Showing posts with label John Pulling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Pulling. Show all posts

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Lamp Lighter

Growing up I remember having a vague confidence in my ancestors.  Vague because they were reduced to neat little facts in my mind, like one or two signs of visible fruit - apples or pears - on the family tree.  My mother had a copy of one branch of the family that her uncle compiled, a zigzagging course of names and dashes that had my name clear at the bottom.  I'd been told we could trace our family back to the 1500s somewhere in England, that we had ancestors on the Mayflower (possibly William Bradford himself), and that one of our forefathers lit the lantern in the Old North Church (Christ Church) in Boston on the night of Paul Revere's ride.

Vintage Photograph of Christ Church, or the Old North Church, in Boston, Salem St.
My mother has been delving more and more into our family histories of late, and has opened for me a compelling story about our lamp-lighter ancestors.  John Pulling Jr is my seventh great-grandfather.  He is indeed mentioned on the Old North Church websiteOn 18 April 1775, vestryman (a leading member of the church body) John Pulling and sexton (caretaker) Robert Newman hung lamps in the steeple window of the church to warn colonial citizens that the British were on their way to Lexington and Concord. Revere rode on across the harbor, spreading the word in person. H.W. Longfellow, who wrote the poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" honoring his ancestor, does not mention John Pulling.  If you look up the story on Wikipedia, the grand bastion of drive-through history, John Pulling is absent and the credit for lighting the lamps goes to Robert Newman. 

(As a side note, Michelle and I walked the Freedom Trail a few years ago and our Yankee-garbed guide gleefully told us that Revere was drunk that night.  I sincerely doubt this - it would be a gargantuan effort for a man to ride a horse through the dark, over the Boston Harbor while evading British troops and successfully warn the colonists for what would be the battle of Lexington in a state of intoxication.  The idea sullies the efforts of these men.) 

John Pulling Jr, a Mason and a merchant, was married to Sarah Thaxter McBean.  This was the second marriage for both.  She was first married to Duncan McBean, a landowner/businessman, who died shortly after their return voyage (presumably) from the Caribbean.  Their infant child also died on that journey.  John's had two children from his first marriage to Annis Lee, John and Annis. Together, John and Sarah had two more children, Martha and Sarah, called Sallie.  Sallie is my sixth great-grandmother. 

John and Sarah both strike me as strong, passionate people.  John, a vestryman (leading member of the church), was part of the Sons of Liberty with Revere.  On 16 December 1773, John was one of a group of men who, protesting the British tax on tea, went to Boston Harbor and threw an entire shipment of tea into the water - the incident was later dubbed the Boston Tea Party.  John Pulling stashed tea in secret compartments in his writing desk.  That desk has since gone to another branch of the family - but it most certainly does exist. 

Paul Revere and his fellow Sons of Liberty were doing everything they could to thwart British advances by hiding munitions and arming themselves, as tensions grew and battles erupted in the colonies.  They had a simple code planned for a lantern-signal: one by land, and two by sea.  On this particularly night, the British troops moved faster than predicted, and Revere borrowed a horse and ran west to warn the colonists while Newman and Pulling ran up to the steeple and briefly flashed two lanterns in the window.  This alerted the colonists, but also alerted the British, who converged on Christ Church.  

The Old North Church looking toward Boston Harbor.  by Chris2fer

They apprehended Newman who had climbed out of a window.  During the subsequent - and no doubt unpleasant - interrogation, Newman gave up John Pulling's name.  Now indicated in the treasonous act, the British searched John's home, which was in the neighborhood but did not find him or his family.  John was actually hiding in a wine cask in the cellar.  Sarah, having sewn the family's silver and strips of tea into her petticoats to get it passed the British, had fled with the children to Cohasset, Mass. to hide in a cooper's shop (that's a maker of barrels and casks).  According to our sources, the shop was little more than a shack.  Sarah would later give Martha in this hiding place.

John, disguised as a fisherman, rowed a skiff to Nantasket (up the beach from Cohasset).  He joined Sarah and the children in Cohasset where they hid until the British left Boston later in the war. The family had fled with very little in the way of belongings, and had only each other.  John was never caught, but his life was changed.  A traitor to the Crown, his property was seized and he lived as a fugitive, in hiding and suffering, until his death nearly twelve years later.  He died at age 51 and is buried in Boston. 

After John Pulling died, Sarah took the children to live in the town of Abington. There Sallie would marry Isaac Reed.  Their daughter Lucy would eventually marry her second cousin, Jesse Reed.  To make the situation even more confusing, Sarah herself married (for the third time) another Thomas Reed, Isaac's father.  And the rest is history.  (My great-grandmother was a Reed who married a Poland.  My grandmother married a Pike.  My mother married a Boston.  From Sarah and Sallie on down we have a history of strong women in our family.  Not to cast all of my fathers and grandfathers aside...)

But it isn't "just" history.  I am connected to a family legacy - not of famous poems and bronze busts in museums, ballads and paintings and statues - of sacrifice and loyalty to family.  John Pulling Jr in every way exemplifies what it means to be an American and a Christian.  He committed treason; had he been caught, he most likely would have been executed.  Dying an early death, leaving his family destitute and exiled from home, is not a pretty story.  But what is beautiful about it is its plainness, its honesty, and its hope in something beyond the reach of the British Empire, beyond the grave. 

The next time I am in Boston, I will definitely visit the Old North Church, find the pew that bears my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather's name (if there is one), and thank him for being there all those years ago to strike a match and light a lantern, knowing full well what would happen next.  I can only imagine what that felt like.

Old North Church #3 by Tim Sackton


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