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Illuminating Revolutionary War America

The papers of British General Thomas Gage have been the most queried, requested, researched, and otherwise utilized materials at the William L. Clements Library—from their arrival at the Library in 1937 to the present day. A National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to digitize the Gage papers coincides with the Centennial of the William L. Clements Library. In keeping with a central tenet of the Clements Library’s mission statement, to “support and encourage scholarly investigation of our nation’s past . . . and make . . . materials available to students and the broader public,” the digitization of the Thomas Gage Papers will facilitate remote access to this internationally significant collection through freely available online publication.

The Clements Library is pleased to reveal this hitherto unrecorded 2¼” oval miniature portrait of Thomas Gage. He wears the uniform of the 11th Light Dragoons, the regimental coat indicating his colonelcy (held between 1785 and his death in 1787). Almost certainly Gage’s last portrait, his wife Margaret Gage may have worn it at least in the early period after her husband’s death. Painted by artist Jeremiah Meyer (1735–1789) on ivory, rose gold rim, pin back, necklace chain holes, cobalt blue backing, ca. 1785–1787. Discovered by Christopher Bryant and acquired by the Clements Library, 2022, thanks to the generosity of Benjamin and Bonnie Upton, and Margaret Trumbull.

Thomas Gage was a career military officer, who served in America during the Seven Years’ War, as military governor of Montreal (1760–1763), as commander in chief of the British Army in North America (1763–1775), and as governor of Massachusetts Bay (1774– 1775). General Gage’s extensive papers are comprised of over 23,000 letters, documents, intelligence reports, muster rolls, depositions, treaties and proclamations, engineering assessments, financial papers, maps, and broadsides, largely dating from his service in America between 1763 and 1775. As the head of the military in North America, Thomas Gage was also the senior government official in the American colonies. Consequently, his papers are rich with information about the British attempt to gain control over areas taken from the French in the Treaty of Paris (1763), relations with the indigenous populations, and the tumultuous years leading up to the American War of Independence.

Access to the Thomas Gage Papers has increased over the years, with improved tools for navigating the sea of manuscripts. From 1937 to the early 2000s, researchers consulted printed guides, bibliographic entries, a card catalog, name lists, and rudimentary catalog descriptions. In 2010, the National Endowment for the Humanities provided the Clements Library with funds to create a robust online finding aid and supplementary subject indices to make this voluminous collection accessible to scholars with interests in a range of content. The current digitization project spanning 2021–2024—also funded by the NEH—will result in the online availability of scans of every manuscript, permitting users to connect with the collection whether or not they have the resources to travel to Ann Arbor. The inclusion of metadata and notes will give users a new way to engage with subject matter and personalities. While not part of the NEH digitization grant, the Clements Library is reviewing options for securing transcriptions of the complete Gage collection.

The Thomas Gage Papers are a treasure trove of primary sources on pivotal events leading up to the American Revolution: the Stamp Act of 1765, the Boston Massacre of 1770, and the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, to name a few. Several Stamp Act-related manuscripts include a letter that Thomas Gage wrote to Secretary of State Henry Seymour Conway on September 23, 1765. In it, Gage provided a detailed account of the uproar which greeted the Act in the colonies. He began “Tho’ you will have received accounts from the Governors of the several Provinces, of the Clamor, Tumults, and Riots that the Stamped Act has occasioned in the Colonies; Yet as the Clamor has been so General, it may be expected Sir, that I should likewise transmit you some account of what has passed.” Gage informed Conway of the Virginia Resolves passed by the Assembly of Virginia, which claimed that in accordance with British law, Virginians could only be taxed by an assembly of representative officials they personally elected. Thus, they deemed the Stamp Act to be unlawful. As such, the Assembly of Virginia, “gave the signal for a general outcry over the continent . . . they have been applauded as the protectors and assertors of American liberty.”


