Before the Bayonetting: The Untold Story of Capt. Samuel Whittemore

Whittemore grave photo by author.

Capt. Samuel Whittemore, a seventy-eight year old American farmer, became a legend on April 19, 1775 when he was shot in the face by British soldiers, bayoneted at least six times, and clubbed in the head with the butts of their muskets. Armed with a musket and horse pistol, Whittemore had crouched behind a wall near his home as the British retreated to Boston through Menotomy.[1] As a flank-guard approached, he shot two soldiers dead and possibly killed one more. Inevitably, the soldiers discovered the old farmer and inflicted their wrath upon him, leaving him for dead.

Certainly we all would have nodded our heads in sympathy and forgiven Whittemore had he simply succumbed to his terrible injuries. However, in an epic demonstration of New England stubbornness, Whittemore refused to die. Instead, a doctor patched him up and he lived another eighteen years—though perhaps not in much comfort as the British musket ball had torn away part of his face.[2] He died in 1793 at age ninety-six.

In the intervening years, Whittemore’s legendary toughness has been greatly celebrated —in 2005 he was officially proclaimed the state hero of Massachusetts.[3] But the legend of the old farmer’s “mangled situation”[4] has eclipsed his participation in significant pre-revolutionary activities. Whittemore’s political involvement began long before his near-fatal encounter with the soldiers on April 19. In the wake of the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, he served as a committee-man for the Town of Cambridge. He was elected as a delegate to the Massachusetts Committee of Convention in 1768 and served on the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence.

In March 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act and a wave of relief rippled through the colonies. On May 12, 1766, Cambridge (which included Menotomy) voted that Whittemore and two other men should comprise a committee to prepare instructions for their representative to the Massachusetts General Court, Andrew Bordman. Two weeks later, the committee furnished Bordman with “their Sentiments upon some particular Points as So Critical a Time as this.”[5] In the instructions, the committee registered their unequivocal opposition to the Stamp Act, noting its deleterious effects on the colonies and their approbation of its repeal.

We have lately seen the Rights and Privilidges of ye People of this province, and indeed the whole Continent in the greatest danger ever from an Act of Brittish Parliament which however otherwise intended would in its opperation have Totally Ruined them & greatly hurt Great Brittain.[6]

Though the Stamp Act had been repealed, the Cambridge committee-men were not easily mollified. Clearly still suspicious of Parliament, the committee instructed Bordman “to be always watchfull of any further Danger yet may arise from that Quarter … some Regulations may hereafter be made which may prove unfrindly to our Liberties.”[7]

Whittemore and his fellow committee-men also regarded with distrust any members of the Massachusetts assembly who might be sympathetic to similar objectives in the future.

We Instruct you to avoid giving your Suffrage for any Gentleman … who by any sort of Dependance or connections may be under Temptations to yeald to Unreasonable Demands of Prerogative.[8]

Lastly, the committee suggested that Bordman work toward establishing a viewing gallery within the House so that constituents could gather and observe law-making sessions, thereby providing “an oppertunity to any person who desires it of seeing that nothing is passed by that Assembly that is not of Real Benefit & Advantage to their Constituents.”[9] The committee hoped that being forced to legislate in full view of a vigilant populace would enhance accountability among the representatives.

By 1766, almost a decade before he would be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned and left for dead along the Battle Road, the watchful eyes of Whittemore—already seventy years old—were uneasily fixed on Parliament, Crown officials in Massachusetts, and local representatives in the general assembly. As the first rumblings of revolution sounded underfoot, Whittemore took a position at the fore as a prominent member of his community.

Whittemore’s next opportunity to participate in politics arrived in response to the dissolution of the General Court by Gov. Francis Bernard in 1768. In February of that year, the legislative assembly had sent a circular letter to the other colonial legislatures “to communicate their mind…upon a common concern.”[10] In this letter, the assembly had protested the Townshend Acts as imposing unconstitutional duties and taxes upon the colonists and invited the other legislatures to join Massachusetts in opposition. Bernard, upon orders from the Secretary of State of the Colonies Lord Hillsborough, demanded that the legislature rescind the vote concerning the circular letter. The assembly refused and, in consequence, was dissolved.

By September, Massachusetts was still without a general assembly and Boston was roiling with news that regiments would soon be arriving in the town. The Boston town meeting decided to send a circular letter to the various towns proposing that a Committee of Convention be held at Faneuil Hall in Boston on September 22, 1768. Though “Deprived of a General Council in this dark and difficult Season,” the Selectmen expressed their conviction that “the loyal People of this Province, will … immediately perceive the Propriety and Utility of the proposed Committee of Convention: And the sound and wholesome Advice that may be expected from a Number of Gentlemen chosen by themselves.”[11] The Selectmen invited each town to choose representatives to attend the convention.

