Old Powderhouse Mill, The Minutemen & The American Revolution

The story of what happened at the Old Powderhouse Mill, Charlestown, MA (Charlestown then, Somerville now), in 1774, is a story waiting to be told. That incident, and the subsequent decisions and actions by colonial leaders resulting, may well have been the one most important event in the earliest days of U.S. history. It seems amazing that such an important detail has almost entirely been left out of American Revolutionary history lore.

As to what happened….

Just after dawn on the morning of September 1, 1774, 260 British soldiers of the 4th Regiment, rode up the Mystic River, landed on the west side of the city at Ten Hills, marched up to The Old Powderhouse Mill, and seized 250 half kegs of gun powder from the mill.


Route British soldiers used from the Mystic River to The Powderhouse Mill


Above is an 1852 map, drawn from an actual survey by Martin Draper, Jr., by order of the town. Though the town was settled in 1630, it wasn't until 1842 that it was incorporated as Somerville.
In this map, you can trace the movement of the British troops from Ten Hills to Powderhouse Mill. (I purposely left it un-illustrated so you can follow it with your own eye and imagination).

Thanks to Evelyn Battinelli, Secretary of the Somerville Museum, for providing the above map.
 
Old Powderhouse Mill and Grounds, Somerville, MA 
 
The consequence of the seizure of that powder was that the colonists were left without a way to defend themselves against a government they did not trust. They'd long felt a battle with the government was imminent.

Security taken away, they were anxious, vulnerable. But too late. There was nothing they could do. Worse yet, there was nothing they could have done had any of them known the seizure was taking place. They’d had no alarm system, no way of knowing in time to respond. No way of knowing, even, what was happening or what had happened. Thus, no response before or during the time the Brits were having off with the powder. Most alarming, even had they known the seizure was taking place, there was no way to rally enough people to do anything about it.

Now, to be clear, not all the colonists were angry about this, or even cared. Many were loyalists and didn’t see the big deal of Governor, General Gage, taking the powder. More to the point, roughly one third were for home rule, one third against, and one third did not care.
After all, those munitions did belong to the king, and they belonged to the king because the colonies belonged to the king. 

 


But still, those angered were ready to do battle. It was as if the king had kicked a bee’s nest. Among those angered were John Hancock and Samuel Adams.


The Mill and Plaque

Hancock was angered with the Brits because 6 years earlier they had seized one of his merchant ships, The Liberty, saying he illegally unloaded cargo without paying the required taxes. Hancock was  popular in Boston, and local citizens were angry and protested the seizure.

Then there was Samuel Adams,

Statue of Samuel Adams, Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA  

cousin to John Adams who would later become the 2nd president of the United States, that same Samuel Adams, of the he-who-stood-up at Boston’s Old South Meeting House on December 16, 1773, and said, "This meeting can do nothing more to save this country", after being told British authorities refused to move the three shiploads of taxed tea out of the harbor and send it back to Britain.

At those words, at that predetermined signal, amid whoops and hollers, the words, 
"To Griffin Wharf".
"Boston Harbor a tea-pot tonight".
Above the din and on the way out the door, John Hancock was heard to say,
"Let every man do what is right in his own eyes".

On their way to the harbor men painted their faces to disguise their identity. Once at the wharf they boarded the three ships filled with the tea, one of those being, The Beaver, and commenced to throwing 342 chests of the tea into the harbor. This act was called the Destruction of the Tea. Forty years later labeled The Boston Tea Party.

Tea Party Ship, Beaver (Replica), Boston Harbor, Boston, MA

The next morning people as far away as Dorchester could smell the aroma of tea.

Incensed by the destruction of the tea, the British government levied the Intolerable Acts on the city of Boston. The result of these Acts was that the harbor was closed. Shut off. Nothing in. Nothing out. Any kind of meetings and gatherings were prohibited. The city was stopped cold. On top of that, British soldiers were ordered quartered in the colonist’s homes (The Quartering Act). And these soldiers were not the sterling guys we might think of wearing sparkling red coats and marching in unison. Some were prisoners (it was either prison or the military for them). Others were conscripts. Still others were men who could not get a job and had joined the military as a last resort.

