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."