Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The John Rowe Diary Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number One

David Swain is our volunteer resident researcher. On the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, we will feature some of the items David has found in our archives. In his first entry for the blog, David writes about the recently purchased Diary of John Rowe. Rowe lived in Boston, where he earned a living as a merchant and sometime smuggler like John Hancock. Rowe kept a detailed and meticulous diary from the revolutionary era, which the David Library just purchased on microfilm from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Rowe was active politically and socially in Boston. He was a Freemason, served on numerous town committees, and regularly socialized with people like Samuel Adams and George Washington. As you will see, Rowe's diary can provide a wonderful window into the world of revolutionary Boston.

Patrick Spero

John Rowe Papers (diary)

by David Swain

Biographical information

John Rowe (1715-1787) was born in Exeter, England and came to Massachusetts Bay colony as a boy with his brothers. He settled in Boston and lived there for the rest of his life. He became a prominent merchant whose primary interests in life revolved around his private business activities and related socializing (especially through active membership in Freemasonry starting in 1740).

Nevertheless, as a leading citizen, he held several local political offices, including Boston Selectman (1767 to 1769) and Massachusetts Bay Provincial Representative (1766). His support of and participation in the patriot cause leading up to the Revolution were motivated primarily by his business interest in maintaining the free and inexpensive flow of merchant goods. This support and participation is well documented (mixed with some conjectures) but is not very evident in the diary entries summarized below.

During the revolutionary conflict, Rowe sought to avoid commitment so as to maintain his business interests. Since the diary ends in 1779, it does not contribute to an understanding of his life during most of the war years and after, until his death in 1787.

Microfilmed Manuscript Diary
The microfilmed manuscript papers of John Rowe owned by the David Library consist of a personal diary. The original manuscript is owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The diary is voluminous, containing daily entries from September 8, 1764 through July 18, 1779, written on a total of 2,493 pages in 15 bound volumes. Of this, three volumes (#2, #12, and #14) are missing (apparently lost) in the microfilm owned by the David Library. The writer numbered each page consecutively throughout the entire diary and carefully dated each entry, so what we have is clearly ascertained.

Some of the manuscript is quite difficult to read because Rowe used a heavy and broad pen stroke, especially in the early years, the result being that many of the microfilmed pages show the writing on both sides of the paper, making it difficult to discern what is written on each side separately.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has provided a summary of the contents, which is accurate and helpful. However, it misses many nuances to be discovered by reading the diary, some of which are noted below.

Installment 1 (September 1764 through August 1765)

Reel 1 begins with Volume 1 (185 pages, September 8, 1764 through mid August, 1765). Right away, we can discern distinct and regular patterns of writing. Each daily entry begins with a pithy summary of the weather. Most of the rest of each daily entry documents those with whom he dined and/or did business or socialized. He does not describe either his business activities or his social activities (except that he spent time at certain eateries, such as a coffee house, and that he attended Freemason meetings at the Grand Lodge). However, he does document in detail those with whom he dined, either out or at home. At home, whether dining with guests or family, he consistently includes his wife “Mrs. Rowe” and what must be a daughter, named (or nicknamed?) Souky. Occasionally what appears to be a son, named Andrew, is also present. He says nothing about his family except that Souky once took a trip for a few days, and he never identifies his wife by her first name (at least that I found in skimming Volume 1).

The lists of names, which include those attending Freemason meetings as well as those with whom he dined, might be a valuable source for a researcher looking specifically for detailed information about Boston merchants, sea captains and shipping, and those active in Freemasonry. Otherwise, they become tedious for the reader simply trying to understand the life of John Rowe.

The entry for each Sunday contains additional information, all relating to his churchgoing. He went to church regularly on either Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, or both. For each church service, the diary describes “Mr. Hooper’s” sermon, starting with the full quotation from the Bible used and following with a description of the main points of the sermon.

We learn little from the diary about Rowe’s recreational activities except from occasional entries documenting outings for sport fishing, which he apparently enjoyed considerably.

