The Route is by Way of Winnisimmet: Chelsea and the Refugees


February 1, 2018
by Katie Turner Getty Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

It was August 1775 and Belcher Noyes, worried about his son Nathaniel, was writing to him from Boston for a third time. “My dear son: Have received no letter from you since May 27, which I duly answered 3d June … I wrote you May 25, both of which I hope came safe to your hands.”[1]

To his great anxiety, sixty-five year old Belcher Noyes found himself trapped in Boston that summer, frantically penning unanswered letters to his adult son, and surrounded by thousands of seething British troops and distressed townspeople. Boston and the Massachusetts countryside roiled with unrest. Patriot forces had locked up thousands of British troops on the Boston peninsula after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Forming a ring around the town, militia and minute men managed to contain the British in Boston and prevent further forays into the country. Those men had since been organized into the Continental Army and were laying siege to Boston.

Rumors swirled that the destruction of Boston was nigh and dysentery wracked the town. People were desperate to escape. Belcher wrote to his son. “Provisions scarce and bad; no fuel nor money … Last week there was a notification posted up, that all those who were desirous to leave the Town, to give in their names to James Urquhart, Town-Major; and in two days time upwards of two thousand entered their names, and passes are now granted … The route is by way of Winnisimit.”[2]

If places could have memories, then Winnisimmet’s would be a long one. By the time of the Siege of Boston in 1775, Winnisimmet Ferry had already been in continuous operation for 144 years. For almost two centuries the ferry had served as a hub of humanity, spiriting passengers, horses and goods back and forth between Boston’s North End and the coastal town of Chelsea, just to the northeast across Boston Harbor. Once in Chelsea, the fishing villages of Lynn, Salem, Marblehead and the entire Massachusetts north shore lay beyond.

At least as late as 1749, four boats comprised Winnisimmet Ferry—two row boats and two sailboats. At any given moment, two boats would be plying the waters of Boston Harbor, and “when any one of the said boats shall land at either shoar, the other boat on the same side shall immediately put off.”[3] From April 1 to November 1, the ferry operated from sunrise to 9 p.m. and during the icy, dark winter months, it operated from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The ferrymen were responsible for remaining constantly “at or near each boat to keep them from grounding and attend on the passengers.”[4]

Belcher Noyes must have given his letter to someone he knew who planned to leave Boston by crossing the harbor to Winnisimmet. “Several have gone off, by which means I have an opportunity of writing you. I have it in my mind to go to Mr. Little’s, at Newbury, in case I can accomplish it,” he informed his son. “On receipt of this, endeavor to write me your mind. Mr. Welles, the mason, lives at Chelsea, by which means a letter may be conveyed; be cautious what you write.”[5]

Since April, the Boston Selectmen had been negotiating with British General Gage to allow Bostonians to escape the privations of the occupied town and flee to the countryside, but the process proved to be erratic and unpredictable. People attempting to leave encountered various oppressive and inconsistent policies. “All merchandise was forbid; after a while all provisions were forbid; and now all merchandise, provisions, and medicine. Guards are appointed to examine all trunks, boxes, beds, and every thing else to be carried out; these have proceeded such extremities, as to take from the poor people a single loaf of bread, and half pound of chocolate; so that no one is allowed to carry out a mouthful of provisions.”[6]

As Boston was a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow neck, any refugees who successfully wrested permission from General Gage to leave could only lawfully pass out of the town by way of the land route to Roxbury or the Winnisimmet Ferry to Chelsea.

Chelsea lay northeast of Boston; its expansive salt marshes and beachy shore running alongside Boston Harbor and the mouth of the Mystic River. The distant parts of Chelsea called Pulling Point and Point Shirley were situated on a peninsula further east, fronting the Atlantic Ocean. The Winnisimmet area of Chelsea was closest to Boston; Charlestown and Breed’s Hill lay within direct eyeshot to the west and the Boston Harbor islands of Noddle’s and Hog practically within wading distance.

