Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be

Khalid Elhassan - October 27, 2021

Just about everybody has heard of the Boston Tea Party. However, Beantown was not the only colonial city that held a popular protest against British tea in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Other cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina, also held tea protests that are now almost forgotten, that involved the seizure and dumping of tea into the water. Following are thirty things about those and other lesser-known history facts from Colonial America.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
‘The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor’, Nathaniel Currier’s 1846 depiction of the famous colonial event. Owensboro Community and Technical College

The Beef Behind the Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party is one of the most iconic events in American history. Its genesis lay in the 1767 Townsend Acts, in which Parliament taxed various imports into the American Colonies. Vehement colonial protests and massive non-compliance led to the taxes’ repeal in 1770, except for those on tea, retained to demonstrate Parliament’s right to raise colonial revenues without colonial consent. American merchants resorted to widespread smuggling of untaxed tea, until Parliament passed a Tea Act in 1773, intended to both help the financially troubled British East India Company, and stick it to smugglers. The Company was granted a tea monopoly, and although it paid import duties, it received tax breaks that allowed it to undersell everybody with prices lower than even smuggled untaxed tea.

Tea was carried exclusively on East India Company ships and sold through its agents, which cut out colonial shippers and merchants. That drove normally conservative American businessmen to ally with colonial radicals such as Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty. In cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston, tea agents resigned or canceled orders, merchants refused to accept consignments, and dockworkers refused to unload tea. Ships laden with tea were thus often forced to return to England with their cargo. Boston’s royal governor, however, convinced tea consignees, two of them his sons, to conduct business as usual. Adamant that the law be upheld, he insisted that tea ships dock, unload their cargo, and pay the appropriate duties. The Bostonians’ reaction was memorable.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Thomas Hutchinson in 1741. Massachusetts Historical Society

The Boston Tea Party Was Not the Only Colonial Tea Protest

British law required ships that arrived in colonial ports to unload and pay import duties within twenty days or have their cargo confiscated. The East India Company tea ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston in late November, 1773, and a mass meeting passed a resolution that urged its captain to return to England with his cargo. However, Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the tea to be returned to Britain, and shortly thereafter, two more tea ships, the Beaver and Eleanor arrived. December 16th, 1773, was the last day of the Dartmouth‘s deadline. That night, about 60 men in blankets and Indian headdress, encouraged by a large crowd of Bostonians, boarded the ships and dumped the tea, valued at £18,000, into the harbor.

Parliament retaliated with punitive measures known as the Intolerable Acts, which shut off Boston’s trade until the destroyed tea was paid for. The attempt to single out Massachusetts for punishment backfired served to unite the colonies and sped up the drift toward war. Boston was not the only American city to hold tea protests. Other colonial cities got in on the act too. Charleston, for example, hosted two “Tea Parties”, and the first one took place before Boston’s. However, as seen below, the Charleston protests lacked the panache that made Beantown’s tea party so iconic, and so are largely forgotten.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Colonial Charleston. Encyclopedia Britannica

The Charleston Tea Parties

Two weeks before the better known Boston Tea Party, Charleston, South Carolina, held its own act of civil disobedience protest against tea import duties. As in Boston, tea arrived in East India Company ships, and people were adamant that it not be unloaded in their port. On December 3rd, 1773, in what came to be known as “The First Charleston Tea Party“, the locals seized 200 tea chests. They lacked the Bostonians’ pizazz, however, and did not don costumes and dump it in the harbor, but simply confiscated and warehoused it without paying import duties. That was perhaps more pragmatic, but it did not make for great propaganda. That explains why the Boston Tea Party is known to this day, while relatively few have heard of Charleston’s.

