Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Henry Knox Papers II Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number 13

Henry Knox papers II

by David Swain

Introductory Information

The Henry Knox Papers II are only a part of the papers of Henry Knox housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society:

-- The Henry Knox Papers owned by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and deposited in the Massachusetts Historical Society consist of a 55 reel microfilm collection, of which the David Library owns a complete copy.

-- The Henry Knox Papers III consist of a yet unfilmed manuscript collection held only by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

-- The Henry Knox Papers II, with whose contents we are concerned here, are partially microfilmed, and the David Library owns a microfilm copy of all the items that have been microfilmed. These include two reels of recent acquisitions containing the Diary (part of the Revolutionary War papers) and the Waste Book and Letterbook (part of the Bookseller papers), plus three reels of orderly books (part of the Revolutionary War papers), previously acquired and catalogued by the David Library in a separate microfilm collection titled Revolutionary War Orderly Books.
The entire Papers II collection is organized as follows:
                   I. Personal papers, 1736-1803

                   II. Professional papers, 1771-1823
                                A. Revolutionary War papers, 1775-1781
                                B. United States War Office papers, 1786-1790
                                C. Bookseller papers, 1771-1823

This report focuses on the two microfilm reels recently acquired by the David Library from the Henry Knox Papers II. These are as follows:

First reel: Diary from November 20, 1775 to January 13, 1776: journey to bring
cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights during the British
siege of Boston.

Second reel: Waste Book of daily transactions and expenditures from Knox’s London
Bookstore in Boston from July 22, 1771 to April 15, 1775 and
Letterbook of drafts/copies of Knox’s outgoing correspondence from
January 8, 1774 to March 9, 1775.

Biographical Information

Henry Knox was born into a Scots-Irish family in Boston in 1750. After his sea-captain father died in 1759, Young Henry quit school at age 12 and went to work to support the family as a clerk in a bookstore. His experience around books must have helped inspire him to become self-educated and to pursue his own interests in business, trade, and bookselling. In 1771, at the age of 21, he established the London Bookstore in Boston and began an intended career as a bookseller. However, he had also become interested, through reading and the impending hostilities with the British, in military operations, especially artillery. By 1768, at age 18, he had joined a local militia company; in 1770, he apparently was present at the Boston Massacre; in 1772, he joined the Boston Grenadier Corps; and by 1774-1775, he was actively involved in the public and military affairs in Massachusetts leading toward the American Revolution. This involvement and the onset of the revolution in 1775 soon changed his life considerably.

By early 1774, the bookstore was doing a prosperous business. However, by May, he was writing letters bemoaning British acts to blockade Boston harbor and to tax the colonies—because of their detrimental effect on trade, especially his own book trade, which depended on a supply of books shipped from London. Meanwhile, in June, he married Lucy Flucker, daughter of the royal secretary for the colonial province of Massachusetts Bay.

By early 1775, his accounting records for the bookstore become sparse and peter out in April, just as hostilities were beginning at Lexington and Concord. Knox never returned to his bookselling career. Nor did his wife ever see her loyalist parents again. As Henry and Lucy hurriedly escaped British occupied Boston, her parents sailed back to England, never to return, as the Continental Army threatened to “liberate” Boston. Ironically, it was Knox’s arrival with cannon to fortify Dorchester Heights (see below) that helped assure American victory at Boston and the departure of his wife’s parents for England.

By November, Knox had met General Washington, they had started a long personal friendship, and Knox was commissioned a colonel of the Regiment of Artillery. Almost immediately, he was sent to command the transfer of cannon from Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point to the Dorchester Heights near Boston as part of a (successful) attempt to break the British siege of the city. He continued in active duty through the Revolutionary War. By 1781, he had been commissioned a major general. After the war, Knox was appointed secretary of war in 1785, in the government under the Articles of Confederation. After the Constitution was ratified in 1789, he continued as the first secretary of war in the new government under President George Washington.

In January 1795, Knox retired to private life at Thomaston, ME (still a part of Massachusetts then, just south of present-day Rockland and Camden), where he had obtained, by graft and corruption, a large real estate empire. He got involved in several businesses (none of them bookselling and none of them successful), served unpopularly in the Massachusetts General Court until he was ousted at the polls by a local blacksmith, and died at Thomaston of peritonitis in 1806.