According to Cambridge town records, on September 26, 1768, Cambridge held a town a meeting at which Whittemore served as moderator. Seemingly without electing any representatives or conducting any business whatsoever, the meeting adjourned “to Tuesday next at three of the clock in the afternoon.”[12] This put Cambridge in jeopardy of not being able to participate in the convention as it had already been underway for four days.

The Boston Gazette reported that delegates from ninety towns in the province had arrived to join the convention but that “the Torries in Cambridge … with the Aid of a veering Whig”[13] were successful in postponing their town meeting until the next Thursday.

But just a few days later, on September 29, the inhabitants of Cambridge met yet again and a vote was held to determine “whether it be the minds of the inhabitants of this town to proceed … to chusing a person to joyn with the Committee of Conventions of the other towns in this province, now sitting in Boston.”[14] This time, an answer was forthcoming. The town elected Whittemore as their representative, along with Thomas Gardner.[15]

By the time the Cambridge delegates were elected, the convention had ended. Neither Whittemore nor Gardner actually attended. The Boston Gazette noted that despite the business of the convention having already been concluded, “Cambridge, by a very great Majority”[16] had indeed responded to Boston’s call and elected representatives. Though unable to attend the convention, the chosen gentlemen “desire[d] to acquaint the Public, that they have carefully read the printed Proceedings and Result of the Committees, and highly approve.”[17]

Whittemore monument photo by author.

In its published consensus, the convention expressed “a pressing Anxiety of Mind on the Account of heavy and increasing Grievances”[18] which included Parliament’s passage of various revenue acts and the arrival of a standing army in Boston.[19] The convention also suggested that its participants—“plain honest men”[20]—would continue to “steadily persevere in orderly and constitutional Applications for the Recovering and Exercise of their just Rights and Liberties.”[21]

Whittemore accepted the charge of the Cambridge townspeople to serve as representative although, since the lawful General Court had been dissolved, the convention of towns could have been viewed as an extralegal gathering. The convention acknowledged that “there are those who deem it criminal for aggrieved Fellow Subjects to join”[22] and petition for redress. In fact, Governor Bernard believed the convention was unlawful and refused to accept any petitions as doing so could recognize the Committee of Convention as legitimate.[23]

Whittemore’s willingness to attend the convention despite its possible unlawfulness and his staunch, publicized agreement with its consensus provide some insight into his political outlook beyond the one-dimensionality of his legend. Especially when examined in conjunction with his earlier post-Stamp Act repeal committee activity, it is clear that Whittemore was developing some misgivings about recent Parliamentary policies. This disquiet, of course, would explode into musket fire within a few short years.

In December 1772, at age seventy-six, the venerable Whittemore was elected to the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence.[24] Just one month earlier, the first Committee of Correspondence had been formed in Boston. The goal of the Boston committee was to “state the Rights of the Colonists and of this Province … to communicate and publish the Same to the Several Towns.”[25] Accordingly, they sent a letter (now known as the Boston Pamphlet) to the various towns, enumerating the violations committed by Great Britain and requesting support, advice, and correspondence from the towns.[26]

Cambridge responded swiftly to the Boston committee’s solicitation and held a town meeting on December 14, 1772. The town voted to form a Cambridge Committee of Correspondence to communicate with Boston.[27] Whittemore and eight other men were unanimously elected to serve. Whittemore’s name appeared in the Boston Evening Post on December 21, 1772, followed by his eight compatriots.[28]

According to the Boston-Gazette, the Cambridge town meeting had been “as full as it has been for the Choice of a Representative, for a Number of Years, if not fuller; and that the People discovered a glorious Spirit, like Men determined to be Free.”[29] They continued, “May every Town in this Province and every Colony upon this Continent, be awakened to a Sense of Danger, and unite in the glorious Cause of Liberty. Then shall we be able effectually to disappoint the Machinations of our Enemies.”[30]

The communication emanating from Cambridge in 1772 is notably more forceful in tone than the 1766 committee instructions furnished to Andrew Bordman after the Stamp Act repeal. This is significant because the three men on the Stamp Act repeal committee in 1766—Whittemore, Ebenezer Stedman, and Eliphalet Robbins—were all also members of the Cambridge Committee of Correspondence. In their 1766 instructions, the committee professed to maintain “the strongest Impressions of the wisdom & Uprightness of the Supream Legislature”[31] and generously attributed any unfavorable legislation to an “unavoidable want of an adequate knowledge of our Internal Circumstances.”[32] But by 1772, that august body, if not Great Britain as a whole, was considered an enemy.

