Dr. Warren’s Crucial Informant

Critical Thinking

April 18, 2024
by J. L. Bell 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

On April 18, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, leader of the Patriots still inside Boston, gathered information about a possible British army march from many sources. Nineteenth-century accounts spoke of hints coming in from a groom in the governor’s stable, a boy who held horses for redcoat officers, a woman who employed a soldier’s wife as a maid, sailors gossiping about boats being prepared.[1] But an early chronicler said that Warren turned to one source of intelligence in particular. This article proposes to identify that person by tracing two statements back to the same Patriot insider and by searching newspaper and vital records.

Warren’s crucial informant was first described by the Rev. Jeremy Belknap (1744–1798), minister of Dover, New Hampshire. Already collecting information for his History of New-Hampshire (published 1784–1792), Belknap kept notes on the events unfolding around him. In the fall of 1775 he visited the Continental Army camps surrounding Boston to check on the New Hampshire troops and observe the siege. He wrote a diary during that trip, published in 1860 by the Massachusetts Historical Society.[2]

A few days after returning to Dover, on October 25, Belknap added an entry to his travel diary:

Mr. Waters informed me, that the design of the regular troops, when they marched out of Boston the night of April 18, was discovered to Dr. Warren by a person kept in pay for that purpose. . . .
These circumstances [a long list of clues that the British army was about to march] being communicated to Dr. Warren, he applied to the person who had been retained, and got intelligence of their whole design; which was to seize [Samuel] Adams and [John] Hancock, who were at Lexington, and burn the stores at Concord. Two expresses were immediately despatched thither, who passed by the guards on the Neck just before a sergeant arrived with orders to stop passengers. Another messenger went over Charlestown Ferry; so that the alarm was given several hours before the troops arrived at Lexington.[3]

The express rider who left Boston by the Neck was William Dawes, Jr. The rider who crossed the Charles River to Charlestown was Paul Revere.[4] Gen. Thomas Gage had indeed ordered his troops to destroy “the stores at Concord.” (Those orders said nothing about Adams and Hancock in Lexington, though.)[5]

Despite the account in Belknap’s diary being largely accurate, historians have tended to treat it with skepticism. By October, after all, everyone in New England already knew how riders had carried the alarm out of Boston and where the British march ended. Although the minister’s journal has been available in print since before the Civil War, almost no book has discussed the “person kept in pay” by Dr. Warren and his colleagues.

David Hackett Fischer used Belknap’s statement in Paul Revere’s Ride, but only partially. He accepted that Dr. Warren “applied to” his best-placed source late on April 18 after hearing from other sources. But Fischer set aside the detail about “a person kept in pay” as “merely a rumor he heard in the American camp” and instead focused on the possibility that that source was the British commander’s wife. That theory, while very dramatic, is untenable.[6] Walter R. Borneman’s analysis in American Spring works through Fischer’s analysis skeptically but does not attempt to identify the informant.[7] In his 2014 article for this website, Derek W. Beck discussed Belknap’s journal entry and concluded, “Mr. Waters’s statement sounds like an American concoction.”[8]

Earlier American authors may have been reluctant to explore the Belknap source because of distaste for the idea of the Patriots bribing an informant. It was more reassuring to stress the unity and perspicacity of Bostonians watching the soldiers prepare. Anyone who wanted reasons to be skeptical about the October 1775 account could easily find gaping questions. Who was this otherwise unidentified “Mr. Waters” who spoke to Belknap? How could the minister have come across inside information about the Boston Patriots’ intelligence effort when he was seventy miles away in New Hampshire? Was this statement anything more than well-traveled camp gossip festooned with claims that could never be confirmed?

To make this source into useful evidence, we need to answer these questions: Who was Belknap’s acquaintance, the mysterious “Mr. Waters”? Did this man really have connections in Boston’s Patriot leadership? And do those answers move us any closer to identifying the “person who had been retained”?