 Around 50 letters and documents in the Thomas Gage Papers pertain to riotous behavior and other responses to the Stamp Act. Reports came to Gage from as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Florida. This example is a letter from Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard reporting on riots in Boston and the impending arrival of stamped paper: “The Council have desired me to cause the Stampt paper when it arrives to be lodged in the Castle to prevent its being destroyed : And It is said among the People that the Castle shall not protect the Stampt paper for they are determined to take it from thence” (August 29, 1765)

Gage continued by detailing the successful efforts of rioters across the colonies to pressure Stamp Officers to resign their posts “by menace or by force,” destroy stamped papers, and coerce assemblies into repealing the Stamp Act. In Boston, the populace “took the lead in the Riots and by an assault upon the house of the Stamp Officer, forced him to a Resignation.” Meanwhile, “[t]he little turbulent Colony of Rhode Island raised their Mob likewise” and not only forced a Stamp Act official to resign, but destroyed the homes of prominent loyalists. Gage then noted that the neighboring provinces would have likely seen similar scenes, had there not been an “almost general resignation of the Stamp Officers.” The southern colonies were broadly peaceful, though Maryland saw the house of a stamp officer “pulled down and his effigies burnt.” Eventually, Gage wrote, the people “began to be terrified at the spirit they had raised, to perceive that popular fury was not to be guided and each individual feared that he might be the next victim.” Gage concluded his report by informing Conway that “[e] verything is quiet at present and a calm seems to have succeeded the storm.” Gage noted, however, that as the Stamp Act wasn’t set to take effect until the first of November, “the final issue of this affair will be soon determined.” As the NEH digitization grant progresses, researchers and the general public will have ready access to this letter in its totality and within the context of its creation.

Another flashpoint in British-colonial America was the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767 and 1768, designed to tax the colonies on imports from Great Britain, such as glass, paper, and tea. On March 5, 1770, Bostonians took to the streets in protest, resulting in the event remembered as the Boston Massacre. Reporting on the protest, Gage informed Secretary at War William Barrington, “Your Lordship will have heard Accounts of the unhappy Quarrell between the People of Boston and the Troops quartered there; in which five of the former were killed” Enclosed with this April 24, 1770, communication is a vivid description of the Boston Massacre titled “A Narrative of what happened at Boston, on the Night of the 5th: March 1770.” A sample of the document includes:


[O]n the Night of the 5th: of March . . .
They began by falling upon a few
Soldiers in a Lane, contiguous to
a Barrack of the 29th: Regiment.
The Mob followed, Menacing and
brandishing their Clubs over the
Officers Heads to the Barrack Door . . .
Part of the Mob broke into a
Meeting House and rang the Fire
Bell, which appears to have been
the Alarm concerted for Numerous
Bodys immediately Assembled
in the Streets, Armed some with
Musquets, but most with Clubs,
Bludgeons, and such like Weapons
. . . . Officers . . . were repairing to
their Posts, but Meeting with Mobs
were reviled, attacked, and those who
could not escape, knocked down and
treated with great Inhumanity. One
of the Soldiers recieving a violent
Blow. . . . Captain [Thomas] Preston
turned round to see who fired, and
recieved a Blow upon his Arm,
which was Aimed at his Head.

When the mob of Bostonians did not see any “Execution done,” the crowd “grew more bold, and attacked with greater Violence, continually Striking at the Soldiers and Pelting them . . .”.

Formal narratives like this/these provide details of the violence and ensuing consequences that can only be appreciated through direct reading. These original manuscript sources as they physically appear (via digital surrogate) bring us closer to these familiar people and events in a palpable way.

The breadth of subject matter, geography, data, and perspectives in the Gage papers offers a path to diverse scholarship. Insights into the lives of marginalized individuals and groups may be found throughout these manuscripts. Direct engagement with the sources reveals military, legal, and social aspects of slavery and Africandescended peoples, women and gender-related topics, and more.

