Monday, May 18, 2015

"If redress cannot be had without, it is Virtue in them to disturb the government.": The Final Fight of Shay's Rebellion (Part I)

The last significant "battle" of Shay's Rebellion lasted just about six minutes and did not even involve Daniel Shays. It was a sharp skirmish, nonetheless, fought in the snow on a lonely road in Sheffield, Massachusetts on the afternoon of February 27th, 1787.

There is a monument in local marble erected in 1904  near the site of the engagement (right alongside the Appalachian Trail), but few in the region today understand the event it commemorates or its national significance in the months leading up to the federal Constitutional Convention.

This brief fight in Sheffield between local militia and their disaffected neighbors resulted in as many as five fatalities and a considerable number of wounded - nearly all of them rebels - with at least sixty men taken prisoner by the government forces.  Exactly how many casualties were sustained is difficult to determine, particularly the names of those who were wounded, though I have been able to confirm the identities of four of five men reportedly killed or mortally wounded, and have located the graves of the two men who died on the government side.  The identity of the fifth man, supposedly one of the insurgents, remains stubbornly elusive.

In researching this series of posts on the Sheffield fight I investigated primary source material available online, but also archival information that required a visit to the Pittsfield Athenaeum, and several hours spent exploring the oldest sections of Berkshire County cemeteries.  This first article discusses events leading up to armed conflict in the Berkshires and the backgrounds of the insurgents who fought against the government at Sheffield in 1787.

The Shayites were "regulators of government" in the tradition of other agrarian revolts that date back to the 1760s in the American Colonies.  More locally, the border region of western Massachusetts and Eastern New York was the intersection of rival land claims and overlapping patents that had erupted in violence between landlords and tenants on both sides of the Taconics prior to the Revolution.  In the early postwar years, a combination of ruinous debt, economic hardship and longstanding resentment of unresponsive political power centered in Boston brought things to a head in Berkshire County in early September, 1786.  

A local sympathizer of "regulation" who was himself from the governing class - Dr. William B. Whiting,  Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington - circulated an essay among his close confidants at this time entitled "Some brief Remarks on the present State of publick affairs".  Tellingly, Whiting wrote this unpublished piece under the pseudonym "Gracchus", a reference to plebeian Tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus whose agrarian reforms sought to transfer wealth to the Roman poor.   Later judged to be seditious libel, Whiting opined;

"Therefore, whenever any incroachments (sic)  are making either upon the liberties or properties of the people, if redress cannot be had without, it is Virtue in them to disturb the government."

A few days later on September 12th, 1786, a large gathering of regulators stopped the court from sitting in Great Barrington.  Gideon Dunham, Jr. (1762-1841) was one of these men, and was conspicuous in ransacking some of the homes of the friends of government.  He had recently moved to Sheffield, Massachusetts from adjacent Canaan, Connecticut, and was a Revolutionary war veteran of both the 5th and 3rd Connecticut Regiments.   The town had seen its court shut down before by popular action prior to Independence, but what was deemed acceptable for American patriots under the Crown  in 1774 was now treason under the Commonwealth in 1786.

detail from 1779 map of the Province of New York
showing New Canaan, NY and southern Berkshires
During the winter of 1787, discontent had turned to armed rebellion, prompting a strong government response.  By mid-February, 1787, the Regulators had been defeated militarily in central Massachusetts.   Many insurgents crossed over into neighboring states where the Commonwealth forces had no authority.  At the same time, the terms of enlistment of the government troops who had been collected in the Berkshires to oppose them expired.  By February 21, 1787, all that remained were local militia, and not all of them were loyal supporters of the Commonwealth.

There had already been brief incursions from the New York side, including a force lead by John  Hubbard of Sheffield on January 27th, 1787.  In this encounter in West Stockbridge, Hubbard's force of between 150-200 was confronted by General John Patterson and 500 militia, supported by Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge who encouraged many of his neighbors and acquaintances on the insurgent side to lay down their arms.  The rebels suffered four wounded and 84 captured in this affair, most of whom were quickly paroled after taking an Oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth. 

About two weeks later on February 15, 1787 another rebel foray was thwarted in Egremont by the Great Barrington and Sheffield militias under Colonel John Ashley, Jr. of Sheffield.  In this second encounter, sixteen prisoners were taken by the government forces and the insurgents withdrew back over the border.

On February 26th, 1787, the Selectmen of Richmond, Massachusetts wrote to militia General Lincoln  in Pittsfield to report that another cross border incursion was imminent:

"By intelligence this moment rec'd this moment from New Canaan, the insurgents collected in N. York State have paraded & marched in 3 Divisions.  120 was counted bet. 10 and 11 this evening in 1 Div. marching toward this County.  We are much alarmed at this Military appearance and think it our duty to give your Honor this, and every information that threatens so immediate a destruction..."

