Sometimes I find the coolest things hunting and pecking around the interwebs researching my ancestors in an attempt to flesh out their lives. This one was a very convoluted find, because it all started with questions about a probate record for Samuel Billings of Vermont, and ended up in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War.
So, here’s what happened — I was working on creating a timeline for Samuel, to get a general sense of the whens and wheres, and it turns out that he had been a Captain in Colonel Learned’s 4th Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary War. Upon further research into this regiment I find out that this is the same one that William Shepard took over after Learned died. Cool. Now I know that Samuel served under my 5x great grandfather Col. William Shepard. That, in and of itself, is pretty interesting. But then, this little gem pops up on my radar:
In 1778 Deborah Sampson wanted to enlist in the army as a Continental soldier. But the army said no, because, well, because women can’t serve you silly ninny. So, she disguised herself as a man. She had little difficulty passing as a man because she was 5′ 7″ in height, which was tall for a woman at that time. She ended up serving 17 months in the army, as “Robert Shurtlieff,” (wounded in 1782, honorably discharged in 1783).
Sampson was chosen for the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Captain George Webb. The unit, consisting of fifty to sixty, er…, men, was first quartered inBellingham, Massachusetts and later the unit mustered at Worcester under the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, commanded byColonel William Shepard.
In the town where she died, Sharon, Massachusetts, they have statues of her, buildings named after her, and lots of history honoring her service and life. I seriously doubt that William or Samuel ever knew they being snookered at the time. Good for her! Of course, it would have been even better if the military had said “by all means, the more warm bodies to help us kick English ass, the better.” But they didn’t.
A couple of years ago I found the coolest newspaper article when researching William Shepard of Westfield, Massachusetts. It has always been in the back of my mind, waiting, I guess, for me to finally say “Hey, I need to blog about this.”
So, finally, here I am blogging about this.
On and off for about 15 years, William tried his hand at politics by running for the office of Representative, or Lieutenant Governor, from 1789-1804. It took nine tries before he was finally elected as Representative of Massachusetts, Western District, in 1796 (and again in 1797, 1798, his last win was in 1800).
In May of 1797 he apparently stood up in session and made reply to a speech given by President John Adams a few short weeks earlier. His words were sent to the newspaper by ‘A Customer.’ (Maybe this was done by William himself, to help sway the voters back home in his favor for the next election.) By the way, he was a Federalist.2
…The observations of the Hon. William Shepherd in the House of Representatives, May 27, on the reported answer to the President’s Speech…
Mr. Shepherd did not rise from his seat with an expectation of throwing much light on the subject under debate; but being a new member, he conveyed it his duty to come forward and announce his political principles to his constituents and to the world, and to make some remarks and observations on the subject under consideration that he might be able to justify his own conduct for thus doing,
“Sir, said he, I do not come forward with an intention to criminate the government of the United States, for in general I believe it has been wisely conducted and well administered. I do not come forward to make researchers into the police of the government of Great Britain, neither do I come forward prejudiced against the republic of France, nor do I come forward with any prepossessed prejudiced against any of the members of this House, for they are the greater part of them entire strangers to me; but Sir, the President of the United States in his speech has informed us that there is an unhappy dispute existing between the republic of France and the United States1, and on that account there is a report Sir, on your honor’s table, which was designed for an answer to his speech, but objection has been made, and an amendment is proposed by the honorable member from Virginia—the question is before your committee, whether we shall admit of the amendment, first; Sir, I will take a retrospective review of the conduct of both nations and remark how France first came to be connected with the United States—because it has been hinted by some gentlemen, that France had no motives to induce her to take an active part with us—but pure benevolence and gratitude to help the poor Americans in their helpless and forlorn situation; but Sir, did we hear any thing from France in ’75, even in ’76 when we wre obliged to fly in every direction before the forces of Great Britain asked and barefooted—so, they did not come to our assistance. In ’77 we were more successful, the face of our affairs was materially changed, we had the good fortune to take and capture a whole British army, but as yet Sir, we received no assistance from France. In ’78 in the opening of the campaign we saw no French to assist us—what did we do at the action at Monmouth, we kept our ground as least in spite of all the force of Great Britain—By this time France had come into an alliance with us, but Sir, let us make a little pause here and enquire whether France had not some motive besides mere goodness to the Americans.
Was it no inducement to France to lop off so considerable a branch of the British government as the United States were —and weaken that government—had ever a nation a stronger motive to induce them to step into our succor.
I will only say, that in the year ’78 Count d’Estaing, planned with others an expedition against Rhode Island. In the operation of which the fleet under his command, was unsuccessful, and he was obliged to quit the harbor, and left the army of the United States on the Island, in a dangerous situation.
