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The Disposal of the Powder

Among the more important data to which we can give
unquestioned weight is an article heretofore unnoticed in the
New Hampshire Mercury of 1785 and in the New Hampshire
Spy
of 1789. In one of these General Sullivan refers to an
anonymous attack made upon him in the New Hampshire
Mercury of April 19, 1785, of which no copy appears to be in
existence, although diligent search has been made. It is
probable, however, that the article was the same as one
appearing in the New Hampshire Gazzette of about the same
date and signed “Honestus,” which contains nothing new except
that the author speaks of the powder as having been sent to
Exeter, where eventually much of it was undoubtedly stored.
General Sullivan also refers to an act of congress of Tuesday,
July 31, 1781, when the continental congress ordered1 “That the
board of treasury pass to the credit of General Sullivan the
following sums in specie, viz. : One hundred dollars as a
compensation for the expenses incurred by him in securing the
military stores and ordinances at Fort William and Mary, New
Hampshire, in the year 1775, and distributing them in various
parts of the country for the use of the United States, one
thousand dollars for the extraordinary expenses, necessarily
incurred by him as the commanding officer in a separate
department, for which no provision or compensation has been made;
and four hundred dollars as a reimbursement of the expense
incurred by him after his resignation for the recovery of his
health which he had lost in the service and was thereby induced
to retire.”

The article of General Sullivan above referred to appeared in the
New Hampshire Mercury of May 3, 1785, and was addressed to “The
Impartial Public,” and is as follows:

Although I have no desire to satisfy or even to answer, a
malicious, false, and cowardly writer, who under a feigned and
very unproper signature, has endeavored to wound my reputation,
by a publication in the New-Hampshire Mercury of the 19th ultimo:
yet in as much as I am conscious of having acted with uprightness
in every part of my political conduct, I shall for your
satisfaction answer the three charges which his malice has
suggested, and which his knowledge of their falsity has prevented
being signed by his proper name.

  • The first charge is obtaining a considerable sum from
    Congress by false representations, respecting the taking powder
    from Fort William and Mary.
  • Secondly, Giving up the fishing-ground. And,
  • Thirdly, Receiving a bribe in my office of Attorney-General,
    which prevented my complying with my duty in endeavoring to
    confiscate a valuable estate by which I suppose he means, Col.
    Boyd’s.

To answer the first it will be necessary to relate the
manner of taking the stores from the fort.

When I returned from Congress in 1774 and saw the order of
the British King and Council, prohibiting military stores being
sent to this country ; I took the alarm, clearly perceived the
designs of the British ministry, and wrote several pieces upon
the necessity of securing military stores; which pieces were
published in several papers.

On the 18th of December [date is evidently given from memorv
and is wrong] some gentlemen belonging to Portsmouth, went to the
fort and took sundry barrels of powder and sent in a gondola one
hundred and ten barrels to my care; which myself and others
deposited in places of security. The next day a report was
spread that two vessels of war were coming from Boston to take
possession of the fort and harbour.

I went down with a large number of men and in the night
following went in person with gondolas, took possession of the
fort, brought away the remainder of the powder, the small arms,
bayonets, and cartouch-boxes, together with the cannon and
ordnance stores; was out all night, and returned to Portsmouth
next day. I might here add that I bore the expense of all the
party. The gondolas, with the stores, were brought
to Durham, after several days spent in cutting the ice, Durham
river being then frozen over; the cannon, etc., was then
deposited in places of security. These are facts known to almost
every person in the State–and to all them concerned, that almost
the whole expense was borne by me; not withstanding which I never
applied for a single farthing to Congress, or any other body, for
this service, and when a committee of Congress, who were
appointed to report what was due for my allowance in separate
departments where I commanded, reported one hundred dollars for
this service, I warmly opposed it, and told Congress I never
expected, or desired a single farthing for it–for the truth of
this I appeal to the Hon. Judge Livermore, who was with me in
Congress, at the time, and knows every fact relating to it, he is
now on the circuit through the state, consequently any gentleman
may satisfy himself, by asking him whether these facts are true
or false.

But to prove whether Congress has been generous to me in
their grants, I beg leave to mention that by a resolve of
Congress of the 15th of June, 1775, general officers in separate
departments, were to be allowed one hundred and fifty dollars per
month, over and above their wages: I served thirty months in
separate departments, and Congress made me a grant of thirteen
hundred dollars only, in lieu of four thousand eight hundred
which was my due : it is true one hundred of it was reported for
the above-mentioned service, but upon my objecting to it, was not
in reality granted in that light–and further, to prove the
generosity of Congress to me, I now say, that for near five
years’ service, I have never received only the nominal sum in
paper money for my services, and am the only officer in America
that has received no depreciation or allowance therefor.

Durham, April 23, 1785

JOHN SULLIVAN.

These letters leave absolutely no doubt that, in the first
instance, the powder and other military stores were brought to
Durham to be from there distributed. Whether or not part of the
powder was lodged under the pulpit of the Durham meetinghouse
must remain, as heretofore, a matter of tradition but the fact
that the Rev. Mr. Adams was of the party, and that, with the
exception of General Sullivan’s own house, it was one of the
nearest buildings to the landing where the powder was unloaded,
lends probability to the report. We know positively, as the
family tradition has always held, that some of the powder was
stored in the house of Ebenezer Thompson, which is still standing
in Durham, and is still occupied by a descendant of the judge in
the person of Mr. Lucien Thompson. There is little doubt, too,
that, in the subsequent distribution, a considerable portion of
the powder was left with Maj. John Demerit of Madbury. Such has
been the unvarying tradition in Durham. Powder and balls from
Fort William and Mary, which had been kept in the original
magazine built in the Madbury home, are now in the possession of
the New Hampshire Historical Society, donated in 1887 by Mr. John
Demerit (now also major) of Madbury, N.H., a direct descendant
and namesake of Major Demerit.

Major John Demerit residence, Madbury, New Hampshire, circa 1900

Miss Mary P. Thompson, writing for the Independent Statesman of Nov. 17, 1887, states that the
wife of Major Demerit’s grandsons who had had charge of Major
Demerit during the last six years of his life, related to her the
accounts of the capture of the fort and the preservation of this
powder, as she had heard it from Major Demerit. Also, in
Brewster’s Rambles about Portsmouth, it is asserted that Daniel
P. Drown, calling upon Major Demerit in 1799 or 1800, was given
two charges of this powder for his rifle with the statement that
it was taken from Fort William and Mary.

It is certainly true that a large part of the powder was
afterwards distributed among the several towns. This is
indicated by General Sullivan’s letter and by the journal of
congress, and has also been well brought out bv Hon. John G.
Crawford in an article read before the New Hampshire Society Sons
of the American Revolution.1 Several documents quoted in the New
Hampshire Provincial Papers, Vol. VII
, also show this to have
been a fact. The arms brought from Portsmouth were repaired and
put in order at Durham, for in the Durham town records2 it is
recorded that at March 31, 1783, town-meeting it was “Voted that
the selectmen be directed to allow Thomas Wille 20/9 in full for
repairing the guns brought from Fort Wm and Mary.”

Footnotes

  1. Proceedings of the N.H. Sons of the American Revolution, 1889-97.
  2. Vol. II, p. 220.