The Experience of New London Tories
and Quakers

A military sketch of the harbor of New London, Connecticut from 1781. Source: Library of Congress

On December 8, 1776, British soldiers, supported by a large fleet, easily invaded and occupied Newport, Rhode Island, and the rest of Aquidneck Island.  The first commander of the British garrison, Lieutenant General Earl Hugh Percy, immediately turned his attention to British sympathizers, known as Loyalists or Tories, in southeastern New England.  Nestled in Earl Percy’s papers is an extraordinary, previously undiscovered, journal written by Jethro Beebe, who resided in Great Neck near the coast south of New London.[1]  Beebe, a school teacher, was a Quaker who followed church teachings in refusing to take up arms as a matter of religious conscience.  Beebe’s father, a fisherman, was a Tory.  The journal indicates that Beebe was not sympathetic to the patriot cause, but he may not have been an active Tory either.  Because he had family members, including his father, and friends who were Tories, he became a suspect as well.  Beebe’s journal provides a uniquely detailed look into the lives of suspected Tories and Quakers who resisted joining military service on religious grounds, and the degradations they suffered, as well as the fears of American patriots that led them to persecute these men.  The journal covers the short period from mid-February through the end of March in 1777.

In early January 1777, the British 32-gun frigate HMS Amazon, with a crew of 220 sailors and captained by Maximilian Jacobs, was ordered to New London to intercept American shipping and block up New London harbor.  The Amazon captured several vessels that tried to break the blockade.  Captain Jacobs agreed to exchange many of the sailors he captured for British and Tory prisoners in New London.  Not surprisingly, the constant presence of the Amazon in sight of the New London shores panicked New Londoners.  In addition to halting privateering and commercial voyages, they feared that the Amazon, with its contingent of British marines, could raid the town at any time.

1776 Map of Connecticut and Rhode Island (click to enlarge). Courtesy of Todd Andrlik
1776 Map of Connecticut and Rhode Island (click to enlarge). Courtesy of Todd Andrlik

The looming presence of the Amazon created two problems for Quakers who tried to remain neutral and for Tories.  First, New London authorities were constantly on watch against any local men who provided provisions or intelligence to the Amazon.  Second, New London authorities called out the militia and drafted virtually every able-bodied man for military service.  The militia service was intended to defend against a raid by the Amazon and to improve the fortifications at Fort Trumbull, which was built in New London in order to protect the harbor.

Jethro Beebe’s difficulties began on February 17.  While teaching school in Great Neck, he spotted about one hundred militiamen armed with muskets and other weapons walking towards a neighbor’s house and then surrounding it.  Class came to a halt as teacher and students watched their neighbors, Pardon Taber and his son, being brought away under guard.  Next, ten of the militiamen were sent to the house of Beebe’s father, Othaniel Beebe, where Beebe and his brothers also lived.  But Beebe’s father was not home.

Beebe later discovered what had led the militia to his neighborhood.  A short time before, New London authorities and the Amazon had engaged in a prisoner exchange.  One of the prisoners who returned to the American side and who had been held on the Amazon claimed that a number of local men, including Taber, Beebe’s father, and two of Beebe’s brothers, had been on board the Amazon selling the British food and other provisions and passing intelligence.  These were serious charges that Beebe knew could result in his father and brothers being jailed and even hanged.

Beebe was no doubt aware that the Connecticut General Assembly had on its books a law punishing with death any Connecticut resident who knowingly aided or assisted any enemies at war with the United States, persuaded others to enlist with such enemies, or furnished them with arms or provisions.  The Assembly had also enacted a law forbidding a resident from concealing knowledge of any person guilty of committing such crimes.  As a result of this latter law, if found guilty, Beebe himself risked up to a ten-year jail sentence.[2]

Beebe, after making some inquiries, discovered where his father was hiding and surreptitiously visited him.  His father informed Beebe that he had spotted the soldiers marching to his house and had escaped unseen.  This meeting would be the last time Beebe would talk with his father for a long time.  That evening, militiamen returned to Beebe’s house.  Not finding Beebe’s father and two brothers, the militiamen took Beebe and later his brother, Jared, as prisoners.  That night, the militiamen scoured the neighborhood looking for more suspects, many of them Beebe’s Quaker relatives.  The next morning, the militiamen led their prisoners on a march out of the Great Neck towards New London.  Before leaving, Beebe persuaded his guards to allow him to run into the schoolhouse so that he could grab his school attendance book, which he did.

