Displaced: The Donation People of 1775

In late November 1775, just as the bone-chilling New England winter started to settle upon Massachusetts, British General Howe loaded three hundred poor, sick inhabitants of Boston onto transport ships with no provisions or firewood.[1] They were landed on windswept Point Shirley peninsula, a narrow, beachy finger of land situated in between the gentle waves of Boston Harbor and the vast expanse of the Atlantic. Lacking in food, fuel and warmth, the Bostonians were destitute.

Among the hundreds of townspeople unceremoniously deposited on the point by General Howe were a wide cross-section of Boston’s poorest residents—married couples, widows (such as “aged widow” Martha Tompson), and men whose occupations included shoemaker, laborer, butcher, and brazier. Numerous children arrived on the point with their parents—Israel Cowing and his wife had seven children with them. Both Edward Edwards and his wife and Lewis Channel and his wife had four. The widowed Sarah Brown had four children. Henry Harris, a peddler, had three. Dozens of other adults were accompanied on the point by at least one child. Other children such as “Elizabeth Orr, orphan girl of fourteen” and “Jacob Tuckerman, Orphan Boy, 12 years old” arrived on the point alone.[2]

These individuals are just a few of the thousands of inhabitants of Boston and Charlestown, largely forgotten by history, who were displaced by the Siege of Boston in 1775. Sometimes called “donation people” or “the Boston poor,” they numbered among the most vulnerable of Boston’s residents—many were widowed, orphaned, elderly, or suffering with smallpox. These donation people were removed from Boston during the siege and subsequently relocated to various towns in the Massachusetts countryside, enduring significant hardships and uncertainty along the way.

The three hundred Boston poor on Point Shirley were in tough shape. As Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin informed Gen. George Washington, “The people that came out of Boston now at the Point are in a most Shocking Condition yesterday in the afternoon there was one dead and another Just Dieing upon the Beach Sevral other very Sick no bread believe that they have had some of pulling Point Sheep killed & carved them.”[3] General Washington likewise observed that, “the whole [were] in the most miserable & piteous condition.”[4]

A most miserable and piteous condition, indeed—some of the Bostonians on Point Shirley were infected with the dreaded smallpox.[5] At least three women were widowed on the point. Elizabeth Manwaring’s husband died upon their arrival at Point Shirley. The husband of Sarah Usher, too, “died the day he landed on the point.” Rebeckah Spears’ husband also died, leaving her alone with one child.[6]

Thomas Francis, a young Boston apprentice, was suffering from smallpox due to having been inoculated. He claimed that his master forced him to board a second transport ship to Point Shirley despite his illness. He ended up surviving his battle with the disease and lived to later testify in a deposition that his condition had so alarmed the other passengers that they tried to keep him off the ship and refused to stay below deck with him, for fear of contracting the illness. Francis also claimed that a man named Morrison threatened the passengers that if they continued to protest against the presence of the ailing boy, then he would turn them back on shore again. Desperate to leave Boston, the passengers must have acquiesced to Morrison’s demands and resigned themselves to exposure to smallpox. Francis added that “a Number of said Passengers that came down with me have since Broke out with that Distemper at Point Shirley.”[7]

In addition to some of their number suffering with smallpox and having no firewood, the Bostonians had been robbed of their possessions by the British troops while on board the ships to Point Shirley.[8] The Provincial Congress and General Washington scrambled to supply them with wood and other necessary provisions. The congress resolved that “any old decayed stores, barns, or fish-houses” on the point could be ripped down and used as “fuel for the relief of the sick and distressed.” And, “Public buildings were authorized to be torn down for firewood, if necessary.”[9]

Though General Washington wasted no time in ordering supplies for the displaced townspeople, he greatly feared them bringing smallpox to the Continental Army camp in nearby Cambridge. “I have order’d Provision to them till they can be remov’d, but am under dreadful apprehension’s of their communicating the small Pox as it is Rief in Boston.”[10] A committee dispatched to the area reported that they had directed local selectmen to “take care of and provide for the Indigent, and guard and secure the Country against the Small Pox.”[11]

The Removal Process

After the British staggered back into Boston from Lexington and Concord, the Americans closed in and bottled up the British on the Boston peninsula. Thus commenced the Siege of Boston, which lasted until March 1776 when the British evacuated.

