Sometimes freedom disappears one law at a time, like Virginia creeper covering a stone wall. This was often the case with Britain and its American colonies, where the mother country sought to control and sap resources from the citizens far away, often without regard to their welfare or benefit. Everyone has heard from school about the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, and how the Boston Tea Party and other incidents led to the war for independence – but what about the White Pine Act?
The British Crown first passed the White Pine Act in 1691 for Massachusetts, making it a crime to cut down and retain logs from a white pine tree more than one foot in diameter, without the King’s mark and permission. Such trees were designated solely for the use of the British Navy, used as masts for the King’s ships. In January 1770, the Crown extended this law to New Hampshire, and all of New England.
Courtesy Library of Congress
Since white pine is one of the most plentiful trees in New Hampshire, this law posed a severe hardship to the sawmills along the Merrimack River. The law was extended to all of New England. The sawyers could be arrested, fined, and the Crown could seize the fruit of their labors. Ebenezer Muggeridge was among those targeted, and he incited a rebellion.
Another little-known fact is that during the Revolutionary War, George Washington had a detachment known as Washington’s Honor Guard, whose job was to protect him on the battlefield. Though soldiers had to be sixteen or older to be selected for the guard, some drummer boys were as young as ten. They were in the thick of battle, without weapons, relaying the orders of Washington and other officers via their drums. One of these youngsters was Muggeridge’s ward, Billy Sims. What follows is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, Washington’s Drummer Boy, based in part on a newspaper account of the White Pine Rebellion, and Billy’s exploits.
April 1772 Weare, New Hampshire
Bill Simpson looked up from the bench where he was pulling a drawknife on a piece of oak. Three approaching horsemen clattered into the dooryard, two of them red-coated soldiers. Being only eight years old, it wasn’t his job to meet them, but he was intensely curious – what would redcoats want with the master of the mill, Ebenezer Mudgett? He pretended to keep working while listening to hear all he could.
“Master Mudgett! I am John Sherburn, deputy surveyor for His Excellency Royal Governor Wentworth.”
“Good day, to you, sir. And what does the Crown need this time?”
“Masts for His Majesty’s ships. You, sir, have white pine logs above one foot in diameter, the very kind needed for those masts. And,” paused Sherburn, “you do not have a license to possess them! Guards, scour the shop!”
Bill brushed back sweat into his curly black hair, despite the cold. He remembered the pine he’d placed behind the barn, right where Pa directed. Had he covered it well enough? He worked with Ebenezer in the woods – didn’t these lobsters realize that at least a third of the trees in the forest were white pine? If they found it, would Pa be angry?
The soldiers began ransacking the shop, opening closets, climbing up to the loft, looking behind the building, even searching under the horses’ straw.
“Surely, you must be mistaken, sir. Perhaps a record is mislaid? Of course, I could make the masts that the Crown requires if desired.”
“His Majesty’s shipwrights would be amused. But you will not be if my men find that white pine. You know well that all white pines of that size belong to the Crown, for the last fifty years.”
“Oh, I know well enough. The Crown takes the best trees and the bread from my family’s mouth, all without a by your leave.”
A woman entered from the side door. “What is it, Ebenezer? Are these guests? You didn’t tell me you had invited anyone.”
“Miriam, it’s no concern to you. These are the King’s men, not guests. They’ve come to inspect.”
“Inspect? Inspect what? Has the King a sudden interest in wood shavings and our stables?” She pushed an errant gray hair back under her coif and wiped a hand on her white apron.
“Sir!” One of the soldiers rushed forward. “We’ve found them – ten white pine logs, hidden out behind the barn. They do not have the King’s arrow mark. And some more pieces are sawn,” gesturing at the sash saw.
“Very good, corporal.” He made a slight bow in Miriam’s direction and followed the soldiers.
Ebenezer tensed. “What’s wrong, sir?” asked Bill. The horses and I put those logs just where you said. Covered them well to keep the rain and snow off.”
“The problem, my young apprentice, is that the King thinks he owns everything.”
The soldiers and Sherburn returned. “Arrest this man! Take him to Sheriff Whiting. And make sure to mark those logs with the King’s symbol.”
Miriam rushed forward. “Please don’t take my husband!”
Bill dropped his work. Sir, my Pa has done nothing but try to make a living. I put the logs there – take me! Please don’t hurt him. You can’t take him. You can’t!”
“I’m afraid I must – the King’s law is clear.”
“Never mind, my dear. I’m sure it won’t be for long. Send Bill for my brother, and we’ll see about these laws.”
