Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dr Samuel Prescott, Paul Revere, and the Courting Habits of New England Bachelors

   Before I embark on a discussion of Colonel Church and King Philip's War, I thought I would devote a post to one of a number of things that have always bothered me about what has become known as Paul Revere's Ride, thus forever diminishing the roles of the other riders that night who carried out the alarm to the countryside that the British Regulars were on the march to seize the cannon and other military stores at Concord. And, it has to do with Samuel Prescott who was supposedly "out a'courtin'" on the night of 18-19 April 1775.

   Dr Samuel Prescott, age 23, was a young Concord Physician from a family of physicians; his grandfather, father, and one of his three brothers were physicians. Samuel had no formal college education and became a physician through an apprenticeship to his father. The only thing known about his professional life was that he was a successful physician in Concord and, in April 1775, he must have been trying to establish himself as a member of his father's country practice. He was living at home, presumably with his parents and an unknown number of his seven siblings.

 There is no record of his participation in any patriot activities prior to April, 1775 and, indeed, outside of the night of 18-19 April 1775, there is very little known about any possible patriot activities. There is no record of his service in any militia unit or the Continental Army.

   Undoubtedly, Samuel Prescott's practice extended into Lexington and that is where he met 22 year old  Lydia Mulliken, who lived in her dead father's home just down the road from Munroe's Tavern with her widowed mother, four brothers, and two sisters. David Hackett Fisher describes Lydia as " a young woman much celebrated in Middlesex County for her grace and beauty. Many a hopeful swain had beaten a path to the Mulliken door, but Miss Lydia had pledged herself to Doctor Prescott,  and they had agreed to be married." Hackett Fisher provides no sourcing for this statement and I could not find the source of it. In any event, Nathaniel Mulliken, a clockmaker, had been a prosperous merchant who had died in 1767, but I doubt that the family he left was that well off.

   Paul Revere arrived at the Hancock-Clarke House where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were residing at about midnight on 19 April. After passing on Dr Warren's written message, Revere refreshed himself and his horse as the occupants of the house swung into action. A messenger was sent the two miles to Captain John Parker's farm and he responded to the Hancock-Clarke House. Another messenger was sent to Buckman's Tavern to get some of the minutemen there to act as couriers to rouse those on the outskirts of Lexington. Captain Parker then went to Buckman's and made it his headquarters. Finally, William Dawes arrived at the House with a duplicate message from Warren. (Although Dawes arrived after Revere he had to take the long route through Boston neck and bluff his way through the British sentries who had sealed off the entrances and exits from Boston to the south. In addition, he had a slower horse than Revere.)

It's a little less than a mile from Munroe's to Buckman's Tavern
     

   By the time Dawes arrived, there were very few horses available in Lexington, so Revere and Dawes mounted their tired mounts and set out westward for Concord at a slow pace over the Concord road. This was at about 1 AM. The two couriers were soon overtaken by Prescott who had been visiting his fiancee, Lydia, at the Mullikan house. Lydia's brother, Nathaniel, was a Minuteman and was among those who was alerted as a result of the message Revere delivered to Hancock and Adams. Prescott then mounted his horse and started back home to Concord, presumably to alert the town to the night's developments. It was only a few miles down the road that he overtook Revere and Dawes. When he caught up with them, in one of the most curious events of the night, the two couriers  spoke with him and, in Revere's words, found him to be " a high son of liberty." When Prescott pointed out that he knew almost everyone in Concord, the three decided that they would alarm every farm house, taking turns from one farm to another.

