Friday, July 10, 2015

Belcher and "L'Hermione"

The transatlantic visit of the recreated French frigate "L'Hermione" has been one of the highlights of the 18th century reenacting season in North America this year.  A project 18 years and 30 million dollars in the making, this carefully reconstructed vessel represents the warship that brought Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette, back to the war in America from France.  The "Boy General" arrived in Boston on April 27th, 1780, informing Washington by letter with a cheerfully guileless; "Here I am." 

By the time Washington got wind of it, Lafayette was well on his way overland to join the American commander at Morristown, New Jersey, where the main force of the Continental Army had just endured the worst winter of the century.  Washington dispatched the head of his Life Guard, Major Caleb Gibbs, to escort the Marquis from nearby Pompton, and the two generals were reunited on May 10th.

Lafayette brought word that his King had agreed to send a force of more than 5,000 troops and six ships of the line to aid the American war effort.  He also brought gifts of swords and plumes for the officers and men of a new Light Infantry Division over which he was to assume command that August.  Four companies of the 1st New Jersey Regiment, commanded by Colonel Matthias Ogden, formed part of this Light Division, and we know from a previously deciphered passage from the Belcher Journal - The Death of General Poor -that Belcher was also among the Jerseymen in Lafayette's Lights. 

At the time of Lafayette's arrival in Morristown, however, Belcher was still serving as waiter to Colonel Ogden's brother Aaron who was then Brigade-Major to General Maxwell.  Nonetheless, this most recently transcribed section of the Belcher Journal reveals a hitherto unsuspected connection not only to the Lights, but to the frigate "L'Hermione", and a brief interlude of unintended service under the fleur de lys.

"11th May [1780] This Day Majr. [Aaron] Ogden had nous that Gen'l Fayette arriv'd from Frogland  aboard ye Fregatt 'Herr Minion' - doubtless by her Dutchie name 'Tis some Hessian vessl taken by our French alloy  - Such was his Haste to be secure in his Excellency's vambrace that ye Markey did arrive a-head of his dunnage & divers articles for Light Division still abort 'Hair Mignon' at Beantown / Colo. [Matthias] Ogden ingrate Agitation lest ye wicked ways of ye Bostonaise result in Malapropriation of divers Plumage & espontoonage indented for Jarzy Gentlemen  & upon that head fools such as we must fech 'n carry - Perforce Majr. Ogden does dispatch me post Haste to ye Eastward to forstall unhappy misalliance of Yankey Doodles calling our Garlic gifts

12th May - As ye Post Road that does pass nigh Kings Bridge through the Neutral Ground is restrict'd
for what cause I know not by ye Gouvenor of Jarzy to but One lane only did think best not to affect Passage by land / Accordingly am considerin' a-shipping up to Boston, whoa, as Supercargo in a Snauw & pray ye Bark evades ye British by Nieu Yorck Bight.

13th May - Devilish poor weather does perclude a sea-voyage, ye Snauw swamp'd - Am much perpex'd how to proceed -
a monstrous waterspout now in sight off Powles Hoek - at this rate nothing short of Devine Provenance shall deliver me in good time to Nieuw England with whole skin - Rot these French fancies, they may go to the devil for all I ...

*** [Pages Missing, ed.]

...and so set down at Boston tho drenched & dizzy in a transport of delight.

14th May - Confound'd in my Expectation to intercept 'Ermine Knee', made Inquiry to find ye Frenchy Fregatt delop'd Down East a-nosin' about wair Saltonstall'd with not a word of our Cargo/ By ye Onion OysterHouse by chance made Acquaintance of Monty Golfer, another Frog come ashore with Fayette & his little dog too /
Massacr'd a Lobster wash'd down with Maltster Adams courtesy of Miss Ewer's Specie - La Boil Alliance / Discover'd in him a  fellow Inventor tho a gasbag on his theoree of litter then air travel / on this head did infirm him of my own recent Experience of travail by vortex which he did deem Revolutionary / After drinking more on it have determin'd to Construct a Flying Maschine for ye Libertie of our Property.  In the current French fashion, Fool Monty does whist to honor Dr. Franklin by calling it 'Python' after his famous 'Jine or Dye' sarpynt howbeit I favor 'Albatross'.
15th May -This Day began to amass Materiel for ye airship.   Did call at
[Belcher's sister] Charitee's in ye North End, found her not within but her washing on ye line did seem admirably suited to our purpose tho regret she must make shift without/ Borrow'd a Bellows from the shop of a Paulo Riviera who does pretend something in the Tinker's line / Did Requisition a small watercraft beach'd by ye Common & curiously fashion'd in the shape of a noble Swan.

16th May - Our work proceeds / Did Consider a cup of Cheer at Malone's but 'Tis a little known fact ye tavern is much frequent'd by Regulars & ye likes of Howe and Frasier.

