If you could time travel and visit any American city/colony/state for one year between 1763 and 1783, which city/colony/state and year would you choose? Why?
Blessed by 30 years of genealogical research performed by my mother, I actually lay claim to personal connections in all sorts of places in the colonies. However, the one time and place I find most interesting would be the settlement of Watauga during the campaigns of 1780. Pulled home by constant threat from the Cherokee, the Overmountain Men still found time to cross back and forth into the South Carolina backcountry to make life miserable for Cornwallis and his ‘Inspector of Militia’, the one and only Major Ferguson. Isaac Shelby, John Sevier, and Jonathan Tipton are only a few of the men known to fight on both fronts of the war in the free state of Watauga (East Tennessee).
I would choose to be living in Boston in 1763. I would like to know what people in the city were thinking about Anglo-America prior to the Sugar and Stamp Acts and how many had ever heard of The Independent Whig. I would like to visit grog shops to discover whether there was a hint of rebellion among the workers and whether they thought Samuel Adams would ever amount to anything. While there, perhaps I could catch a game at Fenway when the St. Louis Browns come to town.
Assuming one’s shots and inoculations were up to date, I would be transported to the Boston area in the year 1774. You may ask, why not the more famous years of 1775 or 1776? Because if the definition of a “revolution” is the seizing of control from the ruling power, then I would want to be there in 1774 when the real revolution actually began. I would wander out to Worcester on September 6th to watch the seeds of “independency” begin as a popular movement to take over the Royal courts which were the anchors of British rule out away from the cities. I’d hang around Salem with the illegal Provincial Congress and watch that silversmith guy Revere gallop the Suffolk Resolves up to the First Continental Congress in Philly. Then I’d drop by Henry Knox’s book store, asking where I could find some good clam chowder in town.
I would love to visit New York City in late 1774 through 1775 since it appears unlike Boston which was preparing for conflict, the city of New York was pretending nothing was changing. Although militia companies, full of British deserters, were drilling, the crown colonial officials seemed to ignore the issues. Sons of Liberty visited openly with Army officers friendly to the colonial cause, yet nothing was done. The small British garrison in NYC seems to have been too small or otherwise unwilling to act while it is difficult to understand what the general populace was thinking.
Visiting the former French Illinois Country in 1776 and British occupied Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-1778 would also be high on the list.
Massachusetts in 1774. That was the most democratic time and place in our nation’s history. People voted on absolutely everything. When a nighttime “mob” in Braintree had seized some powder and prevented the sheriff from delivering two warrants, they wanted to give a great “Huzzah!” But it was Sunday, and should they disturb the Sabbath? They took a vote, which “passed in the negative.” On the other hand, civil liberties at that time were not clearly defined. I’d hate to be a Tory just then. A suit of tar and feathers would not fit me well.
Albany served as an epicenter of military activity throughout the War for Independence.
I would like to go to Albany to observe and interview residents about their experiences.
Perhaps a resident could tell me about the political divisions within the city. What were the loyalties of the community prior to 1777?
Residents may also provide information about why they invited the Patriot army to occupy their city. Did they invite the Patriots because of their experience with the British Army during the French and Indian War? Because a majority of residents sympathized with the Patriot cause? Or because the residents could not stop the New Englanders from coming?
I would like to observe the degree of outrage the community felt when Horatio Gates replaced Philip Schuyler as commanding officer of the Northern Department and the Albanians’ reactions when the Patriots escorted John Burgoyne into their city.
It is always easy to make bold, heroic pronouncements from a position of British – Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America
A safe position was not the situation facing the first Vermont constitutional convention in Windsor, Vermont in July 1777. British General John Burgoyne had just invaded from Canada with 8000 soldiers which threatened the entire state. On July 6th, the fortress of Ticonderoga was abandoned and the American rear guard was routed at the Battle of Hubbarton, VT leaving open the entire state of Vermont to British invasion.
However, an intrepid group of political leaders faced down the British threat and signed a new constitution declaring Vermont’s independence. This audacious and courageous stand would have been a most interesting sight to behold. For comparison, the signers of the Declaration of Independence did not face such a direct and imminent threat to their personal safety. It would have been a privilege to witness the courage and fortitude of this fearless group of legislators.
Although the 1776ers will disagree, what could have been more fascinating than Massachusetts in 1775—from Col. Leslie’s retreat in Salem in February; to Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill; to Washington’s assumption of command; to the moves of the Adamses and Hancock; to the emergence of young leaders like Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox.
I am a Georgian and I would like to be in Augusta, Georgia, in 1781 because, despite Archibald Campbell’s excellent map, I have many questions about what was and was not there, and exactly where. Savannah would be good too because almost nothing survives of it from the American Revolution and the battle there of October 9, 1779 must have been one of the most dramatic scenes in American history.
I would choose Boston and its outskirts in 1775. Boston was the cradle of the American Revolution—armed conflict may have started somewhere else eventually, but it did start in and around Boston. It would be exciting to feel the tension in early 1775, to find out what really happened on the Lexington green in April 1775, to witness first-hand the Battle of Bunker Hill, and to be on hand for the arrival of the newly-appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental army, Washington. Who would not want to meet with in the first part of 1775 the likes of Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, John Hancock, Paul Revere and John Adams and in the second part of 1775 with future military leaders such as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox (not to mention the irascible Charles Lee)? And it would be an opportunity to explore in depth what motivated ordinary farmers and shopkeepers (who left few writings of their feelings on the topic) to answer the call to arms during and after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and during the Siege of Boston.