During the siege, many thousands of people both within and without Boston desired relocation. Thousands of townspeople wanted to leave British-occupied Boston and enter the friendlier territory of the surrounding countryside. Likewise, many loyalists out in the country wanted to gain the protection of the British by seeking refuge in Boston. Even prior to the siege, life in Boston had been difficult. Some inhabitants had already left due to the food shortages and other privations resulting from the Port Bill’s stranglehold on Boston.[12]

The removal of Bostonians to the countryside was plagued with many stops and starts. Negotiations between General Gage, the senior British officer in Boston, and the Boston Selectmen to allow the inhabitants to leave town started shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19. At first, General Gage permitted people to leave “with their familys & their Effects” as long as they left behind any arms they possessed.[13] A common sight in Boston were “parents that are lucky enough to procure papers, with bundles in one hand & a string of children in the other, wandering out of the town (with only a Sufferance of one days provision) not knowing whither they’ll go.”[14] But General Gage’s policy was subject to change without warning and some Bostonians who tried to leave town encountered “numerous delays and embarrassments.”[15] Whether passes would be granted or precisely which items townspeople were permitted to carry out with them remained unpredictable.

One group of fleeing townspeople managed to surprise part of the main guard of the Continental Army in July 1775. Having somehow gained permission from General Gage to leave Boston, they approached the Chelsea shoreline by boat. According to Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, “we wase all allarm’d by the approach of a Boat to Winnisimmit Ferry & by a Signal Soon found them to be friends who Landed with their Houshold good: there ware Several of my Intimate acequaintance.”[16] The overwhelming relief felt by the townspeople when they found themselves not only among friends again, but welcomed ashore by the Continental Army, is easy to imagine.

The Provincial Congress had begun the process of coordinating the removal of many of the poorest inhabitants of Boston who could not leave of their own accord. The congress estimated that “about five thousand of said inhabitants are indigent, and unable to be at the expense of removing themselves … and it is hereby recommended to all the good people of this Colony … that they aid and assist such poor inhabitants with teams, wagons, etc.”[17]

Boston Selectman John Scollay intimated in a letter to the congress that “the state of the inhabitants is really distressing” and “many of these poor unhappy people are not in a condition to be removed by land carriage, therefore, we should think that the place of their destination might be as near water carriage as may be convenient … we would beg leave to suggest the towns of Salem or Marblehead, as the proper place.”[18]

Transporting the Boston poor to the north shore of Massachusetts by water would serve to lessen the chance of spreading smallpox through the countryside. The congress also promised to provide a hospital and lodging for the Bostonians, as well as “cleansing” to help prevent the spread of the disease.[19] The congress ordered that boats “shall convey the inhabitants of the town of Boston to Salem … that beds, beding, necessary Stores & Medicines be sent out with the Poor.[20]

Moses Brown and the Quaker Relief Effort

Moses Brown, a Quaker from Providence, Rhode Island, spearheaded a mission to donate money to as many of the suffering Boston poor as possible. Leaving Providence in December 1775, Brown and some fellow Friends traveled to Boston in order to distribute donations. Upon their arrival in Cambridge, they met with General Washington and requested permission to enter Boston and provide relief. Although the General received them “kindly,” he did not permit them to enter the town.[21]

Brown then went to Watertown where the Provincial Congress was sitting and discussed the needs of the poor with some of the members. Returning to Cambridge, he and his companions rented a room for the night. No beds were available so three men shared one straw mat and blanket. One man slept on the floor and another on a bench, “without any covering but our great coats.”[22]

That evening, as he lay sleepless on the shared straw mat, Brown “thought it was a preparation of us to a suitable sympathy for the poor where we were to Vissit and I observed to my companions it was Necessary for us to partake of the Sufferings of the Times … We were much better off than thousands around in the Camps and Else Where.”[23]

The Quakers never gained access to Boston. But instead of heading back to Providence without having distributed any of the donations, Brown decided to travel approximately sixteen miles northeast of Boston to the north shore areas of Marblehead and Salem to relieve the Bostonians that had been relocated there.