The Second Charleston Tea Party occurred nearly a year later. In early November 1774, the ship Britannia docked in the city’s harbor, with seven chests of East India Company tea in its hold. Its captain admitted that he had the “mischievous drug” aboard his ship, but swore that it had been loaded without his knowledge or consent. He was thus spared punishment by the angry locals. However, the three merchants who had ordered the tea were forced to walk to Charleston’s harbor on November 3rd, 1774, and personally dump the tea chests overboard into the water.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
‘The Embarkation of the Pilgrims’ by Robert Walter Weir, 1857. Google Cultural Institute

The Pilgrims Ended Up in Massachusetts Because They Ran Out of Beer

There are not that many things that can put a damper on festivities or ruin a party and harsh up the attendees’ buzz more quickly than if the hosts manage to run out of beer. It is a bummer, but seldom does the lack of beer produce results as consequential as what occurred in the summer of 1620, when the Pilgrims ended up in Massachusetts because they were about to run out of beer. Today, that might strike us as a trivial reason for such a momentous decision, but that’s because we’re not colonial Pilgrims.

To the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower back then, beer was a serious matter. It began on August 5th, 1620, when they departed Plymouth, England, for a journey across the Atlantic to the newly established Virginia Colony. In other words, when they set out, the Pilgrims’ destination had not been Massachusetts, but a point significantly further south. The vagaries of weather, the hardships of crossing an ocean in a seventeenth-century sail ship, coupled with low levels of beer, made them change their minds about where to settle.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Pilgrims leaving the Netherlands for a colonial future across the Atlantic. Scholastic

The Virginia Pilgrims?

The Pilgrims were the core of a congregation of about 400 English Protestants who splintered from the Puritans, and decided to live in exile in Leiden, Holland. Unhappy with the Church of England and what they viewed as its departure from the true path, they chose to live as Separatists in exile rather than do what other Puritans did, and stay in England to try and reform its church from within. Life in Holland eventually grew too onerous, so they decided to sail to the New World.

There, on the far side of the Atlantic, the Pilgrims hoped to establish a colonial religious theocracy, where they could live in accordance with the tenets of their faith. Eventually, they landed and settled in Plymouth, about forty miles south of modern Boston, at roughly latitude 42° North. However, that had not been their intended destination. When they set sail, the Pilgrims had planned to arrive in the Virginia Colony, hundreds of miles from Plymouth, at about latitude 40° North.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
The Speedwell undergoing repairs at Dartmouth. Nutfield Genealogy

The Unfortunately Named Speedwell Was Neither Speedy Nor Well

The Pilgrims’ intended journey to the New World was beset by many delays. They had planned to sail from England in July of 1620. However, most of the people who planned to make the voyage lived in Leiden, Holland, at the time. So the plan was for a sister ship, the Speedwell, to sail from England to the Netherlands, pick up the passengers, return to Southampton, join the Mayflower, and then the two ships would sail together in convoy to Virginia. The Mayflower and the Speedwell sailed from England to the New World on August 5th, 1620. However, the Mayflower’s sister ship proved unfortunately named, in that she was neither speedy nor well.

The Speedwell began to leak, so the Pilgrims docked in Dartmouth for repairs. They set out again on August 21st, but after a few days at sea, the Speedwell began to leak once again. The voyage’s leaders came to the conclusion that the Speedwell was simply not up to the task of crossing the Atlantic. So they decided to leave her in England, and continue to the New World on the Mayflower. After supplies were transferred from the Speedwell, the Mayflower finally set out on September 6th — over a month behind schedule. It would prove to be an arduous voyage.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
The Mayflower’s intended vs actual route. Scholastic

Bad Weather Blew the Pilgrims Away From Their Intended Colonial Destination

Today, passenger planes can whisk us across the Atlantic from England to the United in just a few hours. Back in the seventeenth century, however, to cross the Atlantic was an often treacherous endeavor whose duration was measured in weeks, if not in months. For the Pilgrims, once they had ditched the leaky Speedwell and set out together aboard the Mayflower, the voyage began smoothly at first. However, the ship was beset by foul weather and fouler storms in the second half of the trip.

