Mary Hartwell and the Alarm on April 19, 1775

By Donald L. Hafner

Mary Flint Hartwell has a prominent role in local lore about the events in the early hours of April 19, 1775. The most vivid version is set at about 2:30 a.m., not long after Dr. Samuel Prescott had escaped a British patrol in the town of Lincoln and brought the alarm to the Hartwells’ neighbors, “The Regulars are out! They’re marching to Concord.” This tale has Mary Hartwell handing her infant daughter to a frightened female slave, then skirting along stone walls to avoid detection, as she carried the alarm a quarter-mile eastward to the house of Captain William Smith. Smith then carried the alarm to the center of town, to rouse the Lincoln minute men and set them on their march to Concord, to confront the British at the North Bridge. This version is vivid and engaging, with an air of historical suspense: “What if she had not alerted Captain Smith?” But this is also a 20th century version of the events, complete with a stirring climax:
"When, at last, she knocked at the Captain’s door, and told the awful news, she little dreamed she had been the first woman to succeed in carrying the alarm, which already surging throughout Middlesex, was to awaken a people to Independence."

Unfortunately, the accuracy of this modern version is doubtful, no matter how stirring. The earliest versions of the tale have contradictory accounts about how Captain Smith received the alarm. Nevertheless, even the earliest versions suggest Mary Hartwell is entitled to even more, rather than less credit in spreading the alert that fateful night. The inaccuracies in the modern version of the tale therefore risk doing a disservice to Mary Hartwell’s role and to her courage on April 19th. Untangling the tale takes a bit of effort, but the rewards are an adventure in historical sleuthing and a clearer picture of what happened that fateful night, along the old Bay Road.

Mary Flint Hartwell was born on March 22, 1747, the daughter of Ephraim Flint, one of Lincoln’s town founders and prominent political leader. Mary was the second of five children born to Ephraim and Ruth Wheeler Flint. She married Samuel Hartwell on September 12, 1769, when she was 22 years old and he was 27. 1 Eventually, Mary and Samuel Hartwell would have four daughters and four sons, but on April 19, 1775, there were only three children in the household: Polly, age 4; Sally, age 2; and baby Lucy, only five months old. Samuel and Mary occupied a house on the Bay Road in north Lincoln, given to them in 1769 by Samuel’s father, Ephraim, and located about 200 yards to the east of Ephraim’s residence and tavern. Theirs was a modest farm of 15 acres, valued at only £23 in 1774, but with enough tilled land to support what was still a small family. And Samuel added to the family income with work as a clockmaker and gunsmith. In April, 1775, Mary Hartwell was 28-years-old and almost certainly still nursing her infant daughter, Lucy.2

The earliest published account of Mary Hartwell’s role on the night of April 19th appeared in a local Concord newspaper, the Concord Freeman, for the centennial celebration of independence in 1876:
"One of the windows at which Paul Revere [sic] tapped, the night of his famous ride, was that of a little shop, just at the corner of crossroads, in the town of Lincoln. He was answered here by a negro, the only occupant, who took the message to his master’s house, a few rods off the line. Mr. Hartwell was quickly roused, and bade Crispus carry the tidings along one road, while he went to warn the captain of the minute men, who lived on the other. But there was still another way for the summons to go, and who would carry it? Mrs. Hartwell took her sleeping babe to the chamber of her young sister, and leaving them alone in the house, crept along in the gray of the morning, across the fields, for a mile, crouching low beside the stone wall, to give the alarm."3

The Concord Freeman writer said this account was based on a conversation with “the sleeping babe,” Lucy Hartwell, “when her years had numbered eighty.” Since Lucy died in 1858 at the age of 84, the Concord Freeman in 1876 was printing a tale heard from her lips some 22 years earlier. 4 That Mary Hartwell played a role in spreading the alarm is clear in this account, but what is not clear is whether she went toward the house of Captain William Smith, or in another direction.

The key phrase in this version—“but there was still another way for the summons to go”— could mean that Samuel Hartwell thought about going himself to warn William Smith, but then thought of “still another way” to alert Smith, and so he sent Mary Hartwell instead. On the other hand, this phrase might more plausibly mean that Samuel Hartwell directed Crispus to carry the alarm west along the Bay Road toward Concord, Samuel carried it east to William Smith so he could consult with his captain, and Mary Hartwell went “still another way” at this “corner of crossroads,” south toward Lincoln center. Directly across the Bay Road from the Hartwell house in 1775, there were pasture fields. Someone moving south across those fields for a quarter-mile would have come to Bedford Lane, which led toward Lincoln center. The borders between fields and roads were lined by stone walls, although there do not appear to have been stone walls within the pasture fields.5 At that hour on April 19th, the moon was at its peak above the horizon and just past full, bright enough to light the way but also to reveal someone moving over field or road. If Mary Hartwell had gone that direction “for a mile,” she would have come to the house of Ephraim Brooks, whose two sons—Benjamin and Ephraim Jr.—were minute men.6 In either reading of the phrase “still another way for the summons to go,” the story is clear about the central role that Mary Hartwell played in relaying the initial alert. And if indeed Mary Hartwell left her infant daughter Lucy and two-year-old Sally in the care of four-year-old Polly, the sense of danger and urgency must have been extreme.