The search for “Mr. Waters” leads to Josiah Waters (1721-1784), a painter by training who became a respected merchant in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He joined the congregation of the Old South Meeting House at age twenty. He was elected to several town offices, including constable, fence viewer, clerk of the market, and finally warden, one of the most respected jobs—in charge of enforcing the Sabbath laws. In 1747 Waters joined the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, an old private club for men aspiring to be militia officers, and filled many roles in that organization.[9]

Also in 1747, Josiah and his wife Abigail had a son. Josiah, Jr. (1747-1805), grew up to work with his father in the firm of “Josiah Waters and Son” on Ann Street. In fact, the two men worked so closely together that it is often hard to distinguish the two. Josiah, Jr., also became a member of Old South and the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, and in 1770 he joined the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons.[10]

In 1768, Josiah Waters, Sr., invested in land in Maine, buying out partners to become the main proprietor of the Massabesick Plantation. That area included the modern towns of Alfred, Sanford, and what the family would modestly name Waterboro.[11]

As of 1770, Josiah Waters, Sr., was a captain in the Boston militia regiment. By 1772, Josiah, Jr., was his lieutenant. According to Mills and Hicks’s British and American Register for the Year 1775, as war approached the regiment’s major was the senior Waters’s brother-in-law Thomas Dawes. The adjutant, or administrative officer, was his nephew William Dawes, Jr., who was also Thomas Dawes’s nephew. In 1773 both Captain Waters and Adjutant Dawes were asking the Boston selectmen if they could use Faneuil Hall for militia training.[12]

When war broke out on April 19, 1775, the elder Waters sent his “wife, children & maids” out of Boston the next day. Briefly “shut in” the town, he got out as soon as he could.[13] Working as a gentleman volunteer, Waters took on the job of laying out a fort in Roxbury to keep the British army from marching south over the Neck. In his memoirs, Gen. William Heath listed “Capt. Josiah Waters of Boston” among the men “very serviceable in this line.”[14] In September, Samuel Adams wrote of hearing about “the ingenuity of [Henry] Knox and Waters in planning the celebrated works at Roxbury.”[15] Eventually Josiah, Jr., helped his father with those fortifications.

That October, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress started organizing an army for the coming year. Strengthening the artillery regiment with more engineers was a major priority. John Adams was another fan of the Waters family, and on October 21 he sent his friend and colleague James Warren a letter introducing a couple of Pennsylvanians visiting Massachusetts:

I could wish them as well as other Strangers introduced to H. Knox and young Josiah Waters, if they are any where about the Camp. These young Fellows if I am not mistaken would give strangers no contemptible Idea of the military Knowledge of Massachusetts in the sublimest Chapters of the Art of War.[16]

Earlier in the same month Adams wrote to Gen. John Thomas asking about Josiah, Sr.’s work as a military engineer, among other men. But Thomas wrote back: “I Apprehend [Waters] has no great Understanding, in Either [gunnery or fortifications], any further than Executing or overseeing works, when Trased out, and by my Observations, we have Several Officers that are Equal or exceed him.”[17]

Likewise, by November 2 General Washington was writing candidly to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, “I sincerely wish this Camp could furnish a good Engineer.” The only man Washington named as worthy in that field was “Mr Knox a Gentleman of Worcester.”[18] He was not impressed by Josiah Waters, father or son.

In that fall of 1775 it probably became clear to the Waterses that they had not won over the commander-in-chief. They were unlikely to gain appointments in the reorganized army, at least at the ranks they wanted. But they still had the respect of New Englanders like Heath and the Adams cousins. They took a new assignment helping to fortify New London. As shown by how Connecticut calculated the older man’s pay, he started that work on November 25. Josiah, Jr., was his assistant, naturally.[19]

Before heading south to New London, I posit, Josiah, Jr., traveled north in October to take stock of the family property. The Massabesick Plantation sat on the western edge of the district of Maine. Just over the border in New Hampshire was the town of Dover, home of the Rev. Jeremy Belknap. The minister’s later correspondence shows that he exchanged letters with Boston clergymen through Josiah Waters, Jr., who became a friend and collected orders for the history of New Hampshire.[20]

Belknap was too smart a man to spend time writing down a story of what had happened in Boston on April 18 unless he had good reason to believe his source was reliable. He must have known that “Mr. Waters” was from Boston and had links to the Patriot movement. That description is a match for Josiah Waters, Jr.—a Boston militia officer; cousin to Dawes, key figure in smuggling artillery out of occupied Boston and Dr. Warren’s first alarm rider; respected by Adams and other leaders of the movement; entrusted with designing fortifications.

Furthermore, Josiah Waters, Jr., remained active in local self-defense. By the mid-1780s he was colonel of the Boston militia regiment. People who knew him in the decades after the Revolutionary War recalled that he was particularly interested in preserving military lore. One of the first books about the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, which he served as treasurer, stated:

He collected many facts, for a history, but never published them. The manuscript is lost. The older members used to speak of it as containing important facts, as well as anecdotes of members, now preserved in the imperfect recollection of survivors.[21]

More specifically, a witness recalled hearing Waters tell stories about how Dr. Warren learned about the British army mission and sent off messengers. The militia colonel spoke to a young man from Roxbury named Joseph Curtis (1772–1858), who passed those stories to his daughter Catherine Parker Curtis (1801–1878), who saw them published in the New England Historic and Genealogical Register in 1853.

