Shays Rebellion

Shay’s Rebellion

(Excerpt from Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, by Thomas Franklin Waters:)

“The immediate cost of the Revolutionary War in life and permanent disability from wounds and in the vast expense of eight years of warfare was a great price for the liberty that was gained at last. But the true significance of the mighty struggle was yet to be realized. An oppressive volume of debt was every where in evidence. Massachusetts owed £250,000 to the Revolutionary soldiers, and her share of the Federal war debt was £1,500,000. Every town was deeply involved and every man owed more or less.

“Before the war, Ipswich had enjoyed a flourishing trade in fish with the West Indies, but her vessels had been driven from the sea and now, there was no market for the products of the fisheries. The British government refused to allow the importation of American fish into the West Indies under any flag, imposed a prohibitive duty on whale oil, and forbade any but English ships bringing American goods to British ports. There was a great scarcity of specie and the paper currency was sadly depreciated.

“The popular unrest assumed a violent phase when delegates from fifty towns in Hampshire County met in Convention at Hatfield on August 22, 1786. In a lengthy deliverance, it formulated the sources of the popular discontent: defects in the form of government, excessive salaries to public officials, the existence of the Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace, unjust methods of taxation, the lack of paper money, etc.; and recommended that the towns in the County petition the Governor to call the General Court together immediately, that these grievances might be redressed.

“Middlesex County held a Convention on the following day. On the last Tuesday of August, 1786 some 1500 insurgents, fully armed, assembled at Northampton, took possession of the Court House and forcibly prevented the sitting of the Courts. During the next week, 300 insurgents interposed a line of bayonets to the entrance of the Judges at Worcester and compelled an adjournment of the Court.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery: Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, 1787

“Daniel Shays, who had been a Captain in the War, came to the front and the uprising that soon became general in the western Counties has since been known as “Shays Rebellion.” “Governor Bowdoin was obliged eventually to summon the militia. In January, 1787, an army of 4400 men, rank and file, was ordered to rendezvous on Jan. 19 near Boston for 30 days service.

“Essex County furnished 500 men, including 25 from Ipswich. Col. Nathaniel Wade commanded one of the regiments and Robert Farley served as Aide-de-Camp to the Commander, General Benjamin Lincoln. A march was made to Worcester and Springfield in weather of great severity. “

On February 2-4, General Lincoln continued west from Worcester with 3,000 men through a blinding snowstorm to the rebel’s camp at Petersham, where they had raided local merchants for supplies. Many of the rebellion’s leaders fled into Vermont and New Hampshire and were never brought to justice.

Meanwhile, another contingent about 120 rebels crossed the border from New York and marched on Stockbridge in Berkshire County on February 27, again plumaging the shops of merchants. Brigadier John Ashley of Sheffield mustered a force of some 80 men from the 1st Berkshire County Militia Regiment defeated the rebels in Sheffield. Thirty rebels and many soldiers were wounded, two killed on each side.

To Samuel Adams, the rebellion was an affront to the men who had fought and died in the American Revolution, and believed the new government would be threatened by anarchy. In his words, “Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” On the other hand Governor Bowdoin was concerned that executions for treason would enrage rebellious factions.

Although several hundred rebels were indicted, most were pardoned under a general amnesty. John Bly and Charles Rose, who were found guilty of robbery and treason, were hanged on December 6, 1787. Bly’s last words were, “Merciful God… look on us, miserable offenders, with an eye of pity, through the merits of thy dear Son, who promised a blessing to the dying Thief.”

Daniel Shays returned from hiding in the woods after he was pardoned in 1788, but was so publicly vilified that he moved to New York state, where he died in poverty in 1825. The shock of the rebellion and the underlying economic hardships resulted in demands for a stronger Federal government.

Marker on Sheffield-Egremont Rd. in southern Berkshire County


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