The next passage in this 1876 account leaps to events involving Mary Hartwell that would have occurred later in the day on April 19th:
"Returning to their [sic] sister and babe, they all took shelter under the kitchen table, with its wide falling leaves, while the British troops marched by. They [the British soldiers] stopped to drink at the well, by the corner of the house, and fired a bullet which passed through two rooms and spent its force on the wall above those in hiding, dropping harmlessly behind the table"

By itself, this does not reveal much about Mary Hartwell’s role, except that it places her and her three children in the house when the battle between Americans and retreating British soldiers swept along the Bay Road at about 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

Another version of the alarm was written a few years later by a Lincoln resident, Mary Bradley Farrar, in a letter to the editor of the Concord Freeman, dated March 17, 1879 and published in 1880:
"A colored woman living in a house near by went to the Hartwells to spread the news of the comings of the British, but was afraid to go further, so Mrs. H. said, if you will take care of my baby, I will go and give warning. The British in passing smashed one window and put a bullet into the garret window."7

A bit further in Farrar’s account, this same black woman also helped spread the alarm west toward Concord, where she encountered 30-year-old Abner Wheeler, whose house was in Concord, just west of the Lincoln border, on the Bay Road:
"Mr. Abner Wheeler used often brag of what he would do if the British came, but the old colored woman on her way to give warning, found him hiding in the woods"

Mary Farrar’s version adds the presence of a frightened black woman who was entrusted with the Hartwells’ baby. And Farrar has the alert being carried westward, although here it is relayed by a black woman rather than the enslaved male, Crispus. Again, Mary Hartwell has a role, but the direction in which she headed to “give warning” is not explained.

Mary Farrar’s added details about British soldiers smashing a window and firing into the house on their way back from Concord are a reminder that more than once on April 19th, spreading “the news of the comings of the British” would have been important:
  • at about 2:30 a.m., when Samuel Prescott brought the initial alarm
  • at about 6 a.m., when the British column arrived in Lincoln, headed toward Concord
  • at about 1 p.m., when the British were returning from Concord on the Bay Road and were engulfed in a running battle with American minute men and militia just as they crossed the Concord-Lincoln border
Farrar’s pairing of two events—Mary Hartwell’s spreading the alarm and the return of the British soldiers from Concord—raises the possibility that Mary Hartwell may have carried warnings to her neighbors more than once that day. Unfortunately, Farrar’s letter to the Concord Freeman is a loose recollection of stories linked to historic houses in Lincoln, rather than a strict chronology of the day. The anecdote about Abner Wheeler seems to suggest events later in the morning, rather than in the dead of night. Abner Wheeler lived about a mile west of the Hartwell home, on the Bay Road. If “the old colored woman on her way to give warning” discovered Wheeler already cowering in the woods, then he obviously had received the alarm a while earlier— perhaps directly from Samuel Prescott. Farrar’s version gives no clue whether Wheeler dashed immediately to the woods, and by himself, or later in the day after first making provision for the safety of his wife and three young children.8 Nor is it clear how long the black woman tended to Mary Hartwell’s baby before heading off in the direction of Wheeler’s house. However long it was, the morning glow was evidently bright enough for her to recognize Abner in his hiding place.

Some elements of Mary Farrar’s account make more sense in light of Abram Brown’s version of the tale, in Beneath Old Roof Trees, in 1896. Brown cites his source of the story as “Mrs. Samuel Hartwell, as told by her grandson, who had it repeatedly from her lips.” Brown places the entire passage in quotation marks, as the words of the unnamed grandson:
"It was my good fortune to have a grandmother live in the full possession of her faculties until she had attained almost a century in life. … She said: “Your grandfather, who was a sergeant, left the house, joining the neighbors as soon as the alarm reached us. I did up the chores in the barn, and cared for the children as well as I could in my anxiety. When thus occupied, a colored woman who lived near us came in to spread the news of the approach of British, but was afraid to go further, so I said, ‘If you will take care of my baby, I will go and give the warning.’ I started for a neighbor’s house, glancing down the road, and saw such a sight as I can never forget. The army of the king was coming up in fine order, their red coats were brilliant, and their bayonets glistening in the sunlight made a fine appearance; but I knew what all that meant, and I feared 5 of 15 that I should never see your grandfather again, although I then knew nothing of the bloody work at Lexington.”9