The proximity of Chelsea to the thousands of British soldiers occupying Boston distressed the inhabitants of the coastal community. British men o’ war loaded with troops could easily land upon their beaches—likely in less than half an hour.[7] In May 1775, the people of Chelsea and the neighboring town of Malden petitioned the Committee of Safety for protection and requested detachments from the Provincial Army to guard their towns.[8]

The army was unable to spare any men for such duty. But on May 3, 1775, the provincial congress voted that “two companies be raised in the towns of Chelsea and Malden for the defence of the sea coast of said towns.”[9] The next month, those companies were joined to Col. Samuel Gerrish’s Regiment.[10] Later that summer, Colonel Gerrish would be court-martialed and cashiered.[11] Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin, of Woburn, was chosen to be Gerrish’s successor in command of the regiment.

That summer, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin wrote to Gen. George Washington almost every day from Chelsea—which had become the furthest extremity of the left wing of the Continental Army. He and his men provided intelligence to General Washington by monitoring the movement of ships in the harbor and handling the boatloads of refugees who fled Boston and disembarked at Winnisimmet Ferry.

Due to General Gage’s unpredictability in issuing passes to the individuals and families desperate to leave Boston, the exodus had been sporadic and irregular. But in late July, the soldiers stationed at Chelsea were surprised by the arrival of a boat full of refugees.

On July 29, 1775, Baldwin notified General Washington of a boat unexpectedly landing at Winnisimmet. “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 … I would Beg your Excelency would Send me Some Assistence as the Boats are to Continue passing (That is if we can believe General Gage) and Somthing may Escape for want of Proper assistenc that may turn to our disadvantage.”[12]

Expecting at any moment that General Gage might permit more people to leave Boston, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin requested assistance from General Washington in managing the flow of refugees. He also sought assurance that he and his men were not inadvertently letting smallpox sufferers or potential malefactors through the lines.

After receiving Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin’s request for help, General Washington immediately informed the provincial congress that Bostonians were arriving unexpectedly at Winnisimmet Ferry. In response, about fifty of its members convened in an emergency Sabbath-Day session. “Apprehensive that the people of the country may be exposed to take the small-pox; the said inhabitants of Boston being suffered indiscriminately to resort into the country,” the congress dispatched a committee to Chelsea.[13]

The committee’s duty was to “inspect the state and characters of such inhabitants of Boston … and be empowered and ordered to do and direct every thing that they shall find absolutely necessary for the safety of the Country, and the immediate relief of any helpless and indigent persons.”[14]

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin attempted to contain the refugees in Chelsea and prevent possible communication of smallpox to the army. “Should be glad to know in what manner I am to proceed, with the People that come out of Boston, in order to pr[e]vent there going into Camp … There are People now waiting to know your Excellency’s Answer that want to proceed into the Country … I am now obliged to let them go about among the neighbor for Suport as they Brought nothing of that nature with them.”[15]

Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin soon received news that the provincial congress would provide assistance in caring for “the poor people Sent to Chelsea from Boston.”[16]

Some of these “poor people” who arrived at Chelsea from Boston via Winnisimmet Ferry were mothers with their children. Among dozens of women (and some couples) with children who landed that month were Ellen Morgen with four children, Elesebeth Sinkler with four children, Anna Green with four children, and Mary Robards and two children.[17] On August 17, Ebenezer Higgins arrived with his and wife and four children, Huldah Bassett and four children, and Elisebeth Hopkins and six children.[18]

Upon arriving in Chelsea, the committee learned from the refugees they encountered that General Gage was not presently allowing any Bostonians to leave the town, nor was it known when the next group of refugees would be permitted out.[19] In light of this uncertainty and unable to remain away from their legislative duties for long, the committee decided to return to Watertown. They instructed the Committee of Correspondence of Chelsea to handle the refugees on their behalf. “If you suspect they or their effects are infected with the small-pox, that you see that they be cleansed; and all such persons as are so infirm that they cannot be removed, that you provide for them at the publick expense until they can be removed …”[20] Only about a week would pass, however, before General Washington would send word to the provincial congress requesting that a permanent committee be sent to Chelsea to help manage the refugees.

