The American Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Immediately thereafter, the colonists commenced a siege of the town of Boston, where the British troops were quartered. For nearly the first two months of the siege, there were only minor skirmishes between the two forces as the British soldiers were confined within Boston.

The British, however, wanted to break out of their confinement and to protect Boston against colonial attacks from the hills overlooking the town.[1]

On May 25th, the immediate events leading to the Battle of Bunker Hill commenced. On that date British generals began developing a plan to break out and protect Boston from attack from the adjacent hills. On June 12th they finalized a plan to take the Boston and Dorchester Necks (narrow strips of land separately connecting the town of Boston and Dorchester Heights to the mainland), fortify the Dorchester Heights to the southeast of the town and then attack the colonial forces stationed in Roxbury to the south of the town.

Boston map 1775
Map of Charleston & Breed’s & Bunker HIlls, 1775

Once the British southern flank had been secured, the British plan called for having troops cross the Harbor north of the town to take the two hills behind the town of Charlestown (Breed’s Hill, 62 feet above sea level, and Bunker Hill,110 feet above sea level). These hills overlooked both Boston and its harbor and thus were critical vantage points. Assuming these objectives were secured, the plan was then to attack the colonial forces in Cambridge. The British attack was set for June 18th.

On June 13th (the day after these plans were finalized), however, the colonial forces received intelligence about the plans. As a result, the colonials decided that additional defenses needed to be erected on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. After a prayer service led by Harvard College President Langdon, 1,200 colonial troops In the dark of the night on June 16th stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and the adjacent lower Breed’s Hill. They constructed an earthen redoubt or wall on Breed’s Hill (not Bunker Hill), probably because Breed’s Hill was closer to where the British ships were positioned allowing the colonists a better attacking position than at Bunker Hill. That night the colonists  also built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

At sunrise the next day (June 17) the British were surprised to discover the new colonial positions on the two hills, and some of the British ships in the Harbor started shelling those positions with little effect. Although Bunker Hill was the original objective of both British and colonial troops and is the name of the battle, most of the actual fighting later that day took place on the shorter hill closer to the Harbor (Breed’s Hill).

British 1st assault,  Breed’s Hill
British 1st assault,         Breed’s Hill (H. Pyle)

The initial British attack did not take place until after 3:00 that afternoon due to a shortage of boats to bring the British troops from Boston, poor navigational maps and tides. They landed east of the town of Charleston. When colonial snipers began firing, the British had the town set afire by cannon shots from their ships. The British continued their assault. The British just expected to march up the hill and scare the colonists away. The British troops advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass.

As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. This resistance and resulting casualties forced the British to retreat.

British 2nd assault, Breed’s Hill
British 3rd assault, Breed’s Hill

The British immediately regrouped and started a second assault. Again they suffered heavy casualties and retreated.

The third assault, however, was successful with the British taking control of both hills. The colonial troops were running out of ammunition and were forced to retreat to Cambridge, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill.This assault and the Battle were over by approximately 6:00 p.m.

While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses: 828 wounded and 226 killed (nearly a third of the deployed forces of 3,000), including a notably large number of officers. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order, having suffered few casualties (115 wounded and 305 killed). Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops.

Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, Benjamin and William Brown–were members of the colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill.[2]

Their regiment left their camp in Cambridge around noon that day and for unknown reasons halted about an hour at Lechmere Point (near the eastern edge of present-day Cambridge). When they arrived later at the northern base of Bunker Hill, they were met by a man who said that additional troops had been ordered to halt. But the regiment’s commander said those were “Tory orders” and instead ordered the men to follow him into combat. They actually arrived at the hostilities just before the colonial retreat was ordered at the end of the battle.

During the colonial retreat, John Brown was shot in the left thigh near the bone and in his right heel, rendering him unable to walk. The regiment’s captain took Brown under one arm and their two muskets under the other and moved Brown out of immediate danger. The captain then found Brown’s brother, Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), who carried John the rest of the way to safety.

John was unable to go to a hospital or home and remained at a nearby residence to recuperate. That October he finally was able to return home to Leicester, Massachusetts. In April 1777 the Massachusetts legislature granted him a pension of 20 shillings per month for his disability, and in 1786 the new nation awarded him a pension. He died in 1821 at the age of 87.