   The three proceeded in this manner until about three miles from Lexington Green they approached a series of farms owned by the Nelson family in the new town of Lincoln. Dawes and Prescott left the road to alert a farmhouse while Revere rode several hundred yards ahead. Suddenly Revere saw two horseman under a tree and believed them to be British officers. Revere turned in his saddle and shouted for Dawes and Prescott to come up to him, and when they arrived, he proposed to attack saying that "There are two, and we will have them." (Revere was never the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.) Dr Prescott turned the butt end of his riding crop and prepared to give battle. As they advanced, the two men suddenly became four British Regulars in full regimental uniform, armed with swords and pistols in their hands. At the command to stop, the three Patriot riders spurred their horses forward trying to force their way through the four British soldiers but it was a trap and there was no room to maneuver. They were captured. As they were being escorted into a pasture, Dr Prescott saw an opportunity to escape and urged Revere, who was riding next to him to "Put on." Prescott and Revere spurred their horses and ran for their lives. Prescott turned left, jumped a low stone wall, and disappeared into the dark woods. Revere's attempt at escape was unsuccessful but Dawes managed to get away in the confusion. Unfortunately, Dawes' tired horse panicked in the dark and stopped so abruptly that Dawes pitched forward out of the saddle. He tumbled to the ground losing his horse, his watch, and his composure. His tired and frightened horse ran off into the darkness, and riderless.Dawes decided that enough was enough and went limping back into Lexington, moving from shadow to shadow. He could hear the church bells sounding in alarm as he was moving.

  Dr. Prescott went on to what he knew was the tavern and home of Sgt Samuel Hartwell of the Lincoln Minuteman and woke him. He told Hartwell what had transpired and asked him to notify the Captain of the Lincoln militia. Prescott turned his horse westward towards his hometown and sometime around 2 AM rode into it in full gallop and warned the guard at the town house and those in the homes nearest it that the Regulars were out. The Concord minuteman began to assemble and by 3 AM the town bell was ringing to alert the rest of the citizens. At this point, Samuel met up with his 20 year old brother Abel, a member of the Concord militia, who was coming in from his farm. They agreed that each would go a different direction to further the warning.



   Prescott  turned northwest to Acton and then south to Stow expanding the alerted territory. He then returned to Concord. Later that day, he returned to Lexington and was one of the thirteen colonial physicians who treated the wounded from the various skirmishes that day. Prescott treated both colonials and British regulars. One surprising thing is that when Prescott arrived in Lexington he found two of his Concord fellow physicians attending to the British soldiers since they had been hired by the British to do so. Prescott remained in Lexington attending the wounded for another two weeks, it is believed.

   I find two things perplexing about young Dr Prescott on the night of 18-19 April 1775..

   First - just what prompted him to volunteer to assist Revere and Dawes that April morning. There is no record of him being involved in any patriot activity prior to that day and he had to know that he was getting involved in a very dangerous assignment. Even after he luckily escaped from British arrest, Prescott, who could have very easily just ridden home to Concord and the safety of his bed, continued on with his adopted mission. But there seems to be no conversion to the Patriot cause after April 19, 1775 for there is no record of any activity by Prescott. Attendance to the wounded, of both sides, would have been in conjunction with his oath as a doctor.

   Second- And I need to point out another passage from Paul Revere's Ride before I go any further: "On the road in North Lincoln, Doctor Prescott came upon a young man named Nathaniel Baker, a farmer, who like Prescott himself had been out courting his fiancee Elizabeth Taylor at her house near the present Lexington-Lincoln line. A good many travelers that Spring night were young men on errands of love." (Hackett Fisher does not source the last sentence.)

  April 18, 1775 was a Tuesday.  A cold front had passed through Eastern Massachusetts about noon on April 18th, bringing an end to two days of rain, but showers persisted into the late afternoon. It was a "pleasant night" according to Revere and the temperature was recorded at 46 degrees at 6 AM in Cambridge. A bright moon (last full moon was on the 15th) started to light up the sky at approximately 10 PM. It was a fine spring night - for New England in April. Yet, are we to believe that almost all of the eligible men in rural Eastern Massachusetts, who had to work on their farms or at their trades or professions the next day, were out and about at midnight and into the wee hours of the morning "courting" their girlfriends and fiancees? And no one thinks that this is strange or rather odd?





 

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