The Curtis account described a particularly useful informant about the British march on April 18:

The Americans obtained this news, through an individual by the name of Jasper, an Englishman, a gunsmith by trade, whose shop was in Hatter’s Square; he worked for the British, but was friendly to the rebels; a sergeant major quartered in his family and made a confidant of him, telling him all their plans. Jasper repeated the same to Col. Waters, who made it known to the Committee of Safety.[22]

Is this story about a sergeant major credible? The British army did not formalize the duties of a sergeant major until the late 1790s, but it was already the designation of a unit’s senior sergeant. No non-commissioned officer would have been privy to General Gage’s whole plan, but by late on the afternoon of April 18 a senior sergeant may well have known about some crucial variables. The expedition would leave Boston by water instead of by marching over the Neck, indicating a destination to the northwest rather than Worcester. Those troops were preparing to travel farther and stay out longer than the training marches of previous weeks.

Significantly, a sergeant would not have known about the ultimate goal of the march, which General Gage’s orders specified was to destroy provincial military stores in Concord, including artillery pieces and gunpowder. Dr. Warren evidently did not gain that knowledge on April 18. Instead, he sent Dawes and Revere only as far as Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams. Those riders decided on their own to proceed further west toward what would turn out to be the expedition’s real goal.

In one important respect, the 1853 source deviates from what we know about the Lexington alarm. The Curtis account stated:

The intelligence, that the British intended to go out to Lexington, was conveyed over Boston Neck to Roxbury by Ebenezer Dorr, of Boston, a leather dresser, by trade, who was mounted on a slow jogging horse, with saddle bags behind him, and a large flapped hat upon his head, to resemble a countryman on a journey. Col. Josiah Waters . . . followed on foot, on the sidewalk at a short distance from him, until he saw him safely past all the sentinels.

As stated earlier, eighteenth-century sources are clear that the Patriot express rider over the Boston Neck was William Dawes, Jr. The Curtis family tradition may well have muddled that man’s surname with Ebenezer Dorr, who came from their town of Roxbury and became prominent in the early China trade; the Yankee pronunciations of “Dawes” and “Dorr” are similar. The other details of this account hold up. Dawes was indeed a tanner, or leather dresser, before the war. His horse was slower than Revere’s. The younger Waters, as a first cousin to Dawes, might well have watched anxiously to see him “safely past all the sentinels.”

Combining these two reports traceable to Josiah Waters suggests that the Patriots’ paid informant on April 18, the man Dr. Warren consulted to be certain about the British plan, was this man Jasper. Waters may have overstated Jasper’s importance because he himself was involved in collecting that information and conveying it to “the Committee of Safety,” headed by Warren. However, Belknap’s notes from 1775 do not suggest that Waters portrayed himself at the center of events, simply as someone in the know—and he certainly was close to the Patriot leadership.

Accepting the Waters sources as largely reliable brings on another question: Who was the “individual by the name of Jasper”? That man was almost certainly William Jasper, a maker of cutlery and surgical instruments born in Britain—not a “gunsmith,” but someone who might well have made and repaired weapons for the royal army in 1775.

Jasper moved from Britain to North America soon after the French and Indian War, advertising in the August 29, 1763, New-York Gazette.

William Jasper, Cutler,
Just arrived from England, is now settled in New-York, near the Fly, Queen-Street, near Burling’s and Beekman’s Slips, next Door to Mr. Murray’s, takes this Method to acquaint the Publick,
THAT he makes all Kinds of Surgeons Instruments, and grinds and cleans them; makes Razors, Penknives, Scissars, and all Kind of Edge Tools, which he also grinds; and makes Cutlery in general; makes Buckles of the best Block-Tin, wrought and plain Men’s Gold and Silver Ware; Pinking-Irons of all Sorts; Sadlers Tools; Fret-Saws; Hatters Knives; likewise draws Teeth with great Ease and Safety, being accustomed to it for many Years. He likewise has brought over a Quantity of Copper and Tin Hard-Ware. All Persons that please to favour him with their Custom, may depend upon being served in the best and cheapest Manner.