During the first week of August, boats filled with refugees started arriving from Boston at unpredictable intervals. Still concerned about the possibility of smallpox being transmitted to the army or letting potentially treacherous people through the lines, General Washington again contacted the provincial congress. In asking for additional assistance in managing the flow of people, he explained “Business multiplies so fast, and we are so much Strangers to the Characters, and Conduct of many, that I would wish to put it on some more proper Footing: especially as it takes Several Field Officers every day from their Duty.”[21] The next day, the congress formed a permanent committee to provide “constant attendance at the place where the People coming out of Boston to Chelsea shall land.”[22]

As summer turned to fall, the committee along with the men of Baldwin’s Regiment continued to manage the refugees. The committee provided shelter for the refugees and tried to prevent the spread of smallpox by “smoking, cleansing, airing, and detaining Persons or Effects … to prevent a communication of the distemper to the army or inhabitants of this Colony.”[23] Teams of horses were hired to relocate the refugees to other Massachusetts towns.

As refugees from Boston continued landing at Winnisimmet, Baldwin’s men collected letters they carried and submitted them to General Washington to be scanned for intelligence-gathering purposes. “I have taken the names of all the Passeng[ers] and Stopd the Letters which I now Send for y[our] Inspection & Beg your Excellency would Send them Back to me again as soon as possable as the Bairers are Some of them in waighting and others are to call again tomorrow for theirs—Please to Keep the Inclosd Letters in there Respective covers.”[24]

One of these letters was the one written by concerned father Belcher Noyes, to his son Nathaniel. This particular letter caught the eye of General Washington. In it, Belcher recounted distress and hardships faced by those trapped in Boston. “[There is] some conjecture the destruction of this Town is intended,” and many townspeople feared that, if they did escape, the British might “plunder and demolish the Town” after they left. The refugees were prohibited from carrying with them “plate of any kind nor more money than five pounds sterling.”[25] Passes, too, were denied to men without special permission.[26]

General Washington, noting with interest Belcher’s description of Boston’s sufferings, forwarded it to John Hancock for his perusal. “As the Writer is a Person of some Note in Boston, & it contains some Advices of Importance not mentioned by others, I thought proper to forward it as I received it .… General Gage has at length liberated the People of Boston, who land in Numbers at Chelsea every Day, the Terms on which the Passes are granted as to Money Effects & Provisions correspond with Mr Noyes’s Letter.”[27]

His concerns about smallpox and treacherous individuals crossing the lines still unappeased, in early October General Washington wrote to the provincial congress suggesting that the Winnisimmet ferry be shut down.

Agreeing with the General and likewise frustrated by General Gage’s refusal to permit the Bostonians out with any regularity, the congress decided:

Whereas this Court has reason to apprehend that the Small-Pox prevails in the Town of Boston, whereby great danger is apprehended of spreading that distemper through the country, by the Ferry at Chelsea, being open for the transportation of the Poor and other inhabitants of the Town of Boston into the country; and whereas General Gage does not comply with the just expectations of this Court, that the said inhabitants, with their effects, should come out indiscriminately, but perverts the communication to purposes that may prove dangerous to the community.

Therefore, Resolved, That the Committee appointed to attend at Chelsea be ordered to retire, and give no further attendance, and that no boats pass and repass that ferry, from and to Boston; and whenever it shall appear to this Court that General Gage is disposed to comply with his engagement for a general liberation of the inhabitants of Boston and their effects, this Court will be ready to receive and make suitable provision for said inhabitants.[28]

On October 22, Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin received orders that “no more Boats come over to Winnisimet … If you have not already apprized the Boatmen of this Order you are to do it the first opportunity & in Case they persist after being warned to the Contrary you are to fire upon them.”[29]

Despite that order, about one week later a boat carrying thirty-two people including many children arrived. Among the passengers were Anna Laurence and four children, Samuel Greenleaf, his wife and three children, Mary Wilson and child, Hannah Hughes and child, and “a Woman with 6 children.”[30] A note under the passenger list reads, “According to orders I have forbid the boat coming out again.”[31]

