By Jim Hollister, Ranger, educator, and interpeter at Minute Man National Park.
On the eve of Patriots' Day 2005 -- the 230th anniversary of the opening battle of the American Revolution -- Minute Man National Historical Park will welcome back a famed piece of history, a brass cannon known as the "Hancock." Documentary evidence strongly suggests this cannon, which will be on loan to the park through the generosity of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, was among the munitions sought by British troops sent to Concord in April 1775 and thought to be hidden at Colonel James Barrett's Farm.
In 1774, the atmosphere in Boston and the surrounding countryside was electric with mounting tension between British authorities and Massachusetts colonists angered over British intrusions upon their rights. At the beginning of September the tension came within inches of erupting into war when Gen. Gage sent a detachment of soldiers into Charlestown to seize a supply of powder intended for use by the colonial militia. By the next morning, more than 4,000 angry militia men had gathered on the spot in response to what came to be known as the "Powder Alarm," but too late. The regulars were safe in Boston with the colonists' gunpowder.
From then on, the colonists decided to take a more proactive role in securing their military stockpiles. A dangerous arms race ensued. Expensive and hard to come by at any price, cannons were a premium commodity.
In a newly constructed gun house on Boston Common were two brass field cannons (light and mobile cannons used by armies in the field) belonging to the Boston Artillery Company. These cannons were purchased by the Massachusetts General Court for the company in 1766. They were recast from two older brass cannons sent over to England from Boston. Completed and returned to Boston in 1768, these recast cannons were of three-pound bore (meaning that they fired a ball weighing three pounds) and inscribed with the "arms of the Province," an Indian with a bow and arrow. They were two of four cannons in use by the company and were a source of great pride.
In September 1774, however, to the company's horror, their commanding officer, Major Adino Paddock, a known Loyalist, was making arrangements to turn their cannons over to the British! On Sept. 16, 1774, while the gun house in which the two three-pound cannons were stored was under guard by British soldiers, members of the Boston Artillery Company waited for the appropriate moment to break in and take back their cannons. The moment came at the changing of the guard.
Acting quickly, the men pried open the door, slipped inside, dismounted the cannons and ran off with them to a nearby school house where they were hidden inside a wood bin. Shortly after, a British sergeant checking on the cannons noticed they were missing. Shocked at the audacious day-time theft he cried, "I'll be damned if these people won't steal the teeth out of your head while you're on guard!" The two other cannons belonging to the company were spirited off two days earlier much to the embarrassment of the British authorities.
The stolen cannons were smuggled out of Boston and "transported safely within American lines." It is believed they were taken to Concord, then being used as a colonial military supply depot. Once in Concord, the cannons were added to an impressive and growing colonial arsenal. They were deposited at the farm of Col. James Barrett of the Concord militia and according to local tradition, were buried in a field. All told, by the spring, the colonists had amassed enough arms and equipment between Concord and Worcester for an army of 15,000 men.
In an effort to seize and destroy these stores, including the stolen cannons, and hopefully avoid civil war, Gen. Gage sent 700 soldiers under the command of Lt. Col. Smith to Concord on the 19th of April, 1775.
In 1788, five years after the successful conclusion of the war, the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requested of Secretary of War Henry Knox that the four cannons of the Boston Artillery Company, then in the keeping of the United States Arsenal, be returned to Boston. Two of the cannons were captured during the war and so lost. The remaining two, the three-pounders of our story, were, upon the order of Secretary Knox, newly christened the "Adams" and the "Hancock" and engraved with the arms of the Commonwealth and the following inscription"
Thus, after eight years of war and five years of collecting the dust of obscurity, the cannons were finally restored to their proper home. In 1817, the "Adams" and "Hancock" reappear in history when the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in Boston requested to borrow the two relics from the Commonwealth, which was readily granted. This proved to be a poor decision. In 1820, the "Adams" burst as a result of the Ancient and Honorable's "experimental gunnery."
In 1843 the Bunker Hill memorial was opened to the public. At that time or near about, the "Adams" and the Hancock" were mounted in the uppermost chamber of the monument. There, the "Adams" remains to this day, still bearing the scar of the "experimental gunnery." Both cannons are owned by the Bunker Hill Monument Association and currently in the care of Boston National Historical Park.
Among the dignitaries expected to join the superintendent at a press conference to be held Friday, April 8 at Park headquarters (174 Liberty Street, Concord, MA) are Esperanza Watkins, representing Congressman Marty Meehan; Jim Conway, president of the Bunker Hill Monument association, descendants of Colonel Barrett, town officials, volunteer Bill Rose, who crafted a replica carriage for the historic cannon and Anna Winter, director of Save Our Heritage, a preservation organization based in Concord that has purchased the Barrett Farm. Also present will be J. L. Bell whose excellent research paper initially prompted park rangers to track down the whereabouts of the cannon.
Minute Man National Historical Park is particularly grateful to the Bunker Hill Monument Association for its generosity for loaning the cannon and to Save Our Heritage. Explains Park Superintendent Nancy Nelson, "For years, we have watched as the Barrett home has suffered from the ravages of time and weather. With the leadership of Save Our Heritage, we are all hopeful that this extraordinary home and farm will be preserved. We honor as well the courage of the Barrett Family who on April 19, 1775 deceived the British even as Col. Barrett was ordering his men to march down the hill to the North Bridge."
Photos: Courtesy of Minute Man National Historical Park