The Battle of Golden Hill – Six Weeks Before the Boston Massacre

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

October 21, 2014
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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On June 4, 1766, the New York Sons of Liberty gathered in a field, later known as the Commons, to celebrate the birthday of the King and the repeal of the Stamp Act. They erected a large mast with twelve tar barrels at its top and twenty-five cords of wood at its base.[1] The crowd cheered when the royal standard was raised and the cords were lit. Later in the day, another pole, bearing the inscription, “King, Pitt, and Liberty.” was erected; it was the city’s first Liberty Pole. The pole was akin to the pike held by Libertas, the Goddess of Freedom in ancient Rome.[2] For the next ten years, the Liberty Pole, like the Liberty Tree in Boston, would serve as the rallying place for any and all patriots in the city. The British soldiers already angry with the New York Assembly for not complying with the Quartering Act of 1765 were not going to tolerate a symbol of colonial opposition to Parliament’s authority in their midst. On August 10th, they cut the pole down. A second Liberty Pole was quickly erected and within days, it was also cut down. On September 23rd, a third Liberty Pole was erected. This time the soldiers were ordered by Governor Moore not to cut it down.

Six months later, on March 18, 1767, the colonists gathered on the Commons to celebrate the first anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. The celebration again aroused the anger of the soldiers and again they cut down the pole. The next day a fourth Liberty Pole was erected. This time it was secured with iron bands. The soldiers tried to destroy it, but were unsuccessful. The next night they used gunpowder, but again were unsuccessful. Three more attempts were made, but each resulted in the same outcome due to the presence and intervention of the Sons of Liberty. In a newspaper, the following was written:

“As mankind were made for society, every person who willfully annoys or disturbs that society without any pretense but purely evil, ought to be held in the utmost detestation as a common enemy. And, as in the present case, the cutting this post down can only be done to affront all the Sons of Liberty … the perpetrators would do well to consider the consequences … for they may know that such a body of the people who would not yield to be enslaved by the most august body on earth, will not tamely submit to such a mean, low-lived insult on their liberty, … and if ever the perpetrator is discovered, he may be almost assured New York will be too hot to hold him long.”[3]

Two and a half years later, on December 15, 1769, the New York Assembly finally agreed to comply with the Quartering Act. All soldiers were now to be given adequate housing and provisions if barracks were not available but at the colony’s expense.[4]In response, Alexander McDougall wrote an anonymous broadside entitled “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York”.[5] It was an attack on the New York City Assembly in general and on the DeLancey faction within the Assembly, in particular, for betraying the citizens.[6] Four weeks later, on January 13, the soldiers unhappy with the December 23 decision of the Assembly to vote only 1,800 pounds in support of the Quartering Act[7] attempted to cut down the Liberty Pole.

They were discovered sawing the Spurs by some Persons that were crossing the Fields, who went into Mr. Montayne’s and reported it to sundry Persons in the House . . . Captain White was attacked near the House by a Soldier who drew his Bayonet on him and threatened to take his Life if he alarmed theCitizens; upon which the soldier returned to his companions at the pole …The People at Mr. Montayne’s came out and called out Fire in order to alarm the Inhabitants. Soon after a Fire was seen at the Pole, which proved to be a Fuse that the Soldiers had put in it in order to communicate Fire to a Cavity … filled with Powder … The Fuse did not communicate the Fire, nor do the Execution that was expected.”[8]

Frustrated, the soldiers stormed into Montayne’s Tavern, the headquarters of the Sons of Liberty, and “with drawn swords and bayonets, insulted the company, and beat the waiter. Not satisfied, they proceeded to destroy everything they could conveniently come at.”[9] Two days later, an author using the pseudonym Brutus had an item published in The New York Gazette:

Whoever seriously considers the impoverished state of this city, especially many of the poor Inhabitants of it, must be greatly surprised at the conduct of such as employ soldiers, when there are a number of the former that want employment to support their distressed families … This might, in a great measure be prevented, … if the employers of labourers would attend to it with that care and benevolence that a citizen owes to his neighbor, by employing him.”[10]

That night the British soldiers, using gunpowder, were able to split the Liberty Pole. It would not be until the early morning hours of the 16th that they finally succeeded in cutting it down. In fact, to humiliate the Sons of Liberty further, they cut the pole up into pieces and threw them in front of Montayne’s tavern. The Sons of Liberty called for a meeting at the Liberty Pole the next day,

“there was a matter of the utmost importance to the Liberties of the People of this Colony and the Continent then before the Assembly, and desiring all the Friends to Liberty, who inclined to bear testimony against the Billeting Act to be in attendance. [It was at this meeting that two resolves were agreed upon] “That we will not employ any Soldier, on any Terms whatsoever” and That if any Soldier shall be found in the Night having Arms (except Centinels and Orderly Sergeants) or out of the Barracks after the Roll is called, such as are found even without Arms, and behave in an insulting Manner, shall be treated as Enemies to the Peace of this City.”[11]