William Jasper moved to Boston, where he married Ann Newman on June 29, 1768.[23] This couple appears on the list of marriage intentions read from all the pulpits, but it is not clear where they actually wed. Likewise, there is no record of the baptism of their children, though later records say they had some. One possible explanation is that the Jasper family worshipped in one of Boston’s Baptist Meeting-Houses, whose records have not been published.[24]

The Curtis story said Jasper the gunsmith had a shop “in Hatter’s Square,” now known as Creek Square. That was near the center of Boston, on the Mill Creek that defined the edge of the North End. Most likely Jasper rented a home and workshop because he does not show up in recorded deeds. Weapons collectors have found William Jasper’s name on a couple of blades possibly made in the late 1700s, such as a spontoon in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum.[25]

As a native of Britain, renting space to a British soldier’s family, perhaps doing business with the British military, William Jasper could well have appeared reliable enough to an army sergeant to be a confidant. But the cutler did not become a Loyalist, leaving town in the evacuation of March 1776.[26] Instead, the next time William Jasper appeared in a newspaper was this notice in the August 8, 1782, Continental Journal:

JASPER, Surgeon Instrument Maker in Boston, has lately invented and compleated an Instrument for drawing Teeth perpendicular, which was never done before, for which if he can have a patentee from Congress, it shall be universally known, if not, let it die in oblivion.

There was no statutory process for the American government to grant patents in 1782, and the Confederation Congress had a lot of other business to handle.

The Continental Journal of November 23, 1786, reported that “Mr. William Jasper, Cutler,” had died in Boston. Anna Jasper administered William’s estate, relying on two men to complete the paperwork since she could not sign her name. William Jasper’s property, evaluated at only £24.6.6, included metal-working tools, some old books and pictures, and household utensils, but no real estate. Probate judge Oliver Wendell signed off on the administration, which mentioned children without specifying their names and ages.[27]

While the sparse record of William Jasper’s life in America is far from decisive, it shows that he could have been the Patriots’ crucial source on British army preparations in April 1775, as Josiah Waters described to different people, first as early that October and then decades later. More importantly, it lends credence to Belknap’s statement in 1775 that the Boston Patriots relied not just on volunteers but on a paid informant—just like other groups gathering intelligence throughout history.



[1] Nineteenth-century accounts: Mary Caroline Crawford, Old Boston Days and Ways (Boston: Little, Brown, 1913), 118–21. Samuel A. Drake, Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1873), 243, and Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1874), 354. David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 93–4.

[2] Belknap diary: Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings (hereafter MHSP), 4 (1860), 77–86. Belknap was the principal founder of the M.H.S. after he moved to Boston.

[3] “Mr. Waters informed”: MHSP, 4:85–6.

[4] Dawes and Revere: “Letter from Paul Revere to Jeremy Belknap, circa 1798,” www.masshist.org/database/99.

[5] Allen French, General Gage’s Informers: New Material Upon Lexington and Concord, Benjamin Thompson as Loyalist and the Treachery of Benjamin Church, Jr. (Ann Arbor, MI University of Michigan Press, 1932), 29–30.

[6] Fischer’s analysis: Paul Revere’s Ride, 96–7, 387. This argument rested on equating Warren’s source with a woman who had contacted Samuel Adams days earlier with different information and presenting the Gages’ marriage as irreparably damaged even though they remained together and had two more children.

[7] Borneman’s analysis: American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown, 2014), 124–9.

[8] Beck’s analysis: “Dr. Joseph Warren’s Informant,” allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/dr-joseph-warrens-informant/. This article was valuable in gathering sources and pointing to holes in the theory about General Gage’s wife. In the end Beck decided that Warren gathered crucial information from his own first-hand observations. See also Beck, Igniting the American Revolution: 1773–1775 (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2015), 113.

[9] Josiah Waters, Sr.: Oliver Ayer Roberts, History of the Military Company of the Massachusetts, Now Called The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, 1637-1888 (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1897), 2:47–8.

[10] Josiah Waters, Jr.: Roberts, Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, 2:161–2.

[11] Waters land in Maine: The Maine Historical Society has digitized the Waters account book and map, digitalmaine.com/hist_docs/13/.

[12] Using Faneuil Hall: Records Relating to the Early History of Boston (also known as Boston Town Records), volume 23, “Selectmen’s Minutes” (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1893), 167.

[13] Waters leaving Boston: “Sarah Winslow Deming journal, 1775,” www.masshist.org/database/1898. Waters’s sister Abigail married James Thompson, matching this source’s mention of “Mr. Waters” having a “brother Thomson.”

[14] “very serviceable”: Heath’s Memoirs of the American War (New York: A. Wessels Company, 1904), 30.

[15] “the ingenuity”: Samuel Adams to Elbridge Gerry, September 26, 1775, in The Writings of Samuel Adams, Harry Alonzo Cushing, editor (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), 3:227.