The Regulators now gathered on the New York side of the line were lead by Captain Perez Ham(b)lin (1748-1826), originally of Sharon, Connecticut.  Hamlin had served during the Revolution as a private in the 7th (Albany County, N.Y) militia regiment .  More recently, Hamlin operated a mill in Lenox, Massachusetts with his brother Asa.  One of Hamlin's lieutenants was the above referenced William or Elisha Manning "of the place called Eleven Thousand Acres" in Berkshire County, and his adjutant is said to have been a young man named Nathaniel Austin, Jr. of Sheffield, also a revolutionary war veteran.

With them were other men from nearby communities, many of whom had served during the Revolution.  Red- haired Shubael Woodruff of West Stockbridge had enlisted  in the Continental Line in 1781 at the age of 17 and was now in the ranks of the Regulators with two of his brothers.   Oziel Willcox (Wilcock) of Lee served six months during the Revolution in 1780 when he was 21, and was in Hamlin's force with his younger brother Peter Wilcox Jr., while a third brother Daniel Wilcox was with the forces of Government.  Another regulators with a military background was Joshua Adams, Jr of Sheffield and Egremont, who first enlisted in May, 1775 and ultimately served in Col. Wesson's 9th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Line in the Saratoga campaign and on through 1780 with the rank of corporal.

Some of those under arms with Hamlin had deep roots in Berkshire communities, while others were recent arrivals or were merely what in a later age would be termed "border ruffians" motivated more by plunder than principle.  Sometimes it is possible to learn what became of these men afterward. More often a rebel's name appears in a court record and then fades back into obscurity.  Some who took the Oath of Allegiance in 1787 and surrendered their guns and voting privileges may have been involved in earlier regulator activity but not necessarily at Sheffield.  Making things even more complicated, contemporary accounts sometimes misidentified one man as a rebel, when in fact it was another person altogether (most significantly excluding two men from pardons - Elisha Manning and David Dunham - who turned out to be entirely different people - William Manning and Gideon Dunham, Jr.).

Very few of them were men with land or substantial property.  The vast majority of the men who were captured at Sheffield and arraigned the following month are listed as "labourers", with a scattering of farmers or "husbandmen" and just one Gentleman - Reuban Freeman of Egremont.  The majority came from just a few communities; West Stockbrige, Tyringham, Lee, Egremont and Sheffield.  Most were young men in their twenties.  Joshua Rathbun was one of the older men, born in Rhode Island in 1732 but moving to Tyringham, Massachusetts in the 1780s. 

These were the insurgents that Hamlin lead over the border on February 26th, 1787.  We will examine their movements and motivations and the local response in the next post in this series.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ensign Asher Levy - Jewish Patriot, Loyalist Spy (or Double Agent)?

From September, 1777 to June 14th, 1779, Asher Levy was first a cadet and later an Ensign in the 1st New Jersey Regiment of the Continental Line.  The name is spelled variously on muster return as Asher/Asser/Ashur and Levy/Lewis, but they all refer to the same person.   His pedigree is clear and he holds the distinction of being the only Jewish officer known to have served in the Jersey Line during the Revolution. 

His otherwise unremarkable service is noteworthy for being called to testify at the court martial of his commanding officer,Colonel Matthias Ogden, in early Spring 1779.  Colonel Ogden was acquitted on all charges but "the pernicious vice of gaming." Levy resigned his commission shortly thereafter, but not before adding his name to a petition from the line officers of the 1st NJ to the Governor to redress grievances about inadequate officer pay and provision. 

Asher Levy also holds the distinction, after leaving the army, of twice being imprisoned in 1780 as an enemy agent and  "notorious villain."  The minutes of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania from February 22, 1780, include the following seemingly damning reference to Asher Levy:

"A letter from Lieutenant Colonel De Hart [of the 1st New Jersey Regiment] was read, informing the board that one Asher Levy, a person of disaffected Character, was in this City, and there was great reason to believe he was a spy."

We also have two tantalizing descriptions of him from each of his two jailbreaks that add color, if not clarity, to his story.
"One Thousand Dollars Reward

Made his escape last evening over the gaol wall of Burlington, a certain ASHER LEVY, who was committed as a spy from the enemy, and also for high treason.  He is about five feet seven inches high, about twenty years of age; has short black hair, but wears a false tail: Had on a light colour'd knap great coat, lined with green baize, and a red velvet cape; a white broadcloth jacket, and black knit breeches.  Whosoever secures said villain, and delivers him to me, shall have the above reward paid by

March 25 [1780]                       Joseph Burnes, Gaoler

- New Jersey Gazette Vol. III No. 118, March 29th, 1780

 After his subsequent recapture, Levy escaped once more, this time making his way to New York.

Burlington August 10th, 1780

Broke out of Burlington gaol last night, two notorious villains:  The one named Joseph Heighton, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, about 24 or 25 years of age; had on a lightish coloured jacket without sleeves, a pair of striped overalls and boots; had no coat or hat: the other named Asher Levy, about the same age, about 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high; had on a fashionable hat, brown broadcloth coat, jacket and breeches, a pair of new shoes without buckles.  It is supposed they are gone towards Amboy in order to make their escape to the enemy.   Whosoever takes up and delivers them at the gaol aforesaid, shall have Four Hundred Dollars for each, paid by
J. Phillips, Sheriff.