Bill rushed through the snow, down the path leading to the home of John Mudgett, brother to his master. His mind whirled -if the British took Pa, how would the mill survive? Tall for his age at five feet, his strides lengthened in a hurry. Ebenezer was officially his master but had been a father to him after his own died. His mother in Rockingham parceled out her children, having no means to support them. Bill felt lucky to have a kind and God-fearing master. What would they do to him? The freezing air bit his lungs as he ran, falling once on the ice, and picking himself up again. Clouds poured out from his mouth and hung in the air as he breathed hard, rounded the corner of the barn, and pounded on the door of the whitewashed frame house.
“Uncle John! Uncle John!” he yelled.
The door opened, and Rose, the Mudgett’s slave housekeeper, caught his hand in mid-knock.
“What’s all the fuss and feathers, Marse Bill? Marse John is out doin’ the milkin’.”
“The British have taken my master!”
“Oh, Lawd! I’ll fetch Marse John.”
She darted to the barn and came back with a portly red-haired man, wiping his hands on a milking apron.
“What’s all this? Why would the lobsters take my brother?”
“He got some white pine. The governor says it’s the King’s. That’s all I know. Miz Miriam says to come quick.”
“All right. Rose, you’ll have to finish the milking. I’ll hitch up the sleigh. Tell Clara I may be home late.”
Within minutes, Bill and John were flying down the road behind a pair of matched trotters. The snow blew up in a mist behind them. Bill pulled the laprobe more tightly about him. There had been no time for getting hot bricks, and his feet were numb from the cold.
“Who was it that came, boy?”
“Soldiers – and that new man, Sherburn, I think his name was.”
“Sherburn, eh? A troublemaker if ever I knew one. How much pine did my brother have?”
“Only ten logs or so.”
“Hmm, well, not so much. If we’re lucky, they’ll let him off with a fine.”
“What if they don’t, sir?”
“Don’t you worry about that. Leave it to your elders. And pray.”
They pulled into the dooryard, and John leaped down, handing the reins to Bill.
“Miriam! Has there been any word?”
Miriam came slowly into the yard, head down. Bill’s heart clinched – she looked to have been crying. He wanted to run to her, but held still, holding the horses.
“No, John, no word. I mustn’t leave the other children. But I’m frantic to know what’s happening. You don’t think they would… would they?”
“No, of course, they wouldn’t.” Bill caught the hesitancy in his adopted uncle’s voice. “Don’t worry, Miriam. I’ll spread the word to the other mills, and see what’s happened with Ebenezer. Have you any ready cash?”
“Very little. I have this note for forty shillings. Aside from that, we have accounts owed for work to be completed. The good Lord alone knows how we will do without Ebenezer …”
“Trust in God, Miriam, and I will return soon.”
John took the forty shilling note and stuffed it in a pocket. Bill handed back the reins, and they were off again. They stopped at several other mills along the river. At each stop, John spoke in hushed tones to the mill master, and then on they went again.
When they finally arrived in town, John went to the lockup and asked for the Sheriff.
“When might Sheriff Whiting be available?”
“When he returns from his supper, sir. May be of help to you?”
“I’m here concerning Ebenezer Mudgett.”
“Ah, well. Nothing I can do there. He’s bound over to the magistrate.”
“I’ll just step over to Quimby’s Inn, then. Will you advise me when the Sheriff returns?”
“Bless you, sir, and he’s likely over there himself. Can’t say he’d like you disturbing his victuals, though.”
“Much obliged, sir.”
Turning to the sleigh, he tied off the horses and bid Bill follow.
Bill jumped down from the sleigh and wondered what good it would do to talk to the Sheriff. Hadn’t John said that Pa was already bound over, whatever that meant? It didn’t sound right. They stamped their feet to clear off the snow and pushed open the plank door. A rush of heat hit them from the large central fireplace. There were perhaps ten round tables, each with a coal oil lamp. Only three had patrons. At one sat a florid, overweight man, having an intimate meeting with roast mutton and johnnycakes. The dark paneled wall reflected dancing flames from the fire and the lamps, and at the far end was a bar with stools, and large kegs of beer.
The Sheriff looked up between bites, annoyed. “Yes? What is it? Can’t a man finish a meal in peace?”
“When a man may conduct his business in peace, perhaps so. You’ve taken my brother Ebenezer into custody?”
“Yes. Crown law. He’ll stand trial.”
“Have you ever known him to cause trouble before?”
“Well, no. Except for some talk about the governor.”
“And should his wife, children and this poor boy here,” gesturing at Bill,” suffer for some loose talk? Can you not release him until the hearing? He has a business to run. He isn’t going anywhere.”
