George Robert Twelves Hewes

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George Robert Twelves Hewes
Georgehewes.jpg
A portrait of Hewes painted by Joseph G. Cole in 1835.
Born August 25, 1742 (1742-08-25)
Boston, Massachusetts Bay, British America
Died November 5, 1840(1840-11-05) (aged 98)
Richfield Springs, New York
Buried at Grand Army of the Republic cemetery, Richfield Springs, New York
Service/branch Massachusetts militia, Privateer
Years of service Massachusetts militia - 1777, 1778, 1780, 1781
Privateer - 1776 (with the Diamond), 1779 (with the Defence)
Rank Private
Other work Shoemaker

George Robert Twelves Hewes (August 25, 1742 – November 5, 1840) was a participant in the political protests in Boston at the onset of the American Revolution, and one of the last survivors of the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre. Later he fought in the American Revolutionary War as a militiaman and privateer. Shortly before his death at the age of 98, Hewes was the subject of two biographies and much public commemoration.

Early life[edit]

George Robert Twelves Hewes was born in the South End of Boston, the son of George Hewes, a poor tanner and chandler who had moved to Boston from his family home in Wrentham, Massachusetts, which was located in present day Plainville, Massachusetts. Hewes's unusual third name evidently came from his maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Twelves.[1]

At the age of fourteen Hewes was apprenticed to a shoemaker named Downing. Disliking both his master and his craft, Hewes tried to enlist in the British army but was rejected for being too short (he stood at only five feet, one inch tall). Upon turning twenty-one in 1763, Hewes opened his own shoemaking shop and began a long, poverty-stricken career. In January 1768 he married Sarah "Sally" Sumner, the daughter of a Baptist sexton. Before being caught up in the political unrest of 1770, Hewes was an average member of Boston's lower class, never belonging to any church or association, and never participating in politics.

Political activity[edit]

In his biographies, written at the end of his life, Hewes recalled that his participation in the Patriot movement began on March 5, 1770, when he joined the mob of Bostonian apprentices and craftsmen present at what is now called the Boston Massacre. Hewes joined the crowd in support of the apprentice who was trying to collect on a debt from British Captain John Goldfinch. Hewes was unarmed during the riot that ensued, but nonetheless he suffered injury when British Private Kilroy struck him in the shoulder with his rifle. On his way home that night Hewes had a verbal confrontation with two British soldiers, which he related in an official deposition the next day.

On December 16, 1773, Hewes joined the band of Bostonians who protested the Tea Act by dumping tea into Boston Harbor, an event now called the Boston Tea Party. The protesters divided themselves into three boarding parties, each going aboard one of the three tea ships, Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver. Hewes was appointed "boatswain" of his party that boarded Dartmouth, mostly on account of his "whistling talent." In his capacity as boatswain, Hewes went to the captain of the boarded ship to demand the keys to the tea chests. He also fought with Captain O'Connor, a fellow protester who was trying to take some of the tea for himself. According to Hewes, it took three hours to empty every tea chest and throw the content into the Boston Harbor. Like the other protesters, Hewes then quietly returned to his place of residence.

In January, Hewes was at the center of the events surrounding the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm, one of the most publicized incidents of its kind in the Revolutionary period. Malcolm was what would later be known as a Loyalist, a supporter of royal authority. A Bostonian, he worked for the British customs service, and pursued his duties with a zeal that made him unpopular. Commoners often "hooted" at Malcolm in the streets, and sailors in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, tarred and feathered him in November 1773.[2] On January 25, 1774, according to the account in the Massachusetts Gazette, Hewes saw Malcolm threatening to strike a boy with his cane. When Hewes intervened to stop Malcolm, the two began arguing, with Malcolm insisting that Hewes should not interfere in the business of a gentleman. When Hewes replied that at least he (Hewes) had never been tarred and feathered, Malcolm struck Hewes hard on the forehead with the cane, knocking him unconscious.

Hewes was treated by the noted Patriot doctor, Joseph Warren. The cane left a scar which would be visible on Hewes's forehead for the rest of his life. He went to a magistrate's office to swear out a warrant for John Malcolm's arrest.

That night, a mob seized Malcolm in his house and dragged him into King Street, where, over the objections of Hewes, he was stripped to the waist and covered with tar and feathers. They then took him to the Liberty Tree, where they first threatened to hang him and then threatened to cut off his ears if he did not apologize for his behavior and renounce his customs commission. Malcolm relented and was sent home. The event was reported in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Military service[edit]

In 1775 Boston was put under martial law. Like many Patriots, Hewes fled the city. He sent his family to Wrentham, his father's hometown. He himself had to escape Boston by boat. For the majority of the war years Hewes stayed with his family, providing for them. For a few months of each year, however, Hewes signed up to fight, sometimes in the militia and sometimes as a privateer.