66 days after they had left England – a voyage that they had hoped would take a month – they finally spotted land at today’s Cape Cod, on November 9th, 1620. That was about 250 farther north than their original destination in colonial Virginia. All else being equal, they would have simply sailed down the coast until they reached their intended settlement site. However, all else was not equal, and the Pilgrims faced a serious problem: they were out of beer. Back then, that was a serious problem.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Beer is why the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. Just Beer

If All Had Gone According to Plan, We Might Have Had the Manhattan Pilgrims

In the seventeenth century – and indeed, throughout the Age of Sail – drinking water aboard ship was liable to go bad, especially on long voyages. Sea voyagers such as the Mayflower‘s Pilgrims relied on beer as a source of hydration that would not spoil. So to run out of the brewed stuff was a big deal. The Pilgrims’ initial destination had been a Virginia Colony island that teemed with wildlife and natural resources, fronted by a huge and navigable natural harbor, and bordered by a navigable river that led deep into the interior.

Back then, the Virginia Colony’s borders were not the same as those of today’s Virginia. In 1620, the northern boundary was about 225 miles farther north than Virginia’s current border, and the island where the voyagers had intended to settle is today called Manhattan. Instead, the lack of beer led the Pilgrims to explore the coastline of Cape Cod and the mainland nearby, until they finally decided upon a site. On Christmas Day, December 25th, 1620, the Pilgrims founded Plymouth Plantation as their new colonial settlement, and as the site where they would brew up a fresh batch of beer.

You May Interested: These People Came to America in the Mayflower.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Fears of witchcraft and sorcery were rife in the 1600s. Cultura Obscura

Colonial America’s Notorious Witch Hunt

Other than the American Revolution whose success ended America’s colonial status, perhaps no event in colonial American history is as famous – or infamous – as the Salem Witch Trials. They are also probably history’s best-known case of mass hysteria. The witch craze of 1692 – 1693 took place against a cultural and religious background that was predisposed to believe in the supernatural. Witchcraft might be laughable to most today. In seventeenth-century colonial America, however, and especially in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was taken quite seriously.

The belief that the Devil could grant witches extraordinary powers in return for their loyalty, and that witchcraft could be used to inflict harm on the good and godly, was taken for granted. Witch hunts had swept through the Christian world starting in the fifteenth century and hit a peak of intensity in the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth. By the second half of the seventeenth century, witch trials had begun to wane across much of Europe. They continued, however, in the fringes of Europe and in the American Colonies.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Girl having a fit of histrionics before magistrates in colonial Salem. Wikimedia

The Start of a Mass Hysteria

The Salem witch craze began in January 1692, when the nine-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old niece of Reverend Samuel Parris began to have screaming fits. As they screeched, the girls contorted themselves into unnatural positions, threw things, and made weird noises. They also complained that they felt skin pains as if they were being pricked with pins. A local doctor found no signs of a physical ailment to explain the fits and blamed them on the supernatural. Soon, another young girl, aged eleven, began to exhibit similar symptoms. Before long, in a “me too” rush, other young women in the colonial village began to complain of similar pains and exhibit similar behavior.

When they were examined by magistrates, the first three girls accused three local women of having bewitched them. The culprits were the reverend’s black slave, Tituba, an elderly impoverished woman named Sarah Osborne, and a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. Osborne and Good protested their innocence, but for whatever reason – perhaps torture or perhaps a promise of leniency – Tituba confessed that she had been visited by the Devil, whom she described as a black man who asked her to sign a book. She admitted that she had signed, then went on to point the finger at other “witches”.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
A 1902 illustration of Tituba. Houghton Mifflin

The Salem Witch Craze’s First Victim

Tituba’s confession that she was a witch, and her accusation of other women as being witches as well, led to mass hysteria throughout the Salem region and colonial Massachusetts. Over the following months, a flood of accusations poured in, and the more farfetched they were, the more they solidified the populace’s belief in the potency of witchcraft and enhanced the panic. When the godly and regular churchgoer Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, the accusation did not give the good people of Salem pause. Instead, it merely redoubled their fears: if solid citizen Martha Corey could be a witch, then anybody could be a witch.

