The Revere Family Move: Dramatic Events in Boston’s North End, Winter 1770

Mar 4, 2021

By: Emily Holmes

black and white woodcut of angry crowd threatening shop front

Crowd protesting in front of T. Lillie’s shop

The Reveres faced unexpected and disquieting circumstances as they began a new chapter in their lives as property owners in February 1770. Within a month of purchasing their house in North Square, their community was wracked by a series of events which undoubtedly left a deep impression upon the family and were likely forever tied to in their memories of the move. Any time one ‘moves house’ there are countless things to keep track of. Buying one’s own home, especially for the first time, is even more complicated! For the Reveres it must have been a time they could never forget, as the weeks around the move were fraught with violence, protests, and elaborate displays of public mourning that unfolded in the close confines of their tight-knit neighborhood. 

Though we are not sure of the exact house that Paul & Sarah Revere lived in with their growing, multigenerational household in the months before their purchase of the building now numbered as 19 North Square in Boston’s North End, it was most likely in the same half-mile square neighborhood. Anything in the neighborhood would have been near to where Paul grew up in rented rooms with his parents and close to where he rented space for his gold and silversmith’s shop “at the head of Clark’s Wharf” “opposite Dr. Clark’s” (approximately today’s intersection of Lewis and North Streets). We believe that in some of the years that Paul rented commercial space from Dr. Clark, he also rented living quarters in one of the doctor’s nearby properties.

After the purchase, we cannot know for certain when the Reveres packed up their belongings and started carrying them over to their new house. In fact, we have endless questions about this process and no clear, definitive answers! Did they carry it all by hand? Rent a cart? Borrow one from a friend? Today buyers often wait a bit to move in to their new home after a real estate closing, perhaps in order to do work on their new property. Did the Reveres do the same? Or was the purchase such a stretch financially that they moved in straight away (to cease paying rent as soon as possible) and started saving to make future improvements? 

This might be the most likely scenario as Paul paid about £50 in cash (likely gold or silver coins or other forms of those metals) and the rest of the £213.6.8 in a privately held mortgage. While nearly impossible to convert to a value we understand today, at the time that total amount was roughly equal to the price of the largest complete set of silver that Paul ever made for a customer and it fell right at the median of prices for houses in Boston in 1770. So, perhaps saving up to make later renovations to their new-to-them old house (c. 1680) made the most practical sense. But surely Sarah Revere, Paul’s wife, would have brought her older girls (Deborah, age 13, Sarah, age 8, and maybe even Frances, who turned 4 the week they bought the house) over to give the whole place a good scrubbing before they began moving in furniture and other items. 

The purchase was officially made on Thursday, February 15, 1770, and the deed was registered with Suffolk County on the next Wednesday, February 21, 1770. The very next day, young Christopher Seider, a boy of 11, the same age as Paul and Sarah’s only son, Paul Revere, Jr., was shot and wounded on the street directly behind the Reveres’ new home. Seider died from his injuries later that night. 

In fact the Reveres’ new property came with a large back yard that led to a right-of-way through a path, or small alley, now known as Lathrop Place, that provided them with direct access to Middle Street (present day Hanover Street). The remains of that cobbled path were uncovered during archaeological excavations behind the Revere House and can be seen today. The mob action that led to Seider’s death took place just down Middle Street, essentially parallel to the Reveres’ house. A quick walk down this alley would have led any of the Reveres straight into the dramatic action as it was taking place.

The Reveres would have been aware of the growing unrest before their move. Conflict brewed in Boston that winter as a large group of “Whigs” promoted a non-importation movement, essentially a boycott of British goods as protest over the 1767 Townshend Duties. According to local historian, J.L. Bell, with school not in session on Thursday mornings, that day tended to be a peak time for boys to congregate outside the businesses of proprietors who refused to participate in the boycott. 

The morning of Thursday, February 22, 1770, found a crowd of boys placing an effigy of the head of merchant Theophilus Lillie on a pole outside of his shop on Middle Street. When Lillie’s near neighbor, the notorious Ebenezer Richardson, arrived and attempted to break up the protest things escalated. Richardson, who had once been a customs informant, now worked openly for the service and like his employers, opposed the “non-importation” efforts. 

The mob increased to 60-70 boys by the time their attention shifted over to Richardson’s own home. Eventually Richardson threatened to “put a lane through” the protestors and fired his gun at the crowd with only powder. The boys scattered but returned, this time pelting the house with stones rather than food scraps like “limon peel” and eggs they used earlier. Was Paul Revere, Jr. among them? He was not yet old enough at 11 to be formally apprenticed into his father’s shop, and if he wasn’t expected to be in school that morning it seems quite plausible that the noise and ruckus would have drawn his attention even if he was not part of the original protest. One can imagine if Paul, Jr. were still home that either Paul or Sarah might send their son out to determine the source of the gunshot behind their new home and ask him to report back. 

Though a few more “mature” adult Sons of Liberty appear in the records as present at the events of that day, Paul Revere was not documented as a witness. Perhaps his attention was taken up elsewhere by the cares of moving? Of course, no one could have guessed that what seemed initially as a fairly routine public protest was about to take a tragic turn. 

Apparently reaching his breaking point, Richardson next appeared with his musket at an upper window, firing buckshot pellets, sometimes referred to as swan shot, into the masses gathered below. Three participants were injured, including the servant boy Christopher Seider, son of German immigrants living at the other end of Boston, near the Liberty Tree. Seider died of the wounds he sustained in his chest at around 9:00 that night. If they knew their son to be present on Middle Street, one wonders what the Revere parents might have felt as they heard the second round of shooting. No doubt their grief at the loss of one so young was also tinged with relief at not losing their own son that day, regardless of whether he was in the crowd or safe at home. 

Four days later, on Monday, February 26, 1770, as many as 500 school boys assembled to lead thousands of mourners processing to mark Seider’s martyrdom. Again, we wonder how the Revere family might have participated in the occasion. Did Paul Revere play a role in the planning? It seems quite possible given his connections and documented interest in pageantry of this sort. Did Paul, Jr. march with his North Writing School classmates? Did Sarah and all four of the girls go to line the streets to mark the solemn occasion and see the mourners go by? 

The trouble was not over. During what was likely only the Reveres’ second full week in their new home, more tension brewed in the ropewalks and streets between the occupying British Regulars and those who opposed their presence in Boston. The infamous Massacre erupted only one week after Christopher Seider’s funeral, on Monday, March 5, 1770. 

In the weeks that followed the “Bloody Massacre perpetrated on King Street” more elaborate funerals were held and more victims were placed in the town owned tomb next to Seider. Paul designed an image of four coffins to honor the dead for the Boston Gazette and eventually by late March his interpretation of the Massacre itself was for sale in print form, leading to much consternation from Henry Pelham. Read about that in another Revere Express post.

Perhaps it is not surprising that one year later, Paul chose to commemorate the momentous events of February-March 1770 with a moving display in the windows of his new home. North Square, a large public gathering space, proved to be the perfect location for a commemoration of this type, fully capable of holding the reported thousands who came to bear witness. One can assume, too, that the whole Revere family was enlisted to participate in the efforts to create and display the drawings depicting the traumas they experienced collectively (along with their neighbors) the year before. One wonders if producing and witnessing the “solemn and perpetual memorial” proved to be cathartic and even healing for the whole community as well as the Reveres, if it further inflamed the citizenry, or proved to be a mixture of both.

Emily Holmes is Director of Education at the Paul Revere House