Lexington Alarm

The Lexington Alarm Letter - on the web and on exhibit!

Lexington_Alarm_letter_scan_March_23_2009_web Once a year, to celebrate Patriot's Day, the Museum is proud to display the Lexington Alarm letter, written the morning of April 19, 1775 to alert the colonies that war with the British had begun. The Lexington Alarm letter will be on view in the lobby of the National Heritage Museum from April 17-25, as part of the festivities surrounding Patriots Day, a Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord each year on April 19th. Be sure to stop by the museum and check out this exciting piece of American history. And, of course, you'll want to view our long-term exhibition, Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution to learn more about Lexington's role in the American Revolution.

Whether you're able to stop by the Museum or not, be sure to check out our two blog posts from last April about the Lexington Alarm letter. The first post explains more about what the letter is and the role that it played during the 24 hours after the Battle of Lexington. The second post - "Quite to Connecticut": (Google)mapping the Journey of the Lexington Alarm - follows the ride of Israel Bissel (using Google Maps!) on April 19-20, 1775 as he spread the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Below is a transcription of our Lexington Alarm letter. The verso of the letter (not shown here) reads: "To Christopher Leffingwell Esq. or either the Committee of Correspondence Norwich." 

Watertown Wednesday Morning near 10 o'Clock

To all the Friends of American Liberty, be it known that this Morning before breake of Day a Brigade consisting of about 1000 or 1200 Men landed at Phip’s Farm at Cambridge & marched to Lexington where they found a Company of our Colony Militia in Arms, upon Whom they fired without any Provocation and killed 6 Men and Wounded 4 others. By an Express from Boston this Moment, we find another Brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1000. The Bearer Mr. Israel Bissel is charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut and all Persons are desired to furnish him with Fresh Horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with Several Persons who have seen the Dead & Wounded. Pray let the Delegates from this Colony to Connecticut see this they know.

J. Palmer, one of the
Committee of S-----y [i.e. Safety].
Col. Foster of Brookfield one of the Delegates. A True Coppy taken from the original p[er] order of Committee of Correspondence for Worcester. Attest. Nathan Balding T[own] Clerk
Worcester April 19th 1775.

Brooklyne Thursday 11 o'Clock - The above is a true Coppy as rec[eived] here p[er] Express forwarded from Worcester - [at]Test. Daniel Tyler, Jr.

 

Image caption:

Lexington Alarm’d Letter, 1775
Daniel Tyler
Brooklyn, Connecticut
Ink on paper
Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, A95/011/1


"Quite to Connecticut": (Google)mapping the Journey of the Lexington Alarm

Last week, we wrote about the Lexington Alarm letter, which is on view this week in the National Heritage Museum, in celebration of Patriots' Day. Today we're taking a look at the journey that the postrider, Israel Bissel, took as he delivered the alarm from Watertown, Massachusetts to New York City.

 News travels fast today. One of the stories to come out of the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson" a few months back was how quickly the news of the emergency plane landing on the river spread. The speed at which news spreads has always been of interest and concern in the United States. If you've ever traveled on a "post road" (and chances are you probably have, even if you didn't know it), you've driven on roads that were created to insure that the mail - including the newspapers that were delivered by mail - traveled quickly. In 1775, when news needed to be conveyed quickly over far distances, it was often by means of a letter carried by a rider on horseback.

Quite_to_Connecticut_detail Just before dawn on April 19, 1775, John Parker and 77 local militiamen gathered on the green in Lexington as a large number of British soldiers approached from the direction of Boston, where they had left during the night of April 18. Realizing that they were outnumbered, Parker ordered his men to disperse. Amid the confusion, a shot rang out. Who fired first has never been conclusively determined, but by the time the skirmish was over, eight men were killed and nine were injured. The British troops then left Lexington and marched on toward Concord where they intended to seize munitions that were stored there. The alarm - or news of the battle on the Lexington Common - was spreading quickly, however. By the time the British reached the Old North Bridge in Concord, they were met by 3,500 militiamen.

But news of the Battle of Lexington spread far beyond the immediate vicinity. It's not by accident that the news of the battle was able to be spread quickly and across a large geographic area. Committees of Correspondence were already set up throughout the colonies, insuring that an infrastructure was in place to facilitate the efficient spread of important news. In the second half of 1774, an alarm system had been set up, and British troops were being closely watched. The colonists were prepared to set into motion a pre-orchestrated plan that would quickly disseminate important news through local networks that spread the news. The spread of information in 1775 was a very physical act.

News of the Lexington alarm was not entrusted to just anyone: it was put in the capable hands of Israel Bissel (sometimes spelled Bissell). Bissel was a 23-year-old professional postrider from East Windsor, Connecticut, who knew the roads he was traveling very well, by virtue of having traveled them many times before delivering express letters. Bissel traveled along the network of post roads in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, spreading news of the battle of Lexington as he went. The news traveled fairly quickly: by noon on the 21st, the news had traveled to New York City, approximately 225 miles south - a sustained speed of around 5-7 miles per hour. That might seem quaint today, but to someone traveling by horseback on unlit roads, this is fairly remarkable.