On May 27th, 1692, the colony’s governor ordered that a special court be established to try the accused. Its first victim was Bridget Bishop, an unpopular older woman known as a gossip, and who had a reputation for promiscuity. She protested her innocence, but it did her no good. She was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on June 10th in what became known as Gallows Hill. Five more were convicted and hanged in July, another five in August, and eight more that September.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
The execution of Bridget Bishop, convicted of witchcraft in colonial Salem. History of Massachusetts

A Colonial Hysteria That Became a Cautionary Tale for the Ages

The Salem Witch Trials were marked by a lack of due process and the use of what was known as “spectral evidence”. Basically, testimony by witnesses that they dreamt or had a vision in which the spirit or “spectre” of the accused witch did them harm. It meant that an accuser’s dream or vision that “Jane Doe bit, hit, and punched me“, was admissible evidence in court that Jane Doe had actually bit, hit, and punched the accuser. It did not matter if the unfortunate Doe was nowhere near the accuser that day: her spectre was. Respected theologian and reverend Cotton Mather wrote the court to caution against the use of spectral evidence, but he was ignored.

Massachusetts’ colonial governor finally put an end to the trials and their ever-expanding reach when his own wife was accused of being a witch. By then, 200 people had been accused of witchcraft, and 20 had already been hanged. Eventually, the authorities admitted that the trials had been a mistake, and compensated the families of the wrongly convicted victims of the witch hunt. Thereafter, the Salem mass hysteria and resultant trials became synonymous with paranoia and injustice. They stand today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, and the lack of due process.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
English Civil War Parliamentary soldiers, fighting while a Puritan preaches encourages them by reading from the Bible. Pinterest

The Boston Tea Party Was Not the First Time New Englanders Defied the King

In the 1640s, a dispute that had simmered for years between King Charles I and Parliament finally erupted into open warfare to determine once and for all whether the monarch or legislature was supreme. Puritans were a key Parliamentarian constituency, and Puritans happened to be particularly thick in the ground in colonial New England back then. So in 1644, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough sailed across the Atlantic with a regiment of New Englanders to fight against King Charles. A century and a half before the American Revolution, the Americans proved radical by contemporary standards.

In an augury of future events, in the midst of the fight between King and Parliament, the colonial Americans pushed for universal male suffrage three centuries before it was actually granted in England. As Rainsborough put it: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government“.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Battle of the Severn, an English Civil War engagement fought in colonial Maryland. New York Public Library

The Last Battle of the English Civil War Was Not Fought in England, But in Colonial America

By the 1650s, Parliament had won the English Civil War. King Charles I had been captured, tried, convicted, and beheaded, his heir had fled to the continent, and England was ruled by a Lord Protector, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Small-scale fighting still flared up every now and then between Royalists and Parliamentarians, and one such flare-up, which came to be known as the Battle of the Severn, took place on American soil in Annapolis, Maryland, on March 25th, 1655.

It came about when Maryland’s governor, sworn to the colony’s royalist Catholic Lord Baltimore, sailed with a small militia to the Puritan settlement of Providence, today’s Annapolis. He sought to surprise the Puritans and compel them to swear allegiance to Lord Baltimore. Instead, the Puritans surprised and routed the governor’s force with a sudden attack from the rear. By the time it was over, the governor’s militia had lost 49 men, while the Puritans lost only 2. The engagement holds the distinction of being the last battle fought in the English Civil War.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Captain Kidd, a member in good standing of colonial high society, in New York Harbor. Library of Congress