I mean not—by making these observations to criminate any one, for I will admit that it was all owing to misfortune, and the fate of war; I shall make no observations until the year ’81, here I acknowledge that the French army and navy of France was of great and essential service to us in the capture of Cornwallis, and I am willing to acknowledge that I felt thankfulness and the deepest gratitude towards that nation of any in the world, from their first alliance with us, to the close of the war with Great Britain. I shall now observe the conduct of France in their own nation—soon after they left America they began a reform in their own government—no man on earth rejoiced more than myself while they were struggling for their just right against the nations of Europe. I rejoiced at every victory they gained and mourned at their defeats; but sir, if they had closed here, I should have rejoiced with them to this moment; happy of us had they stopped here and all Europe besides. I will now observe and make one or two remarks on the conduct of Great Britain towards America at this time—Great Britain complained of our conduct towards them—at the same time they were committing depredations and spoliations on our navigation—and what was the cry of many of the people of this country at that time—join France and go to war with them, how can you bear to have the American flag insulted and degraded; but what was the measure taken by the Executive? why he sent an Envoy Extraordinary and made a treaty with Great Britain—and agreed on the friendly principles on which we should settle all our differences, this however gives uneasiness to France, and it will be well to make some enquiry what are the substantial reasons for this uneasiness, are they not because we did not enter into war with Great Britain , here the executive part of government is called into question for their conduct; will it not be reasonable and just that we should find them guilty of a breach of their trust before we condemn them.
Has any one been able to pint out and show wherein they have gone beyond their powers which the constitution clothes them with. I have heard of none:
But Sir, what measure had been taken by the Executive to remove the complaints of France, have we not pursued the same course which was taken with England, have we not sent a minister to them in order to remove their complaints and settle with them on the most amicable terms. But how has he been replied? why, rejected with insult and they would not even listen to the voice of accommodation.
Several gentlemen have reproached us with ingratitude and speak of it as the most heinous sin a man can commit, I admit it to be one of the greatest sins, but where have we been guilty, have we taken away their property, have we unsubtle them in the person of their minister. Then why are we to be drawn to a confession of guilt when we know we are innocent—again let me ask where is our courage, our magnanimity, our confidence, if we dare not say of them what we know to be the truth; shall we not say they are wrong when we know they are wrong.”
Some gentlemen have said that the speech is a declaration of war, it does not read so to me, that it is sounding the war whoop, I have heard no war whoop, I have heard nothing hostile but against our own government, and gentlemen who have endeavored to criminate the Executive have proved their incompetence, they have not been able to produce evidence of a single fault, they are driven to act like the men who were brought as witnesses to condemn our favor, their testimony is nought and they are driven to make any outcry of crucify him, crucify him, and take his blood on their own heads, in order to get him given up into their own power. Are we in doing this, acting either wisely or prudently? I think we are doing neither.
He expressed the degree of satisfaction it would give him to find a more general unanimity in the house, but he despaired of seeing it, on this account he would prefer the report, to the amendment, not but what he was willing for the sake of conciliation to alter some things in the address. He hoped they would agree to put the country in a state of defense as the best best of avoiding hostility, this was an old adage, but it was as true as it was old. There was nothing he dreaded so much as going to war either with Great Britain or France. He knew his constituents were to a man opposed to war, he knew they would relinquish every thing but one in order to preserve peace—that is their independence. That would eternally disgrace them, and they were determined never to be disgraced—He knew his constituents would never be induced to quarrel with the government, and he was certain they were pleased with its administration—he could also assure the committee they would concur very readily in any measures Congress might adopt on this trying occasion.
William Shepard – speech
The most likely reason that it took so long for William to win an election, or even get votes (in several earlier runnings he had only 1 vote), was because of his being instrumental in the defeat of Shay’s Rebellion. The people of Massachusetts had long memories, and vindictive feelings about his role in the event. In fact anonymous neighbors, and bullies, threatened and assaulted himself and his family for years afterward:
excited against me the keenest Resentments of the disappointed Insurgents, manifested in the most pointed Injurys, such as burning my Fences, injuring my Woodlands, by Fire, beyond a Recovery for many Years – wantonly & cruelly butchering two valuable Horses, whose ears were cut off and Eyes bored out before they were killed ~ insulting me personally with the vile Epithet of the Murderer of my Brethren, and, through anonimous Letters, repeated by threatening me with the Destruction of my House and Family by Fire.- which kind of Injuries I occasionally experience even to this day.
There were others though that respected his willingness to serve his community, in many local offices, and defend the state of Massachusetts “at all hazards.” They understood that you don’t give in to terrorists, which is exactly what the Shay’s Rebellion participants were.
