Dr. Samuel Holten – Danvers Patriot

Photo of the Samuel Holten House, June 2021

Last week the Salem News had two articles (see Erin Nolan’s reporting here and here) about a curious auction: the letters of Danvers patriot leader Dr. Samuel Holten. Taking place in Cincinnati, Ohio the auction of 200 letters between Holten and other famous patriot leaders was expected to go for about $10,000-$15,000 but instead sold for more than $46,000. Who is this Danvers revolutionary whose writings are so valuable?

Holten, a member of both the Continental Congress and the first US Congress, rose to prominence as a leader of the patriot cause well before the American Revolution. Educated by the Rev. Peter Clarke in the parsonage of the First Church of Danvers, he was destined for Harvard at age 12 before illness prevented him from attending. Instead, he studied medicine with Dr. Jonathan Prince, and opened his own practice at age 18. He became active in Danvers politics and the local militia, rising to the rank of Major.

His first steps towards becoming a revolutionary occurred in September 1768, when word spread throughout Massachusetts that British troops were being sent to the colony to restore order, and ostensibly to put down protests over British policies in Boston and other towns. An extralegal, unofficial meeting was called in Boston to decide how to respond to the approaching British fleet. One hundred and four Massachusetts towns and districts each elected a representative to attend, and Holten attended as Danvers’ representative.

Meeting even after the royal governor declared it an illegal assembly, these delegates voted to petition the government in London and to protest against the British troops. A month later, when British troops arrived, news of this convention had already reached them and this show of opposition so alarmed the British fleet that they feared Massachusetts may have already taken up arms. Upon their arrival, they therefore sailed their warships into Boston Harbor in battle formation, with their cannon aimed at Boston, and disembarked troops in full battle gear, as if invading an enemy land.

Holten continued to oppose British policies over the next few years, as events such as the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party occurred, and as the people of Danvers began boycotting tea and other British goods. Holten was Danvers’ delegate to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1774, when General Thomas Gage ordered the Massachusetts legislature to be dissolved because it was controlled by patriots opposed to Gage’s administration in Massachusetts. Instead, the House of Representatives declared themselves to be a “Massachusetts Provincial Congress,” the true representatives of the people, and therefore the legitimate authority in Massachusetts – not General Gage.

Portrait of Samuel Holten, painted circa 1790. Image from Wikimedia, portrait currently in the Danvers Archival Center.

After war broke out when the British advanced on Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British soldiers retreated into Boston, leaving the Provincial Congress and the Massachusetts militia in control of the rest of Massachusetts. Holten was appointed to the executive committee that served in place of a governor – since General Gage still claimed to be the rightful governor of Massachusetts.

Recognized for his ability and dedication to the patriot cause, in 1777 Holten was among the Massachusetts representatives to the convention that drafted the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitutional document, and he signed the Articles on behalf of Massachusetts alongside John Adams, John Hancock, and other revolutionary leaders.

From 1778 to 1780, he represented Massachusetts in the Second Continental Congress, returned home to help draft the Massachusetts Constitution, and then once the Articles of Confederation were ratified served in the Congress of the Confederation, at one point serving temporarily as its president during a brief absence by Richard Henry Lee. Since there was no executive branch under the Confederation, President of Congress was the highest political office in America.

After returning once again to Massachusetts to serve in the state senate, he was elected and served as Congressman from 1793-1795 in the third U.S. Congress under the new federal Constitution. Notable for being a supporter of Thomas Jefferson, he was an opponent of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. After his time in Congress ended in 1795, he continued holding elected positions in Danvers, and was an Essex County Probate Court judge.

After he returned to Danvers, Holten continued to live in his family’s house at the intersection of what are now Holten Street, Centre Street, and Collins Street. This historic structure, located in the Salem Village Historic District, has been owned and preserved by the Gen. Israel Putnam Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution since 1921. Built in 1670 by his ancestor Benjamin Holten, the Holten family also played a prominent role in the 1692 witch trials, with members of the family among both the accusers and defenders of those accused of witchcraft.

Photo of the Samuel Holten House, in the 1890s. Frank Cousins photo, Digital Commonwealth.

Dr. Samuel Holten died in January 1816, and is buried in the Holten Burying Ground, which bears his name on Holten Street. Once Danvers established its first public high school in 1850, it was named Holten High School in his honor, the name used until the new Danvers High School was built in Woodvale in the 1960s. The old high school building and the old Richmond junior high building are currently used for the Holten-Richmond Middle School.

In addition to Holten’s letters that were recently auctioned, he has other letters in the collections of many major archives and libraries that were written to various leaders of the American Revolution, papers from his medical practice are at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine, and there are many of his documents located in the Danvers Archival Center.

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Dan Gagnon is a lifelong Danvers resident and the author of the forthcoming biography A Salem Witch: The Trial, Execution, and Exoneration of Rebecca Nurse.

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Sources:

Mulholland, Elizabeth. “Judge Samuel Holten and His House.” In 250th Anniversary of the Town of Danvers, 98. Danvers, Mass.: Danvers 250th Committee, 202AD.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

Town of Danvers. The Celebration of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Town of Danvers, Massachusetts, as a Seperate Municipality. Boston, Mass.: Fort Hill Press, 1907.

Gen. Israel Putnam House

Putnam House
(The Putnam House on Maple St. in Danvers, 2020. Author’s photo)

The c.1648 Putnam House, known for its connections to both the 1692 Salem Village Witch-Hunt and the American Revolution, is one of the most significant historic structures in Danvers. It is best known as the childhood home of Major General Israel Putnam, the American commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Born January 7, 1718 into a farming family, Israel Putnam was the 11th of 12 children. His father, Joseph Putnam, was an opponent of the 1692 Witch-Hunt, despite many members of the Putnam Family being among the leading accusers. Israel Putnam only received a minimal education, attending the local grammar school during the winters when the farming season was over. He married Hannah Pope in 1739, and continued living on his family farm for several years before he moved to present-day Brooklyn, CT.