This regular pattern of chronicling private events goes on for days and days, pages and pages. Only occasionally (in Volume 1, at least) does Rowe deviate into matters of public interest. And, in most cases, Rowe describes these events from a detached perspective, almost as if he felt himself a dispassionate outside observer. With exceptions, he was not heavily involved (at least from what we can learn from the diary) in public affairs and was not a man of strong and passionate opinions. The few exceptions are of interest, if only because of their exceptionality:

On November 5, 1764, some sort of accident occurred in Boston, in which a boy was run over and killed and which somehow escalated into a “battle” (read urban riot?) between Northenders and Southenders. The militia were called out but were apparently ineffective. Rowe was not involved and stayed home. He expresses no specific opinions on the matter, but his tone in reporting it seems to suggest a dislike of disruption and violence (my sense of what he says).

 In the spring of 1765 he became involved in town affairs to the extent of “attending” certain committee sessions, including one on the John Bannister affair (not described), one on a donation (of what?) by John Hancock, for which the Committee on the Town’s Affairs agreed to provide a piece of ground on the Common, and a few other instances of “attending” court sessions.

He apparently was something of a civic leader, although the evidence is meager. In 1765 he was unanimously chosen treasurer of a private organization, probably the Freemason group. In May of the same year, he ran for town office (perhaps selectman?) but apparently lost. As he reported it, he got 238 votes out of 641 cast. Voters must have cast multiple votes because the candidate with the most (Thomas Gray) had 570 votes, and three others received more than Rowe did, the implication being that these four got elected. The diary contains nothing about Rowe’s feelings about the election and whether he indeed was or was not elected.

The Stamp Act was approved by the British Parliament in March 1765. No mention of this hot-button issue appears in the diary until the day, August 14, 1765, when the newly appointed stamp tax officer was hung in effigy in downtown Boston. On this date, Rowe describes the bare facts of the events of the day, which included a mob run riot (my words) in the evening that, according to him, destroyed a new building thought to be designated as the stamp tax office and damaged the house of a person who must have expressed a pro-tax opinion (not described). After this chronicle of events, Rowe broke his self-imposed silence of opinion. In a short sentence set off in parenthesis, he expresses the thought that those who had destroyed and damaged the buildings were “to blame.” This brief outburst of opinion says nothing about the principle of the anti-Stamp-Tax protests (which would reflect a political viewpoint, of which he expresses none in Volume 1) but expresses disapproval of public behavior that destroys property—a view that would be consistent with the self-interest of a prominent merchant. Howe’s entries for this date conclude by recording that he dined alone that evening with Mrs. Rowe and Souky. He spent the next day out fishing. Not exactly the life of a committed “rebel” and political activist.

Installment 2 (April 1766 through July 1771)

Reel 1 continues: Volume 2 is missing. The manuscript diary begins again with Volume 3, pages 323-461, April 11, 1766 through December 16, 1766. Volumes 4 through 8 follow, with entries through July 1771.

Impressions based on Volume 1 alone don’t tell the whole story. Between 1766 and 1771, John Rowe gradually became considerably more interested and involved—as revealed in his diary—in public affairs as patriotic events began to “snowball” in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Instances in point plus more include:

April 13, 1766, Rowe heard of an account of the repeal of the Stamp Act (on March 22). No comment on it per se, but it must have been of special interest, given his merchant occupation.

A Sunday soon after, Rowe commented that the sermon was “politico,” with which he strongly disagreed. Whether he did not like politics in his sermon or whether he disliked the gist of the political message in this sermon—or both—is not clear.

May 28, 1766, Rowe heard of Samuel Adams being elected clerk of the House by one vote and commented that he was one “who has a great zeal for Liberty.” Later the same day, he din’d with the governor. At this point, his political preferences and relationships remained unsettled, as were the times.

November 25, 1766, he attended the General Court concerning redress to merchants for damages resulting from British policies.

March 18, 1767, first of several events recorded in the diary of anniversary dinners at Faneuil Hall celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act. These include lists of toasts, which begin with the King, Queen and royal family, followed by many British officials and offices (for trade, admiralty, etc.), and the (British) army and navy. Later toasts are for prosperity for North America, the Town of Boston—and the Sons of Liberty. In between are two fascinating toasts, “to the united and inseparable interest of Great Britain and her colonies” and “may the true interest of Great Britain and her colonies be never hidden in their eyes.”