About a year later, Whittemore affixed his signature to a particularly forceful letter that the Cambridge committee sent to Boston to express their concerns and solidarity with regard to the Tea Act. Even centuries later, the wording of the letter is potent. The anxiety experienced by the committee-men is palpable, yet so is their sense of resoluteness in the face of the grave danger that they perceived:

If we cease to assert Our rights we shall dwindle into supineness and the chains of slavery shall be fast rivetted upon us …[33]

The late act of the British Parliament impowering the East India Company to export tea on their own account…and expose the same to sale … is a recent proof of the determination of the Ministry to persue their Diabolical Plan to inslave the Americans.[34]

A couple of weeks later, the committees of Cambridge, Brookline, Roxbury, and Dorchester met for a joint conference on resisting the Tea Act.[35] If Whittemore attended this meeting, then he would have had the opportunity to meet and talk with men that—like him—were destined to achieve immortality in the annals of the Revolution. Samuel Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, Josiah Quincy, Jr., and James Otis, Jr. were all members of the Boston committee.

At this meeting, the committees voted in favor of “using their Joint influence to prevent the Landing and Sale of the Teas expected from the East India Company.”[36]

Another letter was then dispatched to the towns containing the consensus of the joint conference. It declared that the arriving tea was even “more to be dreaded than plague or pestilence,[37]” exhorted townspeople to refrain from consuming tea and to “impress upon the minds of your friends, neighbours, and fellow townsmen, the necessity of exerting themselves in a most zealous and determined manner, to save the present and future generations from temporal and (we think we may with seriousness say) eternal destruction.”[38] The preservation of the immortal souls of the people of Massachusetts apparently depended upon thwarting the sale and consumption of the tea.

The Boston Tea Party would occur about three weeks later. In a mere year and a half, Whittemore would be lying unconscious by a wall near his home, with part of his cheekbone shot off and blood from multiple bayonet wounds pooling on the ground around him. The retreating soldiers would exact their revenge upon the old farmer with punishing ferocity, yet would only be met by his utter imperviousness.

Whittemore appears to always have been a formidable opponent, as evidenced by the following summary of a legal matter in which he was involved almost forty years prior to the Revolution. In March of 1738, when Whittemore was a mere youngster of forty-one, he was sued by John Vassall for defamation.[39] Vassall had just been elected as a Selectman for Cambridge. Whittemore must have greatly wounded Vassall’s pride in his office when, “with a Loud Voice in the hearing of divers persons,”[40] he declared that Vassall was “unfit for said trust and was no more fit … than the horse that he, Samuel, rode on.”[41]

In his lawsuit, Vassall argued that Whittemore’s words brought Vassall “into great contempt and much despised by the King’s subjects as well as by the Inhabitants of said Town.”[42]

Whittemore was subsequently arrested and, because he lacked the funds to post bail, remained imprisoned for four days.[43] Ultimately, the Court was unimpressed with Vassall’s allegations and found that Whittemore’s words were not actionable.

Whittemore, however, still smarting after being jailed, sued Vassall, arguing that due to his imprisonment his “businesses were impeded, his reputation lessened, and he was put to great Expence and suffered great Vexation [and] Grief.”[44] The Court agreed with Whittemore that he had suffered damages and awarded him two hundred pounds.[45]

Our hero need not have fretted so much about his reputation. An astonishing 320 years after his birth, and 242 years after he crouched behind a stone wall gripping his musket with calloused, work-worn hands, the old New England farmer is still the subject of great fascination. His uncommon longevity, the savagery of his injuries, and the triumph of his survival certainly make for an irresistible story that has been told and re-told through the generations.

History will remember Capt. Samuel Whittemore most vividly at the flashpoint of the Battle of Menotomy. But his response to the British soldiers on April 19, 1775 should be viewed within the larger context of his life. Rather than one discrete act, Whittemore’s heroic stand was a single point in a continuum of action. Long before he was shot, bayonetted, and left for dead on the ground in Menotomy, he had been entrusted by his fellow townspeople with important duties whereby he helped shape the coming revolution on the local level. Whittemore was even more intimately connected with the revolution than his legend implies and we owe it to his memory to recognize him for the full range of the contributions he made to his country.

 

[1] Columbian Centinel, February 6, 1793, in Lucius R. Page. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1630-1877. With a Genealogical Register (Boston: H.O. Houghton and Company, 1877), 414-415.

[2] Ibid., 415.