17th May - To day much troubl'd by idlers & loafers below as Monty Gopher does hold a Lottery ye Winner to have naming rights for our Contraption - 'Crispy Haddocks' as favour'd by sum was a Martyr of ye Massacer & 'Mahkey Mahk' mayhap be Bostonaise for Marquee Fayette. 

18th May - This day we return'd to ye Common to prepare 'L'Wick'd Pissah' for her Maiden voyage.  Thair being no proper Ensign for Air Service did Libertate broad Blue pennant from green Wall by ye Fens inscrib'd AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIGNONS to serve that porpoise / Alight'd in ye Swan Boat with Brazier lit & set to ye bellows to inflate Sister Charitee's shifts / Unhappily Mounty Gulper's dog 'Fifi' espy'd one ally cat & was off like a Shot with Monsour close behind while I in 'Wick'd Pissah 'did rise aloft / He did beseech me most pitifully come back but ye dam'd fool knows full well he alone does understand ye principles of Aeronautical navigation & now may click his heels to get home while I discover I am in Boston no longer.

19th May - This Day am over Cape Cod, which from above does indeed seem like a mussel'd arm / Would that I had Maj. [Joseph] Bloomfield's old horse & a bushell of green pippens for fuel as such Internal Combustion served so well in '77 to speed our crossing  to Staatan Island.

20th May - Salvation, for ye small Anchor that does hang beneath has foul'd in ye rigging of a mighty Ship of the Line.  Unhappily she flies British Colours & makes as I now can see full speed down Long Island Sound for occupied Nieu Yorck / Small hope that ye white colour of ye inflate'd shifts & swan boat shall seem to those below but a scudding cloud, or yet an Albatross that all mariners know is perilous  to slay.

21st May - Marines, it does seem, know little of seamen's superstition, for they have won ye anchor, my cable cut ye swan boat peppered with shot & am now falling off astern; on approach to ye Water did cut free ye Swan Boat & paddl'd or rather peddl'd ashore at Setauket, deep in Toryland/

22nd May - This day secret'd myself in a Whaleboat & am Smuggled to New Ark by one Woodhull who tho not a Magistrate does call himself 'Culprit' but I do hold him blameless as a Friend of Libertie.

24th May - To Day reached New Ark wair did learn ye French baggage did go with full escort before me & is already in Mo-Town.  Now that I have return'd to Jarzy, 'Hoar Moany' Monty Guildford & 'Wick'd Pissah'  do seem to me now to have been but a dream /  Now to make my report to Majr. Ogden - Cosen Aaron, there's no place like home.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Home Boy Belcher

When Larry Schmidt and I discovered the Belcher Journal in 2011, wrapped in stained Osnaberg in a dark corner of the Spanktown Friends Meeting House, we had our first introduction to this extraordinary person whose exploits during the American Revolution were previously unknown to history.  We continue the difficult work of transcription and interpretation, as the manuscript is in an appalling condition and the author's penmanship leaves a great deal to be desired. 

Even with this document in hand, his biography remains far from complete.  We have a tentative year of birth for Belcher in 1754 based on some oblique references in his account, but have yet to find conclusive evidence in the vital records (much of which went up in flames during Loyalist raids on Elizabethtown, New Jersey).  His family name has an honorable history in the State, but if he was truly kin to Governor Belcher then he must have been a very distant relation and in much reduced circumstances.  He also makes occasional references to the Ogden brothers Matthias and Aaron as "cousin", but here, too the connection is not thought to be of a near degree.

Much to my astonishment, however, while reading through hundreds of New Jersey runaway ads from Colonial newspapers, I have just located one that refers to Constant Belcher by name and almost certainly was he.  It is dated 1769 and advertizes the flight of an apprentice lad whose manner of dress has an uncanny resemblance to that affected by certain modern youths.  It also explains why Belcher, when he did enlist in the Continental Line, might have favored the 1st New Jersey over the 3rd, given that the latter was commanded by his former master.

The New York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury  - March 3, 1769

Run away from the subscriber the 29th ultimo, living in Eliza.Town, Essex County, East New-Jersey an apprentice lad, named Constant Belcher.  He is a well set, lusty fellow, much pitted with acne, a great liar and very fond of strong drink, pretends to be a chantey man and much given to spoken verse; had on, went he went away, a hooded short capote of greyish Melton;  a good felt hat, cut Jockey fashion, which he usually wears with the fore parts behind, half worn blue duffel trowsers, much too large for him, very low in the seat, with blue check drawers under; leather shoes painted white, with strings in them left untied.  On his right arm, the letters D A W G, on his left the letters L I F E, pricked in with the gun-powder.  He stole and took away, a small skiff newly trimmed and painted, her wale yellow, with white spots under her wale; under the same a narrow streak of Spanish Brown, her stern yellow, white spots and two Bull’s Eyes forward, two felted dice on strings affixed to her prow; seats and benches of Spanish Brown and covered in a rough Shag, her inside payed with Turpentine.   Likewise stole and took away a servant lass, clothing unknown.  Whoever takes up the above apprentice and servant, and secures them, in any gaol, so that their Master may have them again, shall have a reward of 20 shillings, and 5 pounds for the skiff, and all reasonable charges, paid by