What occurred next deeply humiliated Jethro Beebe.  He and nine other relatives and neighbors, each one with four guards, were marched through New London.  Their guards were instructed that if any of the prisoners talked with each other they should be hit on the head with a musket or run through with a bayonet.  The prisoners were then brought to a house in New London.  From there, each prisoner was separately brought to a nearby school house that had been temporarily converted into a make-shift court room.  When Beebe’s turn for examination finally arrived, he was led into the school house, which was thronged with local residents, many of whom knew Beebe.  Leading the examination were “all the chief men of the town:”  Brigadier General Samuel Parsons, Nathaniel Shaw, Colonel Troop, John Sheffield and Marvin Wait.

General Parsons, the first to examine Beebe, asked Beebe if he had ever been on board the Amazon.  Beebe firmly responded that he had not.  Parsons pressed him again, stating that there was evidence that he had been seen in the steward’s room aboard the Amazon.  Beebe again firmly denied the charge.  One of the American prisoners who had been on board the Amazon, presumably the source of the evidence, and whose veracity was being challenged, then stepped forward and said to Beebe, “I saw you and deny it if you dare!”  This was a key moment for Beebe.  If his examiners did not believe him, he would be sent to Fort Trumbull as a prisoner and could wind up being tried for treason.  In response, Beebe pulled out his school attendance book and handed it to Parsons.  The general, in turn, read the book carefully and stated that it showed that Beebe had been teaching school every day since January 6.

Beebe’s court room ordeal was not yet done.  The examiners asked Beebe about potential treasonous conduct of some of his neighbors and relatives, and threatened him if he did not tell all he knew.  Beebe said he had no knowledge of such activities.

Next Nathaniel Shaw, the Continental Navy agent and preeminent merchant and privateer owner in New London, examined Beebe about his father’s sloop, which Shaw said had been seen alongside a schooner that sailed with the Amazon.  Beebe responded that he knew nothing of the matter.  Beebe was then released and his younger brother, Jared, was brought into the packed school house.  Jared also did not buckle under the pressure and stated that he knew nothing of the alleged activities.

The prisoners were then brought to Fort Trumbull.  On the way, their guards “upbraided us for being Tories and said they thought that some of them would have their necks stretched and that they deserved to be hanged for going on board the man-of-war and carrying to them provisions and for carrying intelligence.”  Beebe was hurt by these false accusations, and he feared for his father, whom the guards said they would hang if they found.  After 10 p.m., Beebe, his brother and one other man were released and allowed to go home.  The others were ordered to remain as prisoners in Fort Trumbull.

The capture of Beebe and his neighbors was publicized in the February 21, 1777 edition of New London’s newspaper, the Connecticut Gazette:

On Monday last a number of persons belonging to the Great Neck in this town were discovered to have been concerned in sundry transactions inimical and dangerous to the State, and were accordingly taken into custody, one of whom, viz, Pardon Tabor, is committed to goal, on the statute made for the punishment of high treason against the State.  The others are now confined under a safe guard, to be dealt with according to the just demerits of their crimes.

Jethro Beebe tried to return to his normal life of teaching at school, visiting with friends and neighbors, and going to Quaker meetings.  But the sight of the Amazon in the distance stationed at Fishers Island, and the local guard stationed at David Rogers’ beach in Great Neck, constantly reminded him of his family’s predicament.  He also kept close tabs on the news from his relatives and friends who were still confined as prisoners at Fort Trumbull.  The men were eventually released on bail, except for Pardon Taber who was sent to Norwich jail for further examination by state authorities.