In this version, Mary Hartwell relays an alert, but the time would have been around 6 o’clock in the morning, as the British column was coming into view on Lincoln’s Bay Road. If so, the warning she relayed was not news that the British had left Boston, because that alarm had already sent her husband, the men of Lincoln, and Captain William Smith marching to Concord hours earlier. What frightened the “colored woman” would not have been some unseen danger in the night, but the British column already in Lincoln after sunrise. As for the direction Mary Hartwell went to “give the alarm” at “a neighbor’s house,” the account is ambiguous. When “glancing down the road,” she might have been headed east along the Bay Road toward the Smith home (and the British column), or she might only have been crossing the road headed south.

What is puzzling about Abram Brown’s account from the unnamed Hartwell grandson are the striking differences from yet another version published two years earlier in the Boston Daily Globe, attributed directly to one of those grandsons, “Mr. Samuel Hartwell of Lincoln, chairman of the selectmen of that town, and a man of marked ability and unblemished integrity”:
"It was my good fortune to have a grandmother live in the full possession of her faculties until she had attained almost a century in life. … “She said: “Your grandfather left the house with the neighbors as soon as the alarm came by way of Bedford. They had some agreement as to how the alarm should be spread in case of a movement of the British out this way, and the alarm was sounded here very early in the morning. I did up the chores of the barn and cared for the children as well as I could in my anxiety. When going out to one of the neighboring houses, I looked down the road and saw such a sight as I can never forget. The army of the king was coming up in fine order. Their red coats were brilliant, and their bayonets glistening in the sunlight made a fine appearance; but I knew what all that meant, and I feared that I should never see your grandfather again. They passed up the road without molesting me or any of us who were left in our houses.”10

Clearly the Boston Daily Globe article in 1894 and Brown’s account in 1896 come almost verbatim from the same source, and again the focus is entirely on events hours after the initial alarm on April 19th. Brown could not simply have copied from the Daily Globe article, because he included the story about Mary Hartwell handing her baby to “a colored woman” and then carrying the alarm to neighbors—something missing altogether from the Daily Globe article. So Brown must have consulted directly with grandson Samuel Hartwell. That the Daily Globe omitted the vignette about Mary’s baby may not be significant. Perhaps Samuel included the story, but the Globe editors deleted it. Yet it is significant that neither Samuel Hartwell nor 6 of 15 Abram Brown state anything about how William Smith received the initial alarm. Even after his consultation with Samuel Hartwell, Brown merely says: “Captain William Smith of the minute men lived on this road [the Bay Road], and to him the alarm must have come at a very early hour.”11

For some of his lore, Abram Brown also drew upon an earlier history of Lincoln written in 1890 by William F. Wheeler. Wheeler was equally spare in his account of how Captain Smith received the alarm:
"On the same road [the Bay Road] about midway between the boundaries of Lexington and Concord, lived Capt. William Smith. He must have received very early the intelligence that the British troops were in motion. Mounting his horse, he assisted in alarming his company, then rode to Concord."12

Wheeler was a town selectman in Lincoln for 26 years, treasurer for 28 years, and a long-serving member of the school committee. He was born in 1812, so he was a contemporary not only of Mary Hartwell’s grandsons, but also of her daughter Lucy and of Mary Hartwell herself. (Mary Hartwell died at the age of 98 on July 23, 1846.) Wheeler served as a town selectman alongside grandson Samuel Hartwell for seven years between 1875 and 1882. Indeed, Samuel Hartwell was reportedly one of Wheeler’s “leading backers” in the fractious town meetings at the time.13 Mary B. Farrar noted in her 1879 account that “Mr. Wm. F. Wheeler of Lincoln is now writing a history of the town,” so Wheeler’s interest in town lore was known by his neighbors. Given ample opportunity to hear family lore directly from three generations of Hartwells, Wheeler’s uncertainty about how the alarm reached Captain William Smith seems significant.

