To get an idea of how intense the feuding between the British loyalists and the Colonial rebels was in 1774 in New England, you could spend a few hours scouring the history books at the library. Or you could go down to Cape Cod and get lunch and a beer in Sandwich, Mass., at the Dan’l Webster Inn, once the site of the Fessenden Tavern. From there, you could walk the less-than-a-quarter-mile to the old Newcomb Tavern. In 1774, that walk would have taken you directly from rebel territory into loyalist territory. And on the way you could imagine the events of October 10 of that year.
On that day in Sandwich, a mob dragged six of the town’s most well-known men to the town green and forced them on to a scaffold.
Days earlier, the six men had attacked a brash, 33-year-old critic of British rule. Now the crowd seemed poised to exact revenge. A judge had already ordered them fined for the assault, but the the rabble demanded more. The attackers were ordered to condemn their own actions, apologize profusely and declare themselves cowards.
The choice appeared clear. Stand up for the British Crown and take the consequences, or grovel. All six men caved. Such was the weakness of support for British rule in 1774 Massachusetts.
Sandwich, Mass., Divided
If anyone had any doubt that Britain was losing its grip on the American colonies, their eyes should have been opened by the public shaming of Benjamin Bourn, John Jennings, Nehemiah Webb, Samuel Smith, Thomas Smith and Samuel Dillingham. Those names are still familiar in Sandwich today.
Nathaniel Freeman, the victim of the attack, would play a significant role in the revolution gestating in town like Sandwich. He was an unlikely man for the crowd to rally around. Freeman, a young doctor, had a reputation as an outspoken Whig and a blowhard.
By 1774, the old system of colonial rule had stalled out in America. Young men looking to rise up in the world found too few rewards to go around.
The issue of British rule divided Sandwich, along with most of America. On the Tory side stood the militant supporters of the king, as well as moderates who believed in British rule, but had some grievances with their treatment.
The Whigs also included a large moderate group. These men and women believed in Whig principles, but feared provoking England. But the Whig extremists, like Freeman younger and with less to lose, pushed the country toward open confrontation with Britain.
Even families had divided loyalties. And in a small town like Sandwich, no one could avoid political debate, especially in the taverns.
The Taverns of Sandwich, Mass.
The Newcomb Tavern, a Tory stronghold, dates to 1693. John Newcomb ran it until his death. Then his widow Bathsheba married Timothy Ruggles, a prominent royalist who would later flee the colonies.
Ruggles had left Sandwich long before 1774 to settle a large land grant in western Massachusetts, and the ownership of the tavern passed to John Newcomb, Jr., also a royalist.
Less than half a mile away stood the Fessenden Tavern, next to the current Dan’l Webster Inn. Its proprietor, Benjamin Fessenden, was a rebel. He later served on the town’s Committee of Correspondence, the rebels’ shadow government that coordinated the colonies’ activities. Rebels gathered at the Fessenden to make their plans.
The East India Company
By 1774, the debate had turned bitter. In that year, England insisted on propping up the interests of the British East India Company. A collection of wealthy merchants owned it for the purpose of exploiting India’s resources.
Working hand in glove with the English government, the company found it excruciatingly expensive to maintain control over India. The British Parliament came up with a plan to help out this well-connected company while not directly tapping the public till. It exempted the East India Company from paying tax on the tea it exported to the American colonies.
They wanted to steer customers to the now-cheaper tea of the East India Company and away from competitors. And when the competitors did manage to sell tea, a percentage of their sales would flow through to the government in the form of taxes.
The colonists had seen this taxation strategy before. It gave a competitive advantage to those businesses with the best political connections. But by then the game was essentially up in the colonies.
As an economic strategy, it worked — somewhat at least — in the early days. Colonists could be rewarded with land in return for their labor and consumption of preferred British goods. The local merchants – hand-picked to represent the large companies—could prosper and reliably support the Crown.
But as desirable land grew scarcer and the merchant classes grew larger, more people depended on commerce for their living. As a result, they had less willingness to prop up British businesses at the expense of their own. From this anger grew the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773.
Parliament responded swiftly to the Tea Party in 1774. It ordered the Port of Boston closed and stripped local governments of their power to elect or appoint local officials. Parliament also provided that Britain could remove people accused of a crime to England for trial rather than have them tried in America.
