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Participants in the Capture of Fort William & Mary

John Langdon, portrait by Edward Savage, once in the possession of Mrs. Woodbury Langdon of Portsmouth, from Lawrence Shaw Mayo’s John Langdon of New Hampshire (1937)

It is unfortunate that so little is known about the actual
leaders and those who joined with them in the attacks upon the
fort. The newspapers of the time were silent upon the question,
and even the official reports contain scarcely a reference,
simply saying that the leaders were well known. The act was one
of open treason to the king, and, as it was the almost unanimous
act of the community, but little was written or published that
might injure the participants. A few names only are preserved to
us. Governor Wentworth says that the first attack was carried
out by citizens of Portsmouth, Rye, and Newcastle. No individual
is named. General Sullivan says the powder was sent to him by a
messenger from Colonel Long, and, if he remembered correctly,
signed also by John Langdon. John Sullivan was the unquestioned
leader of the second attack. Jeremy Belknap, who wrote during
the lives of both Langdon and Sullivan and was a close friend of
the latter, credits the leadership to these two prominent New
Harmpshire men. Judge Ebenezer Thompson, in the New Hampshire
Spy
, says: “Hon. John Langdon and others took the powder.”
John M. Whitton,1 is the first to claim Thomas Pickering as a leader.
No previous mention of his name in this connection has come to
light, and Whitton does not give his authority. The History of
Manchester
, 1856,2 Report of the Adjutant General for New
Hampshire
, 1866,3 and Brewster’s Rambles about Portsmouth speak
of Thomas Pickering as being the leader in the first attack. All
three take their authority from Daniel P. Drown, a nephew of
Pickering, who had received his version of the affair from his
father, Samuel Drown, whom he stated as a participant. Brewster,
obtaining his information from the same source, states also that
Sullivan, Langdon, George Ffrost of Durham, and Dr. Bartlett of
Kingston, were present. The account by Drown is so inaccurate in
many particulars that it is doubtful if his memory of his
father’s story was correct in regard to the others. Brewster4
also states that Pierse Long assisted in the removal of the
powder which General Sullivan’s article, before quoted, confirms.
From the New Hampshire Spy we learn that Judge Ebenezer Thompson
went with the party as far as Portsmouth, but was not present at
the fort, and that the Rev. Mr. Adams, Deacon Norton, Lieutenant
Durgin, Capt. Jonathan Woodman, Mr. Aaron Davis, and, probably,
Mr. Footman of Dover, were actively engaged in the second attack.

Josiah Bartlett, portrait by Alonzo Slafter based on a pencil sketch by John Trumbull, 1790. New Hampshire Historical Society from a photo by Bill Finney.

Mr. Eleazer Bennett of Durham, who was probably the last
survivor of those who took part in the affair, gave a full
description to the Rev. Mr. Tobey of Durham, who published it in
an obituary notice of Mr. Bennet, in the Congregational Journal
of Feb. 18, 1852. It is unfortunate for our purpose that Mr.
Bennet was one hundred years old at the time Mr. Tobey took down
his statement, for his account is very inaccurate, and with the
exception of adding several names of those present contains
nothing of value. He enumerated John Sullivan, Winborn
Adams, Ebenezer Thompson, Joln Demerit of Madbury, Alpheus
Chesley, Jonathan Chesley, Peter French a law student in
Sullivan’s office), John Spencer, Micah Davis, Edward Sullivan,
Isaac Small, Benjamin Small, and himself, as members of the
party. It is worthy of note that he makes no mention of
Alexander Scammell, although in the narrative as quoted in
Amory’s Life of Sullivan as coming from the same source his name
is included. It is probable that Amory copied this account
from the highly imaginary article in Harper’s Monthly of July,
1886, rather than from the original publication. However, in a
letter to the senate of New Hampshire of Feb. 14, 1785,5 General
Sullivan says that he was assisted by his three clerks in
bringing the stores up the river, and this leaves but little
doubt that Alexander Scammell, Peter French, and James Underwood,
who were at that time in his office, were with him at the second
attack. Another account by a survivor of the Exeter party, and
published by Governor Bell in his History of Exeter, also differs
so much from the known facts that little credence can be given to
any part of it. It does not seem wise to further quote either of
these accounts.

Footnotes

  1. History of New Hampshire (1834), p. 122.
  2. The History of Manchester (1856), p. 408.
  3. Report of the Adjutant General for New Hampshire, 1866, Vol. II, p. 263.
  4. Rambles about Portsmouth, Vol. II, p. 276.
  5. N.H. State Papers, Vol. XVIII, p. 749.