Thomas Pownall, Governor of Massachusetts, August 1757 to December 1758

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

September 2, 2020
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Thomas Pownall was appointed “Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief in and over . . . the Province of the Massachusetts Bay” on February 25, 1757. He had some advantages that other governors did not have when taking office: first, he had a great deal of experience in the colonies, having travelled extensively through many of them; second, he had served as the secretary to Gov. Danvers Osborne of New York in 1753, to the lieutenant-governor of New Jersey in 1755 and 1756, the secretary extraordinary to Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America; and third, he had three very powerful supporters in England: William Pitt, secretary-of-state for the Southern Colonies; the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II and commander-in-chief of all British forces; and Lord Halifax, president of the Board of Trade. At the time of his appointment he had been in London conveying Major General Campbell’s campaign plans for the following year to the ministry. His predecessor, Gov. William Shirley, had already returned to England and in the interim, the lieutenant-governor, Spencer Phips, was serving as the colony’s administrator.

Pownall departed for the colonies on May 7, 1757 and arrived in Boston on August 3. Shortly after coming ashore he learned that Phips had died on April 4. In accordance with the colony’s charter, the eldest member of the colony’s council was to then serve as the administrator until a governor was appointed. Because a majority of the council was never present at any meeting during the interim four months, no business had been conducted. Three days after his arrival, Pownall received a letter dated July 31 from a member of Lt.-Gen. Daniel Webb’s staff at Fort Edward stating that 10,000 French soldiers and Indians under Gen. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm were attempting to take Fort William Henry located on the southern point of Lake George and that Fort Edward would probably be next. Pownall, realizing that a number of Massachusetts men were stationed at Fort William Henry, immediately called out the colony’s militia. The next day he appointed Sir William Pepperell commander of the force and informed Major General Campbell of the situation:

I shall collect all the forces I can, I shall send Sir William Pepperell forward to receive them at the rendezvous (Albany). I shall employ General Winslow to collect them while I stay here to give such directions as shall be necessary so form an army, and as soon as such shall be formed I shall go and take command of it.[1]

On August 10, Pownall received another letter informing him that Fort William Henry had fallen to the French and beseeching him:

For God’s sake exert yourselves to save a province . . . General Webb is still at Fort Edward with the troops left there, and the militia he is collecting as fast as possible. Let us save that, Sir, otherwise New York may fall, and then you can judge of the fate of the continent.[2]

Fortunately for General Webb and his men, Montcalm believed that he did not have sufficient supplies to go any further and did not attack Fort Edward but instead returned to Canada.

In a letter dated August 16 to his brother John, the secretary of the Board of Trade, Pownall wrote, “The Militia . . . is absolutely [in] ruins. We have neither form nor law by which to order or govern them to any effectual purpose. I have no returns, nor is there provided a means of providing any one thing necessary for taking the field.” [3] That same day, he met with the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He expressed his respect “for the sacred liberties that should ever inviolably remain with the people” and promised to “observe [their] ever valuable Charter-rights and privileges.” He then asked the House to enact three measures: first, that the governor might rely on the service of those called out; second, that when an enemy was in the territory he might be attacked or pursued beyond the colony’s boundary; and third, that the colony’s forces be put in proper order and discipline. He closed his speech assuring everyone “I would hope that you conceive of me as determined, by my indispensable Duty, to engage, to the utmost of my Power and Abilities, in every service wherein the Interests, Honour or Safety of the Province is concerned.”[4]

On the 18th, the House expressed their appreciation for what he had done since his arrival:

Your Excellency’s acquaintance with His Majesty’s just rights upon this continent, your knowledge of the state of the colonies in general and of this province in particular, your concern for the support and defense of His Majesty’s interest against an encroaching and perfidious enemy . . . and by your active vigorous measures immediately after your arrival . . . all concur in giving us the prospect of as great happiness under your administration as can consist with the involved and perplexed state of our affairs.[5]

On August 31, Gov. Jonathan Belcher of New Jersey died. Notice reached Boston on September 17. Because Pownall technically was still the lieutenant-governor of the colony and John Reading, the eldest member of the council, was in poor health, Pownall was obliged to travel to New Jersey and assist the council until Reading’s health improved. On the 24, he wrote to Secretary of State Pitt,

Upon my Arrival, I took upon me the Government, gave Orders for raising a Company of Rangers as desired by Lord Loudoun (Major General Campbell); laid before the Council . . . Mr. Townshend’s letter with the annex’d Affidavits and gave Orders thereupon and concerted Matters with President John. Reading.[6]

Before returning home he stopped to meet with General Campbell in New York City regarding his quartering needs for the winter. Two days later, he was back in Boston where he appointed Thomas Hutchinson lieutenant-governor, and Andrew Oliver secretary in charge of all official correspondence.