One of these men recalled his presence and military bearing at militia exercises and drills, which inspired admiration and respect:
When I recall his large, imposing figure, bedecked with his trusty sword and crimson sash…and heard the whispers ‘there’s the general,’ I remember the awe, notwithstanding his genial face, with which he inspired me.3
The haters were in the minority long enough for him to be elected four times as a representative of Massachusetts.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this document when I saw it listed in the papers of William Shepard at the Westfield Athenaeum as ‘indenture 3 year old negro girl.’ At first I was indignant at the hypocrisy of yet another revolutionary figure fighting for the rights of all [white, rich, men] yet dealing in slavery, but after reading over the document I wasn’t really sure what to think. So I decided to dig into the matter.
From what I understand, regarding this document, William Shepard, along with several other men (who were also relatives of Williams’), were overseers of the poor in Westfield, and on the 16th day of November 1791 signed over:
“a female negro child aged three years the first day of October last past, as an apprentice & servant girl unto Capt. Ezra Clap of said Westfield & Grace his Wife.”
Three year old Phoebe ___ was being indentured to Capt. Ezra Clapp for the term of 15 years (until she was 18). And according to the indenture, they were to teach and instruct “or cause the said apprentice to be instructed in the art, trade or calling of a: Housewife” they also had to provide “meat drink, cloathing & prove[provide?] for her in health & sickness & to teach her to read[?] English”. After her term was up, which would be in 1806, she was to receive “two suits of apparel for all parts of her body suitable for such an apprentice[?] & dismiss her from his said service at expiration of said term.”
According to online sources, Ezra arrived in Westfield in 1743 and built his house a few years later. The house was used as a tavern and later as a meeting place for Revolutionary War plotting. It’s operation as Clapp Tavern occurred from 1766 to the 1790s. I would assume that Phebe’s responsibilities were related to those of someone working in a tavern. Although what duties one expects a 3 year old child to perform is beyond my ken.
Ezra appears to have tried to owned slaves, it is unclear at this time if he actually purchased any outright. In 1781 he was sued by a gentleman by the name of Tony “a negro man of Westfield,” for unlawful imprisonment when Ezra tried to enslave him. Tony won the case.1,2 This evidence from Ezra’s past makes me doubtful that Ezra and this wife Grace were looking at this situation as benevolent parental figures. They were most likely looking to get themselves some cheap slave labor, apparently with the full cooperation of the overseers of the poor, which included William Shepard.
Thankfully Phebe’s indenture would be over when she reached 18, so her years of ‘slavery’ were at least legally finite. I am sure they were not joyful ones. (There is no mention of Phebe or any other indentured persons in Ezra’s household when you read any biographies about him, nor his court case with Tony.)
I have been unable to find out any more about Phebe. Having lost her family when she was a child, I am hoping that she eventually married and had one of her own.
1. Tony Negro vs. Ezra Clapp, Case No. 30, Sept. 1781, pp. 204, 216, v13, Inferior Court of Common Pleas Records, Hampshire Co. Commissioners Office, Northampton.
2. Hamden County, MA: Black Families in Hamden County, 1650-1865. by Joseph Carvalho III. Boston: New England Historic Genealogy Society. 2011.
My ancestor William4 (John3, John2, William1) SHEPARDwas fortunate in that during his lifetime he partook in three major historical events in the history of our county and helped to affect their outcomes. He was one of the major players in the Revolutionary War, Shay’s Rebellion and the Big Tree Treaty, (which resulted in America’s legal possession of the western half of the State of New York).
The Treaty of Big Tree is not a well known event. I certainly don’t remember learning anything about it in my history classes, but its outcome helped to greatly enhance America’s land holdings and was possibly the incentive for many of my JOHN ancestors continued westward migration through the state of New York, on to Michigan, eventually ending in Wisconsin.
This particular treaty came about because Robert Morris needed money, badly.
Robert Morris was considered, apparently by many, to have been the richest man in America at the time. He had acquired a large majority of his riches by stealing them from the British during the Revolutionary War, although being a privateer during wartime was considered legal theft. His money making schemes after the war were relegated to land speculation, enough so that he ended up losing the majority of his wealth and ended up greatly in debt. This treaty was to be his last ditch effort to pay back those debts and get himself back on his feet again. Due to his ill health and his age he sent his son Thomas in his place to negotiate.
In 1791 Morris had acquired the rights to buy land from the Seneca, from Massachusetts, but the sale was contingent upon clearing the land title from the Senecas. It wasn’t until 1797 that he was ready to open negotiations to do so because he had sold much of the property to a group of Dutch bankers, but could not get his money until he cleared the land title.