May 8, 1767, the annual Boston town meeting election of four selectmen: total votes 648, James Otis 574, John Hancock 618, Thomas Cushing 557, Samuel Adams 574 (these four “ruled” for several years in succession during this crucial period). Rowe acknowledged receiving 134 votes, yet increasingly in the coming years, he was din’d with and worked with these four and others among the top leaders of Boston, becoming one of them himself by the early 1770s.

March 1, 1768, meeting of 98 merchants on public matters, including Rowe. It declared for free trade without British restrictions. Rowe was selected for a committee of nine to guide the group toward taking “every legal measure for freeing the Country from the present embarrassments” regarding the importation of goods from Great Britain by determining “the best measures to carrying into execution the foregoing.”

June 14, 1768, Rowe signed what he called a “smart” petition (resolutions) by [Boston or Massachusetts??] to Governor Barnard concerning the trade situation and American citizen rights. On June 30, the General Court refused 92-17 to rescind the resolutions, as urged by British authorities. Rowe clearly agreed, describing the 17 “yes” voters as persons “that were so mean spirited to vote away their Blessing as Englishmen namely their Rights, Liberty, and Property” words straight out of John Locke.

August 1, 1768, Rowe supported and signed a non-importation agreement among Boston merchant leaders.

September 28, 1768, Rowe was keeping track, by name and captain, of British men of war coming into Boston harbor. Later, he din’d with some of the captains.

October 1, 1768, “This day the troops came ashore.” This was the lead sentence for the date, upstaging the perennial weather report.

October 2, 1768: Rowe reported an extraordinary verbal altercation at the Coffee House, the “club” where the merchants met for meals, gossip, and business. A Captain Dunlap approached him in public and stated, as quoted in Rowe’s diary, “….I expected to have heard of your being hang’d before now for Damn you, you Deserved it.” To which Rowe writes he replied “Surely, Captain Dunlap, you’re joking.” More strong language followed until Rowe says he “prudently” walked away from the tense situation, only after noting who had witnessed the tiff. No longer can Rowe be described as just an observer or as aloof from public affairs, without consequential opinions of his own.

During this time and after, business affairs appear in the diary a bit more frequently, including some matters with money amounts quoted for deals or payments. For instance, on May 8, 1769, he notes that “I sold my stillhouse [??] to Colo. Jackson for the sum of £886.13.4—” Clearly, Rowe was doing well financially, and was cashing in on the triangular trade.

March 5, 1770, Rowe records the basics of the Boston Massacre (not called that then), in which he did not participate. His only comment is that “The inhabitants are greatly enrag’d and not without Reason—” By March 6, it was clear to Rowe that the “people” had won concessions from the British (troops withdrawn), which made him happy and the people “satisfied and peaceable.”

Still, he was a part of the British empire’s establishment in Boston. On June 4, 1770, he attended the ceremony for changing officers of the artillery in Boston.

December 1770, no mention at all of what is now called the Boston Tea Party. He was busy with business and Freemason activities.

Beginning in 1769, daily entries become shorter and more cursory. Still, each day begins with the weather and lists those with whom Rowe din’d, but little else is recorded, except on Sundays, when church going and sermons continue to require longer entries.

Installment 3 (August 1771 through July 1779)

Reel 2 contains Volumes 9 through 15 (with volumes 12 and 14 missing), pages 1341 through 2493 of Rowe’s consecutively numbered pages starting in 1765. The two missing volumes cover dates from June 1, 1775 through December 24, 1775 and from November 19, 1776 through August 12, 1778.

Despite some gaps, the extant diary contains some gems of interesting entries during the years 1773 through 1776. The diary ends with an entry for July 18, 1779, which is not unlike most of the other entries, and, as such, offers no clue that this was a final entry for Rowe. More likely, he continued making daily entries for several more years (he died in 1787) in subsequent volumes that, like volumes 2, 12, and 14 of what we know about, have been lost.