One window into these underrepresented lives is a series of letters involving Captain Lieutenant Charles Osborne, the commanding officer of Ticonderoga, and his subordinate, James Cahoon. By letter, Osborne informed Gage that Cahoon’s wife, May (or Mary) Cahoon, applied to him for protection because her husband had been abusing her in ways “not possible to describe.” As a result, Osborne separated James Cahoon from his wife and sent him to his barrack room. Yet Gage also received letters from Lieutenant Colonel John Beckwith at Crown Point relating an alternate version of the story. Beckwith wrote that James Cahoon informed him that Cahoon had “caut his Captain [Charles Osborne] in bed with his wife” and that when Cahoon complained, Osborne imprisoned him for ten days. Beckwith reminded Osborne that May Cahoon’s husband “has a right not only to demand his Wife, but to take her where ever he can find her to live with him if he chooses it and no one has a right to keep her from him without his consent or approbation.” Beckwith proposed that Osborne address the situation by sending May Cahoon away from the military post and to her family, which Osborne refused to do. The men appealed to Gage, the commanding general, for a final decision, and the resulting opinion was that Osborne “commands independently” and that Beckwith should stay out of the situation.

The Cahoon story brings into stark relief the subjugation of women and evidences the ways in which masculinity was weaponized to maintain the male-dominated military hierarchy. Very little has been published citing these letters, and less that is freely available to the public. This episode takes up little space in the grand sweep of military and political events that pervade the Gage Papers, but it was life-changing for May Cahoon. Not hearing her voice amid the arguments and judgments of the men involved, we can only speculate on her thoughts, preferences, and feelings.

Military return documents provide accounting for personnel, property, or supplies. These routine manuscripts often include everyday people not otherwise remembered in the historical record. Following Pontiac’s war against the British, Henry Bouquet treated with Shawnee and Delaware Native American peoples in October 1764. This return documents clothing supplied to captives of Native American tribes who were released “back” into the colonial population. These captives often had integrated into tribal communities and had families there. Peggy, a woman of mixed racial or ethnic descent, was removed back into the hands of the grandson of her late enslaver. Many men, women, and children are all but untraceable without documentation such as this. The digitization of the Thomas Gage Papers will provide a wider opportunity to uncover their stories.

Even with thorough indexing and description, the series of letters on the Cahoons is challenging to locate, especially for novice researchers. Careful consultation with the library’s online volume descriptions includes a single sentence: “Captain Osbourne is accused of detaining and ‘cohabitating with’ James Cahoon’s wife at Fort Ticonderoga.” And even in the library’s own description, May Cahoon lacks a name, agency, and autonomy. A close review of the library’s subject index will identify these letters under entries for “Women,” “Women, adultery,” “Women, violence toward”, and “Infidelity,” all of which are accurate, but learning the entire story requires the time and resources to consult the original materials. The NEH-funded project to digitize the Thomas Gage papers is a game-changing opportunity for researchers to uncover primary sources for experiences like those of May Cahoon, without the pressure of a library closing bell or lack of travel resources. Younger scholars who struggle with cursive handwriting will be able to study the papers without the limited time afforded by the reading room.

The availability of these materials will transform scholarship on the late 18th-century Anglo-American world. Such scholarship would help better understand the United States in global histories of empire. Scholars working in Indigenous Studies will continue to enrich histories of Native American resistance to settler colonialism. The Gage papers have supported decades of publications and dissertations on military and political history, revolutionary people and events, merchants and financial agents, and grand intellectual and ideological discourses that have shaped how we understand American history. New historiographic approaches, analytic tools, and changing subject focuses have and will continue to march on. Alongside its stunning documentation of prominent people and events, we look forward to expanding insights into the everyday—historically underrepresented persons; persons without access to resources or sociopolitical or financial power; family; interpersonal relationships on small scales; sexuality; the environment; and practical challenges of simply being alive in colonial America. Whether for macroor micro-history, the Thomas Gage Papers continue to be read afresh.

Tulin Babbitt, Katrina Shafer, and Michelle Varteresian 
NEH Project Digitization Technicians