At the meeting of the House of Representatives on November 24, Pownall painted an unpleasant of picture of the colonies’ affairs

When you see the Enemy possessed of every Pass and Post, and Masters of the entire Water-communication throughout the whole Country; you will see how firmly they hold the Command of the Continent: When you consider their Alliance and Ascendency over the Savages; you will see how firmly they hold the Command of every Indian on the Continent. When you consider this Command, as it is, united & effective in its Power and feel how great that Power is; what it has done and it is prepared to do; If the Facts themselves will not convince you of the Danger you are in from the Enemy; my words cannot.[7]

He told them that until reinforcements arrived from England, no offensive policy could be considered. Instead, he wanted the colony to focus on building up the colony’s defenses, that is, strengthening and organizing the militias, securing the frontiers, and putting their finances on a more solid footing.

In September and October, General Campbell and his forces were quartered in and around New York City. In September, Campbell informed Pownall that he would need to quarter one of his regiments in Boston for the winter. He hoped the he would not have to invoke the Mutiny Act as he had in New York City. Because the Act made the quartering of soldiers in times of war legal in England, he believed the Act carried the same authority in the colonies.[8] After Pownall informed the Massachusetts House of Campbell’s requirement, the House appropriated money to “enlarge the Barracks on Castle-Island. . . . [making them] capable of containing a Regiment of One Thousand Men with their Officers.”[9] When the regiment arrived, recruiting officers who had arrived earlier told him the they had been refused accommodations in the town and were directed to the barracks on Castle-Island. They believed the barracks were suitable for the regiment, but they demanded to be put up in the town. Campbell supported the officers and threatened to march three battalions on Boston to enforce their demand.[10] On December 1, Pownall informed Campbell that he and the House of Representatives did not believe the people of Boston were bound by the Mutiny Act and that they had drawn up “An Act Making Provisions for the Quartering and Billeting Recruiting Officers and Recruits in His Majestys Regular Forces employed for the Protection and Defense of His Majestys Dominions in North America,” which stated “No officer, Military or Civil, or other Person, shall quarter or billet any Soldier or Seaman upon any Inhabitant within this Province without his Consent . . . Notwithstanding any order whatsoever.[11] Pownall’s position was clear: “no one could be quartered upon, unless by Law and there was no Law.” Correspondence between the two men carried on for nearly six weeks before Campbell, after reaching a compromise with Pownall on December 26, withdrew his threat to march on Boston. [12] On January 6, 1758, the House adopted and Pownall signed “An Act in Addition to the several Acts of the Province for Regulating the Militia.” It stipulated that justices of the peace should provide quarters for recruiting officers in public houses and inns, but they were to pay for quarters and any provisions at rates set by Parliament.[13]

At the beginning of 1758 Pownall came to realize that he had two enemies to overcome: the French, and those still in government who were loyal to former Governor Shirley. This group included Hutchinson, Oliver, and some members of the council.

On January 15, Pownall informed Secretary of State Pitt that the colony had adopted a militia law. Enclosed with the letter was a memorandum outlining two measures he believed were necessary for the defense of the colony: the creation of scouting parties on the frontiers and the appointment of a general officer who would oversee operations along the frontiers. These had recently been sent to the House for their consideration. On January 19 and 20, the House discussed how to cover the expenses for the scouting parties and the need for a general officer. On January 21, they voted to reduce the size of the forces at all forts and posts (presumably to offset the number needed to make-up the scouting parties) and did not approve the general officer position.[14] Pownall, after learning of the vote, challenged the decision on January 23:

I laid before you a Plan for the Defence of the Frontiers, calculated to ease the Province of Part of the Expence it has been at in former years. In your Establishment for the ‘Pay and Subsistence of Officers and Men,’ you have carried matters in such an extreme as to expose the frontiers to the greatest Danger, for want of a proper Force to defend them. [15]

The following day the House responded by adding some men to Fort Halifax but little else. Later that day, Pownall again expressed his indignation at their decision and questioned the House’s authority to exercise a power that belonged to his office.

