Sunday, September 13, 2015

Paul Revere and the Horse He Rode in On

  I've been doing some research on George Washington and his horses and I thought I would take this opportunity to present my views on the horse Paul Revere rode on his famous ride to illustrate the problems one faces when researching and writing about this period of American history, how difficult it is to establish some things as factual and how the history, as we know it, may not be as firm as historians make it out to be.

   The current accepted description of how Paul Revere obtained the horse he rode on his famous ride  in April 1775 is set forth in David Hackett Fisher's Pulitzer Prize winning history, Paul Revere's Ride:

"...Revere talked briefly with Richard Devens, the Charlestown Whig who was a member of the Committee of Supplies. As they walked from ferry landing into the town, Devens warned him to take care on the road, and to stay alert fir British officers who were patrolling the highway to Lexington. Devens added that he had met them earlier in the evening, "nine officers of the ministerial army, mounted on good horses, and armed, going towards Concord." Revere listened carefully. Then, he later wrote in his laconic Yankee way, "I went to git me a horse."
    The Charlestown Whigs had already given thought to the horse. One of the fleetest horses in town belonged to the family of John Larkin, a deacon of the Congregational Church, who agreed to help. The Larkin horse was a fine great mare named Brown Beauty, according to family tradition,. She was neither a racer nor a pulling animal, but an excellent specimen of a New England saddle horse - big, strong and very fast.
    Many years ago, equestrian historians concluded from their research that Brown Beauty was probably the collateral descendent of an East Anglican animal, distantly related to the modern draft horse known as the "Suffolk Punch." The horses of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like the Puritans who rode them, came mainly from the east of England. In the New World these sturdy animals were bred with Spanish riding stock to create a distinctive American riding horse that can still be found in remote towns of rural Massachusetts. New England's saddle horses were bred for alertness and agility on Yankee ice and granite. At their best they were (and are) superb mounts - strong, big-boned, sure-footed, and responsive. Such an animal was Deacon Larkin's mare Brown Beauty, who was lent to Paul Revere that night.

   In addition, Professor Fischer provides three footnotes in support of this account.

   The whole account seems pretty definitive, doesn't it? Let's examine it in detail.

   First of all, the name "Brown Beauty". Where does that come from? It comes from a limited edition family genealogy book published by Knickerboker Press in 1930 titled " Some Descendants of Edward Larkin, et al"
"Samuel Larkin, born Oct. 22, 1701, died Oct. 8, 1784; he was a chairmaker, then a fisherman and had horses and stable. He was the owner of Brown Beauty, the mare of the Paul Revere's ride. . . The mare was loaned at the request of Samuel's son, Deacon John Larkin, and was never returned to the owner."
   That's the one and only source, a family legend first recorded 155 years after the event. And one certain thing one learns in researching the American Revolution and the events leading up to it is to never take family legend at face value.

   Second, take notice of the fact that the horse belongs to Samuel Larkin, not to his son Deacon John Larkin. In one of his footnotes, Professor Fischer makes a great deal of the fact that John Larkin died a wealthy man; but that's irrelevant. It wasn't his horse. At the time John Larkin lent the horse to Revere he was 40 years old and his father Samuel was 74. So the horse belonged to a 74 year old man not a 40 year old one, a big difference.

   Third, Professor Fischer cites some "equestrian historians" who aver that "Brown Beauty" was the collateral descendant of a breed of horse named the "Suffolk Punch.' The Suffolk Punch is a draught horse - a plow horse. How one selectively breeds a plow horse into a superb saddle horse in 100 years
Pair of Suffolks
is amazing to me. Oh, and the Suffolk Punch wasn't imported into the United States from England until the 1880s. And since the only real description of "Brown Beauty" we have is that she was a "big horse", one wonders just how Professor Fischer extrapolates that she was an excellent example of a New England saddle horse - big, strong and very fast. We do know that "Brown Beauty" was seized when Revere was captured by the British Army that night and confiscated by a British Grenadier Sergeant who exchanged it for the "small horse" he was riding. We don't know wht the Sergeant named his horse, if anything."Brown Beauty" then disappears from history.

   There is another long standing and, frankly, more plausible theory as to what type of horse Paul Revere rode that fateful night. It's the first distinct American breed of horse, the Narragansett, now extinct in the United States. The Narragansett was developed just south of Charlestown in Rhode Island. And, indeed there was a large Narragansett breeding farm on Boston neck in the late 17th and early 18th century. The story of horse breeding in the colonies during the 18th century is quite complex. Horses were being brought in from England, Spain, and Africa. Cross breeding was quite extensive. Starting sometime in the early 18th century there was extensive cross shipment of breeding stock between New England and Virginia and Maryland. Horse races between these colonies started at this time. George Washington owned Narragansetts before the Revolution.   

   Narragansetts made ideal saddle horses. They were sure footed, fast, and were noted for ease of motion which propelled the rider in a straight line without a side to side or up and down motion; tough, hardy animals noted for great stamina and endurance. They were calm, tractable animals. And, they were the favorites of women riders. And, might one say, 74 year old men?

   There is one major reason, however, to doubt that Revere rode a Narragansett. They were described as small horses, an average of 14 hands high. "Brown Beauty" was described as a big horse. But that's not necessarily disqualifying.

   I am not saying that Revere rode a Narragansett even though it is a lot more likely that Revere rode one than it is the horse conjured up by Professor' Fischer's "equestrian historians".  There was all kinds of cross breeding going on at this time in all of the colonies and "Brown Beauty"could have been a horse breed which is not recognized or even known today.

  My only purpose in this little dissertation is to illustrate that history is rarely ever settled and not always certain..



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