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(DAR plaque on the Putnam House. Author’s photo)

Birth_Room,_Gen._Israel_Putnam POSTCARD
(Postcard showing the room in which Israel Putnam was born)

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(View from Route 1. Author’s photo)

Beginning in 1755, Putnam fought in the French and Indian War with the Connecticut militia. He entered as a private and rapidly rose through the ranks due to his bravery, and he served in the unit that was the precursor to the U.S. Army Rangers. Putnam fought in upper New York at Fort Ticonderoga, supervised the building of the major fort at Crown Point, NY, was captured and almost burned alive by French-allied Native Americans, commanded 1,000 colonial militiamen during the invasion of Spanish Cuba, and at the French and Indian War’s end he was a colonel who had been wounded 15 times.

Putnam returned to his farm in Connecticut where he lived and worked until April 19, 1775 when British soldiers advanced on Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution began. He was ploughing his farm when he heard about the battles, so he left his plough in the field immediately and departed to ask the governor for orders to go to Boston, and then departed for Massachusetts. The image of Putnam leaving his plough to join the fight is carved on one side of the Connecticut capitol building.

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(Putnam in his Continental Army uniform, printed in Hasbrouck, Israel Putnam)

When Putnam arrived, Boston was surrounded by Massachusetts militiamen, some of whom had confronted the British on the day of Lexington and Concord, like those from Danvers, as well as those from farther away towns who marched on the capital once they heard the news of the battles. The militiamen surrounded the British-occupied city which at that point was effectively an island, with only a sliver of land connecting it to the mainland.

Putnam, now a brigadier general in the Connecticut militia, set up headquarters in Cambridge while he oversaw the construction of defenses on that side of the Charles River. During this time, he received a message from British commander Gen. Thomas Gage in Boston – a friend from the French and Indian War – who offered him the position of major general in the British Army if he joined the Crown’s side against the American patriots. Putnam refused.

On the morning of June 17, 1775 British sailors on Royal Navy ships in the harbor awoke to see that during the previous night the Americans had moved onto the Charlestown peninsula and constructed fortifications there. The cannons aboard the British ships began firing on the Americans, starting the Battle of Bunker Hill, and soon after landing craft dropped off British soldiers to attack the Americans. The American commander-in-chief Major General Joseph Warren was ill, and the major general of the Mass. militia refused command, so Putnam served as the American commanding officer of the battle. It was as the British soldiers approached the poorly-supplied militiamen on the hill that he reportedly ordered them to conserve ammunition until the British were close: “Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes!”


(Bunker Hill. Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/pga.11535/)

At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Putnam fought among the troops, giving orders from the midst of battle. He carried a pistol that had been used by a British officer at Lexington – it was the gun that reportedly fired to signal for the British soldiers to open fire on the Americans on that fateful morning and therefore potentially the gun that fired the first shot of the Revolution.

The British soldiers attacked twice and were repelled. After receiving reinforcements they attacked a third time and pushed back the Americans, who were by then almost out of ammunition, ending the battle. Though, the Americans had inflicted heavy casualties onto the attacking British. When George Washington took command of the American forces the following month, Putnam was named a major general in the Continental Army, a position earned by his leadership at Bunker Hill and reputation from prior wars.

After Bunker Hill, Putnam fought at the Battle of Long Island – where he saved Washington’s army from destruction by covering the commander’s retreat – and at other battles in New York and Connecticut. At this time, his staff included his aide-de-camp Aaron Burr, future US vice president – and killer of Alexander Hamilton.

During the war, a captured British officer challenged Putnam to a duel. He accepted, and was given the choice of weapons. The next morning, the British officer saw Putnam sitting in a chair next to a barrel, the kind that was typically used to store gunpowder. Putnam invited him to sit in a chair on the other side of the barrel. Putnam inserted a fuse into the top of the barrel and lit it with his pipe, telling the British officer that they both had an equal chance of surviving. The fuse burned down to the end and the British officer jumped away in the nick of time – or so he thought, but it never exploded. It was actually a barrel of onions, and the British officer had mistakenly assumed it was gunpowder. Putnam considered that he won the duel.

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(Image of the onion barrel duel, printed in Hasbrouck, Israel Putnam)

Putnam’s military career ended in 1779 when he suffered a stroke. He returned to Danvers for the last time in 1786 to visit with his family and friends, and died on May 19, 1790. His legacy is seen in the various monuments and places named for him, including: Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, CT that features an equestrian statue of him, his preserved Putnam Farm in Brooklyn, CT, a statue of him at the Connecticut State Capitol, the counties that bear his name in nine different states, several towns named for him, and the Putnam House in Danvers, as well as a motel named after him in the film My Cousin Vinny (1992) and a character in several versions of the videogame Assassin’s Creed.


(Image of Putnam in the Connecticut militia uniform he wore at Bunker Hill, from Assassin’s Creed)

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Sources:

Frothingham, Richard. History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. 6th ed. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1903.

Hasbrouck, Louise Seymour. Israel Putnam (“Old Put”): A Story for Young People. New York: C. Appleton, 1916. http://archive.org/details/israelputnamoldp00zimm.

Hubbard, Robert Ernst. Major General Israel Putnam: Hero of the American Revolution. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2017.

Humphreys, David. An Essay on the Life of the Honorable Major General Israel Putnam: Addressed to the State Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut. Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1788. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008586085.

Massachusetts Historical Commission. “General Israel Putnam House.” MACRIS. Accessed January 12, 2020. http://mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=DAN.51.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.