I would choose the greater Boston area for the one year between April 1775 and March 1776. Assuming there was enough room in the time machine, I would bring a remote-controlled helicopter with a mounted video camera so I could capture bird’s eye footage of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill and Noddle’s Island. I’d also fly the drone through Washington’s encampment and British-occupied Boston. I’d volunteer to help Benjamin Edes relocate his press from Boston to Watertown, begging him the entire time for an apprenticeship. Late at night, I’d slip eyewitness reports of major events (funny how I was always at the right place at the right time) under his print shop door for publication. My pseudonym would be Marty McFly. For the first two weeks in April 1775, while I had time to kill, I’d go door-to-door through Boston conducting a Patriot-Loyalist-Neutral survey.
I would choose Norfolk, Virginia, in 1771 or 1772. Norfolk was the sixth largest town in the Thirteen Colonies and the largest town in Virginia (without being the colony’s seat of government). Yet we know too little about Norfolk’s prewar physical and political history (in part because the rebel militia destroyed most of the town in January 1776), and that story has rarely been incorporated into our understanding of politics in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston, or our understanding of urban slavery. I would choose 1771 or 1772 because these were relatively quiet years in terms of imperial politics. What was the mood of the colonies between the repeal of most of the Townshend duties in 1770 and the Tea Act’s passage in 1773? Was there widespread hope for a lasting resolution of American grievances? Was there simmering resentment? Was anyone thinking about independence?
I would like to visit New Jersey in 1779, when Governor William Livingston, a forgotten leader, relentlessly pursued loyalists in county after county, arresting them by the dozen and forcing them to choose between imprisonment and an oath of loyalty to the Continental Congress. In New Jersey the Revolution was a civil war, and Livingston played a crucial role in winning it. For several years, he never slept more than one night in any house. The British and loyalists would have paid a huge sum to anyone who killed him. Without him, New Jersey might have become, not the cockpit state, but the turncoat state. The last royal governor, William Franklin, had been very popular and he never stopped trying to counter Livingston’s campaign. But the British never gave him enough men and guns.
I’d have to say Philadelphia in 1776. The momentous decision to break with Britain, the brilliance of our political leadership in that one place, at that time, the newspapers, the buzz on the streets, the looming threat of British capture and occupation . . . . I’d love to be an eye and earwitness to all of that. Additionally, of course, I’d love 15 minutes alone with Nathanael Greene, anytime, anywhere, but especially in Charlotte in autumn 1780, as he makes the initial decisions picking up the pieces of the destroyed Southern Army.
The already-rich cultural and culinary history of New Orleans, combined with the great events gathering there under its Spanish Governor-General Bernardo de Gálvez, makes that city in 1780 the most compelling of the places I’ve studied over the course of the Revolution. The mélange of languages, ranging from the developing Cajun French of the Acadians exiled to the region thirty years prior, to the heavily-accented Spanish of the Isleños shipped in from the Canary Islands just a few years before would also be fascinating to experience. Most exciting, though, would be the sense of momentum that must have built as Gálvez swept the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico of British influence, set back only by the forces of Mother Nature; the Redcoats had little answer for his energy and drive. Life in his capitol city must have been thrilling, and it would be my chosen place to visit.
Tough. Very tough. While Fort Pitt is high on my list (the fort was impressive, the largest in North America, and the views of the rivers and mountains would be stunning), I’d have to go with New York. Savannah and Charleston retain much of their colonial, if not historic, character. Same for much of Boston and Phil. But New York has entirely been built over… imagine being able to see the original lay of the land at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, or the imposing heights of Ft Washington, or the original size and scale of Manhattan Kips Bay. So that’s my vote.
Going back to New Rochelle, October 1776 would be my choice. I could watch Glover’s holding action against Howe’s landing at nearby Pell’s Point, avoid the British encampment before their next day march to White Plains and have a rum at a nearby tavern with spies always looking for the next piece of reliable information. There’d be news of the defeats at Forts Washington and Lee, Washington’s retreat, a stirring pamphlet to read entitled American Crisis and an equally stirring attack on Trenton. It would be a harsh New England-type winter where Huguenot neighbors would hunker down in front of wood fires sharing news of the war, the actions of Congress and latest gossip. Spring and summer would display thick woods and wild flowers along the Boston Post Road. In autumn, beautiful colors would frame post riders who brought news in late October of a defeat in the Hudson Highlands and a victory at Saratoga.
I’d like to be in Boston with General Gage in 1775. Theoretically at least, he had the opportunity to suppress the rebellion before it gained momentum. I’d like to see why he was so hesitant to act.
Because much of my own work has focused on New York, I would choose to visit Manhattan from the summer of 1765 to the summer of 1766 to witness the rise of resistance to the Stamp Act in the city, the infamous protests on November 1st, and, eventually, the celebration over repeal. I think when most people think of resistance to Britain, they often think of Boston. But resistance protests and riots over the Stamp Act occurred in most cities in the colonies. Among of all them, Pauline Maier described the riots in New York over the Stamp Act as “the worst apparent threat of anarchy.”
I would like to be one of those observers of the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775, in Charlestown outside Boston). I’ve studied the details of this battle like none other, and want to see if the strongly supported theory myself and Dr. Sam Forman came up with on the death of revolutionary hero Dr. Joseph Warren is in fact true. (Our theory is laid out in four parts, beginning here). Unfortunately, the best seats to observe this without being in the line of fire were near the roaring Copp’s Hill Battery in British-occupied Boston’s North End. So, I would have to do my best to not draw suspicion as I revealed my 21st century high end video camera with long telephoto lens, which I intend to sneak into the time-travel machine before I go visit the battle.
Before even considering this question, I want to be sure I’ve had all my shots. And some training in what used to be everyday skills, like tending a fire.