Taber was later tried in a court in Lebanon, convicted of carrying provisions to the enemy, and sentenced to spend one year in the Norwich jail and to pay fines and court costs.  Taber apparently confessed that he went on board the Amazon.  His son was sentenced to spend one month in jail and to pay fines and court costs.  The court decided that another prisoner, Thomas Allen, a former captain of the local militia whose father had made a fortune trading in Madeira wine, was too “cunning” to live near the sea shore and was ordered to be removed to Windham County.  In October 1777, after complaining that the Norwich jail was “small and full of prisoners and very unwholesome,” the General Assembly granted a petition allowing Taber to serve out the rest of his term at the house of a nearby friend.[3]

Meanwhile, rumors were spread around town about Jethro Beebe, his father, and their alleged Tory conduct.  One rumor was that Othaniel Beebe had assisted the British frigate stationed at Fishers Island in capturing American vessels.  On March 2, Beebe finally heard news from his father that he, Beebe’s two brothers, and some other friends were in hiding and could not have any contact with their families.  On March 13, Beebe heard the rumor that, in attempting to  cross Long Island Sound in a boat to get to British-controlled Long Island, his father and others had been intercepted by a British vessel and that they were now being treated as enemy prisoners of the British.

New London continued to live under threat of invasion.  On March 10, after a small fleet of British war ships and transports was spotted off New London, its residents feared an imminent attack.  Beebe heard that Colonel Troop expected the fleet to invade the town, in which case, the patriot officer advised, the Connecticut troops would not be able to hold Fort Trumbull.  But the emergency passed, as the British fleet was interested only in taking (and paying for) livestock and hay from unguarded Fishers Island to bring back to Newport.[4]

Beebe then had to face his next challenge—the universal draft.  Beebe was informed, including by his fiercely patriotic uncle, Captain Jabez Beebe, that he was about to be drafted into the town militia.  But Beebe, a devout Quaker, refused to bear arms.  Connecticut law stated that if a man who was drafted refused to serve, he could satisfy his obligation by paying to hire a substitute or paying five pounds to the town treasurer.[5]  Beebe also refused to take this course, sensibly arguing that if his religious principles did not permit him to carry arms, they also prevented him from paying for someone else to carry arms.  Beebe wrote in his journal that if town fines imposed against him for failing to attend musters were ever collected, they could be used to “purchase an African slave, though African slavery is much the same as American liberty.”  Beebe drew comfort from speaking about his stance with members of the Rogers family and other nearby Quakers, who also planned to refuse to enter military service.

On March 14, Beebe learned that he had just been drafted into the militia, with orders to report for service at Fort Trumbull in a few days.  On March 15, Captain Beebe and four other adult male relatives came to Beebe’s house and tried to persuade him and his brothers to enter militia service.  The relatives also mentioned Beebe’s father, whom they accused of “pirating about” and capturing a schooner.  They threatened that Beebe’s father would forfeit all his estates and property for taking up arms against his country.  Beebe’s patriot relatives enthusiastically added that Othaniel Beebe had built up his estate and gained comforts in life, but that “he had turned himself out of doors nicely.”  Beebe disliked hearing this kind of talk, but he took it “patiently.”

It appears that Beebe’s mother was not alive at this time.  Beebe’s grandmother lived in Beebe’s house, but she was in poor health.  One day, Beebe’s grandmother called in family members and requested that Captain Beebe and other relatives not split up her family due to the presence of purported Tories in the family.

On March 16, a Sergeant Tinker came to Beebe’s house and demanded to know whether Beebe planned to attend the muster at Fort Trumbull.  Beebe responded that he could not do so based on his religious principles.  Tinker ardently argued with Beebe to change his mind, but to no avail.  Beebe vowed not to attend muster until he was “waited upon” by soldiers.

Finally, on the morning of March 24, before Beebe had left for school, a sergeant and three privates, each carrying a musket with fixed bayonets, entered Beebe’s house.  The sergeant stated that he had a warrant from Captain Beebe to take Beebe by force to the muster.  Before leaving, Beebe persuaded his guards to wait until he finished his breakfast, which the guards gladly did, helping themselves to some extra food.  After being brought to Fort Trumbull, a lieutenant informed Beebe that some of his neighbors had stated that Beebe had the “character” of a Tory.  Beebe denied it and insisted on seeing his accusers.  Instead, the lieutenant charged Beebe only with refusing to perform militia duty.  While under guard, Beebe tried to explain his religious scruples against carrying arms.  At times, his guards showed sympathy, but at other times they called Beebe a Tory and spoke harshly of his father and friends.

