Windows into Daily Life During the British Occupation of Boston
Writing from different sides of the conflict, both Sarah Winslow Deming in her journal, and Ann Hulton in her letters, provide windows into daily life in Boston during the periods of British Occupation between 1768 and 1776. The historical facts of the Occupation are well known, but the journal entries and letters of these women reveal the effects that the grand-scale political and military events were having on the experience of daily life for Boston families.
Sarah opens her journal with a note to her niece that she “engaged to give you, & by you, your papa and mama some account of my peregrinations.” What differentiates Sarah’s account of her flight from Boston from that of many male diarists in 1775, such as John Rowe or Thomas Hutchinson, is that she goes on to say “The Cause is too well known, to need a word upon it.” Rather than commenting on political matters, Sarah is sharing the way that those events made her own ordinary life extraordinary.
Ann, too, is writing to loved ones, recounting details of her daily life. However, while Sarah is writing about her experience as the wife of a Boston Patriot, Ann is writing as the sister of a Royal Commissioner of Customs. This gives Ann an intriguingly different point of view from Sarah. Also, Ann has access, through her brother, to different sources of information. As early as July 12, 1768, Ann writes to a friend in England that “Gov: Bernard has just now drank tea here with Us His Excel: says, two more such years as the past & the Brit: Empire is at an End.” One may doubt whether this is something the Governor would have admitted so frankly in public, or even among his male friends. It is clear that he did not think his words at Ann Hulton’s tea table were likely to be recorded for posterity.
The tea table over which the Governor was sharing this confidence was one of fraught circumstance. Not only did Ann’s unfortunate brother arrive in Boston from London on November 5, 1767, during the chaos of the Pope’s Day celebrations; but only six days after Ann arrived from England herself, threats against the Commissioners of Customs from the group that Ann refers to in her letters as “The Sons of Violence” forced the entire Hulton family to flee Boston for the safety of Castle Island. Ann, with her typical tongue-in-cheek style, writes to her friend in England, “you are not to imagine us tho in a state of banishment, secluded from Society or the rest of the World it is rather like one of the Public water drinking places in England, We have a great many Visitors comes every Day from Boston incog.” It is from this comfortable “banishment” at the Castle that Ann reported the Governor’s comments.
By the following year, it seems that political tensions had calmed enough, at least temporarily, that these women are writing to friends about how the presence of the British troops in Boston is affecting things as ordinary as their social engagements. Following their return from Castle Island to Boston in 1769, Ann writes to a friend, “Here is a very good Assembly set up since we came, the best there is in all America they say, about sixty couple dance every night once a fortnight tho another called the Liberty Assembly is set up in Opposition.” The ladies of Boston may not have been able to express their opinions at Town Meetings, but this was a society in which something as simple as which assembly ball a woman chose to attend was sending a message to those around her about her political leanings, and those of her family.
In addition to obvious actions like the violent attacks on the homes of Commissioners around the time of Ann’s arrival in 1768, or the Boston Tea Party in 1773, these women are recording that there were some more subtle ways that the Bostonians made the British troops and government officials aware that they were unwelcome during the Occupation years. On March 20, 1771, Ann writes, “It’s not so very cheap Living in this Country as some imagine…some think the Navy & Army has helped to raise the price of things, however I believe the People are so civil to us Strangers, or new comers, to make us pay more handsomely for everything than they do their own people.” There is probably some truth, both to the established idea that the troops’ presence increased prices, and also to Ann’s surmise that some merchants charged the unwanted government officials more than they charged their neighbors.
However, while the wives of Loyalists and Patriots may have faced different day-to-day challenges in the early days of the Occupation, their struggles were made more equal after the galvanizing events of April 19, 1775. Both Ann and Sarah are agreed in their descriptions of the pervasive silence in the streets of Boston that April, and of how difficult it became to find basic supplies after Gen. Gage effectively closed Boston following the battles of Lexington and Concord. Sarah writes of her flight from the city on April 19, 1775, that “Almost every countenance [was] expressing anxiety and distress,” and Ann writes to a friend at home in England in late April of 1775, “a Solemn dead silence reigns in the Streets, numbers have packed up their effects, & quited the Town.” A year later, in January of 1776 she reflects that, during this time “Provisions & fuel were scarce & very dear, supplies uncertain.” Though any Patriot who could get a pass was fleeing the city, as Rachel Revere and her children did that May, Loyalists were flooding into the city for the protection of British troops, making the scarcity of food and the issue of overcrowding and disease a constant threat.