As I was researching for this post, I had three unanswered questions. First, why did the British not execute their plan to take control of the Dorchester Heights? Second, given the obvious strategic importance of Breed’s and Bunker Hills, why had the colonists not constructed fortifications before June 16th and why had they not stationed troops there? Third, given that same strategic importance, why did the British not maintain their victorious positions on the two hills? I would greatly appreciate comments with answers to these questions and any corrections to the above account of the Battle of Bunker Hill.


[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 150 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Four (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) (collection of original documents).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994); Emory Washburn, Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicesterin the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1826); Emory Washburn, Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement (1860.

The American Revolutionary War’s Siege of Boston, April 19, 1775-March 17, 1776

After the April 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the 1,700 British soldiers returned to their quarters in Boston, then a town of approximately 15,500 people in addition to the British troops. The colonial Minute Men, numbering at least 14,000 to 16,000, were gathered four miles to the west in Cambridge.

The stage was thus set for the colonists’ Siege of Boston.

Boston map, 1775
Boston map, 1775 & Today

Geography is the key to understanding this American use of the military tactic of siege, i.e., militarily surrounding a town or other place with the intent of preventing free movement to or from the place or conquering by attrition rather than by attack.

The town of Boston then was located on a peninsula surrounded on virtually all sides by the Charles River and the Boston Harbor and connected to the south mainland only by a narrow strip of land (“The Boston Neck”). (Today landfill has eliminated the Boston Neck.) Although British ships controlled the water and thus were able to resupply the British troops in the town, as they did in May 1775 with an additional 4,300 troops (for a total force of 6,000), these troops essentially were land locked.

Siege of Boston map, 1775-1776

The Americans obviously understood the British predicament, and with the Americans having the larger number of troops and not wanting to wage war in Boston, they imposed a siege of the town of Boston by stationing the militia men in a line starting in Chelsea to the northeast of Boston, going west to Charlestown and then south to Roxbury. This siege line was able to prevent the British troops from leaving Boston and engaging in war against the Americans. The Siege was an American offensive maneuver implemented for defensive purposes until the very end of the siege.

Among those participating in the Siege were Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, William and Benjamin. All four apparently had enlisted for eight months or through the balance of the year of 1775, and all except for John presumably were engaged in the Siege at least until then. John’s service unfortunately ended on June 17, 1775, when he was wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill as we will see in a subsequent post.[1]

For most of the 11 months of siege, there were relatively minor skirmishes between the two forces except for the just mentioned Battle of Bunker Hill.

One of the skirmishes occurred in May of 1775 on Noddle’s and Hog Islands in the Harbor northeast of Boston (near today’s Boston Logan International Airport). Because of their domination of the sea, the British were using the farmers and livestock on the island to supply the British troops with fresh meat. In addition, the British were storing some naval supplies there. The colonists responded by removing livestock and hay from the islands or by killing the livestock and burning the hay and barns. On May 27 and 28, 1775, the opposing forces fought the Battle of Chelsea Creek, which was a creek between the two islands and the mainland.

The colonists without suffering any fatalities were successful in forcing the retreat of the British troops in this battle. In addition, the colonists’ cannons were able to capture and sink the British ship, HMS Diana, the first such accomplishment in the war and a big boost to their morale. One of the colonists in this military engagement was Benjamin Brown.

General George Washington
General Washington’s Headquarters, Cambridge, 1775-1776

Nearly three weeks after the Battle of Chelsea Creek, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress voted to establish the Continental Army for purposes of common defense by incorporating the 16,000 or so militia men already in action in the Boston area plus the 5,000 other men in New York. The next day (June 15th) the Congress unanimously elected George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

On July 3, 1775, General Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the troops in the field. He established his headquarters and abode in a beautiful house in Cambridge that later in the 19th century was owned by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (The house is now open to the public as a National Historic Site.)

On January 24, 1776, the colonists obtained a major strategic advantage with the arrival in Cambridge of over 50 heavy cannons that had been seized eight months earlier (on May 10, 1775) from the British Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain in present-day upstate New York. (The reconstructed Fort is now open to the public.)