In the letter that Bissel was carrying (which you can read about in our previous post), he was "Charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut," something that he accomplished by carrying a series of letters along a predetermined route. In each town where he stopped, a member of the local Committee of Correspondence would keep Bissel's letter and hand-copy it. The copy would be given to Bissel, who would bring it to the next town. Each new copy contained information about who had already received the letter, as well as when it had been received. To make a contemporary analogy, the letters can be seen as carrying information similar to a forwarded e-mail, including the list of previous recipients, and the date and timestamp that they received the message.

Using Google Maps, we've put together a map of Bissel's journey, along with the times that he arrived at each location (you can find a larger version of the map here, which is a bit easier to work with than the one below) Bissel's journey is well-documented, and, as mentioned above, the dates and times that he arrived at each location on his journey were noted on the copies of the letters that he carried with him.  Using this information, and keeping with the theme of the spread of information, here's a 21st-century look at an 18th-century journey:


View Larger Map

Two great resources on the Lexington alarm (also mentioned in our previous post) are:

John H. Scheide. "The Lexington Alarm." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Volume 50, Part 1 (1940) pp. 49-79.

David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
 Call number: F69 .R43 F57 1994

 

 

 


The Lexington Alarm Letter

Lexington_Alarm_letter_scan_March_23_2009_web

Late on April 18, 1775, British soldiers marched from Boston, toward Concord, to seize munitions that were stockpiled there. Around dawn on April 19, they were met by 77 militiamen on Lexington Common. A shot rang out, and the British opened fire. Eight patriots were dead and nine wounded.

At around 10 a.m. on the morning of April 19, 1775, just hours after the battle on the Lexington green, Joseph Palmer, a member of the Committee of Safety in Watertown, Massachusetts, composed a letter describing the events of that morning. Palmer then gave his letter to the Committee's messenger, Israel Bissel (sometimes spelled Bissell), who galloped out of Watertown on horseback and rode to Worcester. In Worcester, the text was then transcribed by Nathan Balding. Balding's copy of Palmer's letter was given to Bissel, who carried the letter on to Brooklyn, Connecticut, where he arrived on April 20.

The alarm letter seen here, which is in our collection, was copied out in Brooklyn, Connecticut during the late morning of April 20, by Daniel Tyler, Jr., son-in-law to General Israel Putnam. Tyler copied the text from the letter Bissel had brought from Worcester, and sent this letter on to Norwich, Connecticut where Bissel and the letter arrived around 4 o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th.

Bissel delivered the letter to Christopher Leffingwell, who was the proprietor of a tavern in Norwich and a row of shops known as "Leffingwell Row," all located in the center of town. Governor Jonathan Trumbull was in Norwich on the day that Bissel and the alarm letter arrived; historians have speculated that it's likely that Trumbull got news of the Lexington alarm while he was in Norwich. 

Bissel carried subsequent copies of the Lexington Alarm letter on to New York. Other riders took the message down further down the East Coast; by mid-May, news had reached as far as Charleston, S.C. - about 1,000 miles away.

Below is a transcription of our Lexington Alarm letter. The verso of the letter (not shown here) reads: "To Christopher Leffingwell Esq. or either the Committee of Correspondence Norwich." 

Watertown Wednesday Morning near 10 o'Clock

To all the Friends of American Liberty, be it known that this Morning before breake of Day a Brigade consisting of about 1000 or 1200 Men landed at Phip’s Farm at Cambridge & marched to Lexington where they found a Company of our Colony Militia in Arms, upon Whom they fired without any Provocation and killed 6 Men and Wounded 4 others. By an Express from Boston this Moment, we find another Brigade are now upon their march from Boston supposed to be about 1000. The Bearer Mr. Israel Bissel is charged to alarm the Country quite to Connecticut and all Persons are desired to furnish him with Fresh Horses as they may be needed. I have spoken with Several Persons who have seen the Dead & Wounded. Pray let the Delegates from this Colony to Connecticut see this they know.

J. Palmer, one of the
Committee of S-----y [i.e. Safety].

Col. Foster of Brookfield one of the Delegates. A True Coppy taken from the original p[er] order of Committee of Correspondence for Worcester. Attest. Nathan Balding T[own] Clerk
Worcester April 19th 1775.

Brooklyne Thursday 11 o'Clock - The above is a true Coppy as rec[eived] here p[er] Express forwarded from Worcester - [at]Test. Daniel Tyler, Jr.

The Lexington Alarm letter will be on view in the lobby of the National Heritage Museum from April 18-26, as part of the festivities surrounding Patriots Day, a Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

If you're interested in the full story of the Lexington Alarm and exactly how the news spread after the letter above arrived in Norwich, Connecticut, we recommend the following article, which is available in our library:

John H. Scheide. "The Lexington Alarm." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Volume 50, Part 1 (1940) pp. 49-79.

Another great resource for learning more about the events surrounding April 19, 1775, as well as a great explanation about the establishment of the "alarm" network employed by the colonies can be found in:

David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Call number:F69 .R43 F57 1994

Next week: More about Israel Bissel - including a map of his ride from Massachusetts to New York.