Sarah’s description of her family’s hurried departure from Boston, is, by turns, harrowing and inspiring. She writes that she was desperate to get “Out of Boston, at almost any rate — away as far as possible from the infection of small pox, & the din of drums & martial Musick as its call’d, & horrors of war,” but that her husband, who had gone out first thing in search of some means of transportation away from the city, “return’d and told me there was not a carriage of one kind or another to be got for love or money.” After several attempts to depart on foot, a chaise was secured, and Sarah and her daughters made it past the interrogation of a series of sentinels, and across Boston Neck. Mr. Deming remained in Boston to protect their property from the very real threat of looters.
Once through enemy lines and out in the country, Sarah’s account in her journal becomes one of neighbors rising to help each other in a time of crisis. Arriving at the home of an acquaintance Sarah writes that, “he saw, knew, & sprung out to us…Come in here, sd he, all things are in common now. I have sent Mrs. Gordon to Dedham am moving my goods as fast as I can, but we have beds ’eno for us to night.” It is touching to see the readiness with which those outside of Boston were willing to aid their neighbors who fled from the dangers of the city.
In the trying time of the Coronavirus crisis through which we all are currently living, there is comfort to be drawn from the reflections that these women shared when they looked back from a distance on their respective struggles in Boston during the Occupation. After her family’s return to England in 1776, Ann writes
“…when a Solitary hour allows room for reflection, it still appears a wonder to Me, that I am here, in my Native Country, escaped from the dangers, & free from fearful alarms. That I can go to bed without Apprehensions of Cannonadings, by which I used to be roused, & rise up without anxious thoughts, for supplies, & safety by day, and walk out & see plentiful markets & easy countenances, instead of deserted Streets, empty market-places, or to meet discontented looks & anxious distress.”
This passage has a particular resonance today, as we all, too, look forward to the time when we will once again see “plentiful markets” and “easy countenances.” One of the remarkable aspects of studying history in a time that may feel hopeless, is learning that challenging crises have been faced in the past, and that the human spirit has a spectacular capacity for resilience.
Laura Rockeller was a Spring 2020 intern at the Paul Revere House
 Sarah Winslow Deming journal, 1775, page, 1, [electronic edition], Massachusetts Historical Society, 1 https://www.masshist.org/database/1898
 Ann Hulton, -1779. Letters Of a Loyalist Lady, Being the Letters of Anne Hulton, Sister of Henry 2 Hulton, Commissioner of Customs at Boston, 1767-1776. Cambridge :Harvard University Press, 1927, page, 17
 Ibid, p, 15
 Ann Hulton, -1779. Letters Of a Loyalist Lady, Being the Letters of Anne Hulton, Sister of Henry Hulton, Commissioner of Customs at Boston, 1767-1776. Cambridge :Harvard University Press, 1927, page, 19
 Ann Hulton, -1779. Letters Of a Loyalist Lady, Being the Letters of Anne Hulton, Sister of Henry Hulton, Commissioner of Customs at Boston, 1767-1776. Cambridge :Harvard University Press, 1927,, page, 36
 Sarah Winslow Deming journal, 1775, page, 3, [electronic edition], Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/1898
 Ann Hulton, -1779. Letters Of a Loyalist Lady, Being the Letters of Anne Hulton, Sister of Henry Hulton, Commissioner of Customs at Boston, 1767-1776. Cambridge :Harvard University Press, 1927, page, 79
 Ibid, page, 82
 Sarah Winslow Deming journal, 1775, page, 1, [electronic edition], Massachusetts Historical Society, 9 https://www.masshist.org/database/1898
 Ibid, page, 4
 Sarah Winslow Deming journal, 1775, page, 6, [electronic edition], Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/1898
 Ann Hulton, -1779. Letters Of a Loyalist Lady, Being the Letters of Anne Hulton, Sister of Henry Hulton, Commissioner of Customs at Boston, 1767-1776. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927, page, 91
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