As for concerned father Belcher Noyes—he did succeed in getting out of Boston, but for him, the route was not, in fact, by way of Winnisimmet. In late November, 1775, he boarded the British transport ship Symmetry bound for Chelsea—or so he thought. But instead of sailing to Winnisimmet, the ship landed its passengers at “Point Shirley a Marooned Place,” a long, narrow, beachy and windswept part of Chelsea situated across Boston Harbor.[32] Scarcely inhabited and with the crashing Atlantic pounding its eastern shore, Point Shirley was so isolated that it had historically been the site of a smallpox hospital.[33]

The Bostonians aboard the ship were ordered to immediately disembark, “no one suffered to Stay on board some of us were unwilling to go on Shore but were forc’d to go on Shore in the Dark this was cruel Treatment as some were laying dangerously ill, two dyed the next day, and one Woman [died] in two days occasioned by a fall in going on shore.”[34]

Hiring a team of horses to carry his possessions, Belcher set out walking. Within the next few days, enduring bad roads, cold, and unexpected snow, he made the thirty-five mile journey northward to the home of Colonel Little in Newbury, Massachusetts. Both Belcher Noyes and his son Nathaniel eventually made it back to Boston and lived long enough to see not only the end of the siege, but the end of the revolution. Belcher died in 1791 at the age of eighty-two.

In March 1776, the British evacuated Boston and the siege ended. No longer trying to escape, Bostonians started pouring back into the town, anxious to reunite with loved ones and piece together whatever was left of their homes and livelihoods before the siege.

Winnisimmet Ferry operated for the next 142 years, long-outliving the refugees who boarded the boats with their children and the ferrymen who rowed them. In the end, the Winnisimmet ferry spanned four centuries, its last passenger from Boston disembarking in Chelsea in 1917.


[1] Letter from Boston, Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776, Ser. 4, 3:31, Digital Collections and Collaborative Projects, University Libraries, Northern Illinois University,, accessed December 12, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, Vol. 3 (Boston: Albert J. Wright, 1878), 466,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Letter from Boston, Peter Force.

[6] Extract of a Letter to a Gentleman in Philadelphia, Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776, Ser. 4, 2:666, Digital Collections and Collaborative Projects, University Libraries, Northern Illinois University,, accessed January 13, 2018.

[7] Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts 1775-1776, Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: 1983), 78, Hathitrust Digital Library,;view=1up;seq=11 accessed December 11, 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 533,

[10] Ibid, 401.

[11] General Orders, August 19, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed December 2, 2017.

[12] Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin to Gen. George Washington, July 29, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed November 22, 2017.

[13] Committee to Repair to Chelsea, Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776, Ser. 4, 3:292, Digital Collections and Collaborative Projects, University Libraries, Northern Illinois University,, accessed December 22, 2017.

[14] Ibid., 293.

[15] Baldwin to Washington, July 31, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives, , accessed November 2, 2017.

[16] Ibid., fn 2.

[17] Baldwin’s Regiment, Vol. 60, 985, Muster Rolls of the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.

[18] Ibid., 974.

[19] Peter Force, ed., American Archives: A Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America, Ser. 4, Vol. 3, (Washington: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1840), 293,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Washington to James Otis, Sr., August 5, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed January 5, 2018.

[22] Ibid. fn 2.

[23] Peter Force, ed., American Archives: A Documentary History, 1516.

[24] Baldwin to Washington, July 31, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed November 2, 2017.

[25] Letter from Boston, Peter Force.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Washington to John Hancock, August 4-5, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed December 12, 2017.

[28] Report on the Communication, Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-1776, Ser. 4, 3:1454, Digital Collections and Collaborative Projects, University Libraries, Northern Illinois University,, accessed December 28, 2017.

[29] Washington to the Massachusetts General Court, October 6, 1775, fn 2, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed December 30, 2017.

[30] Baldwin’s Regt, 958-959, Massachusetts State Archives.

[31] Ibid., 958.

[32] Belcher Noyes Diaries, 1775-1776, Octavo Vols “N”, Manuscript Collections, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

[33] Mellen Chamberlain, A Documentary History of Chelsea (Boston: Printed for the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1908), 405,

[34] Belcher Noyes Diaries, 1775-1776, American Antiquarian Society.


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