Even though a Salem company of militia men did not make it to Lexington and Concord in time to participate in the battles that commenced the Revolutionary War (I still can’t figure out what Timothy Pickering was doing on that day), there are still some important connections and contributions to note on this Patriots Day, including the publication of one of its most essential primary sources, the coffin-embellished broadside Bloody Butchery of the British Troops: or, The Runaway Fight of the Regulars, by Salem printer Ezekiel Russell. Russell documents the death of Salem’s one casualty of the day, Benjamin Pierce, but a source from years later established another important connection: Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th of April, 1775, published for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the battles in 1825. Phinney took oral histories from participants who were still alive, published in the form of sworn affidavits in the book’s appendix, and the very first account was that of Elijah Sanderson, who was at the end of a long career as one of Salem’s most successful cabinetmakers. Sanderson’s testimony was given just weeks before his death in early 1825, and published not only in Phinney’s account but also in the regional newspapers that year, when historical consciousness of the importance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord seems quite well-developed.
Elijah Sanderson and his younger brother Jacob were among the most prolific and consequential cabinetmakers of Salem, who spread the city’s craftsmanship and style far beyond New England through an expansive export trade in alliance with their partner Josiah Austin and several prominent merchants and shipowners. Through their collaborative business, and with half-shares in several Salem ships themselves, they sent cargoes of furniture to the Southern seaports, the West Indies, Africa, and India in a series of voyages that are well-documented in the Phillips Library and have been analyzed by scholars Mabel M. Swan, Thomas Hamilton Ornsbee, and more recently, Dean Lahikainen. Their success was clearly tied to Salem, but in 1775 the Sanderson brothers were living in Lexington, in the home of their elder brother Samuel, when Elijah found himself swept up in the events of April 18 and 19, for a time even finding himself in the captive company of Paul Revere! I love his testimony because it rings true in its lack of heroism and drama: it must be true because it is recounted in such a detailed yet mundane manner! The Sanderson house was on the main road from Boston, and relatively late on the evening of the 18th Elijah noted the passing of a party of British officers “all dressed in blue wrappers”. He decided to discern what was up, so made his way to John Buckman’s tavern where an older gentleman encouraged him to “ascertain the object” of these officers, so he did so, on a borrowed horse in the company of two other comrades. There was general concern that the British were after John Hancock and John Adams, who had been “boarding some time at Parson Clark’s”. Elijah’s party was stopped by nine British officers a few miles down the road in Lincoln, and they were detained and examined, along with two other “prisoners”, a one-handed pedlar named Allen and Col. Paul Revere. After “as many question as a Yankee could” ask, the entire party mounted and made their way to Lexington, where the British officer named Loring observed “The bell’s a ringing, and the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men” but let them go, after cutting the bridle and girth of Elijah’s horse. We hear no more of Revere, but Elijah made his way to the tavern in Lexington and there promptly fell asleep! Yes, he fell asleep in the middle of the opening act of the American Revolution.
The taproom of the Buckman Tavern, where Elijah Sanderson fell asleep by the fire; early 19th century view of the Battle of Lexington, New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Well not for long: Elijah awoke to the sound of drums and ran out to Lexington Common where he fell in, without a gun, but then stepped out “reflecting I was of no use” to become the perfect eyewitness bystander of the Battle of Lexington. He heard the British commander say “Fire” and then all was smoke and fire. After the British left for Concord, Elijah ran home to get his gun,, but it was gone (his brother took it) and so he returned to the center of town to “see to the dead”. A few hours later he witnessed the retreat of the British from Concord, firing houses as they made their way back to Boston. He ends his testimony with two statements that he clearly wanted to get on the record: 1) he spoke with one casualty of the day several days prior: a certain Jonas Parker who “expressed his determination never to run from before the British troops” and; 2) his wayward musket was still in his possession, and his brother “told me he fired at the British with it” on that fateful day. What a life this man led: his experience in Lexington, combined with his brilliant Salem career, could provide the basis for an absolutely amazing book. Reading between the lines of the Sanderson scholars, I’m guessing it was the younger brother, Jacob, who was the better craftsman and workshop manager, while Elijah was the traveling dealer and supercargo, with the responsibility of selling their wares up and down several coasts. Jacob died in 1810, and Elijah carried on through a series of less profitable (or at less amenable if the legal notices are any indication) partnerships. Lexington pops up in each and every obituary notice of this memorable man.
“E & J Sanderson” label on a Salem-made pembroke table, Winterthur collections; Sanderson pieces from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Christie’s Auctions, and the State Department; The Elijah & Jacob Sanderson House on Federal Street, 1783 (a very rare— I think—back-to-back double house which received Historic Salem Inc.’s first plaque!); just one Sanderson obituary.