After much correspondence with government entities, the date of August 20, 1797 was set for the start of this momentous event. The location, Big Tree, a small indian village, was chosen only because of its convenient location as a meeting place for everyone involved in the negotiations. The meeting place itself was in a large temporary shelter, that had been built for the occasion, in a meadow between Wadsworth’s cabin and a gigantic oak by the river.
A list of instructions was provided by Morris to his son proposing how the negotiations should start. One of the items on the list was: “the business of the treaty may be greatly propelled probably by withholding liquor from the Indians” but, it went on to suggest, “with the promise of its procurement after the treaty was signed.”1 [p18]
To prepare for the event provisions had to be made, and due to the large contingent expected to be at the treaty grounds, a large herd of cattle, along with a huge amount of supplies needed to be on hand, all of which had to be transported to Big Tree over very bad roads.
A large majority of the American negotiators arrived late due to the inclement weather. Among this group was General William Shepard who had been appointed by the state of Massachusetts to represent the commonwealth.1[p20] They were all housed in log cabin that had been built by the Wadsworths.
There were over three thousand Seneca in attendance most of whom were reluctant to give up any more land to the “white man”, but they were looking forward to the “big kettles that would be hung”, that would provide “a feast of fat things”and the free rum. Many were merely curious about this extremely wealthy white man Mr. Morris who was to be there. They had been told he would be handing out many lavish gifts. Also in attendance was one of their leaders, Chief Red Jacket, who was regarded as the greatest orator of the whole six nations, and would be speaking on behalf of the Seneca along with several other notable Seneca chiefs and the Clan Mothers of the nation.
On the first day Thomas Morris opened the negotiations by speaking first then William Shepard made his address, which went as follows:
“Brothers, Your brother, the governor, and the executive Council of the state of Massachusetts, desirous that justice should be done to people of every color, and particularly to their brothers of the Seneca nation, have sent me with power to attend this treaty on their behalf.
And I shall make it my business to see that the negotiation between you is carried on upon principles of justice and fairness. Brothers, I am an old man, much accustomed to do public business for the state to which I belong. I have always observed when thus employed, that a spirit of harmony and conciliation was attended with happy effect among us, therefore, brothers, I hope that your mind will be united, And that the voice of one will express the sentiments of all. Brothers, I have now said all that I have to say to you at present. May the Great Spirit take you under his protection, and give wisdom and unanimity to your councils.”1
Over the course of the negotiations Wadsworth was generally in charge of the events of the day, however, on the 10th William Shepard oversaw the negotiations as Wadsworth had become ill and could not attend.
Because the Senecas had been cheated in questionable negotiations in an earlier treaty when they sold most of their land east of the Genesee, they were resolved that this wouldn’t happen again. Many people spoke and debates on both sides were instrumental in the negotiations became stalemated. A break was eventually called. The next day Morris offered more money, but Red Jacket made clear that the Indians had already lost much of their land and no amount of money could make them part with any more. Red Jacket continued to remain a sticking point in the negotiations as the rest of the Senecas listened to his silver-tongued oratory against any land giveaway. Another Chief, Cornplanter, asked Morris to check his Bible to see if the White Man’s Great Spirit directed them to intrude on Indian property.
Discussions stalled again when Red Jacket, and several other chiefs refused to sign the treaty. Morris then tried a new tact, outright bribery, and appealed to the Clan Mothers by promising to give Seneca women 60 cows, and annuities to some of the chiefs. This was a major motivator in ending the negotiations. After over two weeks of, sometimes, heated back and forth negotiations in the end it was bribery that sealed the deal, the treaty was signed September 15, 1797. [link to web page with transcription of treaty]
With the signing of the Treaty of Big Tree, Morris transferred the cleared land title to the Holland Land Company. The final result?
It “opened up the rest of the territory west of the Genesee River for settlement and established ten reservations, perpetual annuities and hunting and fishing rights for the Seneca in Western New York.”2
Now that the negotiations were finally over William Shepard went back home to the comfort of his hearth. Robert Morris died a short time later still poor. His greed led him to make bad speculations, which lost any profit he might have made on this endeavor.
There is much more of interest regarding this event, which I have, of course, heavily edited, including the book “A history of the Treaty of Big Tree…” see link below, which I used as one of my sources.
A short post in honor of our many Revolutionary War ancestors. Below is a picture from William Shepard’s entry at Wikipedia, a painting in which he is included. Although at this time I am not sure which one is him.
Col. William Shepard was at the Battle of Trenton, N.J. with George Washington, and his likeness appears in the painting Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, by John Trumbull at the Yale Univ. Gallery of Art, Chapel St., New Haven.