[3] An Act Designating Captain Samuel Whittemore The Official State Hero of the Commonwealth, 2005 (Massachusetts) Senate, No. 1839. Internet Archive https://web.archive.org/web/20070929123454/http://www.mass.gov/legis/bills/senate/st01/st01839.htm

[4] Page. History of Cambridge. 414-415.

[5] Cambridge. Town Meeting Minutes, May 12, 1766.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A Circulatory Letter, directed to the Speakers of the respective Houses of Representatives and Burgesses on this Continent … February 11, 1768, published letter from the Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, Boston, 1767-1768. The Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/revolution/image-viewer.php?item_id=258&img_step=1&tpc=&pid=2&mode=transcript&tpc=&pid=2#page1

[11] Circular Letter from the Selectmen of the Town of Boston to the Several Towns. Broadside. September 14, 1768. The Massachusetts Historical Society https://www.masshist.org/revolution/image-viewer.php?item_id=259&img_step=1&tpc=&pid=2&mode=transcript&tpc=&pid=2#page1

[12] Cambridge. Town Meeting Minutes, September 26, 1768.

[13] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, September 26, 1768. Massachusetts Historical Society, The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Vol. 2, page 252, 3rd col. http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/2/sequence/274

[14] Cambridge. Town Meeting Minutes, September 29, 1768.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, October 3, 1768. Massachusetts Historical Society, The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Vol. 2, page 258, 1st col. http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/2/sequence/280

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., page 257, 2nd col. http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/2/sequence/279

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 3rd col.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, September 26, 1768. Massachusetts Historical Society, The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Vol. 2 page 247, 1st-2nd col. http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/2/sequence/270

[24] Cambridge. Town Meeting Minutes, December 14, 1772. See also William Brattle, Minutes of Meeting to Consider Boston’s Resolutions for Committees of Correspondence, Boston Public Library, American Revolutionary War Manuscripts Collection, call number MS.G.41.9.78. http://www.archive.org/details/minutesofmeeting00camb

[25] Minutes of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, November, 3 1772, Volume 1. New York Public Library, Archives and Manuscripts Division, Digital Collections https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/390ed440-bb9b-0132-9f85-58d385a7bbd0#/?uuid=3984ef70-bb9b-0132-2481-58d385a7bbd0

[26] The Votes and Proceedings of the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the Town of Boston (Boston, 1772). Massachusetts Historical Society https://www.masshist.org/revolution/doc-viewer.php?old=1&mode=nav&item_id=649

[27] Cambridge. Town Meeting Minutes, December 14, 1772.

[28] Boston Evening Post, December 21, 1772. Massachusetts Historical Society, The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Vol. 4, page 202, 1st col. http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/4/sequence/280

[29] Boston Evening Post December 28, 1772. Massachusetts Historical Society, The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Vol. 4 page 206 3rd col. http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/4/sequence/284

[30] Ibid.

[31] Cambridge. Town Meeting Minutes, May 12, 1766.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Letter from Cambridge Committee of Correspondence, November 1, 1773, Boston Committee of Correspondence, New York Public Library, Archives and Manuscripts Division, Digital Collections https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/d7bfb840-eb82-0132-fb87-58d385a7bbd0#/?uuid=d8259680-eb82-0132-2666-58d385a7bbd0

[34] Ibid., https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/d7bfb840-eb82-0132-fb87-58d385a7bbd0#/?uuid=d839b6f0-eb82-0132-c738-58d385a7bbd0

[35] Minutes of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, November 22, 1773, Volume 6. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/557fd5f0-c12e-0132-d597-58d385a7b928#/?uuid=557fd5f0-c12e-0132-d597-58d385a7b928

[36] Ibid.

[37] In consequence of a conference with the committees of correspondence in the vicinity of Boston, November 23, 1773 … (Boston, 1773), Massachusetts Historical Society https://www.masshist.org/revolution/image-viewer.php?item_id=444&img_step=1&tpc=&pid=2&mode=transcript&tpc=&pid=2#page1

[38] Ibid.

[39] Whittemore v. Vassall, Suffolk County Files Collection, Massachusetts State Archives, December term, 172. Index number 52857.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 173.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

Tags from the story
More from Katie Turner Getty

Before the Bayonetting: The Untold Story of Capt. Samuel Whittemore

Capt. Samuel Whittemore, a seventy-eight year old American farmer, became a legend...
Read More

1 Comment

  • I’m ashamed to say that I’ve lived in Arlington my whole life and was unaware of the rich history of this amazing man, a true Patriot! Thanks for shedding light on him and his varied accomplishments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *