By Bonnie McBride, Reader Services
One day when wandering through Somerville, my boyfriend, a recent transplant to Cambridge, noticed what looked like a castle tower in the distance. He asked me about it, and rather than just find the answer online, we decided to have an adventure and discover in person what this tower was all about. It turns out that there is not a secret castle in Somerville, rather it is the Prospect Hill Tower, built in 1903 to commemorate the first flying of the Grand Union Flag on that same hill 1 January 1776.
As someone who is a fan of early Massachusetts history, I was surprised that I did not know about this tower and even more surprised that the first flag representing the United States had looked as if it had a Union Jack quartered on it. The next day I decide to search our collections here at MHS to see what materials we held about the Prospect Hill Tower and the first flying of the Grand Union Flag.
We do hold a number of secondary sources about both Prospect Hill and the flag flying, ranging from published historic guides of Somerville to sheet music composed about the first flag flying. The sheet music, pictured below, was printed in 1862 and while it is about the first raising of the flag in 1776, you will notice that the soldier pictured on the cover is dressed in a Civil War uniform, with tents in the background. Prospect Hill was used during the Civil War as a training camp. Most of our materials regarding the flag and Prospect Hill are from the late 19th and very early 20th centuries, which was about the time the tower was erected.
One of these sources is a bound scrapbook, created by Alfred Morton Cutler in 1921. In it, he pasted clippings of articles he had written for newspapers, such as the Cambridge Tribune, between 1918 and 1921. A number of the clippings were Letters to the Editor, in response to articles on the location and flag, with Cutler writing in to correct errors. All the articles go into great detail about not only the location of the first flag on Prospect Hill but also the type of flag. Cutler describes the first American flag as having “thirteen stripes, and containing in the field the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew.” At the end of the scrapbook is a clipping from a letter to the editor from William E. Wall: “An attempt is being made by the Librarian of the Cambridge Public Library to rob our city of Somerville of the honor which it has held so long, viz., that on January 1, 1776, on Prospect Hill (then a part of Charlestown) the flag of the United Colonies ‘first flung defiance to an enemy.’” Mr. Wall goes on to encourage readers to read closely Mr. Cutler’s “answer to assertions of the Cambridge librarian.” Unfortunately the letter written by the Librarian of the Cambridge Public Library was not included in the scrapbook, though this was the apparent conflict which prompted Cutler to correct the narrative.
Perhaps realizing that a book would have a wider audience than a newspaper, Cutler re-works many of his articles and letters into a short book titled The Continental “Great Union” Flag which was published in 1929. Similar to his letters to the editor, which contained short citations, Cutler goes to great lengths to prove the validity of his claims by citing in detail his various sources, which I am sure would lead to more delightful discoveries if a researcher ever chose to track them down.
Stop by and visit the library to help answer your own early Massachusetts or local town history questions! Though you can find answers to many questions online, it is more interesting (and fun!) to see how scholars thought about those same questions many years ago.