On the eve of April 19th celebrations in 1900, the Boston Evening Transcript printed a long article about events in Lincoln that contained yet another account of Mary Hartwell’s role. This elaborate version, citing “family tradition,” has Samuel Prescott first bringing the alarm to Ephraim and John Hartwell, at their tavern west of Samuel and Mary Hartwell’s residence:
"On the eve of April 19th celebrations in 1900, the Boston Evening Transcript printed a long article about events in Lincoln that contained yet another account of Mary Hartwell’s role. This elaborate version, citing “family tradition,” has Samuel Prescott first bringing the alarm to Ephraim and John Hartwell, at their tavern west of Samuel and Mary Hartwell’s residence:
"While they [Ephraim and John] got down their muskets and prepared for defense, they sent a black woman, an ex-slave, to alarm Captain William Smith of the Lincoln Minutemen, who lived nearly half a mile down the road towards Lexington. She started off bravely enough. A few steps from the tavern, her way led under a dense canopy of overhanging foliage. Here the shadows were thick and black, and her footfalls echoed dismally. The rocks at the roadside and the trunks of tress loomed up before her imaginative eyes in the shapes of giant grenadiers. She broke into a run, and when she emerged into the flood of moonlight, ran the faster, for she knew those grenadiers could see her the better now. By the time she came to Samuel Hartwell’s house—only a few rods of the way—her fright had increased to a palsy. She woke the household by her cries; and when admitted, gasped that the British were chasing her. The Hartwells, however, soon found out the true situation. She protested, for all that, she could go no farther. Then Mistress Hartwell gave to her her three-months’ old baby, saying, “If you will take care of my baby, I will go and rouse the captain! Samuel, make yourself ready, and saddle your horse. I’ll be back in time to get you some breakfast.” When, at last, she knocked at the captain’s door, and told the awful news, she little dreamed she had been the first woman to succeed in carrying the alarm, which already surging throughout Middlesex, was to awaken a people to Independence. Returned from her mission, she prepared breakfast for her husband; as he rode off to Concord with musket and power-horn to join the militia, bade him a loving “God-speed” with lips and eyes until he was beyond sight."14

Again, it is a black woman who brings the initial alarm to Samuel and Mary Hartwell and then cares for the baby, although here she is identified as an ex-slave of unstated age. The fanciful description of the black woman paralyzed by imagined monsters in the night is, of course, overwrought fiction with a tinge of racial cliché. (In early April, well before the last frost in 18th century New England, there would have been no “dense canopy of overhanging foliage” to obscure the moon and cause footsteps to “echo dismally.”

More to the point, in contrast to all the earlier versions, this account explicitly has Mary Hartwell carrying the initial alarm to Captain William Smith. And in this version, Mary clearly does not carry any other alert to her neighbors during the day:
"Like many another woman this morning, Mistress Hartwell did the chores at the barn, turned the cattle loose, and gathered together the few most precious things with which she could flee—a looking glass, the little silverware, and the Bible. While she was yet busied in the house, she heard the steady, rumbling tramp of the dreaded British. Going to her doorway, and shading her eyes, she saw far down on the Lexington road a brilliant red line winding between green fields. As it advanced, she could distinguish one by one the details of gorgeousness—white gaiters, flashing scarlet coats, bayonets gleaming, glancing in the sunlight. Years afterward she said, “If it hadn’t been for the purpose they came for, I should say it was the handsomest sight I ever saw in my life!” … After the British had passed from sight she prepared to leave her house—fearful of what might happen during the day. … Far down the road to Lincoln village, she looked back, gazed lovingly at her husband’s fields joyous in the sunshine; at her forsaken homestead, nestling under the dooryard elms; then with a stifled sob plodded on to her father Flint’s, two miles away."15

So this account from 1900, based vaguely on Hartwell “family tradition,” appears at odds with earlier versions. Finally, there is Frank Hersey’s Heroes of the Battle Road, published in 1930, still in print, and surely the most widely read version of the tale. Here is an echo of the Boston Evening Transcript account, but with fresh details. Hersey asserts as his source in Heroes that “the story of Mary Hartwell is her own account, told to her grandsons Jonas and Samuel Hartwell … and told in turn to the present writer by Jonas and Samuel Hartwell”:
"All was bustle in the Hartwell household. Samuel was hated by the Tories for his activities in the cause of liberty. Not only was he first sergeant of the minute men, but, being a locksmith and gunsmith, he had repaired during the spring many arms for his compatriots. He at once began to get ready, to collect his equipment, to feed the horse and prepare it for saddling. The two little girls, Polly, aged four, and Sally, two, were crying in their fright. Mary, holding her five-months’-old baby in her arms, told Sukey to run down the road to Captain Smith’s, the next house eastward, and notify him that the British were coming. But Sukey, remembering the grim procession of horsemen she had seen in the evening, was terrified. She rolled her eyes, cried out that the British would catch her and kill her, and refused to leave the house. Then Mary, the courage of her pioneer ancestors kindling within her, said: “If you will take care of my baby, Sukey, I will go rouse the Captain. I’ll be back to get breakfast ready.” She put the baby in Sukey’s arms, and throwing on a cloak, stepped out into the dews of night. Leaving the dark shadow of the elm trees in the front of the house, she resolutely made her way along the road under the white lustre of the moon, and turned up the lane leading to the Captain’s house on a knoll. When at last she knocked at the door and gave him the message, she felt a thrill of pride that she, a woman, had succeeded in carrying the alarm which was sweeping throughout Middlesex. She returned from her mission safely, and prepared breakfast for her husband at the great fireplace in the kitchen. As he rode off with musket and powder-horn to join his company, she bade him a loving God-speed.”16