On January 19, a handbill was being posted on fences and buildings throughout the city. It did take long for Isaac Sears and Walter Quackenbos to locate the group of soldiers posting them. The handbill entitled, “God and a Soldier,” made light of the Sons of Liberty:

WHEREAS an uncommon and riotous disturbance prevails throughout this city by some of its inhabitants, who style themselves the S¾¾s of L¾¾¾y, but rather may more properly be called real enemies to society, and whereas the army, now quartered in New York, are represented in a heinous light to their officers and others, for having propagated a disturbance in this city by attempting to destroy their Liberty Pole in the Fields, which, being now completed, without the assistance of the army, we have reason to laugh at them and beg the public only to observe how chagrin’d those pretended S¾¾s of L¾¾¾y look as they pass through the streets, especially as these great heroes thought their freedom depended on a piece of wood . . . .[12]

Sears seized the soldier who had just finished posting a handbill and Quackerbos siezed the soldier who had a number of handbills under his arm. They announced that they were going to take the soldiers before the Mayor and lodge a complaint. Hearing this the other soldiers rushed back to their barracks for help. Word spread quickly what was happening and soon “a Considerable Number of People collected opposite to the Mayor’s. Shortly after, about twenty Soldiers with Cutlasses and Bayonets from the lower barracks made their appearance.[13] The soldiers wanted to rescue their friends, but were greatly outnumbered and quickly surrounded.

“When the Soldiers came opposite to his House, they halted. Many of them drew their Swords and Bayonets; faced about to the Door and demanded the Soldiers in Custody. Some of them attempted to get into the House to rescue them. Capt. Richardson and others at the Door prevented them, and desired them to put up their Arms and go to their Barracks, that the Soldiers were before the Mayor who would do them Justice.”[14]

As the soldiers departed, the colonists followed closely behind. They were uncomfortable with the soldiers marching though the streets unattended, after they had already drawn their swords at the Mayor’s house, ‘lest they might offer violence’ to some innocent citizens. As the soldiers were about to reach the height of Golden Hill, soldiers from another barracks joined them. The passage that lead to Golden Hill was narrow, but the colonists were unconcerned because it allowed protection for those who were unarmed to stay in the rear. Little did the colonists realize that not only were there soldiers in front of them, but soon “a posse of soldiers … from another quarter” took up a position behind them. Fortunately for the colonists, the soldiers behind them were not angry and were only there as a defensive force. The commander of the soldiers atop the hill, realizing the situation that the colonists were in and probably thinking he now had a large enough force to return to the Mayor’s house and free the two soldiers being detained, gave the command: “Soldiers, draw your bayonets and cut your way through them.”[15] The colonists on the front-line were forced to defend themselves with rungs they had secured near the Mayor’s house; all of the rest were unarmed. The following account of the next few minutes was written on January 31:

Those few that had the sticks maintained their ground in the narrow passage in which they stood, and defended their defenceless fellow citizens … against the furious and unmanly attacks of armed soldiers, until one of them… in a stroke made at one of the assailants, lost his stick, which obliged the former to retreat … the soldiers pursued him down to the main street; one of them made a stroke, with a cutlass at Mr. Francis Field … standing in an inoffensive posture in the doorway, at the corner; and cut him on the right cheek … This party that came down to the main street cut a tea-water man driving his cart … in short they madly attacked every person that they could reach … besides cutting a sailor’s head and finger … they stabbed another with a bayonet … so badly, that his life was thought in danger … Two of them followed a boy going for sugar, into Mr. Elsworth’s house, one of them cut him on the head with a cutlass, and the other made a lung[e] with a bayonet at the woman in the entry … Capt. Richardson was violently attacked by two of the soldiers, with swords, and expected to have been cut to pieces; but was so fortunate as to defend himself with a stick for a considerable time, ’till a halbert was put into his hands, with which he could have killed several of them; but he made no other use of it, than to defend himself, and his naked fellow-citizens.[16]

The soldiers were determined to wreak vengeance on the colonists for the embarrassment they suffered. Later in the evening, they cut a lamplighter on the head and drew the ladder from under another. The next day three more incidents occurred, one with a sailor, another with a woman going to the market and a third at a gathering on the Commons.[17] Each ended with the soldiers being driven back to their barracks.

On January 30, the Sons of Liberty sent a petition to the Mayor and the Common Council asking for permission to erect a fifth Liberty Pole; their petition was denied. Within days, John Lamb and William Cunningham,[18] purchased a small piece of land near where the fourth Liberty Pole had stood; on that land, on February 6, 1770, the last Liberty Pole was raised. It was sunk deep into the ground, and encased for two thirds of its height with iron bands and hoops firmly riveted together. It was surmounted by a gilt vane bearing the inscription, “Liberty and Property,”[19] The following handbill was distributed to encourage the Sons of Liberty to attend the ‘pole’s raising’ on February 6, 1770.