But while the British government prohibited meetings in Boston, they did not prohibit meetings in the outlying towns. In the town of Dedham, on September 6, 1774, Dr. Joseph Warren met with fellow Patriots and wrote the Suffolk Resolves at the Doty Tavern on what is now Court Street.  (This document, The Suffolk Resolves, was the groundwork for The Declaration of Independence).


They "Lighted the match that kindled the mighty
conflagration" of the American Revolution.
Dedham, Massachusetts.

With this as the backdrop to the taking of the powder from the Powderhouse, Governor Gage felt he had good reason to order the seizure at the mill. He was afraid that at any minute something, anything, might set off and ignite a conflict of mighty proportions, and he did not want to chance the consequences. Keeping the powder out of the hands of the colonists was the safe thing to do. However, the colonists didn't see it that way. As far as they were concerned, taking the powder was an act of aggression.

While Gage was feeling the undercurrent of what was taking place in the hearts and minds of the colonists, the British government had had enough of Boston colonists kicking up a storm each time things began quieting down. Boston had lead the colonies in notable events such as The Stamp Act Riot, later The Boston Massacre. Finally, the government had reached its level of intolerance. Thus, The Intolerable Acts. These acts took away Massachusetts self-government and historic rights. The consequence was an outraged Boston citizenry.

Paul Revere's pen and ink depiction of The Boston Massacre
Photo credit: Boston Public Library.

It is worth taking a step back to get a closer view of how things developed in the colonies, as a way to understand the British government’s intolerance of Boston and its citizen’s behavior. Each time a Boston action took place, similar action was followed immediately by other colonies. For instance, in the Boston Stamp Act Riot, several well dressed and well mannered men walked up to the stamp collector’s house, ransacked it, abused it, including cleaning out his wine collection, sending the stamp collector scurrying off to a British vessel in the harbor, never to be seen or heard from again. It was a relatively peaceful action, Conversely, other colonies actions were not quite as orderly. In fact, all too often those other colonies activities turned to mayhem. In New York, as one example, 2000 colonists rioted for four days at the governor’s house, burning two sleighs and a coach. Other colonies also experienced similar havoc. This must have driven the king mad.

And the Brits were especially aware that Adams and Hancock were responsible for all the trouble. They wanted to get them in the worst way, and neither was hiding out from Brits. Important to note that Adams and Hancock were wanted for high treason. Had they been arrested they were to be taken to London for trial and certain execution.

Even with this knowledge, Hancock and Adams continually stoked the flames of rebellion, and while Hancock financed the Revolution, Adams was the brains behind it. He was patient, always waiting for the next opportunity to rally the colonists. In one instance, after the crown set the tea tax, he said something to the effect: they cannot collect the taxes if there is no one to collect them. Thus Boston's Stamp Act Riot.

Also, just prior to the Boston Massacre taking place, Adams had warned British authorities that trouble was brewing and the consequences could be dire. Obviously they did not heed his warning. When he was not out and about leading the Sons of Liberty, late into nights he wrote article after article for flyers and other publications, keeping the flames burning.

A couple of samples:

"Nil desperandum, -- Never Despair. That is a motto for you and me. All are not dead; and where there is a spark of patriotic fire, we will rekindle it".

And for those colonists who would not, or did not participate in the activities, he let them know exactly where he, and they, stood:

"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen".

Easy to see why the British government had had as much of Adams, Hancock and the rest of the Bostonians, as they could take.

­At the same time, however, as angry as the colonists were, they realized how poorly prepared they were for any act of aggression set upon them. Their alarm system was hardly an alarm system at all. It took them nearly a week to respond to the seizure. It was not a system designed to respond quickly. What was the need, apparently?