The similarity of this version and the Boston Evening Transcript thirty years earlier suggests that Hersey was in fact the author of both. Indeed, roughly half the Evening Transcript article appears verbatim in Heroes of the Battle Road. The Evening Transcript article gave no indication of the author. So conceivably, Hersey could have plagiarized whole sections of the article when he wrote Heroes of the Battle Road. But plagiarism seems far less likely than that Hersey wrote the Evening Transcript article himself. Hersey was born in 1876, graduated from Harvard in 1899, taught writing on the Harvard faculty for decades, authored several texts on prose composition, and published introductions for Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories for young readers. When it came time to write Heroes of the Battle Road, the 54-year-old Hersey likely went back to the article he had written as a 24-year-old youth. The Heroes edition in 1930 corrects some errors, folds in additional information, reorders the chronology of some events, and adds photographs, a few footnotes, plus nine pages of historical documentation. But its kinship to the Evening Transcript article remains clear.

Despite the improvements, there are still a number of difficulties with Hersey’s account in Heroes. First, although Hersey pared out much of his earlier, fanciful prose, he added fresh embellishments. Regrettably, some of those embellishments again invoke racial stereotypes of Hersey’s era. The ex-slave woman who had imagined giant grenadiers and became frightened “to a palsy” in the Evening Transcript article becomes Sukey the young enslaved girl, “rolling her eyes” in terror, still afraid of a “grim procession of horsemen” she had seen hours earlier and had mistaken as a funeral. Then at dawn, in a panic yet again, Sukey takes flight into the forest:
"On the approach of the troops she had fled through the fields behind the house and taken refuge deep in the woods. She was not seen that day or that night, and did not return until the next day."17

There is no record of an enslaved female named Sukey living in this section of the Bay Road, although there was an enslaved woman named Violet, of unknown age, owned by Ephraim Hartwell. 18 The exaggerated image of a terrified adolescent Sukey is also at odds with earlier sources of this tale, which featured an enslaved male named Crispus or an older, unnamed black woman who clearly was in command of herself (or at least better in command of herself than Abner Wheeler was). Moreover, the label Sukey itself is suspect. The name occurs fairly often in the vital records of 18th century Massachusetts towns, but as the name of white women, sometimes as a diminutive for Susannah. The association of the name with black women appears to be a 19th- and early-20th century practice, especially in the South, where the name Sukey may have blended with a demeaning term used by whites for enslaved females, derived from a word in rural English and Scots dialect for livestock. Hersey’s Sukey is more a 19th century racial caricature than an 18th century historical figure.

A second difficulty with Hersey’s account is his reliance on the grandsons of Mary Hartwell, Jonas and Samuel, as sources. Jonas was born in 1821, Samuel was born in 1834, and both died in 1906. 19 Since Jonas was age 25 when Mary Hartwell died in 1846, and Samuel was 12, they certainly could have heard her stories repeated many times when they were growing up. When Hersey published Heroes in 1930, he acknowledged that he too was relying upon what he had heard many years before:
"During the many years of my boyhood which I spent in Lincoln, my interest in history was nurtured by my mother, with whom I went on various historical pilgrimages. One summer day we drove over this road [the Bay Road] with Deacon Jonas Hartwell, who told us the story which his grandmother [Mary Hartwell] had told him—how she roused the Captain, how she watched the King’s troops march past, how she followed the slain British soldiers to the grave as “first mourner.” I zealously wrote down the account as we went along and sketched a map to identify every spot. The story was repeated to me by another grandson, Samuel Hartwell, Selectman of Lincoln for a quarter of a century."20

Deacon Jonas Hartwell was reportedly a loquacious sort; “He is always full of talk,” according to one of his contemporaries. .21 So it must have been a challenge for the young Hersey to catch all the story details as they rolled along Lincoln’s unpaved roads in cart or carriage. Whether Hersey later worked from the boyhood notes that he “zealously wrote down” or from other conversations with the Hartwell grandsons before they died in 1906, he nevertheless was relating stories in Heroes of the Battle Road in 1930 that he had heard decades earlier and could no longer clarify or re-confirm with his Hartwell sources. This might not matter if Hersey’s account of what he supposedly heard from the grandsons was consistent with earlier versions attributed to Lucy Hartwell, or with Samuel Hartwell’s versions quoted by the Boston Daily Globe and by Abram Brown in Beneath Old Roof Trees. But Hersey’s two versions—in 1900 and 1930—do not match those prior accounts, and they do not match each other.