The successful capture of the Fort was led by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys and Colonel Benedict Arnold. (Arnold in 1780 defected to the British and thereby became an infamous American traitor.)

Artillery for Boston, 1775

Between November 1775 and January 24, 1776, in a remarkable logistical operation Colonel Henry Knox and a team of engineers used boats, horse and ox-drawn sledges and manpower to transport the heavy cannons nearly 250 miles over poor roads, forest, swamps and the frozen Hudson and Connecticut Rivers to Cambridge.

Once in Cambridge, the canons were moved to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston from the southeast. In early March 1776, the Americans started to bombard Boston with the cannons, killing some British soldiers and destroying some houses. The British returned artillery fire, but their cannons  could not reach the colonists’ weapons.

British Evacuation of Boston, 1776

After a planned British assault on the Dorchester Heights was cancelled due to a storm, the British decided to leave Boston. On March 8th General Washington received an anonymous letter saying the British would not destroy the town of Boston if they were permitted to depart without attack. Washington formally rejected the letter, but on March 17th the British evacuated Boston without hostile fire and without any destruction.

A British fleet of 120 ships with 9,906 British troops plus 1,220 women and children left Boston for the 400 mile northeastern sail to the unused British military base in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Now in Boston March 17th is celebrated as Evacuation Day.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50, 308-12(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994). This account of the Brown brothers’ participation is based upon two secondary sources about the town of Leicester written in the 19th century by Emory Washburn: (a) Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 49-50 (1826); and (b) Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement at 296-99(1860).

 

The American Revolutionary War’s Mustering of the Minute Men, April 1775

On April 19, 1775, the opening battles of the American Revolutionary War occurred in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts and along the road from those villages to Boston.

Minute Man statue, Lincoln, MA

Battles There was no organized colonial army at the time. Instead, the Americans who fought the British that day were “Minute Men,” who were volunteers committed to being ready to fight on a minute’s notice and who had been mustered into service that day by warnings that the British were coming.

A concrete example of the mustering of the Minute Men can be seen by what happened that same day (April 19th) in Leicester, Massachusetts, a village 30 miles west of Concord.

Early that same afternoon a messenger on horseback arrived in Leicester. He stopped in front of the blacksmith shop of the captain of the local unit of the Minute Men. The messenger yelled, “The war has begun! The British are marching to Concord!”[1]

The blacksmith immediately stopped working on the ploughshare he was sharpening. He grabbed his loaded musket. He rushed into the street and fired the musket in the air. This was the agreed upon signal for the Minute Men to assemble. Some who previously had been appointed as messengers went through the town and adjoining countryside to spread the news.

By 4:00 p.m. all the Minute Men had assembled in the town Common. No one had a uniform. But everyone had his musket, powder horn and bullet pouch along with a few necessities. Among those present were Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and two of his brothers–John and William. They all apparently enlisted for eight months or through the balance of the year of 1775.

Watching the Leicester men assemble were family and friends. To provide the men with shot for their muskets the lead weights of one family’s valuable clock were melted down and cast into bullets. Rev. Conklin, the local clergyman, prayed for their protection and safe return. The mother of the unit’s captain approached him to give him a hug. He responded by saying for all to hear, “Mother, pray for me, and I will fight for you.”

Just before sundown that same day, 80 Minute Men from the town, including the three Brown brothers, marched east approximately 24 miles through Worcester to Marlborough, Massachusetts, a village of 1,500 people. There upon hearing the news that the British had retreated to Boston, they and colleagues from other towns stopped for a short sleep.

The next day (April 20th) they marched another 21 miles to Watertown, Massachusetts and stopped for a night’s rest. The following day (April 21st) they completed their march when they arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was five miles to the east and which had been selected as the staging center for the American forces.

This tale of the mustering of the Leicester men undoubtedly was repeated throughout Massachusetts and the rest of New England for the Leicester men were joined in Cambridge by thousands of other Minute Men. One of the other Minute Men was another Brown brother, Benjamin Brown, from the village of Rowe in northwestern Massachusetts near present-day Vermont.