It’s well known, that it has been the Custom of all Nations to erect Monuments to perpetuate the Remembrance of a grand Event. Experience has proved, that they have had a good Effect on the Posterity of those who raised them … Influenced by these Considerations, a Number of the Friends to Liberty in this City, erected a Pole in the Fields … as a temporary memorial of the unanimous Opposition to the detestable Stamp-Act, which having been destroyed by some disaffected persons, a Number of the Inhabitants determined to erect another, made several Applications to the Mayor …. The Committee that waited on him the last Time … apprehensive that some … might be opposed to the Erection of the Pole … offered when the Pole was finished to make it a Present to the (City), provided they would order it to be erected either where the other stood or near Mr. Van De Bergh’s …

An now, Gentlemen, seeing that we are debarred the Privilege of public Ground to erect the Pole on, we have purchased a Place for it near where the other stood … Your Attendance and Countenance are desired at Nine o’Clock on Tuesday Morning the 6th Instant, at Mr. Crommelin’s Wharf, in order to carry it up to be raised.[20]

Some accounts, for example those in The St James Chronicle and The British–Evening Post,claimed inaccurately that there was one person killed on the 19th: “One sailor got run through the body, who has since died …” There is no evidence to support this claim. If someone was killed, every newspaper in New York City would have published his name and the Sons of Liberty would have made a martyr of him. In the most complete and detailed account of the events, the author, “An Impartial Observer” writing “with a colonist’s leanings,” stated there were some serious injuries but no fatalities.[21]

Since the various clashes occurred in the neighborhood of John and William Streets, the highest point in lower Manhattan, the conflict of January 19 was given the name, “The Battle of Golden Hill.”

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: A painting (c. 1919-1920) of the Battle of Golden Hill, NY, January 19, 1770, by Charles MacKubin Lefferts. Source: New York Historical Society]


[1] William Dunlap. History of the New Netherlands, Province of New York, and State of New York, Vol. 1 (New York: Carter & Thorp, 1839), 433.

[2] Paul Revere was the first to depict Libertas, the Roman Goddess of

Freedom, as Lady Liberty; he did so on the obelisk he created to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. On one of the depictions, King George III (in the center, dressed as a “Dutch widow,” i.e., prostitute) introduces America (on the right) to the Lady Liberty (on the left). “Obelisk Celebrating the Repeal of the Stamp Act.” Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Popular Graphic Arts Collection.

[3] Albert Ulmann. “The Battle of Golden Hill,” September 17, 1898 in The New York Times, Section “Saturday Preview Of Books And Art,” RBA617.

[4] William MacDonald, ed., Select Charters and Documents Illustrative of American History, 1606 – 1775 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1910), 306-13; 5 Geo III c. 33.


[6] In the New York City Assembly, there were two “Sons of Liberty” factions: the Livingstonites and the De Lanceyites. McDougall was a member of the Livingstonites.

[7] Joseph S. Tiedemann, Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763-1776 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), 131.

[8] “Account of the Attempts made to cut down the Liberty-Pole,” The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770. This account, under the pseudonym “An impartial observer,” spread rapidly through the colonies, appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 15 February, the Boston Post-Boy on 19 February, and the Georgia Gazette on 4 April.

[9] The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770.

[10] Isaac Q. Leake, Memoir of the Life and Times of General John Lamb (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1857), 55; New-York Gazette, 15 January 1770.

[11] The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, Second Series, Vol. V, No. 1 (Morrisania, NY: Charles B. Richardson, 1861), 22.

[12] The text of the notice was published in full in The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770, with the byline “Signed by the 16th Regiment of Foot.”

[13] The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770.

[14] The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770.

[15] The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770.

[16] The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770.

[17] The Historical Magazine … Second Series,Vol. V, No. 1, 27.

[18] This is the same William Cunningham who later became the infamous Provost Martial overseeing prisoners of war held by the British in New York City; although he was active in the Sons of Liberty in 1769 and 1770, he had a falling out with them before the war begain.

[19] Leake, Memoir of the Life and Times of General John Lamb, 59.

[20] F. S. Bartram, Retrographs: Comprising a History of New York City prior to the Revolution (New York, NY: Yale Publishing Co., 1889), 70.

[21] The New-York Gazette and Weekly Postboy, 5 February 1770.



  • Given how quickly the news of this riotous event traveled, I wonder if it contributed to the escalating discord in Boston. Not that the Bostonians needed much more encourangement, but I can’t help but wonder whether this clash in New York helped inflame the animosity that Bostonians were already feeling – thanks once again to the power of the newspapers.

  • The animus between the citizens and the soldiers was not purely political or ideological. By the late 1760s, the city had been in a severe post-war recession for years. British soldiers were taking some of the few jobs in the city, primarily because, as they were merely looking to supplement their military pay, they were willing to work for much lower wages than the unemployed inhabitants of the city who needed to support their families. The author quoted the famous pamphlet by Brutus from January 15, 1770 but really didn’t offer much context for it and I think it’s important to foreground the economic aspects of the hostility between the citizens and the soldiery.

  • I wonder who was a more agressive Son of Liberty, Sam Adams or Isaac Sears! Sears, for better or worse, caused quite a bit of trouble for New York before joining with Lamb in his Artillery company and later regiment.

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