A third difficulty, Hersey’s Heroes shares some elements with earlier accounts, but then jumbles the details in ways one might expect as a story grows dim and confused in retellings over time. The enslaved male who first receives the alarm becomes an “old colored woman” who then disappears from the tale, replaced by a terrified enslaved girl. The babe-in-arms left with her young sister becomes a babe-in-arms handed to this frightened girl. An older enslaved woman carrying the alarm westward who encounters Abner Wheeler cowering in the woods in Concord becomes a scared adolescent who cowers in the woods in Lincoln. Mary Hartwell bearing the initial alarm “still another way” to her unnamed neighbors at 3 a.m. becomes Mary Hartwell carrying the warning that the British column was in sight at 6 a.m., then becomes Mary Hartwell again carrying the initial alarm to Captain Smith in the dead of night.

Moreover, by the time these retellings appear in Hersey’s Heroes, they sometimes make no sense. The enslaved Sukey refuses to carry the alarm to Captain Smith because she fears “the grim procession of [British] horsemen” she had seen six hours earlier and had mistaken for a funeral. Yet there is no evidence that the British patrol on horseback ever ventured passed the Hartwell house, much less that they could have been mistaken as a funeral cortege, with neither sun nor moonlight at that hour to make them visible to Sukey. 22 Supposedly Samuel Hartwell, sergeant in the minute men, “at once began to get ready” to march when Prescott brought the urgent alarm, yet Samuel then dawdles until Mary comes back from alerting Captain Smith, so that she can cook his breakfast.

Frank Hersey’s dramatic tale of Mary Hartwell carrying the alarm to Captain William Smith is clearly problematic in significant ways. 23 Yet when Hersey, in his literary flair, puts thoughts into Mary Hartwell’s head, they are thoughts that draw our sympathy: “When, at last, she knocked at the captain’s door, and told the awful news, she little dreamed she had been the first woman to succeed in carrying the alarm, which already surging throughout Middlesex, was to awaken a people to Independence.” When Hersey wrote those lines for The Boston Evening Transcript in 1900, the question of whether women should be allowed to vote was roiling American politics. One can understand the appeal for Hersey of placing Mary Hartwell squarely at the center of events which produced the birth of our nation. And years later, Mary Hartwell still deserved a place among Heroes of the Battle Road: “She felt a thrill of pride that she, a woman, had succeeded in carrying the alarm which was sweeping throughout Middlesex.”

Mary Hartwell played a role in spreading the alarm to her Lincoln neighbors on April 19, 1775. That much is confirmed by the earliest version of this tale, and she did so at some risk to the welfare of her young children and herself. All this would be worthy of our admiration, even if—as the oldest version of the tale from Mary Hartwell’s daughter Lucy seems to say—it was actually Samuel Hartwell who alerted Captain William Smith that British soldiers were on the march toward Concord, while Mary carried the alarm to other neighbors. Mary Hartwell does not need later exaggerations of her story in order to earn our gratitude and our efforts to perpetuate her memory, especially for her humane attention to the burial of five fallen British soldiers in the Lincoln cemetery, killed during the British retreat. 24 But she is entitled to our accuracy, lest later generations come to doubt there is any truth at all in the stories we recount about April 19, 1775.
_________________________________________________________________________Donald L. Hafner was a Professor of Political Science at Boston College (now retired). He is a long-time member of the Lincoln Minute Men, currently serving as Drum Major.