From Colonial High Society to Notorious Pirate

There was little in the background or life of colonial American William Kidd (circa 1645 – 1701) to indicate that he would someday die on the gallows, executed as one of the era’s most notorious pirates. Better known to history as Captain Kidd, he had been one of New York City’s leading citizens and a friend of at least three of the colony’s governors. A philanthropist, he was known for his engagement in civic activities and had played a prominent role in building the city’s now historic Trinity Church.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, Kidd settled in New York City as a young man. His first command at sea was as captain of a privateer ship, the Blessed William, with a commission in 1689 from the governor of Nevis. He was granted letters of marque that authorized him to prey on French vessels for the duration of hostilities between Britain and France. Later, he was issued additional letters of marque by the governors of New York and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Charles Galley, a ship of similar design to Captain Kidd’s Adventure Galley. Wikimedia

The Inauspicious Start of the Adventure Galley’s Journey

In 1695, William Kidd’s mission was expanded when he was presented with a letter of marque signed by King William III, that gave him the commission to hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean. The voyage started inauspiciously. As he sailed out of London in a newly equipped ship, the 34 gun and 150 men crew Adventure Galley, Kidd offended a Royal Navy captain when he failed to salute his warship in the Thames. In retaliation for the perceived disrespect from a mere Colonial, the captain stopped the Adventure Galley and seized half of its crew to press them into the Royal Navy. Kidd was left to cross the Atlantic short-handed. He eventually made it to New York, where he replenished his crew with whichever unemployed seafarers he could find.

Unfortunately for Kidd, most of the new crew turned out to be hardened criminals and former pirates. The ship was struck with illness en route, and by the time he reached the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean, a third of Kidd’s crew had died of cholera. Worse, he was unable to find the pirates he had been sent to hunt down. The enterprise seemed a failure, and the crew grew antsy. So they urged him to attack some vessels that sailed by in order to make the voyage worth their time. When Kidd declined, his men threatened mutiny. Under pressure – and also to recoup his investment – he gave in, and reluctantly began to attack ships not covered by his commission as a privateer.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Captain Kidd, gibbeted near Tilbury in Essex after his execution in 1701. History Today

William Kidd Left Colonial America as a Highly Respected Member of Society and Returned a Notorious Outlaw

By 1698, William Kidd had abandoned reluctance and any pretense that he was a lawful privateer, and turned full pirate. That year, he sealed his fate when he attacked a British East India Company ship. The powerful company exerted its influence in London, and Kidd was declared an outlaw of the sea. Unbeknownst to him, by the time he returned to the American Colonies, his public image had been transformed from a member of high society into that of an infamous pirate, the notorious “Captain Kidd”. Attitudes towards piracy had changed from the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, that had prevailed when he began his voyage.

Now, crackdown was in the air, and the powers that be were eager to make an example of somebody. The colonial authorities arrested Kidd as soon as he arrived in Boston, and sent him in chains across the Atlantic for prosecution in London. There, word of his previous connections with government elites caused a scandal, and the powerful supporters whom he had expected to defend him abandoned him in droves. He was swiftly tried and convicted, and on May 23rd, 1701, was hanged, after which his body was gibbetted and left to rot in a cage on the Thames for all to see.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Women in England mourning shackled loved ones who are about to get sent away for penal transportation. National Library of Australia

The Maid Who Conned Colonial America by Impersonating a Princess

Until well into the nineteenth century, Britain routinely got rid of convicted criminals via penal transportation – a system whereby undesirables were shipped to far away colonies. An alternative sentence for felonies, transportation was usually imposed for offenses for which the death penalty was deemed too severe. Upon arrival at their destination, the convicts were sold into indentured servitude for a fixed term. The prisoners were free once their sentence term was over, but in practice, lack of funds usually meant that they were stuck where they had been transported, unable to return to Britain.

