, he escaped from Boston in a fishing boat and went to Wrentham, Massachusetts. He served in the militia until the end of the war. Eventually he moved to upstate New York. He was married for 70 years until his wife, Sally, passed away at the age of 87. By all accounts, he was lively and spry until the end. On the 4th of July, 1840, he was preparing to attend a celebration as a special veteran guest. On that day, George Robert Twelves Hewes stumbled while stepping into a carriage and suffered a serious injury. He died that November.






[1] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, 31 January 1774. The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr Jr., Massachusetts Historical Society Hereinafter cited as Boston-Gazette.

[2] A Citizen of New York [James Hawkes], A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, a Survivor of- the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbour in 1773 (New York: S. Bliss, printer, 1834), 38. Hereinafter cited as Hawkes.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] Boston-Gazette.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Boston-Gazette.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, 14 February 1774, quoted in Frank W.C. Hersey, Tar and Feathers: The Adventures of Captain John Malcom, reprinted from the Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, volume XXXIV, (Boston: D.B. Updike, The Merrymount Press, 1943), 440.

[9] Boston-Gazette and Country-Journal, 15 November 1773, quoted in Hersey, 440.

[10] Governor Thomas Hutchinson letter to Earl of Dartmouth, 28 January 1774, quoted in Hersey, 448.

[11] A Bostonian [Benjamin Bussey Thatcher], Traits of the Tea Party; Being a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, One of the Last of Its Survivors; With a History of That Transaction; Reminiscences of the Massacre, and the Siege, and Other Stories of Old Times (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835), 128. Hereinafter cited as Thatcher.


[12] Ibid., 132.

[13] Boston-Gazette.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Massachusetts Spy, 27 January 1774, quoted in Hersey, 444.

[16] Boston-Gazette.

[17] Thatcher, 131.

[18] John Rowe, Anne Rowe Cunningham, Edward Lilly Pierce, Letters and diary of John Rowe: Boston merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779, (Boston: W.B. Clark Co., 1903), 261.

[19] Hawkes, 35.

[20] Hersey, 442.

[21] Francis Waldo, letter to Lords of the Treasury, November 21, 1776, quoted in Hersey, 442.

[22] Massachusetts Spy, 26 January 1774, quoted in Hersey, 445.

[23] John Malcom, petition to King George the Third, January 12, 1775, quoted in Hersey, 463.

[24] Commissioners on American Loyalist Claims, Decision, as quoted in Hersey, 469.

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“When Innocence itself was not safe: Little-known preface to Boston Massacre sets the stage for trouble”

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back historian Derek D. Maxfield. 

In March 1770 one of the most infamous events of the American revolutionary era took place outside the Custom’s House in Boston, when British soldiers fired into a crowd instantly killing three American civilians and wounding many others.  It is, I hope, a familiar story.  But this terrible tragedy was preceded, just a month earlier by a little-known event that took the life of a preteen boy.


John Adams by Mather Brown

While riding through the country-side attending to errands, John Adams stumbled upon, “a vast collection of people, near the Liberty Tree.”  The large assemblage surprised the Bay State lawyer, who “enquired and found the funeral of the child, lately killed by Richardson.[i]

Adams happened upon the services for eleven year old Christopher Snider, who had been fatally shot by Ebenezer Richardson on Feb. 22nd, 1770 in Boston.  The Boston Gazette carried the story of how this tragedy had come about.  “On Thursday, late in the forenoon a barbarous murder attended with many aggravating circumstances, was committed on the body of a young lad.[ii]

A group of boys of various ages had been demonstrating near the home of a merchant that was known to have violated the nonimportation agreement then in place in the colonies (which had been enacted in answer to the Townshend Duties).  This “piece of pageantry” the Gazette explained, was witnessed by “one Ebenezer Richardson, who…was an officer of the customs, long known by the name of an INFORMER, and consequently a person of a most abandoned character.[iii]”  Richardson apparently charged into the fray and tried to break up the demonstration unsuccessfully.  Failing in this, he disappeared into the merchant’s house.

When Richardson reappeared and employing the most “profane language” prepared to “perpetrate a villany,” according to the Gazette.  Threatening to fire upon the group of boys, Richardson “swore to God that he would make the place too hot for some of them before night, and that he would make a lane through them if they did not go away.”  Witnesses to the scene later testified that the boys in no way answered with violence to that point, though soon Richardson was chucking brickbats and stones at them.  “This, however, brought on a skirmish, and Richardson discharged his piece laden with swan shot[iv].”  Snider, hit in several places, was mortally wounded as well as another boy with non-life-threatening wounds.


Boston Gazette Masthead (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Collection)

In April Richardson and another customs official, George Wilmot, were indicted and tried for murder in Suffolk Superior Court.  Wilmot was acquitted; Richardson was found guilty but was pardoned by the King.  The King’s pardon, coming as it did on the heels of the Boston Massacre, was met with extraordinary criticism from the people of Boston and contributed to tension that was already pregnant with possibilities for further disruption of the relationship between crown and colony.

Watching the long train of carriages at Snider’s funeral, John Adams was troubled.  Although the Boston Massacre was still a few weeks into the future, the barrister observed “this shows there are many more lives to spend if wanted in the service of their country.  It shows, too that the faction is not yet expiring – that the ardor of the people is not to be quelled by the slaughter of one child and the wounding of another.[v]

The Gazette was scathing in it’s assessment of the shooting.  “This innocent lad is the first, whose life has been victim to the cruelty and rage of oppressors!”  Cut down by an “execrable villain,” in concert with, and with the apparent encouragement of, other British agents, they “could not bear to see the enemies of America made the ridicule of boys.[vi]

The hostility of the people of Boston at the time to the presence of British soldiers is quite understandable.  It was a city of occupation.  The British encampment, after all, was in the heart of the city on Boston Common.  Martial law reigned and off-duty soldiers began to even snatch up jobs along the docks, ordinarily the sustenance of native sons. But when you layer in the shooting of adolescents – and killing of one – at the hands of British agents not a full month before, the temperament of Bostonians is even easier to understand.  As the Gazette put it, “the untimely death of this amiable youth will be a standing monument to the futurity that the time has been when Innocence itself was not safe![vii]















[i] L.H. Butterfield, ed.  Diary and Autobiography of John Adams.  Vol. I.  (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1962)  350.

[ii] Edes and Gill, Boston Gazette, February 26, 1770.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] L.H. Butterfield, ed.  Diary. 349-350.

[vi] Edes and Gill, Boston Gazette, February 26, 1770.

[vii] Ibid.

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