Ultimately, the local militia officers agreed that they would not require Beebe to carry arms.  But they did insist that as a condition to being released from confinement, Beebe had to show up at the muster and perform “fatigue” duty (digging trenches and earthworks).  Beebe agreed, but secretly vowed to do as little work as possible.  For the next few weeks, when there was a muster, Beebe usually, but not always, attended on time.  He seemed to perform little work of any kind.

Beebe tells of one disturbing incident involving one of New London’s most important patriots, John Deshon.  The militia company at Fort Trumbull had been grousing for several days about the poor food served to them.  On March 28, a particularly bad batch of “stinking” meat resulted in many of the men complaining to their captain and major.  The captain, major and a number of the men then carried the “stinking” meat to the responsible local commissary, John Deshon.  According to Beebe’s account, Deshon was not pleased about the complaint, and warned that,

if any man said that the meat stunk he would whip him like a dog.  The Captain said it did and so did James Ryan.  Then Deshon struck them both several times with his staff (the Captain and James Ryan). . . .  The Commissary [Deshon] said that if Major [Nathan] Gallop said it stunk he would whip him like a dog and took hold of his shoulders and damn’d him.  The Major said that he saw some meat that was tainted.  The rest of the men ran and talked of putting the Commissary [Deshon] under guard.

The veracity of this story cannot be confirmed.  The next month, Deshon was appointed to serve as Connecticut’s representative on the Eastern Navy Board supervising the Continental navy.

Later, Beebe heard news that was “enough to make a Christian’s heart ache.”  It concerned the execution of Moses Dunbar outside Hartford on March 19, 1777.  Dunbar had been convicted of treason and sentenced to hang for accepting a commission from British commander-in-chief General Howe and attempting to raise soldiers in Connecticut for a Tory regiment.[6]  Beebe reported the gruesome rumor of the details of Dunbar’s botched hanging.

[Dunbar] was carried to the place of execution and when they drove the cart from under him the knot did not slip.  This brought the knot up against his chin and it neither choked him nor broke his neck.  Then he strove so as to clear his hands and take hold of the rope.  They then took hold of his legs and pulled him down in order to kill him that way.  This stretched the rope so as to bring his feet to touch the ground and then they dug away the ground under his feet and let him hang about 50 minutes and then cut him down.  It was declared by some that he was not dead when they cut him down.  But they buried him in a grave where there was water and he is said have drowned after all.

Beebe added after this description, “What a cruel work is this but I don’t suppose that my father and friends would be better off if they should fall into their hands.”  Dunbar’s fate was the ultimate fear of all Tories.  Beebe’s journal ends shortly after the above entry.

 


[1] Journal of Jethro Beebe, Mar. 1777, Hugh Percy Papers, Jan.-Mar. 1777, British Manuscript Project, microfilm reel Aln 25, Microfilm Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[2] Conn. General Assembly Acts, Oct. 1776, in Hoadley, Charles J. (ed.), Public Records of the State of Connecticut. . . ., vol. 1 (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood and Brainard Co., 1894), 4-5.

[3] Conn. General Assembly Acts, Oct. 1777, in ibid., 441.

[4] Connecticut Gazette, March 14, 1777.

[5] Conn. General Assembly Acts, Dec. 1776, in Hoadley (ed.), Public Records 1:94.

[6] Connecticut Courant, March 24, 1777.

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4 Comments

  • Thanks for writing up this neat account, Christian. As insignificant as the incidents in such writings often seem, they shine a bright light on the day-to-day existence of those alive during the Revolution. Besides, it reminded me of a couple folks who might well be interested in the article and who may not yet have been introduced to this site.

  • I greatly enjoyed your article as I’m a direct descendant of Capt. Jabez Beebe my 5th great grandfather. I found some of his actions interesting in light of his religious beliefs. He was a Seventh Day Baptist.

    You will find interesting that one of the witnesses to his will was Pardon T. Taber.
    Jabez Beebe’s will dated at Waterford, New London Co., CT, 18th day of March 1806. Death date was 30 May 1814.He is buried in the Rogers Cemetery, Waterford.

  • Thanks for your fabulous work Christian. My research suggests I am a descendent of Captain Jabez Beebe and often wondered about the realities of his life. I was shocked to read this article and have the benefit of a spectacularly detailed peek into the life of Jabez and his extended family. Thank you!

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