Politics and Military

The Much-Maligned, Little-Mourned Crean Brush

In 1776, as British soldiers prepared to evacuate Boston, General William Howe unleashed one final indignity on the population: Crean Brush.

Crean Brush

Crean Brush

Brush was an Irish lawyer who came to the colonies and settled in New York City until in 1764 he moved north to the disputed lands that would become Vermont. There he was a magistrate and clerk who grew his land holdings exponentially, with help from English land grants.

If Brush had a nemesis, it was Vermont patriot Ethan Allen. Brush helped draft the Bloody Acts of 1774 that offered a reward to anyone who would kill or capture Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. As the Revolutionary War broke out, Brush made his way to Boston where he would try to convince British leaders to allow him to raise a force of men to hunt down Allen. His request was denied.

Instead, he was given a task that would make him one of the most hated men in Boston. Brush was assigned to clear out locals to make winter housing for British troops in 1775. And as it became clear that the American siege of Boston was succeeding, Howe ordered the inhabitants of the city to either prepare to take their linens and woolen goods with them when they fled the city of surrender them to Crean Brush. Howe’s order:

“as Linen and Woolen Goods are Articles much wanted by the Rebels, and would aid and assist them in their Rebellion, … all good Subjects will use their utmost Endeavors to have all such Articles conveyed from this Place.

“Any who have not Opportunity to convey their Goods under their own Care, may deliver them on Board the Minerva … to Crean Brush, Esq . . . who will give a Certificate of the Delivery, and will oblige himself to return them to the Owners, all unavoidable Accidents accepted.

“If after this Notice any Person secretes or keeps in his Possession such Articles, he will be treated as a Favorer of Rebels.”

Rather than wait for the citizens to comply, Brush barged into homes and businesses to collect what he wanted. His actions inspired other British soldiers to pillage the city as well.

Amassing a small fortune of plunder, Brush loaded his collection aboard the Brigantine Elizabeth. As the British fled Boston, there was probably no one more despised than Crean Brush. Days later, word came back to the city that Brush hadn’t escaped. Captain John Manly, a privateer commissioned by General Washington, had run down Brush’s fleeing ship.

The diary of Bostonian Ezekiel Price describes the news:

“In the afternoon, Ed. Quincy stopped here. He came from Boston, and says that Captain Manly was in Boston, and told there that be had taken out of the fleet a brig laden with Tories and Tory goods, and other effects, which they plundered in Boston … It is said this was their richest vessel in the fleet: had eighteen thousand pounds sterling in cash, besides an exceedingly valuable cargo of European merchandise.

Later he notes: “At noon, a traveler from below says that be heard Captain Paddock and Captain Gore were among the Tories taken in the transport brig by Captain Manley. Afterwards several other travelers from below passed; but they did not hear of Paddock or Gore being in that vessel, and no other of note but Bill Jackson and Crane Brush.”

Boston lawyer John Andrews, in a letter to his brother, noted simply: “…my wishes are answered. The brave Captain Manly has taken the brig that contained that cursed villain Crean Brush with great part of the plunder he robbed the stores of here, that I imagine she must be the richest vessel in the fleet.”

Brush was imprisoned in Boston. Though he was not convicted, he was held in jail for 19 months through the fall of 1777. His wife joined him in Boston and managed to sneak him some of her clothes which aided in his escape in disguise as a woman. Brush fled to his lands in Vermont and then New York City, where he pressed the British for redress for lost property.

Apparently Brush had run out of friends among the British leadership and he was denied immediate assistance. In 1778 he died. Newspaper accounts said he killed himself, some alleging he slit his throat others that he shot himself.

In Vermont, the vast majority of Brush’s property and estate – including his house, barn and law library in Westminster – was confiscated. And even though he was dead, the legislature in Vermont still saw fit to banish him at penalty of 40 lashes should he return.

One final indignity was awaiting. Brush had adopted a daughter, Frances Montresor who was the illegitimate daughter of his sister in law. In 1784 she would marry Ethan Allen, his old nemesis. The wedding was performed by Brush’s old law partner, and placed Allen in the position of leading the legal fight to regain Brush’s confiscated property.

Thanks to: Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5 and Crean Brush vs. Ethan Allen: A Winner’s Tale by John J. Duffy and Eugene A. Coyle and History of eastern Vermont, from its earliest settlement to the close of the eighteenth century by Benjamin Hall.

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