As we will see in a subsequent post, these men then participated in the Siege of Boston from April 20, 1765 through March 17, 1776.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50, 308-12(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994); Emory Washburn, Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 49-50 (1826); Emory Washburn, Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement at 296-99(1860).

The American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, which will be summarized in a future post. Hostilities ended six years later with the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. The formal end of the war was concluded another two years later with the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.[1]

John Brown, my maternal sixth great-grandfather, had five sons, all of whom fought for the Americans in that war. The four eldest–John, Perley (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), Benjamin and William–fought in the early Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill, which will be the subjects of future posts.  Perley, Benjamin and William also fought in the Battle for New York, which will be discussed in another post. (The youngest son, Daniel, joined the war for six months in 1780.)[2]

In the first fifteen months of the war, the colonists’ objective was redressing grievances, not independence.  Indeed, the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, adopted the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms that stated, “we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored.” The document concluded with this statement:

  • “With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the Empire from the calamities of civil war.”

The Declaration of Causes and Necessity also reiterated many of the points made in the First Continental Congress’ Declaration and Resolves of September 1774. The new Declaration continued, “We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated Ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honour [sp], justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have [sic] a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them.”

This American plea for reconciliation fell on deaf ears. The British Parliament instead in late 1775  adopted the American Prohibitory Act that stated that “all manner of (the American colonies’) trade and commerce is and shall be prohibited;” that any ships found trading “shall be forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies;” and that “for the encouragement of the officers and seamen of his Majesty’s ships of war” that “seamen, marines, and soldiers on board shall have the sole interest and property of all ships, vessels, goods and merchandise, which they shall seize and take.” The Prohibitory Act was a de facto declaration of war by Great Britain as the blockade it imposed was an act of war under the law of nations.

A copy of the American Prohibitory Act, however, did not reach the colonies until February 1776 and was a final precipitating cause of the American decision to seek independence from Great Britain.

Accordingly on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted, 12-0 with one abstention (New York), a short Resolution of Independence that stated that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Two days later, July 4, 1776, the Congress unanimously adopted the now famous American Declaration of Independence. Before reciting the specific complaints against Great Britain, it starts with these amazing and earth-shaking words:

  • “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect [sic]their Safety and Happiness. . . .  when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Treaty of Paris by John Jay, John Adams,
Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens & William Temple Franklkin (Benjamin West, painter)

Seven years later (September 1783) the war for American independence was formally ended with the Treaty of Paris. In its Article 1 the British Monarch “acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.” In addition, its Article 7 stated, “There shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Brittanic Majesty and the said states, and between the subjects of the one and the citizens of the other, wherefore all hostilities both by sea and land shall from henceforth cease.”


[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], Ch. 7 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Chs. Three through Thirty-Three (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 7-8, 11-12, 17-25, 31-32, 50, 308-10 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

Ancestor’s Service as a Leader of the Town of Leicester in the Province of Massachusetts Bay

From at least 1761 through 1773, John Brown, my maternal 6th great-grandfather, was a leader of the town of Leicester in the Province of Massachusetts Bay.[1]

He frequently was elected to represent the town in the Great and General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which was established by a 1630 charter from King Charles I and which served as the colonial legislature and judicial court of appeals. John Brown also served the town in other capacities.

Protesting the Stamp Act

In 1765 the British Parliament adopted the Stamp Act requiring many printed materials in the British colonies in North America to be produced on stamped paper made in London with an embossed revenue stamp. This tax had to be paid in valid British currency, not in colonial paper money, and was designed to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory in the Seven Years War, as the French and Indian War was called in Europe.