[16] “I could wish them”: John Adams to James Warren, October 21, 1775, in The Papers of John Adams, vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 224–5.

[17] “I Apprehend”: John Thomas to John Adams, October 24, 1775, Papers of John Adams, 3:239–41.

[18] “I sincerely wish”: George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., November 2, 1775, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 289–90.

[19] Waters fortifying New London: Frances Manwaring Caulkins, History of New London, Connecticut (New London: n.p., 1852), 520. American Archives, Peter Force, editor, 4th series (Washington, DC: U.S. Congress, 1837-53), 4:971.

[20] Waters and Belknap: “Belknap Papers” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, series 6, volume 4 (1891), 199, 210, 232, 263, 268, 272–3, and so on; and series 5, volume 2 (1877), 103, 199, 239, 488, and so on. Hamilton Andrews Hill, History of the Old South Church (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1890), 2:254. It is also possible that the senior Waters was Belknap’s informant in Dover in 1775, but that does not affect this essay’s argument, given the closeness of father and son.

[21] “He collected”: Roberts, Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, 2:161.

[22] “The Americans”: C.C. [Catherine Parker Curtis], “Revolutionary Incidents,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register (hereafter NEHGR), 7 (1853), 139.

[23] William Jasper marriage: Records Relating to the Early History of Boston (also known as Boston Town Records), volume 30, “Boston Marriages from 1752 to 1809” (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1903), 428.

[24] Later records: On April 10, 1791, Nancy Jasper married Joseph Jones in the Rev. Thomas Baldwin’s Second Baptist Meeting-house. The next year, on March 25, 1792, another Baptist minister, the Rev. Samuel Stillman, married Mary Jasper to John Dumaresque Dyer. Those women might have been the daughters or the widow and daughter of the cutler William Jasper. Boston Town Records, 30: 115, 117.

[25] spontoon: worcester.emuseum.com/objects/48713/spontoon. See also Al Benting, For Liberty I Live (New York: Page Publishing, 2019), 76–7.

[26] Jasper during the war: No one with the surname Jasper is listed in the comprehensive Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, indicating how rare that name was in colonial New England. A William Jasper was among the Americans taken prisoner on the Boston-based privateer Rising States on April 15, 1777, and held in Forton Prison in Britain that December. NEHGR, 33:36; “List of American Prisoners Confined in Forton Prison Decr: 29th: 1777,” January 8, 1778, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 11:888-91. There is no indication this is the same man, however. A different William Jasper is remembered for his military service in South Carolina before dying in 1779.

[27] Jasper probate file: Suffolk County Probate file 18795, Suffolk County, MA: Probate File Papers database at AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2017–2019.


  • This is a great article demonstrating that historians’ further research can add new learnings even to the most chronicled events!

    1. Thank you! I grew up in Middlesex County during the Bicentennial, so I definitely thought of the Battle of Lexington and Concord as among America’s “most chronicled events.” I get a thrill every time I come across another new detail.

  • Reads like a spy novel, I love that some people previously unknown eventually get their due in forming this great nation. There’s a kind of justice in it. Thank you for all the work that went into this article.

  • Excellent article and a most interesting story, Mr. Bell! I love this kind of meticulous detective style research in writing articles and books. Well done!

  • Very interesting article, John. Thanks. I went back and reread Derek Beck’s view that there was no Warren informer. Your thorough analysis certainly makes a case for Jasper. But it strikes me that your two views are not mutually exclusive. Warren could have both reached the conclusion through his open observation, then had it confirmed by Jasper. Or the other way around. Yes, that would modify Derek’s view, but still seems like a reasonable possibility to me. Good work! Thanks again. I join you in rejecting Mrs Gage, the most beautiful woman in the revolution.

    1. We all have a bias toward believing that our own contribution to an enterprise is crucial, even while we acknowledge other people’s contributions as well. It’s easy to understand why Josiah Waters, Jr., could believe that William Jasper, who was apparently a source he developed, tipped the scales in Dr. Warren’s thinking. But the doctor himself may not have perceived Jasper as more important than any other source of information. Waters thought Jasper was the last source Warren consulted, but did he really know? We can’t be sure, but the evidence that Jasper was giving info to the Patriots seems solid.

  • A very nice piece of research. I seem to remember reading that Gage sent his wife back to England soon after Lexington and that they were “estranged” from that point on. Is that apocryphal? Coincidental? If conditions in Boston were heating up, one could imagine him going that for routine safety, for example.

Leave a Reply

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