  1. Samuel also had an unmarried sister by the name of Mary, who was born in January, 1749. She was apparently still living with their parents, Ephraim and Elisabeth Hartwell, so that when her brother Samuel married Mary Flint in September, 1769, there were then two Mary Hartwells on the Bay Road in Lincoln, living next door to each other. Town records show that this sister Mary was paid by the town for keeping school in the nearby North school house in 1768, 1769, 1771, 1772, and 1774.
  2. Polly Hartwell was born November 13, 1770; Sally was born January 25, 1773; and Lucy was born November 15, 1774. See Concord, Massachusetts, Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1635-1850 (Boston: T. Todd, Printer, 1895), p. 172; Vital Records of Lincoln, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1908), pp. 36-37, 115, and 43-46; and Lincoln Town Assessor’s Records for 1774.
  3. See Lee Gleanor, “Centennial Gleanings,” Concord Freeman, May 4, 1876. See also John C. MacLean, A Rich Harvest: The History, Buildings, and People of Lincoln, Massachusetts (Lincoln, MA: Lincoln Historical Society, 1987), pp. 266. Dr. Samuel Prescott, and not Paul Revere, brought the alarm to this area of the Bay Road in Lincoln on the night of April 19th. Paul Revere had already been captured by the British patrol. Prescott died in 1777 and left no record of his ride on April 19, 1775.
  4. Lucy Hartwell died on September 2, 1858. See Vital Records of Lincoln, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, pp. 43-44, and Massachusetts Death Records, 1841-1915, p. 339
  5. See the map in Joyce Malcolm, The Scene of the Battle 1775: Historic Grounds Report, Minute Man National Historical Park (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1985), Figure 6.
  6. Ephraim Brooks Jr. was in a Concord minute company. Samuel Hartwell would have known that Benjamin and Ephraim Brooks Jr. were minute men, and that through their extended family ties, they would alert other minute men. See Rick Wiggin, Embattled Farmers (Lincoln: Lincoln Historical Society, 2013), pp. 231-233.
  7. Mary B. Farrar, “Old Homes in Lincoln,” Concord Freeman, January 22, 1880. Although the letter was not published until January, 1880, Mary Farrar dated it March 17, 1879. Mary Bradley Farrar was the daughter of James Farrar Jr. and Adaline Hyde Farrar of Lincoln, born on October 6, 1853. The 1920 U.S. census shows Mary B. Farrar at age 67, living in the household of her brother, Edward R. Farrar, in Lincoln. She died on December 21, 1928, and is buried in the Lincoln cemetery. In 18th century New England, enslaved men and women occasionally lived in dwellings apart from their owners. On the variety of slave living arrangements, see Jared R. Hardesty, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth Century Boston (New York: New York University Press, 2016), especially chapter 3.
  8. According to Mary B. Farrar’s account in 1879, the wife and neighbors of Lt. Samuel Farrar of the Lincoln minute men also fled to the woods: “They did not know but the [British] soldiers would pass this house so Mrs. Farrar took these friends, the baby, Samuel, … the large family bible, which is still preserved, the silver, a loaf of bread, and looking glass, and went to Snaky Bottom Swamp, about one-half mile back of the house. They left the silver and looking glass in a ditch by the way. Every little while they would look over the hill to see if the [British] soldiers had not set the house on fire.” Mary Farrar is again unclear about when during the day this occurred. However, the May 4, 1876, article in the Concord Freeman places this event in the late afternoon, as the British were returning: “Meanwhile a company of fugitives on their way from Concord had told his [Lt. Samuel Farrar’s] wife how the [British] troops were firing into houses, and perhaps they might take that road back. She laid her baby in the cradle, and with him, the big family Bible, the silver spoons and the looking-glass, sorted out the best of the cattle to drive before them, and with her little boy of three by her side, guided the company to a sunken hollow in the dense woods more than half a mile from the road …”
  9. Abram English Brown, Beneath Old Roof Trees (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), pp. 220-221.
  10. See “Stories of the Fight: Told by Living Men and Women Who Had Them from the Lips of the Heroes of April 19, 1775,” Boston Daily Globe, April 15, 1894, p. 25.
  11. Brown, Beneath Old Roof Trees, p. 219.
  12. William F. Wheeler, “Lincoln,” in D. Hamilton Hurd, ed., History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1890), vol. 2, p. 619.
  13. See “A Look at Lincoln! A Heated Contest Between the Ins and the Outs at the Annual Town Meeting,” Concord Freeman, March 18, 1880, quoted in MacLean, A Rich Harvest, p. 481.
