The Siege of Boston: Eyewitness Accounts from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Eyewitness Accounts from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Documents Related to Henry Howell Williams's Property Losses on Noddles Island

These documents, selected from the Noddles Island papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, convey the story of Henry Howell Williams, who owned property on the island in Boston Harbor.  Williams suffered great financial losses in late May and early June 1775 when American troops burned his house and property and confiscated his livestock to prevent them from being taken by the British Army.

Henry Howell Williams (1726-1802) moved to Noddles Island in 1762, shortly after he married Elizabeth Bell, whose father, Thomas, had previously leased the land. By the time the Siege of Boston began in spring of 1775, the Williams farm was thriving and he and his family (six of his nine children were born before the start of the Siege) lived in a large mansion.  Many factors, including the accessibility of his property, the ample resources of his farm (horses, sheep, cows, hay, and grain), and his activities (in addition to selling provisions to ships leaving Boston for distant destinations, Williams reportedly earned income by selling provisions to the British troops up until the Siege) elicited great interest from both the British troops and the American soldiers who were in need of provisions during the Siege.

The documents indicate that Williams had connections and relationships with individuals on both sides of the military conflict.  Two days after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, on 21 April 1775, Williams helped William Burbeck (appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Massachusetts Artillery Regiment unit in May) leave the town of Boston.  Williams took Burbeck to Noddles Island and, from there, arranged for Burbeck to get to Chelsea.  On the first day of May, Williams received a pass signed by Rear Admiral Samuel Graves of the Royal Navy, allowing Williams to travel between Boston and Noddles Island provided he neither transport people nor goods without permission.

By late May 1775, conditions and provisions had dwindled for all involved with the Siege and between 29 May and 2 June 1775, the American army seized horses, cattle, and sheep from the Williams property. In the process of confiscating the livestock, a majority of Williams's household possessions were reportedly destroyed.  The copy of the orders from Colonel Doolittle and the two statements of Moses Gill confirm that the American troops seized the livestock but make no mention of the damage done to the mansion.

The documents featured here were assembled around 1787, years after the Siege, when Williams formally petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for proper compensation for his losses.  The list assembled by Williams totals his losses of property (furniture, clothing, housewares, food stores, livestock, grains, and tools) at £3,645.  A statement written by Royal Flint of the Commissioners Office in Boston indicates that the United States government would only make financial awards for the loss of provisions that benefited the American troops, and states that no compensation would be made for damages done to household furniture.  Williams's case was settled in 1789 and he was awarded £2,000.  Three years later, in 1792, a committee appointed by the two houses of the Legislature of the Commonwealth found that the compensation awarded to Williams in 1789 would not preclude him from receiving additional compensation from other agencies (if indeed other agencies authorized such payments).

Statement of William Burbeck certifying that he received help from Henry Howell Williams in April 1775, written on 17 April 1776

Pass issued on behalf of Rear Admiral Samuel Graves to Henry Howell Williams allowing access to Noddles Island, 1 May 1775

Orders to take cattle issued by Col. Ephraim Doolittle to Capt. Nathan Fuller (copy), 30 May 1775

List of items belonging to Henry Howell Williams destroyed in 1775, 10 March 1787

Statement of Moses Gill certifying that the horses, cattle, and sheep removed from Noddles Island in June 1775 were used for the benefit of American troops, undated

Statement of Moses Gill certifying that the horses taken from Noddles Island in 1775 were turned over to those in charge of supplies for American troops,  20 March 1786

Statement of Royal Flint certifying the status of Mr. Henry Howell Williams's claim regarding property losses that occurred in June 1775, written on 1 April 1787

Report of the committee appointed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to consider the petition of Henry Howell Williams, 14 February 1792

See also: Entries for 28 May 1775 and 30 May 1775 on page 1 of William Cheever diary

See also: Plan of Boston