As most of us in the U.S. know, this tax was very unpopular in the colonies, and Mr. Brown was instructed by the town of Leicester on October 17, 1765, to advocate in the General Court for “their natural rights; their rights as Englishmen . . .; and those granted them by charter” and to assert that the Stamp Act was “contrary to the rights of man, subversive of the English constitution, and directly tending to bring them into a state of abject slavery and vassalage.” [2]

The instructions also criticized the expansion of the powers of the British admiralty court “by which, every man, at the option of a malicious informer, is liable to be carried [to London] . . . before a court of vice admiralty; there tried without a jury, amerced [punished] by an arbitrary judge, and taxed with costs, as he shall please; and if the parties have not wherewith to satisfy the same, to die in prison in a foreign land.” Such practice was “repugnant to the magna charta, by which no freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, or deprived of his liberties, or free customs, nor passed upon, nor condemned, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

New York City Hall, circa 1765

Later that same month of October 1965, 27 delegates from nine colonies met in the colonial Stamp Act Congress in New York City’s City Hall. After 12 days of deliberation, it produced the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. It petitioned for repeal of the Stamp Act, the expansion of the jurisdiction of the admiralty court and any other statutes restricting American commerce after declaring that the colonies’ inhabitants owed allegiance to the British Crown and subordination to its Parliament. More significant, in light of subsequent developments, were its declarations that:

  • The inhabitants of the colonies “are entitled to all the inherent rights and privileges of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.”
  • It “is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”
  • The “people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.”
  • The “only representatives of the people of these colonies are persons chosen therein, by themselves; and that no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them but by their respective legislatures.”
  • It “is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution for the people of Great Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists.”
  • “[T]rial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.”
  • The Stamp Act and the expansion of the jurisdiction of the admiralty “have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.”
  • Certain duties or taxes on the colonies “will be extremely burdensome and grievous, and, from the scarcity of specie, the payment of them absolutely impracticable.”
  • The “increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse, with Great Britain, mutually affectionate and advantageous.”

Protesting the Dissolution of the Massachusetts Legislature

Three years later, in 1768, the Governor of the Province dissolved the General Court. In response a convention at Boston’s Faneuil Hall was called to protest this action, and in February 1768 John Brown was elected to be one of the town’s representatives to the convention as well as the chair of a committee to prepare the instructions for the town’s representatives.[3]

Those instructions of February 1768 condemned the dissolution of the colonial legislature while also expressing the people’s allegiance to the King and their willingness to risk their lives and fortunes in defense of their rights. The document also asserted that “the British Parliament, or any other power on earth, had no right to dispose of one cent of their property without their consent, in person, or by representatives; and that carrying any person out of this province, or beyond the seas for any supposed crime, is contrary to the magna charta, and unconstitutional.”

The 1768 Leicester instructions also recommended that Massachusetts share its opinions with the other colonies “as we are embarked in a common cause.”  The document continued, “when we reflect upon the evils our forefathers underwent in the settlement of this country, the dangers to which they stood continually exposed from an insidious and bloodthirsty foe, and the blood and treasure they expended,. . .  it would be despising the bounties of our creator; an infamous prostitution of ourselves, and a total disregard to posterity” if they “tamely and pusillanimously suffer the execution” of the British laws regarding the colonies.

Protesting the Assessment of the Governor’s Salary

Five years later, in January 1773, John Brown again was called to serve the town of Leicester, this time on a committee to react to a report from Boston protesting the decision by the British to assess the Governor’s salary out of the American revenue.[4]

The Leicester committee report contained the prefatory statement that the town’s inhabitants bore “true allegiance” to King George III and were ready “to hazard our lives in defence [sic] of his person, crown, and dignity.”

On the other hand, the committee’s  instructions stated that the people of Leicester “have a right to all the liberties and privileges of subjects [living] within the realm of England; and that we esteem and prize them so highly, that we think it our duty to risk our lives and fortunes in defence [sic] thereof.”

The 1773 committee document claimed that “the Parliament of Great Britain has enacted laws subversive of our rights and privileges, in a particular manner, in raising a revenue in the Colonies, without their consent and thereby depriving us of that right of keeping our own money until we think fit personally, or by our representatives, to dispose of the whole, or any part thereof” and that “neither the British Parliament, nor any other power on earth, has a right to dispose of one farthing of our money, or any of our property, without our consent in person or by our representatives.”

The Leicester committee of 1773 also reiterated its opposition to “the carrying any person or persons out of this province, beyond the seas or elsewhere, for any supposed or real crime committed here, [as] against Magna Charta, and unconstitutional.”


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).This account is based upon two secondary sources about the town of Leicester written in the 19th century by Emory Washburn: (a) Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1826) [“EW#1”}; and (b) Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement (1860)[“EW#2”]. I would greatly appreciate corrections and supplementation by anyone with more direct knowledge of the General Court during this period.