The Secretary has laid before me your Vote of an establishment of Pay and Subsistence for the Forces on the Frontiers. The Scouting Parties on the Western Frontiers you have confined to certain Stations; which is taking the Directions out of my hands, to whom by the Constitution of your Charter, it belongs. I cannot but hope, that        it proceeds from a mere Oversight, and not from any Intention to exercise any Powers that do not belong to you; and that you will very readily make the necessary Amendments or Alterations in your Vote.[16]

On January 25, the Massachusetts’ Council asked the House to reconsider their vote of the 21st. In turn, the House then asked the council to reconsider their non-concurrence. The impasse would have remained if not for Pownall.

Seeing you are resolved to run Matters to that extreme . . . I will, to prevent the Distressed State that the Inhabitants must be reduced to by this your Conduct, sign my Consent to the Establishment of Pay and Subsistence that you have provided . . . at the same Time declaring to you, that I Protest against the Breach you have made upon the Constitution of your Charter, and the Infringements on the Rights of the Crown. In the Plan I laid before you, I have told you . . . that I should employ the Forces in the same Manner that you determine by your Vote that they shall be employed; so that there is no difference about the Service, the only Question is, who shall direct and limit this Service, the House of Representatives, or the King’s Governor.[17]

At the end of the month Pownall received a proposal from the colony of Connecticut. They wanted the New England colonies to form a mutual defense league. Out of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, only Massachusetts responded to the proposal. The two colonies sent commissioners to Boston and Pownall was appointed to preside over the gathering. On March 15, he informed Pitt of the four agreements that had been reached: first, militia could be sent beyond its own colony into any of the other three colonies; second, forts were to be built on the Penobscot and the Connecticut Rivers; third, for military purposes, a survey would be conducted of New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts; and fourth, the colonies should send raiders into the enemy’s country “to distress them in like manner as they have us.”

With the assembly prorogued in February, Pownall went to Hartford to meet with Campbell. Gov. Thomas Fitch of Connecticut and Lt.-Gov. James de Lancey of New York also attended the meeting. Campbell had called the meeting in order to explain his military campaign for the year and the need for a militia force of 7,000 men from the New England colonies. Pownall was back in Boston on February 28; two day later, he met with the House. He laid before them Campbell’s requirements for men and supplies.[18] The Assembly, remembering his quartering demands, was not in the mood to cooperate with him. They told Pownall that they needed to know more specifics about the force before they could make a decision. They sent a list of questions to Pownall on March 8. Two days later, Pownall received a letter from Pitt, dated December 30. Campbell was being replaced because of his having left the northern frontier open to Montcalm the previous summer, making him extremely unpopular in the colonies. He was being replaced by Gen. James Abercromby.[19]Pownall immediately informed the House of the change and then “put the whole under an oath of secrecy.”[20]The next day the House, by unanimous decision, voted to supply Abercromby with all 7,000 men. In a letter to Secretary of State Pitt, Pownall wrote,

As the several Provinces of this Northern Department of America affect to wait for this Province & look to us for an Example, Immediately that night I despatched a Circular Letter to the Several Governors acquainting them what Measures the Legislature of this Province had taken: that we had sett them the Example.[21]

On March 22, Abercromby wrote to Pownall desiring him to

take the proper measures that all such Provisions as the Army under his Command may want should be impressed, secured, and delivered to the Contractors and Agents . . . And that the Governor would appoint proper Persons to settle and fix an equal price between Owners and Contractors.[22]

On March 23, Pownall issued the following proclamation:

This government [promises] unto each able bodied effective Man who should voluntarily inlist into said Service before the 15th day of April Instant a Bounty of Four Pounds and a good Blanket . . . The General Court in order to compleat the Levy of said men have lengthened out the time for their Inlistment upon the same Bounty till the second day of May . . . After which time all such able bodied men fit for the service, and who are not by Law exempted, will be liable to an Impress.[23]

On May 7, Pownall informed the Lords of Trade that all 7,000 men were ready to march northward. Two days later, at the request of Pownall, the House agreed to “make Provisions for the Pay and Subsistence of the Troops.” On June 8, he informed Secretary of State Pitt, “I have the Pleasure to acquaint you that the Troops rais’d by me in this Province march’d the 23rd of May from Worcester and have by this time join‘d Gen. Abercromby.”[24]

On the 15th, the House of Representatives again expressed their appreciation to Pownall for all that he done in past year and for the skills and integrity that he brought to the office of governor.

