02 May 2015

Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: A study of Lexington, Massachusetts, part 1

Minute Man Statue
With a little imagination, you can visualize your ancestors’ community. Let’s take, for example, a pivotal time and place in the history of our nation: 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts. Considered the birthplace of American Liberty, according to the town’s web site, Lexington gets busloads of tourists year-round, but especially from April to late fall.

In 1775, Lexington was a farming community with a population of 750. As one of the main thoroughfares to Boston and New Hampshire, the town supported two taverns but had little in the way of a commercial center. 

In the early morning of April 19, 1775, the 2.5-acre Lexington Green was the setting for “the shot heard ‘round the world.” If you face the Minute Man Statue at the point of Battle Green, which is shaped like a triangle, Buckman Tavern is on your right. The green was purchased specifically for military musters, and after drills, Minute Men often gathered at Buckman Tavern. On April 18, William Dawes and Paul Revere rode from Boston with news of the advancing British troops, both stopping separately at the Hancock-Clarke house, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were spending the night. Given the warning, some of the Lexington Minute Men spent the night in the tavern until the Redcoats were sighted at sunrise. Then they formed their battle line on the green.

About 80 militia men were at the green that morning, standing in formation but not blocking the way to Concord where the military supplies and gunpowder were hidden. They were way outnumbered by the British regulars and no doubt expected their presence to be no more than a show of arms. No one knows who pulled the trigger first or if there were several shots fired almost simultaneously, but after the smoke had cleared, eight Colonists were dead and 10 wounded. There was only one Redcoat casualty.

Across the green, the white hip-roofed house, part of which was built in 1690, has a sign that reminds us of the painful losses during this fateful battle: “House of Jonathan Harrington/who wounded on the Common/April 19, 1775/dragged himself to the door/and died at his wife’s feet.” (LEX.54)

Reliving the Past

If you are in Lexington on the third Monday in April, a state holiday known as Patriots Day, you can relive the battle performed by military reenactors on the green. Since the Redcoats didn’t stop at Lexington but continued their march toward Concord, you can follow much of the path the British troops took through the Minute Man National Historical Park. The park also includes 10 “witness homes.

Take a Tour

Hancock-Clarke house
Since you can’t just knock on someone’s door and ask for a house tour, you can visit the Lexington Historical Society’s three buildings, which are open to the public for a fee: the Hancock-Clarke house at 36 Hancock Street (built 1737; LEX.119); Buckman Tavern at 1 Bedford Street (built 1690/1710; LEX.51); and Munroe Tavern at 1332 Massachusetts Avenue (built 1695/1735; LEX.128). All three were the stage for events of the American Revolution. (Munroe Tavern was occupied by the British after the Battles of Lexington and Concord.) 

Like most historic building museums that portray a certain time period, later architectural features and modern conveniences were stripped away. So, if you want to know what a tavern looked like on the eve of the American Revolution, not only will you be greeted by someone in Colonial garb, you’ll see the furnishings and cooking implements of the day.

If you don’t live near Lexington, you can find detailed historic structure reports of the historical society’s buildings, with timelines of ownership, photographs of architectural features and furnishings, and floor plans. You’ll also find information on the Hancock-Clark House archaeological dig, which was the boyhood home of John Hancock (1737-1793), signer of the Declaration of Independence.


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