The Diary

This “diary,” contained in a single notebook and recording entries for less than two months, is a diary in only a general sense. It lacks routine daily, dated entries. It more accurately resembles a set of field notes with occasional dates, descriptions of official activities and movements, and occasional bits of accounting and even private reflections. The diary begins on November 20, 1775, just after Knox had been commissioned a colonel on November 17 and assigned to retrieve the cannon from Ticonderoga and Crown Point. On this date, he was in Worcester, MA (not at Ticonderoga, as suggested in summaries of the diary’s contents).

The diary very generally describes his land journey, with the troops assigned to him, from Worcester, on November 20, to Livingston Manor, NW of Poughkeepsie (in the interior, just south of the Catskill Mountains), on the 30th and apparently on from there to Lake George by December 16. (They traveled from Worcester southwest via New Haven to Croton’s Ferry on the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY. From there they may have traveled by boat to Poughkeepsie and then by land again to Lake George.)

Knox could not have traveled all the way to Ticonderoga and back from Lake George because, by December 18, he is describing the southward journey, through two feet of snow, with the cannon, toward Albany. Since, on his arrival at Lake George, he paid a number of bills for sleds, boats, cattle (oxen?), and men for transporting the cannon down to that point from the two forts farther north, plans must have been made and the transport conducted down to Lake George by others, probably the Captain Johnson to whom Knox made his payments.

A few days after December 18, Knox and the cannon were in Albany, where he remained during the remaining diary entries, which end on January 8, 1776. A final page contains a financial receipt dated January 13 at Blanford (probably Blandford, MA, located west of Springfield). This is the only clue in the diary that the cannon took a land route from Albany, eastward over the Berkshire Mountains and across Massachusetts to Dorchester, outside of Boston.

The pieces of this fragmented diary do not easily fit together and are impossible to interpret without additional sources of information. From the diary alone, the reader cannot discern how many men were in Knox’s company of soldiers, their mission, their daily activities, nor the details of their journey. For instance, the diary has Knox at Poughkeepsie the day before he was at Livingston Manor, which makes little sense geographically, given their destination of Lake George. Perhaps British forces required the long land detour around the Catskill Mountains rather than boating up the Hudson River. Or perhaps the river was already too icy for navigation.

The diary does provide some interesting details suggesting that this newly minted colonel remained an observant and sensitive human being:

-- After reporting his journey in abbreviated, impersonal terms, he wrote with relief that he had finally arrived at Albany, “almost perish’d with the Cold.”

-- In early January, he recorded two incidents in which a cannon fell into a river, both at Albany. The first one he only heard about, investigated, and determined that proper precautions had not been taken to prevent the accident. He recorded the second incident on January 7. A large cannon had fallen into the river “notwithstanding the precautions we took.” The next day, he wrote that, with the help of “the good people of the County of Albany,” the cannon had been hauled out of the river.

-- More interesting, and unique in this small diary, are the observations Knox made on January 5, 1776. On this day, he ventured off alone, on horseback, traveling northward from Albany through the cold and snow for 19 miles (he estimates) to the falls of the Mohawk River. His description and his feelings during this experience are worth quoting in full:

“It is the most superb & affecting sight I ever saw—the river is about 4 or 500 yards wide, at the time I saw it was about 9 oClock in the morning when the beams of the sun reflected on the whole Icy scence [scene?] around—Vast Icicles of twenty feet long and three or four feet thick hanging pendant from the neighboring rocks—which were [__?__] from the rain & melted snow falling from the neighboring heights & a very serene frost coming up which arrested the water in its fall—this ornamented the scene in a very particular manner—the water falling from such a height gave the water the look of milk. It look’d like one Vast torrent of milk running from a thundering height—In its fall Occasion’d a very thick mist to arise, which look’d like a shower of rain & I was told that in summer time a perpetual rainbow was to be seen here [.] after having gaz’d & wondered for a long time I returned to Albany about 19 miles from the admiring the stupendous [__?__] or [of?] nature & not a little humbl’d by thoughts of my own insignificancy.”

This modern-day photo (previous page) of what is now called Cohoes Falls reveals the drama of the falls (without ice and snow), which are 75 feet high and 1,000 feet across.