These provocations outraged the young men of Sandwich, Mass. While the older, more settled families might prefer to avoid confronting the King, the younger generation of Whigs, along with some of their more idealistic elders, wanted to fight.
In Sandwich, these hotheads elected Nathaniel Freeman as one of their leaders. He then proved an effective, if abrasive, choice.
In September, the town created a Body of the People to direct the protest. This quasi-legislative body put order to the anger and directed Freeman and others to oppose Britain more directly. In a well-orchestrated bit of political theater, Freeman and a group of at least several hundred supporters took to the steps of the Barnstable Courthouse and blockaded the judge from entering. They declared they were preventing the courts from enforcing British tyranny.
Though not the first courthouse blockaded by protesters, it was an early example of direct action against Britain. The rebels were jubilant. On their way home, they accosted a peddler and demanded he give up any tea he wanted to sell. Finally persuaded that he had none, the rebels went on their way. Upon returning to Sandwich, however, they discovered the loyalists had taken down their liberty pole, erected as a symbol of opposition. (The liberty pole was on Main Street near what is now the Sandwich Public Library.)
It didn’t take long to arrest the offenders, as the usual suspects were easy enough to identify. The rebel faction hauled them to site of the liberty pole and forced them to confess their crimes. Officers in the militia who participated in the event had to resign their commissions and pay damages for the pole.
This insult to the Tories, however, would not go unanswered. They fastened their anger on Freeman and devised a plan.
After several days, the Tories sent word to Freeman that a friend of his needed medical care. Though he suspected danger, he ventured out to visit his friend past the Newcomb Tavern. Upon his return, a group of Tories set on him. Using first a blade hidden in his cane and, when the blade broke, the cane itself, Freeman fought off as many attackers as he could. In the end, however, his attackers outnumbered him. Falling to the ground, they continued to beat him, inflicting a wound to his head that scarred him for life.
Again, as in the case of the liberty pole, the criminals were easy to find. And the local judge adjudicated their case the next day, fining them and sending them home.
The attack on Freeman was hardly the first such skirmish in Sandwich. Previously, well-connected men had attacked others for their loyalties, but they were lightly punished because of their status. In the case of Freeman, they may have thought they were entitled to the coddling that others had received. They were wrong. The rebels decided that the court’s ruling was insufficient, and they dragged the six men to the scaffold where they faced their humiliation.
The message was clear. The six men might just as easily have been hanged. It was a dangerous time to be a Tory in Sandwich, Mass., and getting more dangerous every day.
Nathaniel Freeman went on to greater exploits during the Revolution itself. In 1775 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He served in the Massachusetts militia, becoming a brigadier general by 1781, and led troops in Rhode Island. He fathered 20 children, one of whom went on to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He never stopped his outspoken pursuit of liberty, taking part in notable feuds with both Tories and moderate Whigs. And it appears he settled several scores with his attackers. As a member of the Committee of Correspondence, he investigated local loyalists. As a legislator he enacted the legislation in 1778 that banished a host of notable Tories from the commonwealth. Of his six attackers, Nehemiah Webb was banished and John Jennings went to prison for disaffection to the popular cause.
Though he had tangled with several Bourns, and several were expelled from the colony, Benjamin Bourn, the ringleader of the attack, apparently remained in Sandwich.
Not a Meek Man
Freeman’s prickly reputation remained intact long after his death. Though his service to the country was appreciated, Amos Otis, in writing his Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families, recalled Freeman. He described him as “a man of talent, very decided in his opinions, and impetuous in action. Like all men of such a temperament, he made many enemies. The Tories denounced him, in the bitterest of bitter terms. These denunciations never affected his reputation as a man or a patriot, but other causes did. He was not a meek man. He would not tolerate the least opposition, and consequently made many personal enemies. Among the aged who knew him, few speak in his praise.”
Nathaniel Freeman is buried in Old Town Cemetery, just a stone’s throw from the Newcomb Tavern on Grove Street.
This story about Sandwich, Mass., in the Revolution was updated in 2021.
In addition to sources identified in the article, this post owes much to Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution, Lorenzo Sabine, and The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County, and of its Several Towns, Frederick Freeman.