To British authorities, the fact that the transported convicts were unable to return was not an unfortunate bug in the program, but a prominent and desirable feature. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s American Colonies and the West Indies were the most popular dumping grounds for such undesirables. That is how Sarah Wilson (circa 1754 – circa 1865) arrived in colonial Baltimore in 1771. Sarah had exhibited a knack for the con from early on. As a teenager, she had roamed England and took advantage of the credulity and compassion of people.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Sarah Wilson was a believer in ‘fake it until you make it’. Amazon

A Commoner Who Could Impersonate an Aristocrat

Sarah Wilson had a gift for impersonation. Although born into the lowest class, she was able to act as if she was a member of upper society. In 1767, a newspaper report about her read: “It seems this woman has, for some time past, been travelling through almost all parts of the Kingdom, assuming various titles and characters, at different times and places: she has presented herself to be of high birth and distinction, as well foreign and English, and accordingly stiling herself a Princess of Mecklenburgh, Countess of Normandy, Lady Countess Wilbrahammon, &c. &c. and under some or other of such names making promises of providing, by means of her weight and interest, for the families of … the lower class of people;

unto those of higher rank in life she has represented herself to be in the greatest distress, abandoned and deserted by her parents and friends of considerable family, either upon account of an unfortunate love affair, or of religion, pretending to be a Protestant against the will of her relations, who were Roman Catholicks, and always varying the account of herself as she chanced to pick up intelligence of characters and connections of those she intended to deceive and impose upon … She is a short woman, slender made, of a pale complexion, something deformed, has a speck or knell over one eye“.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
An advertisement by Sarah Wilson’s indentured servitude master, seeking her capture and return. Pennsylvania Historical Society

From Queen’s Maid, to Queen’s Sister

At some point, Sarah Wilson got herself a job in Buckingham Palace as a maid to one of Queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting. She had light fingers, however, and was fired after she stole some of the queen’s jewels and gowns. She was also arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang – theft was one of the hundreds of crimes punishable by death in Britain back then. Luckily, her sentence was commuted to penal transportation to colonial America. Upon arrival in Baltimore, Sarah was taken off the convict ship and sold as an indentured servant, but escaped within a few days.

She had managed to hang on to some of Her Majesty’s belongings, and clad in the queen’s dress, she claimed to be Queen Charlotte’s sister, “Princess Susana Caroline Matilda of Mecklenberg-Sterlitz”. To explain her presence in the American Colonies, she invented a royal family quarrel and a scandal that required her to temporarily leave Britain until things calmed down. During her time as a maid in Buckingham Palace, Sarah had observed royal mannerisms and aristocratic etiquette. As seen below, she managed to convince many colonial Americans that she really was a princess, and parlayed that into a life of luxury.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Queen Charlotte, Sarah Wilson’s supposed sister. Royal Collection

Colonial America Showered This Convict Maid With Hospitality, in the Belief That She Was Royalty

For years, Sarah Wilson, under the guise of “Princess Susana”, traveled up and down the American Colonies from New Hampshire in the north, all the way down south to the Carolinas. She was hosted in style by many colonial government officials, wealthy Americans, social climbers, and others eager to befriend and win the favor of a royal. She grifted many out of considerable sums with the promise of royal appointments, or that she would put in a good word for them with her sister and brother in law, the Queen and King of Britain.

She also took out numerous loans and bought many luxury items on credit from merchants and shopkeepers eager for royal patronage and the custom of a princess. The scam ended when her master finally caught her and took her back to Baltimore. In 1775, she escaped again, and made her way northwards, where she met and married a British Army officer during the American Revolution. After the war, the couple stayed in the newly independent United States, after which Sarah vanishes from the historic record.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The American Revolution’s Most Dramatic Scene

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851, is one of the most iconic images of the American War of Independence and of American history. It depicts the colonial general in chief and a flotilla of Patriots in boats midstream across the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, the first move in a surprise attack against enemy forces in Trenton, New Jersey. The event was dramatic and worthy of commemoration.