The Waste Book

This transaction-by-transaction record of Knox’s bookselling business at his London Bookstore in Boston reveals valuable information about both purchases and sales, about his sources of books (some in London) and other merchandise for sale as well as the individuals (named) to whom he sold, and about what he bought and what he sold to whom. The transactions are clearly and neatly recorded with dates and considerable detail. Entries are recorded from July 22, 1771, probably not long after the store opened, until April 15, 1775.

During the latter half of 1774 (as Boston’s harbor was being blockaded by the British) and the early months of 1775, entries become less detailed and less neatly and compactly recorded. By March and April, very few entries appear, haphazardly written, with very little detail. They peter out completely on April 15, 1775 (just two days before Lexington and Concord). One final but incomplete entry is dated February 17, 1777. Independent of the Waste Book, we know that, when the British occupied Boston not long after, they took over Knox’s home to house British officers and looted his bookstore. Nevertheless, Knox is said thereafter to have made a final payment due for books received from his London supplier.

A complete listing of the individuals identified by name in transactions would provide an interesting compilation of well educated people from places throughout New England. A good deal of Knox’s business (some of his sales as well as most of his purchases) seems to have been by “mail order,” with amounts added for “charges and shipping.”

Similarly, a complete listing of the books identified by name would provide an interesting shelf list of what people were reading during this period—and its diversity. A random sampling is worth including here. Generic categories of books listed frequently include singing books, prayer books, and grammar books. Specific books (part of a much longer list) include some unfamiliar and some still familiar titles: the Bible (probably the best seller), Testaments, Edwards on the Will, Cole on God’s Sovereignty, Life of Cromwell, Doddridge’s Ten Sermons, Practice—London Hospitals, Paradise lost, Vicar of Wakefield, Arabian Nights, White’s Cases in Surgery, Frugal Housewife, Religious Courtship, Tour through Great Britain, Pilgrim’s Progress, Barclay’s Apology, Art of Speaking, Condorcet’s Concordance, Merchants Lawyer (2 volumes), Love’s Surveying, Johnson’s Dictionary, New Peerage or the Present State of the Nobility, and Greek Grammar.

The bookstore sold more than books. Transactions also document the sale of stationery, sealing wax, pencils, chalk—and playing cards. Other business expenses also appear, for example, £13.9.6 in 1772 for an insurance policy.

Most curiously, a June 11, 1773 transaction, in the midst of the usual bookstore transactions, documents the purchase of 300 bushels of corn, 546 of coffee, 115 of loaf sugar, 1 cask of Tenerife wine, and 2 barrels of superfine flour. A total of £87.8.13¼ was paid for these items. Whether Knox resold all this or whether it was for his personal use is not documented.

The Letterbook

This contains copies (more accurately drafts with crossed-out and squeezed-in text in some cases) of Henry Knox’s outgoing correspondence in 1774-1775. Most of the letters pertain to Knox’s bookselling business. A number were written to James Rivington and Thomas Longman, his book suppliers in New York and London respectively. In May and June 1774 politics spilled into this correspondence as Boston Harbour was about to be blockaded by order of Parliament and he foresaw that his book trade was about to be in economic jeopardy. On June 8, 1774, Knox wrote at length to Longman, in a tone more plaintive than angry, as follows:

“The late Act of Parliament for blocking up this harbour and the other Bills now pending make the situation of public Affairs so very critical as to have a disagreeable influence upon all trade here. It is the unhappiness of almost every place to have persons who are inimical to the prosperity of it—this people have & will feel this truth verified in a manner shocking to humanity—persons who for the sake of aggrandizing themselves by their false representations feel no compunction to plunge a whole community under the severe lash of an enormous power jealous of its authority.

“I am no politician nor prophet indeed it does not require any great knowledge of either to predict the effects of this blind esertion [?] of ministerial vengance on a whole people for the folly of a few.”

At this early pre-revolutionary (but not by much) stage, Knox does not sound rebellious, only upset that “his” English government’s authorities could make decisions so detrimental to Boston’s trade prosperity. Nor does he know where, specifically, to assign the blame (or is he being coy in his use of words in a letter bound for a recipient in London?).

The last letter in the microfilmed collection is dated February 6, 1775. Not long after that date, he became fully engaged in the revolution’s military effort, leaving behind forever his bookshop and former career.

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

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