  14. 4 See “The British Regulars’ Rout,” Boston Evening Transcript, April 18, 1900, p. 16. This article was heavily relied upon, verbatim and with attribution, by Ellen Chase in her three-volume history of the American Revolution, published in 1911. The various problems in Hersey’s versions were discussed by John Luzade in the National Park’s historic structure report in 1968 on the Samuel Hartwell house, but Hersey’s connection to the Evening Transcript article is not recognized by Luzader. See Ellen Chase, The Beginnings of the American Revolution (London: Pitman and Sons, 1911), vol. 3, pp. 2-3; and John Luzade, Samuel Hartwell House and Ephraim Hartwell Tavern: Historic Structures Report (Washington, DC: National Park Service, September 9, 1968), Part I, pp. 20-21.
  15. Boston Evening Transcript, April 18, 1900, p. 16. The description of Mary Hartwell gathering up a looking glass, the silverware, the family Bible, and a baby and fleeing suggests confusion with local lore about Marcy Hoar Farrar, wife of Lt. Samuel Farrar. See Mary B. Farrar, Concord Freeman, January 22, 1880.
  16. Frank Wilson Cheney Hersey, Heroes of the Battle Road, 1775 (Boston: Perry Walton, 1930), pp. 21-22. Paul Brooks’ Bicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s history in 1975 draws upon both Hersey and the Boston Daily Globe article of 1894. Brooks gives Mary Hartwell credit for carrying the alarm to William Smith, but omits any story about Mary handing her baby to others. See Paul Brooks, Trial by Fire: Lincoln Massachusetts and the War of Independence (Lincoln, MA: Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, 1975), pp. 16-18 and 57-58. John Luzader, in the Park’s Historic Structures Report for the Hartwell houses, discusses additional difficulties of fact and logic in Hersey’s account that do not bear directly on Mary Hartwell’s role. See Luzade, Samuel Hartwell House and Ephraim Hartwell Tavern: Historic Structures Report, Part I, pp. 22-26
  17. Hersey, Heroes of the Battle Road, 1775, p. 25. An Interpretative Prospectus approved by the National Park Service in 1977 had a strong opinion about Hersey’s depiction of Sukey: “In this connection, the filiopietistic ‘Dr. Prescott- Mary Hartwell- Sukey, the slave’ legend associated with the Sgt. Hartwell and Capt. Smith houses should not be perpetuated.” See Marlene Rockmore and Orville W. Carroll, The Captain William Smith House: Historical Structure Report (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1985), p. 7.
  18. Ephraim and Elisabeth Hartwell’s residence and tavern were adjacent to the property of Samuel and Mary Hartwell. See MacLean, A Rich Harvest, pp. 220 and 660, note 22.
  19. Mary Hartwell’s grandsons were the children of Samuel Hartwell Jr. of Lincoln and Mary “Polly” Hagar of Weston, who married in 1818. Jonas Hartwell was born in Lincoln on June 30, 1821, and died of chronic myocarditis in Cambridge on August 5, 1906. Samuel Hartwell was born in Lincoln on January 4, 1834, and died of senile dementia in Lincoln on February 21, 1906. How long Samuel had suffered from dementia is unclear. Mary Hartwell had three other grandsons: George, who died in 1875; John, who died in 1878; and Charles, who died in 1905 in China. See Vital Records of Lincoln, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, pp. 43-44.
  20. Hersey, Heroes of the Battle Road, 1775, author’s foreword. Hersey’s mother, Permelia E. Cheney Hersey, died in 1926 at the age of 78.
  21. James Lorin Chapin, recorded this in his diary on October 18, 1850: “Jonas Hartwell has made us a short call this evening. He is always full of talk when he comes here. Some people can never stop talking, and some (of whom I am one) can never begin to talk unless I am well-acquainted …” See Jane Langton, Strong Hands and a Willing Heart: An Introduction to the Journal of James Lorin Chapin, 1848-1850 (Lincoln, MA: Lincoln Historical Society, 2013), p. 57
  22. The accounts by Paul Revere and others captured by the British patrol on the night of April 18/19th place the patrol almost a mile east of the Hartwell residence. Hersey has this “grim procession of horsemen” passing the Hartwell residence at “half-past eight or nine o’clock” and being watched by Sukey and Mary Hartwell from a window. The sun had set at 6:30 p.m. and moonrise did not occur until 10 p.m. See Hersey, Heroes of the Battle Road, pp. 2-3.
  23. For another instance in which Hersey’s embellishments placed a Lincoln character at the center of history in Heroes of the Battle Road, even where other sources suggest quite a different (and more interesting) interpretation, see Donald L. Hafner, “‘The First Blood Shed in the Revolution’: The Tale of Josiah Nelson on April 19, 1775,” The Lincoln Review, vol. 30, no. 4 (July-August 2006).
  24. The question might be posed: If the story about Mary Hartwell carrying the alarm to William Smith is doubtful, should the story about Mary Hartwell attending the burial the five British soldiers in Lincoln’s cemetery also be in doubt, since both are included by Hersey? The difference is, Hersey is the only one who explicitly links Mary Hartwell and William Smith, and his version is inconsistent with earlier accounts. In contrast, Mary Hartwell’s humane gesture toward the dead British soldiers was told in detail her grandson Samuel as early as 1894 and is not contradicted by other sources. See “Stories of the Fight,” Boston Daily Globe, April 15, 1894, p. 25.

Minute Man National Historical Park

Last updated: August 1, 2021