As 1776 drew to a close, the war and the Americans’ armed bid for independence was not going well for Washington and his forces. He had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly drubbed. Most notably in New York City, where it took a nearly miraculous escape for the Patriots to avoid annihilation. Morale was low, so Washington planned a daring raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the Revolutionary cause. From his base in Pennsylvania, he would cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian forces on the opposite bank.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
George Washington. US History

An Uptight Leader Who Surprised His Men With a Turn to Humor

Washington Crossing the Delaware portrays George Washington standing at a boat’s prow, staring determinedly at the enemy shore, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats. The painting’s portrayal of Washington is true to the essence of what is known of the man. He was known for his aura of detached dignity, and the wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. The depiction was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct at the event: it was one of the rare occasions when the general let down the formality, and cracked jokes.

Washington’s cold, hungry, and demoralized troops clambered into boats on an exceptionally frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!” All things considered, it was not exactly a comedic gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
‘Washington’s Crossing’, a more historically accurate depiction of the crossing of the Delaware River, by Mort Kunstler. Artsy

A Hazardous River Crossing, a Hazardous March, and a Hazardous Attack

At first, the Patriots gathered on the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River were stunned at George Washington’s stab at comedy, and stood around looking at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the assembled force, as the comment about Henry Knox’s fat ass was spread and repeated. Washington’s unexpected humor lifted the Americans’ spirits, but they still had a rough crossing ahead of them. Once that was done, they then had to march for miles in terrible weather to reach their objective. Throughout, they had to hope that no alarm was raised, and that they would manage to achieve the surprise necessary to accomplish their mission: the destruction of a garrison of Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey.

Detractors have often derided Washington as a mediocre and unimaginative general. Indeed, compared to the likes of other dashing military commanders from his life such as James Wolfe, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, or Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, Washington might not shine as brilliantly. However, few generals would have had the self-confidence to dare execute a plan as intricate as Washington’s attack on Trenton. The failure of any one of a number of moving parts could have doomed the entire enterprise – and with it, probably the entirety of the colonial bid for independence.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Washington’s colonial troops evacuating New York City under the cover of darkness. Pinterest

To Even Find Enough Men to Cross the Delaware Was Like Pulling Teeth

George Washington’s plan to attack Trenton was beset by problems from the start. He first had to find enough men to mount an attack. Beaten in New York, he had retreated across New Jersey and across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. In the process, he lost precious supplies and many men due to straggling or desertion. He also lost contact with two of his army’s divisions, one commanded by General Horatio Gates in New York, the other by General Charles Lee in New Jersey. He ordered both to join him, but Gates was delayed by heavy snow, while Lee, who had a low opinion of Washington, dawdled and stayed put.

Eventually, 2000 of Lee’s men arrived on December 20th without their commander – he had been captured by the British when he ventured beyond American lines for an assignation. Gates arrived later that day with 600 men. Another 1000 colonial militiamen from Philadelphia joined not long after. With those reinforcements, Washington finally had about 6000 men fit for duty. However, most of them had to be assigned to protect supplies and vital positions, and Washington was left with only 2400 available to carry out the attack.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
George Washington leading his troops to Trenton. British Battles

An Enemy Commander’s Mistake That Saved the American Revolution

On December 23rd, 1776, George Washington informed his staff of his decision to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton on the 26th. It was to be a three-pronged operation, in which Washington would personally lead the largest contingent to attack the town’s Hessian garrison, while two smaller contingents crossed the river as a diversion, and to close off an escape route. Despite inclement weather and icy river conditions, the crossing was accomplished, and Washington was among the first to reach the New Jersey side. He and his men then had to march nine miles to Trenton, in the midst of sleet and driving snow. Fortunately for the colonial cause, the Patriots completed the march without alerting the enemy.