- New Jersey Gazette Vol. III No. 138 August 16th, 1780

Joseph (Hayden) Heighton's concurrent escape with Asher Levy may have been coincidental.  He and his brother Richard Hayden were counterfeiters, and yet another brother Samuel Hayden lead a party of King's Rangers and Loyalist refugees in a raid on Woodbridge, NJ in June 1780 to kidnap some of those who had given evidence against his kin.  Joseph and Richard Hayden ended up in British occupied New York, and in November, 1783 were arrested by the Crown and imprisoned for stealing a horse and chaise.  Villainous company, to be sure, but with no other known connection to Asher Levy after he and Joseph Hayden made their escape from New Jersey.

Levy is described in both newspaper accounts as a young, well dressed man, with estimates of age that comport with his known year of birth (1756).   Asher Levy later married Margaret (Mary) Thom(p)son in occupied New York on May 22nd, 1782 and died just a few years later in Philadelphia.

What are we to make of his reversal of allegiance?  Was he a mere turncoat, or was he something more?  Could he have been a double agent?  We will probably never know, but it is worth delving deeper into what is known about his background to see what it may reveal about his chosen path.

There were fewer than 3,000 Jews in the American Colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution and they maintained close business and family connections.  Asher Levy's family origins and alliances offer potential clues to his behavior during the Revolution.

Levy came from a prosperous Ashkenazic Jewish family with deep roots in North America.  A collateral
Moses Lev y (1665-1728)
was Asher Levy's Grandfather
ancestor and namesake was among the first Jews to settle in New Amsterdam in 1654 and the only one who remained there at the end of Dutch rule despite Peter Stuyvesant's efforts to drive them from the colony. His Grandfather Moses Levy had two marriages and many of the oldest Jewish families in America come from these lines. 

By the mid 1700s, Asher Levy's nearer relations were well established in Pennsylvania.  His Uncle Nathan Levy, in partnership with his cousin David Franks, owned the ship which delivered the Liberty Bell to Pennsylvania in 1752. Asher Levy's father Isaac Levy died in Philadelphia in 1777.

In order to secure even the lowest officer's commission in the 1st NJ, a candidate needed connections.  Ensign Levy appears to have had a very good connection through his sister Esther (Henrietta) Levy's marriage to Matthias Williamson, Jr. (1752-1836), a New Jersey militia Assistant Quartermaster in 1778 but more significantly the son of militia Brigadier General Matthias Williamson of Elizabethtown New Jersey (and coincidently one of my ancestors).  Both Ensign Levy and Matthias Williamson were called to testify in Colonel Ogden's court martial in Elizabethtown in 1779, and as shall be seen, Matthias Williamson Jr. was one of the executor's of Asher Levy's will in 1785.

Oliver De Lancey, Jr.
On the other hand, Asher Levy's Franks relatives included several clear Loyalists.  1st cousin Phila Franks eloped and secretly married non-Jewish Oliver DeLancey, Jr., who would become the senior Loyalist commander during the Revolution.  Her brother David Franks was twice imprisoned in Philadelphia and finally sent through the lines to New York until the end of the war.  His daughter Rebecca Franks was the belle of numerous British balls in occupied Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-1778, and later while in exile in New York married Lt. Col. Henry Johnson of the 17th Foot.

Asher Levy was able to leave New York before the final Peace was ratified and moved to Philadelphia.  If he were truly a "notorious villain", one wonders why a clear patriot, his brother-in-law Matthias Williamson Jr., would have deigned to be an executor of his Will.  Yet here is the summary of Asher Levy's Will, drafted in the fall of 1783 and proved in August 1785.  His wife Margaret (Mary) Thom(p)son, is listed as a witness, and both his sister Esther and brother-in-law Matthias Williamson were his executors.

LEVY, ASHER. Phila. Gentleman.
September 25, 1783. August 12, 1785. T.183.
Sister: Esther [Otherwise called Henrietta].
Exec: Brother-in-Law Matthias Williamson and Sister Esther Levy.
Wit: Margret Thomson, Richard Mount, Callaghan McCarthy.

A couple of months later, the Pennsylvania Packet posted the following notice:

If a certain Asher Levy, son of Mr. Isaac Levy, of the city of Philadelphia, deceased, will apply to the
                 Printer hereof, he will hear of something to his advantage." December 9, 1783

This was in reference to his father's will of 1777, the estate of which remained unsettled as late as 1785.  By then, Asher Levy himself had died.

It is possible that Levy really was a disaffected person, but it is also possible that Lt. Col. De Hart's letter naming him as such was an elaborate cover.  As part of an extensive merchant family he had connections throughout the Western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to Jamaica.  There were plenty of spies managed by the officers of the 1st and 3rd New Jersey Regiments and Levy could have been one of these.  Then again, Colonel Ogden may have been looking for a chance to get rid of him after the court martial testimony.  Until more data comes to light we can only speculate, but there is room for reasonable doubt that his story should be taken at face value.