Though Brown had planned to be away from Providence for only a few days, his journey lasted almost three weeks. Thinking they wouldn’t be in Massachusetts for very long, the Quakers did not pack any blankets or extra clothing for themselves despite the wintry grasp of December.[24] As they traveled through the north shore, Brown found the weather to be “Extreem Cold yet the Necessitys of the Poor were such as prompted us to go through much sufferings on that Account without complaint.”[25]

The Friends were shocked by the extreme poverty they encountered in Marblehead. Almost immediately, Brown met a “Number of Poor children out Begging Saying Master give me a Copper to buy a Biskett, etc.”[26] The Friends provided donations to between sixty and seventy families in Marblehead, mostly widows and children. Brown later commented in a letter to a friend that “Such Scenes of Poverty I had before been a strainger two.”[27]

The Quakers traveled further up the coast and entered Gloucester. Food and firewood were scarce. “We … have very little idea of their poverty, yet their children seemed healthy, crawling even into the ashes to keep them warm … they could keep but little fires for want of wood.”[28] Brown recalled that “Some families [had] no other bread but potatoes … which with Checkerberry tea was seen the only food for a woman with a sucking child at her Breast.”[29]

Displaced Bostonians were not the only people whom the Friends encountered in their travels. They also met people from the coastal area who had been rendered destitute by the closings of local fisheries by which they had previously been able to eke out a meager existence.[30] “We found great poverty to abound; numbers of widows and fatherless, wood and provisions greatly wanting among them.”[31] In an effort to obtain firewood, many women had to venture at least two miles from their homes and then carry back the wood. Brown noted one woman in particular “a widow woman with five children …[who] looked to lie in with [give birth to] another, had been out in a cold day more than that distance … and had no bread in the house.”[32]

Brown and his companions continued their travels and headed down the Massachusetts coast. They ended up in Point Shirley, where the three hundred poor, ill Bostonians had been deposited by General Howe, Gage’s replacement. By this time about a month had passed since the townspeople had been landed, but Brown managed to find thirty to forty families to relieve as well as fifty other people in nearby Chelsea.[33] Before the Bostonians were permitted to leave the point, they were quarantined for twenty-one days to ensure that they were clear of the smallpox. According to Brown, they were then “transported into the Country as fast as Teams could be got. This was a very Unpleasant scene to see people going from the place of their Birth, where they knew not depending on the Benevolence of the publick and Unknown Individuals.”[34]

Transported into the Countryside

The desperate Bostonians who were landed on Point Shirley represented a mere fraction of the people who were displaced during the siege. Thousands of people were transported to various corners of the Massachusetts countryside by teams, the congress having authorized carriages to be impressed into service.[35] The congress had also established a quota system where towns were required to take in certain numbers of the poor, thereby providing shelter to over 4900 individuals.[36] Later, however, the congress loosened the quotas, resolving that “such suffering poor shall be allowed to remove into any town or district in the colony.”[37]

Dozens of the Boston and Charlestown poor arrived in Reading, Massachusetts, a country town twelve miles north of Boston. On November 27, 1775, the Reading Town Meeting considered “what measures the Town will take in order to support the Donation People from Boston and Charlestown.”[38] The town voted to “choose a comecary to provide necessaries for all such donation persons.”[39] Some of these donation people included Margaret Bodge, aged thirty-five, of Charlestown and her three young sons, Samuel, aged six, Henry, aged four, and David, aged two. Ebenezer Leman, described as “a cripple,” aged forty-four, of Charlestown, arrived in Reading with his thirty-six-year-old wife and four of their children, aged eight, six, four, and two. Thirty-three-year-old Ann Shepard was accompanied by her children Thomas, aged nine, Anna, aged five, and Asa, aged three.[40]

In a letter to the Committee of Supplies in June 1775, the town of Reading explained why they were unable to provide blankets and provisions to the army. “We are as ready to assist in the defense of our country as any town in the province, but the great flow of the inhabitants of Boston, Charlestown … Salem and Marblehead daily flocking into this town, must, we think, be an excuse.”[41] In addition, Reading had just fully outfitted 100 of her own men who had enlisted into the Continental Army.[42]

Many Massachusetts towns sheltered dozens of donation people which, no doubt, strained local resources. The Selectmen of Newburyport (forty miles north of Boston) wrote the Provincial Congress to inform them that:

a number of the poor inhabitants of the Town of Boston have taken residence in this Town, viz: thirty-five adults and forty-three children, the greater part of whom have been here for the last three months … as little or no provisions are raised in this Town but brought from the country, and as wood, a necessary article the approaching season, must be scarce and dear … and in the winter season provisions of all kinds will be dearer, the expense of maintenance will be nearly double.