Early in the morning of December 26th, 1776, the Americans surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian’s commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded. In Rall’s pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately for the colonial cause, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with great consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they desperately needed a morale boost, saved the colonial army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Benedict Arnold. Smithsonian Magazine

Colonial America’s Greatest Traitor

American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) is the most infamous traitor in the history of the United States. Indeed, his name has become an epithet, synonymous with treason and betrayal. That was quite a turn from his early war career when he had been a major hero for Patriots in their fight for independence. Arnold had been a highly regarded Patriot in the fight against the British and was perhaps the colonial side’s most capable combat leader.

That all changed when a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to sell out to the enemy. Before he turned traitor, Arnold had provided valuable service to the Americans and played a key role early in the war in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain in an attempt to capture Quebec. The expedition ultimately failed, but to even get his men to the outskirts of Quebec was a great exhibition of leadership on Arnold’s part.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. American Digital Public Library

For a Time, This Traitor Was the Patriots’ Best Fighting General

In 1776, Benedict Arnold demonstrated his enterprise when he constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain. With it, the colonial forces defeated a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, Arnold’s successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against him. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, Arnold was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors, and only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented his resignation.

Soon thereafter, Arnold successfully beat back a British attack in Connecticut and was finally promoted to major general. However, his seniority was not restored – another slight that gnawed at him. He again sought to resign but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in the fight to halt the British advance into upstate New York in 1777, and played a key role in its defeat. It culminated in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and suffered a serious leg injury.

Colonial America Was a Wild and Difficult Place to Be
A 1780 French map of West Point. Wikimedia

An Infamous Turncoat

Crippled by his wounds at Saratoga, Benedict Arnold was put in charge of Philadelphia. There, he began to socialize with families loyal to the British. He also took to an extravagant life with lavish expenditures, which he financed with questionable methods that led to a scandal. Arnold also married a much younger woman of loyalist sympathies and spendthrift habits, that soon drove him into deep indebtedness. Between resentments and financial difficulties, he secretly approached the British to offer his services. Arnold was well positioned to deal the Patriots a fatal blow because he was placed in charge of colonial fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River, which lay upstream from British-occupied New York City and barred them from sailing upriver.

Arnold plotted to sell plans of the fortifications to the enemy and contrived to deliver them into British hands for £20,000. However, his British contact was captured, along with documents that incriminated Arnold. He fled just in time to evade arrest. He was made a brigadier general in the British Army and led soldiers against the Patriots for the rest of the war. The British never fully warmed to him, however, and he was unable to secure a regular commission after the war. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before he finally settled down in London, where he died in 1801.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Argus Leader, November 17th, 2016 – Beer Played an Important Part in Pilgrim Life

Arnold, Isaac Newton – The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason (1880)

Baltimore Sun, March 25th, 2005 – English Civil War Led to Battle on Severn

Business Insider, November 21st, 2018 – The Pilgrims Landed on Plymouth Rock For More Beer

Chernow, Ron – Washington: A Life (2010)

Clarke, R.J. – Impostress: The Dishonest Adventures of Sarah Wilson (2019)

Cracked – The Charleston Tea Parties: The Dumber Cousins to Boston’s Tea Party

Demos, John Putnam – Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982)

Dictionary of National Biography – Rainborow, Thomas

Encyclopedia Britannica – Benedict Arnold

Encyclopedia Britannica – William Kidd

Fischer, David Hackett – Washington’s Crossing (2004)

History Collection – 16 Surprising Facts About Colonial America’s Mail Order Brides of Jamestown

Levack, Brian P. – The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (2013)

New York Times, July 3rd, 2010 – America’s Revolution: The Prequel

Straight Dope – Did The Pilgrims Land on Plymouth Rock Because They Ran Out of Beer?

Teaching American History in South Carolina Project – Charleston Tea Party

Tyler, John W. – Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (2019)

Johnson, Jennifer – 10 Forgotten Stories About Colonial Americans

University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law – Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692

Wikipedia – Boston Tea Party

Wikipedia – Salem Witch Trials

Wikipedia – Sarah Wilson (Imposter)

Zacks, Richard – Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd (2002)