Hewes' first period of military service began in the fall of 1776 when he sailed aboard the privateering ship Diamond. It was a successful three-month voyage, resulting in the capture of three enemy vessels. Hewes later recalled that when the voyage dragged on longer, and no additional prizes had been captured, he joined the crew in threatening to mutiny if the captain did not sail back to Providence. Hewes served in the militia for one to three months of 1777.[3] In 1778 he served for another month, seeing action at the Battle of Rhode Island.

In 1779 Hewes signed on with the Connecticut ship of war Defence for an eventful seven-and-a-half-month voyage. After capturing four ships and thousands of dollars in prize money, the ship's captain, Samuel Smedley, refused to give Hewes his share.

Hewes served in the militia twice more,in the autumn months of 1780 and 1781. Once in the closing years of the war Hewes hired a substitute to avoid the draft. The "extreme pressure of his circumstances" and the need to provide for his family precluded another tour with the militia.[4] Hewes' most enduring memories of the war were of a temporary increase in the dignity of his position. The democratic style of leadership in the militia and aboard the privateers left its mark on Hewes, and he never forgot the respect he received from his social superiors during this time.[5]

Later life[edit]

George Hewes lived in Wrentham until after the outbreak of the War of 1812. This period of time was relatively unremarkable. He and Sally had fifteen children, and probably eleven survived birth.[6] He remained a poor shoemaker. In 1812 two of his sons followed in his footsteps and joined the militia. Apparently their willingness to fight was unusual for Wrentham citizens at the time.[7]

After the war George and Sarah Hewes followed a few of their children to Richfield Springs in Ostego County, New York. George was then seventy-four years old. Hewes never escaped from the poverty that haunted him his entire life. Even in his old age he continued to earn money making shoes. Sarah died in 1828 at the age of 77. In his later years he relied on various friends and relatives for support, moving from house to house. He became, however, a notable figure in the community, being one of the last survivors of the Revolutionary War and appearing at Independence Day festivities in his militia uniform every Fourth of July. During these years Hewes converted to Methodism and began reading the Bible frequently.

Rediscovery[edit]

The 1830s were a period when the American Revolution experienced a revival in the public memory. Battles and events from the revolution were being newly commemorated.[8] During this period, in 1833, a writer named James Hawkes discovered Hewes in Richfield Springs and wrote a biography about him, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party.

Hawkes's book became popular, and in 1835 Hewes toured New England as a celebrity. He sat for a portrait by Joseph Cole, called simply The Centenarian, which now hangs in the Old State House in Boston. Benjamin Bussey Thatcher wrote a second biography, Traits of the Tea Party. He was the guest of honor at an elaborate ceremony on the Fourth of July attended by the lieutenant governor and by other Revolutionary War veterans. All along his route he was adored by the public for his age, his health, his pleasant demeanor, and for his role in the seminal events of the Revolution.

Both Hawkes and Thatcher were amazed by Hewes's memory. Hewes remembered details of his stages of life clearly, and he could recall his memories smoothly. He could recall how things looked, how things tasted, and how he felt at that time even though he was in his nineties.

Although Hewes was not by any means a pivotal player in the Revolution or an important public figure, he helped to secure the American Revolution as an important event in American history. He was rediscovered at a time when the Boston Tea Party and other early events of the revolution were also being rediscovered. He continues to be notable today through his biographies, which give the impressions of a common person of the revolution reflecting on his participation at the end of his life.

Death[edit]

Hewes was injured in an accident on July 4, 1840, as he was boarding the carriage to go to the annual festivities. He died on November 5, 1840. He was 98 years old, although believed at the time to be 109. He was buried without public commemoration in Richfield Springs; in 1896 he was reburied ceremoniously in the town's Grand Army of the Republic cemetery for veterans.

Notes[edit]

  1. '^ Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press,1902'), 17.
  2. ^ Young, 47.
  3. ^ "Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution" Volume VII .p.792 reports: "Hewes, G.R'T Twelves, Private, Capt. Samuel Cowell's Co., Col. Benjamin Hawes's regt.; service from September 25, 1777, to Oct 30, 1777, 35 days, on a secret expedition. Roll sworn to in Suffolk Co."
  4. ^ A Citizen of New York James Hawkes, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, a Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbour in 1773 (New York: S. Bliss, printer, 1834), 74-75; Quoted in Young, 65.
  5. ^ Young, 66.
  6. ^ Young, 69.
  7. ^ Young, 70.
  8. ^ Young, xv.

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