“He owes one pound fifteen shillings fine for the trees.”
“And pray sir, how can he pay that from the lockup? There is unfinished work at the mill. If you will but release him, we shall have the fine by the morrow.”
“You’ll sign for that?”
“Yes, if you require it.”
“I do. Meet me at the lockup in fifteen minutes. Now go away.”
Bill was tempted to dump a pitcher of water on the Sheriff but resisted the urge.
They stood by the stove at the lockup, waiting for the Sheriff’s return. It was more like half an hour than fifteen minutes, but there was little else to do. When the Sheriff waddled in, the deputy bobbed and scraped, and went down in the holes to fetch the prisoner. After a few minutes, Ebenezer emerged, face dirty, rubbing his wrists. It was all Bill could do not to fly to him and throw his arms around him. That would seem childish, however.
John bent over a high table, signing papers with quill and ink.
“Tomorrow morning, then,” said Sheriff Whiting.
Ebenezer said, “I thank you for releasing me tonight. We’ll be sure to be here tomorrow to give the King his just due.”
Ebenezer climbed into the sleigh. He held the boy at arm’s length, just looking into my eyes, and then drew Bill into a hug, not caring who saw. John clicked to the horses, who recognized they were headed home and went at a fast trot. The men gazed at the deepening evening in silence. Bill couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“What will happen, Pa? Will you pay them? And where will we get more trees? The soldiers used hatchets and marked an arrow on each of the ones we have.”
“Don’t worry your head. There are other trees. And yes, we will pay for them. Oh, we will pay for them!”
John looked over at his brother with a grim smile.
When they arrived back at the mill, though it was evening and just before chore time, the dooryard was full of horses and men, instead of the usual evening quiet, there was an uproar as twenty men tried to talk at once.
Ebenezer turned to Bill. “Bill, I want you to stay out of this. Tend the horses, mind your Ma, and go to bed. Say your prayers. Don’t mind the noise. Do you hear?”
Bill got down and unhitched the horses, taking them to the barn for a rubdown and feed. His uncle would need them to go home. He was following orders – but that didn’t mean he had to hurry. One advantage of being young he found was that adults often told him something, and then forgot about it. Bill heated some water on the stove, so that it was lukewarm, then gave it to the horses to drink. The dappled gray slurped greedily, and Bill had to hold him back. The bay patiently waited his turn, nibbling at the hay. Once they both had water, Bill mixed a bran mash, and gave that to them, while rubbing and drying them, and straining his ears to listen.
“The Crown has gone too far. We’ve had this highway robbery for fifty years. Previous governors did not enforce it. Now the surveyor is sending soldiers into the forest, marking trees. What happens when they decide white pines aren’t all they want, as if that wasn’t bad enough?”
Another man yelled, “Wentworth and his thugs have done enough!”
Pa spoke – Bill recognized the voice. “Men, we’ve resisted. We’ve written letters. We’ve tried to tell the King what we think of his taxes and fees. We got the Townshend repealed. If we stand still, the King will put his boot on our necks.”
Another voice spoke, calmer, but able to be heard – Bill thought he recognized the reverend. Finishing with the horses, instead of going in the house, he climbed the ladder to the loft and opened the hay doors slightly so that he could look out and hear without being seen. The reverend of the Congregational Church spoke, raising his arms for quiet.
“Brothers, you know that the Scriptures tell us to obey our government. The King must obey God, and we must obey the King. I urge you to consider carefully before starting something that cannot end well. The Bible says to pay tax to whom tax is due, honor to whom honor is due. Take care, lest we are on the wrong side of God.”
The men in the yard glowered at the reverend. Ebenezer stepped forward again, mounting a box.
“The Bible also says there is a time to obey God rather than man. Neighbors, you know me to be a peaceful man. I have paid taxes to the Crown while insisting that they have no right to tax Englishmen who have no vote on the matter. Enough is enough. We must feed our families. It is time to pay King George in something other than a coin. Who’s with me?”
Shouts resounded around the yard.
“All right then. Meet here an hour before first light. Bring ropes and torches. It’s time that King George got a taste of what true Englishmen think of his taxes.”
When Bill awoke the next morning, he saw the shadowy figures of Ebenezer and Miriam moving about the kitchen as he looked down from the loft bed he shared with the Mudgett girls, Achsah and Sarah. The girls still slept, but Ebenezer was up and dressed. Dawn was peeking above the trees, spreading pink and orange tints to the clouds. Bill dressed quietly and descended the ladder.
“Ma, what’s happening so early?”
Miriam started, then shushed him. “Why aren’t you asleep? This will be a busy day.”
