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Seizure of Arms and Powder at Fort William and Mary


It is, arguably, the most stirring moment in New Hampshire history. In December 1774, Seacoast patriots stormed the King's fort at New Castle and robbed the armory of its gunpowder and weapons. The rebels might have been hanged as traitors, but survived to rule the new American state of NH.




ABOUT Charles Brewster 

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.   -- JDR


Seizure of Arms and Powder at Fort William and Mary--The finale at Provincial Government in New Hampshire

SEE ALSO: Photos of Re-enacted Raid 
SEE ALSO: The Shot Not Heard Round the World 

THE seizure of arms and powder at Fort William and Mary, (now Fort Constitution) in Portsmouth harbor, was the first capture made by the Americans in the war of the Revolution. We give the following extracts of letters of Gov. John Wentworth, communicated to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register of July, 1869, by Hon. John Wentworth of Chicago.

In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, dated "Portsmouth, 20th Dec. 1774," Gov. Wentworth says:

"On Tuesday, the 13th instant in the afternoon, one Paul Revere arrived express with letters from some of the leaders in Boston to Mr. Samuel Cutts, merchant of this town. Reports were soon circulated that the Fort at Rhode Island had been dismantled, and the Gunpowder and other military stores removed up to Providence, and an Extract of the circular letter directing the seizure of gunpowder was printed in a Boston Newspaper of the 12th in consequence, as I have been informed, of the said letters having been communicated to the House of Assembly at Rhode Island. And it was also falsely given out that Troops were embarking at Boston to come and take possession of William and Mary Castle in this Harbour. These rumors soon raised an alarm in the town; and, although I did not expect that the people would be so audacious as to make any attack on the castle, yet I sent orders to the captain at the Fort to be upon his guard.

On Wednesday, the 14th, about 12 o'clock, news was brought to me that a Drum was beating about the town to collect the Populace together in order to go and take away the Gunpowder and dismantled the Fort. I immediately sent the Chief Justice of the Province to warn them from engaging in such an attempt.



He went to them, where they were collected in the centre of the town, near the townhouse, explained to them the nature of the offense they proposed to commit, told them it was not short of Rebellion, and intreated them to desist from it and disperse. But all to no purpose. They went to the Island; and, being joined there by the inhabitants of the towns of Newcastle and Rye, formed in all a body of about four hundred men, and the Castle being in too weak a condition for defence, (as I have in former letters explained to your Lordship,) they forced their entrance, in spite of Captain Cochrane, who defended it as long as he could; but, having only the assistance of five men, their numbers overpowered him. After they entered the Fort, they seized upon the Captain, triumphantly gave three Huzzas, and hauled down the King's colours. They then put the captain and men under confinement, broke open the Gunpowder magazine, and carried off about 100 Barrels of Gunpowder, but discharged the Captain and men from their confinement before their departure.

On Thursday, the 15th, in the morning, a Party of men came from the country accompanied by Mr. [Gen. John] Sullivan, one of the New Hampshire Delegates to the Congress, to take away the Cannon from the Fort also. Mr. Sullivan declared that he had taken pains to prevail upon them to return home again; and said, as there was no certain intelligence of troops being coming to take possession of the Castle, he would still use his utmost endeavors to disperse them.

While the town was thus full of men, a committee from them came to me to solicit for pardon or a suspension of prosecution against the persons who took away the Gunpowder. I told them I could not promise them any such thing; but, if they dispersed and restored the Gunpowder, which I earnestly exhorted them to do, I said I hoped His Majesty may be thereby induced to consider it an alleviation of the offence. They parted from me, in all appearance, perfectly disposed to follow the advice I had given them; and having proceeded directly to the arrest of their associates, they all publickly voted, about five o'clock in the afternoon, near the Town House, to return home; which it was thought they would have done, and it also was further expected that the gunpowder would have been restored by the morning.

But the people, instead of dispersing, went to the Castle in the night, headed by Mr. Sullivan, and took away sixteen pieces of cannon, about sixty muskets and other military stores, and brought them to the out Borders of the town.

On Friday morning, the 16th, Mr. [Nathaniel] Folsom, the other delegate, came to town that morning, with a great number of armed men, who remained in Town as a guard till the flow of the tide in the evening when the cannon were sent in Gondolas of the River into the country, and they all dispersed without having done any personal injury to any body in the town.

They threatened to return again in order to dismantle the fort entirely, and to carry off or destroy the remaining heavy cannon, (about seventy pieces,) and also to seize upon the Province Treasury, all of which there was reasonable ground to fear they would do, after what they had already done;

but, on the Gunpowder's being taken away, I wrote to General Gage and Admiral Graves for assistance to restrain the boisterous temper of the people; upon which the Admiral ordered the armed ships Canceaux and Scarborough here, and they arrived (the former the 17th and the latter on the 19th) in time to prevent the further dismantling of the fort."



Further on, Gov. Wentworth says the government has no power to bring the offenders to punishment.

No jail would hold them long and no jury would find them guilty; for, by the false alarm that has been raised throughout the country, it is considered by the weak and ignorant, who have the rule in these times, an act of self-preservation.

Again he says:

I tried to dissuade them by the civil authority, sheriff, magistrate, &c., and did all I could to get the militia raised, but to no purpose.

