One Man's Perspective: Captain Edward Bowen, Sr. (1720-1796)

I had the wind taken out of my sails this week.  I got a text from my brother Luke late Tuesday afternoon: “Text me quickly if you can.  Who is the most interesting person from the Revolutionary War era? (seeking book report topic)”.  Since Luke is long past the age of writing book reports I assumed, and rightly so, that he was making the request on behalf of his ten-year-old daughter.  The most interesting person from the revolutionary war era?  That is certainly a question for a far more esteemed historian than myself, or for a countdown show on The History Channel.  I knew I could come up with an interesting person from that era.  After all, I write a weekly blog on interesting people, some of who are from the era in question.  I had just finished reading the story of Moll Pitcher, the much-maligned fortune-teller of Lynn, Massachusetts.  I do not think that I am related to ol’ Moll, but I would much rather hear that story than the well worn tales of how the Father of Our Country had wooden teeth, or trying to remember whether if it was “One if by land, Two if by sea”, or the other way around.  I immediately texted back that I would be happy to put together a list of compelling figures that my niece, Lily, could choose from.

Before I could put this list down on paper I got another text from Luke.  Lily had chosen  (drum-roll, please) .  .  . Betsy Ross.  Betsy Ross!  I apologize to all of you Betsy Ross fans out there, but I cannot think of a less interesting Revolutionary War era figure.  But then again, the Betsy Ross story is a very easy one to tell.  George Washington asked her to sew a flag.  She sewed a flag.  The end.   It’s a feel good story without a hint of controversy or complication.  And about as intriguing as watching paint dry.  I hope that those of you who are taking the time to read this post find the following account at least slightly more entertaining.

Captain Edward Bowen, a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was fifty-six years old at the start of the Revolution, and for the seventeen years from 1779 until his death in 1796, he kept a journal of his life in that coastal town.  One of his earliest journal entries is from January 23, 1779, which marked the birth of his ninth child.  My wife delivered a son whose name is to be Edward, who, if he should live, may remember that his father had no hand in the destraction (sic.) of his country, which was once the best for a poor man in the known world, but now the worst.”  I don’t know if  by destraction he meant “destruction” or “distraction”, but, either way, his frustration with the Revolution is clear.  The next week he writes of the source of much of this frustration.  After giving a list of prices of provisions.  Fine Liberty!  O, fine Liberty!  May they be punished.  The fishermen and sailors of Marblehead had suffered more than anyone under the tax regime of George III, but the war was economically devastating,  The formerly fertile fishing areas off the harbor had become the scene of pitched naval battles and the import-export trade had ground to halt.   By the spring of 1781 the local economy was in free-fall, and it took 100 of the newly issued American dollars to equal one Spanish mill dollar.  There was no meat available in the town, grain was scarce, and the heating fuel had barely lasted the winter.

Marblehead paid not only a heavy financial price, but a heavy price in terms in terms of young men seriously wounded or killed in battle.  On July 24, 1781, Capt. Bowen’s son William joined the army, much to elder Bowen’s consternation.  Many of Capt. Bowen’s diary entries deal with those who died during the war, including his son Benjamin who died in Barbados in 1779.  Capt. Bowen did not receive word of his son’s death until nearly two years after the event.  Closer to home the Marblehead privateers were able to significantly harass the British navy, but this did little to relieve the hardships suffered by the community.

Capt. Bowen wrote that the winter of 1779 and 1780 was the coldest of the century to that point.   That winter Salem and Marblehead harbors froze over with ice more than eight inches deep.  Two-thirds of the families in Marblehead were without meat or firewood.  Almost the entire Massachusetts fleet had been destroyed in a failed attack on the British in Penobscot Bay the previous summer and the rebellious Massachusetts colony was on the brink of financial ruin.  Capt. Bowen wrote often of his doubts about the revolutionary cause and his frustrations were many.  In the summer of 1881, Capt. Bowen’s brother Ashley was aboard a privateering ship that was captured by the British.

On April 13, 1783, news that peace had been declared reached Marblehead.  Within a few years the fishing and the international trade began to pick up, and Capt. Bowen wrote in his journal about ships and sailors setting out to and returning from ports including Bilboa Spain, Russia, the West Indies, the Carolinas, and Isle of Sables.  Capt. Bowen reported that the Christmas of 1787 was the most pleasant that anyone could remember.  The fishing that season had gone extremely well, but the market was extremely slow, perhaps on account of fears that the newly independent nation would be dragged into a war between Great Britain and France.  As 1787 became 1788 Capt. Bowen wrote:  Political conversation now seems to be most about the form of government.  Our State Convention meets at Boston the 8th of this month for the acceptance or refusal of the Constitution.  God grant they may be directed from above: may they have the good of the publick at heart.  As we have now begun a new year may we begin it to the Lord.  I have reason to fear there will be something uncommon come upon us this year.  May it not be our destruction.  On October 29, 1789, George Washington visited Salem and Marblehead and Capt. Bowen reported that there was “much ado.”

I know that Edward Bowen did not design or even sew the first flag of our nation, but I find the personal accounts of those who lived through the turbulent days that led to the new republic’s independence far more intriguing than the white-washed, plain vanilla propaganda that often passes as History.  I also know that I should not let the wind be taken out of my sails by a fifth grader's choice for a book report topic.

Captain Edward Bowen was my 5th great grand uncle

Adam Lowe Martin (son of) - Allen Lowe Martin - Allen Littlefield Martin - Frank L. Martin - Elbridge Gerry Martin, Jr. - Elbridge Gerry Martin, Sr. - Ambrose Bowen Martin - Elizabeth Bowen (daughter of) - Nathan Bowen, Sr. (father of) - Edward Bowen, Sr.