Looking out the window, Bill saw buggies and horses in the yard, along with a collection of men, all armed.
Miriam smiled. “The one day we tell you to go back to bed instead of starting chores, and you are too curious. Very well. Pa is going to pay the British. The other men are going along to protest. Now go get some rest.”
“But Ma… if Pa is going, I want to go too.”
“No, that would be too dangerous. He doesn’t want you to draw any more attention to yourself than you did yesterday, speaking out of turn. Children are to be seen and not heard,” she reproved.
“All right, after I go to the privy.”
Bill opened the latch on the door, shoved it open, and stepped out into the frosty morning. In case Ma was watching, he moved toward the privy, entered, and waited a minute, holding his nose. When he came out, he went to the workshop, flitting from tree to tree. He got his work coat that he kept on a peg there, and again climbed to the loft where he could observe. The men were talking too quietly to hear, but he saw that their faces were smudged with soot and bootblack, making it difficult to see who was who.
He recognized Pa and saw the wagon off to the side that they used for deliveries, hitched, and ready to go. He quickly climbed down, went to the stove, and used ashes from the bin to obscure his face, just as the older men had done. Then he looked, saw the men occupied, and ran to the back of the wagon. He hopped in and covered himself with a tarp so that no one would notice him.
He wanted to peek out but forced himself to lie still. Whatever Pa was going to do, Bill wanted to be there.
After what seemed an hour, when his toes were going numb, he felt the wagon lurch and begin to move. Looking out the back, a line of horses, buggies, and wagons followed, like some equine caterpillar with twenty legs following after Pa. Why would all these men come, just to watch Pa pay a fine?
A bump and hard jolt made him bang his head on the wagon bottom, and he bit his lip to keep from crying out in pain.
Eventually, the wagon rolled to a stop. Bill lifted the tarp just an inch to see out and waited until the other wagons grouped around them. They were in front of a house. When the other men had dismounted and gathered around Pa, he slipped out the back, onto the new-fallen snow, and took up a post behind a nearby tree.
Ebenezer pounded on the door, then wrenched it open, breaking the latch. The men boiled through the entrance into the house. Bill thought, no one is going to mind me, since they don’t know I am here. If I stand just inside, I can see and hear. If something happens to Pa, I can take word home.
Bill saw Sheriff Whiting, still in his nightclothes.
“Here, what’s all this? Who are you? By the King’s wig, what’s the meaning of this?”
“We’re here to pay King Georgie his fines and taxes,” said one.
“Very well, but you needn’t break-in, and you could have waited until after breakfast.”
“Oh, we’re very prompt to give the King and his servants their due.”
The men crowded closer, raising clubs.
Whiting blanched and moved backward to the wall, grabbing a brace of pistols from a hook. “Stand back, or I will shoot!” He aimed the pistol squarely at Ebenezer’s chest. Bill feared for his Pa and grabbed an iron from the nearby stove. In confusion, he raced behind the men up the stairway, to where he stood above the Sheriff. Whiting cocked the pistol. Bill dropped the hot iron, aimed to strike the pistol or chest of the Sheriff, who yelled and dropped the pistol in surprise and pain.
The men surged forward, seizing the Sheriff, and tying his hands behind his back. They ripped open the back of his shirt, and bent him over a table, clubbing and whipping him until he cried for mercy.
“Take that payment to King George and the governor, if you will. Tell Wentworth that if he comes, we’ll do the same to him. We’ll not tolerate the tyranny of the King any longer. True Englishmen know their rights. If he does not, then we must teach him.”
Bill crept back down the stairs and again stood near the door. One of the men turned, went to the stables and saddled a horse for the Sheriff. He clipped the mane and tail of the horse, making him look a very sorry beast. They propelled the Sheriff toward the door. But Bill wasn’t quick enough – Ebenezer and the Sheriff saw him at the same time.
“So this is the kind of brigands you are! You even bring a child into your devilry!”
The Sheriff looked more closely at Ebenezer. “You must be Mudgett, who was bringing the fine today – and this must be your boy. I’ll mark it well!”
“If you don’t get on that horse and ride far away, we’ll mark you again!” yelled one of the men.
Whiting mounted with help and whirled the horse out of the yard.
Pa turned his attention to Bill. “I don’t know whether to thrash you or hug you. It was a near thing in there, and you saved us all from bloodshed. But you should have stayed home. Now that you and I are recognized, we’re in danger. Let’s make haste for home, and pray about what to do.”
If you enjoyed this, and would like to be notified when the full novel is published, please visit http://www.historicalnovelsrus.com/contact and sign up for my newsletter. – Michael Ross