He had assembled the Council at the beginning of the tumult, but it was of no avail. In his letter to Lord Dartmouth, dated 28th December, 1774, he says:

It is with the greatest concern I perceive the unlimited influence that the popular leaders in Boston obtain in this Province, especially since the outrage of the 14th instant. Insomuch, that I think the people here are disposed to attempt any measure required by those few men; and, in consequence thereof, are arming and exercising men as if for an immediate war.

In a letter to George Irving, Esq., dated Portsmouth, 5 January, 1775, referring to the 14th December, when the Castle was seized, he says:

The powers of magistracy have been faithfully and repeatedly tried. Governor, Council, Chief Justice, Sheriff and Justices of the Peace personally appeared; Proclamation made according to law for all to desist and disperse; the militia ordered out; drums beat, &c.; yet all to no avail. Not one appeared to assist in executing the law. And it was impossible for me, with four councillors, two Justices, one sheriff, Mr. MacDonough and Mr. Benning* Wentworth, to subdue such multitudes, for not one other man would come forth. Not even the Revenue officers. All chose to shrink in safety from the storm and suffered me to remain exposed to itself folly and madness of an enraged multitude, daily and hourly increasing in numbers and delusion.

He says Capt. Cochran and his five men defended a ruinous Castle with the walls in many places down, at length knocked down, their arms broken and taken from them by above one hundred to one, the Captain was confined and at last would not nor did not deal of the keys notwithstanding every menace they could invent; finally they broke the doors with axes and crowbars.

In a letter to General Gage, dated "Fort William and Mary, 15 June 1775," he says--

----The ferment in this province has become very general, and the government hath been very much agitated and disturbed since the affair of the 19th of April last. Two thousand men are already enlisted, two-thirds of whom I am informed are destined to join the insurgents in your province, and the remainder are to be stationed along the coast in different parts between Portsmouth and do Newbury.

The spirit of outrage runs so high that on Tuesday last my house was beset by great bodies of armed man who proceeded to such a length of violence as to bring a cannon directly before my house, and point it at my door, threatening fire and destruction unless Mr. Fenton, (a member of the assembly then sitting) who happened to call upon me, and against whom they had taken up such resentment as occasioned him some days before to retire on board the man-of-war in the Harbour out of their way, should instantly deliver himself up to them, and notwithstanding every effort to procure effectual assistance to disperse the multitude, Mr. Fenton was obliged to surrender himself and they have carried him to Exeter about fifteen miles from Portsmouth where he is, as I am informed, kept in confinement.

Seeing every idea of the respect due to his Majesty's Commission so far lost in the frantic rage and fury of the people as to find them to proceed to such daring violence against the Person of his Representative, I found myself under the necessity of immediately withdrawing to Fort William and Mary, both to prevent as much as may be a Repetition of the like insults and to provide for my own security.

I think it's exceedingly for the king's service to remain as long as possible at the Fort, where I now am with my Family in a small incommodious House without any other prospect of safety, if the prevailing madness of the people should follow me hither, than the hope of retreating on board his Majesty's ship Scarborough, if it should be in my power. This fort, although containing upwards of sixty pieces Cannon, is without men or ammunition.

In a letter to Paul Wentworth,** dated at Fort William and Mary 29 June, 1775, he says:

Admiral Graves has sent a transport under convoy of the Falcon, sloop-of-war, and entirely dismantled this ungarrisoned Castle of all the ordinance, stores, &c.Besides the inconvenience of being crowded into this miserable house, confined for room and neither wind or water tight, I am inevitably obliged to incur some extra expense for my safety in existence even here. Being out of necessity compelled to make some small repairs to render it habitable and to employ six men as watches to prevent my being surprised and made prisoner. These, with my three servants, and Mr. Benning Wentworth, and Captain Cochran are divided into three guards of four hours each; by which means I have some security of getting on board the Scarborough. The six men are at the expense of Twelve dollars per month each, including their dieting, allowance of Rum, &c.; under which expense no trusty man can possibly be had for so unpopular a service in this time of general opposition to Government. The repairs will not exceed fifty guineas.

In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, dated at Fort William and Mary, 17 July, 1775, he says: "From five to eight men have been usually kept in this Fort in time of Peace."

The latest letters dating from Fort William and Mary are those addressed, 17 August, 1775, to Hon. Theo. Atkinson, of Portsmouth N.H.; and 18 August, 1775, to the Earl Dartmouth, London.

In Sept. 1775, from the Isle of Shoals, he dates his last official paper in New Hampshire, proroguing the General Assembly, which was to meet that month, to the next April.

*This Benning Wentworth was son of Samuel and Elizabeth (Deering) Wentworth, a brother to Gov. John Wentworth's wife. He was born at Boston 16th March, 1757, graduated at Oxford, England, and died at Halifax, 18 Feb. 1808, whilst secretary to Gov. Wentworth. He has no descendants living in the male line.

**This Paul Wentworth was a native of one of the West India Islands; but had passed sometime at Portsmouth, N. H. He was agent for the Province of New Hampshire at London, and had been appointed a councillor whilst at London, but had not returned to be sworn in when the revolution broke out. Dartmouth conferred the degree of L.L. D. upon him in 1789. He died at Surinam in December, 1793.


ext scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999 



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