In honor of Independence Day, Londonderry News would like to offer a reprint of a Richard Holmes piece about the beginning of the American Revolution. This is the well researched story of how Londonderry showed the first signs of retaliation against the British army.
While today is our birthday, we may have been conceived right here in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
We have all grown up believing the American Revolutionary War started on the eighteenth of April in 1775. It was the events of that date that precipitated the battle at Lexington Green, where the “embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.” This would lead to the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Saratoga, and the surrender at Yorktown. All this is pretty straightforward.
I would like to add one minor adjustment to that old, old story. Despite what every schoolboy (or -girl) knows, I am about to present my argument that the first attack on British troops didn’t happen in that fine state to the south of us. I will hypothesize that Derry is the site of the first armed resistance against the king’s army – and that it happened fully six years before Paul Revere’s ride. The incident to which I refer was not a battle in the classic sense, with one army attacking another army; rather it was a spontaneous armed insurrection against an isolated segment of the British army.
So here, my children, you shall read of Jimmy Aikin and his heroic deed: how on a cold winter’s day in ’69, we first attacked the redcoat’s line.
This article is the result of more than two decades of research. Back in 1984, when I was doing research for another book, I found a two-sentence reference to the Londonderry attack in Jere Daniell’s Colonial New Hampshire. In 1995, I was doing background for another book and discovered a paragraph about the incident in Reverend Edward Parker’s History of Londonderry (1851). Parker’s account was slavishly retold in Willey’s Book of Nutfield in 1895. The author, George Franklyn Willey, concludes that the Londonderry attack was the “first act of open resistance to British authority and arms in the colonies.”
Another reference to the attack was printed in Historical New Hampshire in 1947. Dr. Kenneth Scott in his excellent article “Colonel Stephen Holland of Londonderry” retells the basic facts of the incident as reported by Parker and Willey. Though he doesn’t date the incident, he links it to one in “June or July of 1774.” A couple of years ago, I was looking through the back issues of the Exeter News-Letter for a new history of Derry. In the September 20, 1849 edition was a long article on the incident at Londonderry. The author, who signed his story with only the initial G, dated the incident to “a short time before the actual outbreak of the Revolutionary War.”
The alleged attack took on the certainty of truth in 2006 when I discovered a set of letters in the New Hampshire State Archives. In a file set up by the venerable state archivist Dr. Frank Meevers, I struck gold! Dr. Meevers had found an unpublished copybook that contained the manuscript of letters written by Royal Governor John Wentworth of New Hampshire. Here at last was confirmation of the story that had been written about by Parker, “G”, Scott, and Willey. The correspondence also added much flesh to the skeleton of their story and established a definite date for the event.
The events of the Londonderry attack begin in January 1769. Those were definitely the times that tried men’s souls. All over the thirteen colonies, anti-British sentiment was reaching the boiling stage. The newly imposed Townsend Acts, which allowed the quartering of soldiers in private home, were being debated through out the colony. Tavern talk centered on James Otis’ incentive that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”
One of the major problems for the British rulers of America was the ever-increasing number of cases of desertion from the ranks of their army. Many a young man decided that life as a New World yeoman farmer would be far better than a career in the military. Army pay was low and discipline was harsh. It wouldn’t take much planning or smarts to successfully go AWOL in America. It would be relatively easy to establish a new life concealed in the great American wilderness.
Early in January 1769, a group of deserters were living in Londonderry. Parker says there were a total of four such defectors here. The writer “G” says there was only one and the Wentworth letters refers to two escapees. The first two writers believed that a local Tory had secretly reported their presence to the royal authorities. It is now known with certainty that our local judge and taverner Stephen Holland was a British spy and was in communication with General Howe. The three authors are in agreement that a detachment of British regulars was quickly dispatched to our town and that the AWOL soldier(s) was (were) quickly rounded up. Even in those pre-telephone days, it didn’t take long for news of the apprehension to spread through town.
The squad of British regulars quickly marched their prisoners out of town. “G” reports that the lone deserted was an Irishman named Phelim O’Shaughnessey. This frightened son of Erin was told by his captors that the standard punishment for desertion from the British army was hanging – “and nothing else.”
As soon as the word got out, a group of Londonderry men left their homes and farms to attempt to free the prisoners. “G” identifies the leaders of the rescue party as “Major G.” and “Captain A.” He wrote that both men were veterans of the French and Indian War. Parker identifies only one individual in the mob – its leader, “Captain James Aiken” (1739-1830). Governor Wentworth identifies the brothers Thomas and James Atkin as the leaders but writes that a third brother, Edward Atkin, was not involved. It is almost certain that Wentworth was actually referring to members of the Aiken family and not the Atkin’s family. Wentworth also wrote that there were eleven Londonderry men involved in the incident.
The men from Londonderry overtook the British about an hour’s march outside of town. The location of the conflict was in the town of Atkinson on a steep slope called Providence Hill. The eleven Londonderry men concealed themselves just back from the British.The energetic James Aiken managed stealthily to run around the side of the column of marching soldiers and cut them off from the front. With pistols drawn, James leaped out in front of the surprised redcoats. With authority, he ordered the squad to halt. He kept his weapons pointed at the head of their leader, “Sergeant Henderson.” The British were ordered to throw their guns onto the dirt road and not pick them up on penalty of having Henderson’s “brains scattered.” The Londonderry men now surrounded the soldiers and freed their prisoners. Captain Aiken kept his pistols trained on the sergeant until he, his men, and the rescued deserters were safely on their way back to East Derry.
Word of the events at Londonderry quickly spread to the highest levels in the British army. Governor Wentworth, however, was in Vermont and didn’t get the news until January 20, 1769. In his reply letter to Brigadier General John Pomeroy, the commander of His Majesty’s Sixth Regiment in Boston, he argued that the incident probably happened in Massachusetts so it was not his responsibility. By way of consolation, Wentworth does offer sympathy over “this reprehensible violence, which is universally disapproved and resented throughout the whole province.”
Four months after the incident at Londonderry, Wentworth announced that all the deserters in New Hampshire had now fled to other colonies or were so well “concealed and disguised” that they could never be found. The case was closed!
There does not seem to be any evidence that the Londonderry eleven were ever brought to justice. The writer “G” relates that “Major G.” and “Captain A.” hid in the town of Londonderry and were never caught. He said that both men would later serve as members of the local Committee of Safety during the Revolutionary War. He further wrote that they “both died peacefully in their own beds – one at the advanced age of ninety-two years.”
During the Revolutionary War we would contribute about six dozen men to the patriot army. More than two centuries ago, our town’s fathers, husbands, brothers, and friends would fight bravely in such battles as Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. We were also the hometown to Generals John Stark and George Reid. Doctor Matthew Thornton of Derry Village signed the Declaration of Independence. General John Sullivan went to school on East Derry Hill. The courage we showed in 1769 when our townsmen surrounded the British soldiers was thus further validated by the honors we earned in the war of 1776.
Let Massachusetts glory in her tea party and the “shot heard round the world”; may Valley Forge be forever a memorial to the determination of General Washington; may Philidelphia be a hallowed shrine to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Here in Derry we have among our heroes that small, brave band of eleven nameless men: those patriots, who in 1769, helped start our country on its trek down the road to independence.
This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles”, Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Born in New Hampshire, Richard was raised and attended school throughout the state. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard is also a regular columnist for the Derry News and a frequent contributor to the Nutfield News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and the Manchester Union Leader.
If you would like a book, leave Richard a comment on the story.