Capt. Elias Dayton

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Belcher the Progressive: "Liberty & Authenticity"

Our beloved 18th century reenacting hobby suffers from regular eruptions of vitriol and resentment over standards or authenticity, enflamed by  our values-laden perceptions of those whose impressions and motivations range from scrupulous adherence to surviving documentation to simply having a nice weekend outdoors in funny clothes.  I tend toward the "authenticity conscious" or "progressive" end of the continuum, tempered by the knowledge that documentation is limited and hypotheses are meant to be tested.  Also, a good sense of humor has gotten me out of tight spots on more than one occasion in this hobby, most notably the ill-advised “sausages of the Crown” incident of 2011 that launched a score of broadsheets, inspired a ballad and birthed a legend.
With that in mind, I am delighted to discover that Constant Belcher was himself, for brief a time at least, a "progressive" soldier in the 18th century.  In late 1774, when  Committees of Observation, Inspection, Correspondence and Safety were busy setting up shadow governments across the Colonies, while local trained bands drilled among the livestock on the Commons of New England, one company of Essex County militia in East Jersey appears to have decided to get into the act by going back to its roots.  In this, the earliest known entry in the Belcher Journal yet to have come to light, we discover the pains to which these patriots were willing to go for the sake of Liberty and Authenticity.

“Dec 13th [1774]  Thair be sum Gen’lmen of This Town afixin’ to re-ereate a Coy of Milisha in ye Manner of our Olde Jarzey Provincial Regt. from ye French War / As Father did Serve at Sabati Poont in ’57 wair ye Heathen did relief him his Topnot did think it proper to ‘List to remember his Sacrifice. 

Dec 14th
To Day did attend ye Committee of Reenaction at Williamson’s Hogshead [Tavern] with a mind to jine ye new Provo Coy /  Much debate concerning what Impression to make, de Hart does favour  ’62 when the Blues got Yellowjack in Habana whilst Mayor [Ephraim] Tyrell spoke for ’57 when the Regt. was well scupper’ d in thair Batoos / As few old soldjers did survive these Campaigns but little Material culture does remain to inform Authentick uniforms  &etc. For my part Father did leave me naught but his Hoern as patrimony graven “Fools Such as We”/ Did offer this Relick to Committee for Inspection, directly they did attest its documentation for ye True Motto to be blazon’d upon  ye Colours.

Dec 15th   Ye Committee still debilitates ye Standards of Authenticity for ye Provo Coy/ Dr. Barnett did Procure certain Papers from ye Provincial Assembly from ’58 as did authorize short uniform coats “after the Highland Manner” /  Grate disputation re: such  Garmints as naught in our Number is of Scottish Descant tho’ sum are of Presbyterian stock / Subcommittee of Observation sent with dispatch to Nieu Yorck with divers Articles of a drafty nature to render from Life ye Trews & Coatees of any Highland Regt to be found among ye Ministerial Forces thair.

Dec 18th  This Day did hear of a fine Portrait of Colo. Shirley in ye old Regimental of the Jarzy Provos at Spanktown & did travel thair as a Body to Authenticate / ‘Tis a faire likeness in Oyl of ye Olde Blue Uniform of madder Facd/  ye Skirts are over long for ’58 & ye Waste Coat too fine for Common use / Ye Coy mooted viz: yellow buttons Gas back or no / Returnd this Even. To Williamson’s to drink on it more.

Dec 29th
– Still no Resolution, ye Committee makes no progression on ye Provo impression / Word has come from Phila.  of the Provincial resolves forNon Importation from Britain, Most distressing to Our Cause as ‘twill deprive us of ye proper K&P Broadcloth needed to clothe the Coy in Authentic Fashion.
Dec 3oth  Drilld  To day in the olde manner/ Did Find it Bland.

Jan 2nd [1776] –  Treason of ye Blackest dye!  This Day Capt. Woodruff  did revile a disaffected person in our Coy who did contrary to Gen’l orders of ’58 refuse to cut down his Round Hat with Yellow tape for to go a-Campaigning, also did fashion Indian leggings of Brown broadcloth in place of Blue or Green as establishd in ye Documentation for our Impression.

Jan 6th Took French Leave of the Re-created Jarzy Provo Coy, much fatigud by Research,  Have determin’d Soldjerin' must be ye proper Province of Scholars, not fools such as we."