We think ourselves happy that, when we are engaged in affairs . . . [that] we have a gentleman at the head of the province of distinguished talents for government and zealously affected to His Majesty’s service . . . It is a satisfaction to us to see . . . that the affairs of government are administered by your Excellency with economy, vigor and integrity.[25]

Detail from a 1763 map of the British North American colonies with British claims marked in pink and French and Indian in green. Forts Edward and William Henry are north of Albany at the far left. Louisbourg is at the far right, center. (Library of Congress)

The 7,000 men from Massachusetts arrived at Fort Edward, the gathering place for General Abercromby’s force, in the middle of June. Abercromby and his entire force of 16,000 men embarked for Fort Ticonderoga a couple of weeks later. Pownall quickly became concerned that Abercromby might not have a large enough force to take Ticonderoga. He informed Lt.-Gov. Robert Monckton of Nova Scotia that the French were “very powerful in their numbers and very strong in their works.” On July 8, Abercromby attacked the fort. The results were devastating. He had conducted a frontal attack without the support of artillery. The militias suffered 350 killed or wounded and the regulars suffered 1,600.

While Abercromby was defeated, Gen. Jeffrey Amherst and a force of 14,000 men were successful in taking Louisbourg on July 26, suffering 172 killed and 355 wounded. Following the victory, Amherst left a portion of his force to garrison Louisbourg while the remainder travelled with him to Boston. Early in August Pownall received a letter from the Monckton of a possible attack on Fort George near Penobscot Bay. Later, Pownall wrote back to Monckton,

The intelligence you sent me of the enemy’s meditating an attempt upon [Fort] George proved not only true but came very seasonable. Immediately upon the receipt of it I fitted out an armed sloop [and sent it to Fort] George. Threw into the fort a reinforcement of 33 men , their stores, ammunition, and provisions . . . Saw the fort prepared to receive the enemy and visited the other little fortified place

After making three attempts to seek out the enemy, Pownall sailed back to Boston.

The day after I left George’s the enemy appeared and made their attempt upon the fort, their number 50 French, 255 Indians. They continued firing for almost twelve hours on the fort without effect. . . . As soon as the armed sloop that I had left with orders to proceed . . . to any place where he heard of an attack appeared in sight, the enemy withdrew.[26]

On August 20, Pitt learned of Abercromby’s defeat and Amherst’s victory. For the next month, King George, the Lords of Trade and Pitt discussed what action they should now take. On September 18, the decision was made. Major General Abercromby was recalled to London and Major General Amherst was appointed the new commander in chief of the King’s forces in North America. On September 30, Pownall wrote to Pitt about the economic realities facing Massachusetts:

This Province for many years has been the Frontier and the Advanced Guard to all the Colonies against the Enemy in Canada. This Province has always stood its own Ground and Defended and Preserved his Majesty’s Dominions. It was once the Channel of all the European Trade to America and the Mart of all the American Colonies. But the heavy Bur’thens which its Trade and labour sustain’d to support this Service, and the Consequences of its Taxes has turned the Channel of this Trade to New York, Philadelphia & Rhode Island . . . those of the Inhabitants which border upon the Surrounding Colonies see their Neighbors at ease and unincumbered while themselves are loaded and almost sinking under their burthens . . . The Province must be restored by some recompense or reimbursements . . . Without such the Province will not only be unable to exert any further such like Efforts.[27]

Coincidently, four days later he addressed the House; it was the first day of their new term.

His Majesty hath recommended to Parliament the Services you engaged in [for] the Year 1756; and your will see they have accordingly granted Twenty Seven Thousand three Hundred and eighty Pounds . . . to Reimburse you the Expences you incurred, in supplying Provisions to the troops that Campaign.[28]

With the campaign season coming to an end and Amherst officially the commander in chief as of November 1, Pownall wrote to Pitt regarding “the Nature of the Danger which the principal Towns of the Colonies are exposed to—and Nature of the Defense with which they are prepared to resist an Attempt.” He specifically described the strengths and weaknesses of Castle Island and with the support of General Amherst requested that “an Independent Company of [One] Hundred and Fifty men including Officers, clothed, paid and victuall’d by the Crown”[29] be assigned to the fort. He also informed Pitt that he had sent out four surveying parties to explore the northern country: the first party was to survey the Penobscot River to its falls, the second party was to survey the divide between the Penobscot River and the Chaudiere River and then make their way downtime Chaudiere to the French settlements, the third party was to survey the land between the Kennebec River and the Penobscot Rivers and the fourth party was to survey the Connecticut River to its source.[30]