[2] EW#1 at 40-41; EW#2 at 280-81, 434-38.

[3] EW#1 at 42-44; EW#2 at 438-39.

[4] EW#2 at 285, 439-42.

Ancestor’s Military Service in King George’s War

King George II

John Brown (my maternal 6th great-grandfather as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would say) in 1745 served in the British colonial army during the reign of King George II in what was known in North America as King George’s War.[1] Let us see how that came about.

In 1740 war broke out in Europe. The pretexual issue was whether Maria Theresa was eligible to succeed to the Hapsburg throne of Austria after the death of her father, Charles VI. This issue was created by Salic or Frankish law precluding royal inheritance by a woman. Thus, this war in Europe is known as the War of the Austrian Succession. This war eventually involved most of the European powers and other issues of a more real politik nature. By 1744 France and Great Britain were on opposite sides of this war, and in that year each declared war on the other.

North America. cir. 17

At that time (1744) both Britain and France had large colonial interests in North America. Britain then in the reign of King George II, of course, had the 13 colonies[2]  plus Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Hudson’s Bay. France had New France, which extended from Isle Royale (Cape Breton Island today) in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from what is now southern Ontario in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.

Importantly, however, under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht the extant of New France had been reduced with France ceding to Britain what is now Hudson’s Bay, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, part of Maine and Newfoundland.

Isle Royale                     (Cape Breton Island)
Fortress Louisburg (model)

This loss of territory by France made Isle Royale (Cape Breton Island) very important to France as the guardian of the approach to the St. Lawrence River, which was the gateway to French Canada, and of the Grand Banks fisheries. As a result, between 1720 and 1740 France constructed the strongest fortress in North America, the walled city of Louisburg at the eastern end of Isle Royale. It became “the key and stronghold of French power” in New France.[3] It was designed and built to resist ship attacks from the sea, but as the French discovered in 1745 the hills behind the fortress made it vulnerable to bombardment by cannons on those hills.

Grand Banks of Newfoundland

For the British colonists in North America, however, Louisburg “menaced the lifeline of the New England colonies.” With this fortress, France could sweep the coast of New England and its ships with French expeditions. As a result, New England’s merchants were reluctant to risk putting their ships to sea and its fishermen were threatened from cod fishing in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, then and now one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.[4]

Once Great Britain and France had declared war against each other in Europe in 1744, military skirmishes between them occurred in North America, primarily on the frontier between their colonies. In 1744, French forces raided the British port at Canso, Nova Scotia not far from Louisburg and another British fort, Fort St. Anne, in New York. This became known in North America as King George’s War.

These French attacks and the existence of the war in Europe provided an opportunity (or excuse) for the colonists (with British assistance) to attack the French fortress at Louisburg. William Vaughan, a local fisheries and lumber baron, persuaded the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay to seek colonial legislative authorization for just such an attack. That authorization was obtained by just one vote.[5]

Colonists attack                Louisburg, 1745
Colonists capture Louisburg, 1745

In March of 1745, a Massachusetts-led colonial force of 4,200 soldiers and sailors aboard 90 ships set sail from Boston to do just that. At Canso, Nova Scotia, they were joined by an additional 16 ships under the command of British Commodore Peter Warren. John Brown was in that expedition as a captain of one of the units and participated in the successful 47-day siege and bombardment of the fortress and its capture on June 18, 1745.

The Louisburg siege and capture turned out to be the most significant military engagement of King George’s War. It strengthened the colonists’ military spirit, provided a training school for their future fighting in the Revolutionary War and gave them a new awareness of their own capabilities.[6]

William Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts Bay
Duke of Newcastle

In October 1745, the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, William Shirley, reported to the Duke of Newcastle, who was Britain’s  Secretary of State for the Southern Department, on the details of this significant military victory. In what undoubtedly was true at the time, but ironic in retrospect, the Governor concluded the report with these words:

  • “I hope that the Services of the New England troops in the Field, which seem to have equaled the Zeal of the Massachusetts Council and Assembly within their Province, for His Majesty’s Service, upon this Occasion, may be gracefully accepted by His Majesty, as a Proof of that perfect Duty and firm Loyalty which, I am persuaded, all the Colonies concerned in the reduction of this Place [the Louisburg Fortress] (but especially that of the Massachusetts Bay, for which I can more particularly answer) bear to His Majesty’s sacred Person, and to his Government.”[7]

The War of the Austrian Succession and its North American sideshow (King George’s War) lasted until 1748 when all of the parties negotiated the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Much to the consternation of the British colonists, Louisburg was returned to France under this treaty.