The Newburyport selectmen delicately suggested that the Boston poor “would be as well accommodated, and at less expense, in some of the farming Towns back of the seacoast.[43]

In response, the Provincial Congress ordered that some of the Boston poor who had found lodging in Newburyport were to be “distributed” to other locations in the province further inland. Some of the donation people who were to be removed included, among many others, the prolific Piper family—Walter Piper, his wife, and their five children, and Walter Piper Jr., his wife and mother-in-law, and their seven children, who were directed to Lunenburg.[44]

The Selectmen of Abington, a town south of Boston (whose original quota was for twenty-two persons), wrote to the congress stating that

there are now forty persons got into the Town of Abington, who were partakers of the donations while they resided in the Town of Boston, and are in want of support. Bread corn is an article that is very scarce and dear among us; and as your petitioners are credibly informed there is a large quantity of corn, bread, flour, etc., sent to the Town of Dartmouth … being a donation for the poor of Boston, your petitioners therefore humbly pray this honourable Congress would please to give orders that we draw our proportion out of said donation.[45]

The donation people appear to have had little agency in determining to which town they were distributed. If they had “relations and connections in other towns” then they could be moved there.[46] But otherwise, Bostonians were shuffled to whichever town had the best ability to feed and shelter them. Sometimes that meant traveling further and further away from Boston, the distance between the donation people and their home growing ever greater.

Finally, in March 1776 after almost a year of tremendous hardship and upheaval, the British evacuated Boston. On April 25, the Provincial Congress passed a resolve that any indigent former residents of Boston and Charlestown who had been removed to towns in the countryside could be assisted with carriages and provisions in their return to Boston and Charlestown.[47]

It is difficult to know with certainty what happened to the thousands of men, women, and children who were displaced during the Siege of Boston. History has failed to remember their sacrifices—the details of their daily lives and the personal hardships that they endured have been forgotten. Their stories of the siege are scattered and largely unknown—much like the donation people themselves.

 

[1] Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, November 27, 1775, page 3, 3rd col., John Adams Library at Boston Public Library, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/stream/bostongazetteorc269bost#page/n81/mode/2up

[2] Henry J. Cadbury, “Quaker Relief During the Siege of Boston,” Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 34 (1937-1942): 39-179, https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/616#ah1002

[3] Loammi Baldwin to George Washington, November 26, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0393.

[4] Washington to Joseph Reed, November 27, 1775,” Founders Online, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0401.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cadbury, “Quaker Relief.”

[7] Boston-Gazette, February 12, 1776, page 4, 1st col., John Adams Library at Boston Public Library, Internet Archive.

[8] Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D.C., 1843), Ser. 4, 4:1329.

[9] Ibid., 1333.

[10] Washington to Reed, November 27, 1775.

[11] John Henry Clifford, The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1918), 17.

[12] The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 143.

[13] Boston town meeting minutes, April 22, 1775, Miscellaneous Bound Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

[14] John Andrews to William Barrell, May 6, 1775, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[15] The Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 213.

[16] Baldwin to Washington, July 29, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-01-02-0120.

[17] Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Ser. 4, 2:777, Digital Collections, Northern Illinois University.

[18] The Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 477.

[19] Clifford, The Acts and Resolves, 9.

[20] Ibid., 10.

[21] Mack E. Thompson, “Moses Brown’s ‘Account of Journey to Distribute Donations 12th Month 1775,’” Rhode Island History Vol. 15, No. 4 (October 1956): 97-121, 112, http://www.rihs.org/assetts/files/publications/1956_Oct.pdf

[22] Ibid., 115.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Mack E. Thompson, Moses Brown: Reluctant Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 120.

[25] Thompson, “Journey to Distribute Donations,” 118.

[26] Ibid., 117.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Cadbury, “Quaker Relief,” 56.

[29] Ibid., 56-57.

[30] Ibid., 56.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 57.

[34] Thompson, “Journey to Distribute Donations,” 120.

[35] Clifford, The Acts and Resolves, 418.

[36] Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Ser. 4, 2:778, Digital Collections, Northern Illinois University.

[37] Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 302.

[38] Records of the Town of Reading, 1632-1812, Volume II, Local History Room, Reading Public Library, Reading, Massachusetts.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Names of Some of the Persons Belonging to Boston and Charlestown Who Were Relieved and Assisted at Reading, By the Town 1775, in Hon. Lilley Eaton, Genealogical History of the Town of Reading, Mass. (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1874), 715.

[41] Eaton, Genealogical History of the Town of Reading, 181.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Ser. 4, 3:1498, Digital Collections, Northern Illinois University.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Ser. 4, 2:1477, Digital Collections, Northern Illinois University.

[46] Journals of Each Provincial Congress, 283.