Here are more specific comments about and findings in volumes 9 through 15:

Between Nov 2, 1773 and the end of the year, Rowe wrote several entries concerning the “tea matter” (the term “Boston Tea Party” had not yet been invented). (Note: a written list of dates of entries on the “tea matter” is included at the beginning of Volume 10—written by whom and when is not clear.)

A longer than usual entry on November 3 describes the issue of whether or not to deliver tea on consignment through the East India Company. In subsequent days, he reports briefly on several public meetings on the subject and on vandalism of the house of one who DID deliver such tea. By November 30, he got in trouble himself when one of his own ships came in with some tea on it, which he learned with “great regret.” A committeeman was assigned to investigate, “against my will but I dare not say a word.” Immediately after this entry, “I din’d at home….” Then, “After dinner I was sent for by the Body by two messengers…. This was at the motion of Mr. Hancock. I wish he had omitted it.”

On December 16, Rowe describes the basic events of the actual “Boston Tea Party.” This passage reads like an American history textbook—straightforward and factual as the story of the event has come town to us. Then, Rowe decided to comment: “This might I believe have been prevented. I am sincerely sorry for the event.” Still he was no flaming radical, and he was more interested in maintaining peace and order (and property) than in fomenting the revolutionary (or any other) cause.

Three months later, March 30, 1774, Rowe reports being selected as moderator for a town meeting. He then lists two issues discussed: fixing the lamps of the town and something about the clock on the fourth meeting house. (These probably are much more typical of town meeting issues than the larger issues of Revolution etc.)

By May 13, he heard about a new law of Parliament ordering the closure of Boston harbor. By now, John Adams was showing up on lists of prominent people, along with, among others, John Hancock still. Sam Adams is no longer mentioned.

On June 1, the day was lamented as the last during which the harbor would be open until this “fatal act of parliament…is repealed.” He continues with a strong (for him) comment: “Poor unhappy Boston. God knows only thy wretch’d Fate. I see nothing but misery will attend thy inhabitants.” In tone and language, this sounds like something out of his Sunday descriptions of sermons.

A day later, June 2, Rowe comments trenchantly on another new parliamentary act—to occupy Boston with British troops. Rowe writes that this new law “for the Better Regulating the Province of Massachusetts Bay which act strikes the very charter granted to this Province by King William and Queen Mary—It is or will be productive of many evils to the advancement of this his majesty’s Province and sour the minds of most of the Inhabitants thereof. I am afraid of the consequences that this act may produce—I wish for Harmony & Peace between Great Britain our Mother Country & the colonies—but the Time is farr off.”

In following days, Rowe reported the arrival of men of war and troops—some of the troops setting up tents to stay on Boston Common. On June 17, he noted the governor’s dissolution of the Massachusetts Bay colonial assembly. On July 14, he disagreed with a popular protest strategy to engage in a one-day fast. On August 15, he lists those appointed by crown officials to a new King’s Council for the colony.

By the dates of Volume 11 (September 1, 1774 through May 31, 1775), General Gage is in charge in Boston.

April 19, 1775: Rowe has a lot to say describing the events of Lexington and Concord: After having described the movement that morning of British troops from Charlestown westward, he writes that “On their march they had a skirmish with some Country People at Lexington.” He says that the country people had been warned by a series of alarms of the coming of the British soldiers (but doesn’t mention Paul Revere). In his writing, Rowe sets up a distinction between town people and country people, whose revolutionary zeal and actions differ somewhat. He prefers the town approach. Also, he does not recognize the resistance here to be of organized militia, only of “people” from the countryside. Then he goes on to describe the Concord confrontation somewhat differently: After writing about having din’d with several gentlemen and spent the evening at home, he goes on to write that “A general battle ensued which from what I can learn was supported with great spirit on both sides and continued until the King’s Troops got back to Charlestown, which was near Sunset—Numbers are killed and wounded on both sides.” Then, shortly after this passage, “This unhappy affair is a shocking introduction to all the misery of a civil warr.”

On April 20, he reports about further tension and some violence in the Boston area: “’Tis said many thousands of Country People are at Roxbury & in the neighborhood—The People in Town are alarmed & the Entrenchment on Boston Neck double guarded.”

By April 21, he reports about a lack of communication and travel between the city and the countryside. No fresh provisions are coming through the British lines into Boston, and “Boston is in a most Distressed Condition.”