After the seizure of the gunpowder at the mill, all that changed. Within the month leaders organized a third of the militias into companies to be continually ready to respond and march, while at the same time setting up a system sending out riders to the surrounding communities to sound alarms. This system was designed to go into effect at a minute’s notice. Here you have the origins of the Minutemen, 


which turned out to be extremely important 7 1/2 months later at Lexington and Concord. And it worked perfectly.

On April 18th, word got to Joseph Warren, Chairman of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, an organization designed to keep a watch on the British and to call out the militia when needed, of the Brits intention of marching into Concord, of arresting Adams and Hancock, and on the following morning seizing colonist’s arms in Concord.

Warren assigned Paul Revere to go to Concord to let Adams and Hancock know they were in danger. Adams and Hancock had been in meetings all day and had no idea of the Brits plans.


Paul Revere Statue
North End, Boston, MA

Before setting out, Revere assigned roughly forty of the Sons of Liberty to go to different locations to sound alarms, and warn colonists of the Brits intentions and movements. He also set a signal on the Old North Church, letting the colonists know the British were moving by sea.




Here is one of those lamps.

After dodging British soldiers along the way, Revere arrived at the house (now 35 Hancock St., Lexington, MA, built by John Hancock's grandfather),

Hancock-Clarke House, Lexington, MA

where Adams and Hancock were staying, and banging on the door, he was met with, 
“Keep down the noise”. 
“Noise,” Revere responded, “You will have noise enough before long, the Regulars are coming out.” (regulars was a term used back then, rather than the British).

After Revere delivered Warren’s message, Hancock brandishing a gun, jumped and was ready to charge out the door and take to the field and fight, to which Adams told him to put down the gun and stop making a fool of himself. Hancock did have a reputation for being excitable. But he was no fighter. Best leave that to others, as Adams suggested.

On his return from delivering the message, Revere was arrested and interrogated by the British. By this time he had been in the company of William Dawes and William Prescott. All three were arrested. Dawes and Prescott made their escape almost immediately. However, Revere was detained. The Brits let him go an hour later, after hearing gun shots and sensing their precarious position. They did not want to be weighted down by a prisoner.

But Revere was left without his horse. It took him all night to walk to Lexington, where he arrived in time to see the battle on the Lexington Green. It must have been satisfying for him to see the Brits met with a well organized militia, intent on turning them back. However, what followed was that shots were fired. Eight militiamen were killed, ten were wounded.

Lexington Green, Lexington, MA

From Lexington the Brits made their way to Concord and the Concord Bridge,

and Revolutionary War was on.

Minuteman Statue, Lexington Green, Lexington, MA

As a result of the Powerhouse alarm failure, and had not the new alarm system been set up, Lexington and Concord might well have been Powderhouse again with its slow response. What might have been the consequences of that?

In the end, the Brits seizure of the gun powder at Old Powderhouse Mill enabled the colonists to strategize and to be ready and prepared for any more acts of aggression by the untrusted British government. And ready they were, as history attests.


Thanks so much to Lawrence Willwerth, Retired Army and Somerville resident.
Without his help this article could not have been written.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent article and great pictures. I had no idea about this part of American history! Thanks for posting this and educating me!

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  2. Superb article. You do our great history justice and shed light on a lesser known story of patriotism.

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    1. Hey, thanks for checking out this article. It was a pleasure researching and writing it. I am glad you liked it.

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  3. Excellent article. I learned some things that I never knew about. There is so much history in Boston and surrounding areas- so amazing. Great job, Skip, thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for replying. It was a pleasure to write this article. Now you and many others know more about US history than was previously available. What fun to be able to contribute in this way.

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  4. You have truly captured the essence of this event, and all of its participants and significance; thanks, Skip!

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  6. Thisis a great story, and helps us see how Somerville played an important part in the birth of this nation.

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    1. Thanks, Alex. So glad you enjoyed it. Like you, I was really surprised to learn these details.

      Skip.

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