Gen. Thomas Gage arrived in Boston in April, 1774, having been appointed by the Crown to replace Gov. Hutchinson. One of his initial moves was implementation of the Intolerable Acts, which closed the port of Boston and placed appointments of justices for local courts in his hands. The Justices of the Court of General Sessions congratulated Gov. Gage on his safe arrival and denounced any “Riots, Routs Combinations and unwarrantable Resolves.”
In Worcester, 40 miles west of Boston, the town had already begun the Revolution. On January 3, in response to the Boston Tea Party, thirty-one men founded a Society to put forward radical candidates for public office. While the town’s Committees of Correspondence responded to Gage’s arrival with an appeal to sever all connections with Great Britain, members of the “American Political Society” pledged to arm themselves with “two Pounds of Gun Powder each,12 Flints and Lead” on July 4, 1774, exactly two years before the Declaration of Independence. An outraged General Gage wrote, “In Worcester, they keep no Terms, openly threaten Resistance by Arms, have been purchasing Arms, preparing them, casting Ball, and providing Powder, and threaten to attack any Troops who dare to oppose them….the flames of sedition spread universally throughout the country beyond conception.”
By the end of August, thousands of patriot farmers, laborers and mechanics had prevented courts in Great Barrington and Springfield from opening under the new Massachusetts Government Act. On the morning of September 6, over four thousand men from 37 militias throughout Worcester County, a vast area extending from the border of Rhode Island to New Hampshire, marched into the the town of Worcester, the county seat. When the Crown-appointed court officials arrived to begin court proceedings, barricades had been erected, prevented them from opening the courthouse doors. The Committee of Correspondence, which was meeting across the street in the home of Timothy Bigelow, drafted a resolution of compromise, which was rejected by the leaders of the 37 militias.
While each company stood in formation, the heads of the militias now headed to the house of Timothy Paine and demanded that he resign his appointment to the court in an address to each company. In the mid-afternoon, the dozen court officials emerged from Daniel Heywood’s tavern, hat in hand, and signed papers disavowing British authority and resigning their positions, repeating the disavowal to each of the assembled militias. Within a few weeks, patriot militias shut down courts in every county outside of Boston.
The Powder Alarm
On September 1, 1774 a rumor circulated throughout western Massachusetts that Boston had been destroyed by the British, who were heading west destroying and killing everything in their path after capturing the Powder House in Charlestown. Several thousand countrymen from Worcester and surrounding areas advanced to Cambridge, some armed only with sticks. All along the way, men rushed forward, some on foot, some on horseback, while women and children stayed busy making bullets and baking biscuits, not knowing whether they should ever see their husbands and fathers again. It was not until the men reached Cambridge that word spread that it was a false alarm. Read the entire story.
Timothy Bigelow, who worked as a blacksmith in Worcester, served on the town’s Committee of Correspondence in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. On October 4, 1774, twenty-one men at Worcester town meeting gave the following instructions to Bigelow, who had been selected as the town’s representative to the Provincial Congress:
“You are to consider the people of this province absolved, on their part, from the obligation therein contained, and to all intents and purposes reduced to a state of nature; and you are to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix , a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people for their existence as such, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure. The exigency of our public affairs leaves us no other alternative from a state of anarchy or slavery.“
On February 24, 1775, the Provincial Congress counted its available armaments: “There are in the Country thirty-eight Field pieces and Nineteen Companies of Artillery most of which are in Worcester, a few at Concord, and a few at Watertown,” along with perhaps a hundred barrels of powder in Concord. On September 21, the Worcester County Convention reorganized the county’s militias into seven regiments and requested that each of the 37 towns enlist one third of the men between the ages of 16 and 60 “be ready to act at a minute’s warning.” These actions in the rural Massachusetts counties placed civil and military power in the hands of the populace.
Eventually, General Gage chose to send soldiers to capture the armaments from Concord, rather than making the 40 mile trek to Worcester. What followed was the “Shot heard around the world,” and united the radical militants west of Boston with the hesitant resistance in wealthier communities closer to the city.
Some of the same men, disillusioned and without their promised pay, revolted against the new state government in a short and doomed war known as Shays’ Rebellion. The value of the Continental currency they had been promised was almost worthless, about four thousand dollars in paper money to one dollar in silver or gold.
On September5, 1786, About 200 former Patriot militiamen from surrounding towns paraded into Worcester, which was scheduled to hold court. Armed with muskets and clubs, they took up a position outside the courthouse, and were determined to allow no judge to pass, taking a similar tactic to what they had used a dozen years before. Judge Artemas Ward advanced until the bayonets were pressing against his stomach. He ordered the doors to be opened, but seeing more armed men inside, be began a long and defiant oration, which mercifully ended in a rainstorm, “May the sun never shine on rebellion in Massachusetts,” he ended. The court adjourned and the mob went home.
In November the militants again marched on the Worcester courthouse, where they were met by Sheriff Greenleaf. “If you think court costs are too high,” taunted the sheriff, “I’ll hang every one of you gentlemen with the greatest of pleasure without charge.” In December, the men marched to Springfield, where they joined the company of Daniel Shays. Approaching the town’s arsenal, they found it defended by about 900 Hampshire County militiamen. A cannon fired into the middle of their ranks, leaving several of the insurgents dead. Shays fled to Vermont, and the second revolt of the Worcester militants mercifully ended. Read the entire story.
*Sources and suggested reading:
- Thomas Franklin Waters: “The Breach with Great Britain”
- The Literary Diary of Eliza Stiles Volume 1, 1769-1776
- A People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael
- The Spirit of ’74 by Ray Raphael
- Lexington, Worcester, and the American Revolution: Debunking the Myth of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” by Ray Raphael
- Worcester Town Records, 1753 to 1783
- All Things Liberty
- Worcester legends : incidents, anecdotes, reminiscences, etc.
- Shays’ Rebellion: A Massachusetts Farmer’s Account