Similar reports of hardships and unrest continue for several days. They soon evolve into occasional reports on fighting during the early days of what we call the Revolutionary War. The change is indicated in the change of terminology. By May, the American fighters are now called “Provincials.”

At this point comes the missing Volume 12 (June 1 through December 24, 1775).

In early 1776, snippets of war news continued, along with more detailed descriptions of life in Boston under British occupation. On February 14, Rowe reports the burning of a house near Boston by the British.

Closer to home, he describes in detail on March 11 how he observed—and felt he could do nothing about—the “plundering” of his warehouse under orders from General Gage (perhaps to acquire goods needed by British troops). “They took from me to the Value of two thousand two hundred sixty pounds sterling according to the best calculation I could make of linens, ? cloths and woolens.” “They stole many things & plundered my store. Words cannot describe it.” “I remained all day in the store but could not hinder their destruction of my goods.” Finally, this man is really angered and in despair—not over principles of liberty and independence but over the plundering of his private property.

In the meantime, The Americans pushed the British out of Boston. Only 15 days after the British plundering, on March 26, Rowe reports that he din’d at home, and, “After dinner I went with M. Parker and paid my respects to General Washington who received me very politely”. Then, he spent the evening at home.

By now, Rowe was calling the American side in the war the “United Colonies.” With the British gone, life got better in Boston. Imagine, as a man of 61, long settled in his ways, merchant occupation, and social status in Boston, how he must REALLY have felt about all the sudden and disrupting changes that came into his life so rapidly between 1773 and 1776. As life returned to something like normal, Rowe reverted more and more to short, personal daily entries in his diary, reflecting a life more like his between 1764 and 1772. By 1778 and 1779, the diary had returned to being almost entirely private, with the same daily pattern of noting the weather and listing those with whom he din’d. However…

By April 8, 1774, Rowe was still uneasy about his public role during unsettled times. For some unexplained reason, his involvement in a public meeting with his fellow Freemasons turned nasty, he felt “mortified,” and he felt obliged to “retire” from the scene. Following this brief description, he allowed himself a rare personal comment revealing how difficult he found the unsettled revolutionary situation, even as he clearly espoused (finally) support for the cause. “This has caused me some uneasy reflections in my mind as I am not [?] to myself of doing anything prejudicial to the cause of America either by word or deed.”

July 4: No comment on Independence. Rowe learned of it on July 13: “’Tis said… that Independency was declared the 4th Instant at Philadelphia…. A general Inoculation in this Town for the small pox.” No personal reaction to what we think of as a great event in Philadelphia and historical watershed (symbolically at least), and at least equal attention and concern with the inoculation at home in Boston.

Still occasional war news. For instance, on September 24, 1776, “Very Bad news from Gen’l Washington. The Connecticut militia behav’d very badly…” in a losing fight for New York on September 16. Volume 13 ends on November 18, 1776, Volume 14 is lost, and Volume 15 begins on August 13, 1778. Thus, unfortunately, we don’t know what Rowe’s reaction was to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and capturing of Trenton at Christmastime in 1776.

Volume 15 is filled with small, personal entries interrupted only occasionally with brief reports of American warships and privateers coming into Boston harbor. The diary we have ends on July 18, 1779.


As indicated above, most of John Rowe’s diary is about private matters—mostly social (including his involvement in Freemasonry), religious (Sunday services/sermons), business (mixed in with social, especially given his proclivity to list, virtually daily, the names of those with whom he “din’d”), and occasionally recreational (fishing).

Public and political matters seem to appear in the diary only when Rowe felt directly connected to or threatened by the events he recorded. Much of this “connectedness” seems directly related to his economic self-interest as a prominent merchant. But, as the Revolutionary process evolved before his eyes, he gradually became something of a patriot on principle as well.

Never, however, do the diary entries suggest that he became an active, agitating patriot, although he did act from time to time as a prominent public citizen—as a leader among the merchants, and in a few local public offices. Mostly, with a few notable exceptions, he was an occasional observer of events when they particularly interested or concerned him.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at tatum@dlar.org

No comments:

Post a Comment