Louisburg Fortress (today)

The Fortress of Louisbourg is now a National Historic Site of Canada.

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[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).

[2] The 13 colonies were Province of New Hampshire, Province of Massachusetts Bay, Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, Connecticut Colony, Province of New York, Province of New Jersey, Province of Pennsylvania, the Lower Colonies on Delaware, Province of Maryland, Colony and Dominion of Virginia, Province of North Carolina, Province of South Carolina and Province of Georgia.

[3]  Samuel Adams Drake, The Taking of Louisburg 1745 at 13 (Boston; Lee & Shepard 1891) [“Drake”]; Fairfax Downey, Louisbourg: Key to a Continent at 1(Englewood Cliff, NJ; Prentice-Hall 1965) [“Downey”].

[4]  Drake at 46; Downey at 1.

[5] Downey at 55-57.

[6] Drake at 128.

[7] Letter, William Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts-Bay to Duke of Newcastle with journal of siege of Louisbourg (Oct. 28, 1745).

Rev. Charles Edwin Brown’s Lineage in America

As mentioned in a prior post, Rev. Charles Edwin Brown (my maternal great-great grandfather or 2nd great-grandfather in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s terminology) was a Baptist missionary to the Iowa Territory in 1842. His and, therefore, my lineage in the U.S. has been traced to at least 1686.[1]

William Brown was born somewhere in England around 1669 and emigrated to the American colonies sometime before 1686. William was one of the early settlers of Hadley (later Hatfield), Massachusetts and the builder of its first house. By 1720 he had relocated to Leicester, Massachusetts approximately 45 miles west of Boston. He died in Leicester, Massachusetts in 1752. (William was my maternal 7th great-grandfather.)

One of William’s sons was John Brown, who was born in Hatfield, Massachusetts on November 3, 1703. Sometime before 1720 he and his family moved to be among the original settlers of Leicester, Massachusetts, where he became an important figure. John was a representative in the Commonwealth’s legislature for many years between 1749 and 1768. He died on December 24, 1791 in Leicester. (John was my maternal 6th great-grandfather.)

One of John’s sons was Perley Brown, who was born on May 27, 1737 in Leicester, Massachusetts and who died on October 28, 1776, in White Plains, New York. (Perley was my maternal 5th great-grandfather.)

John and Perley and four of John’s other sons (John, Jr., Benjamin, William and Daniel) had significant military experience, including the American Revolutionary War, that will examined in subsequent posts.

One of Perley’s sons was Nathaniel Brown, who was born in Leicester, Massachusetts on November 5, 1767 and who died on October 1, 1854 in Hamburg, New York. (Nathaniel Brown was my maternal 4th great-grandfather.)

Phillip Perry Brown was one of Nathaniel’s sons, having been born on September 17, 1790 in Bennington, Vermont. He was an ordained Baptist pastor who served several churches in Madison County, New York. He died in Madison, New York on September 23, 1876. (Phillip Perry Brown was my maternal 3rd great-grandfather.)

Phillip Perry was the father of Charles Edwin Brown, who was born on February 23, 1813 in Augusta, New York and who died in Ottumwa, Iowa on July 23, 1901.

Future posts will explore Charles Edwin’s ministry and service in Iowa and the lives of (a) his son, James DeGrush Brown (my maternal 1st great-grandfather); (b) Charles Edwin’s grandson, George Edwin Brown (my maternal grandfather); (c) and Charles Edwin’s great-grand-daughter, Marian Frances Brown Krohnke (my Mother). Another son of Charles Edwin–William Carlos Brown–had a remarkable railroad career that will be examined in other posts.

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[1] The source for this geneology is Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).