[47] Clifford, The Acts and Resolves, 353.

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16 Comments

  • Interesting article. The “farming out” practice of the dispossessed to Massachusetts towns was not at all unlike what happened twenty years earlier when the Acadians were forcibly removed from their lands by that very colony’s militia troops, working with the British, in 1755 during the French and Indian War. They were brought to the southward and distributed to colonies up and down the Atlantic seaboard, with many choosing to leave and attempt a trip homeward or to just disappear into society. Yet another example of the loss of identity, albeit ethnic as opposed to the Bostonian’s communal experiences.

  • Thank you, Katie Turner Getty, for this wonderful article. I had no idea so many people in difficult circumstances were displaced during the Siege of Boston.

  • Thank you for the informative article. I am interested in researching this further in reference to my ancestor, Lettice Turner Peirce (Pierce). Her husband, a native of Dorchester, was a Capt. with Washington during the siege and then moved on with the army to New York. She disappeared to reappear as a destitute woman in 1790 being “warned out” of Braintree. She had been listed as deceased ca. 1775 by genealogists and the DAR who has her husband as a recognized patriot. I found her death record in the Dorchester records, 2 Aug 1806.

    Do you know of any way to find out more information about her.

    Thank you,

  • Very timely and interesting article. With so much suffering in the nation and the world today, we need people to be focusing on stories like this, drawing parallels in their own mind to what can–and does–happen.

    • While doing my research, I was really struck by the severity of the suffering of families during the siege and yet how little is known about it. Thanks for your comment, Kim–I really enjoyed your past article on “Fever”, by the way.

  • The royal official named Morrison was the Rev. John Morrison of Peterborough, New Hampshire. Having lost his Presbyterian pulpit a few years before, he came to the siege of Boston with his town’s troops. A week after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he deserted to the British side of the siege lines.

    Inside Boston Morrison preached at least once in the Brattle Street Meetinghouse. But he sought positions in the military government dealing with refugees going the other way. According to selectman Timothy Newell, “One poor Dutch [German?] woman attempted to carry with her about 60 dollars. Morrison the deserter seized them and carried them to the town Major. Ten dollars was stopped by him.”

    A letter from Cambridge on 21 December said: “That one Morrison, who officiates as a Presbyterian Minister, being appointed searcher of those people who were permitted to leave the town, promised, on receiving a bribe, to let a person bring out 240l. sterling in cash and plate; but afterwards basely deprived him of the whole of it.”

    Morrison remained attached to the British military through the war. He died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1782.

    • Hi J.L., thanks so much for your comment, I am a huge fan of your blog! Thanks for the additional info on Morrison. I came across another mention of him in my research that I didn’t include in the article. Upon arriving at Point Shirley, Moses Brown wrote in his journal:

      “But what added to the scene was the Inequitious Treatment they met from the people while on ship bord, (about 4 Days) haveing mostly as we were informed been Robbed of money close or furniture and much of the Latter Damaged in heaving out etc. I hope General Howe will be duly Informed of this and provide against it by giveing the Direction to a man of Virtue and not Trust such a Vagabond Priest as its Sead[?] Morrison the man that Commanded is. I was told by a person there he had lost near 600 Dollars by his takeing it after he had agreed it should be carreyed safely.”

      • Nifty! I wonder if Brown’s story is the same incident the Cambridge letter complained about, with the value of the money taken fluctuating.

        “as its Sead” = as it’s said?

  • Wonderful article about a subject barely covered anywhere else when dealing with the early revolutionary days. Thank you, Katie Turner Getty! Could you please tell me the source for the map of Boston at the top of your article? It has some good topographic detailing, which I’m presently researching for an historical painting.

    • Courtney, I have that map on my phone case. It’s from the Library of Congress collection. I don’t think it’s from the 1770s, however, but later. It appears to be based on Henry Pelham’s 1777 map published in London, which can also be downloaded from the Library of Congress maps site.

  • Katie: Thank you for your 1st class story about the “displaced” of the Siege of Boston. Well done! Well researched! And, long overdue. Every war generates countless refugees and unending misery for them, and the Revolution was no exception. I wonder if a similar study has been done for the displaced loyalists? I recommend Ken Burns new series on Vietnam for stories of the displaced from both the North and South in that war. Well done! And, thanks.

    • Hi Phillip, thanks for the kind words. I greatly enjoyed reading your study of your ancestor Simon Giffin’s journal. I came away from the article feeling as though I had a sense of the man himself.

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