On December 8, Pownall wrote to Pitt acknowledging the Ministry’s request that he draw up a plan of operations for the next year. He was to present it to General Amherst and if approved, forward it to London. The plan Pitt received from Pownall late in January of 1759 would be for the most part the one that Gen. James Wolfe would follow five months later. The plan involved locking down the St. Lawrence River so no French reinforcements or supplies could reach Quebec, using the island of Orleans five miles from Quebec as their base of operations, safeguarding the New England coastline with frigates against French retaliation and taking Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point so that the southern corridor to Quebec would also be closed.[31]

As 1758 came to a close, Thomas Pownall had much to celebrate. He oversaw the passage of a Militia Act, recruited, deployed and provisioned the colony’s militia, increased the housing capacity of Castle Island, created a plan for the defense of the colony, personally led an expedition to the Penobscot area, negotiated compromises between the military and the colony’s house of representative and designed a campaign strategy that General Wolfe would follow six months later when he attacked Quebec. Both the people of Massachusetts—except for those loyal to former governor Shirley—and Secretary of State Pitt believed that Pownall had the interests of the colony of Massachusetts and England at heart and that he would never waver from his number one priority—the defeat of the French.


[1]Thomas Pownall to Lord Loudoun, August 7, 1757, in Charles A. W. Pownall, Thomas Pownall, M.P., F.R.S. Governor of Massachusetts of Massachusetts and Author of the Letters of Junius (London: Henry Stevens, Sons and Stiles, 1805), 78.

[2]Thomas Pownall to John Pownall, August 16, 1757, Colonial Office Papers, National Archives, Kew, England.


[4]Pownall to the House of Representatives, August 16, 1757, Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts (Meriden, CT: Meriden Gravure Company, 1961), 34(1): 82-84.

[5]House of Representatives to Pownall, August 18, 1757, ibid., 34(1): 91.

[6]Gertrude Selwyn Kimball, ed., Correspondence of William Pitt: When Secretary of State with Colonial Governors and Military and Naval Commissioners in America (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1906), 1: 111-13.

[7]Pownall to the House of Representatives, November 24, 1757, Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 34(1): 138-140.

[8]House of Representatives to Pownall, December 16, 1757, ibid., 34(1): 207-09.

[9]Governor Shirley in December of 1754 convinced the House to build Barracks on Castle-Island. Thomas Pownall to to Loudoun, November 4, 1757, LO4757/105, Loudoun Papers, North American Series, Huntington Library, San Marino California.

[10]Loudoun issued a similar threat to Albany and to Philadelphia in the fall of 1756 and New York City in the early fall of 1757; each time the city eventually acquiesced. Loudoun to the Duke of Cumberland, October 17, 1757, LO4838.

[11]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, December 1, 1757, 34(1): 159-64.

[12]“Loudon to Pownall, November 15, 17, and December 6, 1757,” LO4838, LO4853, LO 9555; “8 December 1757,” Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 34(1): 182; Pownall to Loudoun, December 15, 1757, LO5014/111; Loudoun to Pownall, December 19, 1757, LO5041; Loudoun to Pownall, December 26, 1757, LO5114/113.

[13]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, January 6, 1758, 34(2): 254-258.

[14]Ibid., January 19, 1758, 34(2): 284-86.

[15]Pownall to the House of Representatives, January 23, 1758, ibid., 297-99.

[16]Pownall to the House of Representatives, January 24, 1758, ibid., 299-305.

[17]Pownall to the House of Representatives, January 25, 1758, ibid., 305-08.

[18]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, March 2, 1758, ibid., 309-11.

[19]Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt, 1: 133-35.

[20]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, March 10, 1758, 34(2): 331-34.

[21]Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt,1: 203-04.

[22]James Abercromby to Pownall, March 22, 1758, in The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1890), 4: 129.

[23]A Proclamation by Governor Pownall, March 23, 1758, ibid., 4: 139.

[24]Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt,1: 264-66.

[25]House of Representatives to Pownall, June 15, 1758, Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 35: 63-69.

[27]Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt,1: 358-63.

[28]“Pownall to the House of Representatives, 4 October 1758,” Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 35:72-74.

[29]Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt,1: 462-66.

[30]It is likely that seventeen years later, Benedict Arnold would use some of the surveys on his march to Quebec.

[31]Kimball, Correspondence of William Pitt, 1: 492-94.

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